Friday, September 21, 2007

From Cancer Cells of Earth to Brain Cells of Earth:
A Synthesis of Human Society and the Biosphere

Gaia Brain: Policies aimed at managing natural resource wealth that are rational and just produce something like a nervous system for the planet.

When political and economic systems reflect an equal ownership of natural wealth, we will have a civilization that is more just and also more likely to be sustainable.

The History of Life
Development of Societies
Language Allows Elaboration of Mental Models and Social Structure
Development of Culture Allows Living Beyond Means
A Biological Model for Politics and Economics
Introducing Mechanisms for Taking Account of Environmental Impacts
Ecology and Economy Integrated: A Sensory Nervous System for Earth
Implementation Strategies Invite Democratization in Economics and Politics
Gaia Brain Provides Tools for Sculpting Society
Impact of Paradigm Shift on Institutions and Society
References


The History of Life

A noticeable trend throughout the history of life on Earth is the nearly continual, albeit unsteady, progression from simpler, small-scale organization to more complex and large-scale organization. Simple entities elaborate themselves into more complex forms in response to changes in the environment; changes that are often brought about by the very life processes of those simpler entities. [Alberts, et al]

Mitochondria were once free-living cells in symbiotic relationship with one another (much as animals and plants are in symbiosis). Over time, these bacterial cells developed such intimate connections with one another that the relationship evolved from that of separate, interdependent organisms to that of interdependent entities within a larger organism. This transition appears to have been triggered by the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere. Oxygen is a highly reactive gas, and would have been poisonous to most of the early life on the planet. This accumulation was caused by living things. They changed their environment, by releasing oxygen into it, and so were compelled to change themselves, or die. [Ibid] What were at one time separate organisms have integrated to form the eukaryotic cell. This transformation represents an early example of a meta-system transition wherein interacting systems or entities become subordinate to and come under the control of a larger scale emergent system. [Turchin]

Multi-cellular organisms, or meta-organisms, continue the progression toward higher levels of complexity by extending and distributing the various internal processes of a prototypical eukaryotic cell (e.g.: protozoa) to a community of cells in communication with and cooperation with one another. Each cell in the community specializes and concentrates on performing one function, or a narrow range of functions. Every member of the community receives products and benefits from its neighbors; and every member returns some benefits or provides some service to its neighbors.

Development of Societies

Members of societies also share resources. They share information about their environment and about their own actions or state of being with one another. Through this sharing they are able to act as an integrated entity, cooperating in the exploitation of their environment, as if the society itself were a single organism. The social insects (ants, termites, bees) are a classic example of this phenomenon. Howler monkeys (and other primates) also illustrate this point: A call from a single individual can cause the whole troupe to move in a particular direction, either toward food or away from danger. Habitual howling or singing (of primates or birds) conveys information about the distribution on the landscape of various members of the group and about the relative state of health of members. (The 'group' may simply be the other individuals of the same species, even if they do not otherwise act in ways that we would recognize as social.)

Development of Language and Culture Allows Elaboration of Mental Models and Social Structure

Human society and culture present yet another level of this phenomenon of entities organizing themselves into communities to form entities of a higher order. Culture is the product of humans' language, artistic, and tool-making abilities. It represents a quantum leap in the ability of hominid society to share information among its members, and to transmit that information across space and time. Culture greatly expands humans' ability to organize as a single entity and exploit the environment. With the advent of human language, the Tribe became the newest form of the meta-organism.

Language allows naming things; and it allows elaborate mental models of the environment and of social relations to develop. Bringing information about an environment into an entity (in the form of learning for a human being; in the form of social structure and cooperative process for human society) is a step toward integrating that environment with that entity. Integration of interacting systems always involves the transfer of information between those systems. [Turchin]

Living Beyond Means

Culture and technology have enabled human society to expand into virtually every ecosystem on the planet. As we expand into an environment and change it by interacting with it, we adapt our methods, so that our ability to extract wealth persists, even as we degrade the resource base and exceed the carrying capacity of the environment.

