On the Necessity to Internalize Costs in a True Cost Economy

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An excerpt from chapter 10 of Sacred Economics:

Charles Eistenstein:

“Externalized costs are costs of production that someone else pays. For example, one reason vegetables from California’s Central Valley are cheaper to buy in Pennsylvania than local produce is that they don’t reflect their full cost. Since producers are not liable to pay the current and future costs of aquifer depletion, pesticide poisoning, soil salinization, and other effects of their farming methods, these costs do not contribute to the price of a head of lettuce. Moreover, the cost of trucking produce across the continent is also highly subsidized. The price of a tank of fuel doesn’t include the cost of the pollution it generates, nor the cost of the wars fought to secure it, nor the cost of oil spills. Transport costs don’t reflect the construction and maintenance of highways. If all these costs were embodied in a head of lettuce, California lettuce would be prohibitively expensive in Pennsylvania. We would buy only very special things from faraway places.

Many industries today can only operate because their costs are externalized. For example, statutory caps on liability for oil spills and nuclear meltdowns make offshore drilling and nuclear power profitable for their operators, even as the net effect on society is negative. Even if BP goes bankrupt trying, there is no way the company will, or can, pay the full costs of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Society will pay the costs, in effect transferring wealth from the public to the company’s investors.2 Any industry with the potential for catastrophic losses is essentially enacting a transfer of wealth from public to private hands, from the many to the few. Those industries operate with free insurance. They get the profits, we assume the risks. It is also so in the financial industry, where the largest operators can take huge risks knowing that they will be bailed out if those risks fail. Externalized costs render economical things that are actually uneconomical, such as deep-sea oil drilling and nuclear power.

The elimination of externalities thwarts the business plan of the ages: “I keep the income and someone else pays the costs.” I fertilize my field with nitrogen fertilizer, and the shrimp fishermen pay the cost of eutrophication downriver. I burn coal to make electricity, and society pays the medical costs of mercury emissions and the environmental costs of acid rain. All of these strategies are variations on a theme I’ve already described: the monetization of the commons. The capacity of the earth to absorb various kinds of waste is a form of commonwealth, as is the richness of the soil, the seas, and the aquifers. The collective leisure time of society might be considered a commons as well, which is depleted when polluters make messes for everyone else to clean up.

“I keep the income, and someone else pays the costs” reflects the mind-set of the separate self, in which your well-being is fundamentally disconnected from mine. What does it matter what happens to you? If you are poor, or sick, or in prison, what does that matter to me, as long as I sufficiently insulate myself from the social and environmental toxicity out there? What does it matter to me if the Gulf of Mexico is dying under an oil slick? I’ll just live somewhere else. What does it matter to me that there is a thousand-mile-wide gyre of plastic in the Pacific Ocean? From the perspective of separation, it doesn’t matter — in principle we can insulate ourselves from the effects of our actions. Profiting by externalizing costs is part and parcel of that perspective. But from the perspective of the connected self, connected to other people and to the earth, your well-being is inseparable from my own because you and I are not fundamentally separate. The internalization of all costs is simply the economic embodiment of that principle of interbeingness: “As I do unto others, so I do unto myself.”

Internalizing costs also reflects the perceptions of a gift culture. In the circle of the gift, your good fortune is my good fortune, and your loss is my loss, because you will have correspondingly more or less to give. From that worldview, it is a matter of common sense to include damage to society or nature on the balance sheet. If I depend on you for the gifts you give me, then it is illogical to enrich myself by impoverishing you. In such a world, the best business decision is the one that enriches everybody: society and the planet. A sacred economy must embody this principle, aligning profit with the common weal.

Understanding this principle, some visionary businesspeople have attempted to realize it voluntarily through concepts like the “triple bottom line” and “full-cost accounting.” The idea is that their company will act to maximize not just its own profits, but the aggregate of people, planet, and profit — the three bottom lines. The problem is that these companies must compete with others who do the opposite: export their costs onto people and the planet. The triple bottom line and full-cost accounting are useful as a way to evaluate public policy (because they include more than just economic benefits) but when it comes to private enterprise, the first two Ps often run counter to the third. If I am a fisherman trying to fish sustainably, competing with industrial trawlers with hundred-mile-long nets, my higher costs will render me unable to compete. That is why some means is needed to force the internalization of costs and integrate the triple bottom line into a single bottom line that includes all three. We cannot merely hope that people “get it.” We must create a system that aligns self-interest with the good of all.

One way to bring externalized costs (and externalized benefits) onto the balance sheet is through cap-and-trade systems and other tradable emissions allowances.3 Although such systems have borne mixed results in practice (sulfur dioxide ceilings have been relatively successful, while the EU’s carbon credits have been a disaster), in principle they allow us to implement a collective agreement on how much is enough. “Enough” depends on the capacity of the planet or the bioregion to assimilate the substance in question. For sulfur dioxide, Europe and America might have separate ceilings to control acid rain; Los Angeles might have its own ozone or nitrous oxide ceiling; the planet might have a single CO2 and CFC ceiling. Enforcing aggregate ceilings circumvents Jevon’s paradox, which says that improvements in efficiency don’t necessarily lead to less consumption but can even lead to greater consumption by reducing prices and freeing capital for yet more production.”

The author add that such an attitude is an integral part of a ‘sacred economy’:

“A sacred economy is an extension of the ecology and obeys all of its rules, among them the law of return. Specifically, that means that every substance produced through industrial processes or other human activities is either used in some other human activity or, ultimately, returned to the ecology in a form, and at a rate, that other beings can process.1 It means there is no such thing as industrial waste. Everything cycles back to its source. As in the rest of nature, our waste becomes another’s food.

Why do I call such an economy “sacred” rather than natural or ecological? It is because of the sacredness of gifts. To obey the law of return is to honor the spirit of the Gift because we receive what has been given us, and from that gift, we give in turn. Gifts are meant to be passed on. Either we hold onto them for a while and then give them forward, or we use them, digest them, integrate them, and pass them on in altered form. That this is a sacred responsibility is apparent from both a theistic and an atheistic perspective.

From the theistic perspective, consider the source of this world we have been given. It would be a grave error to say, as some evangelicals have told me, that it is fine to use nature destructively, because after all God gave it to us. To squander a gift, to use it poorly, is to devalue the gift and insult the giver. If you give someone a present and he trashes it right in front of your face, you might feel insulted or disappointed; certainly you’ll stop giving gifts to that person. I think that anyone who truly believes in God wouldn’t dare treat Creation that way but would instead make the most beautiful use possible of life, earth, and everything on it. That means we treat it as the divine gift that it is. In gratitude, we use it well and give in turn. That is the theistic reason why I call a zero-waste economy sacred.

From an atheistic perspective, a zero-waste economy is the economic realization of the interconnectedness of all beings. It embodies the truth that as I do unto the other, so I do unto myself. To the extent that we realize oneness, we desire to pass our gifts forward, to do no harm, and to love others as we love our selves.

On a very practical level, this vision of sacred economy requires eliminating what economists refer to as “externalities.” Externalized costs are costs of production that someone else pays.” (http://www.realitysandwich.com/sacred_economics_chapter_10)