The Diseconomics of Growth

H.V. Hodson


Chapter VIII.

World Growth And The Environment

As has been shown in Chapter Six, the extra margin of economic capacity represented by growth of GNP in constant price terms, after charging to potential growth any additions to cost of production arising from less polluting methods of manufacture or transport, or the making of safer, better products, can be employed in a variety of different uses: among others, higher consumption, business investment, public investment, more leisure or lighter work, redeeming injuries to the environment. Carrying on from the thoughts of the previous chapter, we need now to study the last of those choices. It has priority because unless we foresee and prevent the damage which uncorrected growth will do to the human habitat it will strangle itself and mankind with it.

It is customary among environmentalists, sociologists, population experts and others who recognise that fact to present us with a Doomsday scenario. Their terrifying pictures of the future have become as familiar as descriptions of hell fire painted by priests and pastors in times when people truly believed they were condemned to everlasting torment if they failed the test of Judgment Day—divine threats, let it be said, which had substantially less effect on the believers’ behaviour than had penal laws and social sanctions here on earth. Existing facts of pollution are projected forward, scaled up logarithmically for growth of population and economic consumption, and are then shown to mean unbreathable air, undrinkable water, poisoned earth, shrinking food supplies, dying wild-life, exhausted natural resources, catastrophic cities, insufferable conditions for everyone, within so many decades unless we utterly change our ways. Figures and dates are hammered like rivets into the warnings of doom. Here is a moderate sample of tocsin-sounding, free of indigestible statistics:

The belief that the end of the world was drawing nigh was widely held at different times in human history. But from this historic fact there is no consolation. Only since the last war have men prised open Pandora’s box, and have discovered technologies for destroying all life on earth many times over and in a variety of ghastly ways... To annihilation from military mishap or irresponsibility must be added the possibility of extinction of the species from an uncontrollable epidemic (arising from man’s organism being unable to adapt quickly enough to new and more deadly viruses resulting from the wholesale application of “miracle” drugs), from an ecological calamity (arising from the inadvertent destruction of animal and insect life that preyed on the pests that consume men’s harvests while the pests themselves become resistant to the chemical pesticides), and the possibility of a slower and more painful death from choking in the waste products of advancing technology.

Professor EJ Mishan, of Washington University, in a Preface to Can Britain Survive? (London, 1971).

Those are strong words, and not perhaps unjustified. It is imperative that we recognise the immense perils that lie ahead, however far away they may seem to be; for we may not otherwise take the action that is needed now. Every year without preventive action brings whatever disaster may portend one year closer. And it may make disaster irremediably more certain.

Nevertheless, as a guide for policies of today I prefer the less foreboding plan of looking at the problems we can already see and measure, comparatively amenable and comprehensible as they are. This for three reasons. First, the Doomsday approach may be counter-productive in political and psychological reaction. Instead of people’s being alerted to the need for getting down to action forthwith, they are apt to think that the problem is all too vast, too difficult and too horrifying to bear thinking about, to consign posterity’s dangers to posterity, and to trust that Science with a big S which got us into this mess will get us out of it before those prophecies come true in AD 2000 or some still further-off and less imaginable date; in short, to adopt the philosophy of the Rubaiyat:

Oh, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears—
    Tomorrow? Why, to-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s sev’n Thousand Years.

Secondly, the problem of the deteriorating world environment has innumerable constituent parts or aspects, and it will not be solved by one great concerted effort but rather piecemeal, here a little improvement, there another larger one. To contemplate its total, terror-striking vastness only distracts from the things that can be done here and now, the practicable and necessary research, discoveries, policies and actions that will help the world forward year by year to the countless fragmentary solutions of the whole. Mr John Maddox, editor of the British scientific periodical Nature, in his presidential address to the general section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in September 1971, rightly expressed the fear that the “doomsday syndrome” could have the effect of “limiting our action, diverting our attention from the real problems, and may undermine our spirit.” This is no argument for limiting action, or evading the real problems, but the very contrary.

Thirdly, while not believing in either the infinite adaptability of Man or the infinite capacity of scientists to solve material problems, let alone social or spiritual ones, I cannot accept, as credible, scenarios of the future which jump from now to then without supposing that some adaptation, some scientific discovery, some technical improvement, will intervene to slow down or alter the predictable course of events as circumstances change and evolve. Consider the following pronouncement by a respected environmental prophet, Rend Dubos:

Modern man can adapt biologically to the technological environment only in so far as mechanisms of adaptation are potentially present in his genetic code. For this reason, we can almost take it for granted that he cannot achieve successful biological adaptation to insults with which he has had no experience in his evolutionary past, such as the shrill noises of modern equipment, the exhausts of motor cars and factories, the countless new synthetic products that get into air, water and food.

from The Environmental Handbook (1971).

