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Sunday, August 22, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WATERED-DOWN ETHICS

In the town where I live, residents are asked to follow voluntary water restrictions. To conserve water we are asked, among other things, not to water down our sidewalks or patios and to limit the watering of lawns to every other day - depending on our house numbers - between 7 at night and 7 in the morning.

The notice of these restrictions on the town's Web site makes clear that they are not mandatory, but that "water conservation is always a good plan."

Generally speaking, my family and I have chosen to adhere to the voluntary restrictions. We notice a few area residents who do water their lawns during the daytime, but that's a choice they make. Because the restrictions are voluntary, it's none of our business.

A reader in New York writes that years ago, when his area was suffering a drought, the local government banned lawn watering altogether and also issued a list of recommended water-saving measures, which included not letting the water run while brushing your teeth.

"A friend of mine insisted that he would continue to let the water run, because he was paying for the water and this was the way he was used to brushing his teeth," my reader writes. "He didn't like being told what to do in so personal a matter, regardless of the circumstances."

My reader tells me that he has occasionally thought about his friend's response in later years, "as environmental concerns have escalated and various methods of reducing one's environmental impact have proliferated."

He observes that a number of religions, in one way or another, impose an ethical obligation to consider the environment, which can be done by various means, from shunning high-pollution cars to installing insulation that will reduce energy use.

"Would you say, however, that in the world of today there is a general ethical obligation to consider one's environmental impact and reduce it when possible?," he asks. "Or is this still a matter of personal choice?"

By virtue of the fact that any of us can choose to act any way in any given situation, regardless of the ethics of our behavior or the potential consequences, most choices boil down to personal ones. That has been and still is the case with environmental issues. Outside of legal requirements, there is no general ethical obligation in this area and we cannot demand that others comply with our own personal ethics.

If ethics is, as the authors Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers write in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), "how we behave when we decide we belong together," however, then my reader's friend fell short of the mark by not considering the impact of his choices on his community at large. So far as we know, he did seem to follow the mandatory restrictions, so he didn't challenge the ethics of the mandate by adhering to his personal lawn-watering choice.

After considering how his actions might affect others, the water-running, tooth-brushing friend might still decide to adhere to his customary practice. Without thinking through how his behavior might impede others, however, he wasn't doing the right thing.

When there's a clear recognition that a particular action has a deleterious impact on others in our community, it falls on each of us at least to consider that we may have an ethical obligation to avoid that action. To act without thinking, through sheer force of habit, runs counter to the whole idea of ethics.

4 comments:

yawningdog said...

I think people underestimate both the amount power they can conserve and the value of that.

I have all of my chargers on a power strip with an On/Off switch. Those little boxes are not heating up all day and night, only when I need something charges. Wish IKEA would come up with one with individual On/Off switches.

My curtains all have thermal blackout fabric lining them. I close the drapes in the winter at night and keep the house warmer. I pull them during the day in the summer and I have no solar gain.

My dishwasher has an On/Off switch, so I can shut is off completely when a cycle is done. Why don't other appliances shut off completely? Why does everything need a clock on it?

If you think of all the chargers and all the appliances drip, drip, dripping of little bits of power in every home, every office, every dorm room; it is a lot more than just drips.

M. Lawrence said...

Selfishness and wastefulness are always wrong but especially when they have an impact on the larger community. The man who wastes water while he brushes his teeth "because he's always done it" is an example. If his attitude multiplied by a few million forced municipalities to ration water, he'd have to adjust. Reminds me of the despair poster: No single drop of water thinks it's responsible for the flood.

Bill Jacobson said...

Wastefulness is wrong but so is anyone telling him what he can do with what he has purchased. If he wanted to run a longer shower, for example, because he enjoys it and it relaxes him, then more power to him since he is paying the bill but wasting a communal resource, even one he has paid for, simply because he is used to wasting water (but not deriving any tangible benefit from) is the greater wrong. He has the right to do so but that does not make it right.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Bill Jacobson said...

Wastefulness is wrong but so is anyone telling him what he can do with what he has purchased. If he wanted to run a longer shower, for example, because he enjoys it and it relaxes him, then more power to him since he is paying the bill but wasting a communal resource, even one he has paid for, simply because he is used to wasting water (but not deriving any tangible benefit from) is the greater wrong. He has the right to do so but that does not make it right.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA