Pollution – process of introduction of contaminants to the atmosphere with negative effect on the environment.
Exponential depletion of resources occurs when use resources such as water, oil or food increases at exponential rate over time. It can also be said that are being depleted at increasing rate, though technically these two concepts are not equivalent. Mathematically, exponential depletion of resources implies that resources available in year t are equal to resources available in the year t-1 raised to the power k, where k is the number between 0 and 1.
Ecological systems – communities of living organisms maintaining the balance with non-living ones. Ecosystems are defined by interconnections among living organisms as well as between them and environment.
Ecological ethics – extension of traditional understanding of ethics beyond interactions among humans to interactions between humans and environment, claiming that certain non-living organisms may be intrinsically valuable and should be preserved.
Social audit – formal review of organization’s CSR-related practices, such as charity, environmental responsibility policies etc.
Cost-benefit analysis is a widely used in economics technique of unbiased decision making that assigns dollar value to every effect of decision or event and weighting total value of positive effects with that of negative ones.
Rights of future generations refer to obligation of current generations to take into consideration the need of future ones and act correspondingly. The term is often used in the context of use of resources, as many believe that current generations should dispose of resources in a way that guarantees that a reasonable amount is left for children and grandchildren.
There are three main arguments for increased pollution control: i) ecological ethics, ii) environmental rights and iii) utilitarian argument. Ecological ethics suggest that preserving ecological systems is the duty of human beings. Leading a certain biological kind to extinction may impact the whole chain, disturbing ecological balance. Notably, this argument implies that environment should be preserved for sake of environment itself rather than for sake of humans – ecological ethics implies that people have moral obligations with regards not only to other humans, but environment as well.
Environmental rights argument, advocated by William T. Blackstone, asserts that each individual has a right for decent environmental conditions – in fact, such right is a part of general human rights. Therefore, irresponsible treatment of environment is a breach of human rights of future generations. Blackstone believes that each person has essential right to everything that is necessary for his/her existence as a human being and insists that this moral right should be transformed into legal right and be more important than property right.
Finally, utilitarian argument – one that is mostly used by economists – claims that people should do nothing but maximize their total utility. With no pollution control, organizations externalize the social costs imposed by them (they do not pay it – society pay it), which disturbs market equilibrium – the products are underpriced and overproduced comparing to what it would have been if the companies had to cover these costs. Moreover, if the companies knew they would have to cover the costs, it might have altered their profit function and change the equilibrium further. If there is internalization of social costs, the utility is not maximized, as the market is not in its equilibrium.
In my opinion, ecological ethics argument appears to be the weakest. It states that humans should care about environment, but gives little argument why exactly should they do so. Why, having used environment for own good during centuries, should we suddenly feel obliged to preserve it? While many would agree without further explanation, the argument apparently does not provide the answer for the most curious ones asking ‘Why should we care?’.
While there is little history of humans caring about environment, there is a longer history of humans caring about other humans, and for that reason environmental rights argument sounds more convincing. ‘Will my grandson be able to drive a car or will he have to ride a horse because I have consumed all the oil’ is the question with not a lot of people being comfortable if the latter is the case. The problem here is that there is no evidence of future generations as close as grandchildren being at risk of depletion of resources, while it is hard to imagine that hypothetical struggles of eighth generation forward could significantly influence behaviour today.
Ecological ethics and environmental rights arguments are similar in a sense that they appeal to moral obligations and urge to sacrifice some welfare for a noble purpose – in the first case, preservation of environment, in the second – to secure happy lives for representatives of future generations. Utilitarian argument is fundamentally different, because it states that the society will be better off right now if pollution control introduced. Economists suggest that it is rational for humans to pollute less, but they do not because firms manage to externalize the costs of pollution and therefore, have little incentive to pollute less. The argument says that if they were forced to cover the social costs of pollution, they would behave more responsibly simply to pay less. Utilitarian argument has also to do with fairness, but much more obvious than ecological ethics: if you are the reason for social costs, be so kind to cover them.