Monday, December 15, 2008

The Commons Conundrum

The News Journal's website carried (very shortly) an article today (found here) about the State's intention to sue the EPA over air quality regulations that Delaware thinks are unfair. The result could be that Delaware loses millions of dollars in federal transportation funding.

This issue brings to light a fundamental concept that plagues every government entity: the "commons" problem. Now, you could fill an entire library with the number of books and articles that define and examine this problem (the field of ecology is basically centered around this one principle), but I'll try to outline some of the key points and how they apply in this case...and how Delaware may be up the creek without a paddle on this one.

There are certain things that people need to survive, biologically speaking. Water and air are two biggies. Governments at all levels (federal, state, local) have a big role in making sure that these three things are available in sufficient quantity and quality to the people who live under their power. To do this, they use money taken from their resident taxpayers to keep the air and water and food clean and flowing free. But, when the federal or state government spends money on, say, nice clean air, people outside of their jurisdiction (people who did NOT pay taxes) end up getting some of the benefits in the form of cleaner air and cleaner water. This is the "commons" problem. Air and water systems extend well beyond the jurisdiction of any one government. And governments, like people, are selfish.

This problem works the other way too. When people in one place pollute the air with coal-fired power plants or lots of cars, the negative effects are felt by many people outside of the place that is causing the problem. This is called the tragedy of the commons, and it is the very thing that Delaware officials are whining about to the EPA. They're mad that states to the west (upwind, as it were) are polluting the air, leading to bad air quality in Delaware, and now Delaware is being held responsible.

It's a fair and valid point, to be sure. Delaware residents suffer with bad air and bad water because people and governments upstream and upwind have failed to "clean up their act." But, the problem here is the question of "who pays?" when it comes to the commons. No, Delaware cannot control what midwest states do to prevent air pollution. But, it can't just "pass the buck" when it comes to making sure its own people--its own taxpayers--have clean air.

If we give in to DNREC's logic here, we end up in a massive downward spiral of buck-passing that ends in environmental ruin. Someone somewhere someday will have to pay. If not us here now, then our grandkids (or Europe's grandkids or Asia's grandkids) tomorrow. I would rather pay for clean air in Delaware knowing that at least we're doing something to improve our own health now. Yes, we're cleaning up someone else's mess. And yes, other states and countries will benefit without paying. But I'd rather be the one to step up and say "I'll do it" than the spineless wimp in the back of the room trying to hide from the problem. I believe that's the forthright thing to do, and for once, instead of just hopping on the bandwagon, we can MAKE the bandwagon that others might hop on.

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