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On Keeping Concepts Clear

In my latest column for AIER I warn of confusions that often arise as a result of failing to ponder carefully the precise meaning of some words. A slice:

Similar considerations apply to environmental cleanliness. What exactly is meant by a “clean environment?” As long as humans and other carbon-based creatures exist, gasses that have some negative impact on some environmental amenity will be emitted. Also emitted into the atmosphere will be molecules that, to at least some of these creatures, are pathogenic. A perfectly clean environment, such as exists on the lunar surface, is simply incompatible with life.

Even the term “environment” is vague in meaning and, in modern usage, artificially restricted.

I often ask students if they think it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of the earth’s surface excavated for use as garbage landfills. The almost-unanimous answer is “Yes!” Then I ask them if they’d support legislation requiring every household to devote at least one-half of its indoor space to permanently housing garbage. Such legislation would reduce the amount of the earth’s surface excavated for use as garbage landfills. The unanimous answer to this second question is “No!

Classroom discussion reveals that students understand that burying garbage beneath the earth’s surface is cleaner and more sanitary for humans than would be the in-house storage of garbage.

So,” I conclude, “landfills lead to a cleaner environment.” Most students, however, resist this conclusion. Some do so quite vigorously. In their minds, “the environment” consists of land and the outdoor atmosphere, not of indoor spaces, such as homes and workplaces. My students’ failure to think carefully about just what dimensions are covered by the term “environment” leads them, as it leads many other people, to forget that a very real part of the environment is the indoor spaces in which we live, work, and play.

This forgetfulness is unfortunate because it blinds many people to the enormous environmental improvements enjoyed by everyone living in modern, innovative, capitalist society. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, nearly every American daily enjoys cleaner – that is, less polluted – clothing, food, living quarters, workplaces, schools, and streets and highways. Even the interiors of our bodies are made less polluted by the availability of modern marvels such as antibiotics and food refrigeration.

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