Plastic pollution was the dominant theme for this year’s Earth Day. Environmental activists, non-profit organizations, and politicians raised awareness for the accumulation of plastic trash floating in our oceans. We have all seen images of fish swimming through plastic debris in the Atlantic Ocean and vast patches of plastic garbage drifting in the Pacific Ocean. Because of this pollution, eating fish has metastasized into a hazardous endeavor, since they mistake the plastic for food. It is tragic.
A monumental eco-challenge facing the planet isn’t flying rivers or rain bombs, as Al Gore recently warned, it is plastic marine debris. The modern economy has produced more than eight billion metric tons of newly manufactured plastic, but 75% of it becomes plastic waste. It is estimated that approximately five trillion pieces of plastic, or roughly 250,000 metric tons, have littered the waters.
Unfortunately, a diverse array of issues form: contamination, the loss of marine life, and dead zones.
This is what happens when a public overexploit and destroy unowned natural goods. It is yet another instance of the tragedy of the commons: a vast number of free-riding consumers do not bear the costs of carelessly disposing plastics which inevitably seep into the oceans.
Governments around the world think they have solutions.
California is considering slapping a $1,000 fine on waiters for offering unsolicited straws to patrons. The European Union is proposing to subsidize plastic recycling factories. Indonesia is planning to spend $1 billion annually to slash marine litter. The United Kingdom is banning plastic straws. Many municipalities are imposing prohibitions or taxes on plastic bags.
Leaders think they can eradicate plastic waste within 25 years. Will they? Unlikely.
So, what can be an effective measure to combat or eliminate plastics from ending up in coastlines, rivers, lakes, and oceans? It may be daring for most, but ocean privatization is the way to go.
Water Capitalism Will Save the Fish
Water capitalism implies that there would be private ownership of oceans, rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
Water covers three quarters of the earth, while land takes up the remaining 25%. One is public, or government-owned, and represents a fraction of global gross domestic product (GDP). The other is immensely private and accounts for most of the GDP.
When something is unowned, there is very little incentive to maintain, preserve, or defend it. On the other hand, when something is privately owned, we do our very best to maintain, preserve, or defend it. This is why private property is typically better than public housing, or why private transportation is generally more bearable than government transit.
Let’s compare two examples:
When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, they maintained communal property rules without individual property. The result? Overgrazing, food shortages, and starvation. Governor William Bradford reacted by ending the commons practice and allocated a parcel of land to each family.
Because oceans are void of any owner, fishing crews can head to the sea and capture as much cod, tuna, and shrimp as they want. Ships have extracted so much fish from the water over the years that resources have been depleted, thanks to depensation and fish populations unable to sustain themselves.
One instance took place 400 years ago, the other is unfolding today. Yet, we haven’t learned from the timeless economic principle.
Legendary economist Walter Block, too, wrote about the dangers of public waters in 2016:
“As a result we have oil spills, depletion of fish stocks, threatened extinction of some species (e.g., whales), shark attacks, polluted and dried-up rivers, misallocated water, unsafe boating, piracy, and other indices of economic disarray which, if they had occurred on the land, would have been more easily identified as the result of the tragedy of the commons and/or government ownership and mismanagement.”
Economist Ludwig von Mises also penned in the landmark book, Human Action:
“Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns — lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil — do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation.”
Despite evidence from the 1620s and sage words from the 1940s, we still apply communal rules to oceans and lakes. Why?
Humans and Fish Can Co-Exist
The private sector is springing into action. Dell is developing package trays for laptops from ocean plastics. Nestle is transitioning to 100% recyclable plastic packaging. Foodpanda is giving customers the option of using disposable cutlery. The bioplastics industry, which is catering to eco-conscious consumers, is forecast to become a $66 billion niche by 2022.
These are steps in the right direction and will be more effective than bans and levies.
Moreover, as Reason alluded to, nearly two-thirds of the marine plastic pollution originates from poor or middle-class nations, like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines. The U.S. ranks at the bottom because it recycles, produces energy from the plastic, or sends the material to landfills.
This suggests that prosperous countries do a far better job than impoverished or developing ones.
Former President George W. Bush once fatuously uttered: “I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully.” But, in his quest to perfect the English language, he made a valid point. We can co-exist without destroying a series of species, whether it is carp or trout. The only way to do it is to allow private ownership of the waters, which can develop multiple rules and laws that can preserve and protect beautiful creatures that feed populations, add beauty to the oceans, and breed entire industries.
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