Pollution Prevention: The Source of an Ethical Foundation for Sustainable Development

Barry Commoner
People live in two worlds. One of these is, of course, our own creation: human society. But, like all living things, we also live in the natural world -- the ecosphere -- created over the Earth's five-billion-year history by physical, chemical and biological processes. Because we accept responsibility for what happens in our own world, we are prepared to at least define -- if not always abide by -- moral precepts to govern that responsibility. Our attitude toward the natural world has been different; its storms, droughts and floods have been regarded as "acts of God", free of human control and exempt from our own responsibility.


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Pollution Prevention: The Source of an Ethical Foundation for Sustainable Development

2011-12-05 20:24:24

Barry Commoner

People live in two worlds. One of these is, of course, our own creation: human society. But, like all living things, we also live in the natural world -- the ecosphere -- created over the Earth's five-billion-year history by physical, chemical and biological processes. Because we accept responsibility for what happens in our own world, we are prepared to at least define -- if not always abide by -- moral precepts to govern that responsibility. Our attitude toward the natural world has been different; its storms, droughts and floods have been regarded as "acts of God", free of human control and exempt from our own responsibility.

Now, with the appearance of a continent-sized hole in the Earth'h protective ozone layer and the threat of catastrophic global warming, even droughts, floods and heatwaves -- let alone disastrous local pollution -- are recognized as acts of man. With this new responsibility comes the need for new ethical principles that can guide our influence, not only on each other, but on nature as well.

For this purpose we need to understand the interaction between our two worlds: the natural ecosphere and the man-made technosphere -- powerful enough to deserve so grandiose a term. The technosphere has become sufficiently large and intense to alter the natural processes that govern the ecosphere. But the human attack on the ecosphere has instigated an ecological counterattack that in turn threatens human society. The two worlds are at war.

As in a conventional war, the moral issues cn be simplified by taking sides and ignoring the interests of one combatant or the other. But this is done only at the cost of understanding. Partisans of the technosphere define the environmental crisis in terms of production, consumption, prices, and profits -- and the economic processes that mediate their interaction. Then, one can develop ethical guidelines that attempt to incorporate concern for the environment into the framework of the existing economic system -- for example, by evaluating environmental quality in monetary terms, on the assumption that it can then be bought and sold in the marketplace. But the ecosphere, after all, is incapable of being "owned" -- a prerequisite for engaging in the market and its rules of behavior. Moreover, this approach reduces environmental ethics to the morality of the marketplace -- an arena governed by brutal competition for private gain rather than co-operation for social welfare.

Partisans of the ecosphere define the environmental crisis and the relevant moral precepts in purely ecological terms. Human beings are then seen as a peculiar species, unique among living things, that seems doomed to destroy its own habitat. Thus simplified, the issue attracts simplistic solutions: reduce the number of people; limit their share of nature's resources; protect all other species from the human marauder by endowing them with "rights". But this approach involves an implicit moral position that would -- and for my part should -- be widely opposed: that there is no value in the distinctive accomplishments of human society. It would, for example, justify ignoring the dire threat to human society of global warming, which, viewed only in ecological terms, can be regarded as merely a change in the global ecosystem similar to that which accompanied the last post-glacial period, albeit more rapid.

If, on the other hand, we approach the moral issue as one that should reflect the interaction between the ecosphere and the technosphere rather than their separate features, a new problem arises. This interaction is embodied in the principle of "sustainable development", which is based on the view that the economic development generated by the technosphere must sustain rather than degrade the ecosphere. Yet, although sustainable development, as a strategic goal, is well defined the means of achieving it are still poorly understood. We have not yet developed a fundamental, operational understanding of the relationship between environmental quality and economic development that can define moral precepts to guide the relevant decisions. This paper suggests such an analysis.

For this purpose, I propose to take advantage of the considerable experience, especially in the United States, with the 20-year effort to achieve a substantial improvement in environmental quality. I propose to show, from that experience, that the decisions that govern both environmental quality and economic development originate at a common point: the system of production. With this linkage established, it becomes possible to define ethical precepts that foster, harmoniously, both environmental quality and economic development and can therefore serve as a guide to sustainable development.

