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The Root of Environmental Injustice:

The False Economics of Extraction and Consumption of Toxic Substances

by the Basel Action Network


The extraction, trade and consumption of toxic substances has a long, well documented tragic history. Yet much of this horrible affair with toxic heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, teratogens and other forms of killer chemicals would have likely been avoided were it not for a history of institutionalized economic trickery.

Traditional economic systems have not correctly accounted or assigned true positive or negative valuation of all that is impacted by commerce. For this reason it has been cheaper for producers to use toxic materials than to re-design products without toxics. While producers, traders and consumers might gain for example through the use of lead-tin solders in electronic equipment a ubiquitous poison in use today, overall, such use ends up harming people near and in a globalized world – far as our local landfills contaminate our groundwater, and exported electronic waste impairs the health of poor laborers in China. Yet this harm which is externalized, or unaccounted for in the corporate “bottom line”, is in fact very costly to those impacted.

Just as natural systems provide economic services that have been discounted, or not counted at all, manmade toxic materials placed into the biosphere create disservices – a form of debt, which we all must pay but which disproportionately and more immediately harms or indebts the poor and disenfranchised. These disservices include medical bills, damaged DNA, birth defects, cancer, destroyed croplands or fisheries, brain damage, etc. etc. It's not a pretty picture.

The fact that our current economic system fails to properly account for the negative impacts of toxics when they are externalized to global hiding places (“dumping grounds”) means that the price of our products is not in fact the real price and thus the marketplace for toxic products is “distorted” and a false economics is created that rewards the few at the expense of the many.

Common “dumping grounds” for externalized costs include: “the global commons” our collective un-owned planetary wealth – our seas, our atmosphere, our water, as well as the flora and fauna with which we share this earth and upon which we all depend; the disenfranchised and poor – poor laborers in developing countries do not have the right to choose how they can make a living, they do not have access to medical attention or tort law to redress the damage caused by toxic pollution to their health and lands; local taxpayers when they in effect subsidize corporations by managing their pollution in local solid waste and sewage management systems; and very significantly, future generations whose health and welfare is at best discounted by traditional economics as not really worth very much.

It is very plausible that if corporations had been forced upfront to pay for these externalized costs rather than pass the bill to the global dumping grounds, they would have taken great pains to avoid usage of toxic materials and therefore exposure to them in their lifecycle from extraction to disposal would have been greatly diminished or eliminated altogether. Perhaps if we had to pay the true cost of today’s 1,000 dollar toxic computer, it would cost 5,000 dollars. And then someday somebody creates a non-toxic computer for 2,000 dollars…

Yet it has been this assumed “right” of corporations and institutions to externalize real costs that is at the very root of environmental injustice. We intend to revoke this assumed right, calculate the real bill and deliver it. By using the tools of ecological economics which correctly valuates both nature’s services as well as manmade disservices created by our use of toxic substances, we will finally begin to address the systemic dysfunction that has allowed us to poison our earth.

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Select images courtesy of Chris Jordan