To solve environmental problems, solve economic problems. Eliminate poverty and insecurity and you go a long way to eliminating pollution, because people who’re not desperate make wiser choices.
Solving pollution—global warming or not—means we must come up with solutions, technical and political. Answering the call, policy wonks put forth their pet proposals—and remain true to their ideology, not true to what works. Both left and right leave the best ideas out of the discussion.
What they do push are fees and mandates.
Consider fees. If carbon products cost more (due to fees), consumers will use them less. If set high enough (if politically feasible), fees could cover all the costs from the pollution that befalls innocents downstream or downwind.
Yet in reality, fee schemes can be gimmicked: kept too low, used as a tax write-off, made complicated requiring another expensive bureaucracy, etc.
The leftist proposal—mandating “efficiency”—appeals to one’s fondness for bossing others and to their faith in the state as a wish-fulfiller. But bossiness is offensive and state-as-genie is usually less efficient, not to mention that a bigger state poses a threat to liberty.
A well-used counter example people cite is fuel efficiency. When the US Government insisted, car manufacturers did comply and made their product more efficient. However, they did not invent anything new, they used off-the-shelf technology—and were nudged seriously by competition from Japan. Heck, if government had not put tariffs on Japanese imports at the request of Detroit, American cars would have been efficient long before ordered to become so by legislators.
For break-thru technology, people point to the internet. Yes, the war machine did design it (by hiring draft dodging grad students in computation). But is the way things happened the only way things could have happened? Could not a large, decentralized, and peaceful network have done as well, given the same resources? Look at all the freeware that has come out since the web’s inception.
Policy Wonks would do well to follow a principle in medicine: first of all, do no harm. Presently, government does tons of harm.
After quitting doing what harms, government could do what helps—defend our rights.
Some places do share some land value—Aspen CO and Singapore—and Alaska shares oil value. If more of us got more of this—rent shares from land dues—the former poor could become owners (half of urban residents are tenants, not owners). Owners, when they have enough financial security to consider the long term, choose to make improvements that pay off.
While sharing the worth of Earth would go a long way toward curtailing pollution, to get the whole way there, complexity-loving wonks might warm up to four more, non-bossy policies:
Couple those four surcharges with the granddaddy charge of land dues. When extractors pay the full annual rental value of, say, coal to society, they’d be far less eager to go mining. They’d lose that free excess profit they get now. Less initial profit, more after-market charges (the four above)—those guys would quickly forget all about coal and switch to solar. And all rational investors would follow.
The key is financial security. To solve environmental problems, solve economic problems. Like ecologists often point out, everything is connected. Eliminate poverty and insecurity and you go a long way to eliminating pollution, because people who’re not desperate make wiser choices.
A market by itself won’t work; it must have justice. Markets don’t even existoutside social acceptance of property and expectations of honesty. Rather than decry or eschew markets, make them work right for people and planet. Get government to quit playing favorites and to instead defend our rights, our rights to a healthy planet and to a share of her worth.
May wonks think outside the box, or, in this case, outside the smokestack. Focus less on unwanted outputs and more on owned inputs, like coal. Make polluters pay for the costs they impose and let everyone share in the benefits our living in society generates.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.