Pollution and Consciousness
                              by D. Ohmans
                         SF State College, 1972

     THERE IS IN the literature of ecology a concept called "eutrophication"
(WM&C, p.42). Eutrophication is the aging process of a lake, by which the
accumulation of nitrogenous nutrients gives rise to a choking overgrowth of,
say, blue-green leafy matter. Now, if we can feel our way into the corners of
the lake's plight, cannot we endow the lake with an inchoate soul, and hence
see Nature not as a system of systems but as a bland system of souls? Thus,
pollution would be a forceful violation of consciousness as much as any other.

     One thinks of pollution as an eyesore. But it is much more pernicious. The
water in the stream flowing past the wooden crate and rusted automobile may be
safer to drink than the perfectly clear river waters nearby (WM&C, p.47).
That is, infinitesimal quantities of industrial poisons may kill the fish who
breathes them, though they have no effect on the structure of the river where
this happens. Radioactivity is this principle carried to its logical extreme.
The threat we face is of our life systems becoming too lethargic and sluggish to
compete and interact for survival. In short, the threat is of an unchanged
lifeless world.

     Already there is a call to set aside portions of the world for future
studies of how an undisturbed ecological balance operates (WM&C, p.72). This
is implicit acknowledgement that, suddenly, Nature has become a sub-system of
man after an eternity of the reverse. Eventually the "natural" will be a concept
on an equal footing with the human, the mechanical, the dynamic, the prudent,
and so on and not a standard for judgement. Ecological thought deals with the
natural as being the highly diversified condition (WM&C, p.72), thereby
making it a category that can be consciously re-asserted in a system and not
merely prayed for.

     When Aerojet-General and the state of California made a study of systems of
solid-waste disposal, they were at first overwhelmed by the complexity of a
problem with so many variables. One of the simplifying assumptions that they
therefore made was that "citizens would be unwilling to pay more than twice the
projected cost of the present system to the year 2000" (Stimson, p.10). This
parameter caused them to set aside many worthy, albeit expensive, alternative
systems. To the extent that ecology is a priority over other social goals, their
decision represents an unconscious collusion between taxpayers and their
executors against the interest of both. Again, a common sense notion of the
meaning of money kept a utopian project from realization.

     Yet alternatives to the cost-benefit analysis in ecology are also
problematic. The hedonistic calculus might subsume the different models which
are alternatives to cost-benefit analysis. Its basic unworkability regarding
ecology is that different objectives are definable in different terms. Water for
swimming requires different standards of cleanliness than water for industrial
use. The pleasure of health is set against the pleasure of smoking. Long-term
methods may at first be less gratifying than short-term methods.

     To say that resources are finite is to say that each of the components of
the system is finite. Thus, in a systems approach, neither land nor air nor
water can endlessly absorb wastes from the other areas. It is the same as with
individual psychology: the man who seeks complete gratification is one-
dimensional. Rather, the undesirable aspects of our internal and external
environments must be minimized, to be sure, but mainly re-organized and re-
distributed according to our values.

     Urbanization occurs because humans benefit from each other's overflow of
talent. The negative side of this is that we suffer from inequality; as applied
to waste management, excessive spaciousness for some is purchased at the price
of overcrowding for others. The phenomena of society and Nature are said to be
ourselves, historically refracted into myriad forms. So the presence of
unsightly plastic is more than litter; it indicates a crisis by which Nature
faces extinction, and our mediations threaten to become painful to

     There are problems other than pollution, such as nourishment of all kinds,
that make the goal of zero pollution unattainable (a study reprinted by the
Sunset Scavenger Co. argues that only a third of solid wastes are recyclable;
although their analysis assumes present-day packaging and consumption habits,
and their standard for "recyclable" is "marketable"). The "right amount" of
pollution is therefore determined by relative values. However, if, as seems
probable, a clean environment facilitates heightened consciousness, we must
admit that the level of pollution we opt for is one determinant of the amount
of repression we undergo. In other words, consciousness shrinks down to a
dimension where pollution is tolerable.

     A further philosophical argument for minimizing our residues is that
garbage is chaotic and amorphous. Man's life projects, perhaps even his sense of
time, are anti-entropic. Thus one could say that the ratio of materials used to
materials discarded is correlated to the rate of historical progress.

     Pollution of water, of the land, and of air can all reach and affect our
organisms. But pollution of the air may seem least avoidable and the most
related to consciousness, through the mechanism of breathing. Surprisingly,
incineration of refuse accounts for only 2.6 percent of all air pollution over
the United States. The transportation system is to blame for most (59.9 percent)
of the total. Now 52 percent of these pollutants are carbon monoxide (WM&C,
p.11), a poisonous gas. Consciousness is often sensitive to influences too
"dilute" to affect our bodily conditions. So in smog flighted areas where many
people experience physical bad effects, the effect upon consciousness (geistige
Gesundheit) is probably equally negative and more general.

