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The History of Pollution Through a Political Lens

The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.

On today’s episode, Andrew talks with Thomas Le Roux, co-author of The Contamination of the Earth, about the trajectories of pollution in global capitalism.

From the episode:

Andrew Keen: Reading between the lines of your book, I got the sense that you see the history of the contamination of the Earth and the history of capitalism very much bound up with one another. Do you think to really confront this catastrophe, this environmental disaster, this contamination of the Earth, we have to also confront capitalism itself?

Thomas Le Roux: Yes, I think so, because if we look at history, we can see that the naturalization of pollution and the way we confront pollution with technology and compensation, they are completely linked to capitalism. Before the industrialization, so before 1800, the understanding of pollution was completely linked to social interaction within a local community. Capitalism brought into the market a lot of products. There was a phenomenon of liberalization of production, liberalization of the market, and it was from this liberalization that pollution began to be accepted.

In this time, we can see that it’s the same story. The story is that pollution can be mitigated through technological arrangements and through compensation. When we think about the carbon market, it’s the same way to fight against climate climate change, for example.

And in the same way, lots of engineers or technocrats, they said that technology will save the world. But we can see from the historical point of view that that is not the case. Since the 1800s, history shows that there are always technological improvements. But at the same time, we can see an increase of pollution.

Andrew Keen: Right. Your book, one thing it shows is that this idea of progress and of technological innovation has gone along with the contamination of the Earth. This is a hugely important book, Thomas. It’s not a fun book, but I think we all have—I wouldn’t say an obligation to read it, but we should all look at this book because it really reveals the environmental catastrophe that we still participate in. In addition to this book, what else would you suggest people read in these strange times?

Thomas Le Roux: I would suggest The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, because I think it’s quite related to this book. During the 1940s crisis and the transformation of property in the United States, but also linked to the Dust Bowls in the United States, which was a very big change in the environment. So, change in the environment, change in property in agriculture, and a link to some kind of injustice.

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Thomas Le Roux is a tenured Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at the Centre for Historical Research in the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (CRH-EHESS) in Paris.

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