World's Worst Idea: Privatizing the Oceans

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Ben Cohen
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by Ben Cohen

Having watched the world economy teeter on the edge of absolute destruction, one would think that extending the 'privatize everything' doctrine to the oceans would be bordering on the insane.

But no, Gregg Easterbrook, contributing editor to The Atlantic thinks it's a fantastic idea. He writes:

Unfortunately, only limited laws govern the open ocean, where factory
trawlers scoop up huge volumes of fish without concern for maintaining
a healthy population. These waters epitomize the “tragedy of the
commons,” in which “anything goes” leads to runaway exploitation,
because no one has a property interest in safeguarding the common
resource.

There is no doubt that rapidly depleting fish stocks is a serious environmental problem, and the status quo is totally unsustainable. The laws governing the oceans are vague, poorly administered and barely enforced. But privatizing them is not the answer, and is perhaps one of the worst ideas I've ever heard.

Privatization in certain economic spheres is clearly a good thing. The government shouldn't really be involved with setting the price of cheese, and generally speaking, it shouldn't interfere with small businesses (other than to enforce anti trust laws and ensure they aren't breaking health and safety standards, labor laws etc). But the privatization of natural resources is a step too far, and the enormous inequality it incurs far outweighs the benefits.

If oceans are privatized, it will mean one thing. That the rich will own it, and become even richer. The notion that it will preserve our eco systems is somewhat fanciful, and regardless, the prospect of selling off part of the natural world to the mega rich is morally repugnant. They cannot own the ocean in the same way that they cannot own the air. We need both to exist, and the moment we sell it off for profit, we make being alive a privilege of the rich. We need to come up with some new ideas that don't involve allowing unregulated private entities to dominate every aspect of our lives. It hasn't worked out so well for the majority of people, and there's no reason to believe it will if we keep doing it.

After all, it is the definition madness to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.