There is virtue in the proposition is disproved by the laboratories of history and of world-ranging comparison. At what stage in man’s evolution did factors enter into his genetic code which enabled him to adapt to static agriculture, city life, complex diets, alcohol, aspirin, or the noises of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution? What differences in the evolutionary past of various peoples or groups accounts for their ability to adjust to, and indeed enjoy, widely contrasting conditions—not only the habitats of the Esquimaux and the South Sea Islanders, but also the respective radio-active levels in granite and chalk areas (differing by more than the total world-distributed fall-out from all atomic explosions), or the tolerated thresholds of noise in an Italian city and the English country? If man had not been able to adapt to great changes in his environment, made by himself as well as by Nature, he would have become extinct long ago, or been concentrated in some primitive Eden akin to his evolutionary past. Man is the most adaptable of all species: sooner than ask whether he can adapt to more troublesome conditions we ought to ask why he should be obliged to do so, and what price his adaptation imposes. We should also ask ourselves why we should tolerate the evolutionary elimination of those strains of mankind that cannot adapt to conditions evil in themselves and, let us hope, avoidable.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which we ought to look at the giant problem in its entirety before we look at its constituent parts. We must learn the fundamental ecological law that everything is dependent upon everything else. Each living creature feeds upon other creatures live or dead or upon substances that their life has generated, and they in turn have fed upon others. Parasites and predators have their necessary place in the cycle of nature—often beneficial to man. To interrupt its rhythm at one point is to change its whole course. Kill insects which harm crops, and you kill those things that feed on them: you may also kill other creatures which prey upon harmful elements. In southern California, insecticides used against one pest dangerously increased another, the cottony-cushion scale on citrus trees, because they decimated the parasites—specially imported from Australia—which had kept down the cottony-cushion scale!

Time and space are only partial limits upon the dissemination of effects of interference. Pesticides poured upon land and crops not only alter the whole ecology of the neighbourhood but pass from land to water, to whatever animal, vegetable or mineral matter subsists therein, and becomes the food of birds and other living things, through which the substances concerned are once again handed on, often in much higher concentrations. Winds and currents carry effects across oceans and continents. Vapours from chemicals used on land or crops in Africa have been borne across the Atlantic; industrial effluents in England are blamed for poisonous effects in Scandinavia; even the world’s climate may be changed by such phenomena as the constant emission of heat or soot or disturbances in the contents of the air and stratosphere. Actions now may affect life and natural phenomena for generations. The duty of those who control our economy to limit, control and counteract its environmental consequences—local or national—is a duty not only to its present citizens but to posterity, and not only to its own people but to mankind and to the earth as man’s only home. To quote Mr Russell Train, Chairman of the United States Council on Environmental Quality, in his Ditchley Foundation Lecture 1971:

No place is immune from the major environmental impacts which our technology is producing. High levels of DDT are found in the tissues of seals and penguins in Antarctica. We are slowly coming to learn the truth—that we all belong to one, closely inter-related world system. It is essential that we work together to protect and preserve that system. We have no other.

There is another way in which it is vital that, before we examine the parts of the environmental problem, in the context of economic growth, we should look at it as a whole. Economic growth, pollution increase, pressure on natural resources, and pollution of environment are structurally inter-connected. Each is, of course, affected by its separate causes, natural or induced by deliberate policy, but none is altered without shifting the course of all the others. One of the most impressive studies in this whole field is to be found in the testimony of Jay W. Forrester, Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for the Sub-Committee on Urban Growth of the US House of Representatives Committee on Banking and Commerce, presented on 7th October 1970. Professor Forrester first explained the meaning and value of “urban dynamics” and “social dynamics”—methods of computerised analysis of the factual and policy inputs of a city or large society, and of their combined effect on the whole—and demonstrated with examples how well-meaning decisions to deal with a variety of different problems in a corporation, a city or a society may in combination make the initial problems still worse. He then displayed a series of diagrams each showing, on different assumptions as to the future, the historic and projected shape of five curves from AD 1900 to 2100: curves of world-wide natural resources, population, capital investment, pollution and quality of life (so defined that “raising the quality of life means releasing stress and pressures, reducing crowding, reducing pollution, alleviating hunger, and treating ill-health”). [See note 1]

His first diagram shows the behaviour of this world system on the assumption that present trends are continued: world population reaches a peak around AD 2020 and then declines because industrialisation is suppressed by falling natural resources. Already, from the 1950s onwards, the curve of quality of life has begun to dip downwards. The picture moves towards a seeming equilibrium some time after 2100, with quality of life then levelling off at about its 1900 level.

But, observes Professor Forrester, “we may not be fortunate enough to run gradually out of natural resources. Science and technology may well find ways to use the more plentiful metals and atomic energy so that resource depletion does not intervene. If so, the way then remains open for some other pressure to arise within the system.” His next diagram therefore shows what happens if by such means the rate at which natural resources are used up falls by three-quarters after 1970. The picture, to the surprise of those who believe that exhaustion of natural resources is the basic problem, becomes even worse. Because the restriction on resources is lifted, population and capital investment (associated with economic growth) are suffered to go on rising until a pollution crisis supervenes, reducing birth rates, raising death rates and depressing food production. From a peak around the year 2030, world population falls by five-sixths in 20 years. No matter that after 2060 the curve of quality of life rises dizzily. The world-wide population-pollution catastrophe will have exploded a generation earlier, not least violently in the more industrialised countries, which might well prove the most vulnerable to such a disruption to environment and food supply. The year 2030 may seem a long way off, but it is within the expectation of life of my grandchildren.

