Friday, February 23, 2007

What kind of world shall we leave for our children?

Civilization is not working well. It is not at all clear that human society as we know it is sustainable. On the contrary, we appear to be headed for a collapse more severe in its consequences than any previous collapse of civilization. If we allow this collapse to occur, it will be more severe because, unlike the collapse of previous civilizations, this will not be an event that impacts a particular location or region. It will be truly global in extent. And it will happen in the context of modern technology that has multiplied our capacity to intensively exploit and devastate the environment that sustains us. The destructive power of weapons that will be available to those who will fight over the dwindling resources defies description.

What could we do to avoid a global collapse? One theory says that we must learn to live in accord with moral principle as a life-sustaining strategy. The vitality of our civilization and the lives of many people depend on our right action.

Compensation should be paid when damage is done to property or when value is taken from that which is owned by others. So what could possibly justify the complete neglect of public property rights that has polluters fouling the air and water without any requirement that they pay a fee to the people, as compensation for the damage done? Considering the transformation of society that would result from such compensatory payment (from unsustainable to sustainable; from a system where extreme poverty and disparity are endemic to something more egalitarian), perhaps we should start calling the putting of pollution without appropriate compensation (and other forms of uncompensated externalities)... we should call this what it is: a crime against humanity.

There is no way to justify this neglect. But we can understand the historical context within which it exists. We have not yet become convinced as a society that we must take account of the effects of economic activity in a way that causes the adverse impacts to be reflected in economic terms. We have not yet learned that harmful effects caused by industry and caused by economic activity generally must be felt in economic terms, so that causing harmful effects results in real and proportional costs to those who produce the harm. We have not yet learned, as a society, that pollution costs and resource depletion costs must be felt by industries on the financial bottom line. When we develop this understanding, we will make industries account for externalities, so harmful practices will no longer be profitable to industry. [We will no longer be inclined to portray corporations as evil or malicious, because their pursuit of their own interest (their pursuit of profit) will cause them to do things that promote (rather than conflict with) the interests of the larger society.]

When one person or corporation pollutes, all the rest of us must refrain from polluting to a proportional degree, to ensure that we do not exceed some acceptable limit to overall levels of pollution (to be defined by the people at large). One polluter's actions constrain the actions of all others. (Or, we must give up the idea that the community at large, through the instrument of government, can and must establish overall limits on levels of contaminants in our air and water).

One polluter putting contaminants into the air changes the atmosphere so that it becomes less able to receive similar unwanted material from any and every other person or industry. (Again, assuming that we intend to enforce overall limits.) When a polluter acts so as to reduce the value of the atmosphere to all of us, property rights doctrine requires that some compensation be paid to those who suffer the diminished value. In other words, principle dictates that polluters must pay a fee to the people at large when they foul our air or water, (or when they spoil our view of the night sky, or cause some other environmental change that offends the people at large).

The same principle applies to the taking and depletion of natural resources: When one actor depletes the resource base, all the rest of us must take proportionately less from that resource base.

The twin scourges of poverty and environmental degradation can be eliminated or (in the case of environmental degradation) can be brought to levels where they are no longer threatening the existence and sustainability of civilization. This will happen when we learn to apply our principles of fairness and just compensation to the realm of the Commons--when we learn to respect public property rights along with private property rights.

We must charge fees (or require purchase of permits at auction) when industries impose adverse environmental impacts. Appropriate limits on pollution and resource depletion will mean a sustainable society. Sharing of fee proceeds will mean an end to extreme poverty throughout the world. Moral principles provide a foundation for a sustainable and just civilization.

Natural law requires equal sharing of natural wealth

Diet choice is a moral choice

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