Increasingly intense extraction methods in the context of a dwindling resource base will result in catastrophic collapse. This tendency of humans to live beyond what is sustainable, with innovations in culture and technology driven by the challenge of adapting to a degrading environment, even as our numbers continue to increase, points to the need for new feedback mechanisms that will enable the human society supra-organism and its members to exist within the limits of the biosphere at large. In the absence of culturally-based (rule-based) limits to our own potentially self-destructive behavior, the physical limits that manifest on the lower levels of organization (soil, air, water and food supply) will become evident. We will face resource depletion and famine--the biological limits to survival.

A Biological Model for Politics and Economics

An ancient city can be seen as a multi-organism organism: City walls are the skin; the grain stores are the stomach; the systems of commerce, roads and sewers are the circulatory, digestive and excretory systems; soldiers are like the fists and claws and immune system; and the protocols of behavior that mediate interactions among the various citizens--the records of grain ownership and tax liability, laws, mythology, the beliefs about the intentions of the gods and what the citizens ought to do, people's sense of possibilities--make up the hormonal and nervous systems.

Civilizations rise and fall because they lack the feedback mechanisms that would enable them to moderate their growth and achieve a dynamic equilibrium with their environment. The supra-organism consumes its resource base and then must either find a new resource base to exploit in another location, apply technical innovation to intensify and diversify resource extraction, or die. Neither of the first two options are sustainable long-term on a finite planet. Of course, death of a civilization is the end-point of unsustainability. This is our choice: Death or transformation. We must transform society to create effective feedback mechanisms.

Our challenge is to build a sustainable society. In order to avoid the death of civilization that we find at the end of the unsustainable path, we are faced with an apparent need to not merely moderate growth, but to define certain absolute limits to how much of this and that natural resource we will take. We must define absolute and sufficiently conservative limits to what and how much we take from, and what and how much we put into, our environment.

The most complex entity that has yet to arise on the planet--our modern global civilization--is utterly transforming the environment that has thus far sustained it. There is now an urgent need to integrate the entity with the environment, the economy with the ecology--to prevent the one from destroying the other. We need to learn how to live with, how to interact with, our environment in a way that promotes our well-being while also preserving the health of the larger living community. The health of the ecosystem, economic health and personal health are all inextricably linked.

Money (along with agriculture, pottery, road systems, writing, etc.) makes cities possible. When combined with certain bookkeeping tools and economic and governmental institutions, money makes capitalism possible. And money makes it possible for economic actors to exert pressures that may harm the environment. Such pressures can now be felt even half way around the world. When people buy hamburgers, for example, they exert economic pressure that induces ranchers to cut forests. Soil erodes and biodiversity is lost forever. We now have a world full of people who are spending money in ways that are exerting unsustainable pressures on the natural systems that are the very basis of our survival [Brown]; but there is no mechanism whereby economic actors can get information--relevant feedback--at the time of purchase about the ecological consequences of their actions. We cannot tell by looking at a price tag how much ecological damage was caused in the production of an item. A system of feedback that provides such information at the moment of decision and in a form that all will pay heed to would be most effective.

Introducing Mechanisms for Taking Account of Environmental Impacts

The challenge that we are facing may be the greatest challenge that human beings have faced since the forests receded and we learned to stand up and walk and talk, and carry things and use tools. We must reconcile our ability to extend ourselves into the environment -- with ever increasing impact on that environment -- with the inherent limits of that environment to withstand such impact. We must learn to interact with our environment without destroying its capacity to sustain our lives.

We face a choice either to allow our actions to continue to produce ecologically destructive pressures across the globe, to the point of catastrophic collapse of our civilization, or to remedy this problem with our economic system. We can solve this problem by incorporating a measure of the ecological pressures of human activities into the price of those activities, with the aim of discouraging the harmful impacts, to reduce them to acceptable levels.

Ecology and Economy are Integrated: Creating a Sensory Nervous System for the Earth

We can cause ecological costs to be reflected in the price of goods and services by attaching fees to the use or degradation of natural resources. This would cause the price of things to reflect the ecological pressures or cost associated with their production. We would be deterred from doing certain things that are harmful to the biosphere by the fact that the price that we would have to pay to do these things would be higher, to more fully reflect the true costs.

The historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, writing more than a hundred years ago, described the movement of civilization across the continent as a nervous system in the process of growth and development. If we follow this analogy, we see that Turner's nervous system is a nervous system of the Earth. As of yet, this nervous system lacks an essential element of a nervous system in a healthy organism: An autonomic feedback system. The proposed fees on resource use and pollution would correct this defect by causing information about injury to Earth, or stress to the biosphere, to be conveyed to economic actors through the prices of goods and services in the marketplace. Thus, the resource fees would function as an autonomic or sensory nervous system for the Earth, conveying information about injury or imbalance in the Earth organism to society (the neural network) and causing a change in society and in the behavior of individuals that would tend to reduce the injury and restore balance.

Any commercial or corporate entity or industrial operation can be seen as subordinate to the larger planet organism, just as mitochondria are subordinate to the cell. Part of the function of a healthy cell is to monitor the productions of its mitochondria, and ration resources according to the needs of the larger organism for those products. From the perspective of the cell, or the larger Earth, what goes into and what comes out of the subordinate entity must be controlled or regulated, while what actually goes on within the sub-entity is of lessor concern. If we follow this analogy, we might expect governments (the larger community) to take note of what resources are used by an industry, and what pollutants are emitted, but we could decide that the question of what production methods to adopt and what contracts that entity ought to enter into with employees (assuming no coercion) would be outside the purview of government.

Implementation Strategies Invite Democratization in Economics and Politics

We must decide how much the Earth's ecosystems can sustainably take from us in the form of wastes, and what they can provide to us as resource. But we do not know with certainty and precision the answer to this question. No one does. So we begin by recognizing that we cannot be sure of the numbers. If we choose to err on the side of caution, we will be conservative and err on the side of preserving and restoring ecosystems and reducing natural resource consumption, for the benefit of future generations and the larger community of life.

We could take random-sample surveys to discern what overall impacts on the environment are acceptable according to the average opinion of the people. (What impacts are consistent with democratic principles?) We could issue permits for various pollutants, according to how much of each pollutant the people would allow, and auction them in the free market. Likewise for the taking of valuable resources. Thus, those industries which are most successful at conserving resources and cleaning up manufacturing processes will have an advantage in the market, while those industries that continue to emit large amounts of waste and/or extract large amounts of natural resources will have to include these high costs to ecosystems and adverse impact on resource availability in the price of their products. When taking surveys, we should allow time for research of a question, if a citizen wants to learn more on a topic before offering a response. Citizens may make a habit of informally reviewing the opinions of experts in the field that they are researching, to guide their own thinking. In effect, decisions about most appropriate limits to various kinds of impacts would be 'delegated' to those who hold the confidence of the people as credible experts in their respective fields.[Sharp, et al]

Because nearly everyone will have a different opinion regarding what levels of pollutants should be considered safe and sustainable, and because we are committed to democratic principles that call for all voices to be heard, the actual amount that we decide on ideally would be a summary of the opinions of all the world's people, but more practically would be a summary of a random sample of people. And, because many of us are not able to make an informed decision about appropriate levels of some or all pollutants, we may choose to delegate our vote to someone whose opinion we respect. For example, if a person believed that it is safe to release 100 million tons of fossil fuel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, and that no level of chlorinated hydrocarbon emissions (e.g.: CFC's, Heptachlor, DDT) can be called safe or sustainable, but this person had no opinion or knowledge about safe levels of other pollutants, then they might refer to lists of people who share their views on CO2 or chlorinated hydrocarbons to see what opinions those people hold regarding other pollutants--either to inform their own opinion, or to find a knowledgeable and responsible person to whom they could delegate their 'emissions allowance' vote. If our hypothetical survey respondent were convinced that the level of emissions that they regard as sustainable could not be achieved immediately, they may want to structure their vote in the form of a percent reduction per year, toward a specified target.

Gaia Brain Provides the Tools for Sculpting Society

With the caveat that control of any particular kind of environmental impact would depend on most people agreeing that such impact ought to be subject to control, we could imagine that, over the decades and beyond, virtually everything we do that impacts the Commons, every way that we apply technology to exploit our environment with potentially negative impact, may need to be measured and rationed, according to the method outlined above or some other method. Through our normal participation in the marketplace (which would no longer be hiding environmental impacts as externalities), human behaviors and lifestyles would have associated economic costs which would reliably reflect the perceived environmental costs of those behaviors. Economic forces, which all people respond to, will induce us to make changes in habits and lifestyle (and, at the corporate level, changes in production processes and business models) that actually promote the interests of the larger living community and the interests of future generations of human beings.

