Pollution, virtue and second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke is a nuisance for non-smokers. When you smoke, you get the enjoyment of the nicotine and you get some health risks too. Other people, third parties, get only costs and no benefits, including your wife, kids, dog, the servers at your favorite pub, etc. Everyone knows now not to smoke around kids. Kids deserve better. Those that do it are despicable sociopaths, and people will let them know. Social pressures are brought to bear.

Pollution is the same kind of problem, but on a larger scale.

Pollution from tailpipes of cars and smokestacks of power plants are the social side-effects of people doing things that are privately good for them: driving a car, air conditioning their house, surfing the web. When the power company burns coal to make electricity to power my house, I get the benefit, but I only pay a portion of the cost—the private costs that are enumerated on my power bill. But the social costs of my pollution fall on both me and on third-parties (like second-hand smoke). I may never meet those people, because my pollution is dispersed widely (unlike second-hand smoke). The affected people can’t glare at me, point at me, ostracize me, or ask me to take my pollution to another part of the restaurant. They certainly can’t sue me, even if I have contributed to their child’s asthma (which I have). They don’t know who I am. I’m shielded by the system. I’m virtually anonymous. There’s an information problem.

On the other hand, I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing. Many of us are driving, air conditioning our houses, and surfing the web. There are many, many people who are letting the system absorb their pollution. But each individual has little incentive to cut back on the activities which cause pollution. After all, I’d be the one making a sacrifice, and I’d only benefit a little. Maybe if I knew everyone would cut back, I would, but then there is still an incentive for individuals to cheat. It’s called a collective-action problem, and it is made worse because the system is too big for everyone to trust each other.

Finally, the problem is special because pollution never affects everyone equally. Some are more vulnerable—generally children, the elderly, the poor, the diseased, and those who have little access to health care. The great paradox is that these groups generally contribute less pollution to the system, but are more deeply affected by pollution than others. There is also a geographic paradox: pollution is not evenly distributed across the landscape. Some people are much, much more likely than others to have a toxic landfill, industrial plant, or polluting interstate highway in their neighborhood. Because pollution doesn’t affect everyone equally, it’s also a social justice problem.

Solving the problem of pollution is hard, because you can’t count on markets to work their magic when they’re broken. There’s a role for governments to be involved in solving some pollution problems, but politicians seem to be especially prone to listen to special interests. Whether we concentrate on fixing the market or designing prudent regulations, those institutional fixes are worthy of public debate and our best thinking.

But for people of faith and goodwill, integrity demands that we do what we can privately, in our own lives, homes, churches and businesses, no matter what our public policy preferences are. We need to start by asking ourselves, “What kind of people do we want to be?” Do I want to be the kind of person who benefits from the system that perpetuates anonymity, distrust, and injustice? Or do I want to make every decision in the light of its impact on others?

I’m not pretending that anyone can have clean hands, at least not right now. We’re part of a matrix of anonymity, distrust, and injustice. Because our economic system is global and complex, we can’t easily trace where we benefit and who we harm with our actions. But obliviousness and plausible deniability don’t make us better people. What we don’t know hurts us, morally and spiritually. It’s worth asking questions, even if the answers make us uncomfortable.

One thought on “Pollution, virtue and second-hand smoke

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