Equity Challenges

Part five of the multi-part BLUEprint Series: How the Ocean Will Save Civilization

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As we explore “equity” as a foundation concept for civil society, we need to understand the various forces in place that undermine the concept in direct and indirect ways that we may not acknowledge or understand, forces embedded still in our worldview, our governance, our laws, and our common social behaviors.

One of the most insidious is government subsidy — grants, credits, exemptions, and other incentives that are justified by policy, sometimes the result of serious analysis of financial and social needs, sometimes the result of special interests looking for specific advantage advanced by tax-payer finance. The largest and most perverse such activity has been generated by the deliberate interference in legislative matters by the oil and gas industry that has generated decades of extreme profits, executive compensation, capital accumulation, and shareholder value by the calculated advantage of subverted scientific research, manipulated data, subtle but relentless lobbying and political contribution, false advertising, and indifference to the known consequence of its activity on the social demography and public health of the United States. This claim, once considered hysterical, has been revealed by the resultant, measurable, deteriorated condition of air and water quality, poisoned land, dislocated citizens, investigative journalism, and, finally, public admission through documents and statements by the perpetrators themselves.

This example represents the single largest transfer of wealth from the citizens of the United States, literally hundreds of millions who have enjoyed this history, to a comparatively minuscule number of individual shareholders, who have not benefited from this conspiracy of misdirection if not campaign of outright lies. The Public Trust Doctrine, as iterated through Roman and English common law, and transferred into the legal foundation of the new American nation, established ownership of natural resources — water, oil, gas, minerals, wildlife, and biodiversity — as a national interest to be managed by government and exploited by private licensees for the benefit of civil society, and sustained, not depleted, for the continuing benefit of future generations. These principles were tested and upheld by the US Supreme Court in defense of challenges to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. What has occurred, of course, is just the opposite. That is, the licensees and their allies enabled not just by indifference to the sustainability of the resources, but overtly advanced by subsidized practices that drove consumption toward depletion and the problematic social, political, and financial outcomes with which we are dealing today. On the surface, the process seemed like a magic carpet ride, but in truth it was an illusion, a cynically manufactured delusion propagated for short-term reward against the higher, long-term interests of we, the people as the legitimate “owners” of the base value. It was more than ignorance or sleight of hand; it was a deliberately planned, engineered, and subsidized enterprise that in the end worked fundamentally against the national interest.

Many will object to this interpretation. It is correct that many the world over benefited from the energy and finance derived from oil, but it was a false calculation in that it did not include or factor in the negative side of the ledger, the true cost of the endeavor as equitably measured in public health and social consequence against the giddy profits and by-products of unlimited growth and consumption. The land has suffered greatly, and now those same profiteers propose to apply the same bankrupt values and strategies to the ocean, enthusiastically prepared to repeat past mistakes in a place seeming distant and not so easily observed and with, presumably, no future alternative value.

This web of industry was supported by market assumptions, inflated profits, vested interests, and false equivalencies, the misrepresentation that the value of one action is equal to the unarticulated value of another, the assertion that the benefit of an oil-based paradigm of unlimited growth and consumption was equal to or better for some than the alternative, sustainable advantage accrued for the benefit of everyone else. Looking back, it was a definitive definition of fraud as “a thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.”

This same strategy is very much in play for the ocean: offshore oil and gas exploration and permitting, deep sea mining, lack of fisheries catch limits and inadequate surveillance and enforcement, indiscriminate coastal development, dilution or removal of legislative controls, repetitive capital investments, continuing pursuit of subsidy more perverse than ever, and the ongoing affirmation that natural resources, of the ocean — now that those of the land are exhausted — are there for the indiscriminate taking until, they too, are gone.

We are poised to repeat as purported success for the future the demonstrated failure of the past.

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Learn more at worldoceanobservatory.org/world-ocean-radio
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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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