Unfortunately, human societies are acclimated to ways of life that depend upon the use and (eventual) disposal of substances that are detrimental to the natural systems upon which all living things rely. The disposal of waste poses an array of potential hazards. These factors to consider when making waste management decisions as an individual or a public official are generally spatial limitations, the toxicity of substances in waste (and therefore its physical impacts on all effected life), the social impact of dumpsite locations on nearby human communities, the influence of economic stakeholders, and Global Climate Change [Tox15].
Waste issues do not stop with what humans would consider ‘waste.’ Even when people reduce, reuse, recycle, and are conscious of what substances they allow in their homes, they are likely to use substances every day that can and will eventually contribute to the waste problem. One way or another, man-made materials are all potential waste.
The landfills and other spaces where humans dump their waste are vast, but vaster still, sadly, are pervasive negative effects of human activity on the environment. The purpose of this paper is to propose an ethical framework for the purposes of managing anthropogenic impacts on the environment. This framework will be successful because it is supported by accredited environmentalist texts, combines strictly human-centered interests with environmental interests, and can successfully be applied in a complex environmental dilemma.
The following framework can be applied to any environmental ethical dilemma in order to lead the decision-maker to an ethical decision: Have a personal investment in the future of natural spaces, and when making decisions that pertain to a specific geographic location, visit that place. If the circumstances of the situation do not allow for you to establish a true investment in the future of a place, consult someone who is a resident of as nearby and for the longest time that you can find.
As much as many people may not want to admit it, people’s emotions cannot be left out of ethical decisions. When it comes to dilemmas that pertain to physical spaces, which perhaps most environmental dilemmas do, a person who has never seen and has no attachment whatsoever to a place is not unbiased, nor are they a fair judge. Because all of life relies on nature, and human lives might rely especially on the health of particular pieces of land, the perspective of people who are attached to a place must be considered in any decision pertaining to that place. This should ensure serious deliberation over decisions of whether or not to preserve.
“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” – Leopold
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” -Leopold
Manage resources, as well as waste, equitably for all populations who may be involved. This includes that if a population is unexpectedly becomes involved, such as if pollution travels and affects a faraway community, then that population’s needs must also be considered. Decisions must also be equitable for future generations. Act always on the behalf of justice.
“Our decisions about distributing the wealth we obtain from the natural resources among present and future generations are best made according to the prediction of an economic model. Once a decision has been made as to how much we want future generations to inherit, both in terms of still untapped natural resource wealth and in terms of polluted and degraded resources that are analogous to debts.” (Davidson 76) 3. When considering the present or future value of any object or goods, factor in that object’s impact on the environment. This includes making an effort to get a sense of where your material possessions come from and where they are going, or may go.
What this implies for waste management decisions is that, factoring in environmental impact, some methods of waste disposal are more economical than others. “…we cannot do without forests, wetlands, uncontaminated groundwater, or a habitable climate. These resources are the underlying basis of our wealth and prosperity. Cost-benefit analysis, when used appropriately, may be a useful tool to help but put into perspective the value of ecosystems as they are protected, contaminated, or destroyed, and as trade-offs are rationalized at the margin. By equating ecological systems with economic systems on a dollar-for dollar basis misses the point that the economic system cannot exist without the ecological system.” (Davidson 59)
Have a functional understanding of ecology, and consult credible sources, and use this knowledge to minimize the negative impact your decision has on the environment. You do not have any right to make decisions involving earth systems without at least some understanding of them and investment in them. All of life is reliant upon earth systems, and so such decisions should be considered very carefully and with the most accurate information attainable.
Without any personal understanding of ecology, a person cannot truly know what kind of effect their actions will have on the environment, or on people, or on what scale.
“Who has decided—who has the right to decide for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value of a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.” (Carson 127)
If you feel that you have an accurate understanding of a situation and have a defensible decision, take action! Simply understanding is not going to solve a dilemma. Part of being empowered to take effective action is understanding the cultural patterns which will be interrupted. The best way to make actions effective and change lasting is to educate others.
