Who owns the rain that falls from the sky?
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.