Ostrava and the case of mutating genes

The AcelorMittal steel smelter and works in Ostrava: from ceskapozice.cz

It’s well-known and increasingly discussed that the most frequently cited macroeconomic indicator, GDP, is deeply flawed. Among other things, one of its flaws is that it overlooks negative externalities, such as pollution, deforestation, depression, etc.

So, for example, if a country decided to counter the current great recession by investing in a whole bunch of coal-fired power plants, well, the country’s GDP would rise – profit would be generated, jobs would be created and people would have more money to spend.

But the country that did that would also have a whole bunch of smog and other industries, such as tourism, would likely take a hit. Furthermore, the country’s health care costs would rise, people would be advised to stay indoors (impacting still other sectors of the economy) and the country would have no runners to send to the next summer Olympics. This is why government regulation is sometimes a good thing. By the time the private sector got motivated to act, lungs would resemble the viscera of Vesuvius.

Recent research coming out of the Czech Republic, however, offers another way to view industry-caused pollution. It seems that residents in Ostrava, the steel and coal hub of the Czech Republic, have actually undergone genetic changes that apparently make them more resistant to some effects of air-pollution.

While one outcome of this research might be to provide a justification (who cares, we’ll all adapt) for denuding environmentally hazardous industries of regulatory oversight, another might be to draw attention to – and by extension attempt to address – the power of pollution to cause drastic changes to humans and our ecosystem.

In the Czech Republic, due to both a center-right coalition in government and the pervasiveness of austerity and its commensurate cuts in research funding, this particular research on residents of Ostrava apparently will run out of funding in a couple of months.

It’s kind of ironic that research that could be used to help businesses fight regulatory burdens is being cut off by a right-leaning government. But maybe that’s the point, maybe the feeling in Prague is that the private sector will step in and continue the funding. Yet the more likely explanation is that the notoriously corrupt legislators in Prague have been told by their friends at CEZ Group, the Czech energy giant, that they would prefer it if the effects of their industry (outside of GDP growth of course) were no longer studied.* For though it might be the case that some Ostavian genes are working harder to service damage caused by pollution, it might also be the case that other genes are changing in ways more difficult to market.

* On Transparency International’s corruption rankings, the Czech Republic comes in just behind Saudi Arabia.

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