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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “The great anti-pollutant”

In my column for the April 25th, 2012, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I returned to the important theme summarized by the phrase ‘Cleaned by Capitalism.’ You can read my column in full beneath the fold.

The great anti-pollutant

Some things are invisible because they don’t reflect light that can be detected by the human eye. Visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is real but mostly invisible.

Other things are invisible because they are too visible. Some things are so abundant — and hence, familiar — that we ignore them. Even though they exist plain as day in front of our faces — reflecting light we can see — they are, in effect, invisible to us.

And so it is with the cleanliness of our surroundings. In the same way that fish likely aren’t aware of water except on those rare occasions when they are yanked out of it, we citizens of modern market societies don’t notice just how clean our lives have been made by capitalism.

Capitalism — contrary to popular myth — is the great anti-pollutant.

Look around your house. If you pay attention, you’ll discover a cornucopia of devices and products specifically designed by market entrepreneurs to enable consumers to live lives that are more sanitary, more pleasant and healthier than our lives would be without such goods.

Start with the refrigerator and freezer in your kitchen. Inexpensive, year-round refrigeration helps keep your food and beverages free of bacteria that would otherwise infect what you eat and drink.

Helping refrigeration protect you from bacterial pollutants are wraps, bags and containers made of plastic. These low-cost products keep different foods from being contaminated by — and from contaminating — other foods, as well as by your hands.

Now glance into your laundry room. The automatic washer and dryer — and the detergent, stain removers and bleach — work together to cleanse your clothes and bed linens of dirt and bacteria. Capitalism, by the way, also makes possible the inexpensive, tightly woven fabrics that can stand up to the vigorous scrubbings your clothes take each time you do laundry.

And what about your medicine cabinet? Perhaps it contains antibiotics, which cleanse your body of bacterial pollutants that regularly killed your ancestors. Maybe you’ll also find some antihistamines to relieve you of the misery of allergies that many suffer when nature emits pollen into the atmosphere. And next to the antihistamines you might find a box of Band-Aids: small, sanitary plastic strips that serve as barriers to protect open wounds from filth that might otherwise cause nasty infections.

No room in your house testifies more gloriously to the cleanliness of capitalism than does your bathroom. Little imagination is necessary to reveal how unsanitary and unpleasant your life would be without flush toilets and the indoor plumbing that makes them possible.

Close to your toilet is a shower or bathtub — enabling you to bathe and wash your hair daily, ridding your body of pollutants that even kings and queens of just a few generations ago endured for days on end between baths. Your bathroom also has soap, shampoo and deodorant/antiperspirant — all to aid you in getting and staying clean.

Beside the bathroom sink (with its running, hot and cold potable water) are your toothbrush (perhaps one whose bristles can be made with electricity to vibrate for better brushing), toothpaste, dental floss and anti-bacterial mouthwash. These items work together to decontaminate your mouth of the natural pollutants that regularly accumulate there.

You’re only scratching the surface! As I’ll explain in a follow-up column, your house — indoors and out — is a veritable monument to the stupendous fact that capitalism has all but wiped out pollution.