Saturday, 14 November 2015

Is the Environment a Public Good? ... or... Do we need 'bureaucracy and regulation' to protect the environment?

The East Devon Watch blog posted a piece from George Monbiot about how DEFRA/the Environment Agency is not prosecuting farmers for polluting rivers:
What happened when a Devon river was polluted by slurry | East Devon Watch

It is very much a question of perspective - or even ideology...

The Environment Minister is Liz Truss, who co-authored a book a couple of years ago:

September 10, 2012 1:25 am

Britannia Unchained

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£12.99
In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, an elegiac novel set in the white heat of the Thatcher revolution, there is a scene in which a dandyish 20-something Conservative blithely predicts “the 80s are going on for ever”. Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, five young Tory MPs who came of age in that decade, are intent on proving the cad right. Britannia Unchained, their manifesto, lacks Hollinghurstian grace and subtlety but it is a useful sign of how British politics may develop in the next decade.
Britannia Unchained - FT.com
Chris Skidmore MP, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Dominic Raab MP, and Priti Patel MP: Britain’s best days are not behind us | Conservative Home
Liz Truss MP: The new Environment Secretary, her clash with the 'Turnip Taliban' and a controversial rise through the Tory ranks | UK Politics | News | The Independent

She founded the neoliberal Free Enterprise Group:

Britain’s success has been built on free enterprise. Yet Britain is now 83rd in the world for regulation

Welcome | Free Enterprise Group
Elizabeth Truss - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It depends what you mean by 'regulation'...

'Bureacracy' is just as much a product of 'business' as of 'government' - and 'regulation' can be actually welcomed by business, as shown by David Graeber:
Futures Forum: The language of bureaucracy >>> David Graeber and "The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy"
Futures Forum: "Where are the flying cars?" or, "What happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects?"

It also depends what you mean by 'free enterprise'...

The commentator Kevin Carson has made similar observations of the American scene:

The Romney Lexicon: “Free Enterprise” = Corporate Welfare
As Thomas L. Knapp observes in a recent column (Election 2012: “Oil’s Well That End’s Welfarish,” October 17), Mitt Romney — famous for complaining about the 47% who expect to be taken care of — “whined that the Obama administration has been insufficiently charitable with ‘public’ land (and taxpayer money) toward the oil companies.”

He notes that “for every dollar a timber company paid in leasing fees, the US government spent $1.27 on road-building and other projects to enable the exploitation of those timber leases.” The same applies to oil drilling in places like the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve: “the next time a natural resources extraction company offers to cover the entire cost of its own operations on ‘public’ land, let alone deliver a net profit to the US government on the deal, will be the first time.”

Extractive industries are among the biggest welfare queens in human history. Much — probably most — of the oil and mineral wealth of the planet is still in the hands of transnational corporate beneficiaries of centuries of colonial looting. Oil and mineral companies routinely use their pet states to politically guarantee access to mineral resources. Just look at the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran — then read the Wikipedia article on BP. The politics of oil is the central factor in the slaughter of millions in the Congo, Zaire, and Angola since WWII. The same goes for the Suharto coup in Indonesia and the democide in East Timor. I think Shell actually has a Vice President for supervising death squad activity.

Most production of cash crops for corporate agribusiness, under the neoliberal “export-oriented development model” the Washington Consensus forces on the Third World, takes place on land from which peasants were either outright evicted, or reduced to at-will tenancy and then evicted, under colonialism or post-colonialism. The fastest way for a left-leaning regime to bring those “Washington Bullets” down on itself is to try putting that land back in the hands of its rightful owners — the peasants who originally cultivated it. Just ask Jacobo Arbenz.

It’s hilarious that self-described defenders of “free enterprise” like Mittens, who come down hardest on boondoggles like Solyndra, are also the biggest advocates of nuclear power and projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.

Nuclear power is the most extreme example of the phenomenon Tom Knapp described. Every step in the production chain, from the government building roads to the uranium mines on federal land to the disposal of nuclear waste at government expense — and the government indemnification against liability for meltdowns in between — is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

As for Keystone, it’s just another example — although much smaller in scale and bloodshed — of the kind of corporate looting the fossil fuels industry carries out around the world. Never mind the fact that the extraction itself couldn’t take place in Alberta if government approval didn’t constitute a de facto indemnity, essentially preempting any potential tort action in the courts for harm from pollution.

The pipeline is being built on stolen land. From Montana to Oklahoma and Texas, TransCanada is using eminent domain to steal land — often falling afoul of treaty guarantees with Indian nations — and using local police and sheriffs as mercenaries in pitched battles against activists. Even when it crosses federal land, it amounts to a subsidy to the project. “Vacant” land — actually occupied by human beings with the legal liability of having brown skin — was originally preempted by the Spanish crown, passed into the hands of the Mexican Republic, and thence into the hands of the U.S. government via the Guadalupe-Hidalgo cession. The American state held all this land out of use, in blocs of tens and hundreds of millions of acres, so that it could eventually be handed over to favored timber, mining, oil and pipeline companies without the need to buy it up piecemeal from individual homesteaders, small forestry cooperatives and the like.

