Ethics dumped

  • 30/07/1995

Ethics dumped ETHICS is a relatively unheard of issue in the field of international environmental politics. This is troubling because the ethical angle explains the dynamics of transnational environmental affairs.

The silence on the subject of justice is mainly because of the intellectual traditions of international relations, ie, realism and liberalism. A central tenet of realism is that people, and states, are fundamentally motivated to seek power and security. From this perspective, moral concerns certainly exist in international life and world environmental politics, but are far from primary.

Much of international liberalism concerns itself with the ways in which trade, international cooperation, transboundary cultural exchange and the presence of democratic governments can create conditions in which people can more fully exercise their freedom. Ironically, human freedom for liberals is often understood as a matter of subduing nature. To the degree that environmental ethics is seen as a matter of how humans treat nati;;e, then, liberalism has difficulty developing a moral sensitivity to environmental issues.

The ethical question arises in international environmental affairs when one realizes that environmentalism is not simply about nature, but involves human beings at every step of the way. In almost all instances of environmental degradation, some human beings serve as victims while others are perpetrators. It is a matter of privilege and power. Sweeping the debris under a flying carpet In his book Rational Ecology, John Dryzek argues that we tend to address environmental problems by displacing them instead of resolving them. Displacement refers to transferring of the hazardous effects of environmental degradation across space, time, or media.

When communities generate an overabundance of solid waste and export it to other communities, they are displacing it across space. When people fail to address environmental dangers and leave them for future generations, they are displacing them across time. Finally, when people convert hazardous materials from one form of pollution to another-for instance, when they incinerate household waste and turn it into toxic ash-they are displacing it across media.

Dryzek suggests that we are running out of natural resources, the earth's absorptive capacity and physical space on the globe, and that once we cross fundamental ecological thresholds, we invite environmental catastrophe. Unspecified in this line of thinking is the notion of 'we'. Eco-catastrophe exists when those who are privileged enough to write and think about environmental issues are finally affected. But, the problem of displacement is not a matter of running out of places to locate the harmful effects of our activities, Rather, it involves the damage being wrought today to our fellow human beings. We shift, convert and transfigure our problems and, in almost every instance, someone else suffers.

Environmental displacement has two dimensions. On the one band, there is the 'output' side of human enterprise: the waste-stream which is generated by production. The sec- ond law of thermodynamics states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. Transformation, however, is never completely efficient and thus generates byproducts.

The other side of the coin involves the 'input' dimension of human enterprise. Production and consumption utilise natural resources. And, as the second law also states, once such resources are used, they convert into les; employable forms. Environmentalists we this as a problem since unbridled use of natural resources-such as timber, flora, oil, coal and so forth-deplete the earth's stock of renewable natural resources.

All politics is said to be local. Many environmentalists have taken this to heart through efforts to keep dangerous activities or materials out of their local communities. The most expressive form of this is the Not-In-My-Backyard (Nimby) movement which consists of communities organising to resist the siting of nuclear power plants, landfills, incinerators and toxic waste dumps in their neighbourhouds and districts. On a global scale, NIMBYISM forces environmental harm 'South', as it were. It pushes pollution and the most egregious pollution-causing industries to parts of the globe inhabited by the underprivileged.

One early instance Of NIMBYism and displacement across space was the practice in London, in the early part of this century, of building higher smokestacks to address locaJ air pollution. Higher smokestacks spewed soot and particulates outside London into, at first, the countryside and, then, the English Channel and eventually the Continent. In fact, this practice is still very much at work today we where many European nations, including England, release dangerous emissions beyond their borders leading to increased levels of acid rain throughout the Continent.

Another example of Southbound displacement is the international toxic waste trade which sent millions of tonnes of poisonous substances across the globe, often to the developing world or the so- called South. According to one figure, between 1986 and 1988, northern waste- traders shipped more than three million tonnes of toxic materials to developing countries.

Africa bore the largest brunt of the practice, leading one observer to state that "if European industrial powers could have built a pipeline across the Mediterranean Sea towards Africa for the discharge of their hazardous effluents, they would have most probably done so." The reason toxic materials moved from the North to the South is not difficult to issess. Developing countries have fewer controls and often 'ound the financial rewards irresistible, In one case, Guinea 3issau was offered 4 times its gross national product (GNP) to kccept over 15 million tonnes of toxic waste.

