Climate Primer #4: The Third Planetary Boundary – Toxic Substances

So far, this series has pointed to climate crisis as the defining issue of the 21st century and established the urgent need for a global Green New Deal, or something like it; explored, briefly, the role of greenhouse gases in driving global heating, the chief signal of the climate crisis; but then expanded our understanding of the intersecting global climate and ecological crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) to encompass a number of key planetary boundaries beyond heating, before beginning to examine, in turn, the nine key boundaries as outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Center. In recent days, posts have touched on the threats of stratospheric ozone depletion and loss of biodiversity. Today, let’s consider environmental contamination by toxic substances or, as the SRC puts it, “Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities.”

Like global warming and climate change, “novel entities” almost sounds nice. Unfortunately, this term refers to “toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials.” To quote in full the SRC’s description:

Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate). Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution is at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals. There are many examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds, but these are still poorly understood scientifically. At present, we are unable to quantify a single chemical pollution boundary, although the risk of crossing Earth system thresholds is considered sufficiently well-defined for it to be included in the list as a priority for precautionary action and for further research.

To put it in plain speech, the SRC hasn’t been able to identify “a single chemical pollution boundary” owing to the wide variety of toxic substances being released by human activity, but it is clear that the combined effects of all human-related contamination of the biosphere (that is, the Earth) pose an existential threat to life on the planet. Obviously, at a certain level, this has been well understood at least since the middle of the 20th century as the development and testing of atomic weapons, and US employment of the same against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced a public reckoning with the staggering destructive power of these weapons and the long-lasting consequences of radioactive contamination. Mid-century concern about nuclear winter reflected a clear public consciousness of human capacity to destroy most life on Earth, and the transformation of thinking about environmental issues/ecology in the US brought on by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring dovetailed with the concern about nuclear fallout and the harm caused to living things by radioactivity.

Today, as we confront, in the US, the challenges of legacy industrial pollution (like the PCBs in all of New York Cities major waterways); ongoing industrial and vehicular pollution; the massive spike in environmental contamination driven by the nationwide fracking boom (contamination which will not instantaneously disappear now that the industry is imploding); and the obvious, hidden reality that many common substances, such as the glyphosate in Monstanto’s (now Bayer’s) RoundUp and the ubiquitous PFAS substances produced by companies like 3M, are in fact endocrine-disrupters, carcinogenic, etc. – all of this, against a backdrop of rampant deregulation – at the same time that dynamics of the global economy (read: neoliberalism) have, in the past 50 years, driven an increasing fraction of the most polluting industries to countries of the Global South (where regulations are often more lax, wages lower, worker protections weaker, and communities’ abilities to resist more limited), it’s important to recognize that the crisis of global heating could be “solved” tomorrow (say, by an asteroid strike, the dust from which plunged the Earth into a mini-ice age) and – the further consequences of the asteroid strike and dust blanket aside – there would still be a planetary ecological crisis that would threaten the future of organized human life on Earth.

In future posts, I’ll explore the challenges that such consciousness/thinking poses for a “Green Transition,” given that both wind and solar power, battery storage technologies, and frankly, almost all technologies potentially involved in such a transition depend, to some extent, on extractive industry, and very frequently on the use of toxic substances. For now, I’ll end by recommending, again – to those with time and appetite for reading – William T. Vollmann’s chilling, funny examination of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, No Immediate DangerIf HBO’s Chernobyl has led to renewed attention in this country to the risk of nuclear meltdowns (while also instilling a false sense of security that only Soviet incompetence and corruption led to the disaster in present-day Ukraine), residents of the US would do well to remember how close the United States came to having its own Level 7 meltdown (Three Mile Island ended up being Level 5), and that we are only one natural disaster (see: Turkey Point near Miami) or episode of negligence or bad luck away from the same.

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