“Environment” as Bludgeon

Helmut Schoeck

From Die Lust am schlechten Gewissen, Herderbücherei (1973), pp. 150–154.
translated by Ruben Alvarado

For nearly four years, the deterioration in the environment caused by civilization has been the most important stick with which the conscience of the beneficiaries of free economic systems has been beaten. Starting in the USA, environmental policy replaced the social policy goals of the 1960s and soon came to Europe. As is usually the case when politicians and their satellites rush to a new goal in the mass media, distinctions are lost. A few considerations are therefore in order.

It is true that environmental pollution from the metabolic products of a civilization with a democratic distribution principle is undoubtedly disagreeable and threatening in many countries around the world. But there is a danger, in the political exploitation of this evil, that self-indulgence, masochism, and even hypochondria will spread which accord only too well with those minds who today consider themselves to be the vanguard of modernity.

Many today accuse the entire economy, trying to burden it with a “bad conscience” because industrial society increasingly is polluting the environment for people. Critics, however, make it a little too easy for themselves. It would be necessary to conduct an ongoing, precise investigation to distinguish what, how much, and why today’s industrial processes and end phases cause environmental deterioration for the consumer, and to what extent the same or different industrial processes also bring about an environmental improvement at the same time. For example, Vance Packard, Galbraith et al. denounce the disposability of today’s consumer society. But if we observe an important contribution to the maintenance of health, to the hygiene of the human environment, in keeping our environment free from germs, the throwaway civilization takes on a different guise.

Anyone who pokes around even a little in the cultural history of mankind will soon notice that cleanliness and natural freshness was not by any means as well arranged as one thinks today. People lived in very densely populated areas centuries and millennia ago. In most cases, the problem of waste disposal was not solved. Some of the most glamorous epochs of previous civilizations and their capitals were stinking sewers, even for the aristocracy.

A major source of environmental pollution today is the amount of chemical compounds in the air that is left over from a combustion process, such as carbon monoxide, tar particles and others. Compared to the air in unpopulated and untraveled areas, city air today is very unpleasant. Of course, no technical possibility should remain untried that promises extensive detoxification of the air we breathe. It is also quite conceivable that some habits and conveniences will have to be given up for the sake of environmental hygiene. It may then be that non-smokers should then finally demand the basic right to be able to practice any profession without being obliged to sit in the tobacco smoke of others.

For example, it should be guaranteed by law. without the risk of a reduction in personal professional opportunities at any time, for a non-smoker who is obliged to participate in a meeting to be able to request that there be no smoking. That should apply to meetings in the public as well as in the private sector. As long as this is considered utopia or unreasonable for smokers, it is pure hypocrisy if one wants to legislatively force the abandonment of private automobiles in favor of public transport for the sake of air purity. Even so, this is already being seriously considered in various countries, often enough probably by politicians who do not care at all about blowing cigar smoke into the eyes of their non-smoking employees in marathon sessions, the harmfulness of which extends far beyond city air.

The greater difficulties in reducing environmental pollution, at least in the atmosphere, no longer lie with industrial plants, which in many cases already have and at any rate can render their exhaust gases and waste products largely harmless. The main risk for increasing contamination or poisoning is the consumption habits of individual consumers. Presumably, however, the current criticism of environmental deterioration is much more about aesthetic aspects, about palatability, about subjective impressions of what is fresh and healthy, far less about really demonstrable and measurable biological damage to the human organism. A simple consideration leads to this assumption.

Ever since people began making use of fire, i.e., for about half a million years until the 20th century, all people in the colder parts of the world have been warming themselves all their lives by fireplaces which leave far more harmful combustion products in the air they breathe than we can currently expect in large cities in unfavorable traffic and weather situations. Notwithstanding this intake of harmful exhaust gases and suspended matter, an improvement, an increase, a general physical and mental upward development of the human race has taken place over these millennia. A scientist could work out how many harmful combustion products a person has ingested in the course of his life who has had to live his life in heated caves, tents, primitive log houses, even in stone houses with open chimneys. There are also primitive peoples for whom such measurements can be carried out. Compared to previous heating methods in people’s accommodations, the resident of today’s industrial society is very likely to breathe a much safer air in his home. This is probably why he can withstand some chemical pollution much better in road traffic, apart from individual cases, than is commonly assumed.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Gunnar Myrdal rightly mentioned in his speech in the Paulskirche the dangers of environmental pollution and fashionable drug use in the same breath. We should take this to heart and not cease responding to our reform politicians again and again: Your worries, your zeal for legislation in matters of environmental protection lack credibility if you lack the courage to take effective measures against the drug epidemic, simply because they could easily mean interventions that go almost as far as those that consistent environmental cleansing would require. If one observes the irritability, the viciousness with which some publicists in our mass media react to anyone who raises the alarm about the drug fashion, their one-sidedness in the fight against “consumer idiocy” becomes evident. In this century in the western world, in the industrialized nations, there certainly has been not a single consumption habit that would deserve the name “consumer idiocy” as unreservedly as the drug and hallucinogen use of the last ten years.

This is also worth considering: drug consumption expanded in a manner that no expert even suspected ten years ago, without being promoted in the slightest by any industrial or retail advertising. Dangerously large parts of the youth population in particular can be harmed by a consumption habit that was in no way created by any process in the legitimate economy.

It will be interesting to observe the extent to which our legislators, in accordance with their diligence in environmental protection, also decide to protect the inner world of young people when this collides with experiments in emancipation by left-wing intellectuals.