What is true for individuals is true for groups, too. Corporations will increase profits by striving to reduce environmental impacts. What is good for the corporation is good for the larger community of life and for future generations. Profit-seeking behavior by corporations, then, will not so much resemble sociopathic behaviors often associated with corporations.

We could attach or increase a fee on anything that we would like to see less of in the world. If polled in a random survey, we could say: "Less asphalt"; "Less advertising billboards"; "Less outdoor lighting, less interference with our view of the stars in the night sky". Fees would increase and money would flow away from those whose actions or decisions tend to take us in the direction opposite of the people's expressed will. Then we could contribute an agreed-upon portion of our share of the proceeds of natural resource fees toward those things that we would like to see increased. We could say: "More city parks"; "More libraries"; "More schools", and a portion of our share of the fee proceeds could go to those who provide those valued and preferred public services. The economic incentives that would accompany our expressed wishes would result in real change, so that our wishes would be born out in reality. Alienation, in the Marxist sense of living in and creating through our actions and interactions a society that cuts us off from that which sustains us, which has no meaning for us, and which we would not choose, would be eliminated, or at least dramatically reduced, as society evolved to reflect our expressed will.

Impact of Paradigm Shift on Institutions and Society

This concept of assigning fees to the use of Earth's natural resources and waste removal services can be applied to other areas. For example, we could apply gaia brain methods (a fee mechanism applied according to a public survey) to regulate the use of non-human animals by human beings. Currently, property rights are recognized by society as justification for holding animals captive in pursuit of profit, but these are not absolute rights. Limits to the severity of confinement conditions are subject to the will and judgement of the people. Such limits cannot be decided by those who seek to profit from the confinement and commodification of animals, because of the inherent bias or conflict of interests.

Someday, we may completely eliminate the systematic enslavement and exploitation of non-human animals in industry and agriculture [Singer], but until that time, we may wish to create a system whereby industry and agriculture are subject to economic costs in proportion to how much suffering they inflict on the animals they use. This will give them an incentive to reduce both the numbers of animals they use and the amount of suffering inflicted on each one. When neither the numbers of animals held nor the conditions of their captivity offend the sensibilities or conscience of most people, we will know that the fees are set at a level consistent with the principles of a democratic society. (It may be that most people feel that the numbers of animals kept captive in pursuit of profit and the conditions of their captivity do not offend the conscience, in which case no fee need be applied. There is an underlying assumption here that conditions of confinement shall be made completely transparent.)

This model of human society as meta-organism and as nervous system of the gaia organism would transform the educational process, if for no other reason than that a citizen veto on spending public funds would likely mean that money would not flow to institutions that fail to follow 'best practices'. Beyond that transformative influence of a system-wide incentive toward excellence, the educational experience will change because children can understand the concepts of 'organism' and 'interaction with environment'. They themselves are organisms. They eat and breathe. They can observe protozoa. This gaia brain model would invite early introduction of ideas about social interaction, and would invite the active involvement of children in the collection of opinions among community members about appropriate levels of pollution and rates of use of natural resources, and about perceived community needs. This model would invite their involvement in the assessment of actual conditions.

A question is a linguistic device for directing one's attention onto a topic [Minsky]. Therefore, just the act of posing questions about pollution, natural resource use and community needs will cause us to think about these things more. The fact that the questions might be put by young people would help to remind all concerned who it is that will be most affected by the answers: the children who will have to live with the consequences of these decisions (about how much to conserve resources or how to use public funds) for many years to come.

Students could map their neighborhood and larger community. As assessors of actual conditions and of the accuracy of reports issued by industry (they could take air and water samples in their community and map the occurrence of various kinds of impacts on the landscape), they would be involved in the protection of resources that will sustain them in the future, and they would gain valuable knowledge and insight into the workings of society in the process.

Students might cast their own mock votes about what kind of world they would want to live in and what human impacts on the Earth ought to be deemed permissible. If they did this with a clear explanation of why they voted as they did, then adults in the community may want to honor their careful research and serious consideration by copying the students' votes--in effect, delegating their own votes to those outstanding students.

