Pollution has become an everyday affair; a murderous way of life which, according to a report published in The Lancet, is responsible for the deaths of at least nine million people every year. The air we breathe is poisoned, the streams, rivers, lakes and oceans are filthy, — some more, some less — the land littered with waste, the soil toxic. Neglect, complacency and exploitation characterize the attitude of governments, corporations and far too many individuals towards the life of the planet, and its rich interwoven ecological systems.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, which is yet another cry for urgent collective action, found that pollution is responsible for a range of diseases that “kill one in every six people around the world”. This figure, while shocking, is probably a good deal higher because “the impact of many pollutants is poorly understood.” The landmark study establishes that we have reached the point when “deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.”
Our selfish materialistic way of life is having a devastating impact on all forms of life; unless there is a major shift in attitudes the numbers of people dying of pollution will increase; contamination of the oceans will increase, deforestation and desertification will continue, and the steady destruction of all that is beautiful and naturally given will intensify. Until one day it will be too late.
Plastic oceans, poisoned air
Even climate change deniers cannot blame the natural environment for the plastic islands that litter the oceans, or the poisoned water and contaminated air. Pollution results from human activity, it “endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.” A sense of intense, life-threatening urgency needs to be engendered, particularly among the governments and populations of those countries that are, and have historically been, the major polluters — the industrialized nations of the World.
Although China has now overtaken the U.S. in producing the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as the New York Times reports, America (which has 5% of the world’s population but produces 30% of the world’s waste), “with its love of big cars, big houses and blasting air-conditioners, has contributed more than any other country to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is scorching the plane. In cumulative terms, we [the U.S.] certainly own this problem more than anybody else does,” said David G. Victor, a longtime scholar of climate politics at the University of California.
Russia and India follow the U.S. as emitters of the most greenhouse gases; then comes Japan, Germany, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the World Economic Forum relates, has “on a per-country average, the most toxic air in the world.” Australia, Canada and Brazil should also be included amongst the principle polluters; as Brazil’s economy has grown so have the quantities of poisonous gas emissions, their effect made worse by deforestation of vast areas of the Amazon rain forests.
Indonesia, too, warrants our attention. This small country (3% of the global population) in the middle of the South Seas is a major polluter: It has the third largest expanse of tropical forest after the Amazon and Congo, and is cutting down trees at the highest rate on the planet; it produces approximately 5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, is the second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution after China and has some of the dirtiest water in south east Asia, — only a third of the population having access to clean drinking water.
China also has a problem with polluted water; IBT report that “Government analysis found that more than 80% of the water from its wells was not safe to drink…while about 60% of its groundwater overall was of poor or extremely poor quality.” Water pollution has reached serious levels in America as well: according to the Water Quality Project 32% of bays, 40% of the country’s rivers and 46% of its lakes are “too polluted for fishing, swimming or aquatic life.” The Mississippi River, which is among the most polluted rivers in the world, “carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. The resulting pollution is the cause of a coastal dead zone the size of Massachusetts every summer.”
Polluted rivers result in contaminated oceans; chemical fertilizers, detergents, oil, sewage, pesticides and plastic waste flow into the sea from inland waterways. Some pollutants sit on the surface of the ocean, many collect on the seabed where they are ingested by small marine organisms and introduced into the global food chain. The shocking condition of the seas was highlighted recently in the BBC production Blue Planet II. In a sequence that moved many to tears, an Albatross, having been at sea for weeks looking for food, was filmed feeding its chicks with bits of plastic collected from the surface of the ocean.
Recent research has identified 10 rivers as the source of 90% of the plastics in the oceans. Deutsche Welle reports that all of them run through densely populated areas where waste collection or recycling infrastructure is inadequate. Three of these filthy tributaries are in China, four more run through China, two — the Nile and the Niger (regularly the scene of oil spills) — are in Africa. The list is completed by the Holy Ganges in India, which serves as rubbish dump (almost 80% of urban waste is thrown into the river), utility room, bathroom, burial chamber and sacred temple.