Now, says Professor Forrester, suppose attempts are made to sustain the already fading quality of life from now on, by the method that the world is actually choosing, faster industrialisation through a higher rate of capital investment. On the hypothesis that the “normal” rate of capital investment is raised by 20 per cent, the next diagram shows a pollution crisis arriving still earlier, about the turn of the century, and the same, though slightly less dramatic, collapse of population a generation later. Thus economic growth, so far from being a solution, hastens the catastrophe in population collapse and in quality of life. The next assumption is that the higher investment rate is combined with a reduction of 20 per cent in previously-projected birth rates—the growth plus population-control plan. The quality of life surges upwards for 30 years because material standards are raised and crowding is less intense than under the initial expectations. But again there is a pollution crisis beginning about AD 2030.

Then surely the answer is to tackle pollution directly? Professor Forrester displays the curves that would result if (a) the usage of natural resources were reduced by 75 per cent, (b) the rate of capital accumulation were increased by 20 per cent, (c) the pollution rate, with a given degree of industrialisation, were reduced by 50 per cent through technological improvements. What happens is that the various factors that hold down population growth are relieved, the population curve rises faster and further, and the only result is to postpone the pollution-population crisis by another 20 years, when there would be a great many more people alive to undergo its sufferings.

“In our social systems,” observes Professor Forrester, “there are no utopias. There appear to be no sustainable modes of behaviour that are free of pressures and stresses. But there are many possible modes and some are more desirable than others.” His final picture shows what happens if population is stabilised by a cut of 50 per cent in “normal” birth rates, pollution generation is also cut by 50 per cent, and capital accumulation (linked to economic growth) is reduced by 40 per cent. The pollution, investment and population curves quickly flatten out, and the curve of natural resources slopes more gradually downward. The curve of quality of life recovers quickly from its present decline, mounts steeply for about 30 years, then levels off, far above its present position. A happy result! But the solution “implies an end to population and economic growth,” and clearly requires immediate and draconian measures of reform.

This analysis has been relayed here not as a reversion to Doomsday menaces but in order to show by scientific method how integrally linked are all the constituents of growth and decay in man’s relationship to his environment: economic growth, population, use of resources, and pollution. Though population remains a separate determinant, which needs to be restrained, we do take a first step towards a comprehensive system of avoiding world catastrophe and raising the quality of life everywhere if we closely relate economic growth and pollution. One way, already looked at, is to charge potential growth with reducing pollution in the course of agriculture, industry, transport and trade. A second way is to charge realised growth with undoing some of the pollution already committed or still being committed despite the efforts of the first way. If we were to find that the sum of all this would cost all the net growth we might otherwise have spent on higher consumption or on still more investment-for-production, we should have broadly fulfilled two of the four conditions of Professor Forrester’s most hopeful projection, and would then have to add two more—population limitation, and economy in the use of resources with a given degree of industrialisation.

An attack on the residuum of past pollution and on the pollution continuing after realisable improvements have been made in the processes of agriculture, industry, transport and trade, and in the disposal of their products, has to be mounted on five main fronts: (1) existing and continuing pollution of the air and upper strata of the earth’s invisible rim, (2) existing and continuing pollution of inland water by effluents of production and waste disposal, (3) the like pollution of the ocean, (4) landward débris or other evil outcomes (such as deforestation) of past economic activity, and (5) what may be called secondary pollution, that is to say, man-created dereliction, ugliness, noise and stress, particularly though not exclusively in cities. These are not entirely separate—for example, inland waters flow to the sea, landward degeneration affects water systems, airborne pollutants are deposited alike on land and water, pollutant débris of past activity is part of urban ugliness and decay. But the five categories do present distinct problems both of technique and of law and administration, and their interconnection can be taken for granted. And though this does not affect the suggested categories, there are also prima-facie non-polluting activities which have ecological effects as bad as direct pollution; interference with natural water systems offers many examples, from the Aswan Dam (which has upset the whole life-cycle of the Lower Nile) to the St Lawrence Seaway (where the Welland Canal let in the predatory sea lamprey to the Great Lakes, there to destroy the trout and other commercial fish, and cause, by removing its competitors for food, a population explosion in the undesirable alewife).