This new paradigm will so transform the global economy and society, we probably ought to think in terms of an elimination of government as we know it. With the introduction of significant pollution fees, etc., conventional taxes would be difficult to support financially. And we may decide that such taxes lack philosophical foundation: We may see that a fee according to our use of the Earth's natural resources is well founded on philosophical principles of fairness, while taxes on income or sales do not seem on the face to be eminently fair.

The proceeds of the pollution fees and green fees would be a monetary representation of the value of Earth's air and water, minerals and biota. As these resources can reasonably be said to belong to all, the proceeds of these fees probably ought to be shared equally among all the people of the Earth. This could be the basis of a guaranteed minimum income. Perhaps we could put half of our share toward programs that address perceived community needs and put the other half toward meeting our own personal needs. Community programs would be funded according to the priorities of the people, and no one would live in abject poverty.

This new source of economic security would cause the psychological rewards of work to become more prominent as an issue of concern, while job security and pay would become somewhat less important. This would give both employers and employees more freedom to end relationships that they find unsatisfactory; which, in turn, would give them more freedom to enter into relationships that look promising. There would not be any need for the burdensome legal obligations that often accompany the decision to hire, (although binding contracts would remain an option). A more fluid job market will make it easier for both employers and employees to find what they are looking for. This direct democracy, capitalism-communism synthesis that is gaia brain theory would make it easier for all people to follow their bliss.

The pollution fee/gaia brain concept applies ancient principles to today's challenges. All things are connected. We must live in accord with nature. We must give something back in proportion to what we take. We are the stewards of this planet.

The greatest challenges that life presents are those which must be met to ensure the very survival of the organism. The difficult but life-sustaining task before us is to transform ourselves from cancer cells of Earth to brain cells of Earth--to make a healthy, properly functioning world brain; to create anew our global society.

John Champagne

References:

Molecular Biology of the Cell, Second Edition; 1989; Bruce Alberts,
Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts,
James D. Watson; Garland Publishing, Inc., New York

Turchin, V.; The Phenomenon of Science;
Columbia University Press, (1977)

Lester Brown; Vital Signs;
WorldWatch Institute, (1996)

Turner, Frederick Jackson;
The Significance of the Frontier in American History;
Paper presented at the American Historical Association meeting, 1893;
Reprented in 'Milestones of Thought', Harold P. Simonson, Ed.; Frederick
Ungar Publishing Co., New York

Sharp, Ansel M., Richard H. Leftwich, Charles A. Register;

Economics of Social Issues, Tenth Ed.; Richard D Erwin, Inc.;
Homewood, Illinois, (1992)

Peter Singer;
Animal Liberation; Oxford University Press, (1973)

Marvin Minsky; The Society of Mind; Simon and
Schuster, New York (1985)


Further Reading:

Costanza, Robert, et al; Science News and Nature

Amit, D. J.; Modeling Brain Function: The World of Attractor Neural Networks; Cambridge University Press, (1989)

Lovelock, James; Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth; Oxford University Press, (1979)

Formulas for Fairness: Applying the math of cake cutting to
conflict resolution; Science News, vol. 149, May 4, 1996

The Human Numbers Crunch: The next half century promises
unprecedented challenges; Science News, vol. 149, June 22, 1996

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan,
McGraw-Hill, 1964

Gaia Critique and Response

A Capitalism-Communism Synthesis

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Popular Ownership of the Commons: Direct democratic ownership and management of natural resources

Population increases and continual expansion of the many ways that human beings impact the planet are causing depletion of resources that support human civilization and destruction of ecosystems that make up the diverse communities of life on Earth. We cannot continue on our present path. We must find ways to counteract the economic forces that drive people to tax natural systems beyond their carrying capacity.

When a living system (made up of many interacting, interdependent parts) experiences unsustainable stress, that stress is perceived and an adaptive response is produced that tends to lessen the stress and preserve the health of the organism. An overheated animal will sweat, pant, rest and / or seek shade, and its body temperature will fall. A system that responds to stressful stimuli in a way that reduces stress constitutes a system of negative feedback. Rising temperature causes a change in a physiological process or behavior that then causes a decrease in the stress. The Earth, as a complex system made up of many interacting, interdependent parts, resembles an organism in many ways, but it lacks a system of negative feedback that would cause an adjustment in the system when human economic activity starts to exert unsustainable pressures on the larger ecosystem or when we start to change the chemical composition of the atmosphere to an extent that causes climate to become unstable.

