26 Apr 2009

Why Nobody Listens to (Some) Enviros

About a year ago, I corresponded [see emails below] with Dorothy Green a few months before she died. (At the time, I had no idea how famous she was.)

I've no doubt that Green had her heart in the right place, but I do doubt the ideological stance that she and many enviro groups (e.g., Food and Water Watch) take.

Why? Because they have made a preemptive decision to dismiss ALL solutions that involve markets, private enterprise, capitalism, etc. while simultaneously putting their trust in some sort of magic government made of "public servants" who are really good at predicting and implementing the best policy for the People. (For more on that, check out the history of the USSR and a guy named Hayek.)

In my mind, such an extreme orientation alienates potential allies and eliminates useful (but impure) solutions.

You can see this in their rhetoric ("Privatization has always made matters worse not better for the people and the environment.") but also in their public stances.

Let's take a look at the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) -- an organization Green founded -- that is "working to promote the equitable and environmentally-sensitive use of California's water." According to their action plan, C-WIN's goal is:
to ensure that publicly owned water projects in California are operated in the public interest. The public interest includes reasonable urban and agricultural uses, as well as environmental values. In this way, we can achieve a sustainable water future.


Two immediate issues link our concerns about our water future: the reliance of developers on “paper water” to meet projected future needs, and the push to deregulate and privatize our water resources - turning water into a commodity as a way of dealing with the increasing competition for this precious resource.
On the first issue, I am in full agreement. C-WIN notes that the SWRCB has issues water diversion permits for 532MAF of water, but average annual runoff is only 71MAF. These paper permits must be reduced for several reasons:
  • Extra permits create uncertainty over what a permit is worth.
  • Permits allow diversions. If there are more diversions than water, then water is overused and depleted.
  • Markets in permits will not function until paper permits are retired, leaving "wet" permits (of much higher value) to be traded.
OTOH, I do not agree with their second issue, which says:
Deregulation/Privatization. As competition grows for our water resources, there are those who would sell water that belongs to all of the people to the highest bidder, for personal profit. They believe that the market should decide how to allocate this resource for its highest and best use. However, many, including C-WIN, believe this publicly owned resource should remain in public hands, and that it is the job of the state to allocate water to meet the needs of all the people and the environment. We must remember what happened when California’s energy was deregulated and subjected to market forces. Our economy was devastated. We must not let this happen with our water.
Here are my objections:
  1. Water may belong to ALL the people, but the rights have been assigned -- even if they've been over-assigned.
  2. Those who hold rights have made financial commitments based on the rights. They will suffer unconstitutional harm if their rights are deprived.
  3. Anyone with property is allowed to dispose of it at a profit.
  4. How would the "state... allocate water to meet the needs of all the people and the environment"? I understand that C-WIN has its own ideas, but those ideas are not shared by all. Since demand exceeds supply (the end of abundance), it is necessary to ration water supply in some way. I have proposed several ways that are both fair and efficient, i.e., some for free, pay for more retail pricing and all-in-auctions for wholesale water allocation. Environmental water flows are tougher, but they can be baselined and renegotiated on biological/ESA principles. (The political negotiation of "reasonable urban and agricultural uses, as well as environmental values" would be a nightmare. Trust markets!)
  5. The electricity deregulation fiasco is exactly why the State should NOT be in charge of water. The break-down was MOSTLY caused by the failure to deregulate retail prices at the same time as wholesale prices were "freed". In contrast, consider how the wholesale/retail distribution of oil/gasoline works without the "aid" of regulators. (The shenanigans of Enron et al. were responsible for 20-30% of the problems, IMO, and anyone -- except a regulator, it seems -- could have predicted those actions and put preventative measures in place.
Bottom Line: Those who claim to represent the People should not only accept the institutions that the People have approved (markets, property rights) but also consider ANY and ALL means of improving the People's lot. What do we want anyway? Ideology or results?

hattip to PB (and sorry for the 4 month delay in getting to this!)
From: Carolee Krieger
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 9:35 AM
To: Lloyd Carter
Cc: David Zetland, Dorothy Green, Joan Hartmann

Lloyd, here are two letters that we might use...

I am also cc'ing this to Dr. David Zetland (Agricultural and Resource Economics) visiting professor from UC Davis...his specialty is pricing...thought he would like these.


