If you want to start a newspaper from your home office tonight, nobody is going to stop you. You have as much right to publish the Joe Blow Gazette as the Sulzbergers do the New York Times.
However, if I decide to start my own radio station, and start broadcasting without a license, the federal government will shut me down just as soon as they bother to notice.
This happens fairly often, and those promoting so-called pirate radio complain their freedom of speech is being stifled. But they are wrong. The difference between print and broadcast is that the world could theoretically have an infinite number of newspapers or magazines. But there are only a finite number of spaces on the broadcast spectrum. If someone else starts broadcasting on the same frequency as this one, they’ll drown each other out.
Recognizing this, Congress declared the airwaves to be public property just like the national parks. They did this, in fact, nearly a century ago, before broadcasting even became a mass medium.
The federal government assigns and leases spaces on both the AM and the FM spectrum, and sets conditions for their use.
And if you think this is one more outrageous intrusion by big government, get this: Government got involved in regulating the airwaves because private enterprise asked them to do it. The early buccaneer broadcasters wouldn’t play nice, and were drowning out each other’s signals. So they asked for an umpire.
What does this have to do with bottled water? A lot. Even more than the airwaves, the United States and Canada need to see our water resources as a vast international public treasure. Michigan’s courts have been squabbling for years over bottled water. They’ve been fighting over whether Nestle has the right to pump water and, if so, how much.
But that is not where we should begin to consider this issue. What we need to do first is figure out how much water it is ecologically safe to pump out of the Great Lakes basin. Only then should we get around to deciding who gets to pump what and when.
Seems to me this should be done as part of a national summit conference involving the United States and Canada, to be followed by agreements between the several states and provinces. That is not to imply I have anything against anyone making money by bottling and selling our water. As long as it is safe to do so.
The Great Lakes are different from the airwaves in one way. If we ruin them, that’s it. For them, and probably for us. If you think that impossible, read Peter Annin’s terrifying new book the Great Lakes Water Wars, and learn how the Soviet Union destroyed the Aral Sea.
The professional oath physicians take starts this way: First, do no harm. That’s my choice for the foundation of our water policy. And, come to think of it, for many other things as well.