Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment

By Paul R. Ehrlich; Anne H. Ehrlich et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
Direct Assaults on Well-Being

He will manage the cure best who forsees what is to happen from the present condition of the patient.

--

Hippocrates, ca. 460-377 B.C.

Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air.

-- Tom Lehrer, Pollution, 1965

In some respects the activities of humanity over the past several centuries have made the environment more hospitable. Some parts of the countryside in places as diverse as Europe and China are undoubtedly more productive, more pleasant, more varied in flora and fauna than they were in prehistoric times. In terms of freedom from epidemic disease, cities are much healthier places than they once were. But the activities of human society have also created some new threats to life and health and made some old threats worse. These threats arise from insults -- effluents, accidents, and environmental transformations -- generated by the activities of societies both industrial and agricultural.

Deaths and illnesses ascribable directly to such insults understandably have received much of the attention that the public and policy-makers have given to environmental matters. Respiratory ailments from air pollution, hepatitis from polluted water, cancer from a host of environmental contaminants -- all have a clear and compelling claim on the public consciousness. These direct threats to life and health, and corollary threats to economic goods and services, are the subject of this chapter. Many of the insults discussed here also undermine human well-being by disrupting the natural functioning of geophysical and ecological processes. These often subtle and unpublicized indirect assaults on human well-being are taken up in Chapter 11.

The term pollution describes the class of environmental insults with which most people are most familiar. The dictionary defines it as "a state of being impure or unclean, or the process of producing that state."1 A pollutant is an agent -- for example, chemicals, noise,

____________________
1
Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Springfield, Mass., G. & C. Merriam, 1966.

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