Resource depletion involves the consumption of finite or scarce resources. Pollution involves the undesirable contamination of the environment by the manufacture or use of commodities. Since clean air and water can be considered as resources, pollution, since it diminishes their useful qualities, can be viewed as a form of resource depletion itself, though generally distinguishable from other forms of resource depletion in being relatively impermanent (polluted resources eventually cleanse themselves, once we stop polluting), where other forms of resource depletion are permanent (once nonrenewable resources are used, they're gone forever)
The dimensions of our pollution and resource depletion are staggering. We pollute the air with carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses: this causes global warming. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) deplete the ozone layer that protects us from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Nitrogen and sulfur oxide emissions react with water in our atmosphere to cause acid rain which kills fish and vegetation in lakes, and causes deforestation. Assorted airborne toxins and particulates contribute to respiratory disease and cause cancer. We pollute our water with phosphorous compounds from detergents and agricultural fertilizer runoff, which causes explosive algae growth. Organic wastes from sewerage, runoff from animal feedlots also contribute to explosive algae growth as well as oxygen depletion in lakes, and directly endanger human health. Toxic inorganic pollutants such as heavy metals find their way into aquatic food chains and our drinking water. Oil spills kill wildlife, are detrimental to tourist and fishing industries, and require expensive cleanup. Even heat can pollute, when we use water as a coolant in nuclear reactors and industry, it disrupts marine habitats. Our oceans are the end recipients of the pollutants that go into our lakes and rivers, and have been used as disposal sites themselves. Our groundwater supplies, which provide more than 50% of U. S. drinking water, and are at risk from runoff from landfills, waste piles, and surface reservoirs. Toxic substances -- which cause increase in mortality rates, or in irreversible or incapacitating illness, or have other seriously adverse health effects -- include acids, pesticides, heavy metals, flammable solvents, and radioactive wastes. Our use of such substances increased tenfold increase from 1970 to the mid 80s and pose a multitude of health risks which are difficult to assess. Solid waste from residential and industrial sources, likewise, poses health risks from direct human exposure, and contributes to groundwater contamination. Nuclear wastes are classified as "high-level," "transuranic," and "low-level," and pose severe health risks, including death, cancer, sterility, and genetic mutation. At present no safe method of disposing of high-level nuclear wastes -- which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years -- is known; and the nuclear power industry poses security risks as well, since plutonium (used in nuclear reactors) can also be used to make atomic bombs. There has been a moratorium imposed on new plant construction in the U. S., but the many still in operation continue producing high-level wastes we still don't know how to safely and permanently dispose of. Depletion of species is occurring rapidly, mainly due to pollution and deforestation. Depletion of fossil fuels (petroleum and coal) is of concern since our industry is so dependent on them, and proposed substitutes either have drawbacks of their own, or are still experimental. Depletion of minerals is similarly worrisome: even 100% recycling would not supply the needs of a growing economy, and substitution of manufactured materials, e.g., plastics, has drawbacks: their manufacture contributes to pollution, and since most plastics now in use are petroleum based, substitution of these will contribute to depleting petroleum reserves.
Given the staggering dimensions of pollution and resource depletion, yesteryears "unlimited resource" view of the environment -- which regarded its carrying capacity as unlimited, and air and water as "free goods" -- must give way to an ethic of conservation. Towards this end, different schools of thought make different proposals. Ecological ethics holds that we have a direct duty to recognize and protect ecosystems for their own sake: the planetary ecosystem, according to ecological ethicists, is not only our life-support system on "spaceship earth" but may be viewed as a living being in it's own right whom some ecological ethicists personify as Gaia, or Mother Earth. Given such a direct duty, plus the indisputable fact of decreasing biodiversity due to the toll we are taking on nature, ecological ethicists maintain that drastic steps are need to be taken to arrest and possibly even reverse this trend. Proposed steps include decreasing the human population; ideological change away from the capitalistic ethos of materialistic and consumption; even shrinking -- rather than constantly growing -- the economy. Ecofeminism is a related approach. Ecofeminists call for a change of attitude toward nature, away from viewing nature as a thing to be dominated, and toward viewing it as an other to be cared for, instead. Ecofeminists characteristically oppose hierarchical structures (characterized by chains of command, as in most business and government organizations) as part of the problem: democratization and decentralization of our institutions, they maintain, would help foster a similar attitude of cooperation with nature in place of the current emphasis on domination over it. Both ecological ethical and ecofeminist approaches are derided by their critics as utopian, impractical and wolly-minded. Some utilitarians -- especially Peter Singer -- hold similar views about the inherent interests and rights of nonhuman animals (Singer stops here), if not plants and ecosystems.
