Pollution is an obvious example - we do not have the option of
growing food, or finding enough water, on a squeaky-clean planet,
but on one increasingly tarnished and trashed by the way we have
used it so far.
Cutting waste and clearing up pollution costs money. Yet time and
again it is the quest for wealth that generates much of the mess in
the first place.
Living in a way that is less damaging to the Earth is not easy,
but it is vital, because pollution is pervasive and often
Soil: Contaminated land is a problem in industrialised
countries, where former factories and power stations can leave waste
like heavy metals in the soil. It can also occur in developing
countries, sometimes used for dumping pesticides. Agriculture can
pollute land with pesticides, nitrate-rich fertilisers and slurry
from livestock. And when the contamination reaches rivers it damages
life there, and can even create dead zones off the coast, as in the
Gulf of Mexico.
Chemicals are a frequent pollutant. When we think of chemical
contamination it is often images of events like Bhopal that come to
But the problem is widespread. One study says 7-20% of cancers
are attributable to poor air and pollution in homes and workplaces.
concerned about chemicals that persist and build up in the body,
especially in the young, says we may "be conducting a large-scale
experiment with children's health".
Some man-made chemicals, endocrine disruptors like phthalates and
nonylphenol - a breakdown product of spermicides, cosmetics and
detergents - are blamed for causing changes in the genitals of some
Affected species include polar bears - so not even the Arctic is
immune. And the chemicals climb the food chain, from fish to mammals
- and to us.
About 70,000 chemicals are on the market, with around 1,500 new
ones appearing annually. At least 30,000 are thought never to have
been comprehensively tested for their possible risks to people.
But the snag is that modern society demands many of them, and
some are essential for survival.
So while we invoke the precautionary principle, which always
recommends erring on the side of caution, we have to recognise there
will be trade-offs to be made.
pesticide DDT does great damage to wildlife and can affect the human
nervous system, but can also be effective against malaria. Where
does the priority lie?
Chemical pollution was blamed for killing fish
in Kankaria Lake in Ahmadabad,
The industrialised world has not yet cleaned up the mess it
created, but it is reaping the benefits of the pollution it has
caused. It can hardly tell the developing countries that they have
no right to follow suit.
Another complication in tackling pollution is that it does not
respect political frontiers. There is a UN convention on
transboundary air pollution, but that cannot cover every problem
that can arise between neighbours, or between states which do not
share a border.
Perhaps the best example is climate change - the countries of the
world share one atmosphere, and what one does can affect everyone.
For one and all
One of the principles that is supposed to apply here is simple -
the polluter pays.
it is obvious who is to blame and who must pay the price. But it is
not always straightforward to work out just who is the polluter, or
whether the rest of us would be happy to pay the price of stopping
A recent study detailed the plastic litter that
pollutes the marine
One way of cleaning up after ourselves would be to throw less
away, designing products to be recycled or even just to last longer.
Previous generations worked on the assumption that discarding our
waste was a proper way to be rid of it, so we used to dump nuclear
materials and other potential hazards at sea, confident they would
be dispersed in the depths.
We now think that is too risky because, as one author wrote,
"there's no such place as 'away' - and there's no such person as the
Ask not for whom the bell tolls - it tolls for thee, and for me.