Monday, August 20, 2007

On accountability and pollution

Some questions to the reader:
Should individuals and corporations be held accountable for the pollution they produce? Does accountability apply equally to pollution on private and public land? Should polluters be allowed to pay a fee to pollute more? If so, who should be paid? If not, how should pollution be controlled? Who should get to decide what counts as a pollutant, and how much is acceptable?

14 comments:

Pat Jenkins said...

erd if man is a terrible polluter. preserved nothing for future generations. has squandered needed resources, other than that being, by some standards, appalling behavior, who shall hold man accountable or cast judgement on what has been done? God, fellow human beings. who will or can cast those out into the abyss?

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
You raise a good question about the broader morality of being wasteful. On this question of morality, what do you see as the spiritual consequence of knowingly harming other people or the natural environment? Is there such a consequence?
Turning from the metaphysical scenario to one purely of the physical world, who or what do you think should hold polluters accountable? Those who are harmed by the pollution? A government?
What should happen when many people will benefit from the process that causes the pollution that harms a few people? What should happen when many are harmed by something that is only good for a few?

Pat Jenkins said...

as far as the physical world pertains erd there are consequences for those who act irresponsible with waste or other harmful by products with punishment through governmental laws. now these laws may not suffice for a group who is bent on handcuffing a certain industry, but it does address the populace in general. now to your first part of your response. i posed the question because as you hint at, environmental protection has, for it's advocates, become an issue of morality instead of an obligation. as christians have a judge for that which they deem inappropriate behavior, i question those who will use righteousness for a motive of environmental protection. most of this group would not acknowledge a God in other matters, which is fine, but their judge would then have to be some other being. for that i ask who pray tell?

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Regarding “as far as the physical world pertains erd there are consequences for those who act irresponsible with waste or other harmful by products with punishment through governmental laws.”: What about carbon or toxic products made overseas (or the many other pollutants that are recognized but unregulated)? These are pollutants that harm people but are not effectively regulated. Who do you think should get to decide what constitutes a criminal level of pollution (or even what constitutes a pollutant)? Who do you think should get to hold the polluter accountable?
Why do you “question those who will use righteousness for a motive of environmental protection”? To follow this line of reasoning, doesn’t Christian thought advise people to love their neighbors (and their enemies, for that matter)? How is working to ensure that others can live a healthy, dignified life contrary to this ethic?
Regarding “most of this group would not acknowledge a God in other matters…”: Has the EPA released a statement on the existence of God? Has the Sierra Club? The National Resources Defense Council, The Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited? Should I expect to see boy scouts toppling statues of the Blessed Virgin as part of their Eagle Scout projects? Joking aside, I don’t see a single, unified group. Nor do I see any group that speaks for all of these organizations, nor for all of the unaffiliated people who have conservation or other environmental interests. The population of American atheists is very small compared to the population of Americans who are concerned about environmental issues. Who is this group you describe?
While I disagree with some of the linked organization's positions, I think you may find this group of interest.

Pat Jenkins said...

my point of using God erd was if the environmental groups want to condemn others for their behavior they had better find a judge. so since non of them do recognize a God, he or that which is stood for can not be called upon. unless of course you will then capitulate and completely follow what everything one may decree. that i do not see happening. if you are concerned about world polluters, which you may be justified in being, your solution is one of finding a world governing body that others themselves would honor. i think it is well documented that the only society that is trustworthy in acting responsibly to laws is ours. so i wish you well in convincing the rest of the globe to abide by any standards.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
"your solution is one of finding a world governing body that others themselves would honor": Where did I propose this?
"if the environmental groups want to condemn others for their behavior they had better find a judge": Who are these groups that are condemning others? Clearly people do this, but what group(s) do you mean? Moreover, how is their position significant to actually solving problems? Beyond this, how does one person’s hypocrisy or poor reasoning negate the underlying moral question?
"i think it is well documented that the only society that is trustworthy in acting responsibly to laws is ours": To clarify, by "ours" do you mean the US? I don’t see disagreement over that point as relevant to this discussion, so I’ll leave that for later. But, to address the broader sentiment, limited past success does not justify inaction.
Who do you think should get to decide what constitutes a criminal level of pollution (or even what constitutes a pollutant)? Who do you think should get to hold the polluter accountable? What's fair?

