Privatizing the Oceans Could End Environmental Destruction

Indri Schaelicke | @ISchaelicke

The year is 2031. A year has passed since the UN’s deadline to save the earth from irreversible climate change was reached. Oily, sticky, pungent air sits clumped motionless in heavy clouds just 10 feet off the ground. Skyscrapers pierce through the dark heavens and continue on into nothingness. They extend infinitely into black holes of sky, only to be lost by the human eye in a sea of polluted air.

Meanwhile, all sorts of sea life are being harmed by immense islands of garbage floating aimlessly in the oceans. Death tolls of fish, birds, turtles, and sea lion are a daily scene on the news. Garbage disposal companies blatantly dump millions of pounds of trash into the oceans each day, and no one is forced to atone for their environmental sins. This is the tragedy of the commons. How do we solve it? By privatizing the oceans.

A Government-Created Problem

The oft-cited problem of public misuse of public spaces, often termed “The Tragedy of the Commons” originated in Middle Age Britain. The phenomenon occurred due to a property system in which a landlord owned a large plot of land and leased it back to peasants to farm and labor on in exchange for rents or other fees. Since the peasants had no incentive to coordinate their use of the land for farming and cattle grazing since the plot was not their own, they tended to overuse the land and rapidly diminish its value.

This same problem can be extrapolated to a modern context. Governments act as the landlords, charging citizens taxes in order to live on the land. It creates areas available for public use, such as national parks, beaches, ski resorts, and other public spaces. Among these, oceans are the most susceptible to being abused, as their sheer size makes the enforcement of any sort of regulation nearly impossible, thus enabling mass environmental abuse. Beachgoers absentmindedly let their beach toys be sucked away into the ocean. People throw bottles, cans, and plastic bags into the ocean. Ships mishandle their fishing gear and allow it to fall into the ocean. These examples demonstrate how a lack of responsibility on the part of environmental abusers is actually a result of no incentive being provided by the government not to litter.

Ownership is an Incentive

Every day, millions of small business owners and their employees arrive at work and prepare for the days’ labor. Each begins by inspecting their equipment and readying it for use in production. The coffee shop owner on Main Street wipes down his coffee machine and puts in a new filter. Uncle Roy inspects his mechanics’ shop tools and ensures they are running smoothly. Harold, the town’s butcher, sharpens his knives and adds more ice to the meat displays. Why are they putting themselves through this labor? Because owners know that by maintaining an upkeep regiment, they can prolong the lifespan of their capital and be more efficient and yield more output in production. The simple ownership of an input to production, such as land, machinery, or laborers is an incentive in itself for the upkeep of its quality.

If private individuals or firms owned a “plot of water” in an ocean, they would no doubt feel the need to engage in upkeep, for there is no money to be made in simply owning the plot-the area must be cultivated for its resources. The owners of sections of oceans would not just own it for owning’s sake- they would likely rent it out or charge fees to companies for entering the area and making use of its resources.

Fishing companies could pay fees to fish in the area. Oil drilling companies might pay to be able to drill for oil and gas deep below the ocean surface. Shipping companies could be charged a price for simply driving through the plot- much like a toll road.

However, these companies would not be willing to do business in an area filled with trash. A fishing company would not want to catch fish that have been exposed to toxins or been caught in plastic 6-pack rings. Water plot owners would be incentivized to keep up a very high standard of marine health. Much like companies hire Human Resources specialists and social psychologists to improve the workspace for their laborers, water plot owners may even be incentivized to hire marine biologists and other specialists in the area. This would help them ensure that the quality of marine life is of the highest order, thus attracting other firms to do business with them.

Giving Polluters a Price to Pay

In fact, the most sure-fire way for the owner of a private ocean to attract business partners would be to improve the quality of his plot of water. Owners would buy plots of land and pour resources into drastically upgrading sea life and marine conditions. Incentives clearly are the key to ensuring the responsible use of resources and respecting nature.

When ownership is private, owners are endowed a set of rights, known as “private property rights”. Among these are the basic rights to not have possessions taken against one’s will, be damaged, or have people use or enter it without the owner’s permission. These rights would undoubtedly apply to plots of ocean and be defended and upheld in courts. Plot owners could sue neighboring plots for allowing waste to enter their swath of ocean. The threat of being sued for not cleaning up waste and ensuring no new garbage enters the ocean would be enough for ocean plot owners to engage in clean up and marine protection activities. With most, if not all, plot owners adopting this business philosophy, we are sure to see a substantial increase in the marine health of the oceans at large.

How Do You Privatize the Oceans?

Because the idea of privatizing the oceans has not been widely discussed in the mainstream among laypeople, we can not be entirely sure of how it may occur. However, we can be certain that these economic principles will be observable in a world with privatized oceans.

One possibility for the privatization of oceans is that the government in possession of the ocean divides up and auctions off the units of water. Businesses with the ability to invest large sums in their newly acquired plot will undoubtedly put it towards improving their ocean holding, whereas smaller, less financially endowed companies would struggle come up with the funds to do so. By awarding the richest company the plot of land, we can be sure that the health of the marine ecosystem will be made a top priority.

Auctions also guarantee that the government brings in a substantial amount of revenue, a move that would help alleviate the massive debt of countries like the US, who is over $22 trillion in the hole. Releasing the government from its obligation to patrol and enforce laws and regulations in a nations’ bodies of water would also save it substantial amounts of money. This year, the US government allocated a $10.6 billion budget to the Coast Guard, the premier government agency tasked with patrolling the high seas. Privatizing the oceans would cut that number to $0 and end the agency.

Although we cannot be entirely sure about the specific business strategies and innovations in the private ocean industry because entrepreneurial endeavors are impossible to predict, we can be sure that a system of private ownership of the oceans would ultimately protect and restore the environment far better than the current system, which features a lack of accountability for environmental damage. Therefore, government must get out of the business of pretending it can manage the oceans and allow private entities, who have far more incentive to be environmental stewards, to care for our earth.


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