Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Biodiversity as a public good

The decision regarding the extent to which humans shall disturb the larger community of life should be a collective decision.

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

Destruction of meadows and forests for conversion to monoculture farmland, pasture, paving and buildings adversely impacts environmental quality. It would also make sense to assess a fee on monoculture, paving and other kinds of land-use, to counteract the economic incentives that encourage destruction of biodiversity and wildlife habitat. The most appropriate fee would be a fee that is just high enough to ensure that destruction of wildlife habitat and loss of biodiversity are not carried to an extent that most people would say is excessive. Defining a limit to the overall extent to which humans encroach on the larger community of life could mean a more democratic society. Would most citizens prefer that we define such a limit? If most people feel that an appropriate limit would be more strict than what is allowed under current practice, a survey question could ask what percent reduction per year of paving, monoculture or pasture (or what rate of advancement of untrammeled wildlife habitat) would be an acceptable rate of improvement toward the goal (that is, toward the point where the conditions that manifest in reality match average opinion about what is acceptable).

A random survey is a versatile tool. We can use random polls to gauge the extent to which we should protect habitat and preserve biodiversity. We can also use them to gauge the relative value to society of various kinds of land-use. If a majority of citizens polled said that monoculture dedicated to production of sugar cane or tobacco or opium contributed to adverse impacts on wildlife 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 these crops. We could thereby manage the overall prevalence in society of sugar, tobacco, heroin (and other potentially harmful substances) without the need to take a war-like or militaristic stance or police action against individual citizens who choose to use certain substances within their private spaces. (We could require that the buying and selling of some substances 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 adopt such a standard. Users of heroin or cocaine would need to join a private club and be discrete, away from public view. Parents' interest in shielding young children from the worst of bad influences can be protected.)

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 and our psychology are adapted to ensure that we are highly motivated to seek out these previously scarce, high-energy foods. But following 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 (one able to put a general damper on excess production and consumption by assessing fees on specific types of land-use or other environmental impact), we could see improvements in personal health, along with substantially improved ecological health. 

Fees attached to the cultivation of plants that most members of society feel ought to be grown only in limited amounts would make the products derived from these plants more expensive than what would be the case 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 wealth stipend. This method of control would not support black market profiteering or corruption of law enforcement and other 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 make it easier for people with substance abuse problems to seek help when they recognize that they do, in fact, have a problem. 

A system of fees can be applied generally as an efficient and fair way to control pollution, to manage rates of taking of natural resources, and to end abject poverty in the world (through equal sharing of fee proceeds to all). An equal, modest payment to all people would mean that workers would have more flexibility in choosing their place of employment. The prospect of being unemployed would no longer bring the threat of becoming destitute (as it does within the current system), because (a monetary representation of) natural wealth will be shared equally.

With a modest income going to all people based on shared natural wealth, a slowing economy would not bring calls for injection of additional money into circulation that are often heard during periods of economic contraction. Monetary stimulus (printing more money) 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 limits of what is sustainable 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 demands on natural resources increase, taking us closer to these physical limits (or farther beyond them, as the case may be). Conversely, fees assessed on those actions that move us closer to or farther beyond those natural limits (actions that tend to use up resources and foreclose future opportunities) can moderate the prevalence and intensity of potentially harmful human activities. Fees can prevent excessive growth of economic activity that could otherwise bring the economy to the point where it becomes detrimental to the larger community of life; detrimental to climate stability; harmful to future generations, etc. 

Fees charged to industry proportional to pollution and resource extraction 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 viability of the system. With confidence bolstered by a natural wealth stipend, all people will continue to spend in support of basic needs. An economic slowdown will never mean a risk of severe depression or collapse 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 meadows and forests on the other hand belongs to all of us. It reflects the view that ownership of the decision about how we ought to balance overall production levels of various kinds of food belongs to all of us. (We can manifest these shared rights to decide these questions in the big picture without intrusive regulation of individuals' personal choices.) The responsibility for deciding how much sugar to produce or how much habitat to destroy does not rest solely with the minority who are landowners.

Our current system encourages economic actors to destroy wildlife habitat for many reasons, including to make room for growing crops for biomass, to support biofuels production. A public property rights paradigm will embody within the structure of our political and economic systems the understanding that bio-diversity is more valuable than bio-mass.

A Capitalism-Communism Synthesis

Natural law requires respect of public property rights, too

Systemic flaws are not reported 


deborah brady said...

love your idea. i would like to include a fee for the private use of the surface of the earth for habitation uses. divide the inhabitable surfaces by the population, and place a fee on those residences that exceed the average.....hopefully encouraging density, more compact living spaces, and more room for biodiversity

John Champagne said...

Thanks for sharing. I agree with the spirit of what you are saying. But I think it would be simpler just to charge a fee for impervious land cover, such as paving or buildings. If we give these fee proceeds (and other fee proceeds) to all people, it would effectively rebate whatever amount owners of small houses might pay. There would be an effective, if modest, transfer of wealth from those who drive a lot & live in big houses to those who use relatively little paving and have a smaller footprint... A transfer of wealth from those who cause more environmental impact to those who cause less. (I am assuming that, with a fee on paving, we would have fees associated with road use and vehicle size/weight. All this ought to be subject to random surveys that reveal and reflect what the average opinion says ought to be the case.) Such a system would discourage, in an organic, decentralized and flexible way, urban sprawl.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Two billion humans presently on Earth live on less than a dollar a day. There are 1 million additional humans being put on the planet every 5 days. I like your ideas and would like to see them implemented, but we also need to make people aware of what human population is doing to the web of life and how it is the cause of global warming. No amount of protected land is safe when the local population is starving. In the U.S. and in many countries there is a campaign to spay and neuter our pets, to alleviate suffering. If all the wildlife organizations would unite with a one child campaign,instead of what they are doing, Real progress would be made. Thousands of species are disappearing every year.