Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Critique of the Gaia Brain paradigm, a Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Title: Gaia Brain: Integration of Human Society and the Biosphere

Summary: On the basis of an analogy between how nonhuman organisms (from unicellular to bees) affect and are affected by their environment and how economic forces affect the use of natural resources, this paper proposes a radical transformation of human life: Children are to be educated differently, governments as they now exist will be abolished, and the labor market will be liberated from its current constraints.

The detrimental impact human beings have on the environment presents us with the "greatest challenge" the species has faced since it began to walk and talk. Economics provides the key to its solution: a "resource fee" that will be assessed to every product and service. These fees will penalize the use of environmentally damaging things, providing the "feedback mechanism" that is needed so that human culture will be in touch with its impact on the biosphere. This fee will provide the marketplace with information about the product's or service's environmental impact. They will be determined democratically by every person on the planet. Proceeds will be used to support "things we would like to see more of."

Evaluation: This paper is eminently clear; the author is able in a few paragraphs to present and weave together findings from microbiology, ethology, and economics into an intriguing and intelligible picture. On the basis of his assessment of the current "environmental crisis," he proposes an interesting (and to me, novel) solution. An effective way of affecting people's behavior is through their wallets, so charge them for the damage they are indirectly doing to the environment. The author also recognizes a number of problems which might be raised to this suggestion (Who determines the fees?, How will this money be used?, Etc.) and attempts in the limited space available to address them. Although, as proposed, this suggestion seems to be thoroughly unrealistic, there could be merits to its basic idea. Something like a "resource fee" might be worth considering as environmental policies are discussed.

The significant "leftist" tendencies of the paper weaken it. The author continues to have hopes in a world (non-) government, a radical transformation of society, a radical and universal democracy, and an elimination or significant reduction of alienation. His solutions to the problems inherent in his proposal seem weak. It is not clear to me that all people (including children -- p.7, ln.20) can ever be in a position to assess the conflicting "findings" of the "experts" of interested parties as to the true environmental impact of every product and service of every activity of every person and company of the whole world. And, without governments, how will the money be spent? Will every person on the planet have a say? How could that occur?

Recommendation:  If a clear and interesting voice from those who continue to propose radical transformations of society and of human nature is needed, this paper could find a place in the proceedings. If the volume needs to be limited to realistic proposals, it does not belong.

-- End of this anonymous critique --

Author's response:

The idea of a pollution fee or fee on use of natural resource, the commons, is not new with me. I learned about it in a college text during a course on political economy, in a book called, 'The Economics of Social Issues'. What is new, to my knowledge, is the connection drawn between this method of management of resources and the feedback mechanisms that operate in biological organisms, such as sensory nervous systems. Also new is the (proposed) practical realization of the idea that all people share in the ownership and management of the air and water, the commons, the natural resources, by receiving the proceeds of the user-fees, and by deciding what absolute limits will be placed on the use of the resources.

I do not propose that a fee be assessed on 'every product or service', but on those human actions which adversely impact the environment. If I am a reading tutor and I ask a student to read to me and I give little hints when needed, I am providing a service, but I am not adversely impacting the Commons, and would not expect to have to pay the people to compensate them for degrading a public resource. If I drive 50 miles to get to the school, I expect to pay a fee to compensate the people for degrading their resource, the air, but payment of this fee would not be a separate act. The fee would be incorporated in the price of fuel by the fact that extracting petroleum for use as fuel would have the appropriate fee attached. If I take some kind of waste products and recycle them into new product, I would not expect to have to pay a fee. " ... [C]harge them for the damage they are indirectly doing to the environment", sounds like we would examine each life, each person and make an assessment, a judgement of their impact on the earth by recording their purchases or examining their habits. That does sound totally unrealistic. But that is not what I propose. I would rather charge the corporations that damage the earth or cause environmental impacts. If individuals damage environmental health in ways that are not already accounted for in prices through this fee mechanism, then charge individuals for the damage they do directly.

As a practical matter, if a material is produced and marketed for a particular application, such as petroleum for fuel, then the producer ought to be assessed at the point of production as if delivery to market was equivalent to actual use. This way, the market will reflect in price the (perceived) ecologic impact of use. I would judge, for example, the 'damage to the earth' as the act of taking oil out of the ground, where it can be easily measured, rather than have gasoline delivered to the market prior to the assessment of any impact fees, and assessing the fees on the end-user. Making the necessary measurements as close to the point of production as possible will reduce the potential for subversion through black market trading.

It would be easier for me to accept 'unrealistic ... radical transformation' as valid and true argument against this paradigm if not for the fact that this plan could help to alleviate or eliminate some of our society's seemingly most intractable problems. This possibility of multiple benefits through the realization of this new paradigm could overcome the resistance to change that usually makes radical change such an unrealistic possibility. If not now for radical transformation, when? We have just invented a whole new media: Interactive hypermedia; the internet. Perhaps soon, this new form of human communication will be as extensive as the telephone network, which also continues to expand. We are in the midst of a long period of accelerating change. It is in times of invention of new tools that we see the greatest social, political and economic changes, because they so affect the ways that human beings interact with one another.

