Can we all agree on three philosophical concepts? I. There is evil in the world; II. It is not true that nothing is accomplished by violence; and III. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I and II have long been asserted by many, including our President. On III, most of us recognize that organizations of all kinds have varying degrees of power and have been corrupted BUT only governments have absolute power – see Red China, North Korea and the ISIS caliphate.
Generally, no one says we should do nothing about pollution and health hazards. The differences are about what makes sense. Basic cost v. benefit analyses show why richer societies are solving problems while the LDC’s are exacerbating them. Moreover, the reference to the first half of the century minimizes the effect of WWII. War pushed production of steel and ships beyond 100% capacity by deferring maintenance and repairs. Accordingly, “dirty” industry got dirtier. No one faults the government for its orders requiring asbestos products for naval vessels, vehicles and the increased production by steel mills.
By 1950, Pittsburgh was a much cleaner city. The steel industry had modernized its plants and helped get political support to eliminate coal fired locomotives in Pittsburgh and essentially banned the use of coal fired heating of homes. Sadly, by the 1970’s, various “zeros” - zero population growth, zero pollution absolutism, etc. - were the rage. GASP (a local environmental/political group) said the steel industry should leave the U.S. and let the LDC’s make steel and have the pollution. Meanwhile, the U.S. government sued J&L because water discharged from an Ohio mill, while much cleaner than the intake river water, was not 100% pure water. Other purists pushed to restrict the use of asbestos and then its elimination. I and millions of others had used asbestos products in the 50’s in accordance with industry standards without adverse consequences. The explosion of asbestos litigation established: 1. properly applied and handled, the risks had been dramatically lessened; 2. many of the actual injuries dated from the 1940’s and stemmed from shipbuilding; 3. the cases were rife with abuse and outright fraud. Multimillionaire lawyers and various judges were jailed or disciplined.
I believe industry is not evil and a hundred years from now the predicted environmental disaster (which has been on hold for the last 15-20 years) may become another non-event. We have already avoided the “scientifically” predicted disaster of peak oil, famines caused by population growth, and the global freeze predicted in the 70’s when Pittsburgh’s rivers froze for the first time in centuries. Usually, if problems develop, industry corrects them with better results than government mandates. Long before the Clean Air Act, I helped to install the precipators at the J&L plant in Aliquippa. In the 70’s, I negotiated a consent decree in the Ohio water case against J&L. It did not require the demanded 100% pure water. The more than $10,000,000 capital expenditure required by the decree had, as a practical matter, no impact on the quality of the river water. While it was a political victory for Nixon and the environmentalists, it was an additional cost for an industry suffering from foreign competition.
Not surprisingly, when I visited a steel mill in China in 1985, it was still blackening the skies and river and was using asbestos. However, the Aliquippa mill is gone and the Ohio mill is in limbo. GASP got what it wanted. The steelworkers and shareholders suffered and world pollution increased.