Reform, withdraw, or “damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!”

In a recent blog entry “Money’s Hunger”, Guardian newspaper columnist George Monbiot ponders the quandry we’re in by asking: “Industrial civilisation is trashing the environment. Should we try to reform it or just watch it go down?” (his blog at www.monbiot.com is well worth reading on a regular basis).

Essentially, he challenges the underlying assumptions of the Dark Mountain Project, which an early entry in Wikipedia introduces as:  “Believing that ‘civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world’, the Dark Mountain Project aims to bring together writers, artists and others to ‘conjure into being new ways of seeing and writing about the world.”  Interestingly, this sounds remarkably similar to John Galt’s strategy (in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”) of withdrawing from an ill-functioning society and setting up their own society… I find this highly ironic, but that’s another story.

The point of George’s blog is to challenge whether withdrawing is really the most appropriate strategy at this point in our civilization’s timeline, or whether it would be more proactive to continue to push, protest, challenge, debate, and ultimately improve our lot in any number of incremental ways. And of course unless one is an utter defeatist, one has to believe that continuing to try to drive improvements is a better, more useful course of action than giving up — that much seems clear.

What really intrigues me, however, is this passage from George’s blog, which is a quote attributed to  Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of Dark Mountain: “the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Nor can we bargain with it, as “the economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon … growth in order to function.”

So, our economic system depends on growth at all costs to function properly. OK, I get that. Now, how should one measure growth? It would seem clear that “growth” must actually mean “economic growth”. Again that makes sense since we have a system — capitalism and market based economies — that ultimately has been designed around economic transactions. So, it seems to me that it is actually pretty straightforward to square this circle — let’s put prices on everything so that all the elements of our economic system recognize the market price and respond accordingly.

I’m sure the idea of assigning a price to clear air, clean water, waste disposal, etc. will offend lots of people who believe that “you can’t put a price on……”.

However the fact is that we live in a market economy that indeed does by its very nature put a price on everything. And in a market based economy, if no price is given, a null price (zero) is assumed. And that is where the madness starts. Once a business assumes that something is free (let’s say pumping CO2 into the air, or dumping waste water into a river) it has absolutely no economic incentive to act in any way that suggests that the given resource is scarce, or important, or should be effectively managed.

So, at least in my simple way of seeing things, reform is remarkably straightforward: issue “Pricelist 2.0” to our market economy and watch business do what business does best — run the business cases, work the numbers, and figure out innovative ways to make an economic profit.

Of course as always, the devil is in the detail with this one. But in my opinion, we’re not yet at the point where we should be admitting defeat and withdrawing. Not by a long shot.

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