The Polipollutionists

Some have observed, through the smog, facets of a new crusade, but it is for Mr. Galbraith, the Harvard economist and former ambassador, to assemble the facts into this report on a growing movement in America.

by John Kenneth Galbraith

MANY years ago, I was in Madras in India and fell into conversation one evening with the chief inspector of dairy products for the city. He had a serious complaint against the members of a technical assistance mission of the United States government which, not long before, had installed itself in town. They had undertaken to instruct the many small retailers who delivered milk in the city not to water their product. This was wholly impractical; all of these merchants knew that the only way to eke out an insufficient supply was to dilute it. And our people had undercut his own effort, extending over a decade or more, which was to persuade the peddlers to use clean water instead of whatever was available from the gutter, which in India can be rather dirty. In classroom lectures since, I have often cited this to illustrate the problems one encounters in cross-cultural adaptation and the unwillingness of even the most scientifically oriented people to rely on empirically established fact.

This illustration and similar ones drawn from closer to home, and my use of them in popular education, have had an unexpected result. They have brought me in touch with the pollutionist movement in the United States. At first tentatively and cautiously, and then with growing confidence, people have been writing to greet me as an understanding soul. A few have come in on surreptitious visits. All have the slightly furtive habits of an oppressed minority. But all have the inner confidence born of the knowledge that, increasingly, they are a force in the society. They are people who think well of pollution and want to see it survive. They are deeply conscious of their present unpopularity — and they resent it. But they are gathering their forces and organizing. So far from being discouraged, they expect to win. I am in a position to say a few words about this movement. I want, above all, to correct the impression that pollution is a casual and spontaneous activity. On the contrary, it has deep and penetrating roots in the body politic.

In general, the pollutionists have much in common with the Communists as the latter are viewed by alert patriots, and to some extent, by J. Edgar Hoover. Avowed card-carrying members are not numerous; organization wise they are not impressive. But supporting the small hard core of true believers is a great army of fellow travelers. They do the work. And there is reason to believe that they are growing in ideological commitment.

The pollutionists are represented over the entire country, but, as might be expected, they have their greatest concentration of power in Los Angeles and New York. It is here one finds the activists and thought leaders. The acknowledged head of the Los Angeles movement, a man who lives high on the hills between Hollywood and Glendale, defends the movement, first of all, on aesthetic grounds.

“If you haven’t looked out over the top of the smog on an autumn morning with the whole city out of sight below,” he commented not long ago, “you haven’t seen what civilization can do.” In the absence of the smog, he reminds his visitors, there would be nothing but the vast, dreary expanse of the city, an oppressive wasteland of neon lights, service stations, nutburger stands, and laundromats.

And much of the support for the smog comes, in fact, from those who think it conceals the city, although many insist that it also improves the appearance of the architecture. Some say that by not seeing the city hall they think less about the city government. The supporters of pollution in the City of the Angels are law-abiding citizens; they have every intention of conforming to laws requiring the control of pollution from automobile exhausts; they do not incline even to passive resistance. They do think that by having three automobiles instead of two, and driving each one twice as much, they can easily and lawfully neutralize even the best blow-by devices on their crankcases and have just as much smog as before.

In New York, many pollutionists also think that the Pan Am Building and Park Avenue are far better when seen through the smaze. But New Yorkers are much more inclined to take their stand in favor of the benefits from breathing polluted air. Life in the metropolis is difficult and hectic and rather alarming, and becomes, with the passage of time, ever more so. The sulphur dioxide addict reacts to the atmosphere as do the more experimentally inclined to LSD. More and more of them, indeed, refer to the New York air simply as “acid.” They like Con Edison and frankly believe that any cleanup would serve only to prolong what, under the best of circumstances, is a miserable existence.

Air pollution is not, of course, the only thing that rallies the support of the pollutionists. There are chapters which support water pollution, roadside pollution, and even dirty streets. The Cuyahoga River, which runs past the Cleveland steel mills, was some time ago declared by the government to be a fire hazard. As a result local pollutionists now go to drop matches in the water and hold cigarette lighters to the surface. It is very exciting, and they love it.

On the desert roads in Arizona, as any recent visitor is aware, one sees the work of the disposable tissue pollutionists. This state was peopled by men and women from the more inclement parts of the United States. And while they are glad to get away from the cold winters, they miss the snow. The Kleenex billowing along the roadsides is nostalgically reminiscent of snowdrifts. The older people from Iowa and Minnesota especially are deeply touched. The people of Arizona take a very strong stand on behalf of roadside pollution. So do Californians, In both states the pollutionists may even now be leading.

In Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the pollution party reflects the hardheaded Yankee frugality of the natives. Once it was necessary to mow the weeds and grass and brush along the highways and country roads. This was a considerable expense. Now beer cans and disposable bottles are providing a thick glossy carpet beside the rightof-way. Soon only the odd toadstool will come through. It will hardly be worth bothering about.

The pollution movement is not static. On the contrary it has a high technical dynamic. At MIT, Cal Tech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Manned Space Center in Houston, Texas, one encounters the cosmic pollutionists. They have the greatest vision of all — the pollution of space. When, in any one of these distinguished scientific centers, one sees a scholarly-looking man gazing into the heavens, it cannot be assumed that his interest is lunar, planetary, stellar, or even religious. Most likely he is thinking of the garbage he has helped to place in orbit.

Like most zealots, the pollutionists are mildly schismatic; they form factions and disagree amiably but vigorously. Much of the dispute turns on the limits, if any, to the constitutional right to express one’s personality by discarding things wherever one damn well pleases. Speaking in New York last year, not long before he announced his candidacy for mayor, Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr., seemed to affirm the right of citizens to throw garbage out of the window, especially if John Lindsay happened to be passing by. The more libertarian pollutionists, as they call themselves, were delighted. Such are their numbers in New York, as the casual visitor can see for himself, that if Buckley had stood his ground, he would have been swept into office. But statesmanship assailed him; like many statesmen before him, he explained he had been misquoted. Many pollutionists oppose throwing organic garbage out the window. Mark Twain told in Life on the Mississippi how you could identify an old river hand; he did not allow the water of the great river to settle in the glass but stirred up the inch or two of sediment so as to get the full nutritive benefit. The same ritual is observed by the seagoing pollutionist cruising in Long Island Sound, Lake Erie, the Florida inland waters, or off the Manhattan sewers in the Hudson.

They have other pleasant customs. Thus they hold informal conventions and retreats at Niagara Falls. This awesome and now slightly yellowish cataract has a special, almost mystical meaning for pollutionists, much like that of Ripon for a Republican and Belmont, Massachusetts, for a Bircher. Once the mighty waters rejoiced only the eye and ear. Now they have something for the nose. Young pollutionists have revived the custom of their grandparents and go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. They believe that any child conceived within sight and smell of the falls will be forever filthy.

The pollutionists face the future with confidence. However, they are naturally concerned with the problem of leadership. Few feel, as he and they both put it, that Lyndon Johnson is a man with whom they can go to the well. They do not trust Ladybird. But they haven’t made up their minds about Robert Kennedy. He has youth on his side, and that is good. Too many older people have idealized, nostalgic, and impractical recollections of how things were before civilization arrived. But they have yet to check on one of his trips down a river to see what the children leave behind. The New Left is also young and looks promising, but some warn that its looks can be deceptive.

All members of the movement know Richard Nixon to be a fair-minded man who will weigh carefully the political advantages and disadvantages of a thing like pollution. And they know that he will take an earnest and principled stand on their behalf once they are really popular. But not before. Lester Maddox is still thought by some to be a comer, but he needs to broaden his base. He is identified with too narrow a concept of trash.

Until a short two years ago Barry Goldwater was the gray-white hope of the movement. All pollutionists dream of the day when a man can down a can or bottle of beer and let fly — with the container. As an avowed and militant opponent of government regulation, Barry, it was believed, could be counted upon to defend this basic freedom. Now the sophisticated pollutionists, who set the tone of the movement, are not so sure. Early this year, he lent his name to an effort to socialize Camelback Mountain, which abuts the Goldwater backyard. He wanted to turn it into a public park and thus prevent unsightly real estate development by the American free private-enterprise system. Such an aesthetic sense is naturally suspect — a man like that could come out against junkyards. Some now say that Barry may be a secret fellow traveler of Stewart Udall.

In fact, all members of the movement look forward to the day when their effort will attract a new and dynamic leader with an unqualified commitment to dirt. Nor is it likely that they will have long to wait. American cities, their empty lots, the highway approaches, the distant, distant countryside, the lakes and streams to the extent that they remain liquid, and the semisolid canopy over all bear visible, tangible, and frequently powerful testimony to the spirit that awaits only to be mobilized. Pollution may well be the nation’s most broadly based and democratic effort.