From: Dorothy Green
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 9:59 AM
To: Carolee Krieger
Cc: Lloyd Carter, David Zetland, Joan Hartmann

I think we need to get to know more about this gentleman, and perhaps encourage him to get even more involved. How can we do this? What would such a process look like?


From: David Zetland
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 10:28 AM
To: Dorothy Green
Cc: Carolee Krieger, Lloyd Carter, Joan Hartmann

Hi Everyone,

Let me jump right in and get involved :)

I just finished a PhD diss on MWD of SoCal, am running a blog on "aguanomics" and will be doing political economy of natural resources at UC Berkeley in the fall. I am not, btw, a professor. I graduated from UC Davis and I am a postdoc at Berkeley

I am VERY interested in reconciling ag, enviro and urban interests via markets, which use prices instead of lawsuits.

I suggest that you browse my blog (esp. sticky posts on the right) to get an idea of how I think and what I've been saying...


ps/I *may* have a piece coming out in Forbes on urban water pricing (raise prices to get conservation) in the next few weeks. My next ideas are for ag/enviro/urban markets and private/public/community water supplies...

From: Dorothy Green
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 11:04 AM
To: Carolee Krieger
Cc: Lloyd Carter, David Zetland, Joan Hartmann

So David Zetland is into privatization! He doesn't seem to understand that water belongs to all of us, and that a water right is not an ownership right, but usufructuary.


From: David Zetland
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 11:29 AM
To: Dorothy Green
Cc: Carolee Krieger, Lloyd Carter, Joan Hartmann

Ahh Dorothy,

You are precisely wrong -- see this and this.


From: Dorothy Green
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 1:27 PM
To: David Zetland
Cc: Carolee Krieger, Lloyd Carter, Joan Hartmann

Dear David,

Using market forces, transfers, means to me privatizing it. According to the public trust doctrine, water belongs to everyone and it is the duty of the state to allocate it to benefit the public. The giant agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley have been working hard for many years to blur the ownership rights in order to market their water to the cities, at enormous profit. It is easier and more profitable to market their water than to grow crops. Water has belonged to us all. Historically we have not paid for water, but for the facilities, O & M, needed to get it to us. Big Ag wants to change all the rules and have persuaded some, even in the environmental community, that transfers and market forces should rule.


From: David Zetland
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 1:37 PM
To: Dorothy Green

Dear Dorothy,

That's an interesting definition of "private". So, if you are unwilling to use such "private" forces, then I wish you all good luck.


From: Carolee Krieger
Date: Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 2:51 PM
To: Dorothy Green, David Zetland
Cc: Lloyd Carter, Joan Hartmann

David, I completely agree with Dorothy. Privatization has always made matters worse not better for the people and the environment.


From: David Zetland
Date: Fri, Jun 20, 2008 at 1:18 PM
To: Carolee Krieger
Cc: Dorothy Green, Lloyd Carter, Joan Hartmann

Hi everyone,

You may be interested in this reaction to your agenda



Four Mound Farm said...

The reason nobody listens is because rich politicians have convinced the average person that they will one day be a fat cat too. "Having it all" is a carrot everyone blindly follows, except the idealistic. The masses are given just enough to keep them entertained and blissfully ignorant. Dorothy and the Enviros have a higher calling, giving up "the American Dream" for principles they believe are necessary for the survival of the Earth and humanity. They see that capitalism and the status quo is destroying nature and oppressing humanity. Enviros go to work each day for peanuts or less with the goal of saving the world from a giant unconscious machine that eats nature and humanity for money. Until capitalism grows a heart and soul, rather than focusing on supply, demand, and profit, these sweet people will continue to disagree with you.

I am blessed, compared to most of humanity. I have a roof, land to grow food, a productive well, power (as in juice), and an education. I appreciate all of this with all my heart, but in my heart of hearts I believe a pursuit of money (rather than a living or a vocation) is inherently bad for most of humanity, since it takes 1) a huge majority poor people to be the low wage slaves, 2) the destruction of nature--or unsustainable growth, and 3) the "laws" that support this shitsdom to foster the super rich in the style to which they have grown accustomed. How many poor Africans, South/Central Americans, and Asians suffer so that I may be comfortable? How many watersheds are damaged so I can type on this computer and have batteries for my IPod? I am a Boomer with guilt. Having worked in government, I am aware also of how slowly the municipal wheels turn. They need to turn faster because of the pace of Climate Change, but they won't.

