Corporations care more for bottom line than public’s welfare

When privatization combines with globalization, the environment is bound to suffer.

Private ownership of public resources must, by definition, result in private profit, and almost always at the public's expense. It is in corporate interests worldwide to minimize costs associated with environmental protection by lobbying against regulation, ignoring it as long as possible, or simply denying that any risks are associated with corporate products and defying anyone to prove otherwise in court.

This is not to say that public entities, such as the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, are infallible. But they are generally more accountable.

Imagine if the water authority here had been privatized. A private water works could well have tried to spin away concern over the black, fibrous gunk that appeared in some of its bottled river water last week — water soon to be piped into every household in the city. The water authority, fully exposed to the press, has to tell the public why it happened and how the authority will correct it.

Nor will the public water authority be able to have a bill introduced into the Legislature that allows it to make a profit, no matter what it does.

Electric utilities in New Mexico might be on the brink of such privatized heaven, legally required to help reduce energy consumption through customer frugality, while at the same time charging customers a higher utility rate to compensate for reduced demand. Such a bill has been introduced to amend the 2005 Efficient Use of Energy Act.

Privatizing the commons leads companies to externalize more and more of the costs of doing business, placing the burden for those costs on taxpayers. If it is in the self-interest of corporations and their stockholders to minimize environmental expenses — by coverups and political favors — then a globalized privatization of the commons is perhaps the most dangerous single threat to the environment we have.

This is well known in certain circles. But for most of the world, it's business as usual, and business is the last bastion of an ancient mind-set that sees the natural world solely as an exploitable resource with no inherent value of its own, and no reason to conserve or protect it at the cost of immediate private gain.

Imagine compounding, on a global scale, the notion that a utility company in New Mexico should be able to charge its customers more for using less energy, when it has endlessly promoted energy conservation. Suddenly conservation becomes an a scheme to inflate energy prices.

A public utility, on the other hand, would earn acclaim for reduced usage and less expense to the taxpayer through conservation.

Globalized international markets — in which regulation is virtually nonexistent or designed to thwart local self-determination, when it comes to national values of environmental safety — undermine grass-roots efforts at exercising environmental conscience.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
February 2, 2008