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Poverty and Pollution, Case Study Example

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When businesses operate in such a way that they contribute to pollution in other, less developed nations, a variety of ethical implications arise.  That such activities occur at all translates to most people as an unethical practice, and on an immense scale.  This is largely true, but a valid examination of the ethics demands a more expansive scope, and it may be argued that the businesses are adhering to ethics that are justifiable because the businesses are making efforts to enhance living within their own societies.  This is not necessarily specious reasoning.  Historically, nations conquered other nations and were perceived as behaving correctly because the chief ethical concern was the betterment of the home society.  It is certainly ethical to seek to promote commerce and standards of living at home, while it is also arguable that, as each nation is responsible for attending to its own interests, there is no violation of ethics in taking advantage of those nations unwilling or unable to do so.  In a sense, this equates to ethics as somewhat – and necessarily – removed because the laws of industry and commerce reflect survivalist concerns, and ethics themselves have traditionally been adapted to conform to these processes.

That said, there remains the inescapable fact that ethics evolve as cultures evolve, and even the most pragmatic application does not allow for a business abusing the environment of another nation.  Ethics may be mutable to a degree, but there are fundamental principles of right and wrong which, if ignored in those centuries of international conquest, remain crucial.  With regard to businesses polluting in foreign arenas, a parallel may be may with the physicians’ code of non-maleficence, in that the primary consideration of anyone or anything holding power is to do no harm.  The betterment of life in the home nation cannot excuse the abuse of others simply because the character of the home nation is then “polluted.”  Returning to a pragmatic view, it is also true that the businesses prospering through such abuse are clearly equipped to develop other means of expansion; the business able to conduct operations on foreign soil is certainly empowered to prosper in other ways.  To harm other environments solely for commercial purposes is then a gross abuse of ethics, in that the actions are based on a simultaneous desire for greater wealth and an unacceptable disregard for the welfare of others.

Clearly, a great many reasons nonetheless prompt businesses to operate in Third World nations.  They are, not unexpectedly, largely commercial in nature.  To begin with and in regard to U.S. industry, there is the enormous advantage of workforces that may be paid less.  Third World nations are typically poor, and there are as well usually no regulations in place regarding wage standards.  The bulk of U.S. business abroad is centered on countries far poorer, and where lower wages are the norm (Mankiw, 2011,  p. 184).  Then, it is not only the U.S. that is guilty of taking advantage of such conditions; as China becomes increasingly industrialized, Chinese firms are farming out work to Vietnam, where pay rates are lower than the Chinese (Porter, 2009,  p. 480).  Linked to these inducements is the reality that businesses may also obtain everything else they require more cheaply.  As wages are low, so too is it typical that land and materials will be available for less.

These reasons alone are blatant motivations for businesses to be unconcerned with polluting outside of the home nation.  In plain terms, business exists to generate profit, and the attraction of greater profit guaranteed from reduced cost in Third World operations must translate to the disregard for the environments.  Added to this are two other likely motives.  On one level, the business may feel justified in the actions because it is not polluting at home. It may, in fact, believe that, if some pollution from industry is inevitable, the more ethical approach is to create it away from the society of origin.  Connected to this is the reality that the developed nation’s business is not in any way invested in the welfare of the Third World country.  It has no social or cultural ties to it beyond the commercial, so the abuse is seen as inconsequential.

It seems that any examination of economic progress as tied to national development and impacts on environments is inherently complex.  Gradation appears to be the key, to an extent; more exactly, and as evidenced by industrial progress virtually anywhere, there is no growth of this kind without some sacrifice of the natural environment.  Industry, and even agriculture today, necessarily demands restructuring of landscapes, the gathering of raw materials, and a general and unnatural shift to the scene.  The larger populations become, also, the greater is the need to provide work and industry to employ, feed, and create shelter for them.

This noted, there is an irrefutable link between industrial development and economic progress.  Social and environmental issues complicate the relationship, and increasingly so, but the connection remains intact in most developed or developing nations.  This may be observed in the fact that economic progress is seen as severely lacking in those nations unable to successfully become industrialized.  As economic progress intrinsically affects other aspects of the nation, an exponential pattern emerges.  For example, those countries failing to engage in large-scale manufacturing today usually suffer from internal conflict and/or disrupted governments, as was seen in the break up of the Soviet Union (Weiss, 2010,  p. 9).  In plain terms, a robust economy tends to rely on an equally robust business and industrial platform.

It is then all the more interesting that, as nations do develop and prosper, priorities shift.  As the Third World nation accepts abuses, environmental and otherwise, because it is more concerned with immediate survival, so too is the developed nation enabled to look beyond immediacy and consider the costs of the prosperity enabling the consideration.  A kind of societal tug-of-war then ensues, as has been long seen in the U.S.  The people desire the standards of living provided by the commerce, but they further insist on safeguards in regard to the environment, and this then leads to complex regulations and legislation that seek to balance the interests of all concerned.  It is a difficult path to travel, and for both business and society; again, industry equates to some measure of disruption, if not abuse, to any environment.  What must occur before any acceptable compromise is reached is that the society must determine what its chief priority is.  To insist on living in a certain way as enabled by industry means that allowances for pollution must be to some extent given, as even the most “green” industry artificially alters the environment.  Consequently, it is the responsibility of the society to establish its own parameters as to what is acceptable pollution, if any is deemed so at all.