Displacement across space is not limited to international ictivities. Much of it takes place within the borders of a ountry. In all cases, it flows from the affluent and privileged a the poor, underprivileged. A famous study by the United hutch of Christ in 1987 found that the number one indicator of where toxic waste dumps and commercial hazardous astc landfalls are located is skin colour. And to the degree iat skin colour correlates with privilege in the us, it indiites the dynamics of displacement. This has been confirmed numerous studies which show that a disproportionate umber of nuclear power plants, incinerators and hazardous activities are in low income, predominantly minority neighbourhoods.

This has led many to talk about a so-called 'global South' indicate the pockets of the underprivileged everywhere. ms, there is a 'South of the South', which bears the brunt of ost ecological assaults in the developing world, and a mth of the North,'which experiences the bulk of environental degradation in the developed world.

At work in each of these instances is the choice not to see e people who live where we dump our environmental problermi or at least discount the value of their lives com pared to our own. Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockbuni make this point forcefully in their study of Brazilian ramforest politics. They demonstrate that time and time again. developers, rangers and even many environmentalists from the North refused to notice thatactual peoplelive in the rain. forests and that the fate of the forests should, perhaps, rest in those peoples'hands.

This was illustrated by a chief economist from the World Bank when he wrote in an internal memorandum leaked to the public, "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Locs (Less Developed Countries)?"

Magnets of world resources
Throughout Mexico it is often remarked that the best meats, vegetables and so forth are shipped to Mexico City (and, presumably, off to New York or London) and the worst ones get sent back to the towns and villages from which they originally came. Mexico City acts like a giant magnet drawing all resources to it and redistributing them according to the financial power of her customers.

The same situation exists throughout the world. The North of the South on all continents pulls resources to it and the cream of this crop is further shipped North, to the developed world. This, in a nutshell, describes the input-side of environmental displacement. Natural resources move across the globe from the poor to the rich without adequate compensation. The result is that environmental damage falls disproportionately on the poor. In their book, Beyond Interdependence, MacNeil, Winsemius and Yakushini demonstrate that countries far from being ecologically self-sufficient, have "shadow ecologies" which are often unseen.

Japan, according to some accounts, is at the forefront of reducing and recycling its wastes, generating somewhat clean industries and developing means of conservation which makes life within Japan quite comfortable from an environmental point of view.

A look at Japan's shadow ecology reveals, however, that while Japan has done much to protect its domestic environment, it has pulled resources from abroad in a matter which shows total disregard for environmental well-being beyond its borders. For example, according t 'o Harms Maul, Japan is the largest importer of tropical broadleaf logs in the world (49.6 per cent of world imports in 1988). It pulls tropical timber predominantly from Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

While this could be said to be simply a matter of economics-that is, a matter of su@ply and demand-it is also clear that the way Japan harvests tropical timber directly contributes to the destruction of the world's rainforests. It supports rapid slashing of rainforests in an attempt to maximise short-term gain. It makes no attempt to develop and transfer technologies or support practices which would lead to sustainable timber harvests.

This is all the more disconcerting in that Japan goes to great lengths to preserve its domestic forests which represent a national treasure.

Almost all countries that can afford to preserve their own environments by importing natural resources from aboard do so. What is striking is that in all such instances, little consideration is given to the environmental well-being of the people from which resources are taken. From a theoretical perspective, there is an implicit suggestion that the people from whom resources are drawn are less deserving of environmental well-being. Such practices are just another instance of powerful countries raiding the wealth (biological, in this case) of less powerful countries.

Displacement across time
When we refuse to address environmental challenges and leave them for future generations, we shift the pain of experiencing dirty air, unclean water-and increased global temperatures from ourselves to others.

The problem is that, like displacement across space, we create the fiction that no one really lives in the future. That is, the future is not inhabited by real-life people but rather by wealthy or more technologically advanced individuals who will have more resources to address environmental issues or, at worst, by people who we consider will be so different from the ourselves that it is unlikely that they will actually 'suffer' from environmental degradation. Both involve some degree of 'discomming the future'- a type of orientation which privileges the present over future.

Perhaps no substance is as hazardous over the long-term as radioactive material. The isotopes of some nuclear wastes, for example, have half-lives of thousands of years, spanning thousands of generations. Today we benefit from the use of nuclear materials-in energy production, medicine and so forth-but have yet to understand how to dispose of or even safely store nuclear materials in way which would render them less harmful. The victims of our nuclear use are future generations.