When we come to look at air pollution, we are in a fog of ignorance. Concentrations of some man-emitted chemicals have been scientifically measured in some countries, others not. Even when we have established facts, scientists do not agree on explaining them. For instance, one of the environmental arguments commonly levelled against supersonic aircraft is their effect on the ozone layer which surrounds the atmosphere and shields the earth from a large fraction of the sun’s ultra-violet rays. It has been calculated that in an hour’s flight in the high altitudes necessary for economic supersonic flight, such a machine would cast out 83 tons of water, 72 tons of carbon dioxide, 4 tons of carbon monoxide and 4 tons of nitric oxide; and scientists (such as Dr VJ Schafer of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center in New York State) have predicted extremely grave consequences from the consequent reduction of the natural oxidation which produces the ozone layer. “It is known,” wrote a Sub-Committee of the Joint Economic Council of the United States Congress in August 1970, “that SST operation will introduce substantial additional moisture into the stratosphere. This moisture may destroy some function of the ozone in the atmosphere, leading to an increase in the ultra-violet radiation which reaches the earth.” But scientists have more recently discovered that the ozone content of the upper stratosphere has been actually rising, to an extent much greater than any expected negative results of mass supersonic flight: they do not know why. Dr John Houghton, Reader in Atmospheric Physics at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, revealing in August 1971 the results of two years of research into this problem, declared that even if 500 supersonic aircraft were flying in 1985—the assumption made by Dr Harold Johnston of the University of California, who had predicted that the ozone layer might be so reduced as to imperil life on earth—the change in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere would be only a few per cent and would be much less than the periodic variation in the ozone layer due to natural causes. The controversy continues.

A similar paradox or conflict of evidence concerns carbon dioxide, in itself a harmless natural constituent of the air, which has the property of stopping much of the world’s sun-generated heat from escaping into space. The US President’s Science Advisory Committee’s report of 1965 entitled “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” gave warning that as a result of man’s activities “by the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will be close to 25 per cent. This ... will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.” Some scientists have indeed predicted that the rise in temperature might eventually melt the polar ice-caps and drown the lower levels of the land, including most of our great cities. But the fact is that, despite the high and rising emissions of carbon dioxide, global temperatures have been slightly falling over the past 30 years. The reason for this may be reflection of incoming solar radiation by man-made dust in the upper atmosphere; nobody knows whether, if that is so, this fortuitous combination of counter-operating conditions will continue. The report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), concluded that “the probability of direct climatic change in this century resulting from CO2 is small,” though its long-term consequences might be serious. And on thermal pollution it said: “Although by the year 2000 global thermal power output may be as much as six times the present level, we do not expect it to affect global climate;” nevertheless, the problem of “heat islands” might become severe, and global effects would be much more likely after the year 2000. “Calculations show that depletion of [atmospheric] oxygen by burning all the recoverable fossil fuels in the world would reduce it only to 20.800 per cent” against its present level of 20.946 per cent. But who knows what the consequences of that might be? Again, Sweden has blamed sulphur dioxide emissions from Britain, to windward of the prevailing air currents, for the destructive rise in the acid content of her rain, which is more acidic than the rain over Britain itself. An explanation is wanting.

Fortunately we need not here take sides in the Houghton-Johnston or Swedish-British controversies, or for or against the prophets of climatic doom. All that we need reflect is that, in face of ignorance, caution is the rule. Drive slowly in fog. Moreover, if we know little about distant or long-term atmospheric effects, we know still less about how to undo them once they have been perpetrated, if they can be undone at all. Even if we were ready to pre-empt some of our economic growth to pay for it, there is no project that I know of for launching decontaminatory satellites or re-attracting atmospheric pollutants to earth, and it appears impossible to do either. We must, in practice, concentrate on reducing current emissions (from smoke, exhaust gases, products of heat-consumption generally, and particular chemicals) as a charge on potential growth, and, as a charge on actual growth, on dealing with the nearer phenomena which we can actually see and whose effects are obvious. That means, above all, smoke and smog and sulphuric acid and metallic particles and radio-activity.

Let us suppose that by such means as improving the thermodynamic performance of automobiles, eliminating lead from petrol, causing industry literally and metaphorically to consume its own smoke, recycling wastes which would otherwise be burnt or discharged as gas, we were to reduce current atmospheric pollution by one-half. The remaining half would still be serious enough to require waging further efforts. Deaths and ill health from smog and other atmospheric pollution cannot be quantified economically; they do not affect Gross National Product or its derivative, economic growth, though they are paid for in human suffering. But some effects can be so measured. As long ago as 1954 the British Committee on Air Pollution claimed that air pollution was costing £250 million a year in direct costs and loss of efficiency. If halving the air pollution were to cut that cost by three-quarters, it would still be worth (grading up the annual cost at 5 per cent) £1250 millions in capital to undo the effect of the rest. And halving the pollution now is only a temporary alleviant; for on present trends world energy consumption will double in twelve years or so, and we shall be back where we started.

