Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Who owns the rain that falls from the sky?

with 18 comments

Panorama looking westwards from Helsby Hill, near Chester, UK

I must thank fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to – and not posting on his own Learning from Dogs blog – the strange and disturbing real-life story of  a man in Oregon who has been sent to jail for a month for collecting rain that fell on his property.  When Paul first emailed me about this, I must admit my initial response was one of astonishment.  “Whatever next”, I said, “will someone be arrested for sunbathing?”

However, when you read the background to the story, it turns out that the man has been sent to jail as a result of legal action started ten years ago by the Medford Water Commission (MWC), who have argued (successfully it would appear) that the rain falling from the sky within their catchment area belongs to them.  Their case rested upon the wording of a State law (dating from 1925) that granted to the MWC full ownership of – and rights to – the water.  This makes me wonder whether similar laws have been enacted in other States of the USA but, since I live in the UK, I will leave that to others to investigate…

This may seem ridiculous and insane; and to be even more absurd than people arguing about who owns the land – as Crocodile Dundee  (the alter-ego of Australian comedian Paul Hogan) famously equated to being “like fleas arguing about who owns the dog…”  However, I think it raises some very important questions.

In rural parts of the USA, it is my understanding that, as the land was settled by early pioneers they were granted ownership of land and the groundwater beneath it on a first-come, first-served basis.  In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond painted a very vivid picture of how this policy has run into trouble in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley area of southwest Montana: As it becomes increasingly over-populated there is – quite simply – not enough water to go around.  However, I was not aware that government agencies at City, County, State or Federal level might be able to claim prior ownership of atmospheric water vapour before it actually falls to Earth because they need it to suppress fires.  It may well be that the City of Medford is unique (or at least very unusual) but what of the important questions this raises…?  Well, perhaps the situation in the UK will make these clearer:

Rightly or wrongly, Margaret Thatcher privatised the business of water supply and drainage back in the 1980’s.  Prior to that Water Authorities were public institutions.  However, whether they were publicly-owned or – as now – private enterprises, the fact remains that the vast majority of UK citizens do not have access to a private water supply (i.e. stream, spring, well, or borehole) – they rely on it being supplied to them.  Furthermore, most abstractions from either surface or groundwater for domestic purposes are exempt from licensing (although it is likely this will change in the future as over-licensed and/or over-abstracted resources become more common).

Therefore, if citizens expect their water supply to be provided to them, it is understandable that the relevant water authority will seek to protect its ability to collect rainfall or groundwater and, if so, for others to collect it would indeed become a form of poaching.

It seems to me that this story plays into the hands of those libertarians and climate sceptics who want us all to worry about an over-bearing State (i.e. an autocratic government that seeks to control every aspect of our lives and limit our freedom)… or a dangerous and exploitative monopoly making huge profits out of selling people things that are essential for life (i.e. what will be next – sunshine and clean air?)…

However, if libertarians were to win every argument, Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome would be guaranteed.  Hardin used the analogy of medieval commons owned by nobody but used to graze animals by everybody.  In such a situation, Hardin suggested, each individual seeking to maximise their own benefit will place more and more animals on the commons unless or until it becomes over-grazed and useless.  However, the best modern day analogy would be fish in the sea:  No-one owns them but if we over-fish them, they will disappear…   After over half a century, the European Union (EU) has still to resolve this problem:  It tried to claim common ownership of the seas – and make fishing a common market but it has spent much of the last 50 years rolling-back on this principle.  As such, we have ended-up with the absurdity of the EU dictating who can fish where and when and for how long; with quotas for individual boats; and dead fish being thrown back into the sea.

So then, the Oregon man has in effect been jailed for poaching.  You could see this as a very dangerous precedent to set or…  You could argue that the only alternative is no centralised provision of forest fire-fighting or water supply; because this will not be possible if everyone decides to catch and use all the rain that falls on their property.

As I said many months ago now:

When you live in a wilderness, it is probably safe to treat a passing river as your source of drinking water, washing room, and toilet. However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Mumbai slum, this will almost certainly contribute to causing your premature death.

If we ever did, most of us do not live in a wilderness any longer; and, given that an environment’s capacity to support life determines how many people it can support, even one person in a desert could make it over-populated.  Therefore:

When the early European settlers of North America began to move west in search of new lands and new opportunities, a Frontier mentality was understandable. However, to retain such an attitude today is socially unacceptable and morally irresponsible.

Humanity today has a choice:  We must either recognise that there are ecological limits to the number of humans the Earth can physically cope with (especially if we are all going to live comfortably); or we will have those limits imposed on us by force: Collapse or Ecocide – which will it be?

Or do we have a third choice – survival? I hope the jury is still out on that one.

