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The Risky Business of Cheap Living

Low-priced goods and high profits come at the cost of damage to nature and health.

March 14, 2004|J. William Gibson | J. William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and author of "Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America."

In January, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced plans to increase its investment in coal-fired electrical generating plants in southern Utah. Electricity produced by coal is cheap -- one-tenth the cost of solar energy -- which means it is quite profitable. And because surplus revenue from the DWP makes up 7% of the cash-strapped city of L.A.'s general fund, increasing the output of lucrative coal plants seems like a rational move.

But here's the problem. Over the last few years, numerous studies have found that it is no longer safe to eat much swordfish, marlin, tuna and many other ocean fish because of mercury contamination. Mercury seriously harms human nervous systems, especially those of unborn babies and young children. And 40% of the airborne mercury particles that end up polluting ecosystems and accumulating in animals and humans come from coal-fired electrical generating plants.

When the DWP calls coal-fired electricity "cheap," its calculations don't include damage to the fishing industry. They don't take into account the lifetime medical costs incurred by families of children hurt by mercury or the vast environmental damage inflicted by coal mining. They don't consider the blighted landscape left behind or the aquifer depletion that results from millions of gallons of scarce water diverted for use in coal slurries. There's also the coal haze from the generating plants that despoils the skies and contributes to global warming and its potentially disastrous climatic changes.

The coal example is by no means exceptional, but part of an overall pattern of what sociologists call "risk society." Around World War II, industrial production became both more technologically sophisticated and much larger in scale. But the new technologies that promised greater profits for business and cheaper goods for consumers also created widespread risks -- and science, which was indispensable in developing these new technologies, most often ignored potential problems. "In the risk society," wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, " ... unknown and unintended consequences come to be a dominant force in history and society."

Our risk society has brought us nuclear plants that can generate vast amounts of electricity but also create wastes that remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years. Cars and trucks have become bigger and faster, but their exhausts have caused cancer clusters along major freeways and unleashed smog that has choked major cities. Industrialized agriculture has produced mountains of cheap food but requires pesticides and herbicides that can cause cancer or impair reproduction in animals and humans. Powerful solvents can clean industrial machines like a charm but include highly toxic carcinogens that have made their way into the groundwater. A 108-million-gallon underground plume of water polluted with the chemical compound chromium 6 is within 125 feet of the Colorado River, the principal water source for 18 million Southern California residents.

We have come to accept risk society as inevitable. Part of this acceptance comes from the way industry separates products from the production process. When we buy food in the grocery store, we don't see how it was sprayed in the field. When we turn on lights in L.A., we don't see the plants and coal mines that generated the power. Moreover, the news we receive is highly fragmented. Stories about new electrical plants in Utah rarely mention mercury contamination in fish, nor do stories about contaminated fish often mention power plants. Only those paying careful attention make the connections. Another part of the problem is that we are reluctant to question science, which has such prestige that people rarely stop to question who is funding research and whether that could compromise findings.

Ultimately, we are all in denial. Industry wants to deny responsibility for pollutants because at the very minimum, eliminating them requires spending money. And consumers are in denial because in some cases, ending toxic wastes might mean that popular products would have to be discontinued. Politicians know that creating and enforcing government regulations to radically restrict pollution would evoke industry opposition and political retaliation.

Living in a risk society is not unavoidable. But to change things, we need to break through all these forms of denial and recognize that toxic contamination threatens the health of the country -- and ultimately threatens our national security. The government can act to limit risk, as when it banned DDT, but politicians are unlikely to take action without public pressure. Scientists not connected with industry must be involved in evaluating the dangers of various products and production processes, which happens with the Food and Drug Administration on drug licensing. Pollution can be aggressively targeted and violators prosecuted, but first the government has to focus on the big picture.

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