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May 30, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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How the Modern World is Poisoning Us

It is really hard to consider how the modern world is poisoning us without sounding, at least to some, overly pretentious and judgmental.

There is an implication in the use of ‘modern world’ implying that the world once poisoned us less than it does now, or that everything was somehow more natural one hundred years ago. So let’s clear the air and accept that we all poison ourselves and each other, somehow, regardless of the time period we live in. We may poison the world more, but humans have been doing their thing and destroying themselves for centuries, apparently with fewer ill-effects than supposed. (Apologies to any Zeitgeisters who hold faith in the premise that the modern world did spawn unnaturally, that humans now have traits unnatural to humans. Really—I’m sorry that you’ve talked yourself into such a corner. Please open a peer-reviewed journal before opening one’s mouth.)

So how is the Modern World poisoning us, compared to in the past? Well, we’re all a wee bit too comfortable in our lives. We have a range of solutions to each problem and are perhaps not making the most considerate choices. We know that nuking the garden with pesticide will stop weeds from spreading, while they’re likely to grow back if simply pulled out. If there’s a fly in the lounge, we can spray half a can of flyspray and vacuum up the corpse later; swat it with a flyswat; or just leave it. Understandably, the simplest, cheapest and fastest choices are often the ones taken up. Unfortunately, the simplest, cheapest and fastest choices may have longer-term ramifications, and people everywhere have begun cottoning onto the importance of being ‘eco-friendly’ with trademark human snobbery and short-sightedness.

Isn’t a move toward being eco-friendly a good thing? Well, yes, but eco-friendliness is about being holistically better for the world, as opposed to improving the world in a few minor ways. Take multi-use coffee takeaway cups, such as KeepCups, which claim to reduce the amount of landfill created by single-use takeaway cups. The KeepCup needs to be used a minimum of 17 times to have a smaller carbon footprint than single-use cups. That’s, say, four weeks of using it nearly every weekday—which is great for those who regularly buy coffee, but for many individuals, I’d hazard a guess that the cup would be used five to ten times before being moved permanently to the back of a cupboard.

Perhaps the more mitigating factor is that most people get takeaway coffees for the convenience factor, and it is more likely one will want to throw away single-use packaging than plan ahead. For those drinking a lot of takeaway coffee, a reusable cup is best, but for those who do not drink much, any takeaway method requiring some kind of manufactured cup is unlikely to be used enough comparative to its effect on the environment. Eco-friendly products are only eco-friendly if the way we act is in itself eco-friendly: buying into the hype of a reuseble, but never re-used, object is worse for the environment than the occasional purchase of a single-use product.

Recycling is another example of where the modern world attempts to solve its excess waste by creating further waste. Much of Wellington’s glass is shipped to China for recycling, leaving a hefty carbon footprint in its wake, requiring crude oil for its transportation, and creating chemical waste during processing. Is it better for the environment if we don’t recycle at all? Not really—even if our recycling, right now, comes at a greater cost to the environment than putting everything into landfill, the industry around recycling is constantly changing and getting more efficient. If we don’t recycle, we are not investing in the industry, so neither recycling methods nor our choices are likely to improve. Recycling, even at an initially higher cost, is highly likely to have better effects on the environment over the long term.

Moreover, the biggest impact of our choices affects the people who are manufacturing the goods, working in mostly third world conditions. Most of the time, ‘eco-friendly’ relates to the impact of the final product on the consumer, not the impact on those during the manufacturing process. The best, albeit most time-consuming method to ensure that one doesn’t ingest a swarm of unwanted chemicals is to make as much from scratch as possible. No-one will be impacted by manufacturing methods if we have no need for factories that cause a host of medical problems for their workers. In order to respond to the modern world’s poisoning us, we have to incorporate a wider view of who ‘us’ includes—we have to include people on the manufacturing lines who are unable to make a choice as to the impact of their working conditions on their bodies. Simply refusing to purchase from any company will further worsen factory workers’ situation, as their meagre financial resources will dry up; so will their ability to survive, if we force closure of the only factories they can work in.

But simply absolving from purchases will go back to the same issue as with recycling—if we don’t invest in companies who are trying to innovate and improve manufacturing methods, then the manufacturers may not have the funds available to invest in improving manufacturing methods. (Is it even possible to absolve from purchasing any goods?!) I hesitate to delve deeper into ethical or political discourse, but while our actions seem to reflect our deep-seated moral and political views, they may have little actual effect on how our environment is impacted. Are we, in the modern world, able to make an ethical choice at all, or are we fooling ourselves? Have technology and science developed too fast, with little consideration for wider issues? Have technology and science developed with great consideration for wider issues, but the capitalist pig has no interest outside of its wallet? Is everyone trying as best they can, but are we all just a little too self-involved to make personal sacrifices for the greater good? Everyone has an answer to this, but adequate solution’s are few and far between.

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