Make Prices Reward “Green” Choices
Target the most sensitive body part—the wallet. Make prices tell the truth. Earth as object of speculation? Not with geonomics.
April 11, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

PreScript:  What follows is an entry in the MIT contest to solve human hastening of climate change. Last year, my entry was either a finalist or semi-finalist (MIT sent contradictory emails). This year, go to this entry, support it, and help make it win. With MIT behind geonomics, global victory can't be far behind, eh?


The Logic

Climate has a friend in real costs. How so? To inspire people, offer them a deal they can’t refuse. To mobilize individuals and society, show them how to save money. To change perspectives and behaviors, make prices tell the truth. Precise pricing makes “green” goods and services affordable.

Stop rewarding everybody for their business-as-usual behaviors. Instead, target the most sensitive part of the body—the pocketbook. Saving money—both public funds and private cash—is always a happy happenstance. The benefit is clear, immediate, and personal.

Because people feel a strong attachment to their values and worldview, the strategy of political aikido appeals. With a well-placed hip, redirect society’s momentum, toward being good stewards of the planet. That well-placed hip? Savings. The throw? A movement to transform public revenue policy.

Shift taxes from goods to bads and subsidies from special interests to the general populace; that’s geonomic policy. Its centerpiece is an eco-bonus, a Citizen’s Dividend, an extra income drawn from the socially generated value of land and resources. Some precursors are the dividends paid to residents of Alaska, Aspen CO, and Singapore.

Both producers and consumers would behave better. Knowingly or not, they’d cut throughput. (a) Having to pay to use Earth, extractors take fewer resources and developers cover less land. (b) Receiving extra income, some would choose time over money and consume less. Everyone would feel greater self-worth. Such people behave more responsibly.

Bias Bashes Price

Most people do not want to pollute or do not know they are polluting. But the bottom line rewards wrong choices. Prices for grey ways are lower than for green ways. That’s not because green ways are less efficient but because grey ways enjoy more political clout.

Industrialists and their descendants have a long history of winning corporate welfare and tax breaks. Those fiscal favors hugely tip the playing field away from products and services that don’t pollute, toward those that do. A UN study found no industrial sector, as now constituted, could turn a profit if it had to compensate society for the harm it causes, particularly to the climate.

All breadths of government play favorites. Foremost, governments don’t enforce standards for worker, consumer, or nature. Rather, they do things like allow waste incineration plants.

Recall, cash is king and consider subsides. Governments throw money at insiders who ignore our right to a healthy world. Governments:

The list gets much longer.

Besides handouts from politicians from the general fund, there are taxes and tax breaks that businesses demand and get. The depreciation allowance goes to oil, not sunlight. Agri states exempt chemicals sold to farmers, not compost sold to gardeners. Thus subsidies make grey ways cheap and profitable as taxes make "green" ways needlessly costly.

Second Degree Burns

Unintended consequences also do harm. Locally, the tax on property, by taxing buildings discourages owners from making improvements, including those that would save energy. By falling lightly on land, it allows owners to speculate and keep lots vacant, forcing development to sprawl out and residents to use more energy.

Federally, income taxes spare capital-intensive industries (employing more machines) but burden labor-intensive industries (employing more human beings). As it happens, the former pollute more than the latter. Fossil fuels vis-a-vis photovoltaics, agri-business vs. organic gardening, mining vs. recycling, logging vs. reforestation, etc.

This is not a paean to hard work. More a plea to evolve beyond having governments be handmaidens to business. If we’re to have governments,  it should not be to dish out privileges but to enforce the rights of all.

Benefits of Geonomizing

All four geonomic shifts benefit the global ecosystem.

Subsidies for polluters and depleters—ended. An instance: ”Belgium, France, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom have collectively halved coal use since slashing or ending supports over the last fifteen years." From WorldWatch.

Taxes on efforts—replaced. Instead, make polluters and depleters pay. They’ll clean up their act or go out of business. Non-polluters will expand market share.

“In 2000, Norway levied a tax on sales of the chlorinated solvents trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Users reduced their leakage, boosted recycling, and substituted other cleansers. Compared with average consumption in the three years 1997-99, trichloroethylene sales fell 83%, perchloroethylene sales fell 89%. National consumption of all chemicals classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reprotoxic fell by 60%.”

Dividends to the citizenry—paid from society’s spending for nature. Singapore, known for restraining “autocracy” (literally), low taxes, and high prosperity, also recovers much land value and pays a dividend. Individually, getting a share of the worth of Earth—which depends on the health of Earth—provides people with a bottom-line motive to advance the health of Earth. Some people will choose time over money. That reduces "rush" hour, an exceedingly polluting event. It's not our footprint so much as our tire-track that's altering life on earth. People who commute less and consume less benefit the environment twice over.

Dues for use of Earth—charged to landowners. Having to pay a tax, fee, lease, or dues, etc, owners quit speculating and keeping lots vacant or allowing buildings to dilapidate. Instead, they develop their parcels and upgrade their buildings.

