Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 1, 2008

Privatization: The Key to the Coming Solar Age

Ernest Partridge

How is industrial civilization to deal with the end of the petroleum age and the onset of global warming?

The answer seems obvious to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. On Air America’s “Ring of Fire” radio program ten days ago, he remarked: “Solar energy is hitting the earth for free – the tides, the wind, the sun are all free. All we need is to implant the infrastructure to harvest those electrons, and in a few years we’ll be off of foreign oil.”

Typical wooly-headed liberalism! And yet, RFK Jr. may have inadvertently hit upon the reason why research, development, and implementation of a large-scale solar energy industry has lagged: precisely because it is free.

The obvious solution? Privatize the sun! If title to the sun were turned over to the oil companies, we would see an immediate flourishing of a solar industry and an easy transition from the petroleum economy. Conversely, as long as the incoming solar energy remains “free,” why should any corporation invest as much as a cent on something it cannot own and therefore control?

If the sun is privatized, then by implication so too should be the global forces that the sun sets in motion, namely the wind, the ocean currents, and the tides, all of these potential sources of energy.

Far-fetched? Hardly. After all, the Bush administration and its corporate sponsors have privatized war (Halliburton and Blackwater), the Congress (Big Pharma, General Electric, etc.), and elections (Diebold and ES&S), so why not the sun?

Some bold-thinking libertarians have even proposed the privatization of nature. For example, Robert J. Smith asks: “"why the buffalo nearly vanished, but not the Hereford; ... why the common salmon fisheries of the United States are overfished, but not the private salmon streams of Europe." The reason? Nobody owned the virgin prairies and nobody owns the oceans. They were and are public commons, thus fated for over-exploitation and ruin. Private resources, on the other hand, are wisely managed, due to the self-interest of the owners. The solution? "We should explore the possibilities of extending ownership of native game animals and wildlife to property owners." Smith then leaps to a broader conclusion: “The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their being treated as common property resources. Whenever we find an approach to the extension of private property rights in these areas, we find superior results.” (My emphases. For a contrary opinion, see “Privatism and Public Goods”).

The implications of the privatized sun are enormous. For example, while you could not put solar panels on your roof without the permission of the solar conglomerate TACEMS (Texaco-Amoco-Chevron-Exxon-Mobil-Shell, UnLtd.), TACEMS might rent that space in exchange for a modest reduction in your electric bill. If you refused, the energy conglomerate might seize your roof anyway, under the newly acquired corporate power of eminent domain. (See SCOTUS ruling, Kelo v. New London).

Beach resorts would, of course, be required to pay for the use of the sun, as would sailboats for the use of the wind.

Likewise, farmers would be assessed a fee for the use of the sun to grow their crops. Sunlight would then have acquired the same legal status as seed grain which, until now, had, from time immemorial, been part of the free bounty of nature. But now seed grain is patented, requiring payment to multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill.

There might be some downsides for the energy conglomerates. For example, the solar energy causes storms such as hurricanes and tornados, not to mention sunburns. Accordingly, liability claims against TACEMS could be enormous.

Not to worry, however. Corporate overseers of the Congress (i.e., lobbyists) have instructed the lawmakers to institute “tort reform,” which has reduced citizen complaints against mega-corporations to insignificance.

In sum, with the privatization of the Courts, the Congress, the Military, elections, and virtually of government itself, privatization of the sun, the wind, the tides, the ocean, would seem to be the logical next step.

On the other hand, we might reconsider the dogma that privatization is the solution to all social, environmental and political problems. We might, for a moment at least, revive the ancient notion that some institutions and resources are, and justly should be, the common property of the public at large.

But that would be SOCIALISM!!!

Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .