Every point in history has featured its own special set of high-profile problems that it seemed like society spent an entire decade or more battling until, one day, we got that shit under control. Like how we used to worry all the time about nuclear reactors melting down and giving us all radiation poisoning, so we stopped pursuing nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels and went back to drinking oil straight from the bottle. Except sometimes, those problems don't actually go away; we just stop talking about them as much for some reason. We talk about a few examples on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Chet Wild and musician Danger Van Gorder. It's also what I'm talking about in this column here today. Let's get it!
#5. Blood Diamonds
Remember conflict diamonds? We sometimes call them blood diamonds because that sounds metal as all get out. Surely you remember that Leonardo DiCaprio made a movie about them, if nothing else. Or maybe I'm wrong and you know next to nothing about anything. If that's the case, the elevator pitch is that conflict/blood diamonds are stones that are sourced from mines that fund armed conflict and various other types of atrocities in Africa.
The problem first received widespread attention when an organization called Global Witness published a report in 1998 about the role diamonds played in a deadly conflict in Angola, which had been raging for an entire decade by that point. In other words, if you got married between 1988 and 1998, your ring probably killed and/or created a child soldier.
Way to go, jerks.
That last part was a joke, but also kind of true, and no one wants that kind of thing on their conscience. Public outcry for the diamond industry to change its ways could not be ignored. So, in 2000, South African diamond-producing states met up in Kimberley, South Africa, to discuss ways to stop the flow of blood diamonds into the legitimate gem market. What they came up with is called the Kimberley Process.
If you look on the "Ethics" page of any diamond retailer these days, you'll see the Kimberley Process mentioned within the first paragraph, guaranteed. You're also likely to read fantastical tales about how the process is responsible for ensuring that, in today's retail diamond market, a whopping 99 percent of the stones are conflict-free.
Nothing breaks up the monotony of a wall of text like a picture of more text.
When it comes to addressing an industry-wide issue, those are pretty impressive results. Unfortunately, those results are a total sham.
You see, there's a fairly ridiculous flaw (ha) in the Kimberley Process. Basically, any diamond that isn't used to fund the rebel side of an armed conflict is considered clean. In other words, if you're the head of a brutal African dictatorship and you want to fund your atrocities through the diamond trade, that's perfectly fine. The aforementioned Global Witness pulled out of the Kimberley Process after the decision was made to certify diamonds from the Marange region of Zimbabwe, recently the scene of mass killings by the national army, as conflict-free.
Even if every diamond that was even tangentially involved in an armed conflict of any sort was taken off the market, the Kimberley Process doesn't take things like slavery or human-trafficking into account. If you dig deep enough to find where the various diamond retailers stand on that issue, a search made slightly easier by the fact that one company owns damn near every jewelry store you can name off the top of your head ...
The choice is yours!
... you'll find that they're far less certain about their ability to ensure that no slavery or human-trafficking makes it onto the ingredients list of your engagement ring.
Asbestos, in a lot of ways, is like the cigarettes of building materials. For years we thought it was perfectly fine and safe, only to find out later that just breathing it in could be enough to give you a raging case of the cancer. Of course, our efforts to rid the world of asbestos were slightly more effective than our various campaigns to make smoking a thing of the past.
Except not really. There's more to the parallel between tobacco and asbestos than the fact that both can cause cancer. You might recall hearing that, once public favor turned against smoking in the United States, the big tobacco companies started focusing their marketing powers on developing countries and places where the bad news about cigarettes hadn't reached yet.
Unfortunately, the asbestos industry did the exact same thing. Since the '80s, pro-asbestos lobby groups have spent nearly $100 million making sure their product is still in use in as many places as possible, even if its use is completely banned in 50 different countries.
For example, try telling Canada about all that mesothelioma stuff. They kept asbestos mines open and operating until very recently. Like last year recently. Where were those mines located? In the town of Asbestos, Quebec.
Yes. This is a real place.
Canada is just one of a handful of countries that kept using asbestos well after most of the world had caught on to its hazards. Some of the others include Brazil, India, and Russia. You'll note those are all places with massive populations, which should be all the explanation you need as to why asbestos still kills more than 100,000 people globally each year.
Hell, asbestos still kills more than 12,000 people in the United States each year, and we banned it a long damn time ago. It's just that we're still dealing with the health problems that all those years of using it eventually caused.
That said, at least we did ban it at some point. Despite overwhelming evidence (and a mounting death toll) that proves how dangerous asbestos use truly is, some of the most populous nations on Earth still use it to this day. Crazy, right?
#3. The Hole In The Ozone Layer
Hey, whatever happened to the hole in the ozone layer? For at least half of the '80s and most of the following decade, it was the central talking point in any discussion about how maybe we should stop treating the planet like a combination toilet/garbage dump. What was super convenient about it, at least as far as global disasters go, was that we figured out the reason it was happening almost right away. The culprit was chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs if you're a lazy bitch. They were commonly found in aerosol cans of the kind used to disperse the hairspray that fueled rock music for the last half of the '80s.
Poison destroyed the ozone layer.
That problem worked itself out when Kurt Cobain made depression and not giving a shit about how you look (as long as you're still rock-star pretty) all the rage in the early '90s. All those hairspray cans became completely useless at that point, and in no time at all, the hole in the ozone layer stopped dominating the headlines.
Fast-forward to right now and, even better, stories have been trickling in about how the hole in the ozone layer was finally closing. If you think the part about the ozone hole being a thing we'd seemingly forgotten about isn't true, please note that this National Geographic article about how the hole is closing leads off by asking readers, right in the headline, if they even remember it in the first place.
You won't believe what it looks like now!
That alone makes the hole in the ozone layer worthy of inclusion here, and all the most recent headlines glowing about how it's finally closing won't do much to keep it on anyone's radar. However, the scientist who discovered the hole way back in the '80s, Jon Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey, says we shouldn't be celebrating just yet.
For starters, the hole is just closing; it's not closed. That won't happen until at least 2050, and that's only if we keep on the righteous path from a climate standpoint between then and now. We probably won't. As Shanklin points out, the fundamental lesson from the CFC scare, which is that we shouldn't pump chemicals into the atmosphere on account of how it's bad for the environment, is one that's still mostly lost on us. The damage we inflicted that caused the hole in the ozone layer happened mostly in the span of about 10 years. Just because it's closing now doesn't mean we won't do something stupid in the very near future that blows it wide open again.