Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Biodiversity as a public good

Decisions regarding the extent to which humans shall disturb the larger community of life need to be collective decisions.

A basic principle of property rights requires that those who degrade the value of property should compensate the owner(s) for the damage done or value lost. If we believe that we all own the air and water, then it makes sense that we should require industries that cause pollution to pay a fee to the people at large in consideration of the fact that their actions degrade the quality of resources that belong to all of us. We should respect public property rights, too.

If we believe that destruction of meadows and forests for conversion to monoculture cropland adversely impacts environmental quality, we might choose to attach a fee on monoculture, as a counterweight to the economic incentives from food, feed and (now) biofuels markets that drive destruction of biodiversity. Putting a damper on destruction of biodiversity could mean a more democratic society. We may want to put a higher fee on monoculture of cloned seeds in relation to what we might charge for monoculture planting of heirloom seeds that contain more genetic variety. The most appropriate fees would be set at a level that is high enough to ensure that destruction of wildlife habitat and loss of biodiversity is not carried to an extent that most people would say is excessive.

Furthermore, if a large fraction of people polled in a random survey said that monoculture dedicated to production of sugar cane or tobacco or opium included these adverse environmental impacts and that such monoculture supported excessive consumption of sugar or cigarettes or heroin, to the detriment of the human community at large, we might attach a higher fee to monoculture dedicated to growing those crops. We could thereby manage the overall prevalence in society of sugar, tobacco, heroin and other potentially problematic substances, without the need to take a war-like or militaristic stance or police action against individual citizens who choose to use such substances within their private spaces. We could require that the buying and selling of such products be kept every bit as private as the use of them. No public spaces, no places open to the public, need have such markets operating, if the people at large choose to enact such a standard.

In our not-so-distant evolutionary past, certain foods were quite rare, but necessary and highly beneficial to those who could find them. Our taste buds (our physiology) and our psychology are adapted to ensure that we are highly motivated to seek out these previously scarce, high-energy foods. But since the development of agriculture and modern economic systems, scarcity of these high-energy, high-value foods is no longer a reality, while our physiological and psychological appetites for them remain strong.

A fee system could ensure that the mix of foods produced by our agricultural system more closely matches what most nutritionists and most people would agree is a more healthful balance. With a different political and economic paradigm, we could see improvements in personal health along with improved ecological health.

Fees attached to the cultivation of plants that most members of society feel ought to be controlled would make the products derived from these plants more expensive than what they would be in the absence of any controls. But the extra profits associated with those higher prices would go to all the world's people as part of a natural resource wealth stipend. This method of control would not feed black market profiteering or corruption of public officials, as current methods of control do.

The threat of legal sanctions against people who use controlled substances in private spaces, including the threat of lengthy (and costly) prison sentences, would be removed. This would tend to make it easier for people with substance abuse problems to seek help when they recognize that they do in fact have a problem.

A fee system can be applied generally as an efficient and fair way to control pollution, to manage rates of taking of natural resources and (through equal sharing of fee proceeds to all) to end abject poverty in the world. An equal payment to all people would mean that workers have more flexibility in choosing their place of employment. The prospect of being unemployed, then, would not bring the threat of becoming destitute that it does within the current system, where natural wealth is not shared equally.

With a modest income going to all people based on shared natural wealth, the economy would not need artificial pumping of money that is often promoted during economic contraction. Monetary stimulus as policy is corrosive to the stability of economic systems generally, as it fuels inflation and often stimulates production beyond what is sustainable and what is needed by the human economy and society. The ultimate limits to human economic activity are the physical limits that are imposed by the nature of the world we live in. If we exceed the limits of sustainable activity for an extended period of time, civilization will collapse. Stimulating the economy by inflating the money supply means that the overall size of the economy grows, and our demands on natural resources increase, taking us closer to these physical limits, or further beyond them. Conversely, fees assessed on those actions that tend to take us further toward these inherent limits, that tend to use up resources and foreclose opportunities that might otherwise be available to future citizens, can moderate the prevalence of potentially harmful human activities. Fees can prevent excessive growth of economic activity to the point that the economy becomes detrimental to the larger community of life, detrimental to climate stability, to future generations, etc. Fees can dampen the upswing and excesses of an overheating economy, while equal sharing of fee proceeds can ensure that recessions do not become so deep that they threaten the stability of the system itself, the stability and cohesion of society.

This proposal assumes that the decision of how we ought to balance the amount of the Earth's surface dedicated to monoculture and paving on the one hand versus forests and meadows on the other hand belongs to all of us. It implies that ownership of the decision about how we ought to balance overall production levels of various kinds of food belongs to all of us. The responsibility for deciding such questions does not rest solely with the minority who are landowners.

A public property rights paradigm will embody within the structure of our political and economic systems the awareness that biodiversity is more valuable than biomass.


A Capitalsim-Communism Synthesis

Natural law requires respect of public property rights, too

Systemic flaws are not reported