The same could be said of global climate change. There is now widespread agreement that humans are contributing to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and many believe that this will lead to global warming. According to many scientists, unless remedial action is taken, by the year AD 2100 atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will more than double, leading to a temperature rise of roughly 3 degrees celsius. Predictions suggest that such a rise in global temperature will, among other things, adversely affect world agriculture, inundate coastal populations due to sea level rises and increase climate variability thus threatening human security and productivity. There is no authoritative indication that the effects of global warming can be felt today; global warming is something we leave to our progeny.

Because the hazards associated with nuclear and climate change issues extend into the future, both also demonstrate an unwillingness to live within our environmental means. As Native American human rights leader Chief Seattle's now famous phrase goes, "We have not simply inherited the Earth from our ancestors, but have also borrowed it from our grandchildren." Our aversion to resolving the output side of our activities illustrates the debt we leave to our children. Displacement across time also takes place with regard to the input-side of human enterprise. Increases in population and per capita consumption associated with technological advances now enable humans to use the earth's stock of renewable and non-renewable resources to provide food, medicine and basic commodities such as clothing and shelter at ever-increasing rates. The result places significant burdens on future generations.

For millennia, the introduction of new species (speciation) has outpaced extinction. This has led to an extreme diversity of species which provides a robust genetic base from which to develop new food crops and medicines, and which can enable organisms to adapt to changing circumstances. Over the past few decades, however, anthropogenic habitat destruction has driven an unprecedented number of species to extinction. At least 140 species are said to disappear each day due to tropical rain forest destruction. When we destroy species we are implicitly providing benefits for some members of the present generation (in the form of, for example, land for cattle-grazing) at the expense of others.

Once a species disappears, it cannot be reconstructed or reintroduced into the ecosystem. Loss of biological diversity permanently narrows the range of genotypes available for maintaining a robust genetic base. Future generations will necessarily have less genetic resources, lower quality gene pools and thus less access to the benefits of biological diversity. This leaves a significant environmental debt to our progeny.

Can the future look after itself?
There are a number of observers who see nothing wrong with leaving an environmental debt to our children in the form of pollution or depleted resources. Arguments along these lines reflect a practice of what economists call, "discounting the future." Some argue, for example, that future generations will be more technologically advanced than we are and thus better equipped to address nuclear waste disposal, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and widespread resources depletion. For these technological optimists there is little reason for alarm because the necessary solutions lie just over the scientific horizon. Human beings have an extraordinary capability for innovation and we should not underestimate its promise in the face of environmental challenges. What is curious about this type of thinking is its tendency to project optimism into the future as a way to avoid difficult decisions in the present. It is like metelling my child that she will be smarter than I am so I am leaving her with my problems to solve.

A second argument associated with discounting the future suggests that future generations will be economically wealthier than present ones and therefore better able to devote resources to environmental issues. This view is based on the marginal utility of income. Just like an extra dollar will mean less to a rich person than a poor one, it makes sense to postpone the costs of environmental protection because, assuming continued economic growth, one will invariably be richer in the future.Wilfred Beckerman uses this reasoning when he argues for deferring action on climate change. He claims that costs incurred today to reduce carbon emissions and thus prevent global warming will be higher than the costs of reacting to the effects of climate change in the future. Beckerman claims that, assuming economic growth, it would be cheaper to build dikes, suffer partial loss of agricultural output and respond- to hurricanes in the future than to take measures to avoid climate change today.

What is troubling about this orienta tion is that it ignores ecological thresholds. Species extinction, for example, can never be reversed, therefore postponing action to preserve biological diversity is not a matter of shifting the costs to those most able to pay, so much as shunting environmental responsibility. Once carbon emissions build up to unacceptable levels, it may be impossible to wash them out of the atmosphere.

Deferring action on global warming, then, is not about margin utility but undermining future generations. At work is a selfishness on the part of present generations. This reflects a deeper sensibility of disregarding the unborn.

While people are subject to structures of power that discourage transnational or transgenerational morality, there is nevertheless, an element of human choice involved. Unfortunately, people often choose to exercise it in a moral direction. Mining the tradition of international liberalism could, however provide a structure for moral reflection in the global environmental context.

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