Our Deteriorating Environment
August 1971

“Our Deteriorating Environment,” Ensign, Aug. 1971, 64

Our Deteriorating Environment

Early this morning, as I worked in my garden, I heard high over my head the beat of hundreds of wings. Looking up, I saw one of nature’s most thrilling spectacles—a vee of Canada geese silhouetted against the early morning sky. Fulfilling the purpose of their creation, they were on the move—northward to their nesting grounds in the barren lands of northern Canada.

These wondrous wild creatures—and even man himself—are threatened by the erosive forces that reduce the quality of the environment. In the name of “progress” and “growth,” we have plundered our planet and despoiled our environment.

Many thoughtful observers are pessimistic for the future, even to the extent that some prophets of gloom believe that few people now alive will survive the next three decades. There is widespread agreement that in our mindless rush toward material prosperity we have unbalanced powerful biological forces that we do not fully understand, that portions of the environment are now extremely unstable and susceptible to rapid and potentially catastrophic change, and that we have not been paying sufficient attention to the very serious problems created by our technology.

Some of the ways in which we have altered our environment and perhaps exposed our own and other species to the threat of destruction can be reduced if we consider that our planet is an exquisitely equipped spaceship (which it is), and if we examine some of the life-support systems available to its crew of earth inhabitants. While these observations relate mainly to a discussion on the state of affairs in North America, they apply to other developed countries as well.

To begin with, what is the quality of the air that most people breathe? Naturally pure air contains roughly 79 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen, and 1 percent other gases, including carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and the so-called “noble” gases: argon, neon, helium, krypton, and xenon. The amount of water in the air depends, as is well known, on a number of factors.

Unfortunately, in many heavily industrialized parts of North America, pure air has become a thing of the past, as it has been replaced by choking, irritating, eye-burning smog. Originally coined as a contraction of the words smoky fog, smog has become the popular term for all types of air pollution. Most air pollution originates from industrial activities, automobile exhausts, burning trash and refuse, and so on. It can literally kill. In December 1952, for example, London, England, was blanketed for five days with a killer smog. Medical experts estimate that that single episode caused four thousand deaths from respiratory illnesses.

Sulfur from industrial processing and burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline is one of the most poisonous components of smog. In the form of sulfur dioxide, it can cause marked respiratory distress, with symptoms of bronchitis, emphysema, coughing, hoarseness, irritated nasal and bronchial passages, and smarting eyes. What’s worse, sulfur dioxide can be oxidized to sulfur trioxide and then combined with the water in fog to produce sulfuric acid, one of the most powerfully corrosive agents known.

Tens of thousands of pounds of sulfur are dumped into the atmosphere over a large industrial city each day of the year. Is it any wonder then that some medical authorities have advised people susceptible to respiratory disease to move out of the smoggy portions of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties in California?

There are other noxious substances in the air over much of North America. Lead, for example. It has been estimated that each day, more than thirty thousand pounds of lead are dumped into the air over Los Angeles. Much of it comes from automobile exhaust fumes as a result of the use of leaded gasoline. Some of the lead released into the atmosphere eventually gets into food and water supplies. Lead has been known since antiquity as a cumulative poison that can cause anemia, gastrointestinal disturbances, blindness, sterility, abortions, and a whole catalog of other physical impairments.

Many medical authorities believe that the amount of lead taken into the body from all sources (food, water, air) by many North Americans is already close to the danger point and shows no signs of decreasing as yet.

Mention should also be made of at least one more potentially toxic agent in the urban environment—carbon monoxide (CO), a gas produced whenever fuels containing carbon are incompletely burned. On the average, an automobile engine in normal usage produces about five pounds of CO per day.

In Los Angeles County, automobiles contribute about eight thousand tons of CO daily. California health authorities have set a maximum allowable concentration of 30 parts of CO per million of air over an eight-hour period. However, the concentration level on a busy city street during the rush hours may exceed 100 parts per million. Carbon monoxide combines with the hemoglobin in the red cells of the blood to produce a substance that reduces the ability of the red cell to carry oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. If we breathe toxic amounts of carbon monoxide, our body cells literally die from oxygen starvation.

What about the quality of the water supply? Water pollution is global in scope. On his recent ocean voyage from North Africa to the new world, explorer Thor Heyerdahl reported finding floating garbage hundreds of miles out at sea. Included were plastic containers, fist-sized globs of oil, and a myriad of other kinds of man-made refuse.

