Environmental Regulation

Natural Property

In order to regulate the environment, the government usually converts the environment into property and commodities.

What exactly is property? It is usually something rival (only one person can use it at a time) and exclusive (you can prevent others from using it). This is also the definition of a private good, which stands opposed to a public good, which is both nonrival and nonexclusive.

Many things in the environment are not rival or exclusive. A watershed, for example, is a process, not a thing or place that someone can own. Other resources are so abundant (air, for example), that even if it is rival (you and I can’t take the same breath of air), it is effectively nonrival. And yet other resources, such as seeds, reproduce themselves so that it is very difficult to exclude someone from using them.

Pretending Property

So regulation works by redefining environmental phenomena as private goods. States have jurisdiction over wildlife, unless it is migratory, in which the federal government has control. “Migration” is defined as crossing state lines. The federal government controls interstate fauna because the Supreme Court has defined it as “interstate trade” (the federal government is only allowed to regulate interstate, not in-state, commerce). Through an act of redefinition, the government can regulate migratory animals because the act of migration is considered an act of trade.

Difficult Regulation

Regulation is always chasing far behind resource overuse, because until a natural resource is overused and there is an ecological disaster, there is usually enough for everyone. Until that point, the resource stays free, and regulation seems unnecessary.

Regulation can be difficult because much of pollution is non-point source. Point source pollution comes from an identifiable, discrete source, such as sulfur dioxide billowing from a factory smokestack. Sediment or animal feces entering the watershed from a vast amount of farmland is non-point source. It can be very difficult to regulate because it is difficult to pin down exactly where it is coming from, or even how much of it is entering the environment.

Nathan Sayre, Berkeley Professor – Geography 130 course

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