Ethics 9 – Pollution & Environmentalism

Hopetoun_fallsIn the earliest cultures, humans and animals were understood to share a world together as equals.  As humanity began domesticating livestock, humans increasingly understood themselves to be above all animals, the god-like animal.  Adam in the Bible’s Book of Genesis is the namer and master of all.  We can actually see the horns of cattle shorten over the few thousand years of human civilization, as cows with shorter horns were bred to make them easier to control.  While pollution did exist in the earliest of human cultures, first from fire and then from forging metal, the amount was insignificant compared to our problems today, and the effects on our health and state of the environment went unnoticed.

LeviathanAt same time, the world was understood to be in balance with humans, as well as a balancing act in and of itself.  We discussed, with theft, that humanity is largely concerned with exchange and fairness in social relations, such that early cultures felt the need to make sacrifices to balance what they take from nature with giving back.  In the Old Testament, or Torah, Leviathan and Behemoth, the great sea dragon and land ox, were understood to be the largest creatures, created as single individuals whose job was to crush any other species that grew too large in number, threatening to dominate and destroy other species.  Of course, there is no trace of the idea that humanity would itself, as a species, become a threat to nature.  We have done so well as a species that we have become quite unbalanced with nature.

WWI munitions factoryWhile many cultures have spoken of being in balance, such as the Egyptian Wisdom and Chinese Daoist texts, it was only with the growth of mechanization and technology that Islamic scholars, during the golden age of Islamic civilization over a thousand years ago, first wrote consciously of the impact that humans had systematically on the environment.  Europe got its machines and chemistry from Islamic civilization.  As cities, scholarship and institutions grew in size and complexity, people began to notice that certain diseases and conditions were proliferating in areas with more pollution, such as those close to and downriver from outlets of sewer systems.  Charles Dickens infamously wrote of the smoggy, sooty atmosphere of London in the age of factories, which not only used abusive labor practices, but also polluted the air and water.

smoke-stack-pollutionAs we see in the documentary The Corporation, in the 1940s and 1950s, just as the US became the wealthiest nation, petroleum products were used to make a huge varieties of products.  Wood and metal gave way to plastic, which now surrounds us in everything.  In criticizing America’s invasion of Iraq, many have said that the war is about oil, thinking primarily of gasoline.  Oil is not only used as gasoline, but in many of the chemicals and plastic products that surround us in everyday life.  Monsanto and DuPont are the largest chemical corporations, the companies most interested in preventing environmental legislation.  Consider that if you use a plastic spoon once, this has very little effect on your body, but if you use plastic spoons every day, those chemicals in the plastic begin to build up in you.  Some have claimed that this is certainly contributing to cancer rates and other health problems that affect us all.

PollutionWe are in a culture that can give us immediate things according to our intentions, but such that we ignore the long and complicated process of nature.  Nature can sift things out, but not as fast as we can synthesize new products while externalizing the unneeded and then ignoring it until it becomes a problem.  Cancer rates, birth defect rates, and other problems are evidence of the environmental impact.

Add on top of externalization the competition between corporations in a culture that ignores the consequences, and it seems that corporations are racing to screw things up and put money in their own pocket before someone else does.  This imbalance creates further imbalances.  Modern plantations and corporate farms have created surges in pests, and then when tons of pesticide to kill the swarms of pests is sprayed, new pests surge because other pests they were in competition with were killed, and the cycle grows steadily out of control.

Carson Silent SpringIn your reader, I gave you the beginning of Silent Spring, acknowledged by many as one of the central inspirations behind the environmental movement of the 60s, bringing environmental problems of pollution into the general American consciousness.  In 1962, Rachel Carson, who had worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service since the 40s, wrote that her friend had become alarmed by many dead birds on her property which bordered croplands sprayed with the pesticide DDT.  Carson began to study the effects of DDT on birds and the environment, as well as talk to several scientists who had already begun working on documenting the problem and building evidence that pesticides were carcinogens, causers of cancer.  She began to attend court hearings about the health effects of tainted products, and watched as chemical corporations selected scientists as witnesses to testify that there was no scientific basis to conclude that the chemicals were a threat or harm to humans.

rachel carsonThe title of the book, “Silent Spring”, refers to nature silent in the absence of birds to sing.  Carson argued that pesticides are in fact biocides, a word not found in spell check systems, killers of nature along with unwanted pests.  She criticized not only the chemical corporations for misinforming the public with propaganda (recall the newer, covert expert method of selecting experts we discussed along with lies), but also the scientific community for creating chemicals for the corporations without studying the effects these chemicals have on the environment and humanity.   While many thought a ban on DDT was point of book, Carson actually calls for the human right to not be poisoned.

EPA logoChemical corporations and the scientists who support them lashed out at Carson with the publication of her book.  Some said that if Carson had her way, we would return to the dark ages, and vermin and the disease they bring would overwhelm humanity.  One critic went so far as to compare Carson to Hitler, arguing that because DDT was used to kill mosquitoes in poor countries that spread malaria, a ban on DDT would mean death for millions, including children.  Unfortunately for critics, Silent Spring was a hit with the American public, and it caused debates in Congress that resulted in the creation of the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency.  Many conservatives today are still arguing that the EPA should be dismantled, and that it is bad for the American economy and thus the American people.

Unfortunately, as we know, environmental problems such as pollution did not end with the creation of the EPA.  As mentioned in The Corporation, lobbyists for large chemical and oil companies have worked to weaken the EPA and protective regulations.  Often, the fines that polluters are charged are low enough that polluting and paying he fine is a better business decision for the bottom line than paying a larger amount to properly dispose of chemicals and waste.

Bhopal Union Carbide TankOne of the worst incidents of pollution on record was the Bhopal disaster of 1984.  In the 1980s, Reagan sought to weaken many of the EPA regulations established in the 60s and 70s.  Even so, companies found it useful and profitable to create factories in poorer countries with little to no environmental regulations, such as Union Carbide did in Bhopal, India for the production of pesticides in 1969.  For many years, a small number of workers had been injured and killed working with toxic chemicals, but on the night of December 2nd in 1984 a large cloud of toxic gas was accidentally released into the air around the factory, resulting in several thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries.  Many who were affected lived in shanty towns surrounding the factory.  While the numbers of dead and injured are still disputed today, and court cases against the company and CEO are still ongoing, Union Carbide ended up paying almost a billion dollars in penalties and reparations.

Environmental Issues (from the Blackwell Environmental Reader)

wildernessWilderness: We have seen that this is an interesting issue for Utilitarianism, as John Stuart Mill argued in favor of preserving areas for the long term and social benefit of everyone.  We also discussed that there is an environmental objection to Utilitarianism, that as an ethical concept it can be used to support consumption of natural resources and thus the unintentional destruction of the environment.  Does one consider best use in the long term to be using everything, or do we leave things unused for long term?

Environmental Justice: Who gets benefits and who gets harm of processes in the culture?  One fifth of world consumes four fifths of resources.  Some, like Rev. Chaviz Jr., argue for the concept of Environmental racism, that pollution and cleaning products affect those who are ostracized in the worst areas of town far more than others.  The horrifying infant mortality rate among American black people, twice that of white Americans, is evidence of this.  Other critics have pointed out that much of daily work with chemicals is done by Latinas and Latinos, some undocumented, whose contact with cleaning agents is harmful but who silently do jobs for low wages that others prefer not to do.

sustainability economy society envirnonmentSustainability: Nature and economy must both be preserved, or both will collapse.  Sustainability is now a popular term, as sustainable agriculture and organic products are both in vogue with progressives.  Systems of nature and civilization are either sustainable, continue to exist, or they collapse.  Sustainability is about ensuring that systems of nature and civilization can both function without collapse.

Here is an image someone who is awesome created online to show how the environment would recover if humanity were to go extinct tomorrow:

environment recovery after humanity

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