Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sustainability and Just Price

    Although un-noticed by national and international news outlets, an event with global implications took place in the state of Maine a few days ago, when the state's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Fryeburg Water Company’s right to sell some 600,000 gallons of water per day, pumped from the Fryeburg, Maine and vicinity aquifer, through Well Number 1, sourced (according to local knowledge) by the so-called Evergreen Spring. This enormous amount of water will be extracted daily, to wind up in bottles of the well-known Poland Spring water, owned by the Swiss corporation, Nestlé. The Fryeburg Water Co., incorporated in the 19th century as a private corporation, sells the water to Nestlé for the same rate that the citizens of Fryeburg and East Conway, New Hampshire, pay for the Fryeburg town tap water that flows through pipes under the streets and roads and into their faucets. Poland Spring bottled water costs the consumer approximately $50 per gallon. It costs Nestlé 1/4 cent per gallon. That is an enormous profit, and does an enormous injustice to the citizens of Fryeburg, not to mention the people all over North America who pay such an exorbitant price for Fryeburg’s tap water when sold in Poland Spring bottles. The story made me want to travel to Fryeburg to sample their tap water and see if I could tell the difference.
    I would not be writing about this unless I saw some relation between this ominous event and the theme of this blog, sustainability of music (and now also sound). Sustainability of a resource, such as music-making communities, or in this case the aquifer, is the issue. Town citizens brought suit against their town’s municipal water corporation because they feared that such a rate of water extraction was unsustainable. Also, of course, many people living in the town and its vicinity are not served by town water—the pipes don’t go that far—but instead draw water from wells on their property; surely, the water table would drop and many wells would go dry, requiring an investment in deeper and deeper wells, some of which might not yield sufficiently or at all. They were joined in their suit by environmental groups, notably Food and Water Watch. The town of Fryeburg, which operates the water company, hired engineers and assured the concerned citizens that not only could the aquifer handle the proposed extraction load, but that the income from the Nestlé company would keep the water rates low for those on town water for the foreseeable future. Besides, the Fryeburg Water Co. retained the right to reduce or suspend the water extraction for Poland Spring during the course of a water shortage or other emergency. How that shortage would be measured and what kind of emergency might occur were left open.
    How can this kind of chicanery occur when water is, or ought to be, a public resource? It bears on the sustainability of any resource, including the habitats necessary for individuals to thrive and communicate by means of sound—and in the case of humans, music. The oceans usually are thought to be commons, something that by its nature is incapable of being “captured” or owned. But inland water is a different story, and disputes over water rights are well known and ongoing. With a public resource, the question is who has the right to allocate and dispense it. Classic political theory suggests that in a democracy, the people would cede to the government the right to ownership and thus the obligation distribute it equitably. It would become res publicae, or “public things,” in the eyes of the law. However, in the United States, government did not intercede over utilities until early in the 20th century. Until then, they were operated by private companies, like the Fryeburg Water Co., for profit. Eventually citizens complained that they were paying these companies too much for essential resources like water, and by the time of World War I most of the utility companies either were owned and operated by municipalities or heavily regulated by them. But in 1978 Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, which effectively privatized the companies once more—although they remained subject to state regulation. The stated reason was that marketplace competition would keep rates down, and citizens could choose to purchase electricity or water from among competing companies. In practice, this has seldom worked to the consumer’s advantage, either because of a lack of competing companies in their area—particularly water companies—or because one major utility tends to drive out competition from smaller utility companies, and consumers wonder how reliable they will be in the long run. The town of Fryeburg itself purchased the Fryeburg Water Company in 2005. It has a quasi-independent board of trustees, as well as an operating staff to run the Company under the aegis of town government.
    In the case under discussion, concerned Fryeburg town citizens and state and national environmental groups protested the sale to Poland Spring of the water resource. They directed their protest to the state of Maine’s PUC, or Public Utilities Commission, which has regulatory authority here. At least one of the water company board members joined the protest. The members of the PUC are appointed by the governor, however, so their rulings are either politically conservative or progressive depending on the politics of the current governor. Maine Governor Paul LePage is a tea-party conservative, as is the PUC these days, so the odds of getting a ruling opposed to the Fryeburg Water Co. were slim. But, as is typical in government commissions, the appointees are people who have worked in the industry, often in the very same utility companies they are asked to regulate when they join the commission. Because of their ties to the industry they favor the companies over the public when making their regulatory decisions. In the Fryeburg case, two of the commissioners recused themselves because everyone felt they were too close to the utilities. And on the Supreme Court, three judges recused themselves because of conflict of interest. Yet all that meant was that Gov. LePage appointed others—in this case, retired judges—who had no ties to the utilities but who shared the governor’s conservative views. The predictable result went against the citizens and environmental groups, and in favor of the Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestlé.
    When power corrupts, the government does not work in the public interest. When a common public resource such as water, or habitat (and here I am including human habitats for music-making) is at stake, the results are unsustainable and disastrous. A final thought: the enormous difference between the cost of a bottle of Poland Spring water and the price Nestlé pays the Fryeburg Water Co. for it is leading me to the concept of “just price,” which is a curious feature of medieval European economic thought, as expressed by theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas, by Botticelli
“Just price,” or principles of fairness in economic transactions, is in turn is related to ecojustice and the “sound economy” leg of my current project on a sound ecology. One of the four public lectures I gave as Basler Chair at ETSU in Tennessee was titled “An Economy of Sound,” and in it I spoke about the economic exchanges that followed from sound connections, and the social implications of those exchanges. In thinking about justice and fairness in economic (and other) exchanges, I understand that a moral economy has bearing on my sound ecology project. After laboring through parts of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in my required freshman year humanities course many years ago at Amherst College, I never expected I would willingly seek it out again.