Thursday, December 18, 2008

A sustainable and just civilization requires that we exercise our moral sense

Indeed, to be complete human beings, we must exercise our moral sense. Primarily, this means that we must respect the golden rule. In our political life, we have thus far failed to abide by this fundamental moral obligation. This failure produces serious flaws in our systems of government and economics. Social instability and injustice follow from this failure.

A sincere and thorough commitment to the golden rule implies a strong respect for human rights, which can be understood (and which are understood by many) to include rights to property. But we are neglecting some basic questions that should emerge from a strong respect for property rights. We are neglecting questions that could help us manage, in a sustainable and fair way, the natural resource wealth of the planet. We are not addressing questions related to public property rights.

When the people are recognized as the rightful owners of the air and water and other natural resources, we will have the industries that pollute the air and water and take natural resource wealth in pursuit of profit paying a fee to the people at large, as compensation for damage done or value taken. The fee charged for using that which belongs to everyone could (and by rights should) increase when demands on natural resources exceed what most people polled in a random survey say is acceptable. Fee proceeds would constitute a monetary representation of the value of commons resources. Sharing of this wealth among the entire human population would mean an end to abject poverty throughout the world.

Does reality match what the people believe is most desirable, in terms of our use of the resources that we all own in common? In terms of the extent of paving or intensity of light pollution? Are the rates of taking of natural resources and rates of putting of pollution into the air and water acceptable, or are current limits too strict, or too lenient? These are questions that a democratic society asks its citizens, when public property rights are respected.

When industries are made to pay an appropriate fee or rent to the people for using resources that belong to all of us, then capital markets, investors and business planners will have the information and incentives that they need to produce the reality that the people consent to in terms of acceptable environmental impacts. With the right fees, industries will put the right amount of effort into preventing adverse impacts on the environment. The fee is an instrument, a kind of lever, that the people can use to ensure that we will have the kind of world that we want to live in.

When prices reflect the value of natural resources used in production, our economy will respond in the most efficient way possible to the urgent need for significant reductions in humans' environmental impacts, including reductions in carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide and methane emissions are but two examples of the kinds of environmental impacts that are fraught with contentious rancor between competing political factions that should be decided in accord with the will of the people at large.

We inherit our shared legacy of natural resource wealth as a birthright. Our charge is to manage this inheritance wisely and bequeath to future generations, and to share equitably for the benefit of our fellow inhabitants of the planet. A strong respect for public property rights would mean that we would each receive part of our income from earnings from work and / or investments, and part of our income from our shared legacy of natural wealth. No one would ever loose all income because they lack gainful employment.

(A random survey of citizens could reveal at what age a person should begin to receive their natural wealth stipend. We could decide to put the money that is the fair share of the youngest members of society toward support of public programs and services, such as education, libraries, parks, museums, public health, etc., where there is broad agreement that those programs will promote the health, stability or vitality of civilization in years to come. Random surveys could even be used to decide generally what proportion of public spending should go to which programs and services. Those programs that enjoy the support of the people will receive funding. Those programs for which public confidence is lacking will see their funding dry up.)

The key to a sustainable and just civilization is to follow moral principle in all action. We need to pay special attention to actions that exert and amplify power or influence over distance. For human beings, normal inter-personal communication includes myriad non-verbal cues that we use automatically and subconsciously to let one another know when a standard of acceptable behavior has been violated. When we participate in the modern economy by spending money, we influence people at a great distance, but without the benefit of the rich communications channels that include our tone and body language. But when environmental impacts are reflected in prices, our natural tendency to avoid higher prices will help to ensure that we will not give incentive to do the wrong thing as we take part in the economic system.

The golden rule implies libertarian principles and green policy choices. We could say this alternative paradigm follows a 'left-libertarian' path. A thorough commitment to the golden rule would mean no use of government to initiate force or violence against a peaceful person, In the political sphere, government power needs to be limited to the public realm, with private action being privately regulated.

We have applied the principles of agriculture, economics, politics and, indeed, all of the various fields of knowledge, to produce an impressive civilization. But real success over the long term requires sustainability. Long-term success requires an end to environmental degradation and grinding poverty. Real success requires that we pay attention to moral principle.


A Capitalism-Communism Synthesis

Minimum Wage vs. Minimum Income

Friday, May 02, 2008

Dear Secretary Rice,

Disparity of wealth and abject poverty in the world today fuel anger and desperation in the dispossessed, and in those who identify with them. This anger and desperation can be exploited by those with an extremist agenda who would use violence to further their aims. To allow grinding poverty to presist, then, threatens our safety. We could change our social system, to reduce disparity, and to ensure that those on the low end of the income-distribution spectrum are assured a significant minimum. By promoting the material security of those who are least secure, we would be promoting the security of all.

