Accounting For Nature: Moving Toward Resource-Based Economics
Stephen L. Doll
- The Northwest Technocrat, 4th quarter 1994, No. 337
Did you ever notice that the crew members of the starship Enterprise have no wallet bulges, no purses to lug around? Space-age technology and phasers on stun may seem far removed from old growth forests and Florida scrub jays, but in a steadily deteriorating world, often traded off for financial expediency, the moneyless scenarios Trekkies and science fiction prognosticators portray may not be flights of fancy for some future date, but an immediate must for survival of life forms on the Blue Planet (Earth).
The evidences are compelling. Devastation for dollars takes on ominous proportions. Roman ringmasters decimated territorial animal populations for theater games. Today's technologies have us doing it globally to propitiate the god of accumulating purchasing power. Entrepreneurs peddle everything from saguaro cactuses to soup made from tiger's sex organs. Rats devour crops in Southeast Asia, because the snakes have been sold for their skins. To pay their debts, nations savage resources from their own populations. The simple Mayans of Guatemala, who got along fine for hundreds of years without money, have sold off their heritage to vacation-home developers, leaving them landless and destitute, dependent on the droppings of quirk some turistas.
How did we arrive at such a state that even efforts to save the planet must await the requisite of money? How has the economic social mechanism we use to distribute the products of the earth become so removed from the physical nature of the earth?
Once we lived more with nature. Then as crop cultivation enabled humans to produce more than immediately needed, human enterprise became too cumbersome for simple barter. A medium, money, was selected, desirable because of its scarcity. The medium wasn't the tangible goods being distributed, but it was something one could touch and feel. Each progressive change in the financial mechanism -- from tangibles to paper tokens to plastic credit -- has further removed the money system from the physical world. The mechanism is now based on confidence in the capability of the medium to compound upon itself. Debt fueling the fires of consumption is created at a computer keyboard. This expansionist quality of money runs directly counter to earth's processes. While no one would consider a bank account that doesn't draw interest, we adhere to a paradigm (a pattern or example) of growth and consumption that is no longer appropriate.
Technology, driven by a synthesized reward system, has prompted a steady withdrawal from awareness of the source of our physical existence. Radical changes in the time-rate of converting energy have effectively decoupled us from the rhythms of the natural world. The fate of resources that took eons to develop is being negotiated at speeds now measured in quadrillionths of a second.
The magic of buy-now, pay-later has accelerated consumption far beyond pay-as-you-go budgets. Lotteries and big-win sweepstakes promise to condense lifetimes of purchasing power into one big grab. Retailers clear land to erect huge buildings and parking lots to hawk their wares, then close up shop and do it again a couple of miles away to engage in "competition" with another retailer offering the same merchandise across the street. Duplications, redundancy and waste abound.
In our arrogant disassociation from our roots, nature is ignored, not cohabited with. The language that speaks to the economic human in seductive terms of revenue generated speaks not of the sedate silence of the redwood forest, but of the picnic tables and lawn furniture to be drawn from it. If it can't be sold, what good is it?
A New Way Of Thinking
The imperative of planetary survival calls for the human species to adopt a new way of thinking that requires a careful stewardship of nature that we have denied being a part of.
Modern suggestions for redefining economics in physical terms go back at least to the thirties, when a social movement known as Technocracy proposed replacing money with an energy accounting system that would guarantee every citizen an equal share of a bountiful, but resource- conscious, production. This was not mere Depression-era whimsy. It followed an exhaustive fourteen-year study of the resource and industrial potential of North America. This new social design had the potential of lifting the nation out of the Depression and husbanding resources for future generations. But the pressures of reactionary influences were too powerful, so, opting for status quo-saving measures like New Deals and wars, FDR and big business rejected it.
But how about compromise? In 1978, the accounting firm of Seidman and Seidman advised its clients to adopt a dual accounting system in both money and BTU's. Like the Technocrats' proposal, it never became public policy. It's too hard to fudge with measurable quantities, too easy with the ability to hoard currency.
Another attempt at compromise was the most recent foray into tangible accounting, the BTU tax measure, but this too was foiled by pressure from the American Energy Alliance, an oil-fired "grass roots" movement of some 2000 small businesses who eagerly lapped up all Big Oil had to say about job losses if the tax went through.
While nature's laws are immutable, social systems are not. They must change with the conditions or the system dies. If debt overload does not force the issue (budgetary shortfalls already account for many doable things left undone), nature surely will. We will then have a return to reality forced on us.
How may the transition be made? How will we literally turn our thinking from dollars to doughnuts?