The basic idea here, or basic ideas are that we all own the air and water and natural resources, and to the extent that any person or corporate entity appropriates any of these resources for their own use, that entity ought to compensate the owners of the resource, the people at large. The monies paid in exchange for the use of resources should be controlled by the people, who may use these funds for whatever purpose they choose, but perhaps with a portion dedicated to community projects that enjoy the support of a large majority of citizens, and the remaining portion available for individual needs and wants. The people also should control the level of the fee, or the overall rate of resource use: The people are owners and managers of the commons.

"Something like a resource fee..." What does this mean? What thing like a resource fee might we consider? How would this something be like a resource fee and how would it be different? (Who would decide on the fee amount? How would the proceeds be spent?) 

What is meant by 'leftist' tendencies, and why is it in quotes? (I did not use the term in the paper.) Perhaps 'leftist' refers to the idea that all the people own and would help manage the commons, and would receive the proceeds of the fees charged against their use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this idea is readily understood and accepted by members of the public who have been apprised of it. Many people feel that, yes, this is a good idea, but 'they', the established interests, will never go for it. To the extent that politicians, captains of industry and citizens successfully turn the purposes of government and corporate institutions toward these ends, they can help restore a sense of integrity and efficacy to our public institutions. This idea, put in practice, would reverse the trend toward greater disparity of wealth, while preserving, even improving, free market rewards of individual effort and initiative. It would help to promote a sense among the populace that we all share a power and responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. For these reasons, 'leftist' tendencies seems to be not a weakness, but a strength.

I did not intend to suggest that children would be responsible for making decisions regarding resource use. I do suggest though, that children, students, might be involved in the process of gathering information about the opinions of the adults in their neighborhood. But the reviewer's statement brings to mind the idea that some communities might choose to celebrate exceptional, exemplary schools that cast their own mock votes about what environmental impacts ought to be allowed with such careful consideration and clear explication of the why behind their votes that they stand as a model to others of how this responsibility for stewardship of the commons might be carried out. The community might want the school's mock votes published so that they can be copied by others, in effect letting the adults delegate their vote to those outstanding students.

We could ask someone from a trusted accounting firm (or someone who knows more about accounting principles than I) how we might make scalable structures, accounts of each person's preferences, then each community's preferences, etc. that could be surveyed at any level, just as search engines survey large amounts of data through a network. The example of the school above may offer a clue to how this might be done. If teachers and students made it their business to ask community members what their opinions are about conditions in the community, they could post the results of their surveys on the internet for all to see. To the extent that the expressed wishes of the people conflict with actual conditions, we would expect resource user-fees to rise or fall as appropriate, until the disparity is resolved.

What better time to consider and make radical transformations than now? These are times of rapid, accelerating change, when the situation is dynamic and plastic, when we can make a great difference for the future depending on what decisions we take today, what we do today. A radical transformation, in the right direction, could be a very helpful and timely change.

But what change in human nature does the reviewer believe is required by this proposal? If anything, this paradigm is more respectful, more accepting of human nature as it is. The current system has a problem with externalities, which put every economic actor in the uncomfortable position of having to sacrifice community interest for self-interest, or (perhaps less frequently) vice-versa. We all are driven by a mix of desires: to promote the community interest, and our own individual interest. This proposed system of incorporating external costs into the price of economic goods allows us to quickly and efficiently find a balance between self-interest and community interest, simply by seeking the lowest price for the things we buy, which we are naturally inclined to do already.

Is it plausible to think that we do not need radical transformation of society? Is it realistic to think that if we could just teach a few more people to stop dumping motor oil in the back alley, get the miles per gallon numbers up a bit more, get some more people to separate out their paper and glass and other recycleables, take their shopping bag with them for re-use, and such things, then we will have met the environmental challenges that confront us and achieved a sustainable society? I wonder what alternative proposals the reviewer would suggest that might have the potential for resolving the 'tragedy of the commons'. Or would he/she take issue with the suggestion that this proposal does that, or that the tragedy of the commons is an issue of concern?

This paradigm, by the way, does not only address environmental problems-- although ideas about how we might better address the problem of pollution did provide the germ that it grew from. This proposal also addresses problems of poverty and wealth disparity. It is hard to over-estimate, I think, the combined effect of both a completely free labor market, which gives everyone the greatest incentive to increase their knowledge, skills and abilities, and a guaranteed income, which protects all from abject poverty, which currently debilitates a large portion of humanity.

John Champagne

Systemic flaws are not reported

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