“Give me neither poverty nor riches.” Those oft-repeated words can be found in the Bible, but the principle has been referenced by many, even Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe. For generations, making money merely for the sake of having more money has been portrayed as a tainted business, to be practiced only by robber barons and the morally corrupt.
At least, that’s what people have said. What they do is a far different matter. The number one reason we haven’t made lasting inroads against air pollution is money. You’d be hard-pressed to find an instance of harm done to the environment or human health by air pollution that wasn’t because someone was trying to make money.
The actual love of money isn’t always the problem. But it’s symptomatic of the underlying problem: selfishness. If you desire money or something else for yourself, and you deliberately obtain it without consideration for others, you’re selfish. There’s no other way to look at it. That selfishness on the part of a relatively small number of people has led to the majority of humans on earth being affected by air pollution.
This is not a new problem, as two examples I’ve come across recently illustrate.
I’m done some reading regarding the Krupp family, who were the primary arms supplier to Prussia and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ignore for a moment the moral debate surrounding the manufacture of weapons, and think about the environmental and human health concerns. Alfred Krupp (1812-1887) oversaw the development of his family’s company from a business that could barely meet payroll to one that employed many thousands of people, and was one of the biggest companies in Europe.
That growth came at a cost. During that time, the city of Essen, where the Krupp works were located, became polluted from Krupp and other factories in the area. Krupp’s own wife refused to live near the factory much of the time because of the pollution. Here’s the kicker: where do you think Alfred Krupp himself lived for much of his life? Inside the factory complex! That’s right, he lived in a house inside the compound, filled with smoke and soot, and with dishes cracked from the pounding of the giant industrial hammers used in the plant.
Why? Because doing what he wanted trumped all other concerns. He wanted a large company to carry on the family name. He wanted more profits. And the environment and human health (even his own) was simply of lesser importance.
Earlier this year, I read David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie. Over a lifetime as an employer, Carnegie demonstrated very little interest in the wages or the health of his employees. His single-minded pursuit of wealth at the expense of others is noteworthy because of the motivation behind it. He literally felt that it was best for great wealth to be concentrated on people like himself, who would act as benefactors for society as a whole. Thus, he used his money for building public libraries, funding teacher’s pensions, and the like. All while working his men near-constantly in dangerous conditions for little pay. He and his executives were merciless in breaking strikes and working against any other form of the employees’ fight for their rights. The Homestead strike and battle resulting in the deaths of 16 people are evidence of this.
It’s ironic that Carnegie was so single-minded in amassing wealth that could be used, in his opinion and at his discretion, for the betterment of society. He was building wonderful public libraries, but left his workers no time to use them. His life highlights an interesting problem in the clash between profits and pollution control: he genuinely felt he was doing the right thing for others. Such a man would be very unlikely to be convinced otherwise. His love of self, what he felt was best, trumped all other concerns.
You could find many other examples. The recent Volkswagen cover-up of emissions output is a more-recent example. The love of self, by a company or an individual, is pitted against the greater good of the environment and human health. This conflict has gone on for hundreds of years now.
I normally end my posts with a call to action, usually aimed at physical actions we can take to improve our impact on the world around us. This time, rather than pointing to something physical you can do, I encourage you to look within yourself. Are you in some way putting your own pleasure, profit, or convenience ahead of the greater good? And does that affect the environment or the health of others negatively? I know in looking at myself, I see ways I can improve. What about you? If we each make even small steps in this area, we can see big changes for the better in our fight for cleaner air.