optimal pollution and the burden of mitigating climate change

optimal pollution and the burden of mitigating climate change

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Original Publication Date: August 20, 2019

William Baxter, in his 1974 article “The Case for Optimal Pollution,” makes a handful of claims with the central argument that the focus of the race against climate change should not focus on eliminating pollution altogether, as pollution is a guaranteed by-product of “human satisfaction.” Instead, we should target a level of “optimal pollution,” where the well-being of humanity is not threatened and satisfaction is not compromised either.

This idea, in addition to some of the claims Baxter makes to support it, is a demonstration of human arrogance and what Mies (2014) calls the “double-think state,” where people think we can “have our cake and eat it too:” we can consume non-renewable energy resources and emit CO2 at “acceptable” levels where the environment can still sustain itself (maybe not thrive), but most importantly, we don’t have to change our destructive behaviors.  

Table of Contents

The Faulty Case for Optimal Pollution
The Unequal Burden of Mitigating Climate Change
Photo by Thijs Stoop on Unsplash

The Faulty Case for Optimal Pollution

Baxter (2014) lists his criteria regarding pollution as the following:  

  1. Spheres of freedom: each human being is free to do as they please, provided his/her actions do not compromise or interfere with those of other human beings.  
  2. Waste is bad: waste of resources, labor, skill, etc.  
  3. Human beings should be seen as ends, not as means – no one should aim to accomplish his/her goals at the expense of another human being.  
  4. Society should function/aim to function according to egalitarian standards.  

Baxter wastes no time in clarifying that his standards and ethics are exclusively and unapologetically anthropocentric on every level: “I have no interest in preserving [animals] for their own sake” (Baxter, 1974, p. 275). The validity of anthropocentric ethics is a matter of opinion which will not be discussed here. The problem to be addressed, however, comes from Baxter’s defense of why this particular anthropocentric perspective is acceptable:  

…[T]his attitude does not portend any massive destruction of nonhuman flora and fauna, for people depend on them in many obvious ways, and they will be preserved because and to the degree that humans depend on them… [W]hat is good for humans is, in many respects, good for penguins and pine trees – clean air, for example. So that humans are, in these respects, surrogates for plant and animal life.(Baxter, 1974, p. 275) 

Firstly, one cannot build a justifiable argument on the optimality of pollution for the entirety of Earth, if one does not consider the entirety of Earth. The level of optimal pollution determined may be possible for humans, but the long-term adaptive capabilities of flora and fauna may be compromised. 

Baxter asserts that this level of optimal pollution must be safe while allowing the “maximum possible amount of human satisfaction.” His defense is that, although lower levels of pollution are ideal, the inevitable cost of basic essentials – food, water, shelter – is pollution in one form or another. Still, does food, water and shelter equate to “maximum” human satisfaction? These are merely the essentials of survival.  

In order to begin to determine an optimal level of pollution, maximum human satisfaction would first need to be defined, and then standardized globally. Otherwise, would optimal pollution levels vary by country, due to differing ideologies on what human satisfaction entails?

Would it then become acceptable for one country to excessively emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere relative to other nations, as long as their maximum satisfaction levels are attained? It is clear today, at least in affluent nations throughout the world, that maximum satisfaction levels are unattainable.

Humanity will always want more: “The primary problem is an ancient one and lies not with those who do not have enough for a decent standard of living, but rather with those for whom enough does not exist” (Magdoff & Foster, 2010, p. 6). 

In our current trajectory, as the nations of the Global North continue to expand and industrialize, the effects of our journey to reach maximum satisfaction have already resulted in rising ocean levels, ocean acidification, devastating amounts of deforestation, the oppression of Natives, Aboriginals and people of developing nations, dangerously high concentrations of atmospheric CO2, accelerated rates of extinction of plant and animal species and so much more (Magdoff & Foster, 2010). 