The U.S. environmental program has been based on a well-defined strategy. The laws that govern the program become operative only after a pollutant has been found in the environment. Then a series of technical and administrative actions are taken: pollution levels are determined and their ecological and health hazards are evaluated; standards of acceptable exposure are formulated; control devices (eg., scrubbers in power plants and catalytic converters on automobile exhausts) designed to reduce pollutant emissions to the level required by the standard are specified; regulations are promulgated to enforce the installation of the necessary control devices.

Extensive government data allow us to estimate the rate of environmental improvement in the United States since these procedures were established about 20 years ago. (For a detailed analysis of these data, see Barry Commoner, Making Peace With the Planet, New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.) The data show that, despite a considerable effort, with very few but highly significant exceptions the emissions and environmental concentrations of pollutants have not been substantially reduced. For example, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicted that catalytic converters would reduce national automotive carbon monoxide emissions by 90 % and nitrogen oxide emissions by 70 % between 1975 and 1985, in fact the emission of carbon monoxide decreased by only 19 %, and nitrogen oxide emissions increased by 4 % over that period. This is typical of the overall results of the massive effort to reduce pollution levels in the United States. Generally, emissions and environmental concentrations have declined by perhaps 10-20%, with the levels of some pollutants, notably nitrogen oxiden in air, nitrate in water, and many toxic chemicals actually increasing.

However, there are a few striking exceptions to this rule. Airborne lead emissions, DDT and PCB concentrations in wildlife and human body fat, mercury concentrations in Great Lakes sediments, strontium 90 concentrations in milk, and, in a few local rivers, phosphate concentrations have declined by 70-95%.

Every pollutant on this very short list of successes reflects the same remedial action: the generation of the pollutant has been prevented at its source. Lead has been removed from gasoline; DDT and PSB have been banned; mercury is no longer used in chloralkali production; phosphate has been eliminated from detergents; and the atmospheric nuclear bomb tests that produced strontium 90 have been halted. Thus, pollution prevention requires an appropriate change in the technology of the production process that generates the pollutant. The change eliminates the pollutant, reducing emissions to zero.

We can now discern two mutually exclusive strategies of environmental improvement. One, the control strategy, is based on attaching to a production facility a device that to some degree recaptures pollutants that the facility -- which is otherwise unchanged -- generates. In contrast, the strategy of prevention calls for changing the technology of production itself in order to totally eliminate the pollutant from the production process. The control strategy has generally failed; the prevention strategy has succeeded. In effect, we now know that environmental pollution is an incurable disease; it can only be prevented.

The contrasting environmental strategies bear quite distinctive relations to economic development and imply very different guiding ethical principles. The addition of a control device to a production facility usually represents a non-productive capital cost. The catalytic converter, for example, adds to the cost of the automobile without in any way improving its economic efficiency. Because a control device diverts capital from productive investments, it generally inhibits economic development. Apart from some isolated exceptions in which the sale of material recovered by the control device (for example, sulfur recovered from sulfur dioxide) contributes to economic productivity, environmental improvement based on the strategy of control is incompatible with economic development.

This is especially evident from the distinctive relation between the efficiency of a control device and its cost. The cost of a control device typically rises exponentially with its efficiency; a control device that removes 99% of a pollutant is likely to cost a great deal more than one that removes only 90%, and a device that removes 100% is prohibitively expensive. Consequently, in practice, a control device never reduces emissions to zero. Hence, as economic activity expands and production increases, total emissions rise and eventually cancel the environmental value of the device. In this situation environmental quality can be maintained only by limiting production and therefore curtailing economic development.

The control strategy not only generates a conflict between environmental quality and economic development; it also engenders ethical precepts that conflict with generally accepted principles of morality. Here I refer to the much-discussed "cost/benefit" approach to environmental regulation, which is an integral part of the control strategy. This requires that a decision be made about the level of the control device's efficiency and of the resultant environmental pollution that would be "acceptable." In the case of a carcinogen, for example, a determination is made about the level of exposure that would represent an "acceptable" risk of cancer, generally one in a million. The issue, then, is to balance the cost of a control device that can reduce exposure to the desired level against the number of lives that would be saved thereby.

To solve the cost/benefit equation, it becomes necessary to place a monetary value on a human life, typically in terms of a person's expected lifetime earnings. In the United States at present the earnings of a man are generally much greater than those of a woman, and there is a similar disparity between the earnings of blacks and other minorities and whites. In general -- not surprisingly -- poor people are worth less, in earnings, than rich people. Returning to the cost/benefit equation, then we discover that the regulatory procedure would allow a lower expenditure on the control device -- and hence a greater exposure to pollution -- if the lives to be saved are those of poor people.

