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#155 - Zero Discharge: The Right Goal, 13-Nov-1989

The earth looks large. As you gaze out your window at the landscape (or
cityscape or seascape), it looks immense. But the appearance of great
size is deceiving. The biosphere (the part of the earth that supports
life) is a thin film on the surface of the planet. All but 1% of the
air is contained in the lowest 20 miles of the atmosphere. The oceans
average only 2.5 miles deep and at their deepest they are only 7 miles.

If the surface of the planet were smooth, without valleys or ridges, it
would be evenly covered with water to a depth of one and three-quarter
miles. Ocean water would account for all but 165 feet of that depth.
That 165 feet of fresh water would consist of 140 feet of water from
glacial ice, 15 feet from groundwater, and four or five inches from all
the lakes and rivers; a last inch would hold the moisture content of
the air.

Together, the air and water on earth weigh only 1/4300 as much as the
earth itself, the relationship of one pound to more than two tons. We
inhabit a stone, partly bare, partly dusted with grains of
disintegrated rock, upon which rests a thin film of air and water no
thicker, relative to the size of the earth, than the fuzz on a peach.

The human population on earth is now roughly five billion people. We
increase by 85 million people each year; by the year 2000, we will be
six billion. Eighty percent of the global population lives in
developing countries--countries that want to build industry modeled
after Japan, Europe and America. But already we 20% who are
industrialized have become a force large enough to destabilize the
biosphere. Our mining, agricultural and industrial activities now move
materials around on a scale that in many cases approaches the size of
nature's own forces--and in some cases exceeds them.

For example, nature produces 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)
each year while humans produce 20 billion tons through the combustion
of fossil fuels. In CO2 production, we humans are 25% as large as all
of nature, and gaining. But even though our CO2 production has not yet
matched nature's, in the past century we have increased the CO2 content
of the atmosphere from 260 parts per million (ppm) to 325 ppm--a 25%
increase across the entire planet. This is the cause of the "greenhouse
effect." And each year brings another steady increase with no end in

Nature mobilizes 50 million tons of sulfur each year in new plant
growth, but humans release more than twice as much (120 million tons)
by petroleum refining and combustion of coal and oil. By this measure,
we are already twice as large as nature. Nature mobilizes 63 million
tons of nitrogen each year but, through fertilizers and fuel
combustion, humans release 215 million tons; here we are already more
than three times as large as nature, and gaining. Small wonder that
sulfur and nitrogen, combined, have changed the character of rain on a
vast scale, making it as acid as vinegar across the eastern U.S.,
southern Canada, and northern Europe.

By some other measures, we humans dwarf nature. For example, we inject
twice as much arsenic into the atmosphere as nature does, seven times
as much cadmium, and 17 times as much lead. Measured by the metals that
nature moves into the oceans via river discharges, we humans mobilize
(through mining) 13 times as much iron as nature does, 36 times as much
phosphorous, and 110 times as much tin. Small wonder that we find
ourselves destabilizing the planet's mineral cycles, disturbing weather
patterns, distressing vast regions of water and vegetation. We are like
a giant blind mechanic, hammering the planet with our technology. Yet
we are dependent upon nature for everything we own and everything we
are. It is past time to take stock, to cut back, to get smart.

There are two basic ways to control pollution: (1) contain it all
("zero discharge"); or (2) wait until someone is harmed and can prove
they have been harmed, then control whatever caused the harm. This
second way ("prove harm"-see RHWN #154) is being tried by the
industrialized world today. This strategy is failing in the sense that
the planet is rapidly deteriorating as a fit place for humans to live.
Furthermore, the deterioration is accelerating. The total stress on the
planet seems to be increasing between 5% and 6% each year, year after
year. Figure 1 shows what this looks like.

