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Airplanes, Soda Cans, and Red Sludge

October 12, 2010

There are few items that can so well illustrate our present day civilization as airplanes and soda cans.  Millions of people, worldwide, use aircraft on a daily basis for recreational or business purposes.  Large portions of the earth are simply inaccessible without the high speed and low cost of reliable air transport. 

So is it with disposable soda cans which have mostly replaced the heavy glass and light sensitive plastic bottles.  Innumerable people quench their thirst instantly by popping open a beer or a soft drink can.  After just one use billions of cans end up in garbage dumps or in recycling plants.  Airplanes and soda cans are two symbols of our fast-moving contemporary life.

Many users of these modern conveniences, however, are quite unaware of the dark side of their practicality.  Both are made of a light weight strong metal, aluminum.  It is produced from bauxite ore using immense amounts of electricity, and the process has an unavoidable poisonous byproduct: red sludge.  This muddy, highly toxic, acid substance is placed indefinitely in huge artificial ponds which require constant maintenance.  Otherwise the aging retaining dams could break down, causing destruction and death to man and nature alike.  Ecologists for decades have warned about the potential danger of such deadly lakes but the insatiable need for more aluminum has overruled any other consideration.

Recently such a tragedy befell five pristine villages in mountainous western Hungary.  Ever since it was discovered that this nation has one of the largest bauxite deposits in the world the production of aluminum became a major industry.  Whether it was the Soviet military’s need (in the past) or the world market’s need today the sizes of the sludge ponds have grown ever larger.  

It only took a few weeks of steady rain for the one saturated dam to break. Suddenly with a frightening hissing sound millions of cubic feet of red sludge cascaded with  frightening  speed down from  the pond, burying  people, houses, animals and rich farmlands.  The work of generations was wiped out in seconds. Five beautiful villages were practically destroyed in what is the largest ecological disaster in Hungarian history. The artificial, unsustainable demands of our civilization inevitably led to this newest natural catastrophe.

To avoid punitive expenses the CEO of the aluminum company argues that rain is the culprit or in other words, an Act of God.  The government and the people, however, are united in the opinion that it is an Act of Man. 

Indeed it is. Next time when we sit in the comfort of an aircraft, or drink from a soda can let’s remember the high cost of that red sludge.  How many more villages in the world should die before we learn how to make the Acts of Man beneficial both to nature and mankind rather than ruinous?

Laslo Medyesy

Budapest, Hungary

Laslo and Coralyn Medyesy are missionaries with the Reformed Church in Hungary, based in Budapest, Hungary.  Laslo serves as professor of theology in the Department of Theology of the Gaspar Karoli Reformed University in Budapest. Coralyn T. Medyesy serves as a teacher of Social Work and Diakonia at the Nagy Koros School.

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