Thus, the cost/benefit precept contains an inherent but largely unrecognized ethical decision: that it is morally acceptable to expose poor people to a higher level of environmental pollution than rich people. The logic that leads to this conclusion is impeccable; but the result is morally outrageous. Is should be noted that although this moral precept is never voiced, in the United States poor people are in fact subjected to higher levels of pollution than richer people. For example, a recent study shows that most toxic dumps in the United States are located in poor communities.

It will be recognized that the cost/benefit precept is in fact a special application of a more general free-market principle, which has been stated by Milton Friedman (in Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980) as follows:

"The real problem is not 'eliminating pollution,' but trying to establish arrangements that will yield the 'right' amount of pollution: an amount such that the gain from reducing pollution a bit more just balances the sacrifice of the other good things -- houses, shoes, coats, and so on -- that would have to be given up in order to reduce the pollution. If we go farther than that, we sacrifice more than we gain."

The strategy of prevention is based on the fact, which is demonstrated by the results of the 20-year effort to improve the environment as well as by my earlier analysis of the rise in pollution levels between 1950 and 1970 (see The Closing Circle, New York: Knopf, 1971), that environmental degradation originates in the system of production. This establishes a fundamental link between environmental quality and economic development, for the latter also originates in production. The pollution prevention strategy substitutes an ecologically sound production technology for one that generates pollutants: electric motors replace the automobile's internal combustion engines; photovoltaic cells replace conventional power plants; organic farming replaces chemical agriculture. Since these replacements reduce the relevant pollutant emissions to zero, pollution levels are uncoupled from the rate of economic development, avoiding the conflict with environmental quality that is inherent in the control strategy. Indeed, the substitution of an ecologically sound production technology for a polluting one often improves economic productivity. For example, in the United States the economic productivity of agricultural chemicals (i.e., the monetary yield to the farmer of the investment in chemicals) has declined by 70 percent since 1950. Studies show that by eliminating synthetic pesticides and fertilizer that are responsible for widespread environmental problems, organic farmers can obtain the same economic return per acre as conventional farmers, but with reduced expenditures.

In sum, the effort to improve environmental quality, the relevant decisions, and the moral precepts that should guide them ought to be directed at the transformation of production -- in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation. This means that the nearly universal social commitment to environmental improvement must be translated into social decisions about the design of the systems of production. These are, of course, the same decisions that must govern the course of economic development. Thus, on both counts, sustainable development -- that is, economic development that conforms to the principles of ecology -- calls for social governance of the means of production.

How can this moral precept be reduced to practice? Again it is useful to refer to U.S. experience, for in recent years there have been significant environmentally motivated changes in production technologies. These include: nearly halting the development of nuclear power (no new plants have been ordered since 1978, and many projects have been abandoned); the abandonment of proposed trash-burning incinerators in favor of recycling programs; the removal of the carcinogen, Alar, from apple production; the abandonment, by McDonald restaurants, of throw-away polystyrene containers in favor of compostable paper wrapping. Each of these changes has been brought about not by government regulations, but by popular campaigns generally organized by local "grassroots" citizens groups. Aided by public-spirited technical experts, these groups have mastered the link between the technology of production and its environmental impact, have identified ecologically sound alternative technologies, and on that basis have persuaded government authorities and sometimes private corporations that the changes must be made. In some instances persuasion has been accomplished by voting recalcitrant officials out of office.

These are examples of both environmental and economic democracy, in which a social force -- public opinion -- governs decisions normally made on purely private economic grounds, such as profit maximization, by corporate managers. There are other ways in which this new moral precept might be expressed, but each of them must reflect a fundamental fact: that the environment, whether a local habitat or the ecosphere itself is a sovereign social responsibility that takes precedence over the private interest in exploiting it.

This process -- "ecodemocracy" -- which has begun to develop in many countries, exemplifies the new moral precept that is the ethical foundation of sustainable development. It creates a new social obligation to guide the course of both environmental improvement and economic development, through democratic governance of the technology of production.


Barry COMMONER, Director, Center of the Biology of Natural Systems,
Queens College, City University of New York