Almost two years ago exactly, December 2010, I addressed the different changes in our collective thinking that might usher in a sustainable world. It was argued that this depended to a great extent on folks “getting it” with respect to how people view sustainability and their responsibility (personal and corporate – although I understand some believe corporations are individuals).
I quoted Lester Brown and his observations on this. He compared the change in thinking needed relative to sustainability (and sustainable development, industry, products, etc.) as the realization of the notion that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Mr. Brown noted that we used to consider the environment as part of the economy but it is really that the economy is part of the environment. Wikipedia quotes his speech in 2008 stating “indirect costs are shaping our future,” and by ignoring these, “we’re doing exactly the same thing as Enron- leaving costs off the books. Consuming today with no concern for tomorrow is not a winning philosophy.”
So, it boils down to, first, accepting the idea that there are indirect costs associated with the environment, second, identifying these indirect costs in a comprehensive way, third, assessing the “ownership” of these costs to the appropriate stakeholders (the “term du jour” for those involved in the process or benefitting/suffering from the outcome; or, according to Merriam-Webster – “one that has a stake in an enterprise or one who is involved in or affected by a course of action”) and, fourth (the tricky bit), getting the stakeholders to accept responsibility, or pay in some cases, for their part of the indirect costs.
In the older article referenced above, I also cited Hawken and Lovins, in “Natural Capitalism” (Little Brown, 1999), commenting that “The best solutions are based not on tradeoffs or ‘balance’ between these objectives [economic, environmental and social policy] but on design integration achieving all of them together – at every level, from technical devices to production systems to companies to economic sectors to entire cities and societies.”
Achieving the economic, environmental and social policy objectives all together across all sectors from producers to consumers.
Great concept. How can we do this?
In Berkeley, I pay for the removal of my waste each week – divided into three containers – compostable waste (i.e. lawn waste and food products), trash (nothing recyclable left – at least recyclable as defined by the City of Berkeley) and recyclable waste – glass, plastic and metal recyclables. Regardless of where the contents of these three containers was generated (at the farm, as packaging for a product I purchased or had sent to me from an on-line retailer, end of life items,etc.) I pay to have them removed from my household. If the producer creates a product with a larger or smaller carbon footprint (or environmental damage) I see no difference in my waste bill. I do pay, probably, more in property taxes, etc. to cover the cost of environmental impacts on my fellow citizens who need special treatment due to air, water or soil problems associated with production, use and disposal of products. On a national level I am sure I am covering this cost for many who rely on the resources of their governments to help them if they are not able to, or don’t have, coverage for such problems. And, to the extent that the manufacturer (if located in the US) or the distributor or local retailer pay fees and taxes and to the extent some of those go to support such services, they are paying something as well.