(This is an essay I wrote for my environmental ethics class in Fall 2016. I hope you enjoy!)
On November 6th, 2016, my world fell apart.
Okay, yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; however, that Tuesday was anything but a good day. I was sitting in my boyfriend’s apartment with a few of our mutual friends watching the 2011 Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. It was election day, and every time they mentioned a joke about him running for president, my stomach lurched forward and my brow furrowed and my eyes squeezed shut. It was if my entire body was trying to shield itself from the inevitable.
Donald J. Trump, American businessman, reality television star, and “politician” is going to be our next president.
My mom and I joke about how long he will actually stay in office; however, political banter aside, Donald Trump has the ability to make drastic changes to our nation and the world. Already he has been making claims of “canceling” the Paris Climate Agreement within 100 days of taking office and will do everything in his power to reverse climate change regulations introduced by President Obama (BBC), cut both the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, and eliminate federal regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule (In Their Own Words: 2016 Presidential Candidates on Water Issues). While many business owners and companies are likely thrilled at Trump’s proposals, deregulation can lead to companies using more economically efficient methods of production which often increase pollution. This is particularly common in areas of open access property. Open access properties are areas that aren’t owned or managed by anyone, and access to it is not controlled. Some examples of open access property are the upper atmosphere (navigable airspace) and ocean fisheries (navigable waterways).
Climate change has been a heavily discussed during this election season; however, I want to shift the discussion to water pollution. While water pollution has not been ignored, I feel as though it has been overshadowed by other topics and deserves greater consideration. With environmental dilemmas such as the degradation of the coral reefs, the plastic problem in our oceans, and the Flint water crisis happening in our own country, I feel as if water pollution should hold more weight in the political discussion and that many water pollution problems can be lessened by implementing property rights regimes. In this essay, I will argue that when forming policy decisions about water pollution, public (government) property practices and regulations on private property are the most effective ways to prevent pollution and encourage sustainable use.
Water pollution can be defined as any contamination of water that lessens its value (instrumental or intrinsic) to humans and other species, aquatic and non aquatic. The different types of water pollution that I will be focusing on in this essay are sediment and inorganic nutrient pollution, plastic pollution, and heavy metal pollution. I also hope to discuss how increased global temperatures can magnify the effects of these pollutions.
Sediment pollution includes sand, silt, and clay (inorganic soil particles) eroded from soils and washed from roadways and building sites. It can come from natural sources, such as natural stream bank erosions, or human sources, such as farmland and construction sites that aren’t managed to eliminate soil erosion. It is one of the most destructive and costly water pollutants, and “approximately 0.9 billion metric tons of sediment flow into aquatic ecosystems in the United states” yearly (Chiras and Reganold 259). Inorganic nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates pollute groundwater and surface water via three major sources: agricultural fertilizers, domestic sewage, and livestock wastes.
The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has recently increased awareness of sediment and inorganic nutrient pollution. Once a beautiful and thriving ecosystem, these coral gardens have now “suffered the worst coral die-off ever recorded” (Innis, “Great Barrier Reef Hit by Worst Coral Die-Off on Record, Scientists Say”). These reefs have been victim to sediment and chemical runoff from farms, and the effects from this pollution have been magnified by the “long-term release of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere” (Innis, “Great Barrier Reef Threatened by Climate Change, Chemicals and Sediment”). Clearly an open access area, the Great Barrier reef faces many challenges in terms of pollution regulation; however, Australia implemented the “Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan” in March 2015, and while changes are still underway, an update shows that of 151 planned measures, including the limiting of sediment and chemical runoff from farms, 32 have been completed and 103 are underway or on track to begin. The country ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change in November. The government regulations on this openaccess property have proven to be more effective than if surrounding businesses and companies had been forced to regulate the coastal ecosystem on their own. In their op-ed piece on the Caribbean’s coral reefs, Jeremy Jackson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson claim “we need to stop all forms of overfishing, establish large and effectively enforced marine protected areas and impose strict regulations on coastal development and pollution while at the same time working to reduce fossil fuel emissions driving climate change. It’s not either/or. It’s all of the above” (Jackson and Johnson).
Plastic pollution involves the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, or humans. The world’s oceans are seriously polluted with plastic — about 10 million tons per year (Chiras and Reganold 295). Plastic causes wildlife mortality in several ways. After being swallowed, it cannot be digested and therefore blocks the digestive tract. Plastic entanglement can cause death by drowning, and biomagnification of toxins ingested by animals who are then consumed by other animals create a grave danger for secondary and tertiary consumers.
It’s difficult to talk about plastic polluting our oceans without mentioning the Great Pacific Garbage Patches, a soupy collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. These patches are almost entirely made up of microplastics and intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes. Understandably, pollution control of the Great Pacific Garbage patches has been difficult because of it being an open access area and most of the plastic pollution comes from nonpoint sources. Many see the ocean as an “inexhaustible resource that can absorb an almost infinite amount of waste and pollution” (Miller 640); however, the constant deprivation of the seas has the potential to harm all biotic life.
Both the United States government and international organizations have passed laws enabling the regulation and enforcement of trash dumping and exportation. In 1972, United States Congress enacted the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (also known as the Ocean Dumping Act) that “prohibits the dumping of material into the ocean that would unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities” (EPA and OECA). In 2006, The London Protocol was enacted and “expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping” (EPA and OWOW). Without government regulation, the destruction of our oceans would increase dramatically. Large corporations simply cannot be trusted to regulate themselves when it comes to open-access property; they will strive to do whatever is economically efficient, especially when the externalities of pollution do not affect their property. Government regulations on land have also helped with the plastic pollution problem. In California, the focus has been on so-called structural controls, such as covering gutters and catch basins with screens. This has reduced the amount of debris flowing down rivers to the sea. Activists around the world are lobbying for bans on the most polluting plastics — the bottles, bags and containers that deliver food and drink. Many have been successful. In California, nearly 100 municipalities have passed ordinances banning throwaway plastic bags and the Senate is considering a statewide ban. International laws aside, the enforcement and regulations created by local, state, and national governments have proven to have a more positive and sustainable effect on the state of our oceans than unregulated production.
Finally, heavy metal pollutants are probably the most recently talked about pollutant in the United States (yet still not talked about enough) because of the Flint water crisis. Heavy metals are highly toxic elements such as lead and mercury that come from a variety of sources. These metals may be washed into surface waters during heavy rains or released into waterways through point sources such as metal processing plants, dye-making firms, and paper mills. The Flint water crisis is a drinking water contamination issue that started in April of 2014. After Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, its drinking water had a series of problems that peaked with lead contamination; the Flint River water that was treated improperly caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, resulting in extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin. The problem with heavy metals is that they are not broken down by bacteria. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience health problems ranging from irritability and weakened immune system to brain damage, mental retardation, delayed puberty, and hearing problems (Chiras and Reganold 279) (“Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts”).
This water crisis started in April of 2014 but was not declared a federal state of emergency until nearly two years later in January of 2016. The state government and the EPA were criticized for not acting on the water crisis quickly enough, and one could easily say the EPA failed in its role of an overseer. Unfortunately, this is an example of how government property regimes and interference can negatively affect a community and could be considered a classic form of environmental racism. In Flint, the majority of residents are black and many are poor; however, Michigan as a whole is 14 percent black and the state government is dominated by Republicans. Flint has little power in Michigan’s political agenda and therefore had little voice at the start of this dilemma.
While the government deserves partial blame, it would be a mistake to conclude that Flint’s predicament is simply the result of government mismanagement. The Flint River’s pollution problem dates back as far as the 1830’s and lack of compliance with regulations by companies only added to the complications. Had the state government enforced water quality regulations more strictly in the past, the Flint River would not have accumulated the pollution problem it has today. We cannot go back and fix the past; however, we can strive to do more today and in the future. When President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, he authorized $5 million in aid to immediately assist with the public health crisis.
Today, water in Flint, Michigan, continues to improve. Researchers have reported that they have found no detectable levels of lead in 57 percent of homes during another round of tests (The Associated Press); however, this improvement might not last long. Deregulation and defunding patiently wait in the months to come. The Clean Water Rule restores protections for the small streams and wetlands that are essential to our health, communities, and economy. The law protects clean drinking of one in three Americans – that’s 117 million people. Donald Trump would eliminate the Clean Water Rule, putting the clean drinking water of 117 million Americans at risk for pollution (“Donald Trump’s approach to environmental safeguards”). I am willing to give Donald Trump a chance, but I am not looking forward to the years to come. Private property regimes without the influence of government regulation and enforcement cannot fix the pollution problems of open access areas, and I am preparing for the fight to defend every environmental protection that Donald Trump tries to trash.