A few days ago I put the finishing touches on an article that brought my mood down more than many others on environmental topics I’ve written so far. The topic: ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances).
Have you heard of them?
They pop in the news occasionally, but alas, they do so in a space that also features ‘green’ initiatives such as new lines of disposable/non-disposable not–plastic-but-feels-like-plastic compostable bowls, cups, plates and cutlery. Many (most?) of these compostable products contain, in fact, small amounts of ‘forever chemicals’ which end up transferring to food. So do grease-resistant take-out containers and much of the fast food and take-out packaging. But I am getting ahead of myself here. I will share the article when it’s published, but in the meantime, here’s why I struggled to find my mood balance after digging deep enough into the topic.
Firstly, because it’s hard to put a positive spin on this topic.
Secondly, because these chemicals are everywhere, including in our bodies and the bodies of most creatures around us. They’ve been around for a few decades (since 1938 to be precise) and they accumulate in the environment (again, our bodies included), and as the name implies, they are there to stay. Yes, they do have deleterious effects on our health. But yes, they make life easier. Some are, to be fair, essential because at the moment they are the best we have for the job. As it has happened with many other chemicals throughout the modern era, we find out decades later about the damage that’s been done. When we do, there are two things that happen: the stories reach the public and make us uncomfortable, but then new stories roll in and we forget about it; or we join the ranks of those who refuse to see ‘the glass half empty’. Except it’s not empty. And the people who talk about this are not alarmists. They want to see a better future. Knowledge and action based on it can help us get there.
I know that we want the positive and the happy news, but that’s not helping our world get better. Too much positive spin on things makes us forget the ‘negative’ news when they pop up and they create false hope.
You’ve likely heard it said that the Earth will continue to exist no matter what happens to us humans. That’s great for the planet and for the bacteria, fungi and the bugs that will survive, but what about the other living creatures, humans included?
(This reminds me of a car sticker I saw a few days ago : ‘Adults on board; we want to live too.’)
It sounds ridiculous when it’s laid out like that but seriously, let’s pause for a moment and ask the most obvious question: what the heck are we doing to our living world and to ourselves, and for what? In the case of ‘forever chemicals’, let’s agree that for certain vital applications (medical, firefighting) we have no better options at the moment. But what about the many others?? Could we let go of conveniences and reduce the scale of our consumption of all things, and particularly plastics and plastic-like but marketed as compostable? I believe we’re coming to the realization that having our cake and eating it too is simply not doable. Not if we want to see nature thrive around us, and not if we want to live without the silent threat of hidden chemicals that affect our health.
We have taught children to be afraid of playing in the dirt but we allow them to play on sprayed lawns and stain-resistant (hence chemically treated) carpets. We have talked ourselves into trading health for every day conveniences, and finding pacifying solutions that allow us to continue to live the way we do. Plastic recycling is a joke at the moment, and also an environmental concern given the microplastics derived from the mountains of plastic garbage and ‘recyclables’ our society produces. Ditto for other forms of ‘recycling’ that encourage consumption, such as electronics. The more we do it, the more products we will be offered. The more products, the higher the risk of more and more chemicals populating our world – indoors and outdoors.
Here’s the gist of it as I see it: when the natural world is in balance, we thrive. Nowadays, we seem to forget that.
We grow food at an unprecedented scale using chemicals of all kinds, from fertilizers (some also contain ‘forever chemicals’) to pesticides and insecticides, and then fungicides to preserve them on their way to the consumers. Almost half the food we see in stores ends up as waste. Too many people consume animal products from animals that are raised in conditions so bad we cannot stomach to watch. We destroy large areas of wild spaces to do so. And then we create waste of all kinds, which, save for what we compost, goes nowhere, and we question whether the new study about the rapid decline of nearly half the world’s wildlife species is yet another scaremongering piece of news plotted by some restless environmentalists.
We cannot afford to look away and pretend all is well. We cannot afford to pay attention only to positive news and we certainty cannot afford any more green-washing and worse yet, ‘regrettable substitutions’, which is the term used for when an alternative compound replaces one that’s deleterious to health, but turns out to be just as bad or worse (see the case of BPA and BPS, and yes, it is also happening with the ‘forever chemicals’.)
Bottom line: we take nature and life (our own lives included) for granted. That’s what I think. And please feel free to disagree.
Yes, I know there are people doing good things out there. Small farms provide fresh whole foods that you find at the farmer’s market on any given Saturday or Sunday in the summer. Various professionals and activists do their best to raise awareness, challenge the status quo and inspire changes that can see us reach safer ground ahead. Research that tries to remediate the consequences of many years of doing things without thinking of consequences. We need all that done at a large scale. We need to return to a simpler way of life if we want to live.
But that’s not what makes big splashes in today’s world. Consumerism does. New things to try, new shininess to have and to hold and to get tired of shortly after, ready to try more. More. And more.
Innovation is great and it drives progress but we ought to consider the scale of consumerism before another product hits the market. Perpetual economic growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources. Deep down, we know that, but somehow we don’t say it out loud and often enough.
But we must. And we’re at it, I think the Hippocratic oath should apply to how companies and firms, big and small, run their business: first, do no harm.
Let’s start with that.