Pick Your Poison

LeCain describes the transformational, relocational, and delaying technofix, arguing that the almost inevitable appearance of these characteristics is due to the lack of a broad ecological perspective by the engineers who developed them rather than a purposeful disregard for the environment. He offers the example of the Ducktown copper smelters, which released harmful amounts of sulfur dioxide gas into the air and poisoned the surrounding environment. Under pressure from local communities and the government, the Tennessee Copper Company developed a way to convert the sulfur dioxide gas into sulfuric acid, which was then sold to nearby fertilizer manufacturers. Fertilizer was then sold to farmers and spread throughout the fields. This is an example of both a transformational and relocational technofix; however, what those engineers did not foresee was the environmental impacts of the fertilizers, which would run off into streams, rivers and lakes. As LeCain puts it, “Once the pollutant was altered into a new product and shipped elsewhere for use, it moved well beyond their still-limited ecological attention and understanding” (144). A similar case arose at the Anaconda smelter, which produced arsenic air pollution, which killed livestock in the surrounding area. The company purchased Frederick Cottrell’s electrostatic precipitator to remove the arsenic particulate from the pollution. Also concerned about making this a profitable solution, they reused the captured arsenic as a preservative for their mine timbers, and sold it to southern cotton fields to use in fertilizers. Thus, they “fixed” the problem by transforming it and relocating it. Once the smelter shut down, arsenic dust that had been captured but not yet dealt with was left, and the arsenic in the mine timbers seeped into groundwater once the pumps stopped running—thereby also delaying the consequences of the technofix. Once again, the technofix was only successful in the “narrowly defined part of the environment” (LeCain, 150) in which the mine operatives worked.

This all begs the question, are extracted minerals worth the extreme ecological destruction they produce? One’s answer to that question will inevitably vary due to their social and political backgrounds; I want to answer no, but also realize that realistically, this is not the case. A good solution, for now, at least, is to focus on recycling materials that have already been extracted, and because extraction will continue, to look for ores that have a lower sulfur (or arsenic, etc.) content. This may be a case of “pick your poison,” but if dangerous components are not present to begin with, technofixes may not have to be applied at all. This is definitely a simplistic view, but nevertheless may hold some value.