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GEORGE: The unsustainable costs of pollution

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Chris George
May 01, 2018 - 12:15 PM

 


OPINION


Last week I attempted to answer the question "Why should Canadians care about sustainability?" I brought forward an argument from morality, likening unsustainable behaviour to theft from people who are not me, not here, and not now. This was apparently too abstract for some people as I received a bit of feedback via Facebook that boils down to "We still don't care." So here we go again, but this time with an argument that is a bit more concrete.

Pollution is an interesting concept at its core. It is an indicator of unsustainable behaviour in how our economy treats the natural world. A sustainable economic order would not impact the ecosystem that hosts it. Ecosystems can deal with waste, given that the waste is made up of natural substances and doesn't become overwhelmed by the volume. There really is no such thing as waste in nature. What is an output for one process or organism is an input for another? So pollution is really just too much of something in one place, or any amount of any substance that the ecosystem simply cannot process.

Plastic is the poster child for the latter idea. This is a substance that does not exist in nature. No organism has evolved to process it into something another process or organism can usefully utilize. The size of the gyres in the Pacific Ocean attests to that. Plastic particles have been found pretty much everywhere on the planet. Every ecosystem has been affected. Foodchains on land and in the oceans are at risk; at this point, we know little about the impacts that microparticles are having on all living things. But we do know that macro amounts of plastic can be deadly to marine mammals.

The plastic problem has been much in the news lately. Awareness is good. The recent campaign to eliminate plastic drinking straws, like the campaign to eliminate plastic bags before it, is a very good thing. But in the scheme of how much plastic we are actually dumping into the environment, they are both baby steps. It is at this point that an examination of our problem with plastic runs across the reason why we have the problem in the first place; cost.

Plastic is cheap.

Pollution, on the other hand, is expensive. It is also what is known as an externality. The expense of pollution is rarely costed into the products and services that are offered up in the marketplace. Instead, the public at large, usually via government intervention using our tax dollars, is expected to pick up the tab. From community organizations out picking up litter to full on remediation of toxic waste sites, all of us pay the price when we can even muster the will to do something about it.

How expensive then, exactly, is pollution?

No one knows. We don't measure it. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to estimate that cost. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) ran the numbers for Canada and it comes out to about $39 billion a year, or $4,300 per family of four. Their report is very clear that this is but an estimate. They go on to point out that they can't measure the impact of persistent organic pollutants. The consequences of this category of pollutant could easily dwarf their estimate.

And it is impossible to place a dollar amount on the lives of the people who have developed cancer from exposure to the myriad of toxins in our everyday places. Formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxins were everywhere until we began "doing the science" to determine what was killing us. This is science that should have been performed and paid for long before these substances were ever put into products for sale. Motor fuels, diesel exhaust, and pesticides fall into this category. Somewhere, in an office building, an actuary has figured out that even if the companies involved have to pay out on a few claims for damage here and there, there is money to be made.

The costs of pollution are hidden from view. We can't really quantify them, because we haven't really looked that hard at doing so. The $4,300 per year in the IISD's estimate is money that is seen as being part of the cost of living. The simplest solution to putting that money back into the hands of those who earned it is to take it out of the hands of those who didn't. Make those who propose to introduce a novel substance into the marketplace do the science to prove harmlessness up front. And yes, make the polluter pay, at least until they learn they won't be getting away with it any longer.

I don't know about you, but I could certainly use that $4,300 for things that are a lot more fun than picking up the tab for more corporate profits.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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