We all know about environmental pollution: pollution and its costs, pollution and its causes, and pollution and its terrible effects. We know that environmental pollution (pollution of the air, in particular) causes the death of one in five people around the world every year, according to data gathered by the World Health Organization in partnership with the World Bank. And we know that environmental pollution has slowly made our world less populated with animal species, less safe for ourselves and our children, and less enjoyable for everyone in almost every way. How could this situation get any worse?
The answer: by recognizing a new kind of environmental pollution: pollution of the mind.
Pollution of the mind isn’t just what happens when you watch too much TV or read too many comic books at a vulnerable age. Rather, pollution of the mind is a concept discovered by researchers working with the effects of advertising on the public consciousness. The idea is that by placing offensive billboards in unavoidably conspicuous locations within a city or by filling the air with exhortations to buy new products, advertisers are effectively polluting the “mental space” of people in large urban areas.
Environmental pollution, pollution of whatever form, essentially means any damaging product, industrial or otherwise, that makes the world less safe and less pleasant to be in. We can argue that both of these qualities are present in pollution of the mind. Advertising is certainly an industrial product, for the most part, and it certainly makes the world less pleasant, unless you’re the type who finds it pleasant to be manipulated by major corporations into spending money you don’t have on products you don’t even enjoy, of course. And advertising can also make the world demonstrably less safe by stunting people’s critical thinking and diminishing the capacity for understanding and for empathy. Manipulating the population into buying products and manipulating the population into, say, starting, supporting, and fighting an endless land war are not as different, in the end, as one might assume.
Because of the problems inherent in this new form of environmental pollution, pollution of the mind, several grass-roots groups are starting to advocate taxing the use of the public’s “mental space”, much as corporations are taxed (at least in theory) for misusing the public’s air and water. This may be a double-edged sword, however, as some critics, notably Joseph Hale, a commentator from the environmental battlegrounds of Texas, have pointed out. To advocate the taxation of “mental space” is to invite the government into our very minds, the one place that, historically, the government has been kept out of.
Whatever the solution, however, it’s clear that for this newest form of environmental pollution, pollution of the mind, some solution is necessary. Once we can think clearly, we can begin working diligently on finding a solution to everything else.