     All this, and yet the first graduate course in the U.S. in the field of
solid-waste engineering was not until 1964 (WM&C, p.21). Just as the
university does not teach students to cook because it is too domestic, it avoids
these other areas that, before naïve idealism was sublimated as ecology,
were unattractive or vaguely embarrassing. Perhaps we can expect more in the
future as the imaginative project merges with the technological.

     Pollution is not an absolute. Instead, it can be defined as a "resource out
of place"(WM&C, p.35). I have tried to show that man exists in alienation by
virtue of this pollution. Unfortunately, because of the low status of the
problem, the decision-makers against it tend to be mediocre, defensive, and
anti-intellectual. Are not then we "out of place"?

     A first expedient would be to incorporate principles of ecology into
everyday instruction. Even children could be taught that "residues should be
concentrated, not dispersed (WM&C, p.6), and be given the reason that wastes
might be mined and used in the future. At a theoretical level, the problem
becomes that of a "double-maximization" (WM&C, p.60). Chess instruction
would impart a consciousness of the opposite's point of view. But to the extent
that ecology becomes requisite to survival, it will lose its smile, and every
discipline will have to reshape its ideas around its imperatives.

                         Utopian Technology

     Academic work, because of its elitist historical roots, has tended away
from noxious areas of study. And even where much research has been done, the
literature in every field contains complaints that the previous work is
maldistributed for present purposes. This is inevitable, because purposes
change and because the academic project is not centrally co-ordinated. Yet,
especially for professionals more meticulous than most workmen, the
lopsidedness of accumulated research, entailing waste in some areas and
emptiness in others, is a generating source of the unhappy consciousness.
Perhaps the meaning of this situation, in which thousands of new dissertations
leave priority problems untouched, is that a time of utopianism and imagination
is ready to begin, where creative scholarship for the first time can couple
itself with technology without loss.

     One could say that with abundance, applied technology becomes a less
barren field for deep thinkers, or at least that modern problems demand the
best combined efforts available. For example, an Aerojet-General/ State of
California study in effect defined the "enemy of the people." They singled out:
1) flies, 2) water pollution, 3) air pollution, 4) rodents, 5) human disease,
6) animal disease, 7) insects other than flies, 8) safety hazards, 9) odor,
10) plant disease, 11) land pollution, 12) unsightliness, and 13) toxicity
(Stimson, p.7). Now, it seems to me that these are valid concerns for everyone
with comprehensive ideas, and for the first time there are beginning to be huge
sums of money channelled toward those dealing with them. Yet the ecology field
is still dominated by mediocre minds. For instance consider this sentence from
the National Academy of Sciences report: "The manufacturing industry relates
mainly to water, as far a pollution is concerned" (WM&C, p.58). And when I
interviewed Mr. Leonard Stefanelli, President of Sunset Scavenger Co., I was
impressed by his defensiveness and anti-intellectualism. His attitude toward the
Fresno study was that the problem of keep the garbage moving was not a topic for
"theoreticians." Only those who began "on the truck" had expertise. There were
no plans for the future, except for more of the same until Mountain View was
surfeited with landfill, and then.... He regarded his monopoly as a domain where
advice from government authorities and professors had no place. Why was I doing
my study, anyway? (3-28-72)

     The best answer I had was that I agreed with the view that piecemeal
ecology was ineffectual, but thought that technology might solve. Unfortunately,
the technology at Sunset Scavenger, though expensive, is primitive: San
Francisco's garbages are dumped from trucks into a pit, from which they are
bulldozed onto bigger trucks, and dumped, as is, by the Bay in Mountain View.

     However, alternative solutions are not self-evident. In the next section I
will discuss five models which often overlap, intersect, and conflict.

                         Disposal-Dispersal Models

     We can speak of the systems model. Every model is a system, but a
systems model attempts to include a range of variables that is in some sense
"complete." For example, the human body is a systems model of human anatomy, and
indeed its digestive system might suggest ideas about how to separate and
concentrate residues. Another systems model for waste management might begin
with social and individual "priorities" and offer "rules" for limits on action.
Or, the central idea of a systems model could be "the loop from resource to user
and reuse as a resource" (WM&C, p.26).

     The Fresno solid waste study was an example of the systems model. There
appeared a problem which is characteristic of all systems analysis. The systems
model is built up as a network from a number of individual judgements; the
problem to be solved, be it disease, disposal of wastes, or scarcity of
resources, appears as a symptom of the malfunctioning system. The systems model
is to show how to re-adjust the system. However, as the systems model is
elaborated, it loses its precision and meaning as a function of the distance
conclusions are carried from the original human judgements. Small errors at
first are extrapolated and multiplied together, and irrational elements soon
creep in. Thus, we are led to believe that in ecology, which tries to deal with
very complicated phenomena, it may be the "symptoms" which should be
"repressed." Perhaps the system to interpret our actions already exists, as

     Second there is the socialist model. This model is intrinsic to
ecology, which assumes that "there are no 'consumers' - only 'users'" (WM&C,
p.5). It sees man as a participant in society with responsibilities toward
society. Thus, socialist pollution legislation would tend toward prevention of
wasteful processes instead of abatement of pollution after it occurs. Similarly,
socialist instruction would transmit the notion of society not as a separate
agency to clean up after us, but as ourselves, not to be violated. A massive
turnabout of consciousness would occur: the shift to prevention would move the
social time frame to the other side of events.

