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Can we use this crisis to create new systems?

July 21, 2010 by Kailani Joy

Our Education Director, Andy Mannle's, latest column on why we need a new set of institutions to protect the ecosystems we all depend on:

Why the BP Oil Spill is a Tragedy of the Commons

Gulf Oil Spill

In 2008, I published an article titled “Why the Wall St Meltdown is a Tragedy of the Commons.” Now in 2010, as oil washes ashore in five states, we are witnessing another great tragedy of the commons, and the similarities are scary.

Can we use this crisis to create systems which protect our shared resources in a way that is fair, transparent and profitable for all of us? Here’s why we must try.

Wealth and Illth

As oil continued to pour into the Gulf, the BP disaster is a stunning example of how we all lose under our current system when something inevitably goes wrong. And it is also a reminder of how much more there is to lose in the next inevitable disaster.Lives, livelihoods, coastlines, and wildlife are all at stake here. The reality is that our current system produces profits by taking things from nature, but there are two sides of the economic coin: wealth and illth. We all know what wealth is, but what is illth? This is the term economist John Ruskin gave to the negative effects of an economic system; what economists refer to as “negative externalities” – like poverty, pollution, disease and desperation. The concept of externalities is a good reminder that economic systems operate within larger social and ecological systems. The problem is that while the economic profits are private, the social and ecological illth is public.

The question is – what can we do about it? There is an ongoing struggle between political power and corporate power that has gone on for years. It is a cycle in which money leads to political influence; highly-paid lobbyists fight for lax oversight; risky profits are prioritized over safety; and the result is a crash, disaster, or failure. Then the inevitable public outcry spurs outraged politicians to drag recalcitrant CEO’s to Capitol Hill; apologies are accepted, new rules are written, and the cycle quietly starts all over again.

But what if we could design institutions that would protect natural resources from both the fickle winds of politics and the relentless profit motive of corporations? Institutions that would combine the transparent legal structures and revenue-generating potential of business, with the mission of politics to protect the public interest? And beyond that, institutions that could also represent the needs of other species, ecosystems, and future generations? Thankfully, these institutions already exist.

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Stay tuned for more impactful stories and features from around the globe and around the corner.

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