Daily PlanetWatch Wednesday, September 4: Unraveling the Public Trust

Thomas Schueneman

Thinking about the latest environmental news headlines from the Daily PlanetWatch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon

Last night I attended a lecture given by Dr. Mark Orbach at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. The title of his talk was “A Brief History of the World (and Ocean) Public Trust”. Dr. Orbach framed conservation as a concept rooted in human behavior and social change; the “broad sweep of human things”. Surveying the genesis and evolution of the Public Trust Doctrine, a concept that dates all they back to 523CE and the Roman Emperor Justinian:

“By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is forbidden to approach the seashore, provided that he respects habitations, monuments, and buildings which are not, like the sea, subject only to the law of nations.”

The idea informed English common law and later American law. It meant that physical aspects of the public commons, what today we understand as the global commons, are (or should be) protected by society for the good of all people. Right governance must therefore uphold its duty to the Public Trust.

Of course, history has shown a yawning gap between aspiration and reality (as Dr. Orbach notes, 60 percent of the oceans are entirely unregulated - the “black hole of public policy”. Nonetheless, Justinian’s noble idea has survived, in some iteration, to this day. 

The unraveling 

An article in the New York Times highlights the unceasing assault on the Public Trust under the Trump administration. Each of the 78 environmental rules (and counting) that Trump has or is trying to undo is an attack on the idea of the Public Trust.

Just as the years seem to pass more quickly, we hurtle uncontrollably toward a societal inflection point. A pivotal moment demanding we take a stand, one way or another, on how we relate to the natural world, the shared resources it provides, and each other.

The Trump administration - the “official” face of the country to the rest of the world - steps, like a petulant child, onto the wrong side of history. Trump fans the flames of depletion, destruction, and ignorance. 

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