So now when you hear Mittens talk about “free enterprise,” you know what he means by it.

The Romney Lexicon - Counterpunch
Center for a Stateless Society » A Theoretically Incoherent Critique of the Free Market
Center for a Stateless Society » Climate Change and Corporate Welfare

Is the Environment a Public Good?
I’m frequently asked how an anarchist society would deal with things like pollution and other kinds of corporate malfeasance in the absence of a regulatory state.

One remedy commonly put forward by market anarchists is tort liability, enforced by local juries or arbitration services. For example, a corporation that spilled large quantities of gasoline and polluted the groundwater would be sued by the farmers whose wells were affected.

Libertarian writer Don Boudreaux (“Demsetz on the Costs of Markets,” Cafe Hayek, Jan. 21)  cites economist Harold Demsetz to the effect that property rights (like the right to clean air) may go unprotected in a free market because protection costs too much. The transaction costs of defining the property rights, assigning a market value to them, and identifying and punishing violations, are simply more than it’s worth to those who are protected.

If this is the case, Boudreaux’s argument essentially mirrors that of progressives: That the prevention of pollution is a public good. They simply disagree on whether the market’s forbearance is a “market failure” or a rational allocation of resources away from an activity that’s just not worth it.

I don’t think either is correct.

If we look at the actual historical record of how tort liability law has dealt with negative externalities like pollution, it’s clear that the state has had a huge effect on shifting the comparative transaction costs of enforcing different kinds of property rights in a particular direction — namely, reducing the costs for large property owners (in particular firms in extractive industries) to enforce their rights against squatters and trespassers, while increasing the costs of small interests enforcing (for example) rights against polluters.

The bare act of large-scale engrossment of vacant land by the early American state, followed by large-scale land grants or grants of preferential access to favored railroad, mining, drilling, timber and ranching interests, is one example.

Another is the changes which American courts made in common law liability rules, as described by Morton Horwitz in “The Transformation of American Law.” The common law of liability was substantially changed in the early decades of the nineteenth century to protect businesses against liability for things that were regarded as a normal part of doing business, even if it resulted in real harms to third parties.

Yet a third example is the twentieth century regulatory state, which preempted common law liability altogether and created safe harbors for those who met its dumbed-down standards. In functional terms, this was a direct continuation of the process Horwitz described. A polluter who meets EPA standards can point to that as a legal defense, even if a plaintiff can marshal good scientific evidence that the pollution caused her significant harm.

According to Gabriel Kolko, in “The Triumph of Conservatism,” a good deal of the Progressive Era regulatory agenda was actually promoted by the regulated industries, as a way of creating de facto regulatory cartels that would apply the same standards to an entire industry across the board — thereby removing the subject matter of the regulations as an issue of cost competition between firms in the industry.

In fact, in some industries we actually see federal regulatory standards being used as a pretext by some businesses for preventing their competitors from voluntarily adhering to standards more stringent than those set by the regulatory authorities.

So we have not had a free marketplace, where civil protections against pollution and other tortious activity never arose because the transaction costs were too high. What we have actually had is a state capitalist marketplace, where the state artificially raised the transaction costs of enforcing civil protections against pollution — and thereby reduced the transaction costs of pollution.

As always, it’s not a question of what we’ll do when the state stops solving the problem. It’s a question of how to stop the state from creating the problem.

Center for a Stateless Society » Is the Environment a Public Good?

In George Monbiot's piece cited by the EDW, it is clear that the polluter does not pay:

Toothless Environment Agency is allowing the living world to be wrecked with impunity

The farcical investigation of the pollution case I exposed in a Devon river highlights how budget cuts have left the agency incapable of enforcement 

 The River Culm meanders through the Devon countryside. Photograph: Paul Sandy/Alamy

It could scarcely have been a starker case. The river I came across in Devon six weeks ago, and described in the Guardian, was so polluted that I could smell it from 50 metres away. Farm slurry pouring into the water, from a pipe that I traced back to a dairy farm, had wiped out almost all the life in the stretch of River Culm I explored.
All that now grew on the riverbed were long, feathery growths of sewage fungus. An expert on freshwater pollution I consulted told me that the extent of these growths showed the poisoning of the river was “chronic and severe”.
Here, as a reminder of what I saw, are some of the pictures I took:
Sewage fungus on the river bed:

Sewage fungus on the bed of the river Culm. Photograph: George Monbiot

Slurry pouring from a pipe cut into the riverbank:

Slurry pours from a pipe into the river Culm. Photograph: George Monbiot

And mingling with the clear water of the river:

Dairy farm pollution mixes with the water in the river Culm. Photograph: George Monbiot