In the public domain, the most obvious measure is smoke control. The effect of the Clean Air Act of 1956 in Britain has been remarkable. Where smokeless zones have been created, the new clarity of the air and absence of smogs and dirty cloud is transparent. London and Manchester have been transformed. But this only heightens the contrast with other, still dirty industrial regions. And completion of the reform, not only in Britain but in other industrial nations, will cost a lot of money, private and taxpayers’ money. Plant and domestic fuel-burners must be converted or replaced. Smokeless fuel has to be manufactured, or other sources of energy increased (shortages of smokeless fuel have notoriously handicapped the progress of the British reform). In Britain alone, several hundred million pounds need to be spent in such ways over the next few years, and this is a charge on the fruits of any economic growth.

If we have successfully established zones of clean air, why not zones of minimum noise? This is not just an amateur idea. A working group of the official Advisory Council set up to study the working of the [UK] Noise Abatement Act of 1960 recommended in October 1971 the creation of noise abatement zones in which local authorities could impose limits on noise from different premises, to bring about a progressive improvement in its level. Among other recommendations the group called for a new Act empowering the Secretary of State for the Environment to make specifications for the sound level of machinery sold in Britain, and to impose legal limits on noise from certain classes of machinery. We are beginning to realise that noise, like smoke and smell, is an environmental pollutant.

Our standards of admitted noise pollution are sadly low. On an afternoon when the effect of supersonic bangs over London was being tested, a learned seminar was being held in one of the post-graduate schools of London University. Some of those present did not notice the bangs at all—two were obvious, if one knew what he was listening for—but the whole proceedings had to stop more than once because of the noise of some building operations in the street outside. Public agitation has been focused on aircraft noise, and to a less extent on the noise of motor traffic, but there are other hideous noise-makers—road drills, riveting hammers, garbage removing machines, loudspeakers and many more. A lower threshold of permitted noise would of course involve substantial industrial cost.

One way of limiting the consumption of fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) is, of course, the use of nuclear and solar energy. This would not only conserve scarce and versatile resources—a point to which we must return—but also cut down smoke and other chemical emissions. But it requires enormous expenditure of capital, as another charge on economic growth, and the cost will be all the greater as the rising demand for uranium presses upon supply, and the more expensive and dangerous breeder-reactors, which re-create their own fuel, are developed to overcome that check. In the second place, nuclear plants commit their own unique sort of atmospheric pollution, or threat of it, in radio-active emissions, together with escaping heat and cooling-tower vapour. Works and measures to control these effects or risks are also very costly. No one doubts that they are necessary, and they are indeed being undertaken, though technical research has lately exposed more intractable problems than had been foreseen. There is also the grave and growing problem of the disposal of radio-active waste. It has been estimated (in a scientific review published in October 1971 by the Commission of the European Communities) that the amount of such unwanted material to be accumulated in the next thirty years in the EEC countries alone will be at least 3000 tons, containing 300,000 million curies of radio-activity. The article proposes a system of waste dumps available to all European countries. But to find such dumps which are safe is precisely the problem that is yet unsolved, and may indeed have no solution.

In the area of water-borne pollution we are on more familiar ground, better mapped and with clearer signposts to the public and private works and policies required. Two general points can first be established: first, all major sectors of the economy—agriculture, industry, trade, government and the public—contribute substantially to the fouling and waste of water; and, secondly, our environmental problem concerns not only the quality of fresh water but its quantity too. The rise in population is obviously a multiplier of demand for water, at any level of demand per head (including public and industrial use), but industry, which consumes great quantities of water, grows faster than population, agriculture needs more and more water if it is to produce food for swelling millions at rising standards of life, and as those standards rise so does private consumption of water per head. A citizen in a North American city, with his bath and shower and WCs and dish-washing and car-washing and air-conditioning, consumes 20 times as much water per day as a poor man in Asia or Latin America; a British citizen wastes (through dripping or needlessly running taps and broken mains) nearly twice as much as that poor man uses for all his needs. It has been estimated that by the year 2000 the total water demand in the United States will have trebled and that (because of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and irrigation as well as rise in population) the total world demand for water will have been multiplied four times.

Obviously one way of delaying the crisis which these figures portend (for there just is not so much water to be tapped where it is needed) is reduction of waste. This is a high responsibility for water-supplying authorities and a personal duty of the individual. But the effect is only marginal compared with the projected rise in water use. On the supply side, billions must go into dams and reservoirs and pipe-lines (a flowing channel making use of existing canals from the wet north to the drier south of England is a favourite dream of some enthusiasts), sited in the light of the latest knowledge of ecological and environmental effects; smaller works may help in the less densely populated areas, and there are great, if costly, possibilities in the trapping of surface water in cities, which instead of being held by vegetation or in the soil runs straight off the roofs and roads into gutters, culverts and sewers. Even so, the basic sources of supply will not hold out if water use goes on rising in step with population, consumption and industrialisation. Desalination of sea-water might seem a logical scientific conclusion from the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the world’s unfrozen water is in the oceans. As an ultimate resort against a Doomsday of desiccation it has its claims, but it also has its drawbacks (heavy power consumption and thermal pollution among them) and it is, of course, still very costly. Domestic water in Kuwait, which relies heavily on desalination, costs nearly ten times as much to the consumer as in Britain, and this reflects the great capital cost of the plant.

