The Problem with
Why Is the Environment More Sacred than Workers’ Lives?
BY JAN K. WACHTER
In the past two decades, environmental
ethics has become an important social
value. You see it everywhere—for instance, the ubiquitous Earth Day poster
contests for grade school students that
promote waste reduction, reuse and recycling; the plethora of job advertisements for directors of Sustainability and
Waste Minimization Coordinators in corporate America (even for smaller companies and during a struggling economy);
green building construction and renovation; and the host of recycling bins at
Perhaps environmental ethics has
caught on because it embraces the individual and encompasses how each of us
can contribute to the overall environmental cause. Each of us can reduce our
energy and water consumption, carbon
footprint, the amounts of toxic chemicals we use, and the quantities of waste
we produce. Environmental ethics supports our self-identity as independent
and controlling individuals.
But on the other hand, perhaps it is
exactly the opposite. Environmental
ethics is so much in the spotlight and
embraced nearly universally because it
capitalizes on our insecurities. Environmental ethics shows that, by necessity,
we are dependent, relational beings.
Even though we can control our specific
environment in limited ways, we are
humbly dependent on a wider, global
environment. We are cogs in some complicated piece of natural machinery beyond our understanding and control.
This wider perspective requires global
strategies for maintaining and improving the environment. Issues such as climate change, ozone depletion,
biodiversity loss, and widespread deforestation require global solutions. Thus,
sustainability cannot be understood as a
matter of only individualism or individual morality, but as a matter of appropriate social, economic, and political
systems requiring support and nurturing. In short, environmental ethics is a
big thing, requiring big solutions.
Each of us needs to be part of something greater than ourselves. We also desire continuance. Much of environmental
ethics supports the notion that our actions today will help future generations.
Therefore, environmental ethics has promoted the idea that we are individual
environmental warriors as well as part of
a global nation of connected “
sustainable people.” This enhanced identity
seems to be good for society as a whole.
So what’s the problem with environmental ethics, especially for industrial hygienists and safety professionals?
Workers vs. Environment
Maybe individuals, corporations, and nations have only so much respect, care
and responsibility to share. The rise of
environmental ethics has not seen a concomitant rise in worker care ethics or
even ethics related to individuals,
whether as workers or as public citizens.
There was little sustained moral outrage
in 2005 when a Texas City refinery exploded, causing 15 deaths, injuring
nearly 200 people and forcing thousands
of nearby residents to remain sheltered
in their homes. In the Deepwater Horizon
disaster, most of our concern, outrage
and media coverage were related to the
potential environmental devastation of
the Gulf Coast ecosystem and its effects
on our personal lives. We feared the potential loss of livelihoods. We feared how
this disaster might affect our gas prices,
seafood safety, and vacation plans. But