Thursday, April 2, 2009

An Excerpt

From The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, David Bollier:


Not many Americans realize that they collectively own one third of the surface area of the country and billions of acres of the outer continental shelf. The resources are extensive and valuable: huge supplies of oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, copper, gold, silver, timber, grasslands, water and geothermal energy. The nation’s public lands also consist of vast tracts of wilderness forests, unspoiled coastline, sweeping prairies, the awe inspiring Rocky mountains, and dozens of beautiful rivers and lakes. Public lands represent an unparalleled commons for the American people, held in trust by the US Government.

As steward of these public resources, the government’s job is to manage these resources and lands responsibly for the long term. The sad truth is that government stewardship of this natural wealth represents on of the great scandals of the twentieth century. While the details vary from one resource to another the general history is one of antiquated laws, poor enforcement, slipshod administration, environmental indifference and capitulation to industry’s most aggressive demands. Through sweetheart deals pushed through Congress and federal agencies, corporations have gained discount access to huge quantities of publicly owned resources while wreaking environmental havoc. The true scale of economic malfeasance and scope of ecological harm are truly staggering.

Every few years, another unsavory episode of public lands abuse finds its way into the mainstream press. Almost invariably, however, reform efforts are slowed down or stopped as politicians ‘owned’ by the affected industries flex their muscle in quiet backroom ways.

Time after time a compliant congress and captive federal agencies agree to throw open public lands to commercial exploitation on some of the cheapest terms imaginable.

If the Republicans had fulfilled their promise to run the government like a business, and the democrats had fulfilled their promise to end corporate welfare, the American people would have reaped untold billions in new revenues. Instead, not only has the Government too often failed to perform its fiduciary responsibilities to the American people, but its slack management of public lands has often resulted in new environmental abuses, intensified pressures on threatened species and communities, aggravated and created public heath problems, and worsened concentrations of public power.

The sorry history of public lands management is not just about venal political leaders, inept bureaucracies and a cultural compulsion to exploit natural resources (though it is that). At a more fundamental level it is about the rise of corporate capitalism in the late 1800s, supplanting Adam Smith’s free market capitalism – which in turn has neutralized the accountability mechanisms otherwise exercised by citizens and consumers. As described by forestry scholar Richard W. Behan in his book Plundered Promise, in such a political economy it is only natural that public lands would be managed for maximum short-term private gain. The resulting overdevelopment - over cut forests, over-dammed rivers, over grazed rangelands – is an institutional symptom of excessively powerful corporations and a predatory political system. [1]


[1] From David Bollier, Silent Theft, The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. Routledge, 2002.

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