After all these palliatives and alternatives are taken into account, the main hope for keeping water supply up to demand is the re-use or re-cycling of water. This has already advanced a long way both in technology and in practice. Re-use and re-cycling are not the same thing. The latter means getting the used water back to the point of supply after treatment without letting it out of the using system (for instance, it may be re-cycled within an industrial plant, or within the water disposal and supply channels of a public authority like the Metropolitan Water Board in London). Re-use may mean purifying water employed in one place or for one purpose and employing it for another purpose or in another place, lower down the consumption line (for instance, the water in the Thames is used first by one town on its banks, then in another, and could be used much more if the towns discharged cleaner water and less contaminating effluent). Again, more capital and current expenditure are needed for such conservation, compared with taking water and pouring it away dirty and unusable into the natural system or the sea; and on top of that cost comes the expense of setting up and administering the new or expanded authorities (especially single authorities for whole river basins) needed to conduct, monitor and enforce the required controls.

Besides looking to the future there is a crying need for cleaning up the water-pollution of the past. Perhaps the most notorious sink of water-pollution in the world is Lake Erie, said now to be virtually devoid of life and too dirty to paddle in, let alone drink. But Lake Baikal, the Baltic Sea and even the Mediterranean are coming to share its place as dreadful examples of destruction of all the benefits that water gives to man. Professor Jacques Piccard, the Swiss oceanographer, speaking in Geneva on 25th October 1971 on behalf of the forthcoming United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, declared that the oceans would die unless the world could halt their progressive pollution. The Baltic would be the first to go, followed by the Adriatic, then the rest of the Mediterranean. Multiple pollution was poisoning the surface layers of plankton: if they were lost, larger plankton would also disappear, followed by the fish. Many experts, he said, believed that life in the seas would be extinguished within the next thirty years if man was not prepared to pay the price of stopping pollution.

Some say Lake Erie is already incapable of regeneration, whatever may be done to stop any further pollution by run-off from agricultural land and cities and by industrial effluents, heated water and urban sewage, because irreversible eutrophication has set in; that is to say, the chemical and biological nutrients added have exhausted the oxygen needed for their natural decomposition, and a different process of breakdown has been created, yielding mineral and live (algal) products which in turn increase the pollution and stultify the healthy oxygenation process. Others think that regeneration is still possible, and point to Lake Washington in Seattle and San Diego Bay as encouraging if less far-gone examples. Let us share their optimism, for otherwise the world will certainly see still further loss of usable and fish-nourishing water—in its greater lakes and inland and narrow-mouthed seas. But regeneration certainly cannot be done on the cheap. Nor can the arrest of further pollution.

As for the oceans, men and nations have used them as an infinitely capacious dump for every form of waste: sewage, garbage, industrial effluents, obsolete armaments, radio-active substances, oil spillage, everything. The oceans, it is argued, are very large and deep, and their tides and currents disperse any pollution, though by the same token they spread it throughout the world’s waters, helped by the movements of birds and fishes. But already great evil has been done, which it will cost much to undo, not only in estuaries and coastal waters, and in relatively tideless seas, but also in the surface layer of the oceans, where the life-sustaining photo-synthesis takes place. It has lately been discovered that the floor of the ocean’s deep pits and gullies is so constituted (of a sort of ooze which acts like a quagmire) that heavy materials dumped there, such as radio-active wastes or deleterious chemicals under thick protective clothing, will sink to levels at which their eventual breakdown will (it is hoped) be harmless—if fast submarine currents do not interfere. We do not know such things for sure until we try, but only dire need can justify experiments whose outcome might be not only damaging but irreversible. Many practices of sewage disposal and dumping of wastes must be altered, and quickly, if coasts and estuaries are to survive as the homes of fish and pleasant places for man, and if even the big seas and the oceans are to remain a prolific resource producing both food and oxygen; but these changes come more as a charge on potential growth than as an option for use of its product when realised.

However, when we come to the last two items on the list, the debris or devastation of past economic activity and the conglomerate of man-made ugliness that overhangs the lives of all but the most rural and simple people, the case is very different. A list of essential or highly desirable corrective actions under the first head alone is staggering:

Reforestation (a massive need but fortunately an economic ally productive one);

Restoration of trees, woods and hedges that sheltered fertile soil from erosion by wind and water—again, potentially productive to the nation (as the example of Schleswig-Holstein shows, where planting hedges to a minimum of 80 metres per hectare, which is roughly 12 miles of hedge to a square mile of land, raised output of winter wheat by 35 per cent and of main crop potatoes by 20 per cent) but not necessarily cost-beneficial to the individual farmer;

Rehabilitation of over-grazed or over-cultivated land;

Removal or landscaping of slag heaps, tailings, waterlogged coal-mining dumps, china clay mountains, worked-out brick fields and other industrial excreta;

Reclothing of hillsides and landscapes violated by quarrying, auger mining and strip mining;

Removal of old mine buildings and arresting subsidence from disused workings;

Filling, or converting to use, gravel pits such as scar the lower Thames Valley;

Rescue of land left derelict by the passage of industry or the over-running of urban sprawl or the construction of roads or railways;

Clearing up the ugly, dangerous and anti-economic concrete and other debris of disused military airfields, camps and installations;

Dredging channels clogged by silt and refuse that man’s activity has allowed to wash down and accumulate.

