- Historic Sites
This Is The Way The World Ends
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Because most of the current talk about environmental protection concerns the pollution of air and water by the effluents of urban populations and of industrial plants, most attention has been paid to the alleged reluctance of municipalities and manufacturers to pay the bill. Whenever I suggest that protecting the environment from a constantly growing horde of humanity will require personal sacrifice as well as a punch in the nose of General Motors, my listeners are astounded. In truth, some manufacturers have only reflex objections to pollution control, and some wholeheartedly sup- port the idea provided that their customers pay any added costs and that all competing manufacturers be similarly burdened. This would require national pollution standards for manufacturing plants, standards that would prove devilishly difficult to establish and enforce.
But establishing legal standards for plant effluents would turn out to be the easiest part of the job. It would be much more difficult to ensure that no one produced anything that could menace the environment, either in its direct use or in its eventual disposal.
Ultimately, to protect the environment from pollution by waste products generally, the manufacture of everything would have to be licensed, a cumbersome bureaucratic constraint that at the very least would severely inhibit the best of inventive capitalism along with the worst.
The unavoidable upshot of all this is that if numbers of people cannot be reduced, the natural environment will be protected only by reducing the material standards of their lives. Since the products of combustion threaten the atmosphere men breathe, the use of combustion must be kept as low as possible. This means, for only one example, that the number of internal-combustion engines must be limited and priorities assigned to their use and manufacture. If these engines in automobiles, boats, and airplanes are to be limited, then travel itself must be rationed or diverted to more efficient public conveyances. Naturally, the size of automobiles and their engines will have to be controlled along with their number.
We must recognize that the deliberate lowering of the standard of living would have to continue not only through such pleasant but relatively tangential pursuits as high-speed travel and the manufacture of nondisintegratable containers, but extend also to food, clothing, and housing. If the United States must reckon with a constantly increasing human population, it must consequently provide for a constantly increasing animal population, for our countrymen are in the habit of deriving their proteins largely from meat. The cattle and poultry, naturally, eat vegetable products in the course of manufacturing in their bodies the proteins destined for human consumption. To feed more animals would require more agriculture; which would require more fertilizers, probably more intensively used; which would cause more water pollution, among other problems.
Clothing also is largely produced from animal and vegetable fibers, wool and cotton being only the prime examples. A larger population requiring additional sheep or cotton plants would also place a heavy burden on the productive capacity of the land itself, land that, incidentally, already shows signs of erosion due to overgrazing and loss of fertility due to continuous cotton production. Increased use of artificial fibers could probably make possible the abatement of wool raising, which could then be replaced by meat production. The manufacture of artificial fibers, however, is a chemical process requiring large amounts of electric power and producing harmful chemical by-products.
As for housing, the nation has announced goals of 2.6 million units per year for the next ten years, a goal that is more than double the present pace of construction. But the figure represents the minimum number of units necessary to replace housing that is currently considered officially substandard and to provide for increased population. It is beginning to become clear that the required quantity of housing cannot be built unless standards are reduced, if four hundred million people are to live in the United States by the year 2030, only sixty years from now—one current prediction. This judgment is based on the apparent fact that the ready sources of materials needed in housing construction—such as iron, nonferrous metals, limestone, clay, sand, and stone—will have become exhausted or have been protected from further exploitation in an effort to preserve the quality of the environment near man’s habitations. This has already foreclosed the use of dredged sand and terrestrial sand pits in and around the New York area, for example. In the past these sources furnished a large part of the concrete aggregates that built New York City. The more remote the material sources, the more energy must be used to transport the materials to the place they will be used (pollution again). Eventually, sheer material shortages will cut the amount of living space allowable to each individual.
Nothing about this is new; we are coming full circle. What we look forward to is a newly poverty-stricken world, a re-creation of the world in which everyone—or nearly everyone—lived before the Industrial Revolution. Then men were poor because they did not know how to exploit the natural resources of the planet. In the late twentieth century men will approach poverty again, because the remaining natural resources of the planet cannot be exploited at the old per capita rate for a new population without irreversible damage to the environment as a whole.