As Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen explains it very well, according to the second law of thermodynamics, all activity brings about a degradation of the system. In other words, if you define pollution as the degradation of a system, any activity gives rise to a pollution. The ecological impact from this point of view is easy to calculate. Even if the concept of money exists only because there is a certain level of confidence in trade, it is possible to say that the amount you earn determines how much you pollute. The more money you have, the more you participate in human activity, and the more you participate in degradation.
Exactly what is this degradation, then?
We’re talking mainly about the matter dispersed due to:
The matter, dispersed or as waste, might be completely inoffensive (e.g. a broken cup), and can be considered pollution only by degradation of the system: the clay used will never return to its original place. On the other hand, if the matter has an effect on human health or on the equilibrium of an ecosystem that includes humans, it becomes real pollution.
An oil slick does not constitute catastrophic pollution if it has not been precipitated. Of course, the lives of thousands of people around it are disrupted, and for some, it is a real catastrophe. But if we leave the area and let nature take over, there is no risk to human life, and the slick is absorbed within a decade or so. Synthetic molecules released into the natural environment and radioactive waste are ever so much more dangerous and long-lasting.
These days, the “popular” pollutant is CO2, even though it is not a harmful compound for humans.
Even though production accounts for most pollution, it is given less media coverage except for reports of factory emissions or effluent releases from intensive farming into the rivers. Factory emissions have been one of the main environmental concerns since the 1950s. So much pressure was put on manufacturers that they perfected particle recovery systems enabling them to emit fumes that were less “dirty”. Rather than stopping the pollution, that simply concealed it. The waste particles are still with us. They may be collected in waste bins instead of dispersed into the atmosphere, but they are still there.
Because any manufacturing process starts in a mine, the first pollution comes from there.
Exposing the bedrock during mining operations produces an abrupt change in the mineral oxidation/reduction conditions. Exposure to air or water causes the formation of sulphuric acids that are drained away by runoff water.
As a result, the water downstream from the mine contains heavy metals and can have an impact on the surrounding ecosystems, as a function of the concentrations reached.
This type of pollution is as old as the Metal Age.
These consist of the pollution from the industrial production, along with the transport component associated with it.
The two types of industrial waste are:
The main risk is the deterioration of human health, with a potential impact on the reproductive system, by direct or indirect ingestion down through the food chain.
The other risk is degradation of the human environment (plants and animals). Animals are subject to the same above-mentioned risks as humans, while plants are vulnerable to the effects of suspended particles in the air and degradation of the microorganisms in the soils.
Without going into the details of the classification of pollutants and of industries that pollute (which would require defining and measuring the criteria), we can still provide a list of the following types of industrial pollution, in no particular order of nuisance value:
Producing a consumer good creates pollution. Whether you hide the particles that are released or store them instead of dispersing them, there is no satisfactory solution.
Industrial pollution exists only because of the constant demand for more consumer goods that are increasingly sophisticated. The pollution engendered is proportional to the amount produced and to the sophistication of the product.
The drive to be ultra-productive has led agriculture into a rush to utilize industrial products, fertilizers, weedkillers and fungicides. Agriculture accounts for much of the industrial pollution, and it contributes directly to the dispersal of pollutants in the soils and groundwater.
Soil pollution has an impact on the surface minerals and organic compounds, and this results in soil desertification.
Consumption pollution consists mainly of:
Consumption is the sole cause of production pollution.
If consumption is the sole cause of industrial pollution, then the actual polluter is the consumer, and not the producer. So basically, the consumer is the only polluter. The one who is ultimately responsible for an oil spill is the driver who always wants more for less. The person who consumes "made in China" products is ultimately responsible for Chinese industrial pollution.
The average vehicle creates about as much production pollution as it does consumption pollution, corroborating the notion that pollution is proportional to cost. The more sophisticated the vehicle, the more production pollution it creates. A Toyota Prius pollutes enormously during its production, (electronics, batteries), and so the global balance is rather negative, even though it consumes less fossil fuel.
The vehicle that creates the least consumption pollution is the one that doesn’t run, and the one that pollutes the least globally is the one that is not built.
You might say that the acme of useless pollution was reached at a soccer match in Moscow between two British clubs: 40 000 British spectators were in attendance at the stadium!