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Is the Gulf Oil Spill (Almost) a Tragedy of the Commons?

Leon Kaye | Friday July 23rd, 2010 | 2 Comments

The Deepwater Horizon spill may have stopped (or not) for now, but of course the horrendous affects will stay with us for years.  Now the fingers are pointed, the blame continues, and the arguments as to how to manage all of these resources will linger on and on.

“History repeats itself” is a cheap cliché that academics will tell you is not necessary true, but disasters, financial and environmental, do follow a familiar pattern.  Government agencies that are overwhelmed, understaffed, often unheard of—or all of the above—offer lax oversight, whether they are the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Minerals Management Service.  A huge mess develops.  People get hurt.  Voters get angry.  CEOs get called to Congress, where politicians give them an earful.  Laws become either rewritten or new ones are passed.  A generation later, we endure similar catastrophes again, partly due to lobbyists who get the legislative changes they need and businesses learn how to turn a tiny loophole into a massive entryway leading to resource exploitation.  Meanwhile, profits generally go to a select few, while the rest of us shoulder the costs through bailouts, massive cleanup, and a polluted environment.

The environmental writer and consultant Andy Mannle suggests that we are enduring another painful economic lesson called the tragedy of the commons.  The theory, which the ecologist Garret Hardin first espoused 40 years ago, hearkens back to 19th century English grazing pastures, or “commons.”  In a nutshell, herders allowed their cattle to nosh on the pastures’ grass to the point that what began as a simple, rational economic decision led to the depletion and ultimately destruction of the commons. According to the theory, it’s inevitable that common resources will be depleted. Rumor has it Tesco superstores have replaced these emaciated grazing pastures in England.

Many economists have gone to great lengths to dismiss Hardin’s theory.  After all, Hardin argued that a privatization of such resources would minimize the damage to publicly shared resources.  Many out there would probably cringe at the potential outcomes if we were to privatize our public lands, seashores, and oceans.  In fairness, Hardin also argued for solutions including a “polluter pays” policy as well as regulations—but those were already in place, right?

In the end, the Gulf spill is an exasperating lesson of what happens when we allow the extraction of resources for a small, concentrated private gain, but widespread shared public pain.  The solution could start with ending the lobbying in DC and state capitols that persuade legislators to allow for lax oversight and minimal accountability.  But more changes are needed.  Where do we begin?


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  • http://greengopost.com Leon Kaye

    Thanks for the comment. I have to admit I hadn't heard of the MMS until the gulf. Such a disaster on many fronts. Thanks again for reading, we hope you come back. :) LK

  • merlesavage

    Our planet is being destroyed, along with the inhabitants, one spill at a time.

    BP's deception comes as no surprise to any of us. Please American people think about it: If there had been no explosion in the beginning, would we have known about the gushing oil from the well? How many of the abandon oceans oil wells are gushing oil? Shouldn't here be an agency that monitors all oil companies’ drilling action in our ocean beds? Oh, that’s right, there is! However, just like BP, Exxon and the rest of the oil companies, government official agencies are busy covering their lies, and dancing the Dance of Deliberate Deception. Over the last 80 years our US Government has become good at the side step dance also.

    Great, the oil has stopped for now, however, Crude oil continues to invade the Gulf; as BP, the US Government, and other official agencies monitoring the toxic crude, continues to FIDDLE. That is what I called the Dance of Deliberate Deception. No one will come forward with the intestinal fortitude, and declare the obvious – that crude oil is toxic to breathe. I have been told by OSHA that a medical study cannot be conducted until after 6 months of exposure. WHAT? There have been 21 years since the exposure of the crude oil in Prince William Sound, and no one is listening. So, after 6 months of workers in the gulf breathe in the crude oil, a study can be conducted? That leads us to believe that the government is holding up the rug, while BP sweeps known reports under the same rug, and the other agencies conduct the Dance of Deliberate Deception on top of the rug.

    President Obama, how about admitting that the crude oil is toxic, and demand BP provide respirators for the oil cleanup workers, and compensation for the Gulf unemployment caused by the disaster.

    In 1989 Exxon told the cleanup workers the same story, that the crude oil is not toxic. Some of us are living proof of the toxic exposure, and many others have died. Please view the YouTube video, and help get the message to Gulf residents, BP crude oil cleanup workers, and President Obama. Respirators need to be supplied to oil cleanup crews.
    Thank you.

    Toxic Crude Oil In Gulf
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M1J7U2GYA0