     Another aspect of the socialist model is the economic, a broadened category
if "costs" as well as benefits. As it is, the availability of money for useful
human projects is determined by the interest rate. According to the socialist
model the relationship is reversed: money is made subordinate to social
priorities that are selected by planners. The question of costs becomes
normative rather than objective or even competitive. For the interest rate, the
pre-modern simplification of cost-benefit analysis, the socialist model
substitutes an emphasis on social needs. It is in this sense that it is

     A third model is the political model. This refers to the problems of
administering the transition from resource exploitation to an ecological system.
For instance, as in the Bay Area, there is the necessary reconciling of
geographical and political boundaries for regional schemes. Another dimension
of the political model is that experts from different authorities--government,
corporations, univesities--need methods of harmonizing their interests in order
to work together. Thus the political model is by nature interdisciplinary.

     A political model must choose the unit of analysis whose size matches the
limits of the pollution problem and the technology available for solving it.
Sometimes this parameter is not geographically determined. For example, we read
that "A metropolitan area is an economic unit with internal linkages which are
stronger than many of the natural divisions found in the landscape" (WM&C,
p.56). To the extent that this is true for a given area, it may be expedient to
organize the waste management systems along like lines. The political model,
then, should offer criteria for finding the mode of human organization which
minimizes waste within the financial limits seen fully extended.

     Sometimes the political problems may seem remote from ecology, but they
are at its core. When the state of California contracted with Aerojet-General
for its public health officials to work with their engineers (on the "California
Integrated Solid Wastes Management Project: A Systems Study of Solid Wastes
Management in the Fresno Area", 1966-68), it was thought that the findings on
the "best" system would be enthusiastically adopted. Yet in Fresno, only a
fragment of the report was applied to practice. And in San Francisco, the work
of the "theoreticians with their slide rules" was, as mentioned, ignored. This
might have been because San Francisco is one of the only cities to give over its
garbage industry to private concerns. In any event, the task which the political
model should map is to make the link between such studies and social practice.

     As a minimum, the political model would identify the sources of socially
unacceptable pollution and the potential points of power for its regulation.
Then it would show the agencies by which the latter could be set in motion
against the former.

     The political model is to enable the technical model to be put into
effect. Much technical knowledge relevant to ecology remains unpublished or
uncirculated. There are two main technical points which ought to be made here.
It is unfortunately true that the combined effect of contaminants may be
different from their individual effects (WM&C, p.18). Even if something is
known about the laboratory effects of a chemical, it is an open question what
will happen when it is released into the environment. The practical meaning of
the phenomenon of interacting pollutants is that pollution problems cannot
always to solved in advance, in the abstract, but require a creative technology
that is ad hoc as well as planned.

     Secondly, ecolological reasoning cannot always be from the pollution
effects to their causes, not only because of intermediary reactions, but because
different causes can yield the same pollution effect. As an instance of this, we
know that increased combustion will cause the carbon dioxide level in the
atmosphere to rise. It is also the case that the CO2 level will
increase as a function of atmospheric turbidity (WM&C, p.52). Similarly, a
change in the quantity of domestic refuse could indicate either increased
consumption or more wasteful packaging, or hopefully their opposites.

     Thus there are two sides to the technical model: pollutants in combination
have surprising effects, and a given bad effect in the environment can have a
number of causes.

     The fifth model is the natural model, a category both of man's
failings and his grace. Despite all technology, the major means of waste
disposal has always been the same: use of natural systems. These are perhaps of
infinite complexity but finite capacity. The danger is that we will destroy
(oversimplify) natural systems, such as rivers, by overloading them or by
improperly interfering in their workings. The transition from ecology to
barrenness can be quite sudden and permanent, as when a river bed is too deeply
dredged. There is a certain blindness to common sense, as when men dump their
wastes into bodies of water without distinction as to whether or not there are
currents. The systems model is our closest approximation to the natural model,
and can serve as Nature's insulation from excessive human needs.

     Some components of the natural model are of mighty capacity, like the seas
[sic], and it is to these that society's pollution should be directed. Atomic
energy could purify garbage; volcanoes could receive it. Other components are
fragile. Though Darwin's social principle is ruthless enough, it sustains in
the natural system a very delicate diversity. The meaning of pollution therein
may be not the direct killing of organisms, but instead the deprival of their
ability to compete. It will be ironic if men are overtaken by their computers,
who don't mind pollution.


Interview with Mr. Leonard Stefanelli, President, Sunset Scavenger Co.; 28
     March, 1972.

David H. Stimson and Irwin Price, "An Evaluation of the Use of Systems Analysis
     to Solve a Waste Management Problem", Joint National Meeting of the
     American Astronautical society and the Operations Reserach Society, Denver,

Waste Management and Control, National Academy of
     Sciences - National Research Council, Publication 1400, Washington, D.C.