Environmentalists and Business Collide--Again
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
In 1985, scientists startled the world with an ominous discovery.
While monitoring the stratosphere over Antarctica, they discovered
a hole in the earth's ozone layer. By 1987, the hole had increased
to the size of the continental U.S. Last winter, scientists
found evidence of the same destructive process at work in the
Arctic's stratosphere. Worldwide deterioration of the ozone
shield had begun and was progressing at an alarming rate.
Ozone is a form of oxygen that is present in small but crucial
amounts in the stratosphere, between six and thirty miles above
the surface of the earth. The ozone layer absorbs solar ultraviolet
radiation, protecting humans from skin cancer, cataracts, and
immune system deficiencies. Studies indicate that many other
forms of life, from bacteria to agricultural crops, may be harmed
by increased doses of ultraviolet light.
The destruction of the ozone shield is linked to chlorofluorocarbons,
or CFCs, one million tons of which are released annually around
the world. These chemicals serve as the coolants in our air
conditioners and refrigerators, the foaming agents in our styrofoam
packaging and insulation, the sterilants used to sanitize our
surgical instruments, and the solvents used to clean scores
of electrical components. Each of these products releases CFCs
into the atmosphere. Once free, the CFCs float up to the ozone
layer and remain there for 75 to 100 years, destroying the ozone
Every 1% drop in ozone results in a 2% increase in the intensity
of the most harmful type of ultraviolet radiation, UV-B. Scientists
predict that, beyond the health risks to humans, a prolonged
increase of UV-B rays could set in motion far-reaching and unpredictable
ecological changes. There is evidence, for example, that UV-B
reduces the nutrient content and yield of crops such as soybeans
and peas. It also kills off microorganisms at the bottom of
the marine food chain, the base on which much of the world's
population depends for protein.
In 1987, international concern over the effect of CFCs on
the ozone layer led to the signing of a treaty calling for a
50% cut in the production and consumption of CFCs by 1999. This
past May, representatives from 86 countries voiced their support
for a total ban on their use.
But in the wake of mounting evidence of the destructive capacities
of CFCs, environmentalists have called for an immediate and
total ban on the use of ozone-depleting chemicals for the sake
of future generations.
Industry, on the other hand, opposes such a drastic step,
arguing that time is needed to develop substitutes for the chemicals.
Do we have a moral obligation to halt the use and production
The Case for Continued Use of CFCs
Those who oppose an immediate ban on CFCs argue that an immediate
ban on CFCs would inflict great harm on society, but would produce
First, an immediate ban on CFCs would impose enormous costs
on industry and consumers alike. In the United States alone,
CFCs are currently contained in 100 million refrigerators, 90
million cars and trucks, 40,000 supermarket display cases, and
100,000 commercial building air conditioners. Dupont has estimated
that banning CFCs would render useless or require alterations
of equipment valued at $135 billion in the U.S. Moreover, CFCs
are central to the manufacture of semiconductors, the building
block of the electronics industry.
To date, industry has found no adequate substitute for the
chemicals. If CFCs were banned today, businesses such as dry-cleaning,
auto refinishing, printing, and baking would be forced to shut
down or be forced to install costly controls, and prices for
a wide range of consumer products and services would increase.
Second, the substitutes developed for CFCs are toxic or extremely
dangerous to use. Without nontoxic substitutes in place, society
would only be trading one harm for another by insisting on an
Third, halting the production and use of CFCs would harm our
quality of life and that of future generations. We would be
forced to do without countless products that have come to be
virtually indispensable. And the electronics industry could
be crippled, threatening the benefits it promises for both present
and future generations.
While the harms that would be ushered in by an immediate ban
on CFCs are considerable, the benefits are not. Recent reports
of research being done in Antarctica indicate that ocean and
plant life are adjusting to the ozone hole. A gradual phaseout
of CFCs is admittedly in order, but an immediate ban is not.
