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Down the dirt track

A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLLUTION Adam Markham . Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 1994 Price: US $14.93

By Dhruv Raina
Published: Monday 15 January 1996

Lure of the more: adding up to (Credit: USIS)FROM the miasma of late 18th century Manchester to the Earth Summit at Rio, Markham's 'tourist guide to pollution', turns out to be much more than that. Beyond the travelling roadshow of international environmental negotiations and airport biologists, Markham successfully conveys the magnitude of today's environmental crisis and the impending consequences of unregulated pollution. The most attractive feature of the Histoty is that it steers a middle path between a romantic attempt to restore the enchantment with nature and visions of technological solutions.

While much of the material in the last four chapters is staple fare, Markham astutely turns his analytical gaze on environmental movements, tracing their evolution, differences, and roles in highlighting issues like chloroflourocarbons and ozone hole depletion, and discussing them.

But the first few chapters are insightful and lucid in popular exposition. Here Markham combs the cultural and literary texts of the industrial and post-industrial age, emphasising the relationship between the most sacred symbols of a consumerist society (motor cars, fast food culture, television, and so on), and the end that awaits it. In fact, the relationship between 'shopping', consumption - its 'addictive drug', and pollution, is discussed extensively.

Rather than ascribing the entire responsibility of pollution to technological regimes that have dominated or hegemonised civilisations over the last century and a half, the author seeks to chronicle the merger of consumerism and its different strains.

The emergence of a consuming middle class, of new trading systems, the seduction of societies by newer products and the rapidly expanding tourism industry, have all contributed significantly to the global pollution scenario. Markham fittingly demonstrates this by marshalling the findings of economic historians, complementing them with cultural representations of the unhealthy living conditions of industrial Europe. Resistance to the defiling of nature in the late 18th and 19th centuries resulted in the transmutation of issues relating to unhealthy living and working conditions into those of public good.

The merit of reading this book, is that, pollution is no longer visualised as a mere technological aberration, but also as a social one. Thus, the debate is also entangled with economic morals and urban lifestyles. The complex nature of the issues involved does not leave much scope for hoping that any moral commitment would by itself lead anywhere. This idea is reflected in the book's last chapter, on the politics of pollution. And in this zone of conflict, which is as much a zone of negotiation, the magnitude of the problems involved requires that any plan enacted or implemented can be effective, if done so in global concert.

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