It is, of course, one thing for a prosperous nation to be able to determine its own course in these affairs.  It is quite another when a struggling country, desperate to ensure basic survival, is exploited by developed nations and ultimately surrenders to the need.  Underscoring both contrasting scenarios, however, is the indisputable fact that all people in all countries are entitled to live in an environment as free from pollution as possible.  Choice is an interesting component within the subject, but choice cannot obviate the ethical imperative, and it is an imperative that exists because of the nature of a country itself.  A nation or country, Third World, highly developed, or somewhere in between, is inherently a society created to further the interests of all within it.  In the societies of nations, the efforts of the individual are inextricably connected to the interests of all, and there is virtually always a government or authority to oversee the functioning of the society.  This equates to the greater obligation of any collective.  As the individual comprehends what is in their own best interests, the individual then understands how these interests are essentially the same for all, and the government is in place to construct the standards by which the interests are met.

Of the various forms the most basic of such interests take, there is the universal one of the actual well-being of all individuals, and well-being cannot exist when the environment is damaged.  This issue of well-being, in fact, may be said to be a “civil right” extending to all nations, for all of humanity merits so fundamental a regard.  Different societies offer different levels of advancement to their peoples, but there can be no opportunity of any kind when the elemental factor of the natural landscape is violated, which then endangers the health of the people.  Moreover, and the constructions of nations aside, it is reasonable to assert that the natural environment belongs to all people, and there can be no ethical justification for abuses to it in one sphere because such abuses affect others.

With regard to the issue of wealthy nations having any responsibility to assist poorer nations in developing environmentally-sound industry and practices, several ethical imperatives immediately arise.  They are, moreover, supported by a fact of modern living.  In a matter of decades, globalization has become far more than a random concept or future potential.  Technology now connects nations all over the world in ways unfathomable a century ago, and this presents something of a new ethical platform.  More exactly, if national interests of the past could operate based on individual concerns, globalization is rendering such an ideology virtually unrealistic.  All countries interact at increasing levels, so there can be no reasonable idea held of any nation as truly isolationist and entitled to consider only its own interests.  Put anther way, with globalization comes global awareness, which must lead to global responsibility.  We have learned that we are indeed “all in this together,” as the successful or damaged environment far away creates effects in all directions, and must ultimately impact on all nations.

As to the actual imperatives, the foremost is humanity’s ethical obligation to care for all life and, as noted, such care must be based on the principle of doing no harm.  Harm may easily be generated by acts of omission; to withhold food from the starving person is an ethical abomination, and to stand by while a society destroys its own environment is equally reprehensible.  The parallel is reasonable in that there is no distinction between actual, physical welfare of individuals and the states of their natural environments.  It is long established that environmental degradation is dangerous to humans, if only in that it erodes the natural systems necessary for life.  The impoverished country, unable to assist others, is freed from the ethical responsibility to do so, but the wealthy is not.  The wealthy nation is in the position of having endured processes educating and improving itself, and a failure to extend this knowledge is a disregard of humanity blatantly unethical.   It is also, interestingly, foolish in commercial terms, as the betterment of other environments must promote benefits for all in today’s global scenario.

To actually construct a plan that would enforce environmental controls on an international levels is a daunting challenge.  As is well know, nations do not cooperate exceptionally well in the best of circumstances, as the factor of self-interest invariably creates impediments.  However, it seems that this same factor may be turned to advantage here.  More exactly, if anything has been amply demonstrated by the course of history, it is that countries are more eager to engage in international relations that offer them significant benefits.  The answer, then, lies in establishing a cooperative international council devoted to monitoring and regulating industrial pollution worldwide, because such a council would inevitably have the power to advance the economic interests of all nations.  Commerce, largely the enemy of the environment, may then be employed as an instrument in preserving it.

Once the council was assembled, the primary framework of it would be a mandatory and uniform policy of trade only with those nations complying with the environmental standards.  This leverage is essential, as history has revealed that, unless otherwise induced, nations will engage in pollution to further their economies.  Consequently, the risk of actually losing trade would serve to enforce the environmental controls.  Environmentalists began to comprehend this relationship more acutely in the 1960s when, in the U.S., it was seen that pollution would be cut by industries when polluting became more costly than it was worth (Goodstein, 2011,  p. 303).  Once the damage becomes more expensive than it is worth, the damage is lessened.  With the major world powers committed to this course, moreover, there is little danger of jeopardizing either the environment or commerce, simply because, again, nothing is as critical to a nation’s survival as its economy.  Then, as compliance begins, it becomes self-perpetuating; the developing nation reaping benefits will be all the more inclined to increase international commerce through a more rigorous observance of pollution controls.  Such a scheme or council does rely on an initial commitment from the leading powers but, this in place and as noted, the concerns of all would be shortly met.  Ironically, global ethics are then served through the pragmatic, and typically less than ethical, concerns of economics.

 References

Goodstein, E. S.  (2011).  Economics and the Environment.  Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Mankiw, N. G.  (2011).  Principles of Economics.  Belmont: Cengage Learning.

Porter, P. W.  (2009).  A World of Difference: Encountering and Contesting Development.  New York: Guilford Press.

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