Monbiot’s Mistake- Pollution Kills, Fer Sure, But Creating Pollution Has Benefits


George Monbiot makes the standard mistake in his insistence that as pollution kills people therefore we should have no pollution. This is not so, pollution kills people it most certainly does but the creation of pollution has benefits as well – like not killing people by being able to make or move something. Thus we do not need, not even desire, to have no pollution, we require the optimal amount. Even if we stick with the idea of killing people only that means that we want as much pollution as saves lives and as little as kills people – the optimal amount being where the lives saved equal those taken.

Note that this isn’t a right wing, nor market, not neoliberal, point. It’s just a simple observation about the world:

Toxic fumes threaten our children. We have to take on the pollution lobby
George Monbiot

Toxic fumes most definitely threaten. But then so would no food from having no tractors, no food from having no food delivery system. How many are saved by industrial society driven by fossil fuels and how many are lost to that same system?

Pollution is off the agenda. Why? I think there may be three reasons. The first is that there is no heroic narrative built around tackling air pollution, while there are plenty (Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, John Snow) surrounding the fight against infection. The second is that the necessary interventions are not discrete but systemic. Rather than distributing mosquito nets or reducing the salt in processed food, you must change entire transport and industrial systems. The third is that, while no one has a commercial interest in spreading tuberculosis or polio, there is a massive global lobby, comprised of fossil fuel, motor and infrastructure companies, blocking effective action against pollution and the technologies that cause it. If you take on pollution, you take on the combined might of some of the world’s most powerful industries. Pollution is the tangible manifestation of corruption.

Pollution is the tangible manifestation of people doing things. And people like doing things. Even more, people like things having been done. So they get to eat, clothe and house themselves, can be taken to hospital in an ambulance and all these good things.

And no, we can’t just wave our hands and say but trains, electric cars. They have their own pollutant outputs. We are just changing how we calculate that optimal level of pollution by invoking them, not altering the basic and underlying point. There’s always going to be pollution the only interesting question is how much of it? What do we have to balance as benefits against those costs that is?