By Tom Cushing
Externalities, The Commons and the Lizards’ LullabyUploaded: Dec 1, 2015
The Paris Conference on climate change appears off to an optimistic start, with pledges from some 180 countries to progressively limit greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, as anyone who’s ever fund-raised knows, the even harder work than extracting pledges is actually collecting them. So, as always, the zen master’s wisdom applies.
That said, while it’s past time to get serious, there are some bases for that optimism. Here and elsewhere, low-hanging fruit abounds, in redirecting government policies at all levels, leapfrogging old and dirty technologies on the development path, and mobilizing investments that historically have paid-off handsomely.* Overcoming the strange schizophrenia afflicting US coal policy is only one climate-friendly possibility, among many.
‘Why now’ is thoroughly settled – the imperative of a response is as certain as science ever gets. But ‘why us,’ and ‘what about them’ are important questions afflicting the nearly 30% of US citizens who do not yet favor taking action. Understanding the concepts of ‘Externalities’ and ‘The Commons’ may assist them in getting over the hump.
First, the dismal-sounding economists’ concept of Externalities needs review. It’s not complicated. In your mind’s eye, think of a widget factory by a river. Got it? It’s in the widgeteer’s individual best interest to minimize costs, so her first instinct is to send widget-waste skyward, and down the river. Those avoided (“externalized”) costs are not included in her widgets, and she thrives, although every breathing, drinking soul pays the costs of dirty air and dangerous downstream concentrations of methylethyldeath.
Perhaps the widgeteer becomes concerned about dead birds and nearby cancer clusters. She may even want to invest in waste treatment or in new technologies that avoid the effluents altogether. But if she takes-on, or ‘internalizes’ those costs by herself, her competitiveness suffers vs. all those other producers who Don’t clean-up. She’s penalized for being first to do the right thing.
So what’s needed is a rule that All the widget makers must limit their waste discharges; that keeps the competitive playing field level. Total costs are more fully loaded into each widget, and the air and water are spared. Government is the only entity that can do that, the broader the better in terms of reach. So, why us? -- it’s because we’ve been madly making widgets, but oblivious to paying their full costs.
Widget makers will complain, though, that imported widgets now have a cost advantage – so, 'what about them?' That’s where parable of The Commons comes into play.
This time, imagine a medieval English sheep herding hamlet, surrounding a ‘Commons’ – a fertile area of grassland where all may graze their flocks, for free. Each shepherd can improve his living by increasing the size of his flock, and they all do. The Commons is a closed system, however, and has limited sheep-feeding capacity.
Eventually, as each shepherd pursues his individual self-interest, the ‘free’ Commons collapses; everybody must then subsist on mutton, and eventually they all starve. Not that anybody’s around to see it, but The Commons eventually recovers – it is the honey badger; it doesn’t care we survive or not.
Nobody saw it coming – everybody was too busy growing their individual flocks. They are the truffula choppers of Lorax fame.** The only way to avoid catastrophe is to work together, committing to maintain The Commons at a combined herd level it can sustain – and then following through in some verifiable manner.
The earth is a closed system, too. It’s also a web of inter-connected Commons -- the seas, the land, living things, the air – and the climate, for a few examples. It cares little for us or our political boundaries. Each nation is a shepherd, tending a flock and trying to maximize its size. And each nation’s actions affect every other nation.
As in the parable, the only way to avoid crashing this Commons is by all of us shepherds banding together to jointly preserve the resource we all share, and on which we all depend. Granted, our interests are more varied and complex – some in the less-developed world see Paris as a neo-colonial plot to keep them ‘down on the low-carbon farm.’ Vladimir Putin may have hallucinations of amber waves of grain stretching endlessly across a temperate Siberian taiga. The US and China, as the world’s best economies and worst carbon polluters, eye each other warily, suspicious that the other might renege on its commitments. But there may finally be enough will to save The Commons, and a pathway to get it done.
What stands in our way? It’s mostly what I’ll call the lizards’ lullaby, or maybe reptiles’ revenge. We all know that dinosaurs once ruled the earth, and most of us-not-running-for-President are aware that it wasn’t 8,000 years ago. Very recently, our species has come to occupy their spot (the dinosaurs', not the candidates', to the extent they are different) as the planet’s predominant life form. They have been relegated to fueling our cars, heating our homes and powering our electronics.
But it ain’t necessarily so, and remember -- The Commons doesn’t care. For a few hundred years and at a fast-accelerating rate, we’ve been digging up the dinos, burning them and flinging their remains aloft. Commons that took a billion years to accumulate, and that were resting peaceably underground, we homosaps have plundered in the geologic blink-of-an-eye.
Our herd has grown out-of-control -- and if we allow ourselves to be lulled by the blandishments of those fossil fools (not my coinage) *** who profit from inaction, the reptiles will surely secure their vengeance.
We needn’t, and should not, let the dinosaurs win. For now at least, it’s still our Commons.
* Corporate America has a rich history of strenuously opposing environmental rules, as first impossible, then too expensive, and more recently as ‘job-killers.’ Companies then apply their better brains to achieve compliance, find ways to actually save or make money while they’re at-it, and, finally brag about their good citizenship in the achievement. Having heard these wolf-cries way too often, I tend to take those early protestations with a shaker of salt.
** Say what you will about Dr. Seuss – he was well ahead of his time. ‘The Lorax’ was written in 1971, long before issues like bio-diversity and global warming gained traction.
*** "They found that Exxon’s board of directors was fully briefed by its own scientists, decades ago, on the emerging consensus that burning oil and gas may cause sea levels to rise, glacial ice to melt and a host of other 'generally negative consequences.' Their reaction was to fund the kind of counter-information campaigns that Soviet-era propagandists would be proud of."