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Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton and director, until late 2010, of Obama’s National Economic Council, was in hot water during the early days of 1992. A memo he reportedly wrote, and certainly endorsed with his signature, was publicly released and published in the widely read Economist magazine. In the memo, Summers and his colleagues argued that developing countries in Africa are “vastly under-polluted” and good economic reasoning suggests that we should export our pollution: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

In today’s social and political climate such a statement would likely disqualify someone like Summers form political office or heading a venerable institution like Harvard University, which Summers presided over from 2001-2006, not without controversy. It is practically unimaginable to think that we would export our trash and pollution, especially our toxic waste, to other countries. Summers  responded to his critics back in 1992 by claiming his remarks were meant sarcastically. Regardless of his intent, he was onto something. Why not export our trash and pollution? There is money to be saved and money to be made.

Over the last few years it has been widely reported in the news that our major export to China  is our trash, largely waste paper and scrap metal. Colorado alone exported $124.4 million in waste to China in 2011, and $62 million was just in aluminum. Although environmental concerns were not on Summers’s mind back in 1992, there is, on the face of it, good environmental reasons to ship our waste, trash, and pollution to China, since they are willing to pay for it, recycle it, and, well, sell it back to us in the form of new commodities. However, also included in our waste exports to China is e-waste, our electronic waste (computers, cell phones, and electronic equipment).  Much of our e-waste is shipped to Guiyu, China, a small coastal town, which, according to a 2008 Time magazine article, had the “highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and elevated rates of miscarriages.” The photos are striking, as is the environmental impact on the city and its denizens. China’s environmental record is far from stellar. One of its more recent achievements is passing the United States as the top polluter, hardly a laughing matter, though a point this Onion piece pokes fun at. The problem of e-waste is not limited to China. As Summers predicated, it makes “good sense” to ship waste to Africa as well.

We can question the soundness of these economic policies, largely because considerations of justice are absent. While there may be some economic advantage, considerations of justice might trump or override those economic advantages. This style of thinking, while hardly novel, seems out of place for many. No one thinks it’s easy to balance the trade-offs between economics and justice, money and well-being. Part of the difficulty I want to suggest is that we are deeply wedded to an economic mindset in which measuring the payoff is, if not easy, at least possible. We are dealing with quantitative facts. Yet, when it comes to considerations of justice, we appear to leave the realm of quantity, and to enter the amorphous realm of quality—the quality of one’s life experience. But, as well all know, it is hard to compare quantitative measurements with qualitative experience; it’s like, to lean on a cliché, comparing apples and oranges. We might as well stick to the quantitative style of thinking since it is concrete and clear.

In the philosophical world, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill was acutely sensitive to this problem. While he thought that we could determine, according to the principle of utility, an action’s moral value, whether it is right or wrong, by aggregating the quantity of pleasure or happiness that action brought about for the moral community, he was well aware that in the domain of pleasure, some pleasures were of a higher quality. Experiencing a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not result quantitatively in more pleasure than eating a tasty bowl of ice cream—they are qualitatively distinct in that the former engages our reflective or “higher faculties”, while the latter is a mere bodily pleasure, something even a pig, to use Mill’s example, might enjoy. While his distinction between quantities and qualities of pleasure is important, how useful is it in dealing with questions of justice?

Utilitarians often face a problem when we introduce questions of rights, particularly moral rights or human rights, rights we have by virtue of our humanity. Rights, I want to suggest, are protections of a certain quality of life, the human life. The question of philosophical debate is just how to specify or clarify the nature of that “quality of life.” Should we talk in terms of “self-determination”, “agency”, “well-being”, “dignity”, or some other value? These are hard questions, no doubt. The utilitarian would do well to avoid, if possible, the issue of rights. In many cases, the maximization of pleasure comes at the cost of violating rights. From the utilitarian perspective, rights, in some instances, are obstacles to the maximization of pleasure. As Mill himself recognizes in Chapter 5 of Utilitarianism, the onus is now on the utilitarian to wiggle out of this unfortunate position, to find a way in which the maximization of pleasure does not compete with rights. To be sure, sophisticated utilitarians have tried to do just this, some with more success.

Summers’s reasoning and the reasoning behind exporting our waste to China is largely utilitarian and quantitative. There is, however, a clear qualitative impact on the lives of the workers and the environment itself, an impact that will directly affect, to put it in Mills’s terms, their ability to experience the higher pleasures that make our life distinctly human. What we are faced with is a question of environmental justice, one I have framed in the qualitative language of rights, which I’ve identified as protections of a human life. One reason we face an issue of environmental justice is because we are dealing with the distribution of environmental harms. In the US, working in the conditions the Chinese work and polluting the environment in the manner exhibited in Guiyu would be considered a workers and human rights violation. It is too expensive, the exporters argue, to recycle the waste, particularly the harmful e-waste, so we distribute, for economic reasons, the potential human and environmental harm elsewhere, to a place lacking in the environmental and worker’s regulations that serve to protect rights.

Summers was correct: the “economic logic” of exporting our toxins is “impeccable”. However, the logic is only impeccable if we already think economics trumps rights, the right to a clean and safe workplace and environment. One of the major battles on the environmental justice front involves recognizing the overridingness of human rights and the environment itself, recognizing that both humans and the environment possess a value that trumps economic utility.

Gabriel GottliebGabriel Gottlieb is an assistant professor of philosophy at Xavier University. His teaching and research is on Kant and German Idealism (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel), philosophy of mind and action, and more recently, theories of justice and rights. Last year he received a fellowship from Xavier’s Center for Teaching Excellence to promote a research and teaching initiative on “The Future of Justice”. In fall 2013 he will offer for the first time a new course titled “The Future of Justice”.