Healing Our World Commentary: Environmental Illness Sufferers Foretell Our Future

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Toxic Indifference

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures
is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them:
that's the essence of inhumanity."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"The world is a dangerous place.
Not because of the people who are evil;
but because of the people who don't do anything about it."

-- Albert Einstein

"We will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends."

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

It is easy to point an accusatory finger at a smokestack or other corporate polluter as the source of environmental problems. And it is true that industries put out millions of pounds of toxic substances into our world every year. It is harder, however, to flush out the destructive indifference that many people practice on a daily basis in our disconnected world.

Unless we somehow find the way – and the will – to end this indifference and challenge the assumptions we all hold dear, the environmental onslaught will continue until there are no functioning ecosystems left on the planet.


Luxury TV room (Photo courtesy Nichols & Comito)
It is vitally important that we all periodically examine our lifestyle choices and see what level of responsibility we each bear for the environmental crisis. It is no secret that few polluting industries would exist if there were not customers for their products.

The amount of goods we consume is staggering. In the first 12 weeks of the year, you and I spent over $2 billion buying videos. In 2001, we spent $5.1 billion just on batteries. Brides-to-be spent $35 billion on weddings last year, and this year, Americans will spend an unbelievable $550 billion on gambling. Corporations will spend untold billions on advertising.

But the World Game Institute tells us that we could remove all land mines from the Earth for $2 billion, provide shelter for everyone on the planet for $21 billion, provide health care and AIDS control worldwide for $21 billion and eliminate starvation and malnutrition worldwide for $19 billion. What keeps us from establishing life affirming priorities? Why is it that in our consumer based culture, to be strong, powerful and successful seems to require that someone else go without and fail?


New York City street (Photo courtesy OTC)
The concept of community has shifted in Western culture and any other culture influenced by the values of the West. No longer is it considered as important to surround oneself with family and friends. Most children’s dream is to leave home, and we are rewarded for achieving independence and being on our own. Individualism rules the land, and children are taught that being independent is the greatest feat they can achieve.

We are encouraged to create firm boundaries in our lives to defend against having others be too close to us. We put our children into daycare, creating a generation of people who are being raised by nannies and know their parents only as nighttime and weekend visitors.

Is it any wonder that most of us feel an emptiness, a void in our lives and that so many people feel so alone? Is it any wonder that the holidays bring great depression for so many, holidays that highlight our aloneness? Is it any wonder that when faced with the magnitude of the environmental destruction taking place all around us, we throw up our hands and say “enough?”

Our leaders and the media are quick to offer to fill that void with the promise of fulfillment through the acquisition of goods and services. Classism quickly gains strength as the race to be the one with the most toys takes precedence over everything.

Indifference permeates our lives. We analyze whether or not to give a few coins to a homeless woman begging on the street because we have no control over how she uses the money. Yet thrift stores are filled with the goods that we have spent millions of dollars on and grown tired of so quickly.

We are so afraid of fully accepting the consequences of our purchases, for to do so would mean that we might have to make another choice, maybe even decide to not to buy.


Typical E-scrapping dismantling operation. 100,000 such migrant workers break down imported computers in hundreds of small operations like this one in a four village area surrounding the Lianjiang River. Guiyu, China. December 2001. (Photo courtesy Basel Action Network.)
Billions of dollars are spent on electronics every year, especially on computers and televisions. It feels great to get a new TV or computer and many of us take the extra effort to bring the old equipment into a store that promises to recycle it. Recently, I brought some old computer equipment to an office supply store that was doing a recycling campaign. It felt good to have made an effort to keep the equipment out of a landfill. But where did the equipment really go?

About 500 companies and groups in the United States take part in the electronics recycling industry. Many of these companies are paid handsomely by major U.S. corporations to keep these old computers, TVs and radios from polluting ecosystems, making their companies a target for criticism since their corporate logos are displayed proudly on the equipment.

The number of electronic items to be recycled is projected to grow from 12 million in 2000 to 25 million in 2005. Many more than that are thrown out each year. It is estimated that between 1997 and 2007, 500 million pieces of electronic equipment will be discarded, containing 1.5 billion pounds of lead, 632,000 pounds of mercury, and three million pounds of cadmium, all toxic substances.

The United States cannot handle all of this waste, so this hazardous waste is “recycled” by selling it to countries like China and India. In New Delhi, India, children are routinely employed to burn circuit boards. In Karachi, solder is removed from circuit boards by children with blowtorches, a process that is usually done indoors with no ventilation. The children breathe the highly toxic fumes.


Acid worker dissolves the gold from discarded computer parts. Guiyu, China. December 2001 (Photo courtesy Basel Action Network)
In a poor village in the Guiyu region of China, northeast of Hong Kong, Seattle activist Jim Puckett filmed what few of us will ever see or even think about – the real destination for many of our computers brought in for recycling. In that village, Pucket filmed clouds of toxic gas rising from open vats of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid tended by the workers. Without any protection for their lungs, these workers breathed in life shortening gases as they dissolved the gold out of computer parts. The leftover gray sludge was dumped alongside the river adjacent to the site.

Puckett, in a special report to the “Seattle Post-Intelligencer” on February 25, 2002, said he saw very little recycling. Instead, he saw huge amounts of toxic waste piling up along waterways. A soil sample revealed toxins at rates hundreds of times greater than that of a Superfund site in the United States.

Puckett’s report, released by the Basel Action Network, Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and two Asian organizations, said, “The export of e-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution.” The report says, “A free trade in hazardous waste leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison.”

But we demand low prices, regardless of the global cost. Mark Small, vice president for environment, safety and health at Sony Electronics, Inc., said electronics waste is a small fraction of the total waste generated by the manufacturing of toys, clothing and other items made in Asia. “To be blunt,” he said, “we need those low labor rates to get value out of products, so that you can go to Wal-Mart and buy a boombox for $30.”

Our indifference translates into a profound disconnection with the natural world and a loss of our roots and our home. Abusing our environment and ignoring the cries of pain of our neighbors is easy if you don’t feel a connection to the world.

Shed your layers of intentional or unintentional indifference. Look below the surface of every issue in your life. Don’t wonder – find out. Don’t shy away from knowing and don’t fear the truth. Knowing the consequences of your choices can’t hurt you as much as ignoring them will.


1. See the full report, “Exporting Harm: Techno Trash to Asia,” at: http://www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/technotrash.htm

2. Don’t throw out those unneeded floppy disks and those wasteful CD’s from America Online. They can be recycled. Send them to Green Disk at: http://www.greendisk.com/sp1_1.html

3. Join the Campaign for Responsible Technology at: http://www.svtc.org/listserv/lssignup.htm

4. Read an article about apathy and how to overcome it at: http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/01ja/ja01loeb.htm

5. See a discussion with Joanna Macy about how facing the truth about our environmental problems can be very empowering at: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC22/Macy.htm

6. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them that they must take steps to control our high tech waste. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found trying to keep his awareness from turning into despair. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com}