UK National Archives: 1970 Pollution White Paper Matches Prescience With Arrogance

This White Paper is about man's impact on his environment and specifically about the pollution of his environment

Thus, the scene is set for the 1970 British Government White Paper on Environmental Pollution, the first of its type – setting “man” in the ascendancy, the ultimate mover and shaker, the owner of all he surveys. Entitled “The Protection of the Environment: the Fight against Pollution.” and written by Anthony Crosland, the then Secretary of State for Planning and Local Government (formerly President of the Board of Trade), the paper is a very significant reflection of the industrial attitude towards the natural environment. The text is especially significant because it was approved by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson; and thus can be regarded as official government policy.

There is no question of this document being a leak in any way, nor a recent discovery – being officially disclosed in 2001 – but as far as the general public is concerned, and moreso environmental activists, this may as well be coming from the typewriter of a member of the Tea Party in 2011.

In a precursor to the apparently “groundbreaking” 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, the White Paper makes a clear link between environmental pollution and negative economics in words that are familiar to anyone who has read Stern’s report:

5. It is now widely realised that increase in material goods brings with it certain "diseconomies" In terms of health, amenity and the attractiveness of the environment. Sometimes these diseconomies can be measured in monetary terms; and many cost-benefit studies attempt to do this. But sometimes the damage is indirect and intangible, and cannot be brought into relationship with the measuring rod of money. Society must then make a value judgment on how much it is prepared to spend on preserving and protecting the environment.

The White Paper takes a general overview of the social and economic impacts of pollution including, amusingly by 2011 standards, the placing of “Noise Pollution” on a par with pollution of air, land, fresh water and oceans. However, despite the current widely-held belief particularly by right-wing politicians that Anthropomorphic Global Warming is a recent “fad”, tucked away on pages 11 and 12 is this stunning passage:

37. There is currently some discussion of the possibilities, apparently conflicting, that on the one hand the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which has been brought about by advancing industrialisation may cause a slight general warming of the earth (the so-called green-house effect), and that on the other hand increasing amounts of dust in the upper atmosphere and vapour trails from high flying aircraft may cause a slight general cooling of the earth. Both these must be a matter for further research.

No government since 1970 can legitimately claim ignorance of climate change.

Again, but in an altogether starker wording, the White Paper makes reference to antibiotics as a bovine growth agent being a risk to human health; something that took decades to emerge as a public threat:

60. The use of antibiotics to promote growth in livestock can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance in the intestinal bacteria of animals and so interfere with the treatment of human illness.

Despite this, and many other prescient statements scattered through the text, the most defining characteristic of this document is the transparent way in which economics and the growth in trade appears to stamp all over any justifiable fears and threats to humanity. The conclusion is infuriating yet not at all surprising; putting the lie to claims that there is clear water between different political parties and nations when it comes to environmental protection priorities.

UK Pollution White Paper

The key phrase is:

To seek International standards for pollution control which will help to smooth the flow of international trade and to avoid interruptions of normal trading patterns through sudden and unexpected changes.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The entire (5.5MB) document can be downloaded via this link.

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