I run Green Way International, a conservation group that campaigns against and conducts
research into environmental pollution. The data that we receive from all corners of the globe give
us no cause for optimism -- the results of our studies and the minimal success of our crusades
testify to the fact that we are fighting a losing battle.
Of course, environmental pollution is not a modern phenomenon. It began ever since people
'began to congregate in towns and cities. The ancient Athenians removed refuse to dumps outside
the main parts of their cities. The Romans dug trenches outside their cities where they could
deposit their garbage, waste and even corpses. These unhygienic practices undoubtedly led to the
outbreak of viral diseases.
Unfortunately, Man refuses to acknowledge or correct his past mistakes. As cities grew in
the Middle Ages, pollution became even more evident. Ordinances had to be passed in medieval
cities against indiscriminate dumping of waste into the streets and canals. In sixteenth century
England, efforts were made to curb the use of coal to reduce the amount of smoke in the air.
These, however, had little effect on the people's consciences.
I think that the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was the point of no return.
It heralded the mushrooming of industries and power driven machines. True, the standard of
living increased, but it was achieved at a great environmental cost.
In Cubatao of Brazil, for instance, industrial plants
belch thousands of tons of pollutants
daily and the air contains high levels of benzene, a cancer causing substance. In one recent year
alone, I discovered 13,000 cases of respiratory diseases and that a tenth of the workers risked
contracting leukemia. Green Way International hoped to seek the assistance of Brazil's
government officials but we were sorely disappointed. Unwilling to lose revenue from the
factories, they blamed the high mortality rate on poor sanitation and malnutrition. We continue
to provide medical assistance to the inhabitants of Brazil's "Valley of Death", but there is little
else that we can do to alleviate the suffering.
Our planet has its own mechanisms to deal with natural pollutants. Decay, sea spray and
volcanic eruptions release more sulphur than all the power plants, smelters and industries in the
world do. Lightning bolts create nitrogen oxides and trees emit hydrocarbons called trepenes.
These substances are cycled through the ecosystem and change form, passing through plant and
animal tissues, sink to the sea and return to earth to begin the cycle all over again.
However, can the earth assimilate the additional millions of tons of chemicals like sulphur,
chlorofluorocarbons, carbon dioxide and methane that our industries release each year? If the
dying forests in Germany, Eastern Europe, Sweden and Norway give any indication, then the
answer must be a resounding "No!". Oxides of sulphur and nitrogen from the power plants and
factories and motor vehicles have acidified the soil. This has destroyed the organisms necessary to
the nutrient cycle as well as injured the trees' fine root systems. The weakened trees become more
vulnerable to drought, frost, fungi and insects.
Many a time, my staff have returned from their research tours around the world, lamenting
the slow but sure destruction of our cultural treasures. The carvings on the Parthenon, a
magnificent building in Athens, have been eroded by acid deposition. The Roman Colosseum,
England's Westminster Abbey and India's Taj Mahal have also fallen victim to insidious chemicals
that float in the air. The stained glass windows of cathedrals from the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries have been corroded to barely recognizable images as well.
Years earlier, I had studied a secluded island in the Pacific and found its undisturbed
ecosystem in complete balance and stability. In despair, I once contemplated living the rest of my
days on the island in solitude. Pollution, however, is no respecter of boundaries - when I reached
the island, the beaches were awash with trash and dead marine life while the once-lush foliage
were sparse and limp. It was then that I realized this dying planet needs allies and not fatalism
and resignation. I returned to resume my crusade and I hope others will join me...