On this day in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire and the nation noticed. It became big news because Time published an article, America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism. It remarked: “the river is a constant fire hazard because of quantities of oil deposited in it by numerous industries in the Cleveland area.” It’s the perfect thing for Republicans. No need to “drill, baby, drill”; you could just ladle the oil out of the water.
What most people don’t understand about that Cuyahoga River fire was that it wasn’t unusual. The first reported fire on the river was in 1868. This is, of course, the tragedy of the commons. Why not let your industrial waste spill into the river? It only hurts you as much as everyone else and it greatly helps you in terms of your profits. The libertarian response to this is to make all property private. But imagine if the Cuyahoga River had been privately owned. To start with, it would cause all kinds of logistical problems. But if enough companies were dumping waste into the private property of the Cuyahoga River, there would be no practical way for the owner to sue them all.
The better solution is the most direct one: make laws outlawing the dumping of pollution into the water. This is, in general, the difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals just look for solutions. Conservatives figure out what is ideologically permitted and then look for a solution from that vastly smaller pool of choices. Thankfully, the Cuyahoga River pollution problem was dealt with by using straight regulation. And as a result, today even the worst parts of the river meet acceptable standards.
Happy anniversary to the Cuyahoga River fire — it did a lot to move forward clean water regulations!