Saturday, March 1, 2008

The right to pollute

Whether you're a global warming true-believer, iconoclast, or somewhere in between, the subject begs questions about the tragically unglamorous, hugely important question of pollution in general. Among them:
Do individuals (or groups, or corporations) have a fundamental right to pollute? Do economic and business activities (including personal business) necessarily result in pollution? Do I have the right to not accept someone else's pollution? Do I have any particular recourse if someone else's waste winds up on my property? What if I am only a part-owner of that property?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Identifier: 557246)


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Yee haw, some tough questions.

Beginning at the extreme, I would say that what I do on my property is my business -- period. Now, what happens if what I do on my property "spills over" onto my neighbor. Does he have recourse? If my activity infringes on the rights of my neighbor then he should have civil recourse at least, unless there were criminal actions. What would constitute criminal action? If a statute is violated.

I live in the country. My neighbor loves to drink beer and often his beer cans wander freely about his property when the wind blows. They occasionally drift across onto my land. Would public litter laws apply? Or, do they apply only on road rights-of-way? Usually I just pick them up and take care of them myself.

If a factory discharges toxic liquids that enter a stream, who has the right to take action against them? If it is a public waterway (may depend upon state laws), who may initiate civil, or if a statute is violated, criminal action? I would say that if there is a statute on the books, it is up to the district, or county attorney. If a civil issue, does any citizen who is offended and willing to take on the cost of litigation have the right to initiate a lawsuit?

Where do we draw the line? Is anything that annoys me fair game for a lawsuit? -- such as cigarette smoke? What about bad breath? Body odor?

What if the pollution is confined to the individual's property? Let's say that it isn't a solvent that could leach into the water table and thus be transported across property lines. It isn't an airborne pollutant. Maybe it's a bunch of old cars rusting away on his property -- or maybe just old tires. If I perceive it as an eyesore (visual pollution) do I have the right to take action against him?

I guess for all of that, I am guilty of polluting the atmosphere. During the process of respiration, I release CO2 which is considered a greenhouse gas. I contribute to global warming. Do I therefore pollute by breathing? I did plant a bunch of trees last year. Would that be considered a carbon offset?

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thanks for kicking things off. You raise an excellent question about the definition of pollution, as compared to the broader concept of waste.
I would argue (as do many, and was addressed in your comments) that waste and pollution are different animals. Every process- biological or industrial- is going to produce waste. (Lots more on this in a future post…) I tend to think that whether or not a particular waste is considered pollution is a value judgment.
Your comment referenced legality as a measure of whether or not something is right. I don’t disagree with that as a starting point, but it does beg the question, “Whose law do we use?”
If, for instance, your carousing neighbor’s fence also happens to be the county line (or perhaps a national border), who decides what becomes of his beer cans? If his law says it’s OK, is it really OK? Since beer cans don’t get people terribly excited, let’s say that your neighbor likes sulfur dioxide, instead. Is there a point at which you have the moral authority to defend your property by some means other than the law? What happens if neighbor disagrees that his SO2 is a problem?

Progressive said...

Excellent questions and comments!

I think the main point to tease out of what could be a long winded debate, is that pollution can and does infringe on a persons individual rights.

The caveat here, though, is that as individuals, we have ultimately agreed to take on that "cost" in an effort to keep our vehicles moving and power coming on. I wonder what the tipping point is for an individual.

We have seen an individual rights backlash against cigarette smokers recently because consumers in publicly used places have reached their tipping point.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, individuals on the east coast reached a tipping point regarding acid rain, due to power plant emissions in the plain states. This resulted in the Clean Air Act - an direct regulation on rights infringing pollution.

So, I think the question to focus on (after defining pollution, which was spoken of before), is what is the tipping point for individuals?

I think materialism may play a role, but what else?