The Gnat Is Older Than Man: Global Environment and Human Agenda

By Christopher D. Stone | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
Transboundary Pollution

IN THE SITUATIONS just reviewed, the brunt of a nation's actions fell on its own internal environment. In this chapter we proceed to consider the second class of cases: those that arise when a nation engages in an activity within its own territory which casts its influence—in the form, for example, of toxic gases or radioactive debris—across the border into a neighboring state.

Of course, a nation's air or water pollution will ordinarily work some damage within its own territory before it crosses the frontier into a neighboring state or the commons area. This self-inflicted portion of the damage gives each polluting nation some incentive to install filters or scrubbers to clean up its own act. But even if the polluter, A, has the wherewithal and will to control the damage, its self-interests motivate it to abate the fluxes or reduce the risk only to the extent that the marginal costs of abatement do not exceed the marginal benefits to it. In other words, any nation will be inclined to initiate unilateral domestic action that may incidentally reduce extraterritorial damage but only to the extent that national self-interest requires, and not necessarily up to the mutually (or globally) desirable levels. Each nation's preferred alternative, when it has the option, has too often been the construction of taller and taller smokestacks, so as to carry its fumes out across someone else's turf.

In this case, A, the transgressor, 1 can less convincingly dismiss the outside world's criticisms as a meddling in “strictly internal affairs.” While the threshold standard for significant external effects is not always obvious, or rational,* in general it is clear that the stronger the

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*
A nation that engages in massive deforestation, impairing the earth's capacity to draw CO2 from out of the atmosphere, might be doing more harm than another nation that positively launched a small amount of gas or debris outward. But because of conceptions of trespass and nuisance that are embedded in the law, it is unlikely that a nation that reduces what it draws inward across its frontiers faces the legal liability of the nation that casts something outward.

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