Many of the rivers in North America are highly polluted and are unfit for drinking or swimming. Recently, the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, actually caught fire—or at least the industrial wastes floating in it did.

The Great Lakes, which contain an estimated 20 percent of the world supply of fresh water, are badly contaminated. Lake Erie, for practical purposes, has become a giant cesspool. Lake Michigan is heavily contaminated, and Lake Ontario is almost as bad. Lake Huron and Lake Superior have so far been spared, but only because there aren’t enough people and industries along their shores.

The seas and oceans of the world are also polluted. It has been reliably estimated that about two million tons of oil enter marine waters each year from spills, accidents, cleaning of ships’ bilges, etc. An estimated nine million additional tons of hydrocarbons of petroleum origin enter the oceans from the ninety million tons released into the air each year.

Recent large-scale oil spills, such as that which occurred in 1970 when the tanker Arrow went aground in Chedabucto Bay off the east coast of Nova Scotia, have dramatized the fact that the ocean is not an inexhaustible reservoir that can be polluted forever without deleterious effects on biological systems.

In late 1969 and early 1970, evidence began to appear that fish from some lakes and streams in Canada and the United States contained amounts of mercury in excess of those considered safe. We now realize that mercury pollution of inland waters has been widespread. The sources of mercury pollution include some processes for production of chlorine gas, burning of fossil fuels, and use of mercury as an antisliming agent in production of newsprint.

By virtue of biological magnification, mercury levels in fish may be several thousand times those in the water itself. Almost all of the mercury in fish is in the form of methyl mercury, a particularly toxic form of the element that can cause permanent neurological damage, including blindness, tremors, convulsions, and mental disturbances. In Japan during the 1950s, over one hundred people were affected with mercury poisoning from consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish; over forty died. Particularly disturbing was the fact that nineteen children were born with congenital mercury poisoning. Their mothers had been exposed to the poison while pregnant.

In December 1970, concern about mercury poisoning spread when it was found, in both Canada and the United States, that some tuna contained excessively high levels of mercury. Although the great majority of tuna does not contain hazardous levels of mercury, it is now apparent that marine fish can contain potentially toxic levels of this element. Recently it has been found in both Canada and the U.S. that a very high percentage of swordfish (over 90 percent) contains amounts of mercury. For practical purposes, use of swordfish for food by North Americans has ceased.

Fortunately, extensive surveys have shown that, with the exception of some fish, other items of the Canadian food supply contain extremely low levels of mercury. Furthermore, public health authorities in both Canada and the U.S. have established maximum permissible levels for mercury in fish. In Canada, for example, fish may not be sold if they contain more than 0.5 parts per million of mercury in the edible portion. Fish containing less than this amount are not considered hazardous to human health and may be eaten without danger.

It should be emphasized also that most species of fish contain levels of mercury below the 0.5 parts per million guideline. Extensive testing of Canadian salmon, for example, has shown it to contain, on the average, only 0.04 parts per million of mercury.

The mercury problem in Canada was checked in time—but just in time. And there are valuable lessons to be learned from the discovery and control of this potential health hazard. First, pollution may affect biological systems hundreds of miles from the source of the pollution itself. High mercury levels in fish in Lake Winnipeg may have resulted from practices followed by a single industrial plant in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, hundreds of miles up the Saskatchewan River. Second, people who live in North America need to learn more effectively from the experiences of others who live in other parts of our global village. The tragic experiences with mercury poisoning in Japan seemed remote to North American experience until almost too late.

Space will not permit a discussion of many other aspects of environmental deterioration that are of vital concern. To do so would require at least a mention of pesticides such as DDT, food additives, industrial chemicals such as PCB’s, heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic, solid and liquid waste disposal problems, and a myriad of other harmful contaminants.

In the last few years, opinions and responses to environmental problems have become dangerously polarized. On the one side are those who proclaim that we are all in mortal danger, that our environment is irretrievably befouled, and that the end is at best a decade away. On the opposite side are the apologists for the status quo—those who would have us believe that all is well and that we’ve absolutely nothing to be concerned about. The truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes.

