In 1787, writer and agriculturalist Arthur Young penned the following remark: “Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years’ lease of a garden, and he will convert it into a desert.” More than two centuries later, we are still struggling to learn that lesson.
The world’s oceans are in rather sorry shape. Pollution and overfishing have been a continuous problem that governments have struggled to deal with. Vast fluid bodies that span the globe and encircle the continents are not easily regulated by a central authority. Now, some biologists are proposing what should have been the obvious answer all along: privatization.
The inherent difficulty of keeping the oceans clean results from what economists refer to as the Tragedy of the Commons. The basic idea is that that when a resource is shared among many different people, the individual has an incentive to overutilize it, trying to extract as much as possible with little regard for the damage caused by his actions. When someone dumps pollutants into the ocean, they do so in the knowledge that others will have to bear the bulk of the cost. On the other hand, they would never dream of behaving so destructively towards a resource to which they possessed an exclusive right. It does not pay to shoot oneself in the foot.
Privatization works extremely well in situations where boundaries can be clearly and effectively drawn. Private fisheries do not fish their product to extinction, as doing so would amount to professional suicide. When a lumber company owns a forest, they do not cut down all the trees, but instead maintain a continuous, sustainable growth to ensure a consistent product years into the future.
The ocean, however, represents a slightly different problem due to the simple fact that it is made out of liquid, and what is done to one part of it tends to spread to others. It is no easy task to cordon off sections of sea, isolating them from any outside influence. What is actually being proposed, however, is quite a bit more feasible, if not as ideologically pure.
The initial goal is simply to give coastal communities greater control over their waters, setting up some public-private partnerships to localize ownership. This simple step already helps internalize the formerly dispersed costs of various marine activities, which should result not only in conservation benefits but also in a more efficient management of resources.
This initiative is being spearheaded by the World Bank, and so there is still plenty of cause for skepticism among advocates for a more laissez-faire approach to dealing with environmental issues. We must be on guard against a program of central regulation disguised as private property. But the fact that privatization is even being discussed as an effective method to solve the ocean’s many problems is an encouraging sign. If we can make the world realize that private ownership, as Arthur Young put it, “turns sand into gold,” then there may yet be hope for a planet that is both freer and cleaner.