It is happening, however haltingly. The Clinton administration's proposed biodiversity survey is one step. It will surely be watered down by parochial and political deal-cutting, but it is a step.
Sparked by the oil crunch of the Seventies, energy management is now a growth industry, the thrust being energy not used is dollars saved. It doesn't always apply, however, or even work, particularly in the all- you-can-eat, volume-pricing market driven economy that is the apotheosis of affordability.
For example, at recent summer convocation of energy engineers held in a convention center in Atlanta, participants remarked at the frigid temperature in the huge building. The reason: a ratcheting rate structure that charges high-volume users less per kilowatt hour. This "the more you buy, the more you save" philosophy -- the incentive to shop 'til one drops -- permeates every phase of our economic structure. This is an absolute failure of conventional economics to conserve resources.
A Radical Change
Converting to a resource-based economy will require a monumental change in our thinking. In the new, resource-oriented system, concern with durability, not return sales of shoddy goods, will be the economic paradigm. Maximization of benefit with MINIMUM IMPACT ON NATURAL SYSTEMS will be the criteria for all human enterprise -- not more bang for the buck, but more utility from the erg. In a resource-based economy, old value systems based on material reward for investment of time and capital will give way to a new incentive of achievement. Even the vaunted job as a source of income becomes an anachronism, particularly the paradox of rewarding people for consuming resources in needless, redundant production with tokens to consume more resources. From a resource standpoint, we'd be far better off paying people to stay home.
Tree huggers and technologists will have to come to terms on a common direction. Earth scientists will not be mere hirelings to bottom-line, business-run government. They will be the government, the shapers of policy. Everything will be recycled, from concrete to plate scrapings for the generation of gases to be used for fuel.
With automated production directed toward efficient use rather than showy sale, the human work load will be restructured to reduced work schedules. A uniformly high standard of living will require incomes in the form of energy credits, to all, without regard to interpretations of contribution, or moral judgments, but as a basic human right. Obviously, everyone can't have everything. This does not mean that people can't have access to everything we can produce. We don't have to dispense with the comforts we now enjoy; rather, we must develop and apportion them with an eye toward a measured abundance. Free access, not mortgaged acquisition, is the new consumerism. To anyone who has ever rented a car or used a public library or park, it shouldn't be hard to adjust to. The main difference would be that the car rental would be in the form of a charge against one's energy account -- a bookkeeping chore, not interference or a prohibition.
The social and environmental ramifications will be enormous. No longer will any living thing, human or otherwise, be relegated to the status of a cash crop. Not a single tree will be cut, a single river dammed, a single building, automobile, or missile produced for the sake of sales or job creation.
Cities, housing, transportation, production of goods -- all will be restructured to synch with natural constraints, not with the demands of motivation for material gain. Technology will no longer be an instrument of human domination, but of management. Computers now used to monitor the flow of debt and one-up-manship will be turned to monitoring the flow of energy and resources. Consumption will be instantly recorded, and production set accordingly, eliminating the need for excessive warehousing. Instead of monitoring people, devices will keep electronic fingers on the earth's pulse.
Ironically, the same labor-saving technologies that led to the rise of the monetary system may well consign it to oblivion. Technological abundance will drive prices down while technological production eliminates wage earners and taxpayers. It's chancy, though. There is the very real danger that accelerated resource depletion will leave us with a great deal of manufactured money but little to spend it on.
Even now, free trade agreements to enable debtor nations to satisfy their creditors portend environmental chaos. The Great Global Swap Meet promises to open new vistas of plunder, both in resources drawn to produce trade goods and in the energy it will take to transport redundancy around the globe.
If the practices that now prevail in market economics does not leave vast populations warring over dwindling resources, it is probable that with a heightened awareness of our oneness with nature, a corresponding awareness of fellowship with others of the same species will follow. With an objective and impartial system for distributing the products of nature, we would not be so prone to regard others, human or otherwise, as threats to our own economic well-being. No longer would we behave as competitive predators, but as mutual guardians.
Whatever the form social institutions take, measuring, developing and distributing the products of the earth with concern for social consequences merits consideration right now. The reclamation and stewardship of the earth must no longer be subjected to the delaying tactics of reward-oriented market economics, but directed to the higher goal of common survival.
Perhaps, if and when we arrive at some future date, scholars of a post- monetary era will view our lumbering garbage trucks and sprawling population centers much as we view stone axes and chamber pots. Even more amazing to them, probably, will be how we survived so long trading off our real wealth -- our natural heritage -- in diehard subjection to something as insubstantial as the flow of imaginary I.O.U.'s.