Sunday, July 1, 2012
The Duty to Mitigate Harm and Nuremberg Principle IV
It is a fact of contemporary life that our economic system creates and recreates tremendous and unprecedented harms. To be sure, it keeps us alive and supplies the world with countless mind-bogglingly sophisticated gadgets and machines, but this does not at all mitigate the fact that just as much as it is doing the former, it is also sickening and killing us all. Indeed, nearly every single good and service it produces - or reproduces - have attached to them multiple collateral and completely unnecessary harms.
If food, for example, does not itself contain poison (e.g. excessive amounts of salt, or fat, or sugar, or carcinogenic sweeteners, or coloring, or preservatives, etc.), its packaging does. Moreover, beyond the harms in the food and/or in the packaging, there are manifold harms in the manner in which the product is produced. In addition to harms attending the production of a given commodity (e.g. pollution) there are harms wrapped up in the product's distribution. All of these pollutants are poisoning our world. But that is only one level of harm.
On another level, the people that work for these companies are exposed to all manners of occupational harms. From the more mild forms of harms such as poor lighting, there are harms resulting also from repetitive movements, or caused from staring at computer screens, not to mention stress, sleep-deprivation, and the occupational hazards accompanying industrial work in even the best of industrial conditions.
As in the harms attending the distributions of products, there are harms attending the transportation of people. Automobile accidents, for example, annually claim far more lives than the so-called war on drugs - yet for some reason no one seems outraged. It is for some reason considered acceptable, as are the levels of pollution caused by cars, and the production of their fuels.
The harms that were unleashed at Fukushima are nearly unfathomable. But Fukushima is only one of thousands of vulnerable nuclear power plants dotting the planet. If the Indian Point nuclear power plant 30 miles north of New York City were to meltdown, for example, the severity would be unimaginable. When one considers the fact that the energy produced by this enormously dangerous technology is used for such unnecessary things as powering the excessive lights of Times Square, among other things, it really ought to lead one to ask if the risk is worth it. Not only could energy consumption be drastically cut with very little intrusion to peoples' lives, the intrusion is predominantly caused by this consumption in the first place. Consider how people are coerced into working longer hours as a result of electricity, for example.
It goes without saying that harms attend war. And this society has been at war for so long now it hardly even thinks about it. And every other aspect of this society - its health care system, its justice system, its educational system - all of these carry significant harms as well.
To be sure, it is possible to mitigate these harms. We can eliminate those things that are harmful. If people are stressed-out and sleep-deprived, we can - theoretically - design these things out of our way of life. But such a redesign would threaten the profitability of these industries. And, as all adults are aware, these industries are designed, above all, to generate a profit. Producing/reproducing the commodity in question is pretty much secondary in this culture. The point of this economy is to make money. So, there is a trade-off here - harms for profitability. Of course, the harms are distributed among most of the world, and the profitability goes to very few.
Among the many things that produce harms is the city itself. Indeed, until the 20th century cities were so inherently harmful that their populations always died out because of their hazards; their populations never naturally replenished themselves, but were only refreshed by waves of new immigrants. Compared to those days, our cities seem greatly improved. We have far better sanitation systems, and water systems, and public health systems, among other things. But is this really the case? When looked at broadly, across the whole world, we have to admit that we are not at all living within our means, and are drastically exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. This is not a problem of population so much as a problem of wasteful and destructive economic practices.
Among other things (like the destruction of vast amounts of food each year, which is necessary to maintain profitable prices) the environment can no longer absorb our pollutants. Our most valuable resource, water is being wasted - through pollution, as well as by other wasteful practices - at alarming rates; so much so that the great aquifers, and other water sources that the world relies on for life, are rapidly vanishing. Indeed, our infrastructure is so strained and vulnerable that it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario wherein, over a couple of days, the water supporting a densely populated area could just run out. Over the course of a few days one could witness mass deaths that took the political genocides of the twentieth century months, or even years, to achieve.
Until an economic system is devised that actually values the elimination of the harms that our current economic system reproduces - over the profits and concentrations of wealth that the current models (re)produce - we will continue to destroy ourselves, along with the rest of the world. There is no more serious need today than addressing this question.
Among other things, we must prioritize that which we all can not live without - the conditions of health - and accept the ancient maxim salus populi suprema lex esto, that the health of the people is the supreme law. According to this, all of these harms constitute criminal acts which must be corrected.
Perhaps it is time that we begin to apply Principle IV of the Nuremberg Trials, or something comparable, to the economic and environmental acts that more and more are beginning to look like crimes against humanity. Some may object to the use of this rule, reminding us that it applied to acts of war, and to soldiers. But, certainly, if soldiers can be held responsible for acts committed in wartime, people who are not under military order must all the more so be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.
Principle IV states that "the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him". We hear so much about the choices we have in this culture. Perhaps we must begin to hold all of ourselves accountable for the damage to the planet with which we are all, more and more, complicit.