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By the Pond

Signs are, we’ve just begun polluting


As Toxic Century II draws to a close, here is a cursory reckoning and a look to new forms of pollution.

Toxic Century I (the 19th century) specialized in openly poisonous and dangerous manufacturing and chemical plants. Toxic Century II brought poisons more elusive and stealthy. But first, two Toxic Century I stories.

In the fourth quarter of the 19th century, my friend Ron Leathwood’s grandfather worked in a soda ash factory. Soda ash is an extremely strong alkali.

When we were lads, Ron would tell me about the caustic burns to the grandfather’s hands and body -- there was no protective clothing at the “chemic.”

The burns all over the grandfather’s palms and fingers and back of his hands and arms created irremovable wart-like fusions of skin and alkali so hard, so abrasive and coarse, a slap from his hand could take paint off a door or the flesh off a man’s face.

It meant, the granddad told Ron, that for years he was never able to hold his naked wife in his naked arms and caress her when they made love.

My college in England was a 19th century foundation and produced a hell-raising magazine, Young Oxford. The magazine frequently featured stories about the results of industrial abuses, such as insanity or physical deformity (with photographs) caused by the lead poisoning common in Britain’s prestigious ceramics industry.

A new glaze

It was late in the chase, of course, for throughout the 19th century, pottery millionaires in all industrialized countries poisoned thousands before “leadless glaze” became the norm. Because the new glaze was forced upon them.

In Toxic Century II nothing changed, except appearances. You doubt it? Consider the recklessness today surrounding highly toxic nuclear waste, industrial garbage and fossil fuel emissions. We are not done reckoning the human costs of the poisons seeping out from mothballed generators, leaching out from landfills, pumped out of our electricity generators and automobile exhaust pipes.

Not done reckoning? We’re scarcely started. We’ll need evidence as stark as photographs of the deformed leaded-glaze workers. We’re innocent because no one in the big media -- that shows us everything else -- displays the big picture, the terrible assemblage of 20th-century poisons and their effects. There are just brave little guys showing us bits of it.

The multitude of casual and careless ways of poisoning ourselves are increasing. Those who might delay, deter or reverse things -- the political and corporate leaders -- while posturing as ethically motivated are seriously challenged ethically. Every human and environmental gain seems erased by some new loss, perhaps at a two-losses-to-one-gain ratio.

Fifteen months ago I stood by my small pond on Indian Run Stream in very urban Virginia, just 11 miles from the White House, and said I’d use it as a metaphor for what was happening to the environment.

On all fronts, pond conditions have worsened. The nearby interstate truck traffic is heavier; silt, runoff and spoilage did occur as 300-plus houses went up to the south. It was dealt with only when residents challenged the builders. The trash flow into the pond from up-creek -- plastic-bottle garbage -- increases.

And the ducks seem to have abandoned the site.

Mind pollution

The weight of pollution and degradation pressing in on the pond can be extrapolated back to the weight pressing on the globe. My additional concern, though, is with the newer forms of pollution pressing in on the individual.

These will be the curses of Toxic Century III.

To overstate the case -- Toxic Century I poisoned or damaged the physical, degraded the earth, battered the human body. Toxic Century II additionally poisoned the systems, the bio-systems, the food chains, the human reproductive, nervous and immune systems.

Toxic Century III adds poison and damage to the mind. We are already poisoning the capacity for clear thought, for understanding silence, for truly accepting that humans and the physical world have an innate value distinct from commercial value.

Toxic Century III poisons emanate from the same sources that filled the toxic landfills and ruined grandfather Leathwood’s hands: greed, need and ignorance. Mainly greed masquerading as progress while greed’s agents promote the idea that wealth of itself is a value.

Those moving into the next century are already having their minds and emotions and capacity to reason polluted by the new effluents of materialism.

There’s actual noise -- the constant decibel pollution. The inability to escape the foreground and background invasions of constant decibel pollution from televisions (in airports, on planes, in physician’s offices and auto service waiting rooms). There’s random musical notes (in stores and elevators and from the car alongside at the stoplight) competing with the traffic noise and ever-louder machinery. Refrigerator noise, dishwasher noise, stereo noise -- levels of noise to drown out other noises, like deodorants to smother foul smells oversprayed with perfumes to drown the deodorants. Deliberate noise, pumped in through earphones and speakers as we work, play, jog, watch, walk -- for we mistakenly believe that input has a higher value than no-put.

There is the other noise, information “noise” -- the proliferation of bits of information being pumped into the brain constantly, information minus the tools or the education to measure its worth or utility. This is one with the poisonous belief that “busy” is an end in itself. “Busy” erodes the concept that doing nothing for a while is not just healthy but life enhancing.

The eye is being poisoned by constant unnecessary light. Green lights, red lights and blinding white lights. From machines, computers, signals. There is no dark room. Dark street. Dark field. For most people in this country there is no night, for there is no wholesome blackness.

The ingestion of these poisons and those affecting other senses and tastes is accelerating.

Perceptions, most particularly of innate worth, are being masked by hanging prices and identity labels onto everything we are, we do, we wear. What a human is has become so overgrown with materialistic moss and ivy, we see everything about people but the person.

This is materialism as heroin. This is mainlining materialism -- materialism injected directly into the thought processes so the mind cannot distinguish amid the clutter. What we have done to our external and internal physical environments in the past two centuries we will do next, in Toxic Century III, to our minds.

We’ve jammed the highways and slowed down the traffic to second gear when once we drove at 65. We’ve filled in the open spaces of the cities, states and plains, so escape to tranquillity is harder. There are fewer and fewer places to rest.

Next we’ll clog the highways of our -- and the children’s -- thought processes, gridlock them with meaningless information, fill in the open spaces of the brain with garbage noise entering through the ears, eyes and senses so the mind has nowhere to rest.

Poisons separate us

We accomplish this in a million isolated acts devoid of any sense of individual or common good. The poisons separate us further, destroy our intimacies with one another as surely as the caustic burns seriously damaged the togetherness of Grandfather and Grandmother Leathwood.

The poisons are destroying our intimacy even with ourselves. We are never, now, alone. Some thing, some noise, is always corroding the tranquillity, the image, the moment. The senses are never not invaded by alien -- as opposed to soothing -- sound.

In the century ahead, we are to be poisoned by pollutants we cannot neutralize because we cannot adequately identify them or their scope.

It is the sheer magnitude of the assault that is the major threat. We cannot picture it. We cannot depict the ever-present no-escapedness of the surrounding poisons. The arena in which this is played out -- the entire world -- is a setting so huge we cannot create a screen large enough to film it and show it to ourselves.

And because our brains will be so clogged, gridlocked, poisoned with noise garbage, we may not be able to reason it out.

That will make Toxic Century III worse than the others.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999