Examines four long-term trends in pollution.

Executive Summary

Today, pollution is occurring on a vast and unprecedented scale around the globe. Trends point in two ominous directions:

  • first, toward large and growing releases of certain chemicals – principally from burning fossil fuels – that are now significantly altering the natural systems on a global scale; and
  • second, toward steady increases in the use and release to the environment of innumerable biocidal products and toxic substances.

These shifts from the “sewage and soot” concerns of the pre-World War II periods to vastly more serious concerns pose formidable challenges for societies, both industrial and developing – challenges that modern pollution control laws address only partially.

To address the serious pollution challenges of decades ahead, several large-scale social and technological transitions are needed.

Today’s pollution is integrally related to economic production, modern technology, life-styles, the sizes of human and animal populations, and a host of other factors. It is unlikely to yield except to broad macrotransitions that have multiple social benefits.

These transitions include shifting away from fossil fuels and waste-intensive technologies, bringing our most sophisticated science to bear, altering prices and other economic incentives, perceiving pollution as transboundary and global, and progressing to a stable world population.

This article is reprinted from Earth '88: Changing Geographic Perspectives, National Geographic Society.