William T. Blackstone's proposed human right to a livable environment while it has enjoyed some recognition under law (as Blackstone proposed it should), like all absolute rights based ethics, leads to an approach that seems too inflexible to consider "trade offs" with utility and other rights and to give "nuanced guidance" in complicated real world situations. The need for a more nuanced approach enabling us to assess trade offs suggests the desirability of attempting to balance environmental benefits against economic and other human costs along untilitarian lines.
The dominant utilitarian approach views environmental problems as "market defects." When a firm pollutes, for instance, the market price of their commodities no longer reflects their true price due to the market price's failure to incorporate the hidden environmental costs not borne by the producer. The total social cost of production equals the private costs (i.e., those borne by the producer) plus these external costs (not borne by the producer), and the solution to pollution (and other environmental ills), accordingly, would be to insure that the market price of commodities accurately reflects their total social cost. The remedy that utilitarians propose in this connection is to internalize external costs; though how to go about this is controversial. The "polluters pay" plan would have polluters pay all those being harmed an amount equal to the costs imposed on them by pollution. Drawbacks to this plan include the difficulty of assessing what damages are due to whose actions where there are several polluters involved, and the after-the-fact nature of repayment. Prevention plans, wherein producers bear the cost of preventing pollution by the installation of pollution control devices seems preferable on both counts. Internalizing costs seems consistent with the demands of distributive justice, since the external costs of pollution are borne unequally (mainly by the poor) without justification; and also with the demands of retributive and compensatory justice which maintain that those who are responsible for and benefit from the injury to the environment should bear the burdens of rectifying the injury and compensating the injured parties. The nuanced guidance utilitarian approaches are capable of providing is well illustrated in connection with the issue of how much pollution control to implement where the law of diminishing returns makes complete elimination of pollution impractical and prohibitively expensive. In such circumstances, the utilitarian approach suggests that the right amount of pollution control lies where the total cost of the control measures equals the expected social benefits to be gained thereby: up to that point pollution control will be a winning proposition, after that point a losing proposition, in terms of total social welfare. Criticisms of the utilitarian approach are the same as those leveled against utilitarianism more generally: daunting technical difficulties stand in the way of accurately weighing benefits and costs, and there are troubling moral issues due to the utilitarianism' neglect of justice and its potential violations of the consent rights of individuals who may be adversely affected by decisions deemed socially beneficial.