Be prepared to take responsibility for your actions. What seems ethical at one time may appear otherwise later on. This is just a fact of life. “…only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the cureent system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.” (Klein 450)
Around the world, disasters are often written off as inevitable ‘acts of God.’ In reality, most disasters are preventable if only humans were to conduct proper mitigation and planning in light of known risks[Uni11]. A very poignant example of a clearly preventable, especially devastating disaster for most Americans began to August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast and began to decimate New Orleans[Fro05].
Destructive disasters create their own category of waste management because they abruptly turn giant amounts of materials used every day by humans into waste. Materials so seldom thrown away by choice that most people would not know what to do with them are suddenly loose by the millions of pounds, posing a threat to local people and to the extended environment.
When massive amounts of debris are generated over short periods of time by disasters, the same decisions which are usually made by a team of appointed officials ahead of time and drafted into a detailed plan for waste management must be made in the shortest possible period of time by whoever is available in order to avoid further devastation.
According to one report completed in 2008 by the Congressional Research Service, after demolition of damaged structures was completed (demolition was not yet complete), the total debris generated by the disaster was projected to be about 100 million cubic yards—the largest amount of disaster debris America has ever seen, with about half of this being in Louisiana (Luther).
This debris included “vegetation (e.g., trees, limbs, shrubs), municipal solid waste (e.g., common household garbage and personal belongings), construction and demolition debris (in some instances, entire residential structures and all their contents), vehicles (e.g., cars, trucks, and boats), food waste, white goods (e.g., refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners), and household hazardous waste (e.g., cleaning agents, pesticides, pool chemicals)” (Luther).
In a disaster, toxic substances people keep in their homes and businesses, not always knowingly from antifreeze to household cleaners to refrigerants—are indiscriminately mixed with all other types of debris. This is especially true of events involving flooding, such as Katrina. Although not all of the debris was toxic to begin with, only testing can prove whether or not any of it is tainted.
In February of 2006, the government of New Orleans was still burdened with the responsibility of disposing of 22 million pounds of debris. Mayor Ray Nagin chose to dump disaster debris right next to the first neighborhood to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina[SLe08]. Versailles is a little-known Vietnamese community in New Orleans. A tight-knit community, originally made up of refugees who were moved to the area in 1975, the residents of Versailles proved quite resilient in the aftermath of Katrina.
Versailles residents organized themselves and began to return and rebuild just six weeks after the storm, whereas the majority of people to return within the first two months were white and upper-class, likely with much more material resources and wider-spread social capital (Fussell, Sastry, and Vanlandingham). What the people of Versailles lacked in those things, they made up for and more in connectedness with each other, and the experience of the older residents of having been refugees likely prepared them to be resilient.
About half of the community had returned by January, only to learn in February 2006 that the mayor had signed an executive order to dump Katrina debris at a site located less than a mile from their community [SLe08]. Mayor Ray Nagin had been granted special power to make this decision, which contradicted the city’s zoning ordinance, due to the emergency.
To make matters worse, the site, the Chef Menteur Landfill is located adjacent to the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge—”the largest urban national wildlife refuge in the country” [SLe08]. The residents of Versailles were known to water their vegetable gardens with water from canals which passed the site, and the site, which was before a “light industrial zone,” did not have the proper lining to prevent groundwater contamination [SLe08].
Versailles reacted by taking grassroots political action. They attended city hall meetings in large numbers, staged protests, and urged the mayor to close the site, and they had support for outside organizations such as environmental groups [SLe08]. Their battle was not won until August of 2006, when Chef Menteur was finally permanently shut down.
The ultimate decision-maker in the dilemma of debris management after Katrina appears to have been Ray Nagin. This situation essentially could be considered a localized and intensified version of normal waste management decisions, and Nagin’s order mirrored the national trend by harming a community of color, who are also a minority in the city [Chr12].
From the perspective of Versailles and from environmentalists concerned with the wildlife refuge and connected waterways, it is blatantly obvious that Nagin made an unethical choice by allocating debris to the Chef Menteur landfill. On the other hand, Nagin had much to consider in trying to make the best decision while his city was in critical condition.
Nagin gave the order in February, about five months after the storm, when there was still a massive amount of debris preventing people from returning to the city[Cho06]. It is precisely for situations like this that it is useful to have an ethic—having a pre-determined set of standards certainly would have saved Nagin some time and stress in this decision, and may have even lead action to be taken before the situation was critical.
