2009-09-17 / Sam Bari

Where did all the factories go?

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

When I was a boy, I remember traveling across the country by car and seeing crowded cities with noisy factories working around the clock to supply the country with needed goods. The nation was rebuilding after the destructive world war that affected lives around the globe.

When the country was at the height of the industrial era, terms like “acid rain,” “smog” and “ground water pollution” were introduced to our daily vocabulary, and they became matters of concern. Air pollution indexes were posted in newspapers, and broadcast on radio and television on a daily basis.

Factories, refineries, mines, tanneries, chemical companies and a host of other manufacturers were polluting the nation’s air, rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries and the land itself. Notable rises in respiratory diseases and cancers were cause for alarm.

Pollution became such a problem that the politicos used environmental issues as platforms to launch lucrative careers. They promised demanding constituents solutions they were incapable of delivering.

Attempting to appease the masses, local, state and federal legislators passed ordinances restricting activities like burning trash and improper disposal of harmful chemicals. Laws also forced automobile manufacturers to install emission control devices on vehicles.

I always thought those laws were strange because the manufacturing of the devices caused more pollution than the vehicles they were made to suppress. They also caused cars to burn more fuel. And, surprise…local governments could charge inspection fees to employ more people and add to the taxpayer burden.

Then the government leaned on the agricultural sector and made farmers stop using pesticides, which was a good thing. However, little was done about the manufacturers who were the culprits responsible for the majority of the dumping of toxic waste and fumes into the ecosystem. The government occasionally imposed fines, but the manufacturers paid them, raised the prices on their products and continued business as usual.

The politicians continued to insist that closing factories and forcing compliance with stricter antipollution legislation would cause massive inflation and job loss that would ultimately destroy our economy. Then, somewhere around the late 1970s and early 1980s, factories started closing. The pall of smog over big cities lessened, and air pollution indexes saw more days of acceptable levels.

Recently, I traveled through New England and the Midwest and didn’t see smoke stacks belching polluted air into the atmosphere. Downtown areas of cities like Providence, Boston, New York, Saint Louis and Chicago were filled with empty shells of factories that are remnants of a bygone era. Many were converted into offi ce buildings or fashionable lofts for urban dwellers.

The country quietly cleaned up its act. Last year, the United States was 39th – behind Ecuador and Albania – in a ranking of 149 countries based on indicators of pollution control and natural resource management by the World Economic Forum.

Compiled every two years since 2002 by the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the 2008 Environmental Performance Index is based on 25 indicators.

These indicators are grouped into six categories: environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources and climate change.

“In Europe, people are shocked that the U.S. ranks as high as 39th, because all they hear about are our poor results on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Professor Dan Esty, who directs the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Within the U.S., people are shocked to hear that we rank as low as 39th because everyone assumes we are the world’s environmental leaders.”

He went on to say, “The U.S., however, continues to have a bottom-tier performance in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Nonetheless, fish are returning to our lakes and streams. Threatened wildlife is on the rebound, and most of the country can drink their well water without fear of contracting unspeakable diseases.

Should we give ourselves a good healthy pat on the back for surviving this drastic change in the country’s big guy on the block lifestyle?

I don’t think so.

We are still the world’s largest consumer, and our consumption of goods did not skip a beat when we put a halt to our manufacturing practices.

We did not stop polluting. We just moved the factories to other countries and paid them less money to do our dirty work.

We’re doing business as usual with a few modifications so we can live a little better in a system we can’t understand.

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