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Question 103: What should a factory owner have done about downstream environmental harm?

I own a factory that employs about a hundred people and is located on the bank of a small river just north of a state line. The river flows south, across the line and through a state recreation area. For many years the neighboring state has stocked the river with fish, and there are several motels and other facilities along the highway south of the recreation area.

My factory always has drawn water from the river and then returned it, no worse for our using it. About three years ago, however, it became clear that, to remain competitive with factories in other parts of the country, we would have to change our process and make far more use of the river water. The new process does not pollute the river; in fact, nothing whatsoever is added to the water when we return it. But we do take out virtually all the oxygen, and the river only gradually regains sufficient oxygen to support fish. It still can be stocked in the southern portion of the recreation area, but most of the popular fishing spots were in the north, near us. Thus, the change in our process has had a deleterious impact on the recreation area and the businesses that serve it.

Before changing the process, we made certain that doing so would not violate federal, state, or local laws or regulations, not least those regarding environmental impact. We knew the changes would have some adverse effect on our neighbors’ businesses, but we did not realize how much.

Despite what I did foresee about the impact, I had to go ahead; the alternative was closing the factory. Not only would I have lost my investment but our employees would have been put out of work. The factory is not just the largest local employer but the only one on our side of the state line that brings money into the area rather than taking it out, and closing down would have undermined other businesses serving our employees. For selfish reasons and also out of responsibility to my employees and others who would have suffered if the factory closed, I had no choice but to change the process.

Like most people around here, I’ve enjoyed using the neighboring recreation area and I’m acquainted with many of the business people who have been adversely affected by what I’ve done. Needless to say, their attitude toward me is decidedly cool, and in some cases hostile. Fortunately, since our businesses are so different and we operate in different states, we are not members of the same associations and do not have to do business with one another.

Nevertheless, when a motel owner I know down there asked me, “How would you like it if you were in my place?” I had to admit I would not like it at all. I sympathize with her and others who have been hurt. But, knowing she is a fair-minded woman, I asked her, “What would you have done if you had been in my place?” Though she said I at least should have talked my plans over with them before going ahead, she candidly but reluctantly admitted that she would have changed the process to save the business. It seems as though we both have the Golden Rule against us!

I also have been criticized by some environmentalists. They admit that I did not violate any law or regulation regarding environmental impact, but they claim I took advantage of a gap in the law to do something plainly wrong by adopting a process that interferes with nature by removing oxygen naturally present in the river.

I do not think what I have done is wrong, but I wonder whether I have overlooked something. If you think so, what must I do?


This question raises two distinct issues of fairness, one regarding the procedure followed in making the change, the other regarding accepting its adverse impact on neighbors. The motel owner’s admission that she also would have changed the process suggests that doing so and accepting the adverse impact was not in itself unfair. However, the questioner should have enlisted the cooperation of those affected in looking for a mutually acceptable way to deal with the problem, and acting unilaterally was unfair to them. That unfairness should be rectified through an effort to work with those who have been adversely affected to find some way of mitigating the harm. The environmentalists’ argument is unsound insofar as it assumes that interfering with nature is wrong in itself.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In changing your process, you foresaw but did not intend some adverse impact on your neighbors’ businesses. The first question is whether you acted fairly in accepting that side effect. In describing the problem, you indicate how much was at stake from your point of view: your investment, the jobs of your hundred employees, and the survival of some other businesses that serve them. But you do not say how much was at stake for those adversely affected. Perhaps you should have foreseen that their loss would be far greater than the goods you hoped to preserve; but even if you could not have foreseen how much they would lose, perhaps you now realize that your change’s negative impact on them greatly exceeds its benefits to you and others. If so, you should put yourself in the place of those adversely affected, acknowledge any unfairness to them, and consider how to make amends. However, since the fair-minded motel owner admitted that in your place she would have done what you did, I shall assume that what is at stake on both sides is at least roughly comparable or even greater on your side. On that assumption, you are not necessarily acting unfairly in accepting your operation’s adverse impact, and in this respect the motel owner had the Golden Rule against her.

Nevertheless, while you may have been compelled to change your process, it is possible that you had, or could have found, some alternative that did not have such an adverse impact on your neighbors. Having foreseen harm, though not its magnitude, you should have regarded the problem as one in which they shared. Thus, the motel owner was right in saying you should have talked your plans over with her and others who would be adversely affected before going ahead. While you and they do not belong to the same associations, you could and should have arranged a meeting with them, explained the problem, and sought their help in searching for a mutually satisfactory solution. Moreover, you should have done that when you first realized you needed to make more extensive use of the river water, and your obligation to do it became graver when you saw that the harm to your neighbors would be greater than you had expected. Insofar as you fell short in this matter, you had the Golden Rule against you.

Therefore, while I think both the motel owner and you have the Golden Rule against you, the paradox is dissolved by distinguishing between what you did in changing your process and what you failed to do in acting unilaterally rather than cooperatively.

Having failed to organize a timely cooperative effort to deal with the problem, you now should acknowledge that omission to those adversely affected and do what you can to rectify it. Perhaps, even now, you and they might still work together to find some way of mitigating the adverse impact. In this effort, both sides could seek help from their respective state and local governments. Preliminary studies and preparation of petitions to governmental bodies will be needed. Keeping in mind that you are comparatively prosperous while your neighbors have suffered serious losses as a result of what you have done, you should bear the cost of this effort, at least initially. Fairness might also require you to provide some additional assistance to your neighbors. Even if your cooperative effort does not lead to a solution and any additional assistance you can give them does little to mitigate the damage they have suffered, your conscientious attempt to rectify your omission probably will soften their attitude toward you and improve your relationship with them—benefits of great value in human and Christian terms.

As for the environmentalists’ argument, I do not think you should be moved by it. Moral issues about environmental impact are reducible to questions about reverence toward God, the author of nature, and fairness toward fellow human beings (see CCC, 2415; LCL, 771–82). The subhuman world, which was created for human persons, is not sacred in itself; there is nothing inherently wrong in interfering with it. Human beings rightly use natural things, and fulfill both themselves and those things in using them. Still, every such use somehow “interferes” with nature. The neighboring state interferes with nature in stocking the river with fish, and the fishermen interfere again when they catch them. Moreover, since human beings are part of the natural world and deliberately altering other parts of it is natural to them, the impact of human activities on nature is no more unnatural than is the impact of other natural phenomena: animals’ eating and moving about, volcanoes’ eruptions, tropical storms, and so forth.

Very often, of course, the interests of people who are only remotely affected, including future generations, are slighted or overlooked entirely. But the problem you present seems not to involve any question of irreverence or any effects on people other than those previously considered.