Pat Jenkins said...

erd lets us agree upon one thing. environmental activists have made the "perceived" miss use of the planets resources an immoral act. from that i would think their point is to forcibly make others abide by their belief. how they may enforce this threat is the question i pose. in regards to a world governing body. i did not suggest that you ever proposed such a thing. but in order for what you hope for to occur, a pollutant free planet, would you not need a group who will then hand out punishment for any offenders. or do you leave such actions to a polluters own conscience?

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Thank you for putting so much energy into this discussion. Alas, I don’t agree. The point I’m stressing by asking you who you mean by “environmentalists” is this: There is no single group of environmentalists. Some environmentalists argue for preservation, some for conservation; some want government regulation, others want market-solutions; some see the divine as central to their beliefs, others reject the existence of any deity. To attribute any common belief to these groups, other than a concern for the environment is simply impossible. I have seen a member of a radical environmental group nearly go to blows with a “hooks-and-barrels” conservationist over the management of whitetail deer in national parks. One believed that it was wrong to kill any animal for any reason, while the other believed that hunting was a good way to benefit both individuals and the park. Both of them fall squarely and passionately under the term “environmentalist”. People have very different values about what to protect or conserve, and how to do that.
For my own part, I think command and control regulation is of limited utility. Likewise, I’m not so na├»ve as to think that everyone will work for the common good, starting tomorrow. There are, however, other solutions.
By establishing enforceable property rights for commonly held resources, we can allow markets to manage the use of natural resources, and the release of pollutants at the local, state, regional, national, and potentially at transnational levels. These property rights and markets have the potential to ensure that the public is compensated for the use of resources they own, while making certain types of pollution expensive. Such measures have worked in conserving wild game in Africa, and in limiting certain acid-rain pollutants in North America.
That said, I don’t see any reason not to encourage people to educate themselves about economies and natural systems, and to consider these concepts through the lens of their personal ethics. I believe that many people are capable of living in a way that benefits their community. I’ll delve into the differences between working for the good of the community and altruism in a future post.

Nabeel said...

not individuals but corporations for sure. Why not individuals? Because they are using products made by corporations, so you are going to the root of the problem.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Nabeel,
Thanks for reading. What makes an individual less accountable? Does all pollution really start with a product made by a firm?
Consider: A poultry farm disposes of its animal waste by dumping it into a ditch on the edge of the property. The ditch leaches nitrogen into a nearby river, which carries the nitrogen pollution into a bay. In the bay, the nitrogen creates a dead zone, where watermen can no longer harvest oysters, crabs, or finfish. The farm has released a pollutant that has seriously disrupted a natural system and created a hardship for other people. Does it matter whether the farm is owned by a corporation or an individual?
Consider: The federal government places a fee on the use of a pollutant, upsidaisium. Rather than absorbing the costs out of their profit margin, the firms that manufacture products containing upsidaisium simply re-price the products and pass the cost of the fee on to consumers who buy the product. While the fee has technically been levied on the manufacturers, are they really accountable for it? Does it make more sense for the manufacturer, the user, or both (or someone else) to pay for it?

twotymer97 said...

Wow! All I can say is that I'm loving this dialogue! More! More!

"Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking."

~Stephen Hawking

Iron Chef Mexican said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ICM said...

What about listening? I guess that goes without saying. :-)

-ICM, who rarely comments but reads every word with interest.

E. R. Dunhill said...

tt97,
Thank you for that very important insight. And thanks to ICM for that important caveat. The point you both raise is central to this blog. I see an unfortunate descent into dogmatism in the US. When people degenerate into the use of dogma, they stop listening, they stop trying solve problems, and begin in essence arguing "I'm better than you" or "You're an outsider". I believe that maintaining a meaningful dialog is central to acting with ethics and reason.