The list is not complete. But it is enough to show how heavy could be the burden upon the fruits of growth if we chose the option of using them in this way. It has been calculated that in Britain we are adding ten acres a day to land dereliction. This offers us a minimum target of rescuing ten acres a day from the dereliction of the past. Some of those improvements may be called “mere beautification.” But anyone who has lived under the shadow of coal and slag heaps, let alone dangerous sludge tips like that which wreaked mortal disaster at Aberfan, would not call beautification “mere.” There may well be higher priorities, but we should spare some of any increased economic capacity for healing the disabling wounds inflicted by past industrialism.

Just to indicate the scale of the cost involved—in the course of 1971 the Glamorgan County Council launched a two-year plan to clean up the industrial devastation of Gilfach Goch, the scene of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, now, in the words of a Cardiff reporter, Trevor Fishlock, “just a remnant of the coal Klondyke, its mines all closed, its population drained, large parts of it physically and socially wrecked.” “After years of ugliness,” said a County Councillor, “we want the people in Gilfach to be able to enjoy some of the pleasant surroundings that existed before mining started.” The cost of this little exercise, concentrating on a mere 75 acres of wasteland, slag tips and rubble, was to be £200,000. Multiply that up for all the Gilfachs of South Wales, the Potteries, the old industrial north of England, Clydeside and elsewhere in the British Isles!

The last category of need has been called redeeming ugliness, but this is for want of a better comprehensive word covering not only visual ugliness but also noise and stink and dirt. This is an ever-continuing and open-ended need. When we think of the noise and stink and dirt of our present-day cities we should remember that before the Industrial Revolution a city like London, though much smaller, was probably just as noisy and certainly dirtier and smellier, and that we are aware of the ugliness of our industrial slums because we can contrast them with the better housing, cleaner factories, clearer air and less grim aspect generally of new working-class and industrial areas today. The fact remains that great and costly operations of clearance and rehabilitation are needed, alike in the industrial cities of the advanced West and in the ghastly slums of poorer countries more recently struck by the urban and industrial revolution. Not only wretched housing but also the sites of factories, shipyards and other declining industries and of streamlined railway systems ought to be cleared and put to future-looking use. And besides all this draining of sores and healing of wounds, there is the task of bettering the general health of cities, that is to say, raising the standard of the whole urban scene. Egalitarianism and the hegemony of economic forces have made our predominant architecture repetitive, utilitarian and petty in all but scale: architecture is art, and art costs money. (Living in cities is itself an art, as Sir Frank Fraser Darling has reminded us in his Reith Lectures, Wilderness and Plenty.) Unless all this is done we shall not be able to cure the diseases of a city civilisation, which need a chapter to themselves. Few indeed would deny that, aesthetic reasons quite aside, such expenditure is necessary on imperative social and economic grounds. It needs a deliberate public effort, and it must be charged against other uses of national income and of its growth.

Here we come against an aspect of national accountancy which seems to have been too little regarded, the costing of land use. If we start with an area of derelict and abandoned or unused land (and unused means not having measurable environmental or aesthetic value in its existing empty state) we can reckon any use as an economic bonus. The net value added by the community to the community’s wealth is the cost of reclaiming the land and building whatever is put on it. The price paid for the land itself, for the purpose of community accounting, is quite irrelevant: it reflects merely a money transaction without any creation of value, a transfer from one banking account to another within the community. This point saves us from all arguments about costs and values related to alternative uses of the land. From the community point of view the cost of a public park on empty land is the cost of making a public park, not the cost of foregoing using the same land to build office-blocks, which might multiply its price several hundred times.

Should the land be not empty or unused but presently used for some purpose having value as a going concern, then that value, which has to be compensated for if the use is stopped and the land cleared for some other use, has to be added to the community cost of the whole business, but subtracted from the gross community value to get the net increment of value or money-measured benefit. This is obvious in an extreme case, where, say, a factory worth a million dollars is pulled down in order to build another factory costing a million dollars on the same site. The community economic cost has been two million dollars, the net addition to the community’s capital stock has been nil. What then has to be added to the net increment of community value is the worth of all the benefits not represented in mere money costs. If the new factory is clean, handsome, a good place to work in, with pleasant open spaces around it, all this is community gain. Is it worth two million dollars? If it is worth two million dollars to the corporation owning or buying up the old factory and replacing it with a new one, it is presumably worth at least as much to the community.