Attaching appropriate fees to the taking of resources and putting of pollution would bring information about ecological impacts into the economy. This would produce a negative feedback mechanism. Fees could keep economic activity within sustainable limits. A democratic society would set fees high enough so that overall impacts are kept within limits that most people agree are acceptable. Fees would be set low enough to ensure that most people agree that they are not too high. The aim would be to bring rates of putting pollution and extracting resources into agreement with what average opinion identifies as most appropriate.

A monetary representation of ecological pressures and degradation, an 'ecological impact cost', would be factored into the prices of goods and services in the marketplace. People would have incentive to change buying habits that are harmful to the environment because they would feel the ecological impact in their pocketbook. Resource user-fees and pollution fees would correct the defect that causes our economy to injure or deplete the larger systems which sustain it and of which it is a part.

No one person or small group of people knows for certain what level of human impacts the Earth can sustain. The question is a highly subjective one which implies qualifiers such as: "At what level of risk, to present and future generations?"; and, "Do we want to slow and stop present trends of degradation, or do we want to go further and reverse these trends and actively work to expand the portion of the Earth's surface covered by forests, other diverse ecosystems, etc.?" "Do we want to bring carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels, or do we want to institute a policy of 'No net increase of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere?'" These are questions of long-lasting import. The answers we give will affect ourselves in the short and long term. They will affect our offspring and generations not yet born. Answers that imply sacrifice today may enable a more prosperous or resilient society in the future.

Management of natural resources through a fee attached to release of pollution and taking of resources would produce a monetary representation of the value of the Earth's air and water, biota and minerals. As these resources can be thought of as public property, as belonging to all (they are produced by natural processes, not the effort of any person), we should share the proceeds of environmental impact fees among all people equally. Such a sharing of the wealth of the commons would secure each and every one of us against the threat of abject poverty. (The value of natural resources is estimated to exceed $100 per day for every person on Earth.) Changes in the economic climate that cause increases in unemployment will be less disruptive socially and personally when all people have an income based on shared natural wealth. A system that combines equal ownership of the commons with free markets and private ownership of man-made capital would embody essential elements of both capitalism and communism.

The magnitude of the challenge we face, the stakes involved and our democratic principles all point to the need to involve as many people as possible in the decision about what human impacts on Earth we will allow. A democratic society will not allow rates of resource extraction or levels of pollution to be much in excess of what most people would say is acceptable. And, in a democratic society, we cannot expect to be able to use the instrument of government as a means of control for holding emissions or taking of resources below levels that the people are willing to accept. A democratic society would set limits on environmental impacts such that about half of the people would consider the levels about right or somewhat too strict while the other half would see the limits as being about right or somewhat too lenient.

(If some of us believe that we know better than others what human impacts should be judged sustainable and acceptable, we will have the instruments of change in a free society to bring our fellow citizens around to our view: reason and sustained pressure, education and the free flow of information.)

This new paradigm, built on the principle of democratic ownership and management of natural resources, will have as its most basic political act the citizen expressing a preference about what kind of world we should make, what human impacts on the environment we ought to allow. But this act, this expression, must be in a form that users of natural resources can read so that it can inform their actions. We will need to develop easy to create, easy to read documents that we can use as our 'palate' for painting a picture of the kind of world we want to live in. This is a question that any democratic society asks its citizens, implicitly or explicitly: What kind of society do we want to create?

How can we translate the expressed will of the people into industry action and permit prices without a central authority interpreting what the people said and decreeing what the permit price will be? Such an authority would wield enormous power and would be subject to intense lobbying pressure and might be rather easily corrupted. Can we create a decentralized system that reflects the character of the global communications networks that now make this direct democracy possible?

One possible strategy: Let each prospective polluter or user of a natural resource survey a random sample of the population to determine what the average opinion would deem to be acceptable behavior overall regarding specific kinds of impacts. Citizens would have to be polled on specific emissions levels or pollution limits. (As a practical matter, a company could subscribe to a survey service or share survey costs with other users of the resources in question.)

Prospective users could then declare in a public, electronic forum how many permits they expect to buy and what price they expect to pay. Users would be guessing what the permit price will be, in light of the published projections of supply and demand. This is an inexact science. By surveying others' projected demands and price predictions published in the poll results forums, users of resources could know whether there is a balance between permissible amounts of environmental impacts on the one hand and demand for resources on the other.