We need not violate any of our principles to bring about this change. Indeed, we need only live by our principles more faithfully. Almost everyone believes that the air and water and other natural resources belong to all. We could require that a fee be paid by anyone who takes or degrades the quality of natural resources. The proceeds of the pollution fees and natural resource user-fees would constitute a monetary representation of the value of Earth's natural resources, (including air and water), and could rightly be shared among all people equally. The value of these resources has been estimated at $33 trillion per year.

We should pay more attention to how natural resource wealth is managed and apportioned. We allow those in pursuit of profit to take or degrade natural resources, but do not require any compensation be paid to the owners of the resources, the people at large. If we address this inconsistency in our own behavior in relation to our principles, we will solve many social and environmental ills.

Equal sharing of the wealth of the commons would mean about twenty dollars per day for every person on the planet--perhaps enough to make everyone feel that they have a stake in the system and should work to build and improve it, rather than destroy it. Even those who would not do evil may sit by quietly when they know another is bent on destruction, if they feel that the current system is unjust and offers no prospect for meaningful change. We must win the hearts and minds of the world's people if we want them to help build and defend a civilization, a free and democratic global society.

We must empower the dispossessed. Would they choose a world that impoverishes them? Within a free and democratic society, what kind of world would they make? What kind of world would we make? Every one of us should have opportunities to express our opinion in meaningful ways, (ways that make a difference), regarding how much pollution, paving, noise, monoculture, or extraction of limited resources is just too much. Agreement, (or lack of agreement), between people's expressed will on these issues on the one hand and the actual reality on the other could serve as an objective measure of democracy.

This change would bring our society more into accord with our own principles regarding commons property ownership; and with principles regarding responsibility for compensating owners when damage is done or value taken. Economic power based on a shared ownership of natural resource wealth belongs to all of us. Our political and economic systems should reflect this fact.

John Champagne


Systemic flaws are not reported

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Gaia Brain Paradigm

Pollution fees: Part of the Gaia Brain

(An earlier version of this article was offered as a response to a Call for Papers put out by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Association that sought "ideas from different disciplines brought to bear on solving environmental problems". It resulted in an invitation to attend a conference and present a longer paper, which, the conference organizers said, would be considered for publication in the Conference Proceedings.)

We have a problem with pollution. Our economy treats the Earth as a free dumping ground for wastes. The ecosystems of Earth provide valuable services. We benefit greatly from natural resources. We enjoy natural opportunities to share in the use and enjoyment of natural wealth as an existential fact common to all lifeforms; but our economy harbors a fundamental flaw because we allow economic actors to avail themselves of these natural services essentially for free, or at unrealistically low rates of payment. These rates of payment should reflect the value of these services to humanity; and they should reflect, as well, the urgent need to tie economic costs to actions that harm the environment. Tying economic costs to environmental damage will encourage efforts to reduce environmental impacts.

Industries generally make no payment to the owners of natural resources, the people at large, as compensation for the fact that, when they take these resources in pursuit of profit, they reduce the value of the resource base. To the extent that resources are limited, taking by some actors necessarily reduces the opportunities that others will have to enjoy the use of these same resources.

Like anything that is free or almost free, these natural resources and services that the Earth provides to us are subject to overuse. The Tragedy of the Commons is what happens when shared resources degrade in value because resource users have incentive to continue to take more and more from the resource base beyond what is sustainable or optimum, to the detriment of all.

We treat these natural resources and services as free goods (or nearly so) because, until recently, there were not such great demands placed on them--we could use them as though they were free without destroying them from overuse; and, we lacked the tools to measure and allocate them. (Before technology, humans' impacts were kept in check by natural phenomena and limits.) Now, the demands placed on the Earth's air and water and ecosystems by our practice of putting industrial and agricultural wastes in them are exceeding their capacity to absorb and clean. Also, rates of resource extraction have exceeded sustainable levels. So the problem is: How to allocate limited natural resources in an efficient and fair way?

