Why Are Pollution and Environmental Issues So Hard to Deal With?

Pollution is tricky because in most cases no one owns the air or water. In fact, it is quite difficult to establish any kind of accountability framework for protecting natural resources.

Things may be different on a smaller scale. For example, if a building deteriorates, the owner of the building is legally responsible for seeing to the repairs; anybody who rents knows that. And anybody who owns is familiar with the costs of ownership. In the case of air and water, it is much more complicated since neither belong to anyone. Ultimately, no one and everyone is responsible. What’s more, laying blame is as difficult as determining who will pay for the damages.

There are, of course, situations in which companies actually own land, or are granted the right to exploit it. Paper companies, for example, have long owned forests to transform them into newsprint and tissue. However, this kind of possession is for the most part avoided, as the owners can be easily held liable should contamination occur. As a result, governments and other concerned trustees are increasingly involved on some level of responsibility. A comparison can be made with companies which operate ski resorts. When owning mountains, companies pay exceptionally high insurance premiums in order to protect themselves from legal recourse of injured skiers.

Governments thus have as much incentive to remain strongly involved with environmental issues with respect to accountability and transparency as they do in light of the free market’s incapacity to fix the pollution problem alone.

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