There was once, my older readers will remember, a Victorian premier called Henry Bolte. Remembered now only for ensuring that he would be the last state premier to order a hanging in Australia, and for his famous response to the growing concern about the environment in the 1960s. “Air pollution? The wind blows it away. Water pollution? The sea washes it away.”
He would have thoroughly approved of the work at the crippled nuclear reactors in Japan, as water rich in radioactivity was pumped out to sea. What could go wrong – radioactive fish? As indeed what could go wrong with pumping chemicals down into coal seams to extract gas in rich farming areas with deep alluvial soils? I mean, where could the chemicals finish up – in bore water? Or open slather import of foods (exploding watermelons anyone?) and toys (high lead levels anyone?) from other countries with poor safety and regulation records, no chance of any problem there for our children?
Look, maybe I am an extra bit sensitive at the moment, given circumstances, but I think we have all got a bit blase about chemicals in the environment. Concern in the 1960s eventually got smoothed over, wished away, regulations gradually relaxed in the interests, you understand, of increasing profits. But now I wince when I read about coal seam “fracking”, shudder when I see trucks spraying weeds along roadsides as I drive past, groan when I see a bunch of grapes in a supermarket labelled “exposed to SO2″, worry about the nuclear industry push in Australia. And each time I read a study showing an inexplicable increase in some childhood (or adult) medical condition once largely unknown I wonder whether the pollution Bolte so blithely waved goodbye to as it blew away from Victoria has gone around the globe and come back to bite us all.
And I don’t know what we can do about it. I was as careful as could be about what I ate and drank and used in the garden, on the farm, but if there are invisible tasteless chemicals, in the air we breathe in the city, or the food we buy in supermarkets, or the water we drink in the country, then careful doesn’t really cut it.
The environment needs the old Hippocratic oath applied to it – first do no harm. After that make all the profit you like. Henry Bolte believed in the reverse, but then he believed in hanging people too. Times are a changing, aren’t they?