Dr. Lieselot Bisschop

This blogpost discusses three ambiguities presented by environmental harm and relates these to contemporary examples of everyday (business) practices. This illustrates that environmental harm brings with it an unequal distribution of profits and costs; in other words, environmental harm and exclusive prosperity go hand in hand. Insights into the drivers of environmental harm can help understand the dynamics of exclusive prosperity and might contribute to finding ways to increase inclusive prosperity in environmental matters. 

In the 1960s and 1970s it was scientifically proven for the first time that unlimited economic growth caused damage to the environment (Carson, 1962; Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens III, 1972; Meadows, Randers, & Meadows, 2004). In the meantime, the preservation of the environment has acquired a permanent place on the international political agenda. This has led to hundreds of agreements on a diversity of environmental topics spanning from waste to biodiversity (UNDP, 1994). Some very harmful behaviors such as the trade in hazardous waste or endangered animal and plant species were even criminalized, albeit that the implementation of these international environmental agreements remains challenging (White, 2011). In some cases we are able to place the blame on a particular perpetrator, for instance when a company knowingly discharges hazardous waste into a nearby river. More often however, the responsibility for causing environmental harm is much more ambiguous. This blog post discusses three types of ambiguities presented by environmental harm and relates these to contemporary examples of environmentally harmful business practices.

First, environmental harm is not necessarily a consequence of deliberate behavior, but more often involves a broader dynamic of carelessness and negligence. Responsibility for an environmental ‘disaster’ or ‘accident’ might be attributed, but this seldom leads to the accusation of knowingly having caused the damage and even less frequently to the prosecution for it. In other words, the relationship between everyday (business) practices and the environmental harm is ambiguous, hardly ever allowing for a direct causal relationship to be established. The ambiguous responsibility for environmental harm can be illustrated by means of a study I did about coastal land loss in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana (Bisschop, Strobl & Viollaz, 2018). My colleagues and I analysed perceptions on the causes of the environmental damage which resulted in water levels rising and a Native American tribe being forced to move to higher land. Coastal land loss was viewed as something resulting from climate change, not as a consequence of the decades of drilling for oil and gas which natural scientists had long argued significantly contributed to land subsidence. None of the activities associated with land loss in Louisiana have led to criminal investigations, because most of these activities, from oil extraction to insufficient levee protection, are legal. The case of Isle-de-Jean-Charles involves an interplay of social inequalities, regional corruption, revolving doors between industry and state regulators, and everyday business practices. In order to develop effective solutions or reparation for the harm, it is important to study this complex interplay of drivers, responsibilities and causes. Understanding who is harmed, how they are harmed, and by whom is not possible without examining the economic, political and social context. This is also relevant for other places in the world that are facing the same fate with disturbingly similar causal dynamics: the Wadden Sea (the Netherlands), and the Sundarbans delta (India and Bangladesh).

Second, finding those responsible for environmental harm is controversial because there may be conflicting ecological and economic interests at play. It requires us to realize and recognize that responsible individuals or organisations might be those with political and/or economic power. Causes of environmental damage often originate in everyday activities which are perfectly lawful, yet might be awful (Friedrichs, 2002; Passas & Goodwin, 2004; Passas, 2005). Friedrichs (2010) even called unsafe environmental practices the most common type of corporate violence, affecting us all, albeit in different ways depending on what means we have available to mitigate the harm. Furthermore, for many of these environmentally harmful behaviors policy makers have decided they are allowed up until an agreed upon level of, for instances, emissions. Take the example of the regulation of Tata Steel in IJmuiden which uses politically agreed upon methodologies to measure exhaust, while this is not necessarily the method with the highest scientific accuracy. Another example is the threshold value of chemicals (perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA), which the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) set at 15 times that of the European food safety authority. PFOA pollution is seen as one of the most widespread environmental harms which the USA has ever witnessed, often particularly exposing minority communities. The Flint water crisis (Michigan, USA) is an example of that, but also communities near the Chemours-Dupont factory in Dordrecht were exposed to high levels of PFOA  for decades. The pollution was regulated and thus legal. Up until today it remains difficult to lower the threshold value, which would effectively lower emissions and thus lower exposure to harmful substances, but would also affect business practices. Once again, understanding the economic, political and social context of environmental harm is essential to develop effective solutions.

A third ambiguity of environmental harm lies with the difficulty of accurately assessing its extent and seriousness. It often concerns long-term harm, sometimes even spanning generations. Damage affects people, animals, plants and ecosystems. Sometimes we only learn about the harm decades after the first exposure, as with the above-mentioned chemicals. The interpretation of harmfulness can moreover vary greatly depending on who defines the problem and where it occurs. When studying environmental harm, it is therefore essential to consider a diversity of victims and to consider that there is differential victimization across regions, socio-economic status and generations. Much environmental harm in the global South can be tied to industrial activities by companies with headquarters in the global North which have externalized the environmental harm. The global North profits, is increasingly prosperous and might even share some of these economic benefits with the global South. The environmental costs, however, are not shared equally, with the global South bearing the brunt. Take the example of shipbreaking, the beaching of (European) end-of-life vessels on South-East Asian beaches and the consequent substandard dismantling with heavy costs for the environment and human health. In september 2019, investigative journalists of Zembla exposed the shipbreaking practices by SBM offshore and in March 2018 the Rotterdam District Court found Groningen shipping line Seatrade liable for shipbreaking practices. Why does this practice persist? The short answer is that it is allowed, or at least, that there are ample legal loopholes which make this possible. The longer answer involves economic and political drivers and individual and organisational dynamics in a complex international playing field.

These three ambiguities lie at an intersection of environmental, economic and political or regulatory interests. Gaining insights into these complex drivers and dynamics can help understand why environmental harm occurs, provides insights into dynamics of exclusive prosperity and might ultimately help contribute to inclusive prosperity.

This blog post was first published on https://www.eur.nl/en/news/why-environmental-harm-both-challenging-and-promising-inexclusive-prosperity.


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