Figure 1 shows "total ecological demand" that we humans are putting on
the earth, starting in 1880 and projecting forward to the year 2020.
[see PDF format version for Figure 1]. The demand of 1880 is one unit,
so Figure 1 shows, for example, that total human demand on the
environment in 1980 was 258 times as large as it was in 1880; by 1990
it will be 448 times as large; by the year 2000 it will be 776 times as
large. By 2020, it will be 2333 times as large. That is the consequence
of exponential growth (see RHWN #149). The total demand doubles every
13 years.

Zero discharge of materials from our mining, agricultural, and
industrial processes would buy us two major benefits: dramatically
reduced pollution, and an indefinitely expanded resource base through
recycling. In the absence of serious controls on what we release into
the environment, we will destroy the earth's ecosystems and we will
deplete our supplies of essential minerals. Both pollution and
depletion are already far advanced.

The most equitable and least disruptive program to achieve zero
discharge would set mandatory dates for terminating emissions some
distance in the future but would penalize delay in voluntary adoption
of zero discharge by imposing chronologically graduated emissions
taxes. That is to say, we must set the goal of zero discharge (as we
did in the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set the goal at 1985). But in
addition, we must tax emissions, to give polluters a constant incentive
to cut emissions. The tax must increase steeply with time.

The "prove harm" alternative to zero discharge allows us to pollute
until harm is proven; then we force a cutback. But this is an expensive
way to go because (a) it guarantees that we will have many pollution
victims before we have controls; and (b) it is cheaper to design a
facility for zero discharge ("closed loop" technology) than it is to
design it for no controls, then fix it up ("retrofit" it) to meet
initial control standards, then fix it again when the standards tighten.

Zero discharge is understandable by anyone. It is unambiguous.
Furthermore, it is the only strategy for which the costs and
consequences can be determined now and which can be carried out using
the knowledge we have now.

Support for the strategy of zero discharge draws its strength from our
common experience that people up to now have not recognized pollution-
caused dangers until it is too late to prevent major disruption. Acid
rain, the greenhouse effect on global climate, ozone depletion, and the
massive problem of chemical and radioactive waste cleanup that we face--
these are just the most obvious manifestations of a pollution strategy
(first prove harm, then take remedial action) that has not worked and
cannot work.

Justifiable fear of pollution damage--and the perception that the
authorities are risking our lives and the lives of our children
recklessly--are resulting in confrontations, mistrust, and stalemate.
The situation can only get worse as the century progresses. A
commitment to zero discharge offers hope of solving those problems.

Finally, zero discharge overcomes the worst aspect of "prove harm"
strategies: acceptance of defeat. Under a "prove harm" program, we are
always fighting our way back after damage has taken place, and we are
forced to accept continuing damage at some reduced level instead of
watching damage come to an end and new growth begin. Under a "prove
harm" strategy, we expect to pay enormous sums of money to reduce
pollution, yet we do not expect to reverse the deterioration. It is a
thoroughly depressing strategy which drives people to despair. Zero
discharge offers humans real hope.

This weeks' newsletter, and last week's, have drawn heavily (including
long unattributed quotations) from essays by John Gofman, who directs
the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, P.O. Box 11207, San
Francisco, CA 94101, to which gifts are tax- deductible; and from a
book by Theodore Taylor and Charles Humpstone, RESTORATION OF THE EARTH
(NY: Harper & Row, 1973), who first proposed seriously that all
pollution should be contained and not released. We hope you can get
past this book's love affair with nuclear technology; the book contains
many useful ideas. Our data on natural vs. human activities are taken
from it (pg. 24), from the journal NATURE Vol. 333 (May 12, 1988), pgs.
134-139 and from Carroll Wilson, MAN'S IMPACT ON THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), pg. 116. Our Figure 1 is derived from
Wilson, pg. 22.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: zero discharge; carbon dioxide; greenhouse effect;
developing countries; economic development; acid rain; acid
precipitation; nitrogen; sulfur; lead; arsenic; recycling; risk
assessment; statistics; global environmental problems;