Thursday, October 18, 2012

Natural Law remedy for systemic flaw: Civilization can be made sustainable and equitable

An unsustainable civilization is a consequence of a systemic flaw -- Natural law points to a solution.

If we look at basic human rights as reflecting underlying laws of social interaction, we may notice some important facts about these basic rights that could help us meet the greatest challenges of our time.

Human rights are a kind of natural law. We can recognize fundamental claims that citizens might make, such as a claim of a right to be left to do as we choose in our private spaces; a claim to a right to move about freely in the public space; a claim of a right to share in deciding limits to pollution and limits to rates of taking of natural resources by industries... We can understand these claims and rights as natural phenomena or natural law. We might recognize that, for the healthy functioning of society, citizens must assert these claims to natural rights, and we must create and maintain systems of governance that assure these rights are respected in practice. Presently, our systems of government do not function in a way that manifests respect for these rights in reality. Our society does not reflect an equal sharing of natural wealth, which can be understood as commons or public property. This is wealth that is created through processes independent of human effort--wealth to which we all can assert a moral claim.

This systemic flaw allows harm to be done to the environment without any direct and proportional economic cost being incurred by those who do the harm. This means that prices of things do not reflect environmental impacts such as pollution, resource depletion and habitat destruction. With prices skewed in a way that obscures environmental costs, consumers don't fully register these costs when they weigh the pros and cons of this or that purchase of a product or service. These hidden costs mean that our economy does more harm to the environment than what would be the case if environmental impacts were reflected in prices.

Natural science and direct experience tell us that living systems, including human society, are delicate, intricate phenomena. It is always easier to tear down and destroy than it is to build and create. This fact reflects the nature of the enabling conditions that underlie any complex phenomenon. We need order, structure and process rather than random chaos. This is true whether we are talking about creating a tower of blocks or a work of art, raising a child or building a civilization. Our civilization is stronger and more resilient when almost everyone believes that we will all be better off by working to improve on what we have made. We cannot have many people wanting to destroy this nascent global society to see what else might take its place. For the benefit of all, there must be very few of us who believe that the world we have created is ugly, unjust, hurtful or evil. We need a society that all can believe in and want to be a part of. Among other things, this means that we must have a system that recognizes the people as the rightful owners of natural resource wealth, so that the world we create together will not be a world that has more paving or pollution or noise or extraction of limited resources than what most people would say is acceptable. We need a political system that matches reality to what people want, in terms of appropriate limits on environmental impacts. Then we will have a true democracy.

The idea that natural wealth ought to be shared equally is reflected in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith and others.

If we discourage excessive taking of resources or putting of pollution by charging a fee to polluting industries, then the fee proceeds (a monetary representation of that which we all own in common) could be shared equally among all the world's people. By assuring a substantial level of economic security for every person, we ensure that poverty and disparity issues are no longer an existential threat to the system. We will have a more stable and equitable society. No one would live in abject poverty.

Equal sharing of natural wealth cures the defect that we see in the thriving and collapse of civilization. It also makes the boom and bust business 'cycle' into a less wildly gyrating phenomenon.

Biological Model for Politics and Economics: Human Society as Neural Network

Friday, October 12, 2012

Moral foundation allows us to adapt to circumstances

Our global civilization is headed for another great collapse unless we bring our behavior more into accord with our principles. Natural resources belong to all.

Intelligence is the ability to make connections that foster adaptive responses, to preserve the life and promote the health of an organism. Intelligent societies respond to environmental conditions in ways that promote sustainability. Societies lack intelligence if actions by members cause damage that is not readily apparent to those members. Then individuals may unknowingly do things that harm the interests of all members of society, and that may even cause harm to the larger community of life. When we do things that cause harm and cannot see the effect of our actions, we cannot respond in a way so as to reduce or stop the harm. We cannot consider the effects of our actions on others if we remain unaware of those effects. We are unable to abide by this basic moral precept.

Economists call the disconnect between what it costs to produce things (including costs in terms of pollution and resource depletion) on the one hand and the prices of products offered in the market on the other hand as 'externalities'. Fees assessed to industries according to how much ecological damage they cause would make the prices of things reflect the harm (the costs) that otherwise would remain hidden from consumers. A democratic society would set the fees so that they are just high enough to cause industries to try hard enough to reduce pollution, resource depletion and other harmful environmental impacts. We will know that industries are in fact trying hard enough when most people say that environmental impacts are acceptable, with a good balance being struck between 'freedom', so that our economic system can function and human needs can be met on the one hand, versus 'control', so that the interests of future generations and the larger living community are protected on the other hand.

We could decide that it is in the public interest to limit the rate of taking of natural resources (by applying a fee), so that the shock of having to adapt the scarcity of resources can be reduced by spreading resource availability out over a longer timeframe; or so that, in the case of renewable resources, a sustainable and healthy resource base can be maintained.

We could decide, collectively, that it is in the interest of stargazers (that's most of us at some point) to dim our outdoor lighting somewhat on a regular basis, so that we might enjoy a better view of the night sky. Perhaps we would want to further reduce outdoor lighting on select nights, to avoid disorienting night-migrating birds, perhaps, or so that we might more fully appreciate occasional meteor showers, thin crescent (blue) moons and passing comets. A system of fees on outdoor lighting could achieve this. The fees would float up or down, if there were an imbalance between the number of people who want more outdoor lighting vs. the number who want less. Lighting fixtures could be designed to automatically dim or shut off when the fee reached a threshold amount, as determined by the user. Small changes in opinion about acceptable levels of light pollution (or any other environmental impact) would translate to modest but real changes in actual conditions. The reality, the actual human impacts on the Earth would come to match what most people feel is most acceptable. When the reality matches what the people want, then we can say we live in a democracy.

Outdoor lighting is but one of the many kinds of impacts on the environment that human beings must limit, in an efficient and fair way, if we are to build a global society that is sustainable and consistent with democratic principles. The fee system could result in the world that the largest number of people say they want to live in. We would have a more democratic society. When prices show us the harmful effect on the environment of what we do, we will choose the more environmentally-friendly habits and practices.

John Champagne

Equal sharing of natural wealth promotes justice and sustainability: A solution to the matter of instability we know as the 'arc of civilization' (thrive and collapse)

Biological Model for Politics and Economics