||What is it that the white man wishes to buy, my people ask me? The idea is strange to us. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land, the swiftness of antelope? How can we sell these things to you and how can you buy them? ... If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them from us?
- Chief Seattle, 1854 (quoted in Drury et al, 1999; 271)
A little over a century after Chief Seattle questioned the commodification of natural resources such as air and water, the Canadian economist John Dales wrote a short essaying questioning the ability of “unrestricted common property” to preserve these resources in their natural state. Dale’s essay, “Pollution, Property, and Prices” was published in 1968, the same year that Garrett Hardin penned his famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”(1968) Like Hardin, Dale believed that natural resources in their common property form would face tragic overexploitation by people’s self-interest.
Yet Dale went much further than Hardin in his solution to this problem by way of a proposal for a Water Control Board (WCB) in Ontario. The WCB would set a total quota of allowable waste to be emitted in each waterway and then set up a “market” in equivalent “pollution rights” to firms to discharge pollutants into the natural waters. (Dale, 1968; 81) These rights, referred to as “transferable property rights…for the disposal of wastes” (Ibid.; 85), would be sold to firms and then they could trade them amongst themselves. The advantage of pollution rights trading (later referred to as permit, emissions, or carbon trading) was that it guaranteed minimal social costs since firms that could reduce their discharges at a smaller cost would then sell their pollution rights to less efficient firms.