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