We cry when we lose a loved one to a disease like cancer and yet we continue to allow the powers that be to disperse carcinogenic contaminants into the spaces in which we live thereby multiplying preventable death, disease and misery. Have humans always been so foolish to treat their surroundings as a toxic waste dump? Have we not learned from the ancient civilizations that died out precisely because they did not properly manage their relation with their nearby natural spaces? Life in the industrial age has had its share of environmental challenges to be sure… From anti-social urban planning that segregates people, except when they are crowded into shopping malls and stadiums; the destructive misuse of farmlands, wetlands and waterways, and the uncontrolled emission of toxic chemicals into the biosphere and living spaces. The industrial age began in wonder and delirium with all the promise of scientific progress and a better future. “Quality of Life” was the primary goal of the industrial system, and it was primarily based on the individual accumulation of the many new gadgets and products that promised to make things more convenient and easier for people. Automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages; homes had heating and modern conveniences such as packaged foods and eventually refrigeration and TV sets among other nice things. One could argue that the most significant element that defined the character of industrial society is the rise of fossil fuels and the many petroleum products that are made from them. The use of fossil fuel oil may have stopped the mass slaughter of whales for their oil but we should take little consolation in this seeming reprieve of inhumane activity since it was replaced with other nefarious processes that entailed the slow poisoning of all creatures simultaneously.
The modern industrial age is the chemical age. Synthetic and engineered chemicals have been produced at an alarming rate and have entered the biosphere to alter the course of natural processes like nothing else in planetary history. Many of the useful products and chemicals of modernity are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics, synthetic fibre, the automobile and the petroleum industry go hand in hand in the shaping of modern living which influenced the design of cities and their attendant problems. The power of the auto and petrochemical industries was so firmly established in the early 20th century that their authority was difficult to challenge. The primary example of this extreme authority was in the stubborn decision to add the highly toxic heavy metal lead to gasoline simply because it made engines run better. In what is arguably one of the worst cases of corporate criminality ever perpetrated on the public – the persistent emission of leaded gasoline for almost a century was allowed to continue in North America despite repeated warnings and challenges from activists, scientists and citizens alike. The government was just as complicit in this horrendous act of toxic incivility since it is the law of the state that permits corporations to continue on with mass poisoning and mass deception. The law permits and the law limits and the law is supposed to protect and secure. The ultimate power in any society rests with the state and its regulation of activities under law. But whose interests does the law protect? One might point to the example of tobacco as a more blatant example of abuse of the rule of law, corporate criminality and public deception but tobacco use is primarily a voluntary act whereas one can hardly avoid breathing the polluted air that surrounds us.
Lead is a notorious neurotoxic poison. Chronic exposure affects all systems of the human body and repeated small exposures over time build up and cause disease and death. Unfortunately lead is still used in airplane fuel and in other capacities, and because lead has been disseminated for decades it remains a major contaminant in farmland, soils and water systems around the world where it makes it way into food and the water we drink.
Most places in the world have banned the use of lead in automobile fuel but we now face another serious environmental threat: that of diesel fuel exhaust from the millions of vehicles around the world that run on diesel fuel. The World Health Organization classified diesel exhaust emissions as a “definite carcinogen” in 2012 and yet diesel vehicles continue to spew their noxious, dirty, poisonous fumes all over the roadways around the world and into our bodies. Diesel powered ocean going vessels are even worse culprits since they are allowed to burn diesel fuel that emits up to two thousand times the amount of sulphur dioxide than road vehicle diesel. How many times have you been in traffic and seen black smoke coming from the exhaust pipes of a truck or a bus or a car? How can these vehicles possibly be conforming to legal emission regulations? Why should people be subject to systematic diesel exhaust poisoning while using publicly shared common spaces? Who is responsible for this mess and who will fix it? Alas, in a typical example of blaming the victim we are told that we should each act personally to reduce our exposure to diesel fumes. Really? And how is a child supposed to do that when they are lined up waiting for the stinky fuming school bus? How is one supposed to reduce diesel fume exposure when one is in traffic surrounded by tractor trailers and tow trucks and diesel burning pickups and imported diesel cars? Once again we are faced with a “shallow environmentalist” perspective that blames individuals and their choices for such problems rather than on the power structures that delimit such choices and create the conditions for reckless ecological violence.
The recent VW “scandal” over how their diesel cars have been deliberately rigged to block detection of the fact that they spew over forty times the legally allowable limit of diesel fumes has raised little public awareness about the problem of diesel fuel itself, and certainly not enough public uproar about the scope of ongoing corporate and environmental criminality. The scandal did raise the issue about how it is nearly impossible to produce what is erroneously called “clean diesel.” In fact there is nothing clean about diesel at all. From the pollution caused by its extraction (especially in the Canadian tar sands context) and its inefficient consumption diesel is arguably the dirtiest source of energy. Diesel fumes contain numerous chronic pollutants and toxins like nitrogen oxides, micro-particulates, arsenic, formaldehyde among others. Many people are aware that diesel soot is “unpleasant” or “makes you choke” or “causes headaches” but when will diesel problems move from being understood as minor inconveniences to a chronic problem that requires a full scale revamping of the diesel system? When will anti-diesel activism go mainstream? Now just to be clear I am not talking about the decommissioning of every diesel powered road vehicle and sailing vessel that exists in our world – that may come over time with new developments in sustainable power like hydrogen fuel cell and electric hybridization of power systems among solutions. What I am talking about is simply the replacement of diesel fuels with other much cleaner and less toxic fuels that already exist and will easily burn in diesel engines. Diesel engines are notoriously tough and hungry. They will burn almost any heavy oil and grease. It should not come as news to anyone that there are so- called “bio-diesel” fuels that are made from used cooking oils and the fats found in algae, soybeans and many other low toxicity sources. Yes these types of fuel are not as easy to acquire as ground sourced fossil fuel diesel, but there is another alternative still. It is called Gas-To-Liquid fuel and it is made by converting natural gas (which is plentiful) into a liquid diesel replacement fuel. This type of fuel can easily replace dirty diesel and we can do without the numerous toxins and carcinogens. Of course natural gas has its problems too but in the interim transition it is an excellent option to replace dirty diesel. GTL diesel can also be blended with other waste oils to come up with innovative fuel solutions that burn in diesel engines. Laws can be passed to stop the manufacture and sale of diesel engines in passenger vehicles, just as VW was blocked from selling its diesel passenger vehicles once the whistle was blown. Only heavy vehicles should be legally allowed to have diesel engines. So the science and the solutions are there. Why are they not being implemented? Well, the answer to that is always the same: Power Interests. As long as cheap and readily accessible petroleum fuel is in the ground for the taking the mega-corporations that own and control the energy systems of the world will keep their extraction systems in place, and the y will block attempts at derailing their established business practices despite the consequences. Their power of lobbying and information control will be defiant to the end. It seems as long as free money is in the ground we are f…kd. But for how much longer? When will we start to treat diesel toxicity like lead toxicity and ban it once and for all? The issue of diesel pollution will be one of the biggest environmental health challenges of the 21st century.
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