Topic 1

Brush with Death

What do you think drives the tendency of capitalist countries to put profits before people? Is it that simple, or should we think about how environmental choices, no matter how well-intentioned, can sometimes do more harm than good? Can you think of legitimate reasons that we have moved so slow in ridding ourselves of lead?

6 thoughts on “Brush with Death

  • Caroline Schiavo

    The first chapter of the book clearly explains profit before people as “The United States is now the world’s leading supplier of both leading supplier of both lead products and anti-lead-poisoning activism (25)”. Environmental choices can definitely do more harm than good such as the threshold level for treating lead poison. Originally 70 ug/dL in 1950, the level for concern is now 10 ug/dL, but many argue these thresholds do reduce the danger, if anything it makes the public believe that certain levels of lead are safe when any level of contamination is bad contributing to the so-called “silent epidemic”. Even the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Papers union seemed to value manufacturer profits over the painters it claimed to support. Their official magazine, The Painter and Decorator commonly had ad pages bought by “white leaders” such as the National Lead Company. Furthermore, lead paint companies won compensation lawsuits. They maintained their procedures required workers to take the appropriate health precautions such as wearing respirators and clothing protection, but many workers refused or did not take the advice seriously, another way profit was more important than safety. In 1924, corporate greed in relationship to the leaded gasoline crisis caused the Bayway accident and scandalized Standard Oil and DuPont. As chapter seven explains, in a rush to speed up production companies often did not separate the hazardousness of tetraethyl lead with other plant procedures. The Bayway accident woke up companies as lead manufacturers stopped only “using medical experts to reassure the public than to protect workers” (123), but when they did prevention was the only way. In all honesty, there seems to be no legitimate reason that we moved so slowly in starting to remove lead from the environment, it seems lobbyists and corporate greed continues to get the best of America that we are indeed a poisoned country.

  • Isabel Copnall

    Capitalism puts the control of the market in the hands of the people, it means that people can, in principle, control how much they get out from the economy by how much they put into it. In reality, there are very few people in control of the majority. This idea that we are all in control of our own lives may lead business owners to reject responsibility for the welfare of their workers. This idea that ‘they are in control, so if they do not want to be exposed to lead then they don’t have to work in my factory’. Unfortunately, those who are working in these dangerous environments are most likely not privileged enough to afford this choice, they simply have to go where the work is. Those benefitted from this capitalist mindset then begin to think of their workers as dispensable objects, a tool that they can use and discard of as they please. In the past, this mindset meant that their solution to lead poisoning was to fire workers after a few months hoping that they hadn’t been exposed to enough led to be poisoned. Of course, these workers could just go on to work in another factory, but the capitalist mindset means that as long as those in power are still earning money, their workers lives don’t matter.

  • Savannah Etzler

    Capitalist systems can’t operate without the exploitation of laborers and manipulation of consumers. Throughout the twentieth century and extending to today, is the pervasive notion that the market will push forward the consumer’s concerns. Our neoliberal cultural mindset places responsibility on the individual rather than big businesses. Within the sphere of food and food justice, consumers are told to shop according to their political ideologies—if people want organic, ethical food, they should shop at farmers markets, which will result in big companies shifting their production to cater to those ethical consumers. Joshua Sbicca, author of Food Justice Now!, argues that food justice movements must account for more than just food, they must also seek solutions to the structural inequities that lie beneath our current food issues. Similarly, lead isn’t just about lead, it reflects a structure of oppression. This system has maintained power and our continued exposure to lead through:

    • Capitalism, which forces individuals to accept exploitation because of their dependence on wages regardless of the job’s risks and seeks to lower production costs, thereby maximizing profits.

    • Our medical research system, which is also a business and therefore allows for the buying (and therefore manipulation and suppression) of knowledge (Warren, 85).

    • Our medical culture, which has historically focused on curative, rather than preventative medicine.

    • A pervasive, quasi-religious belief in survival of the fittest. This led to early 20th century scientists blaming plumbism on poor constitution (Warren, 103) and laborers refusing preventative measures because they believed they were strong enough to physically withstand the risks (Warren,92).

  • Lola Berna Gascon

    I think that it may have a lot to do with the lack of consideration when businesses try to actually do things accurately. A lot of brands and enterprises practice nowadays what is called “green-washing”, which is trying to look eco while they are not that much. I feel like, whenever they try to really do things ok, they do not benefit from it, because of people going to the cheaper competitor or because of competitors trying to look like eco and not letting us realize the difference what we are consuming. But I guess that at the end, I will be agreeing with the statement that they look for their benefit or profit and do not really care about people. They think about the good they are doing giving jobs and improving the economy and they believe that this good compensates the bad consequences it could entail.
    Moreover, the second question makes us wonder to what extent we know how to do things well and reminds us every time that we thought we were doing ok and we were wrong. However, this thought drives to a very pessimistic attitude that could lead us to conform and think that there is no solution (which may be true) but that is not the path to follow if we want to improve and solve what we can do solve.
    A great part is also the ignorance about the consequences that Alice Hamilton remarks. We are usually unaware of the problems that surround us and with lead it was even more clear. It also depends on the people it affects, and the ones affected by lead were quite irrelevant for the ones that had to legislate and, then, solve it. Lead was a heap of unawareness of its existence in their surroundings as well as the consequences it entailed. I think that it was believed that the advantages of lead compensated its disadvantages because they were thought smaller than they were actually.
    Social classes are still of great importance in our current society and capitalist countries have seen that resources must not go into the fight against inequality but even the opposite way, as we see that it is quite beneficial for being powerful in the international system. Inequality between states and within states allow them to look for the benefit of the elites.

  • Maria Seitz

    I think capitalist countries function as businesses and as we know businesses only really care about their bottom line. They only care about people so much as they effect their profits. They view people as easily replaceable and value them only for their benefits to their bottom line. However, it is true that sometimes environmental choices made with the best of intentions still have negative outcomes. We often forget to look at issues from multiple perspectives and choices that might benefit the environment might end up looking over the laborers.
    We have been aware of the negative side effects of lead for a long time, however, we were also very aware of the benefits of lead in comparison to other metals. It was relatively cheap, long-lasting, and could be used in so many different ways. Lead was critical to the United States progress during the 20th century, which is one of the reasons it took so long to phase out as we didn’t have a perfect substitute to replace it with. That’s not to say we couldn’t have had the same amount of progress during the 20th century without lead, but it would have looked very different and lead to fundamentally different outcomes. Lead had become an integral part of industry in America and it took a long time to phase it out as people were willing to overlook its negatives due to all of its perceived positives.

  • Leighton Ball

    Profit driven societies are hubs for people who are greedy yet ambitious. They’re somewhat of a double-edged sword. While the prospect of profit will drive many to put the well-being of themselves over countless others, one could also argue that there is a tradeoff balanced by the industrial and entrepreneurial growth. Profiting off of the environment however affects every single person on earth. Personal wealth is worth far less in the long run when compared to the well-being of the earth and its atmosphere. The reluctance to rid ourselves of environmentally unsafe products such as lead is propelled predominantly by its price tag. Most recently, Senator Cory Booker proposed a $50 Billion fund to get rid of all of the lead pipes in the United States. This would be an addition to his $3 trillion plan to decarbonize the economy by 2045.

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