Most of the attitudes of business toward the environment are related to the way we see our relationship to it. For most of the history of humankind, at least in the West, we have viewed the environment as there to be used by us, as an inanimate, morally insignificant resource, to be exploited as much and as fast as we can manage. We always thought of the environment as unlimited and indestructible. More recently we have come to see it as something that changes and can be changed by human actions, in some ways persistent and resilient, but in other ways fragile and malleable. The term “ecosystem” has come into popular use in the last thirty or so years, since scientific investigation has revealed the complex interrelationships between the things that live in the shared environment. We are not so much outside of the environment any more, as we are part of it, and connected with the various systems that support our lives, and the lives of the rest of the creatures on the planet. Rather than something we use to live, the environment is more like something we live with.
Imagine that you have a roommate who habitually cleans your shared apartment. He’s a bit obsessive-compulsive and can’t really help himself. But he doesn’t complain about it, and his cleaning doesn’t get in the way. He just cleans a little bit at a time, mostly when you are not home. You don’t notice it, because he never cleans everything all at once, but your apartment never seems to get very dirty. It stays pretty tidy most of the time without you having to do anything at all. And he doesn’t seem to mind that you don’t ever do any cleaning yourself.
Imagine now that you have a wild party while your roommate is out of town. You trash the apartment, leaving stains on the carpets; dishes all over the kitchen; bottles, cans, and garbage all over the floors; and some furniture damaged. You have things to do the next day, so you leave everything as it is and go about your business. While you are gone, your roommate returns and begins cleaning. He doesn’t clean it all at once; he only picks up a bit of trash here or an empty bottle there. When you get home, the place is still a wreck, but slightly less so than it was when you left. You realize that if you just leave it up to your roommate, it will all be cleaned up eventually. It will take him weeks, sure, but you can live with the mess until then. Why do it yourself if he’s going to do it for you?
You can probably see the analogy here pretty easily. By leaving the task of cleaning up after the party to your roommate, you’ve externalized that cost. You saved yourself a lot of time, by leaving it up to someone else. Your roommate in this story is like the environment. It will do the cleaning up eventually on its own, so if your corporation can externalize the cost of waste disposal, for example, by just dumping it in the ocean, then so much the better for you!
But is it right? Should you leave the cleaning up to your roommate just because you can? He wasn’t at the party, so he receives no benefit from it, yet he is left to pay some of the cost. Sure, you could tell him he doesn’t have to clean up, but you know he will. He can’t help it. That’s just what he does. You can’t stop him because he does it when you’re not around. If you don’t want him to do it, then you have to do it yourself. Likewise, the environment will slowly break down and redistribute the waste created by industry (or even just by the everyday resource usage that is necessary to maintain an office). Its various systems of self-maintenance will naturally continue over time, and it will pay the cost of disposal for you. But should it have to? Aren’t you just taking advantage of your roommate’s eccentric behavior when you leave messes for him to clean? Further, what if you dirty up the apartment faster than he can clean it? Eventually, your apartment will become too dirty to live in. It may present serious health risks from mold and insects. Eventually, no one will be able to live there. But you will move out way before that happens, and it will be the next tenant’s problem.
Is it fair to treat your roommate like that? Even if you don’t care about your roommate, is it fair to leave those problems for the next tenant? If we (humans) mess up our living space faster than it can clean itself, and then we die, leaving the problem for the next generation, we are either abusing the environment, abusing future people, or both. Even though it is quite easy to externalize the costs of waste disposal and resource usage by pushing them onto the environment, since the environment can’t stick up for itself. It can’t stop you from wasting resources or polluting, but businesses—as well as private individuals—have good moral reasons not to do those things.