Written by Martin Lack

8 August 2012 at 00:02

18 Responses

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  1. As with effect from the first week in November, Jean and I together with our 11 dogs and 6 cats will be starting a new life just outside Merlin, Oregon some 30 miles west of Medford, this may have more than theoretical interest! At least we have formal water extraction rights for much of our 13 acres from both our well (‘borehole’ in English!) and the year-round creek that runs through the property. Mind you the ‘news’ that Martin reported in this post may have a small bearing on the creek being named Bummer Creek!

    Funny old world!

    Paul Handover

    8 August 2012 at 00:25

    • Thanks again Paul, for feeding me with this story. I was aware that Medford was very close to where you are going to be; but I decided I should let you tell the World that bit of news. Talking of ‘news’, how on Earth does a Creek get a name like that?

      Martin Lack

      8 August 2012 at 07:09

  2. Hmmm… Strange this water story. Very unAmerican… Generally the right to shoot and torture all and any trespassers is proudly asserted, so drinking the water ought to be no problem…
    Ecocide means genocide, BTW….

    Patrice Ayme

    8 August 2012 at 02:52

    • Thanks Patrice. As did Jared Diamond, the choice I am proposing we must make is whether or not we want civilisation to survive (and if we do not choose a decision will be imposed upon us). If it does not survive, the question then reduces to just how much of nature it is going to take down with it? In other words, will societal collapse (i.e. the return to the Dark Ages that climate skeptics are making inevitable by their refusal to engage with reality) leave nature damaged but able to recover (minus a few dairy cows), or will societal collapse trigger ecocide (i.e. mass extinction of 20 to 50% of all species by the end of the Century)? As I said, I hope the jury is still out on this one (but I think I can hear footsteps approaching).

      Martin Lack

      8 August 2012 at 07:25

  3. This seems somewhat reminiscent of the ‘inclosure acts’. Essentially, the legalised theft of the commons by powerful individuals / entities from the Public. It is an outrage. One wonders how the Law could possibly permit this.

    A cynical suspicion, but probably one that’s not too wide from the mark, is that some sort of secret back-room ‘understanding’ occurred between politicians and the water company to ‘fix’ things was agreed, presumably in-return for a suitable ‘consideration’. Isn’t that the way corrupt politicians work?
    I cite
    I can’t help but suspect that some targeted freedom of information requests might turn up something interesting. Of course it’s likely that much of the really juicy stuff will never have been written down.

    Irrespective of that, such heavy-handed enforcement of the Law is surely likely to damage the reputation of the Law in the eyes of the Public. If not, it should.


    8 August 2012 at 08:10

    • Livinginabox, I know that our politicians repeatedly fail to live up to expectations but, with the greatest of respect, is it really necessary to invoke conspiracy theories and an apparent victim mentality in order to explain everything? The MWC have used a very old piece of legislation, that was enacted at a time when population density was very low, to uphold its right to collect and distribute water; and protect its ability to put out forest fires when necessary. Even if it sets a potentially problematic precedent, it is a perfectly plausible explanation for what has happened.

      I think I will have to write a separate blog about this issue but it seems to me that, rather than living in an Age of Enlightenment, we live in the Age of Entitlement – one in which people constantly assert their rights but avoid their responsibilities. However, please be assured that I am not having a go at you here: I am just trying to make the point that, as in this apparently bizarre story, things happen for a reason and – unless we all take collective ownership of those reasons – we will never solve any of our humanitarian and environmental problems.

      Martin Lack

      8 August 2012 at 09:08

  4. Those handing down such capricious legislation must be mad…

    …considering how many americans own guns and how bad things could soon get WRT water and food then the scene is set for a post apocalypse type scenario. I recall reading a novel sometime in the late 1960s which had a small family group travelling through a mountainous area trying to survive by their own wits and using the few weapons to hand. It did not turn out good IIRC.

    Even those living in gated communities must rely ultimately on those lower down the pecking order for supplying whatever supplies are still available. When all that fails, and their minders have gone off to aid their own kith and kin, they will be reduced to the same dire choices as some poor sailors adrift in open boats after their ship sank so quickly the boat contained little for survival, yes the C word. But that is only a temporary stay on a long lingering death for the last person breathing.

    Lionel A

    8 August 2012 at 16:58

    • With regard to paragraph 1 – Have you seen movie The Book of Eli…?

      With regard to paragraph 2 – It is all very reminiscent of the classic 1970s BBC TV series Survivors… Meanwhile, in the USA, you have all these “Preppers” who are armed to the teeth and determined to defend themselves against all those who will target them (i.e. desperate hungry people who were not prepared) but, sadly, that’s what a gun-owning meritocracy is all about….