I reported the pollution to the Environment Agency’s hotline. It told me it was taking the matter seriously. So when I received its report on the outcome of its investigation, I nearly fell off my chair.
It had decided to take no action against the farmer, as “the long-term ecological impacts on the environment were fortunately low”. How did it know? Because there was “no evidence of a fish kill”.
Why in the name of all that’s holy should there be evidence of a fish kill? This is a chronic pollution case, not an acute one. Fish kills are what you see when a sudden poisoning occurs, as pollutants are flushed into a healthy living system. Chronic pollution deprives fish of their habitats and prey, but no investigator in their right mind would expect to see them floating belly up in the river as a result. They are simply absent from places where you would otherwise have found them.
And if a riverbed covered in nothing but sewage fungus suggests a “low” ecological impact, I dread to think what a high one looks like.
The same inability to distinguish between an acute event and a chronic one was revealed by another of the agency’s statements: the pollution “had a short-term impact”. The slurry had plainly been pouring out of the pipe for months, as the luxuriant growths of sewage fungus show. It would doubtless have continued, had I not reported it.
The Environment Agency also told me that it had inspected the farm, and found no problems with the infrastructure, as there was plenty of space for slurry storage under the floor of the barn where the cows were kept. But, the problem, as I had explained to them, had nothing to do with slurry storage in the barn. It was caused by leakage from the outdoor slurry lagoons, where I found cow manure pouring down the hill.
They could scarcely have made a bigger mess of their investigation if they had tried. The mistakes the agency made are so fundamental and so obvious that it makes me wonder whether they are mistakes at all. What does a farmer have to do to get prosecuted these days, detonate an atom bomb?
If this were an isolated case, you could put it down to ineptitude, albeit ineptitude raised to the status of an Olympic sport. But responses like this are now the norm at the Environment Agency. It has been so brutally disciplined by cuts and by ministers’ demands that it leave farms and other businesses alone, that it is now almost incapable of enforcement.
Even when the fish kills it appears to see as the only real proof of pollution do occur, in the great majority of cases it doesn’t even bother to assess them, let alone investigate and prosecute. Freedom of Information requests by the environmental group Fish Legal reveal that the agency sent its investigators to visit just 16% of reported fish kills.
There was massive regional variation. While in the Anglian Central region, covering parts of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and surrounding counties, the agency inspected 61% of these events, in Devon they investigated only 3%. (I suspect that it was only because I’m a journalist for a national newspaper that they came out at all in the case I reported). In the fishery areas on either side of it – Cornwall and Wessex – the inspection rate was, er, 0%. If you want to pollute rivers in these regions, there’s nothing stopping you.
The Environment Agency no longer prosecutes even some of the most extreme pollution events. In 2013, a farmer in Somerset released what the agency called a “tsunami of slurry” into the Wellow Brook. One inspector said it was the worst pollution she had seen in 17 years. But the agency dithered for a year beforestriking a private agreement with the farmer, allowing him to avoid possible prosecution, criminal record, massive fine and court costs, by giving £5,000 to a local charity.
New rules imposed by the government means that such under-the-counter deals, which now have a name of their own – enforcement undertakings – are likely to become more common. They are a parody of justice: arbitrary, opaque and wide open to influence-peddling, special pleading and corruption.
I see the agency’s farcical investigation of the pollution incident I reported as strategic incompetence, designed to avoid conflict with powerful landowners. Were it to follow any other strategy, it would run into trouble with the government.
These problems are likely to become even more severe, when the new cuts the environment department has just agreed with the Treasury take effect. Ananalysis by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts reveals that, once the new reductions bite, the government’s spending on wildlife conservation, air quality and water pollution will have declined by nearly 80% in real terms since 2009-10.

It’s all up for grabs now: if you want to wreck the living world, the government is not going to stop you. Those who have power, agency, money or land can - metaphorically and literally - dump their crap on the rest of us.
Never mind that the government is now breaking European law left right and centre, spectacularly failing, for example, to ensure that all aquatic ecosystems are in good health by the end of this year, as it is supposed to do under the water framework directive. It no longer seems to care. It would rather use your tax money to pay fines to the European commission than enforce the law against polluters.
I’ve heard the same description of Liz Truss, the secretary of state for environment, who oversees the work of the Environment Agency, from several people over the past few months: “Worse than Owen Paterson”. At first, I refused to take it seriously. It’s the kind of statement that is usually employed as hyperbole, such as “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan”, or “more deluded than Tony Blair”. But in this case, they aren’t joking. Preposterous as the notion of any environment secretary being worse than Paterson might seem, they mean it.
Nowhere, as far as I can discover, in Liz Truss’s speeches or writing before she was appointed, is there any sign of prior interest in the natural world or its protection. What we see instead is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of market fundamentalism on this side of the Atlantic. She founded the Conservative Free Enterprise Group, and was co-author of the book Britannia Unchained, that laid out a terrifying vision of a nation run by raw economic power, without effective social or environmental protection. Now she has a chance to put that vision into practice.
Those who have tried to engage with her describe her as indissolubly wedded to a set of theories about how the world should be, that are impervious to argument, facts or experience. She was among the first ministers to put her own department on the block in the latest spending review, volunteering massive cuts. She seems determined to dismantle the protections that secure our quality of life: the rules and agencies defending the places and wildlife we love.
Bureaucracy and regulation are concepts we have been taught to hate, through relentless propaganda in the media. But they are essential pillars of civilisation. They make the difference between a decent society and a barbarous one.
Toothless Environment Agency is allowing the living world to be wrecked with impunity | George Monbiot | Environment | The Guardian

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