When all businesses, on average, estimate a too-low fee for use of particular kinds of natural resources or for emitting particular kinds of pollution, these low estimates will result in declarations of projected use or pollution that exceed the total amount that the people say is permissible. Prospective users of natural resources would have to adjust their estimates. More iterations of public statements of estimated prices, projected demand, and surveys of other buyers' estimates, informed by the results of the previous iteration, would bring the community of resource-users closer to the ideal market-clearing price. This type of auction does not require a centralized authority to function.

Far in the past, in a less-populated world, the supply of natural resources generally exceeded any demands that humans placed on them (but for the periodic and episodic times when they didn't and there was famine or forced migration). There was no need for markets to manage the demands placed on the commons. Natural resources were treated as a free good with good reason (except in the case of competition between tribes when claims of ownership were contested). There was an abundance of opportunities opened up on the landscape of this recently-evolved imagining biped who roamed the planet imagining myriad possibilities, to discover what the Earth offers up. People could take what they wanted, when they wanted, because the supply always exceeded the demand. (Well, this is true more or less. The natural environment has such variability built-in that there were periods of scarcity. Human populations would tend to fall during such times, tending to promote a long-term dynamic stability).

But now conditions have changed. Since the advent of civilization, various populations at various times have increased their numbers and degraded their resource base to the point that their civilization collapsed. Now, as technology has tied the world's people together, population pressures and resource depletion are felt simultaneously across the globe.

Whatever level of human impacts on the environment we decide to allow, we will gain the greatest benefit from limited resources if we allow the free market to manage their allocation. Free markets are the most efficient means of allocating resources because, at a given cost of production, they accurately balance supply and demand. In the case where the supply of natural resources is set by vote or survey of the people, we should say the free market offers the most efficient and fair means of reconciling an elastic demand to a limited supply, through a public auction. The resources will go to those for whom they have the greatest value or utility. We can ensure that markets meet a minimum standard of fairness y making sure everyone has access to them by means of a basic income, the shared natural wealth stipend.

This system will mean that capital investments will only turn a profit to the extent that they successfully meet human needs at the lowest cost to the environment--in terms of resources used and pollution released. Anyone who has any money to invest will see that the place to put it is into clean industries and enterprises. Thus the economic situation changes to one that has money flowing toward people engaged in cleaner industry rather than primarily toward those who control capital engaged in the most advantageous exploitation of a free ride on the commons.

Polluters are now subsidized by everyone: we all, most especially the poor, must pay the price of dirtier air and water and soil: more disease, lost opportunity, lower quality of life. Appropriate fees on use of natural resources and on adverse impacts on the community, with proceeds shared among all equally, would end this injustice.

Within such a system, industries and investors will only make money to the extent that they can conduct themselves in ways that are not offensive to workers, since people who receive their equal share of the Earth's natural resource wealth would be more free to seek better working conditions, more rewarding work, if they find themselves in an unappealing employment situation. They would not be paralyzed by the prospect of abject poverty if they find themselves temporarily without work. And is this not exactly what we want? Psychological rewards of work--meaning and purpose--would become more prominent as an issue of concern. Ecological sustainability would become an integral component of the corporate bottom line. Employers and employees both would be more free to follow their bliss.

Human beings come in many personality and character types. Some people are more inclined by their nature to say, "We will do it this way because it is best for the community... and we make more money". Others will be more inclined to say, "We will do it this way because we make more money this way... and it is better for the community". Our current system tends to exclude from business participation and success those who would be more inclined to the first type. And it forces those who are of the second type to say, "We will do it this way because we make more money, even though it is not really the best thing for the community or environment". When we shift our paradigm to account for externalities in the price of products, every economic decision will accurately reflect the whole mix of costs and benefits of an action. By pursuing profit or low prices, we will be following the path that is best for ourselves and the larger community.