      Therefore, all things considered, I think you’re right; its gonna get very messy…

      Martin Lack

      8 August 2012 at 17:48

    • Some more food for thought on this topic because soon that maybe the only food available for many.

      Lionel A

      12 August 2012 at 16:03

  5. “We must either recognise that there are ecological limits to the number of humans the Earth can physically cope with (especially if we are all going to live comfortably); or we will have those limits imposed on us by force”
    This is what I keep coming up against too, Martin. We must control human population, as the root of all our current environmental problems is simply that there are too many of us for this planet to support.

    I don’t have any answer yet for how to make this happen, although I will say that UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has maintained for a long time that the way to bring down birth rates is to educate and empower women, and this has worked in the US, UK, Scandinavia and other areas where women have high rates of literacy and employment.

    Maybe women have a bigger role to play in turning this climate debacle around than we have been acknowledging.

    Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

    9 August 2012 at 09:58

    • Thanks Jennifer. As I would hope you are aware by now, I very much agree with you that the solution to population growth as a problem lies in the emancipation and empowerment of women to control their fertility (and to stop seeing children as a form of health insurance).

      As it happens, I have an elderly Aunt in Australia whose advice I have long regarded as wise, who told me nearly 18 months ago that the key to getting people to accept their responsibility for our changing climate was to see it as a consequence of over-population. This piece of advice was all the more surprising when you consider that it was me that was doing the MA in Environmental Politics and she is a retired microbiologist; albeit extremely intelligent and recognised by the Australian Academy of Sciences for her achievements as a women in a male-dominated field and era… (For the record, my Dad is top-right in the 1937 photo.)

      Martin Lack

      9 August 2012 at 10:20

    • If we just removed USA citizens, Canadians, Australians and Chinese, about 60% of the world CO2 pollution would vanish. It’s not the Black Africans who pollute most!

      Patrice Ayme

      10 August 2012 at 22:06

      • Absolutely true! The North Americans and Europeans whose technologies and consumption have gotten us into this environmental end game are most to blame. But right now it’s the export of Euro-American technology and consumerism to places like China, India and Indonesia that I find most frightening. If those three countries, with their mega-populations, began burning up fossil fuels at the same rate as Americans, it truly would be game over, and very quickly. I don’t know what to do about this; I don’t have an answer for how to reduce human populations and also get off fossil fuels, VERY QUICKLY–but I can see that this is what must be done if our species-wide civilization, such as it is, is to survive the 21st century.

        Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

        11 August 2012 at 11:31

        • Point is a handfull of countries are on the wrong track, led by the USA. Most developed countries are making successful efforts…

          Patrice Ayme

          13 August 2012 at 04:38

  6. Wow, Martin, what an interesting family history! Your aunt sounds amazing! It was not easy for women to break into scientific fields in those days. My grandmother, who was a first-generation immigrant here, was able to get a master’s in biology and became a HS biology teacher, also rare for her time….and even now….

    Thanks for pointing me to your post on population, I had missed it in my travels. The question remains–how to reduce population quickly, without major shocks and disasters?

    Reading Michael Klare’s recent piece on Common Dreams points to the way it is most likely to happen, sadly and scarily: simple famine.

    Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

    9 August 2012 at 10:33

    • Wow – interesting commonality – I guess there must be a lot of women of that time with similar stories. My Dad died nearly three years ago but his stoicism in the face of adversity was always a marvel to me – until I came to appreciate what they all went through in China during WW2.

      As I keep saying to fake sceptics – malnutrition, starvation and the premature deaths of millions are not consequences of failures in food distribution; and charity alone will never solve the problem. Klare is therefore right – and it is already happening. Harvest failures in 2010 caused the Arab Spring of 2011; so what on Earth awaits us next year?

      Here in the UK, the governor of the Bank of England was busy yesterday asking people to have the patience, tenacity and determination of Olympic athletes; because getting out of this economic “downturn” will take 4 to 8 years. A BBC journalist reporting the story pointed to the fact that inflation has come down as a consequence of recent falls in oil and food prices (but did not mention that both are very likely to go up again within the next few months). It really is scary but, closing our eyes does not make reality cease to exist.

      Martin Lack

      9 August 2012 at 11:12

      • So true. We will probably not just go back to “business as usual” this time. As you implied in your post, it’s not just a matter of a “downturn”, it’s a matter of survival now. It has been good, these past couple of weeks, to take a mental break from all this scary stuff. But for the most part, I’d rather keep my eyes open, and have a sense of what lies ahead….

        Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

        9 August 2012 at 11:18

        • Thanks Jennifer. Do not feel obliged to reply further. On the contrary, feel free to go and enjoy your breakfast, read another good book, or go back to bed instead! :-)

          Martin Lack

          9 August 2012 at 11:31

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