Business and Law

Public concern for the natural environment is a relatively new phenomenon, dating from the 1960s and Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Thirty years later, Cormac Cullinan’s Wild Law proposed “earth justice” or “earth jurisprudence,” a concept underlying the law’s ability to protect the environment and effectively regulate businesses that pollute. The preoccupation with business success through investment in corporations, in contrast, is a much older concept, dating back at least to the creation of the British East India Company in 1600, and the widespread emergence of the corporation in Europe in the 1700s that later spread to the United States and beyond.

Here is one of the basic issues: If a business activity harms the environment, what rights does the environment have to fight back? Corporations, although a form of business entity, are actually considered persons in the eyes of the law. Formally, corporate personhood, a concept we touched on in the preceding section, is the legal doctrine holding that a corporation, separate and apart from the people who are its owners and managers, has some of the same legal rights and responsibilities enjoyed by natural persons (physical humans), based on an interpretation of the word “person” in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Your text provided numerous examples of why there is a need for regulation of business activity – toxic substances in the workplace, water pollution, electronic waste, and so forth, to protect the environment. Consider, as well, the advocacy of proponents of the concept of earth justice who cite the following example. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at five million barrels of displaced oil was ten times larger than the famous Exxon Valdez oil spill. The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill remains the largest and most widespread ocean spill in the history of the global petroleum industry. It affected not only thousands of businesses and people, but also the entirety of the Gulf of Mexico. Earth justice advocates believe the Gulf of Mexico should be recognized as a “person” for purposes of suing BP in court under a negligence tort theory. A more recent case that supports this view is that of Volkswagen, which we discussed earlier in the semester. There the Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen rigged its vehicles to pass emission tests, causing considerable harm to the environment, while deceiving drivers and federal regulators.

Another argument in support of granting legal recognition to the environment similar to corporations is the larger viewpoint that society as we know it will be sustainable only if we recognize the legal rights of earth as if it were a legal entity, a person. It may be the best means to preserve the planet for future generations especially when so much pollution is not visible to the public.

Others argue this notion of earth justice is too far-fetched. In fact, they cite numerous examples of corporations operating in an environmentally responsible and sustainable fashion. For instance, General Motors has developed hydrogen fuel cell technology to power cars and now commercial trucks. The technology, which mixes hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity, propels a vehicle’s motors and emits only water vapor. This technology came about without government regulation. A California company recently won approval in Singapore to sell chicken grown from poultry cells, a technological step that aims to revolutionize meat production and eliminate the greenhouse gas methane from the traditional agriculture process. Again, no government regulation was required, the market system is working.

So, this is your basic exam question(s):

1)  Are you in favor of giving the environment legal recognition to sue corporations in tort for harming the environment? Why?

2)  If you were a business owner, would you be willing to spend company resources on environmental issues, even if not required to do so by law? If so, would you be able to justify your actions to shareholders and investment analysts as smart business decisions?

3)  In one sentence, what was your take-away from listening to the Ethics lecture. If you did not listen to it, then tell me so.

No formal page requirement. Answer the questions asked. Examples and facts matter.  Think before you write. Be concise and precise. You are free to use your own materials.

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