Our environment has been tragically exploited and abused. Although not yet irretrievably befouled, it has deteriorated in too many ways, and a great deal of hard work and effort is required to protect it and repair the damage done by neglect, indifference, and misplaced priorities. However, I am optimistic that man will in fact draw back from the edge of the pit, that he will recognize his vulnerability, and that he will work to reorganize his priorities and motivations. There are encouraging signs in this direction.

Action is being taken at all levels of government to counteract pollution. More and more industries are recognizing their corporate responsibility to protect the environment. Most important, ordinary citizens have become concerned and are demanding an end to the pillage and exploitation of our environment. To be effective, action by individuals, industry, and government to control and limit pollution must consider the basic causes of the problem.

I believe that pollution and environmental deterioration are primarily moral and spiritual problems, rather than problems of technology. Technology is mindless—a double-edged sword that will either produce or reduce pollution as man wills it. The prevalence of pollution stems from a lack of proper knowledge and understanding of the real purpose of life and of man’s place in the eternal plan provided by a loving Father in heaven. Some of the reasons for this statement are:

1. Many of our environmental problems arise from the fact that our society has become obsessed with materialism. Paul spoke an eternal truth when he said that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” [1 Tim. 6:10] We must come to realize that there are higher motives for human existence than technological advancement and the acquisition of material gain. This is not to dispute the great and continuing importance of science and technology to our society.

Not only is science an intellectual exercise of the highest order, and thus worthy of support for its own sake, but from a practical point of view, its application has literally transformed the world. Yet a never-ending search for more material prosperity cannot be the major factor in our lives. The society that looks no further than its gross national product is doomed to ultimate decay and destruction. Man’s true purposes are spiritual, not material.

2. For the past several hundreds of years, Western society has been dominated by a belief in scientific rationalism—a belief that science alone provides the key to man’s advancement, progression, and happiness. Older ideas about the need and place of beauty in life and the importance of the spiritual side of man’s nature have been superseded by an obsession with objective facts. Science is very much a creation of man’s intellect; it is amoral—neither good nor bad. Those who worship science, and there are many, worship the wrong god, for it alone will not bring happiness.

3. The reason we are in trouble ecologically is because of our inability to see ourselves as a part of nature. We have not seen ourselves for what we are: part of the web of life and part of the biological community; a portion of an incredibly complex ecological system; and intimately a part of the total environment. Our ability to acquire and apply technical information has far outstripped our biological ability to adapt to the changes technology has brought.

One of the most eminent of modern-day bacteriologists, Dr. René Dubos, has suggested that one of the reasons the modern environment is dangerous is because it changes so rapidly that we cannot make the necessary adaptive responses to it quickly enough. Whether or not this is so, it is apparent that we have largely failed, up until very recently, at least, to react properly and in a planned way to our environment. We have behaved as though we have some sort of divinely provided right to despoil the physical world. In a very real sense I believe this reflects a misinterpretation by conventional Judeo-Christian philosophers of God’s injunction to Adam about subduing the earth.

4. In addition, too often we fail to see ourselves as part of a human continuum. We think only of our own generation as though it exists alone, with no obligations to the future and without any heritage from the past.

I believe that the answers to all of these problems can be found in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. And my reasons are simple. They include the following:

The gospel teaches us that this world is our home, created for us under the direction of a loving Father in heaven, whose sons and daughters we are. In a celestialized state, it will be our eternal home. As such, it must not be misused or looted, for we are stewards entrusted with its care.

The gospel teaches us there are purposes to life that transcend the acquisition of material things. We are, literally, our brother’s keeper, with responsibilities toward others. Mortal existence is part of an eternal plan designed to return us to the presence of our Creator. Its purposes are primarily spiritual and center on development of the divine potential for growth and advancement that we all have.

The gospel teaches us that we are part of the continuum of human life. We do not stand alone in our generation. We are part of a great eternal patriarchal family. We draw from the past and are obligated to give to the future. We have an obligation, therefore, to others yet unborn—an obligation to present to them a world with beauties that they too can enjoy.

The serious ecological problems which face us have as their basis a disordered spirituality; they can be cured and prevented only by a reorientation toward the proper purpose of life. The gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by his church in these latter days can provide full answers to these problems.

  • Dr. Morrison is director-general of Research and Operations, Food and Drug Directorate, Government of Canada, and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Toronto. He is also president of the Nutrition Society of Canada. He is a member of the Ottawa District Council, Ontario-Quebec Mission, and teaches Sunday School and priesthood classes.

BYU Enviornmental Design Department Photo