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A Note on Cleaned by Capitalism

Here’s how the American Heritage Science Dictionary defines “pollution”:

The contamination of air, water, or soil by substances that are harmful to living organisms.  Pollution can occur naturally, for example through volcanic eruptions, or as the result of human activities, such as the spilling of oil or disposal of industrial waste.

(This entry can be found by scrolling down at this link.)

I don’t, however, wish to argue over semantics.  My “Cleaned by Capitalism” series is meant to show the countless familar devices and processes that keep us modern folk cleaner and healthier than were our pre-industrial ancestors (and, in many cases, cleaner and healthier than were our ancestors from even just a generation or two back).  It’s important to reflect on these mundane, familiar things in our lives precisely because, to us, they are mundane and familiar.  We forget how unusual our lives are compared to those of the vast majority of human beings who’ve ever lived — how much cleaner, healthier, less-hazardous, and more pleasant our lives are compared to theirs.

The chief reason people worry about pollution is because they fear that it will degrade their quality of life by making life more dangerous and more unpleasant.  My point is that, while it’s true that industrial and commercial processes emit into the environment contaminants that are harmful, the net effect of modern industrial and commercial processes is to make our lives cleaner and healthier.

None of this is to say that we ought, therefore, ignore pollution caused by industrial and commercial processes.  But it is to say that we ought to be more aware than we are of the great sanitization of our lives that capitalism and modernity have achieved lest the degree to which we hamstring these processes in an attempt to make our world cleaner makes our world less clean.