Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons III: Pollution

The tragedy Hardin outlines -- individuals’ maximizing personal wealth by overgrazing resources -- works similarly with pollution. A polluter pays the same tiny fraction of his damages as any other member of society, but increases his wealth without shring it. “We are locked into a system of fouling our own nest, so long as we behave as independent, rational free enterprisers.”

Private property, Hardin says, keeps us from overgrazing our land. (Maybe. Private landowners in 1968, and this year, allow soil loss, planting commodity crops.) But water and air practically have to be commons, and require “coercive laws” to protect them. Writing in 1968, Hardin says, “We have not progressed as far with the solution (to pollution) as we have with (overgrazing).”

(Hardin was writng four years in advance of the Federal Water Pollution Amendments of 1972, and nine years before the Clean Water Act, so we have made progress. We haven’t had a Great Lake catch fire for decades, but I would be skeptical about drinking from the Mississippi, which flows a mile and a half from my house, and I know I couldn’t take a mouthful of water from the creek back home without gagging. In the past year, there has been some attention to water pollution from compounds claimed by power plant stack scrubbers, and the murder of streams by mountain top removal. I assume the scrubbers are mandated, and the legislators goofed in not anticipating the new waste stream. Mountaintop removal is just goofy. The coal companies own the mountains, but have no plans for the land once the coal is exhausted, so effectively they’re renting it, and treat it like the kind of tenants who put their fists through the sheetrock. The streams are entirely somebody else’s problem.)

Harding says our concept of private property favors pollution. He says the law requires “elaborate stitching and fitting” to adapt to our current perceptions about the commons.

(Hardin is setting us up for the next section, “How to Legislate Temperance.” He says we need penalties for behavior that damages the commons. I would have liked to have talked to Hardin. I’m inclined to say it’s all a commons, and in spite of this paper’s seemingly wanting to eliminate commons, wonder if Hardin might not have felt the same. As nearly as I can tell there are two theories of property: “prior appropriation,” first to claim it keeps it, articulated in western American water-rights law; and “universal distribution of created goods,” articulated by the Catholic Church. I favor the latter. Could Hardin have arrived at the idea of making the commons private as an expedient for preserving it until such time as human beings muddle our way to distributing unevenly distributed goods equitably? The essay seems to be of two minds, one which would privatize the commons since people are more careful of what is theirs, and one which would coerce the behavior which would protect the commons.)

Population is the problem.

(But we’re stuck with it, barring die-off.)

Hardin’s grandfather (Hardin was born in 1915) told him that flowing water purifies itself every ten miles, but greater population overloads natural recycling processes. This calls for a redefinition of property rights.

(Something else that stretches Hardin’s grandfather’s ten miles of river is human ingenuity, which invents tougher wastes for the river to treat.)

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