If the transaction is not a business one but involves a public. authority and public use of the land, there is no such automatic financial test. Other criteria must be applied. What is the real benefit-value to the community of a park or so many low-rent houses or a cultural centre, or even a new publicly-owned industrial estate in place of a dirty old mix of buildings, uses and non-uses? That is a question which the public authority has to answer, and it will do so on social, even aesthetic, as well as economic grounds. The key to the reckoning of community value of re-use of land, however, is that the price of the empty or unused land, the bare financial site-value, is of no consequence to it. Payment of that price adds nothing to community wealth and subtracts nothing from it: the land, the space, is still there.

This real-value accountancy is very important in relation to the task of redeeming environmental damage and evils in our cities. Many of these include large areas on which the existing buildings or facilities, though of some productive value—worth something to their existing owners or occupiers—are out-of-date, poorly earning, ugly and environmentally disgusting. They may be covered with slum housing, or antiquated industrial plant, or railway yards and buildings which are no longer needed. The city authority, in deciding what to do about them, has two calculations to make. Of course it must keep its financial accounts straight, adding up the price of the land (however that may be decided), the compensation or purchase money to be paid to existing users or owners for such economic value as the present use may have, the cost of demolition and clearance and the cost of whatever is then done with or built upon the land; and deciding whether and how all this can be afforded. But it also has to make an account of real value, in which the outgoings exclude the price of the land, and the incomings, or values created, include not only the purely economic, that is to say income-earning, value of the new use, but also its social and environmental value compared with the old. If this real cost-benefit analysis works out with a net surplus of community value, the authority must turn back to its monetary accountancy and ask again how such a community gain can be financed. Local authorities, even those of big cities—in the United States especially so—are apt to be high in real cost-benefit potential of this kind but low in financial resources. Help from national funds to enable them to reap such cost-benefit surpluses, which accrue to the whole nation as well as to the locality, is manifestly appropriate.

If this sort of analysis were made of all the possible ways of restoring the seriously damaged environment, not only in central cities but elsewhere too, it would be seen how much more is feasible, and worth-while in real value, than seems possible or economic if financial accountancy only is made the test. A national order of priorities among all the major potential efforts could then be established, and decisions taken as to how much of the national income and of its growth-increment should be assigned to them.

Until this is done we cannot relate the total needs to the total resources available. But we can get some idea of that relationship in regard to part at least of the environmental needs discussed in this chapter. According to the Chairman (Mr Russell Train) of the US Council on Environmental Quality:—

Our Council estimates that over the next 5 years in the United States alone the cost of dealing with air and water pollution and with solid wastes will be about 100 billion dollars. Air and water pollution abatement alone over the same period will amount to about 50 billion dollars in expenditures by government at all levels and by industry and other private sources. Of course, substantial as these figures are they must be compared to a Gross National Product now running above one trillion dollars a year. Furthermore, when we total the cost of environmental improvement, it is important that we compare this with the very real economic costs which our society is bearing as a result of environmental pollution. Thus, for example, we estimate that in the United States the economic cost of damage by air pollution to human health, to plant and equipment, and to crops is running at an annual rate of about 16 billion dollars—far in excess of the projected costs of air pollution control. At the same time, while it is important that the public recognise the very positive benefits that will accrue from the control of pollution, the public must also recognise that there are costs, that they will be substantial, and that they will not be borne by “someone else” but by each and every one of us.

There are two highly relevant figures here. The first is 20 billion dollars a year to be actually spent on dealing with air and water pollution and with solid wastes, against a GNP of about 1000 billion dollars. That is 2 per cent, and we can be sure that what is already planned to be done is much less than what ought to be done, perhaps only half, as the comparison with the actual cost of damage by air pollution alone—1 and a half per cent of GNP—more than suggests. And to that, say 4 per cent, we must add abatement or cure of other forms of pollution and environmental damage. The other key figure is the 16 billion dollars a year for the economic cost of damage by air pollution to health, capital equipment and crops, excluding, that is to say, the non-economic cost in social and environmental terms. Gross this up at 8 per cent per annum, a reasonable current rate of interest on commercial borrowings, and we get a capital equivalent of 200,000 million dollars. Such a figure has an obvious bearing on the question of financing anti-pollution expenditure by loan, if it is of permanent effect equivalent to a capital operation.

This financial question, however, makes no difference to the fact that, taking the national economy as a whole and ruling out international borrowing, all economic output in any year has to come out of the economic input (production and effort) in that year, whether the output is capital investment, private consumption or public services. There is no financial device for getting the cost of repair or prevention of environmental damage out of anything but the Gross National Product, or getting any increase of that cost out of anything but increment of GNP, or potential economic growth, unless levels of investment, consumption or public services (which of course include “uneconomic” services like defence) are reduced. However, then, we look at the overall problem, we must either be prepared to go on tolerating the environmental ills we bear, or forego much and perhaps all of our potential economic growth in terms of private consumption and business investment.


Note 1. The material here summarised is drawn, with the author’s kind permission, from World Dynamics by Jay W. Forrester, published by Wright-Allen Press, 238 Main Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142.


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