When we think about pollution, we often think about the trash that we see: litter around our cities or towns, plastic waste clogging drains and waterways, rubber tires dumped in wooded areas just out of view. Yet pollution is much more than the immediate waste that we interact with; it includes the cars that guzzle petroleum gasoline or coal fired plants that dump thousands of tons of carbon into the air each day. Even less in mind, it’s the mine that destroys pristine lands and waters to scavenge for minerals or the industrial farming complex that turns lands and waters into cesspools of waste and disease.
These are just a few examples of the waste that harm our environment and the people living near them. For many people in wealthy countries, like America, this problem is thankfully not one that most people experience on a daily basis. While certainly imperfect, many of us are fortunate to live in areas that aren’t makeshift landfills or polluted wastelands. Most of our streets aren’t filled with litter and our waterways are typically clean enough to be used as drinking water or areas for recreational activities. In the cases that they’re not, there are usually warnings in place and societal demands for action to clean up a tainted site. However, most is not all. There are still large areas and numbers of people that deal with polluted areas and trash on a daily basis, especially in areas that are poor or majority-minority. Society is quick to keep the affluent safe and clean, and provides at least some level of service to the middle class but what about everyone else?
Pollution isn’t just a temporary effect that is destroyed once removed from the immediate area; it’s something that continues to affect people and societies far from the originating space. Oftentimes, those receiving the aftereffects and harm from pollution are communities with the least amount of resources to protect themselves. Let’s take landfills and garbage for example.
In most cases, the polluting items will be taken to areas such as landfills, where they’ll remain in a semblance of storage. Contrary to popular belief, landfills do not break down garbage; they are designed to store waste instead. Once full, the landfill is covered over and a new landfill is created. In other cases, the pollution is exported to different areas of the state, country or even world. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Not quite. What most fail to realize is that trash and pollution convert themselves to become an issue that is displaced. Oftentimes, this takes the form of waste that is moved to different places. These areas are typically poor and considered less valuable, with fewer resources and advocates. In rare situations, this importation might be endorsed by the people in charge, like Georgia’s history of importing coal ash from other states, which removed the dangerous waste from states like North Carolina but left a toxic legacy for people in Georgia to face.
Likewise, pollution can be displaced across time. In situations like landfills, the trash accumulated may become a problem over time, leaving future generations to clean up the mess created. This kind of issue would be a displacement across time, where present generations kick the can of responsibility down to the future. Other examples could include illegal waste disposal, which pollutes an area for years until future members of society finally take it upon themselves to clean the toxic legacy they inherited.
So what’s the solution? It is inevitable that society will continue to produce waste and pollution. Even a radical shift in thinking will not eliminate garbage or waste completely; trash will be a part of humanity for the foreseeable future. And yet that does not mean that we should raise our hands in frustration and continue to live as we have always done. We should all take steps to reduce the polluting impact we have on our environment. There are nearly 8 billion people in the world today. If everyone made a minor change to reduce our pollution impact, we could make enormous changes across our planet.
Who knows, maybe taking steps to reduce litter or our carbon footprint or pollution might save our planet after all?