To put this issue in context, it is important to begin with the concept of “The Commons.” Simply put, the commons are resources that owned by none, are shared by all for the general welfare.
Examples of things in the commons include:
- Elements in the environment such as the atmosphere, water in most waterways, some land such as that owned by governments, and the electromagnetic spectrum;
- The human genome and the genomes of other natural life;
- Public resources such as police, fire, and prisons;
- Cultural resources: works of art, for instance, in the public domain.
These resources are, for the most part, finite and can be depleted, not only in quantity but also in quality. They are, for the most part, fluid in the figurative sense: not discrete, constantly changing. Shorelines shift, water tables vary by season and precipitation, etc.
One role of government is to protect and manage the commons for the benefit of all constituents. But government is increasingly privatizing services for managing the commons. Many people find this problematic in principle.
The most important element in the commons today is the water.
Can individuals or corporations acting in self-interest protect the commons for the benefit of others? Garrett Hardin, in an article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, argues that they will not. Author Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse (Penguin Books, New York, 2005), presents a long list of societies that died when they depleted their commons.
The history of corporate behavior is often characterized by depletion of resources, externalizing costs where possible, and leaving the consequences to others. Few corporate charters contain verbiage that includes benefits to communities and they focus on the present—not future—value of resources. Capitalism in general contains no accounting of the value of the commons in terms of quantity or quality. Indeed, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of this country includes, as output, the costs of repairing damage: waste cleanup, treating health problems caused by environmental toxins, etc. It is, therefore, potentially threatening to the public for control or ownership of the commons to fall into private hands.
The most important element in the commons today is the water. Many people feel that the world water crisis is the most important environmental and political issue in this century. It is increasingly being privatized and it is coming close to home.
For an excellent, if one-sided, overview of the water privatization crisis, see the movie FLOW – For Love of Water. The documentarian, Irena Salina, tells the story of large multi-nationals which go around the globe offering to manage water resources. In some cases, the results have been so disastrous as to result in violence, such as in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. One of the corporations featured in that documentary, Veolia, has just been given a contract to manage the City of Buffalo’s water system.
The problems of private management of the commons are particularly acute with water. Take fluidity, for instance. In California, a Nestle Bottling Plant (bottled water is the most prevalent form of water privatization currently) draws from the water table, below its land, so much water that it lowers the water levels in nearby streams. Here, on the Niagara Frontier, there is a similar story. Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park has no inlet nor outlet and can become stagnant. In order to recharge it in summers when the algae blooms, the City’s Department of Public Works sunk a well along the eastern shore into the water table and pumped fresh water into Hoyt Lake. When they pump for any period of time, it lowers the level in Mirror Lake in Forest Lawn Cemetery some distance across Delaware Avenue. This has required, at times, that the Cemetery’s management make arrangements with the Fire Department to run a hose from a hydrant on Delaware Avenue and fill Mirror Lake with tap water from the hydrant.
Then there are problems with quality. Mercury has been found in all the waterways of the United States, the principal source of which is the emissions from coal-fired power plants that get washed out of the atmosphere by rain. A new source of pollution is the pharmaceuticals that get washed down the toilet and are not yet filtered by waste or water treatment plants.
While proponents of privatization have their arguments in favor, some nagging questions remain:
- Can the self-interest of corporations align with the general welfare of the public? And,
- Why can’t a public entity provide the same service to the public that a corporation does, at a lower cost to the consumer since the public entity’s cost is absent a profit?
- TED talk by Jared Diamond: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IESYMFtLIis
- Buffalo Water Authority website: http://www.buffalowaterauthority.com/
- FLOW (For Love of Water): http://flowthefilm.com/
- Veolia press release: http://www.veoliawaterna.com/media/news-releases/news/20100707,5806.htm
- On Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_privatization
- "The Tragedy of the Commons", Garrett Hardin, Science, Vol. 162, No, 3859 December 13, 1968, pp. 1243-1248.
- Jared Diamond, Collapse, Penguin Books, New York, 2005.
- Thom Hartmann, Uneq ual Protection, Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2009.