Capitalism is only good for successful Capitalists and trickling down a little to lucky people like me. For the majority of humans and all plants, animals, and geological formations, Capitalism sucks--it is a oppressive and destructive human force loose in the world. I am caught in its web along with everyone else. To alleviate my guilt, I join others and band together to form groups like G-WIN striving for what we know is ethical and beneficial for everyone, regardless of their bank balance. We have this unrealistic idea that all species are equal, and the world is an Orwellian nightmare we need to fix with our educated minds. Water is so basic, it could wake up the sleeping masses when the tap runs dry, or becomes too expensive to afford. Water will be a possible cause of civil war all over the world as it becomes perceived as scarce. The rich control the world through Capitalism, so it follows they will grab ownership and distribution of water as they control and distribute everything else.

The nightmare goes on, relentlessly accelerating with global warming, extinctions, and tipping point after tipping point. Nothing changes enough to undo the damage or restore lost ground. Sprawl, resource extraction, industry, and politics march on as "progress" and "business as usual" rule the day.

The environmental movement is an "insurgency" that will not give up. We are not quieted with electronic gismos, TV, and cars like most Americans. We prefer nature, the outdoors, and growing things in dirt. We are confronted by the power that comes with 99% of the money/power in the hands of that top 1% that only live to make more and more money. So we use words and pass the hat for pittances to fight fortunes and legions of corporate lawyers. We read books about a "New Age". Secretly, we know we will lose-- that nobody is listening because they are watching their giant TVs, playing video games, and living in a false reality created by Capitalism and it's glittering allure. (And the stacking of the Supreme Court by the Bush Administration won't help).

But what the hell. Saving the world is worth our best shot, isn't it? A losing team will still finish the game rather than concede if they have any self respect. And the revolution will not be televised.

Anonymous said...

Correction: C-WIN, not G-WIN.

Lulu said...

For you die-hard anti-capitalists out there, what is it that you're proposing as an alternative instead? Socialism? Communism? Why do you have such undying faith in state and government bureaucrats? What makes capitalism superior to other isms is that it at least takes into account human nature, ie, the human tendencies to be selfish, lazy, or corrupt if not properly deterred or incentivized. Socialism and communism assume people are willing to be cogs in the wheels of state-run enterprises. This is unrealistic and the results are evident in China and USSR. Markets are not perfect not because they are too free, but because they are too far from being free (monopolies, cartels, subsidies, etc). Stop feeling guilty for having benefited under capitalism. The least you can do is not to prevent others from sharing the pie. In our globalized, relatively democratized age, it's not a zero sum game. Think progress, not growth. Growth spurs all kinds of problems including environmental ones, but progress will bring solutions. Witness the sea change produced by google in terms of information and knowledge dispersion. Who would have thought. That's progress. To continue to have progress, we need clear rational thinking rather than guilt-ridden emotional charges. To condemn a system/ way of life that has brought improved standards for such vast numbers of people globally is to be ungrateful to all our forefathers who had worked hard, fought wars and sacrificed lives so that we live in relative comfort today. Instead, we should accurately identify our problems and their causes, and address them in a realistic manner. The main cause for lack of water in poor villages, for instance, is bad government. When government doesn't do its job, private sector can play a useful role. Problems need to be solved this way in order for people's lives to improve sufficiently for them to seek changes in government. Stop progress on ideological grounds, and no one is better off. The bad government in question will stay entrenched. Nothing gets solved.

David Zetland said...

@FMF -- Lulu's comment reflects my belief. I think that capitalism and environmentalism can co-exist, but the political system needs to be strong enough to resist the forces of corruption -- from BOTH sides.

H. Court Young said...

You might be interested in my article entitled "Is Water a Commodity or a Right." It is located at:

H. Court Young
Promoting awareness through the written word

Four Mound Farm said...

Old hippies that didn't sell out, and Indians that won't move away to another state to make money get a little bitter about things never seeming to get better, but rapidly worse. When I see the sprawl development stop, the water pollution cleaned up, the end of resource extraction at the expense of the environment, and the rampant corporate and governmental corruption cease, plus the equity issues resolved as far as health care, homelessness/ fair housing, access to education, then I will shut up. Until then, I don't accept what's going on and wouldn't trust a Capitalist as far as I could throw one.

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