Magdoff & Foster (2010) estimate that if everyone in the world were to live at the standard of a U.S. middle class lifestyle, the Earth would only be able to sustain approximately 1.4 billion people.

It is simply impossible to define an “optimal” level of pollution, where humanity can disregard the direct needs of the environment and still achieve maximum human satisfaction.  

In his case for optimal pollution, Baxter explicitly ignores the welfare of flora and fauna throughout the world, only stopping to note that they will be preserved based solely on their instrumental value to humans. Baxter says that species will be preserved according to human dependence on them. Dependence in what way? Direct or indirect? 

Rainforests, for example, are important sources of medicines worldwide, and the ecosystem depends on all species which fill countless niches and perform their own unique functions to the persistence of that habitat type. 

Species such as the tiger (Panthera tigris spp.), orangutan (Pongo spp.), rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum, Rhinoceros spp.) and more are heavily exploited, despite the fact that they also are critical in the ecology of the rainforest ecosystem.

Additionally, their exploitation is partially due to the beliefs of many Asian cultures, for example, that various body parts of each of these animals are necessary for human well-being. Baxter claims that what is good for humans is also good for animals – yet, according to many Eastern ideologies, these types of practices are “good” for human beings.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Although humans indirectly depend on these species for the health of rainforest ecosystems from which we attain the resources for medicines, this ideology determines that humans also directly depend on these species for healing sicknesses, providing aphrodisiacs and more. 

These things are good for humans, but bad for the animals and the rainforest. This being said, who is to determine which “good” is actually good? Could both “goods” be good, or is one “good” better than the other? Not only would this need to be standardized worldwide, but a system of measuring human dependence on the environment and floral and faunal species would have to be developed.  

Baxter (1974) attempts to build a case for optimal pollution which disregards the direct welfare of wildlife and the environment, and puts human interests above all. This is a classic illustration of what Mies (2014) calls the “double-think state,” as Baxter fails to acknowledge that not only would it be impossible to achieve maximum human satisfaction across the globe, but also that this satisfaction would have to be defined and standardized worldwide, along with the develop a system to measure which natural resources and wildlife should be preserved for the purpose of human satisfaction.

Baxter’s argument is incomplete in this way, and partially founded on the painfully false claim that “what is good for humans is… good for [animals and the environment].” Our current practices in both developed and developing nations show clearly that this is not true. Human expansion and industrialization inevitably leads to habitat loss and degradation, species extinction, reduced quality of air, soil and water and more. With all this in mind, one would inevitably come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “optimal pollution.” 

The Unequal Burden of Mitigating Climate Change 

A point of contention in the deliberations on international climate change action plans is the delegation of responsibility between nations. According to Mies (2014), only 6% of the world population lives in the United States, and yet they consume 30% of all fossil energy produced.

Nations in the Global North continually consume the majority of energy produced around the world, emit the highest levels of CO2, and therefore are the greatest contributors to climate change, yet some still feel that it is “unfair” to place a greater burden on these affluent nations in the responsibility of mitigating climate change. 

One recent example is that of President Donald Trump removing the United States from the Paris Agreement, on the basis that the level of accountability assigned to the U.S. it is “unfair,” relative to all other nations included in the Agreement. I argue that it is absolutely necessary to place varying levels of pressure on nations in the fight against climate change, proportional to their wealth, energy consumption and emissions of GHGs.  

Magdoff & Foster (2010) demonstrate clearly that the distribution of wealth throughout the world is highly unequal, $3 trillion USD in the possession of only 793 individuals in the entire world – equal to about 5% of the total world income.

Further, approximately $35 trillion USD is under the control of about 9 million people worldwide – out of 7 billion. This is equal to over 50% of world income, leaving about 88% of the world population in underprivileged or impoverished lifestyles. 

It follows that those who are in control of the majority world’s wealth have access to the resources and opportunities which would allow them to industrialize or pursue industrialized standards of living. This, more often than not, leads to an externalization of the costs of technological advancement and societal expansion on less affluent nations, following a historical, imperialistic framework (Mies, 2014).  

