In the midst of the out-of-control Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and early summer of 2010, it became common hyperbole to describe the spill as the “worst environmental disaster in American history.” While undeniably significant, environmental experts chimed in to say that there is no objective way of determining what is the “worst” environmental disaster; ranking environmental problems is a partly subjective exercise. For example, a number of experts assign high rank to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident for opposite reasons: on the one hand, nuclear power opponents point to it as a prime example of the hazards of nuclear power, while supporters of nuclear energy point to it as the cause of shutting down further nuclear power development, which has increased America’s dependence on coal-fired electricity—a net loss for the environment. To their credit, a number of media outlets offered useful perspective on this problem, including Newsweek, Foreign Policy, and the New York Times. The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach captured the flavor of many of the skeptical views thus:
Doesn’t necessarily look to me as though it’s in the same category as the Dust Bowl, the destruction of the Everglades, or the many and various slow-motion environmental disasters involving habitat destruction, monocultural agriculture, toxic wastes, uglification of pastoral landscapes, etc. Some of this stuff has just become the baseline, and so we don't pay much attention to it. It’s our wallpaper, our soundtrack.
With this caveat in mind it is useful to highlight a 2008 report from the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland on The World’s Worst Pollution Problems. The top 10, listed alphabetically (or so the report says—doesn’t “Groundwater” come before “Indoor”?) rather than by a qualitative rank, are:
1. Artisanal Gold Mining.
2. Contaminated Surface Water.
3. Indoor Air Pollution.
4. Industrial Mining Activities.
5. Groundwater Contamination.
6. Metals Smelting and Processing.
7. Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mining.
8. Untreated Sewage.
9. Urban Air Quality.
10. Used Lead Acid Battery Recycling.
Two observations leap from this list and the text of the full report. First, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are conspicuously missing from the list. From the sheer amount of media coverage a casual reader would suppose that climate change is easily the most important global environmental problem. This leads to the second observation: these environmental problems are seldom seen in any significant way in the United States or other wealthy nation, but are overwhelmingly problems of poor and developing nations, once again reinforcing the central point that economic growth and development is the essential pathway to environmental improvement.
The Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross recently updated their 2008 report with a sequel focusing on the world’s 12 most polluted places and highlighting progress in remediating the problems in each area. The authors acknowledge that their selections are partly subjective because there is no systematic survey or agreed-upon methodology for identifying and ranking the “most” polluted sites in the world. That said, the list offered is congruent with the previous list concentrating on the problems of developing nations:
Phasing Out Leaded Gasoline – Global
Disarming and Destroying Chemical Weapons – Global
Reducing Indoor Air Pollution - Accra, Ghana
Managing Mine Tailings to Protect Scarce Water Supply - Candelaria, Chile
Mitigating Nuclear Contamination - Chernobyl Affected Zone, Eastern Europe
Improving Urban Air Quality - Delhi, India
Removing Lead Waste - Haina, Dominican Republic
Preventing Mercury Exposure - Kalimantan, Indonesia
Mitigating Lead Exposures - Rudnaya River Valley, Russia
Disposing of DDT - Old Korogwe, Tanzania
Transforming an Urban Waterway - Shanghai, China
Removing Arsenic - West Bengal, India
The Blacksmith/GreenCross report commented in a manner that reinforces the main point of this Almanac:
In the past 40 years in the United States, Western Europe and similarly industrialized countries, the field of environmental remediation, combined with a renewed focus on environmental health, has nearly ended many of the daily life-threatening issues that many in developing countries face. All across developing countries, environmental legislation, enforcement and even trained engineers in hazardous waste removal are just beginning to emerge.