How Pollution and Toxic Waste harm development

Western models of development are built around high levels of production and consumption to increase economic growth, and all other things being equal, the more we produce and consume, the more pollution and waste we produce.

According to the World Health Organisation, Air Pollution kills 7 million people a year, most of whom live in developing countries.

This recent report outlines the 15 most polluted cities in the world, 10 of which are in India, which reflects the extent to which India’s recent development has been dependent on the largely unregulated use of fossil fuels (coal and oil) in recent decades.

There are some regions of earth where pollution is particularly intense, and these tend to be areas of resource extraction or industrial manufacture in countries with lax environmental legislation.

One well-known historical example of this is Shell’s oil extraction operations in the Niger Delta – where huge amounts of oil have leaked into local water ways, destroying local economies and ‘gas flaring’ is used to burn off excess gas generated during the oil extracting process. You can explore this more in this video: Poison Fire.

There are also certain regions of China which are very polluted, and this is something Anna Lora-Wainwright (2018) explored in her recent ethnographic study – Resigned Activism – Living with Pollution in Rural China.

NB – this isn’t ‘ordinary pollution’ she’s looking at – she studied three villages in total, all of which are coping with the effects of large-scale industrial pollution because of the heavy manufacturing or waste disposal that occurs in those areas. All of these villages have well over the national average of cancer deaths reported, and it’s obvious the pollution is the problem

One village was dealing with phosphorus pollution, another Zinc and Lead pollution and the third the pollution from electronic waste. The later village has global notoriety – Guiyu is well known as the world’s largest e waste site.

Lora-Wainwright focused on how people responded when they knew they were being subjected to a significant cancer risk from pollution – how they organised and protested, but also how they just coped on a day to day basis -living with things such as polluted water that’s going to give you cancer if you drink it.

She also focused on how this all ties in with the wider Chinese government’s industrialization agenda and the fact that the government would rather keep reports about such pollution quiet.

The book is currently under revision, but you can listen to a podcast which summarises the findings here.

It is not just industrial production processes that cause environmental problems, it’s also people’s increasing levels of consumption and the amount of domestic waste generated….

One country which faces a real challenge with pollution from domestic waste is Indonesia, a densely populated country where residents have developed the habit of throwing their rubbish in the river, resulting in one of Indonesia’s river’s: The Citarum being dubbed ‘the dirtiest river in the world’, explored in this 2020 DW Documentary.

Discussion Question: do you think industrial capitalist models of development can ever be sustainable? 

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