Rising Tide North America (RTNA) and Carbon Trade Watch (CTW) (n.d.) state that, in the U.S., uranium mining occurs primarily on Native and Aboriginal lands, and waste disposal has historically targeted Native lands, and black and Hispanic communities. 

Photo by Carlos “Grury” Santos on Unsplash

Additionally, many methods of waste disposal that have been scientifically proven to be inefficient are employed in the Global South and even in underprivileged neighborhoods in the U.S., such as garbage incineration, which has been shown to emit 33% more CO2 per unit of energy than coal power plants, and creates one-tenth of the jobs created by recycling programs (RTNA & CTW, n.d.). 

Safety regulations are also significantly less stringent in developing nations, where many U.S. corporations and federal programs own and manage many energy, material, and fuel production locations. Dangerous chemicals such as DDT – illegal in the U.S. – are produced in these developing nations, where wages are also inhumanely low.

Bradford (1985) recalls the example of the Velsicol Corporation, a chemical manufacturer for polymer additives and flame retardants based in Illinois, which exported an unregistered pesticide, Leptophos, to Egypt, killing and injuring many farmers in the mid-1970s.

Another example was that of the U.S. exporting mercury-tainted wheat products to Iraq, killing approximately 5,000 people (Bradford, 1985). Practices and products that have been found to not only be a danger to humans, but to their environment and wildlife, are not properly dealt with, but instead externalized and dumped on those less fortunate, placing the value of those lives lower than those in privileged nations.  

Nejat et al. (2015) states that the top ten GHG emitters in the world are (not in order) the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Canada, Iran and the UK. The U.S. alone, according to Mies (2014) accounts for 30% of the consumption of all fossil energy produced annually, and Nejat et al. (2015) states that the U.S. represents 19% of all energy consumed worldwide, making it second only to China.  

This, if nothing else, is a clear demonstration of the disproportionate consumption of energy and resources worldwide, and the inequities of the distribution of wealth globally. To expect that all nations would contribute equally to the mitigation of climate change, or to claim that plans which place heavier burdens on affluent nations for the innovation of methods and technologies to combat the effects of climate change are “unfair,” all this considered, is unethical.  

The effects of climate change have affected all nations around the world, some more than others. The consequences of the level of technological advancement, human expansion and industrialization achieved thus far by present “developed” nations have been largely externalized on nations of the Global South, directly and indirectly.

Any international plans established to fight climate change need to place a higher level of responsibility to nations which are in control of a disproportionate amount of wealth, are high energy/resource consumers and GHG emitters. This is the only “fair” way to move forward.  


Baxter, W. F. (1974). People or penguins: The case for optimal pollution. Columbia University Press, 274-277. Retrieved from http://hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Env_Ethics_Sp_2012/Baxter_Case_for_Optimal_Pollution.pdf 

​Bradford, G. (1985). We all live in Bhopal. Fifth Estate, 19(4). Retrieved from http://www.eco-action.org/dt/bhopal.html 

Magdoff, F., & Foster, J. B. (2010). What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism. Monthly Review, 61(10), 1. doi:10.14452/mr-061-10-2010-03_1 

Mies, M. (2014). Chapter 4: The myth of catching-up development. M. Mies, & V. Shiva (Eds.). In Ecofeminism (2nd ed., pp. 55-69). New York, NY: Zed Books. 

Nejat, P., Jomehzadeh, F., Taheri, M. M., Gohari, M., & Majid, M. Z. (2014). A global review of energy consumption, CO2 emissions and policy in the residential sector (with an overview of the top ten CO2 emitting countries). Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 43, 843-862. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2014.11.066 

Rising Tide North America, & Carbon Trade Watch. (n.d.). Hoodwinked in the hothouse (2nd ed.). Retrieved from https://risingtidenorthamerica.org/publications/hoodwinked-in-the-hothouse/ 

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