If the Earth's waste removal services were treated as the valuable resources that they are, and if our industries were required to pay a fee (or buy permits at auction) according to how much they use these services, then the problem of overuse due to zero cost would be eliminated. A pollution fee would require the measurement of emissions and would cause a reduction in the emissions. This is akin to how a sensory nervous system operates: information about injury to the organism is transmitted by sense nerves into the neural network (the brain) and the neural network changes in a way that causes a reduction in the injury. In this analogy, pollution, or stress to ecosystems, represents injury to the organism, the Earth. Information about the environmental impact of industry and agriculture enters society (the neural net) through the price of goods and services in the marketplace. Cleaner products then cost less, while those with higher ecological costs would have correspondingly higher prices attached. Individuals would have appropriate economic incentives to change habits and lifestyles toward sustainability. Similarly, sustainable business models would be favored by industry.

Another way to think of this phenomenon is as an autonomic nervous system for Earth: The pollution fee is information about stresses or demands on ecosystems that would tend to move the Earth organism out of homeostasis; and it is an economic incentive or pressure to maintain a homeostasis or healthy ecologic balance.

The fee system also functions as a mechanism whereby the information about the extent to which people want to reduce rates of depletion of mineral resources (so that future generations are afforded more time to learn to adapt to scarcity) can be effectively processed by the larger society, by impacting behaviors through the price structure of the economic system.

We must decide what the Earth and its ecosystems can sustainably absorb from us in the form of wastes. But we do not know the answer to this question. No one does. So we begin by recognizing that we cannot be certain of the numbers. Let us resolve, then, to err on the side of caution; that is, let us be conservative in our estimates and err on the side of preserving and restoring ecosystems for the benefit of our grandchildren, future generations and other lifeforms on the planet.

We could issue permits for various pollutants according to how much of each pollutant we will allow, as determined by a random survey, and auction these permits in the free market. Industries that adapt processes to reduce or eliminate waste emissions will have an advantage in the market, while those industries which continue to emit large amounts of waste will have to include a monetary representation of the environmental costs in the price of their products.

Because just about everyone will have a different opinion regarding the levels of pollutants, extent of paving, rates of taking of resources, etc., that would be safe and acceptable, the actual amount that we decide on will be a summary or average of the opinions of all the world's people (or more practically, an average of opinions of random samples of the world's 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 I believe that it is safe to release 100 million tons of fossil fuel carbon dioxide into the environment each year, and that no level of CFC or chlorinated hydrocarbon (e.g.: Heptachlor, DDT emissions) can be called safe or sustainable, but I have no opinion or knowledge about safe levels of other pollutants, then I might refer to lists of people who share my views on CO2 and chlorinated hydrocarbons. I could learn what their opinions are regarding other pollutants--either to inform my own opinion, or to find a knowledgeable and responsible person (or group) to whom I could delegate my 'emissions allowance' vote.

This concept of assigning fees to the use of Earth's waste removal services can be applied to other areas. Pollution fees are actually a subset of green taxes. Green taxes are a way to manage scarce natural resources, such as forests, fisheries and grazing land, that would otherwise be subject to overuse and depletion.

This idea of paying compensation for harm caused to the environment could readily be applied to the management of the use of non-human animals by human beings, where actual bodily harm and psychological stress occurs. Someday, perhaps soon, we may completely eliminate the systematic enslavement and exploitation of non-human animals in industry and agriculture. But until that time, we may wish to create a system whereby industry and agriculture are subject to economic costs in some proportion to how much suffering and severe discomfort 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. The prevalence of the practice of holding members of other species captive in pursuit of profit can be kept within limits that do not offend the conscience of most people.

Some people believe that the proliferation of outdoor lighting for advertising, car dealers' lots, and other commercial activity is too disruptive of our view of the stars in the night sky. If a random-sample survey of the population shows that most people would like to see less light pollution, we could apply this paradigm as a way to bring about an overall reduction of light pollution; and/or, as a way to institute occasional "lights out nights", so that we can sometimes experience the beauty and wonder of a starry night sky, meteor shower or passing comet.

The Gaia brain/pollution fee system 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, conventional taxes not only would be difficult to support financially, they might also appear to lack a 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 and living systems. As these resources can be thought of as belonging 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 each contribute half of our share to financially transparent providers of social services or other community needs, according to our own sense of priorities but in accord with what most members of the community agree are important public concerns (those functions currently served by government), and we could spend the other half toward more personal needs. If everyone had access to such an account, no one would live in abject poverty and low-income people would have essential social services available.

The pollution fee/gaia brain concept applies ancient principles to today's challenges: 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/re-make our global society.


A longer version of this essay: Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Equal sharing of Natural Resources promotes Justice and Sustainability