  • In Australia, some towns taxed land, not buildings, and averaged 50% more built value per acre than the neighboring towns that taxed buildings and sites at an equal rate. One improvement that owners in such towns make is better insulation, cutting demand for energy.
  • In America in the 1980s, Pittsburgh renewed downtown without one penny of subsidy by shifting its property tax landward. It was twice name "America's Most Livable City" by Rand-McNally. In-filling cities shortens trip distances, cutting the burning of fuel and the emission of byproducts. In denser cities, residents use more mass transit.

Geonomics is appealingly rational, a quid quo pro. We’d shift taxes off earnings, purchases, and buildings, onto pollution, extraction, and locations. People would pay for what they take (some land, natural resource, some atmosphere), not what they make (a home, a business). Having to pay for what one takes, one takes less and uses it economically.

Every aspect of the reform is measurable. The money citizens no longer lose to taxes. The money government no longer wastes on insiders. How much are resources spared. How much recycling increases. How much byproducts fall. How efficiently land is used. How much less heat buildings leak. How much the workweek shrinks. There’re many other metrics.

Victory in Our Time

Big problems need big solutions. Transforming the human economy to spare the natural world is a big job. Yet geonomics is up to the task.

Every aspect of this overarching policy is in practice in some jurisdiction somewhere. See the examples above. To the degree tried, it has always worked to make economies more efficient. 

Being fresh and familiar, geonomics is feasible. There are groups trying to axe bad taxes (Taxpayers for Common Sense) and others trying to abolish bad subsidies, such as the Green Scissors Coalition (Friends of the Earth, et al). A growing movement calls for a Basic Income Grant, which is a cousin of a Citizen’s Dividend (the former could be funded from anything, the latter only from surplus “rents”). New York magazine and an expanding chorus calls for a tax on land. The Citizen’s Dividend could be the broad banner that rallies these disparate elements into a unified movement for an eco-friendly economy.

What’s special about the proposed Citizen’s Dividend is that, rather than focus on how bad business has been, it reaffirms how worthy everyone is. Telling one how deserving they are of a fair share of the economy’s surplus bolsters self-esteem—and feels good. Affirmation goes a long to magnetizing individuals into a movement that grows and wins.

The very concept of a Citizen’s Dividend helps build community, and community is the crucible of morality. The root meaning of “community” is “share with” (“with share”, actually). Sharing an economy’s surplus binds people into one identity. Even before the reform is won, envisioning the sharing helps people feel like they belong to a group. With the surplus being rents—the worth of Earth—that helps people feel a belonging to their ecosystem. Belonging changes how people treat Earth.

Movement Moves

The initial call to action would be written. The writings would appear in every print medium, primarily social media. The authors and early responders would coalesce into the core group and draw in friends. Soon there’d be enough people on board in one locale to be able to meet face-to-face. That creates a different energy that spawns new groups in other locales via friends, family, fellow students, co-workers, and neighbors.

Those who answer the initial call would be self-selecting and likely come from all walks of life. Judging by those who have endorsed geonomic ideas in the past, a couple groups might be more heavily represented—environmentalists and libertarians. Such a coalition, spanning the entire political spectrum, would have to be reckoned with.

Fundraising can’t be neglected. Making a movement entails a cost, albeit a minimal one. Then, once geonomic policy is adopted, the costs imposed by counterproductive taxes and wasteful subsidies are ended, resulting in pure savings. Enjoying life in a shrunken workweek cuts medical costs. The list of savings adds up.

Mobilizers can organize anywhere and address the tax-and-spend policies of any breadth (not level) of government, from local to federal. Working locally to shift the property tax from buildings to locations, proponents can interact personally and win faster than the time it takes to win nationally. Winning efficient use of metro regions is a huge boon to climate.

The most important thing that people need in order to change themselves and their society is a group to join. Participants would feel a sense of civic duty—write letters, staff booths at farmers’ markets, interview and be interviewed in all media, organize fundraiser dinners and concerts, and last but not least: lobby elected officials. And groups are most powerful if they play as much as work.

Cascading Gains

Once the Citizen’s Dividend is won and people take time off, eventually they’d stumble into engaging more with friends, family, neighbors, culture, and nature. They’d make discoveries that’d raise their awareness and likely alter other aspects of their lifestyle, such as diet, exercise, and redefining what’s fun. Singing could come back into fashion. That’s good for the atmosphere, human voices lifting up melodies.

We would no longer serve the economy, it would serve us. Why else have an economy if not to take care of us? Geonomic reform would spell the end of econo-man, the rebirth of carefree humans.

Adopting geonomics is not only something we can do. It is something we must do. No longer can we let Earth remain an object of speculation. Matriots, lovers of the Mother, answer the call; win the world we all want.


PostScript:  What follows is an entry in the MIT contest to solve human hastening of climate change. Last year, my entry was either a finalist or semi-finalist (MIT sent contradictory emails). This year, go to this entry, support it, and help make it win. With MIT behind geonomics, global victory can't be far behind, eh?

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Jeffery J. Smith

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 A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at