A little over a decade ago, a report by David Pimentel from Cornell University came out about the health costs of pollution. “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide,” wrote Susan S. Lang, “are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says” (Water, air and soil pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide, Cornell research survey finds).
That is damning! It is powerful in showing the impact of our actions and the complicity of our indifference. It’s even worse than that. The harm touches upon every area of health. “Of the world population of about 6.5 billion, 57 percent is malnourished, compared with 20 percent of a world population of 2.5 billion in 1950, said Pimentel. Malnutrition is not only the direct cause of 6 million children’s deaths each year but also makes millions of people much more susceptible to such killers as acute respiratory infections, malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases, according to the research.” This is billions of people who lack the basic resources of clean water and air along with nutritious food, something that was a human birthright for most of human existence.
It’s worse still. This data, as bad as it is, maybe was an underestimation. Another report just came out, Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions by Jos Lelieveld et al. Summarized in Hurn Publications, it is stated that, “The number of early deaths caused by air pollution is double previous estimates, according to research, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking. The scientists used new data to estimate that nearly 800,000 people die prematurely each year in Europe because of dirty air, and that each life is cut short by an average of more than two years” (Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research). This isn’t limited to poor, dark-skinned people in far away countries for it also affects the Western world: “The health damage caused by air pollution in Europe is higher than the global average.” And that doesn’t even include “effects of air pollution on infant deaths”.
Think about that. It was a decade ago that around 40% of deaths were able to be linked to pollution and environmental problems. Since then, these problems have only grown worse, as the world’s population continues to grow as does industrialization. Now it is determined that air pollution is at least twice as fatal as previously calculated. The same is probably true more generally for other forms of pollution along with environmental degradation. Our data was incomplete in the past and, even if improved, it remains incomplete. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t only about deaths. Increasing numbers of sick days, healthcare, and disabilities adds up to costs that are incalculable. Our entire global economy is being dragged down, at the very moment we need all our resources to deal with these problems, not merely to pay for the outcomes but to begin reversing course if we hope to avoid the worst.
This barely touches upon the larger health problems. As I’ve written about before, we are beginning to realize how diet majorly impacts health, not only in terms of malnourishment but also all the problems related to a diet of processed foods with lots of toxins such as farm chemicals, hormone mimics, food additives, starchy carbs, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most of our healthcare costs go to a few diseases, all of them preventable. And the rates of major diseases are skyrocketing: neurocognitive conditions (mood disorders, personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, etc), autoimmune disorders (type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, many forms of arthritis, etc), metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc), and much else. This all relates to industrialized farming and food production that has, among much else, caused the soil to become depleted of nutrients while eroding what is left of the topsoil. At this rate, we have less than a century of topsoil left. And monocrops have been devastating to ecological diversity and set us up for famines when crops fail.
There pretty much is no one who isn’t being harmed. And increasingly the harm is coming at younger ages with diseases of older age now being seen among children and young adults. More of the population is becoming sick and disabled before they even get old enough to enter the workforce. For example, schizophrenia is on the rise among urban youth for reasons not entirely certain — in a summary of a study, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge” (see Urban Weirdness). So, it isn’t only that more people are dying younger. The quality of people’s lives is worsening. And with ever more people disabled and struggling, who is going to help them? Or are large swaths of the world’s population simply going to become unwanted and uncared for? And will we allow billions of people to fall further into poverty? If not becoming homeless, is it a better fate that we simply institutionalize these people so that we of the comfortable classes don’t have to see them? Or will we put these useless eaters into ghettos and internment camps to isolate them like a plague to be contained? The externalized costs of modern industrialized capitalism are beyond imagining and they’re quickly becoming worse.
Modernity is a death cult, as I’ve previously concluded. Besides mass extinction on the level never before experienced in all of hominid existence (the last mass extinction was 66 million years ago), we are already feeling the results of climate change with increased super-storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, etc. Recent heatwaves have been unprecedented, including in the Arctic — far from being a mere annoyance since it speeds up the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost which in turn releases greenhouse gases (possibly pathogens as well), speeds up the warming (Arctic Amplification), and will alter ocean currents and the polar jet stream. These environmental changes are largely what is behind the refugee crises numerous countries are facing, which is also connected to terrorism. Inequality within and between societies will exacerbate the problems further with increased conflicts and wars, with endless crisis after crisis coming from every direction until the available resources are pushed to the limit and beyond — as I wrote last year:
“As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.”
If you really want to be depressed, might I suggest reading Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK): “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” Here is what a Vice piece had to say about it:
“You only needed to step outside during the record-breaking heatwave last year to acknowledge that 17 of the 18 hottest years on the planet have occurred since 2000. Scientists already believe we are soon on course for an ice-free Arctic, which will only accelerate global warming. Back in 2017, even Fox News reported scientists’ warnings that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Erik Buitenhuis, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me that Bendell’s conclusions may sound extreme, but he agrees with the report’s overall assessment. “I think societal collapse is indeed inevitable,” he says, though adds that “the process is likely to take decades to centuries” ” (Geoff Dembicki, The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy).
What are governments and other major institutions doing in response? Very little, despite the consensus among experts and a majority of Americans supporting environmental policies, although the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security is concerned in maintaining their own power: “Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress. Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses” (Phil Ebersole, Climate, migration and border militarization). There are many courses of actions we could take. And we know what needs to be done to prevent or mitigate what will otherwise follow. Will we do it? Of course not. The problem is too large, too incomprehensible, and too depressing. We will go on denying it, until well into the global crisis, if not the civilizational collapse. At that point, it probably will no longer matter what we do or don’t do. But until then, we can begin to imagine the unimaginable, if only to prepare for it psychologically.
Then again, maybe we’ll find some way to pull out of this death spiral at the last moment. It’s unlikely, but humans can be innovative under pressure and no doubt there will be plenty of people attempting to create new technologies and adapt to new conditions. Even if there is only minimal success, some of the population could be saved as we shift to smaller-scale societies in the areas that are still viable for farming or else escaping into ecodomes. One way or another, the world as we know it will not continue on as before and, ignoring all the suffering and death, I don’t know that will be an entirely bad thing, at least for the earth if not for humanity. Even in that best case scenario, we would still be facing possibly thousands of years of climate disruption, maybe a new ice age, and on top of that it would take millions of years for the biosphere and ecosystems to recover from mass extinction and find a new balance. So, if we humans plan on surviving, it will be a very long struggle. Thousands of future generations will inherit our mistakes and our mess.