Toxic Waste: Stopping It at Its Source
Back in 1971, Russell Bliss sprayed oil mixed with dioxin on dusty horse arenas, dirt roads, parking lots, and farms at twenty-two sites in Missouri. His purpose was twofold: to control the dust and to get rid of the dioxin, a waste product that a defunct hexachlorophene plant had paid him to dispose of. At the time no one knew that dioxin was one of the world’s most deadly poisons—that exposure to even one part per billion can hurt you.
Soon people in villages like Times Beach, where government investigators found more than one hundred parts of dioxin per billion in 1974, were suffering severe headaches, chest pains, and diarrhea. And hundreds of birds and animals were dying. Because the long-term effects of dioxin are thought to include cancer and birth defects, the people in Times Beach and the other contaminated towns have borne a crushing burden of anxiety. And most frightening of all, forty pounds of dioxin from the hexachlorophene plant are still unaccounted for.
Today Times Beach is disappearing: last February, in an attempt to make amends for nine years of scandalous neglect, the federal government bought up all but a handful of the town’s eight hundred homes and thirty businesses.
But the problem that Times Beach epitomizes will not disappear. Suddenly Americans are being forced to ask themselves, What are we going to do with all those billions of tons of toxic waste our industries generate? And how are we going to protect ourselves from the billions of tons improperly disposed of in the past?
Of course, these questions aren’t new. Ever since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring created an uproar against DDT in the early sixties, we’ve become increasingly aware of the threat of man-made chemicals in the environment. In the seventies this growing concern produced the Environmental Protection Agency, with its $1.6 billion “superfund” targeted to clean up the worst toxic waste dumps.
Yet although we’ve known of environmental pollution for decades and pushed the government hard to control and combat it, here it is 1983, the EPA is under investigation for dereliction of duty and possible criminal collusion with industrial polluters, and next to nothing has been done about the tons of poisonous chemicals pouring into our rivers, seeping into our soil, and leeching into our ground water. Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong place for help.
The real culprit in the toxic waste mess isn’t the EPA or even the industrial polluters. It’s us. In the words of Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois Medical Center and co-author of Hazardous Waste in America, “The driving force behind the very existence of the hazardous waste problem is modern society’s thirst for consumer products and its eagerness to purchase them at the lowest short-term market cost, even if this means generating massive quantities of dangerous byproducts. . . . Given the limitations of knowledge, the imperfections of institutions, the runaway nature of modern chemical technology, and the ‘unforgiving nature’ of hazardous substances, only one strategy can ensure the long-range protection of man and the environment from hazardous wastes. And that is not to generate them.”
Fine. But Dr. Epstein doesn’t go far enough. The crux of the problem is how to change the way we live so we won’t need or want consumer goods that produce huge amounts of toxic waste. This is the issue that Dr. Epstein fails to address but that the Krsna consciousness movement can.
From the Krsna conscious viewpoint, the root of the toxic waste mess goes even deeper than Americans’ desire for the products of a high-tech consumer society. Underlying this desire is a misconception of who we are and where we should look for happiness.
In the Bhagavad-gita, a standard book of spiritual knowledge, Lord Krsna explains that it’s a mistake to identify ourselves with our body. We’re actually spirit souls, particles of conscious energy, situated within the body just as a driver sits in a car. When we identify ourselves with our body, we seek to satisfy the demands of the bodily senses. And yielding to exaggerated and unnatural sensual demands brings painful reactions—such as poisoning from toxic wastes. Selfish action followed by painful reaction: this is one aspect of the law of karma.
When we understand our true identity as spirit souls, however, we don’t have to stimulate our senses to be happy. We can get happiness from a higher source. This is true because as spirit souls we are not simply particles of consciousness but part of the Supreme Consciousness, Lord Krsna, with whom we have an eternal intimate relationship. So when we think of Krsna, glorify Him, and serve Him, we feel a transcendental happiness far greater than any sense pleasure. A Krsna conscious devotee can therefore be perfectly satisfied leading a simple life, consuming the minimum needed for health and reasonable comfort, and enjoying the pleasure of serving God in many ways.
But, someone may protest, Hare Krsna devotees also contribute to the toxic waste problem when they drive cars, fly in airplanes, and publish books. They’re also polluting the environment.
True, devotees of Krsna are polluting the environment—but only minimally, because they’re not using technology to meet the exaggerated demands of the senses. They use only as much technology as is absolutely necessary for spreading the teachings of Krsna consciousness, knowledge people urgently need so they can give up a technology-dependent life for a simple life of devotional service to God. And devotees of Krsna are building farm communities where they are living this ideal life as far as possible (see “Ox Power,” page 10). Basic agriculture, cottage industries, reliance on the cow for milk and the ox for power, and cultivating pure love for God—this kind of karma-free life is in perfect harmony with the environment.
America’s karmic debts are starting to come due. Toxic wastes have joined nuclear armaments as a danger long ignored that must now be faced. Palliatives like the EPA superfund can only delay a solution to the problem by lulling us into thinking something is being done when things are only getting worse. What’s needed is not a political solution but a spiritual one. Until a cleanup of the environment is coupled with a cleanup of our hearts, until we stop demanding the baubles of high-tech consumer goods and start living a simple life of spiritual culture, America is sure to have more Times Beaches in its future.