Mon, Jul 09, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Pollution is not a necessary evil

By Gloria Hsu 徐光蓉

Proponents of economic development often say that pollution is a necessary evil. But how much evil is actually necessary and is it worth bearing this evil in exchange for the wealth gained?

Before Britain instituted its Alkali Act in 1863, soap manufacturers discharged hydrochloric acid waste gases directly into the air. This had the side effect of acidifying the surrounding lands, making agriculture impossible. This certainly cannot be a necessary evil.

In December 1952, London experienced a serious air pollution incident that came to be known as the "Great Smog." Afterwards it was calculated that about 12,000 people died as a result of the pollution. In the hardest hit areas, visibility was reduced to zero. Similar incidents also occurred in the 1940s and 1950s in New York and Pittsburgh in the US and in Belgium.

If these were all necessary evils, then European countries and the US would be prepared to tolerate these kinds of situations being repeated. Clearly, the high levels of pollution in the past were not necessary evils. Development causes far greater damage to society than the good that results from increased tax revenues. Countries that experienced ecological disasters in the past generally have stricter environmental standards than Taiwan. Yet they are still searching for ways to reduce pollution because their current levels of contamination are deemeed unacceptable.

Most people understand that reducing pollution will increase costs for manufacturers, but they rarely consider why unused raw materials and unusable byproducts of the manufacturing process become waste. Quite simply, in the absence of legal prohibition, the cheapest and easiest method of dealing with waste materials is to discard them.

It does not concern manufacturers that these waste materials will pollute the environment and affect plants, animals and humans because they are intent on saving money.

However, at some point this waste material has to be cleaned up, even if those who are responsible for its creation are unwilling to do so. Who should be responsible for this? If the quantity of waste is small, nature may be able to eliminate it by itself. But if the quantity of waste is large, this may take a very long time. In the meantime, those living in the polluted area will have to bear the burden.

The sad fact is that it easy to create waste, but far more difficult to clean it up. And very often, it is impossible to restore an area to its original condition. Isn't it possible for this situation to be avoided? If manufacturers could, by spending the cost of one extra unit, save society thousands of times that cost in future cleanup charges, wouldn't this be worthwhile?

In recent years, Taiwan's economic growth has slowed significantly compared to two or three decades ago. The gap between rich and poor is widening and unemployment is on the rise. The government lacks confidence and, in its fear, it has started to embrace the financial and economic strategies of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the hope of recreating the past economic "miracle." It also does all it can to remove any obstacles to major development projects with the potential to show quick economic results without trying to gain an understanding of whether such projects will be detrimental or beneficial to the nation.

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