Many people believe that the only reason for government to exist is to protect the individual and community against those (individuals and groups) who would violate the rights and interests of others. A government dedicated to take action against those who initiate the use of force, and committed to never initiate the use of force itself, is the best guarantee of individual and minority rights. If putting pollution and taking more than your share of natural resources is recognized as forcing others to live with your pollution and live without, with less of, what you are taking, then this principle of no first use of force by government provides the legal/moral basis for a paradigm of democratic ownership and control of the commons, with users of commons resources compensating the people in proportion to the magnitude of use or degradation. This paradigm is an integration of libertarian and green politics. We could call it 'left-libertarian'. We may need further shifts in our perception of the boundaries between what we consider public and private acts before many people who call themselves libertarian will embrace this paradigm wholeheartedly. Consider: Is it a public act or a private act to do things on your own land that tend to destroy wildlife habitat and diminish biodiversity? Is preservation of biodiversity an issue of public concern? Can a private landowner pave the surface of the Earth without interference from the community at large? What about the water that falls from the sky--as a blessing if the soil absorbs it and releases it slowly into the streams and rivers; but as a hazard if it comes down quickly and is rapidly shed by asphalt to produce a torrential flash flood downstream.

With significant green fees, conventional taxes may be difficult to support financially. They may also be seen as lacking any philosophical foundation. We may see a system requiring payment to the people in return for the privilege of taking publicly owned resources for profit as fair and just, while the requirement that we make payment to the government in proportion to how much income we earn or goods and services we sell may not seem on the face to be eminently fair. Fees on things that we do that are detrimental to the community are best thought of as an alternative to conventional taxes, rather than as an addition to them.

We could determine that a portion of the proceeds of the fees on use of the commons will be public funds, dedicated to the support of public and community programs. With each person receiving a substantial stipend as their share of Earth's natural resource wealth, many of the functions of government that are intended to aid the poor and otherwise distribute income would be unnecessary. For those government programs that continue to be seen as necessary or desirable, each citizen could decide exactly which programs are most deserving of support. We could vote on priorities for spending our share of public funds in much the same way that we vote on priorities for moderating ecological impacts.

The people would set the agenda. Money would flow to those who work toward some aspect of the agenda that is set by the community. Money would flow away from those who are working counter to some aspect of the agenda set by the community. If the people say they want less CO2; less asphalt; less light pollution interfering with our view of the stars, then the people whose decisions run counter to these community-agreed goals will be made to pay a fee.

When emissions levels drop and most people stop saying they want to see less of the economic 'bads', then we will know that the fees are at the appropriate level. What we call externalities today would become internalized into the economic calculus. Actions which produce negative impacts will be performed only in so far as their benefits outweigh those costs.

Many people will not feel qualified to make taxing and spending decisions, at least on some issues. They may choose to delegate their vote to other, more qualified persons. We could have a direct / representative democracy with the option of calling back our proxy if ever we feel it is being used in an irresponsible way. This need not be a formal arrangement. If our votes on how to manage community resources and how to spend public funds are public statements, then we could examine others' votes to find people with whom we agree. We could copy their votes if we are convinced that they are well-informed and responsible. Some people may gain a reputation of being more informed than others. Those entrusted with the responsibility to decide, on behalf of thousands or millions, appropriate levels of emissions and resource extraction would likely enter into that position by virtue of a reputation among many that they do quality work and are people of integrity. Because there may be some social prestige and status, (perhaps even a small stipend from the public funds), for holding such a position, there would likely be some incentive for a person to maintain this reputation, so as to preserve this favored status position. The persons or organizations entrusted with this responsibility for assessment would have every incentive to make their work widely available, both the data-gathering and the analysis, to possibly further increase their constituency. This could only help to improve the quality and relevance of information and materials available to schools, libraries and the public at large.

This paradigm gives each of us an equal voice in sculpting our society. When we ask questions about the quality of environment that we want to create, and translate the answers into reality, we change our understanding of the role of the citizen in society. We change our consciousness about our responsibility and our power. We are invited to consider carefully what we mean by progress and a good life.

A system of fees for use of resources, with control of overall levels of use vested in the people at large, could provide the feedback mechanisms that would cause economic activities to adjust to the ecological conditions that sustain them. Control of the proceeds of these fees vested in all people equally would go a long way toward redressing problems of disparity of wealth, and it would ensure that the proceeds would be invested in ways consistent with the interests of the people at large.


This article is posted at Common Assets Headquarters web site.

Equal sharing of Natural Resources promotes Justice and Sustainability