Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, August 19, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 11

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part II. Age of Excess

Chapter 11. The Plastic Dune

As a young engineer in the early 1960s, I was given the responsibility of building one of the first plastics production units in France. The project went off without a hitch and my colleagues and I were proud of getting this polystyrene factory up and running in record time. Designing and commissioning this plant in the nation's southwest was a very satisfying experience for me. I tackled the challenge without thinking about anything beyond the work at hand, like a seamstress sewing a dress, a baker making a pie, or a fisherman reeling in a prize catch. I was a petroleum engineer, after all, and was no more surprised to find plastics on my career path than I would have been to find water in a river.

Twenty years later, I was taking a family vacation in the village of Seignosse in Aquitaine, not far from "my" plant, where there were now many other plastics factories. On our first morning there I took my children to the beach, which was only a few hundred yards from our cottage. It was early and we were the first to brave the chilly offshore breezes. The beach, which I had remembered as an expanse of clean white sand stretching off into the distance, had an odd color that day. As we drew nearer I saw there was a kind of dune across it, about fifteen feet wide and taller than my children, and it ran the entire length of the beach. Closer inspection revealed this "dune" to be a jumble of plastic, which had been dumped into the rivers of Spain and France, carried out to the Atlantic, and then pushed back by the trade winds, always blustery in spring, onto the coast of southwest France.

Bending over this frozen wave, I saw that it contained every type of plastic object on the consumer market: dishes, toys, tools, packaging, bottles - some with hermit-crabs inside - and even a doll. "Look", one of my daughters said, "Her eye is open". I do not remember what I murmured, something vague I am sure, because I was rendered speechless by what I saw. This beautiful fine sand beach had become a dumping ground for plastic.

Soon an enormous truck pulled up with a front-end loader. We were told that it was sent out by the city several times a day to clean up the beach. It scooped up its "treasure" and carried it away to bury it in the beautiful pine forests of the Landes region. Every town along the coast did the same.

The stiff, cold breeze lent harshness to the surroundings. No doubt my children thought that it was the reason for the tears welling up in my eyes. In a state of shock, I took them back to the cottage. I was miserable for the rest of our week in Seignosse. Every morning I went to the beach hoping that the trade winds had not blown that night. But the dismal dike was always there.

The image of Seignosse's "plasticized" beach haunted me. I realized with great bitterness that researchers, engineers, manufacturers, and consumers - nearly all of us, in fact - are marching boldly onward toward the future without once looking back to see how our activities affect the environment. We expect Nature to repair the damage caused by our recklessness, like a child waiting for his mother to bathe him. "How could we be so thoughtless?" I wondered. I would soon find out.

When I returned to work, I shared this unpleasant experience with my colleagues. Contrary to my expectations, they thought it was too bad about the beach but were not otherwise disturbed. They had not seen it for themselves and did not consider the company or ourselves to be particularly responsible. The engineering that goes into building a plastics plant was only one link in a long chain that included petroleum extraction, transport, storage, engineering, refining, chemical processing, manufacturing, marketing, consumption, and waste disposal.

Not reassured by this watering-down of responsibility, I searched for something else to explain our desire to avoid accountability. I had noticed that employees at other companies whose business activities covered several links in this chain were no more eager than we to take the blame for the incidental damage they cause.

But it was not long before I too stopped asking questions and continued, with my colleagues, to do whatever it took to build as many fine plastics plants as possible, in order to propel our company to the top of its field.

I thought a lot about what I had seen on the beach at Seignosse. Even before this unfortunate occurrence, I had known that those who are not fortunate enough to live in a rural environment are not naturally predisposed to love Nature. They need to be taught, either through experience - by living in the country - or by education. But this episode showed me that even more must be done to counter our indifference. Even if the negative impact of our actions is clearly explained to us, we still tend to favor pursuing the human activity over saving the natural environment. I had just seen it with my own eyes. As I would find out later, this syndrome of mass indifference, as I called it, is more or less universal. It was a devastating realization!

Mass indifference, to which none of us seems to be immune, can cause human beings to create or accept totally illogical situations. I witnessed another distressing example, this time from the sidelines, in 1990-91. At that time, Electricite de France (EDF) had designed all the nuclear power plants it planned to build in France and was taking steps to downsize its engineering department. Some of the staff would be transferred to other departments within the company. Understandably, personnel opposed this action. What surprised me, however, were the arguments used. Although France already had more power plants than it needed and the entire engineering staff knew it, employee representatives requested nonetheless that EDF commit to building an additional new power plant each year! It should be pointed out that these were to be nuclear power plants, which produce radioactive waste that we have yet to find a way to store or recycle without risk to life and health! I do not believe their request contained any mention of an end date to this process. In their minds, the building of new plants should continue in perpetuity! This episode convinced me that the syndrome of mass indifference is a force beyond reason and that, as far as the environment is concerned, we must guard against it.

We have been blind to the negative impact of our technological development ever since the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought us out of the Dark Ages but it taught us nothing about attending to the consequences of our actions. Like horses pent up too long in the stable, we came out chomping at the bit, ready to ride the four winds with no thought to where they would take us. And we are running still. Before marketing a new product we rarely, if ever, study its possible impacts, with the exception of medicines. We give little thought to how we affect other life forms. We continue our human development with blinders on, flying from one new project to the next. We urge our companies to develop more, produce more, and consume more energy. With the constant influx of new technologies, our societies generate more waste, placing ever greater pressures on the environment. The egosystems we devise are increasingly complex, and farther and farther removed from Nature.

I have yet to discover why we take such satisfaction in behaving so irresponsibly. With every one of our egosystems chemicals, transportation, medicine, weapons, recreation, and even culture - we push our society to desire and to consume far more than it actually needs. Chemical engineers work hard to build ever more powerful facilities. Aircraft manufacturers take special pride in introducing new advances. Travel agents try to send more vacationers abroad than the year before. Medical researchers yearn to reduce human beings to mathematical equations so they can run hospital equipment on autopilot! Weapons manufacturers would love to see missiles flying across the planet like migrating geese. Cigarette makers would be only too happy to keep customers puffing from beyond the grave. Although competition encourages us to surpass ourselves, commercial imperatives alone cannot explain this relentless urge for more. It is always there, even in the absence of competition, as seen in the above example at EDF.

Not a single sector of society is free of it. Our governments, responsible for keeping our excesses in check, are our only protection against the mass indifference that blinds us to the impact of development. We must urge them to inject greater accountability into human activities. But it is an uphill battle; powerful forces are at work shaping politicians' decisions. The governments of Scandinavia have done the best so far at controlling the mass indifference syndrome without depriving their citizens of the advanced social and economic benefits their countries are known for.

But we cannot rely on governments. Some even adopt policies that actively promote mass indifference. That was the case under communist regimes, which placed little value on the environment and even less on human life, to devastating effect. It is also true of the government that took power in the United States in 2001. Not only does this administration refrain from controlling development to safeguard the well-being of its population and the environment, it is actually working to roll back existing restrictions so that corporations are even freer to do as they please. The members of this administration seem to suffer more from the mass indifference syndrome than the major energy companies for whom they used to work. Declaring that it need answer to no one, far from protecting society from the effects of mass indifference, this government amplifies them many fold.

The implications could not be more serious.

Bill Totten


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