Plastic waste is produced everywhere, but five Asian countries produce 60% of the global total, currently 300 million tons (only 10% is recycled): China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. If nothing changes it’s predicted that by 2025, plastic consumption in Asia alone could increase by 80 percent to over 200 million tons, and global consumption could reach 400 million tons. Greenpeace estimates that roughly 10% of all plastic ends up in the Oceans where it is thought to kill over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals.
The statistics around pollution are numerous, shocking and all too depressing. Here’s a taste:
- 5,000 people die every day through drinking unclean water.
- About 80% of landfill items could be recycled.
- 65% of deaths in Asia and 25% of deaths in India are due to air pollution.
- Chronic obstructive respiratory disease (caused by burning fossil fuels indoors) is responsible for the death of more than 1 million people annually.
- Over 3 million children under five die annually from environmental factors.
- Worldwide, 13,000-15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean every day.
- At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks suffer from plastic ingestion
- For every 1 million tons of oil shipped, approximately 1 ton is wasted through spillage.
- A million plastic bottles are sold worldwide every minute; forecast to increase by 20% by 2021.
- Around 1,000 children die in India annually due to diseases caused by polluted water.
- There are more than 500 million cars in the world; there could be 1 billion by 2030.
- Shoppers worldwide use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags annually. This translates to about a million bags every minute and the number is rising.
Pollution and the environmental catastrophe more broadly is the result of insatiable consumerism, selfishness and individual and collective irresponsibility. It flows from a materialistic approach to living, rooted in desire and an unjust economic system that demands unbridled consumerism for its survival. Ideologically rooted Corporate Governments imprisoned in nationalism, and obsessed with short-term economic growth feed the system and the most important issue of the time is relegated to an afterthought, rarely spoken about by politicians who seem to believe that limitless development and mass consumerism is of greater importance than the health of the planet.
Designing policies that will clean up the air, the seas and rivers, and will preserve forests and farmland, should be the priority for all governments around the world, particularly the industrialized nations, who have been responsible for producing the majority of the filth and for cultivating the consumer culture that is perpetuating the crisis. But whilst governments need to take a leading role to stop pollution, individuals, all of us, need to change the way we think and how we live. It is imperative we consume less and that decisions regarding purchases should be made firstly with environmental considerations in mind. Sufficiency and simplicity of living need to replace abundance, complacency and indulgence.
This demands a major shift in attitudes, not in 25 years, not in a year, but now. As Pope Francis rightly states in his groundbreaking papal letter ‘Care for Our Common Home’, “Our efforts at [environmental] education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”
The ‘market’ aided by the media, is not concerned by such liberal considerations as the welfare of the planet and the health of human beings; it is a blind monster with a compulsion for profit, and if the ecological networks within which we live are to be purified and healing is to take place it needs to be rejected totally. A new way of thinking is required that moves away from divisive selfish ways to inclusive, socially/environmentally responsible behavior based on a recognition that the environment we live in is not separate from us and that we all have a duty to care for it. This requires a fundamental change of attitudes.
“If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behavior.” And, whilst there are many exceptions to this, the prevailing, carefully cultivated ‘mindset’ is a materialistic, self-centered one in which responsibility is passed to someone else, usually a government. It is a mindset that has been conditioned virtually from birth by the motivating mechanism of reward and punishment. This crude tool encourages deceit, undermines humanity’s essential goodness and relies on the stimulation of materialistic, hedonistic desire — the very thing that is fueling the environmental crisis — for its success. It is a method that may well work with corporations and to a limited degree with individuals, but a more potent and cleaner way to change the behavior of the population at large is the Way of Awareness: Awareness that we are brothers and sisters of one humanity, that cooperation, not competition is an inherent aspect of our nature and that that we are all responsible for the world in which we live. Its up to us, each and every one of us to consciously live in an environmentally responsible manner — no matter the cost or inconvenience, and to begin to repair the terrible damage we have done and continue to do to the natural world.