Appeals to justice also underlie opposition to an immediate
ban on CFCs. Justice requires that benefits and burdens be distributed
equally. Banning the use of CFCs today would impose a great
burden on the present generation, while the primary beneficiaries
would be future generations.
Finally, those opposed to an immediate ban on CFCs point out
that today there is no consensus on how we should factor in
the rights of future generations. So the claim that the present
generation should ban CFCs out of respect for future generations
remains a point of contention among philosophers. Many argue,
in fact, that a person must exist before he or she can claim
a right to something, and since future generations do not, by
definition, exist, they can have no rights.
Furthermore, rights are designed to protect and promote the
interests of human beings. But we have no idea what interests
or needs future generations will have.
Presently existing persons, on the other hand, clearly have
a right to the resources necessary to meet their basic needs.
An immediate ban on CFCs would divert scarce resources from
meeting these basic needs for the sake of benefitting future
generations, which have no legitimate claims on us. Rather than
worrying about the needs of people who do not yet exist, we
ought to be directing our resources to meeting the present needs
of presently existing people.
Should CFCs Be Banned Now?
Calling for an immidiate ban on CFCs are those who argue that
the continued use and production of CFCs will cause untold harm
to future generations. The Environmental Protection Agency projects
more than 60 million additional cases of skin cancer, 17 million
additional cases of cataracts, and about 1 million additional
deaths among Americans born by the year 2075 if CFC usage continues
at its present rate. The impact on the climate and chemistry
of the atmosphere will also be devastating and irreversible.
On the other hand, the costs that society would incur upon
banning CFCs immediately are relatively insignificant. The sacrifices
we might have to pay in discomfort or higher prices are trivial
compared to the increased risk of cancer, cataracts, and irreversible
ecological damage if CFCs are not contained.
Furthermore, while the harms that would result from the continued
use of CFCsÑdeath, disease, and ecological damageÑare permanent,
the costs of banning CFCs would only be temporary. Already substitutes
are being rushed to market.
In response to those who claim that future generations have
no rights, it is argued that people need not exist in the present
to possess rights. We speak of a camper as having an obligation
to leave a clean campsite for the next person who camps there.
The camper may assume that the next person to camp there exists
somewhere, but in fact, he or she may not yet exist. We recognize
the rights of future generations every time we create trusts
on behalf of possible descendants, withholding money from those
who are living for the sake of those who are not yet born.
Nor do we need to know exactly who these people will be or
their specific desires or needs before we place their rights
on par with our own. It takes little stretch of the imagination
to know that the basic needs of future people will be similar
to ours, including a healthy ecosystem, sufficient food, and
protection from ultraviolet radiation.
The deliberate use of chemicals we know will inflict substantial
harm on future generations is morally reprehensible. The continued
use of CFCs can be likened to the case of a terrorist who plants
a bomb in the heart of New York City, setting it to explode
in the year 2075. Whenever we act with the knowledge that someday
some innocent person will be harmed by our action, we are morally
responsible for that harm.
Finally, it is argued, justice demands that the interests
of future generations and the interests of present generations
be treated equally. If I were ignorant of the generation into
which I would be born, I would hardly support the continued
use of chemicals that would inflict massive and irreversible
harm on a future generation in order that another earlier generation
could live in comfort and ease. Rather, I would support an immediate
ban which would ensure that each generation would have at least
the minimum resources necessary to satisfy its basic needs.
As the ozone layer continues to dissipate, we must decide
how to balance our obligations to ourselves against those to
future generations. Should we immediately eliminate the ozone-eating
chemicals from production, thereby imposing some hardships on
ourselves and our economy? Or, should we wait for more alternatives
to emerge, thereby inflicting possibly serious health problems
and environmental harm on future generations?
For further reading:
Begley, Sharon, Mary Hager & Dorothy Wang, ''A Gaping Hole
in the Sky," Newsweek (July 11, 1988) pp. 21-23.
"Can We Repair the Sky?" Consumer Reports (May 1989),
Partridge, Ernest, ed., Responsibilities to:Future Generations:
Environmental Ethics (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980).