Angry Toxicologist

Okay first: Where have I been? It’s too complicated to answer and retain anonymity, so suffice it to say: “away”. Thanks for all the e-mails over the past month asking for posts again.

An item in Science caught my eye yesterday: Revolutionizing China’s Environmental Protection. I’m sure you all know about China’s problems. If you don’t, click on that link and read on (it’s only two pages). It is the following sentence that caught my eye, though:

Economic performance is still China’s main or sole criterion for selecting and promoting government leaders

And that’s different from here how? Environment has always been near the bottom of the list of things voters actually consider when choosing a candidate here in the US unless there is a major local problem (Fallon, NV, for instance). We of the enlightened west let it get this far before doing anything about it, and frankly, an EPA that has failed to ban asbestos seems nothing to set as shining example. In fact, if you lift this other part of the article:

Although more than 100 environmental laws and regulations exist in China, they are often ignored by local government leaders. The maximum fines allowed for environmental violations are so small that polluting enterprises prefer paying the fines to adopting environmentally friendly technologies. Because environmental protection agencies lack the money, staff, and power to override local leaders and to shut down polluters, many environmental regulations are not enforced.

it sure sounds familar doesn’t it? This isn’t to say our situation isn’t better; it is, we’ve been at it longer, our citizens and press are louder, our government much less corrupt. China’s situation is an environmental disaser waiting to happen every day (and many days it does). It’s important to remember, however, when China suppresses their green GDP report because they don’t want anyone to know the true scale of the problem, that we don’t even commission a green GDP analysis. So maybe we shouldn’t throw rocks from a glass house, nice as it is. Or maybe we should just start aiming a few at this side of the Pacific as well.


  1. #1 Jeff Darcy
    January 7, 2008

    I’m reading Mark Schapiro’s Exposed: he Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power right now. I’m only a little bit into it, but it seems to make mostly the same point. This same author wrote twenty-five years ago about all the toxic stuff that we were dumping on other countries that wouldn’t meet our domestic safety standards. He expresses amazement that now, we’re the dumping ground. We sell stuff here that has been banned in the EU, and the rest of the world – including China BTW – is tending to follow the EU’s example instead of ours. What’s really infuriating is when companies claim that meeting a higher standard here would be such a burden, when they already do so to sell equivalent products in the EU. That makes them liars as well as despoilers.

    China might be the main poisoner right now, but they have a long way to go before their total historical toxicity equals our own. That might never actually happen, as there as signs of long-term improvement for them while we continue to stagnate or even backslide. We in the US are indeed lobbing rocks from the most fragile of glass houses when we criticize China. That’s not to say the criticism is undeserved, but we should attend to the beam in our own eye first.

  2. #2 Dunc
    January 7, 2008

    Plus, it’s always good to remember that a large part of the the reason that all these appalling things are going on in China is that US and European industry has off-shored many processes there. We’ve only cleaned up our act my moving all our filth to someone else’s country. To then turn round and criticise them for it seems unfair.

  3. #3 Liz
    January 7, 2008

    It’s great to see you posting again!

  4. #4 Amanda
    January 7, 2008

    You know, I think one could build an entire blog around the hypocrisy of China-bashing in the US. Good post — Welcome back!

  5. #5 Mike
    January 7, 2008

    Well, if you subscribe to the premise of Break Through, environmentalism will never make headway in China until the population reaches a certain amount of affluence. Until then they will work to meet to their basic needs in the short term, without the luxury of being able to consider the long term.

  6. #6 Phil Boncer
    January 7, 2008

    This is true. No one gives a damn about litter when their children are underfed. We have seen this elsewhere as well. My most recent observations have been on my last few trips to Baja California (Mexico). There has been in the last few years a significant reduction in litter and pollution there, readily observable (once you get south of Ensenada, anyway). This coincides with Mexico’s slow approach to a more affluent society. Once people’s basic survival needs are met, they can expend energy on secondary and/or longterm considerations. Until then, it is futile, even damaging and unethical, to try to force them to do so.

