The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment
by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter
Oxford University Press, 2010
According to an industry spokesman, “Pollution is the price of progress. . . . Waste disposal is a legitimate use of water. Water pollution would not be feared if the public did not expect too much. Our air cannot everywhere be clear and clean.”
The exhaustively researched book from which this quote is taken is a saga of American government at its best and at its worst. The authors identify early environmental incidents and follow the emergence of environmental standards and regulations. State water pollution control efforts initiated in 1888 moved to Congress in 1890, after urban typhoid epidemics in Massachusetts and New York were linked to sewage discharge. The authors then trace how it became possible to put profit before people in this country. Written in clear and engaging prose, the often disillusioning chronology of events explains how businesses have capitalized profits, socialized risks and destroyed the Commons.
Chemical manufacturing factories have a history of waste disposal problems and a resistance to spending the amount of money needed to protect workers and communities. Industries have successfully pursued “spill, study, and stall” tactics that controlled the studies and thwarted meaningful state and federal regulations. Technology created the problem and technology would eventually solve the problem, the public was told after each environmental disaster.
Every sentence in this comprehensive empirical investigation matters. Gripping details untangle and elucidate case studies of “how business influences government when politics, pollution, and science merge.” Illustrations of how industries manipulated weak state and local pollution controls demonstrate the need for strong federal standards. In an economic race to the bottom, companies played one state against another by threatening to move jobs to “business-friendly” states with low wages and anti-union, right-to-work laws devoid of environmental and workplace safety provisions. Companies moved factories from the Midwest to states such as North Carolina.
These strategies are still part of current congressional policies. An even more intense race to the bottom later moved the North Carolina factories to maquilladoras in Mexico, El Salvador, Southeast Asia, and China after Congress lowered or removed tariffs on imports. These tariffs had protected some American markets and jobs. Congress then inserted an Internal Revenue code that continues to reward businesses for moving jobs offshore. The U.S. Agency for International Development often assisted American companies by negotiating a “business-friendly” environment in those countries. (Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan [D-ND] details many of these policies and their dire impact on American workers and local economies in his book Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics are Selling Out America.)
The lesson from the dinosaurs alluded to in this book really resonates amidst widespread environmental devastation and contamination. “The dinosaurs were a dominant species that failed to meet a challenge.” The challenge today is how to reverse this historical trend of corporate influence and harm.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2012.