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The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions Review


Human civilization is predicated upon waste, upon pollution, upon defilement. For as long as we have been an agricultural civilization, we have produced waste, from our mining, our agriculture, from our industry. But the scale, the contour, and the response to this pollution has varied dramatically over time, with a massive ratcheting up of it as humanity entered the industrial era. This is the subject of the French book La contamination du monde: une histoire des pollutions à l’âge industrielle, by François Jarrige and Thomas le Roux, translated excellently into English by Janice and Michael Egan as The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollution in the Industrial Age. This book looks at pollution from pre-industrial civilization to the 1970s, serving as an excellent look at the development of modern perspectives on pollution, the legal framework surrounding it, and the change in its nature and scale, as well as the social struggle and cultural context.

One of the strongest elements is itss examination of the legal management of pollution and how it changed. Despite our perceptions, the Middle Ages had a quite careful control of polluting activities, which regulated contaminating industries and expelled them from the towns, and which had “nuisance” laws where contamination that impacted others could face repercussions. This was organized by local administration, and could thus be far more determined than later national regulations. indeed, to myself from reading the book, the spike in direct pollution in the 19th and early 20th century, which brutally affected the population of metropolitan cores, seems to have been an anomaly, where liberal reforms changed the enforcement regime radically and laid the field open for a massive increase in pollution in the name of national economic progress and competition. This change in enforcement, exemplified in France as shown by the authors by the move from a nuisance regime to one of national regulation and standards facilitated pollution as part of the cornerstone of society, and is a critical point of the book.

The smokestacks of Manchester: even if an individual smokestack became less polluting, with such a terrible orchestra...

The smokestacks of Manchester: even if an individual smokestack became less polluting, with such a terrible orchestra...

This relates to one of the justifications used constantly by industry in its defense: the promise of technological change to limit and reduce the amount of pollution; This has been constantly deployed in legal justifications on behalf of polluting industries - the prospect of technological change enabling a reduction in pollution levels - since at least the early 19th century. Although there has been a constant real innovation in this regards, with smoke filters on chimneys, recycling prospects to turn waste to useful purposes, and catalytic converters, just to name a few, the overall volume of pollutants has continued to rise, even if it no longer affects life as much in the developed world as directly. Rather, the promise of technological change has served to both legitimate the contamination of pollution, and even to facilitate its increase through a growing volume of activity, even if the individual footprint of a factory has fallen - if a given factory pollutes half as much but there are three times as many factories, the level of pollution has dramatically grown. If there is a single message to take away from the book and to apply to the present it is this: that technical solutions alone cannot be expected to solve the problem of pollution. Political, institutional, and social change is necessary.

What of the social side of things? Here, the social contestation of pollution is also present, and shows how the worker, poor, and urban opposition to pollution developed. This is sometimes forgotten about, as it is assumed that these are passive actors, and indeed smokestacks did symbolize prosperity. But at the same time there were efforts to pursue nuisance laws and governmental regulation to deal with the growing hazard of pollution to the population. Pollution is not neutral, and that it tends to impact the poorest, the disadvantaged, the most - ironically the same people who receive the fewest benefits from the industrial civilization they sustained.

One element which could have been improved upon is the societal aspect of pollution. most of the book’s discussion concerns the way society has ramped up pollution, but not the way pollution’s effects have led to large, systemic impacts upon the world. there is of course, a litany of tragic individual or localized impacts, such as the Agano River in Japan with its horrific Minamata disease, or Chernobyl, or the various smog crises of London, New York, Los Angeles, the Meuse with its zinc refineries, etc. But what about the pollution of agricultural soils through salinization, which lead to the fall of the Mesopatamian first civilization, or leaded gasoline and its hypothesized links to the dramatic increase in crime rates in mid-century US cities. The impacts of pollution appear either too localized or too abstract.

A brilliant histry book full of insights for the contemporary prospects of ecological reform, the changing nature and structure of pollution and pollution management, as well as an exploration of its meaning and a visceral and elegant depiction of some of its results. Combined with a fantastic library of sources that are easy to peer into deeper, and a good variety of images to accompany it, the book is great both as an introduction and for a base for future research. Both for the present and the past, The Contamination of the Earth is a great piece of history that tragically depicts the structural evolution of Mankind’s abuse of Mother Earth.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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