    No one who is dealing with insufficencies in food, clothing, safety, or shelter is ever going to give a damn about global warming. The best approach to global warming has to be to encourage economic growth as best as possible until all (or nearly all) countries are rich enough for their people to care about the environment. (Which, not incidentally, is also the best approach to minimizing the damage of disasters — wealthy people and countries are far better at dealing with disasters than poor ones; so much better that it is more effective to make people rich than to try to prevent disasters.)


  7. #7 Angrytoxicologist
    January 8, 2008

    Mike and Phil, I agree with you up to a point and China is near that point. When the environment is so bad that you can’t feed your children the food you grow because it is too toxic, or find a clean supply of water then you’ve got a situation that the poor will take on. At the point it is at in many places in China, it’s a matter of immediate survival.

  8. #8 Phil Boncer
    January 8, 2008

    I agree, but only for those issues. So they will care soon (or already do) about water pollution and other immediate perceptible hazards. But it will still be quite some time before, say, global warming reaches their awareness horizon.


  9. #9 Dave Briggs
    January 9, 2008

    So maybe we shouldn’t throw rocks from a glass house, nice as it is. Or maybe we should just start aiming a few at this side of the Pacific as well.

    Ya, it’s a tough situation for them over there for sure! Being one of the few on your block to have a handful of rice for dinner, or save the environment. From what I know about they have endured hardships we can’t even imagine!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  10. #10 George Gartley, RN
    January 10, 2008

    Over and over again I hear the argument presented by Phil that if we just bring the rest of the world up to our standard of living all will be well (or at lease a whole lot better). I’m not sure what the exact statistics are at the moment but last I heard we (the affluent, that’s us) represent about 10% of the worlds population and comsume over 40% of the worlds resources. The planet is now approching 7 billion and I do not believe the global resources exist to bring everyone up to our level of comsumption without complete environmental collapse.

  11. #11 Phil Boncer
    January 10, 2008

    I didn’t (and most don’t) say that we need to bring everyone up to where we are now; but we need to bring everyone up to a decent standard where the great majority of people in every country can reasonably expect to have access to adequate food, safe water, decent clothing, adequate shelter, basic healthcare, and reasonable safety from crime and violence. (Note that I am not AT ALL advocating getting there through socialism and government fiat; those do not work in the long term.) We in the U.S. began to take our environment seriously in the 1960’s; if most of the rest of the world can get to something near that, we’ll be in much better shape to tackle larger and longer term problems.

    Also, standard of living is not necessarily based on excess consumption of materials. In America, even the poor are troubled more by too many belongings than by too few, and the more affluent are actually moving away from buying more things and toward buying fewer things of better quality. Standard of living is, though, correlated closely with energy usage. This is the core longterm problem to solve — how to provide enough energy to allow the people of Earth (including up to the maximum projected human population of roughly 12 billion) to have a decent standard of living. This is achievable; there is plenty of energy in the universe, even on a local scale. It’s mainly a matter of figuring out how to usefully harness it.

    Plus, of course, the only other alternatives are to (a) drastically shrink our population (which is not likely to be achievable voluntarily), or (b) continue to let most humans fester in poverty. Neither appeals.


  12. #12 George Gartley
    January 11, 2008

    I agree completely. Reducing comsumption by the affluent is a crucial component of the solution. besides buying fewer, higher quality products, we also need to learn to keep the things that are still working (If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.) I mean is it better to keep the car I’m driving now that may not get maximum milage but has already been extracted from the earth, or to buy a hybrid with a battery full of rare metals possibly extracted in third world countries with horrible environmental regulations and exploitative labor conditions, plus all the other components, transport costs, assembly costs, etc. Do I redo a perfectly functioning kitchen because I don’t like the color anymore? Before we call something green we need to look at the entire cycle of from the earth back to the earth (impact of extraction all the way to impact of disposal). I unfortunately think that it’s going to take a major cultural shift before our overconsumtive habits are curtailed. Corporate greed and mass marketing are very powerful forces to overcome.

  13. #13 Abercrombie
    December 1, 2009

    So maybe we shouldn’t throw rocks from a glass house, nice as it is. Or maybe we should just start aiming a few at this side of the Pacific as well.

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