Contaminated brownfields: how did it come to this in America?

The business is long gone, the buildings removed but the aftermath is not.  Left behind is a “brownfield,” a nice word for a site contaminated with deadly poisons, and no one left to pay for clean-up if that’s even possible. And what to do with it once it is cleaned up? Another industrial site, another fence line community in the poorer part of town where the people of color live. There are thousands of brownfields all over America. How did it come to this? No one intended to damage the Earth and make humans sick. We blundered into it.

It’s a long and complicated story, but here is a capsule summary. We have created a revolutionary civilization unlike any other in history, and one that cannot sustain itself. We are shredding the web of life. Recognizing this is not to reject the good things, like vaccines and electricity, but we need to separate the good from the bad, such as brownfields.

The new civilization was a long time in the making and included some radical ideas about who we are as humans, how we see nature, the economy, and some radical experimentation with technologies that turned out to be destructive of life. We got on the wrong path beginning in the 17th century.  Our great philosophers and scientists began to work from a radical philosophy of materialism. In this view, nature is simply a mine of materials that can be taken apart and endlessly recombined without any downside. A complex forest ecosystem is just so much lumber not yet cut. Our dominant idea was the conquest of nature. We were seen as apart from, rather than a member of, the natural community which is our life-support system. Today such a philosophy prompts some to advocate geoengineering and terraforming, believing that we are now the masters of evolution and will guide the Earth into the future.

On the base of these ideas we constructed modern civilization. Ecosystems were divided into parcels of private property whose owners were nearly sovereign. The corporations saw complex land communities as just so much geometric space. They could do just about whatever they wanted and since the sole standard for business success was profit, whatever contributed to profit was good and whatever didn’t was bad. If it paid to drain a wetland, or discard your toxic wastes into the water, that’s what you did. Any regulation of these corporations was resisted as an infringement on freedom. These practices combined with the illusion of endless economic growth, about which Kenneth Boulding quipped, “Anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either insane or an economist.” It’s a simple fact that no economy that ruins its environment can survive. They have to be compatible. As our former Senator Gaylord Nelson said, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

The scientists enlisted in the service of the corporations and created tens of thousands of untested chemical substances such as deadly thalium, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT for which life, including human life, had no evolutionary preparation. This is why they make us sick.

The other dimension of this history is that polluting industrial plants were situated up wind of the affluent neighborhoods while poor neighborhoods were down wind, living in what are now called “fence line communities” where the pollution ended up. Now there is a decision to be made about whether to clean up these brownfields and what to do with them. Repeat the mistakes of the past, or create some public benefit such as low income housing.

 Kent Shifferd is a historian and the author of the new book, Planetary Emergency: Environmental Collapse and the Promise of Ecocivilization.