Conservation is the saving or rationing of resources for future use. In this connection it is useful to contrast depletion with pollution. Polluted resources are for the most part renewable (once we stop polluting) and pollution (with the notable exception of nuclear waste) mostly affects present generations. Depletion is concerned with nonrenewable resources whose depletion will, for the most part, affect future generations. Several would-be arguments for conservation cite the supposed rights of future generations to an equal share of these resources, but these arguments are vulnerable to objections on several scores. It may be denied that nonexistent individuals (such as future generations) have rights. It may be argued that given the virtually unlimited number generations that may follow us, the share of the world's resources we are entitled to exploit will be virtually nil. It may be pointed out that it is extremely difficult to anticipate what interests distant future generations will have (if any at all) in these resources. Velasquez replies that even if all these criticisms are granted, we may have obligations to future generations that are based on demands of justice, without appeal to any supposed rights of future generations. How much conservation justice requires of us may be determined in the way John Rawls suggests: if we imagine we do not know to which generation we belong, the present or some future one, then whatever degree of conservation we would choose from behind this "veil of ignorance" will be approximately just: neither imposing disproportionately heavy conservation burdens on the present generation (which would be unfair to this generation), nor leaving virtually nothing for future generations (which would be unfair to them). Velasquez follows Rawls in urging that the happy medium such considerations would lead us to approve would be the point at which we hand over to the next generation a situation no worse than the one we received. Considerations of care would seem to second this opinion, since we have a more direct relationship to immediately following generations than to far distant ones. Utilitarian considerations which counsel us to discount consequences in proportion to their uncertainty would also seem to argue that our most compelling obligations are to immediately following generations, since the further into the future consequences are projected the less certain the projection becomes.
Markets are "live for today" kinds of mechanisms, responding to the effective demands of present participants and the actual supplies currently available: future demands and supplies tend to be so heavily discounted that they hardly affect prices at all. Factors contributing to this "live for today" character of markets (identified by Shepherd and Wilcox) include multiple access encouraging preemptory consumption ; time preferences and myopia induced by the pressures of competition; inadequate forecasting; special incentives, such as tax breaks, which encourage overly rapid use of resources; external effects making it in the economic self-interest of firms to ignore the social costs of resource depletion; and distribution effects due to market decisions being based on existing patterns of wealth and income distribution, and future generations having, as yet, no wealth or income. Consequently, market mechanisms seem inadequate for encouraging conservation and need to be supplemented by voluntarily or politically enforced policies of conservation. Velasquez urges such measures be adopted to preserve wildlife and endangered species, to ensure that rates of consumption of fossil fuels and minerals does not continue to rise, to recycle nonrenewable resources, and to search for substitutes for materials we are too rapidly depleting.
Finally, the even more fundamental question must be faced of whether
-- and for how long -- a pattern of contining economic growth is environmentally
sustainable. The anti-growth argument holds that this pattern poses
so great a threat to the quality of life of future generations, that we
are morally obliged to scale down both our pursuit of economic growth (to
sustainable levels, probably below current levels) and to scale down human
population growth (to sustainable levels, probably below current levels)
also. The alternative, they say, is cataclysmic collapse of our growth
based economies in the not too distant future, when resources are depleted
to the point where they're insufficient to sustain continued growth.
At this point the ends of decreased population and diminished consumption
of resources will be accomplished the hard way: population levels will
be drastically and rapidly reduced by skyrocketing death rates. Consumption
will be drastically and rapidly reduced by economic collapse. While
critics of this Doomsday Scenario dispute its assumptions about future
population growth, productivity rates, our inability to find substitutes
for depleted resources, and the limits of recycling, nevertheless, Velasquez
maintains, given the uncertainties of the situation, commitment to conservation
is imperative. Even if the optimists who are critical of the Doomsday
Scenario are right and Doomsday can be avoided if population stabilizes,
productivity increases, we find substitutes for depleted resources, and
we effectively recycle, even the optimists concede it won't be avoided
we make these things happen by undertaking conservation measures aimed
at bringing them about. Whether wholesale transformation of our economy
is necessary for civilization to survive, and whether Americanization of
the world represents a sustainable vision for the future, are questions
Velasquez thinks remain open. Currently, for example, the U.S., with
only 5% of the world's population, accounts for 35% of the worlds energy
resource consumption. Besides the issue of the sustainability of
worldwide development on the American plan, these inequities of resource
use raise issues of exploitation concerning "whether a high-consumption
nation is morally justified in continuing to appropriate for its own use
the nonrenewable resources of other [low consumption] nations that are
too weak economically to use these resources or too weak militarily to
protect them" (p. 297). Are we unfairly and selfishly using up their
resources to sustain
our standard of living?