Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Pollution! Pollution!
distributed 2/18/11 - ©2011

Way back in 1965, satirist Tom Lehrer composed a short little song, "Pollution". It begins with these memorable lines:

If you visit American city, You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air!
Pollution, pollution!
They got smog and sewage and mud.
Turn on your tap And get hot and cold running crud!

Pollution in the US had a very different quality 45 years ago than it does now. Factories then belched unprocessed smoke, and cites dumped raw sewage into rivers. Cars had no emission controls, and landfills with no linings seeped all sorts of nasty chemicals into the ground. The environmental damage was up-close and personal in most communities.

Thanks to commentaries like Lehrer's song, the infamous "crying Indian" ad from 1970 ("People start pollution. People can stop it."), and the tireless work of countless activists and advocates, much of that egregious pollution has been stopped or reduced. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are the primary pieces of legislation that have improved environmental quality in the US.

Pollution is still a very serious problem, of course, but most of us generally experience a relatively clean environment, and pollution enters our consciousness in terms of statistical health risks or global problems like climate change or the ozone hole. That shift in our experience has important implications in current law and public policy.

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Several years ago, in preparation for a church presentation, an environmental economist asked me to give him a definition of "pollution" that was more detailed than "icky bad stuff." My background in environmental biology shaped my off-the-cuff response, which talked about the release of a substance into the environment in quantities or rates that cannot be processed by natural systems.

I'm grateful for Larry's prodding and the way it clarified my thinking. The problem isn't necessarily the chemical involved, or where it comes from. Pollution is about overwhelmed natural systems, and it implies some negative effect on the habitat or systems involved.

Some things are pollutants by definition. For example, nature has no way to break down artificial chemicals like PCBs, which are always toxic.

But many things pollute only at high concentrations. A healthy river can absorb the sewage from a herd of deer or a small group of campers with no problem. Indeed, a little bit of manure is a good and productive fertilizer. But there's a pollution problem when a city pours all of its untreated sewage into a river. And -- in the matter that is driving current policy debates -- carbon dioxide is naturally occurring and is essential to life on our planet. CO2 becomes a pollutant when too much of it is injected into our global environment. The rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere are a clear indicator that natural systems and sinks are overwhelmed by the vast quantities of CO2 released by our industrial society.

My informal, biologically-based definition of pollution is a bit broader than the far more technical terms used by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Most importantly, the EPA only looks at the impacts on humans from primary pollutants (those directly affecting human health) and secondary pollutants (those indirectly affecting human welfare).

And that is where we encounter the current news. In December, 2009, the EPA Administrator published a scientific "finding" that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases (including CO2) in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. That finding essentially requires the EPA to act on that pollution, based on a 2007 US Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act.

Because the US Congress has not passed any comprehensive measures to address climate change, EPA regulations under the Clean Air Act are the primary vehicle for reducing US emissions of these pollutants. The possibility of such regulations is stirring strong opposition in Congress, both in direct prohibitions against EPA action, and in budgetary limitations. The political shifts from last fall's elections have made congressional opposition to EPA action far more serious -- including Rep. Fed Upton's bill that would "repeal" the EPA's scientific finding of climate threats.

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"Pollution! Pollution!" warned Tom Lehrer. It is a warning that we still need to heed, because the threat from greenhouse gas pollutants is very real, and the opposition to action is very strong.

I urge you to take action that will support the EPA's ability to regulate dangerous pollution, including the pollutants driving climate change. Contact your US Representative and Senators, and tell them that you do not want to limit the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act -- stop by a local office during this week's congressional break, make a phone call, or send an email. (Get the contact information from Project Vote Smart.)

Our good friends at 1Sky are organizing events around the US in support of the Clean Air Act. There will be a rally at the State Capitol in Denver at 2 PM on Sunday February 27 (I'll be one of several speakers). The 1Sky website will let you search by state or zip code for rallies and other events near you.

In your church, at work, and in your neighborhood, you can stimulate informed and thoughtful conversation about pollution -- the kind that causes climate change, and other threats. Stand up for the science that defines those risks, and stand up for action that can clean up sources of pollution.

Some parts of our world are cleaner and healthier now than when Tom Lehrer sang in 1965, because public concern and responsible regulation brought positive changes. Let's continue to act on behalf of God's creation, and in support of a healthier, cleaner world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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