If the ethical framework proposed by this paper is applied to Ray Nagin’s dilemma of having to decide where to dump Katrina debris, an ethical solution will be reached. Have a personal investment in the future of natural spaces, and when making decisions that pertain to a specific geographic location, spend time in that place. If it is not possible to establish a true investment in the future of an area, consult a resident who has lived as close to the area for as long as you can find.
Mayor Nagin may not have had time to visit Versailles or the wildlife refuge when he was faced with his dilemma. Even if he had, most of New Orleans at that time may have had the exact opposite appearance as what the Mayor would have deemed worth salvaging. At the same time, perhaps if Nagin had been able to see what amazing progress Versailles was able to make in returning after Katrina, he would have seen the beauty of the community despite the destruction. It would be fair if Nagin was too preoccupied during those months to tour the city and learn about who was coming back.
Even still, Nagin should have at least consulted someone from that community. The Chef Menteur landfill is located less than a mile from a Catholic church that is considered a focal point in the Vietnamese community.
Manage resources, as well as waste, justly equitably for all populations who may be involved. This includes that if a population is unexpectedly becomes involved, such as if pollution travels and affects a faraway community, then that population’s needs must also be considered. Decisions must also be equitable for future generations.
It is more obvious that this criterion would tell Nagin not to use Chef Menteur, as using a landfill so close to residential areas and waterways without proper lining is not fair treatment of any of the nearby populations, and it is not fair to future generations who would have to cope with the pollution.
When considering the present or future value of any object, factor in that object’s impact on the environment. This includes making an effort to get a sense of where your material possessions come from and where they are going.
If all of the material goods in New Orleans, from people’s possessions to the physical infrastructure, had been valued according to this criterion, perhaps proper mitigation would have been carried out in the first place. There were some circumstances that contributed to the vulnerability of New Orleans which not under the control of Nagin or the local government, but perhaps more mitigation could have been carried out within the city ahead of time.
Another approach to this criterion is to consider the losses faced by the city due to the detriment caused by the waste, depending on where it is placed. No economic analysis of the debris management of Hurricane Katrina could be found in the research for this paper, but perhaps if one were carried out Davidson-style, quantified environmental damage could be compared between an array of potential sites. There likely would not have been time to carry out this analysis before removing the debris, so Nagin would only be able to carry out a simplified, non-quantified version. Even still, it seems that had he known about basic ecology, he would have chosen to avoid polluting the waterways as much as possible.
On the other hand “Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays”. Have an understanding of basic ecology, and consult credible sources. You do not have any right to make decisions involving earth systems without at least some understanding of them and investment in them. All of life is reliant upon earth systems, and so such decisions should be considered very carefully and with the most accurate information attainable.
Mayor Nagin’s decision could be considered a classic case of a politician making a dangerous environmental decision that they are not qualified to make. Nagin obviously did not understand that choosing to overwrite the zoning ordinance in order to dump hazardous waste into an inappropriate landfill would likely have long-term environmental repercussions that would further exacerbate Katrina’s effects.
The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) took action against the reopening of this site as soon as it occurred, which was before Nagin actually made the decision to dump hurricane debris there since they apparently understood the risks of dumping waste in that area, they might have been a good party for him to consult (Choi, Bhatt and Chen).
If you feel that you have an accurate understanding of a situation and a good idea about what must be done, take action!
In this case, under this criterion, the Vietnamese community made the ethical action. Like Nagin, the residents of Versailles were undergoing a time of intense stress. While simultaneously coping with destroyed homes and a desolate-looking city, they decided that the threats posed by the Chef Menteur debris dumpsite were significant enough that it would be worth taking the extra effort to organize a movement against it. Although environmental agencies were simultaneously fighting the same war, and Versailles had support from across the nation, change was only achieved because the community stood up.
Similarly, had Mayor Nagin or some other city or county official been fully aware of the hurricane risk in the area, the proper course of action would have been to do they most they could to protect their city or county before the event, in any way they could. This could have included mitigation and preparedness practices and political or legal action against external forces that contributed to New Orleans’ vulnerability.