Who Owns Environmental Quality?

Who Owns Environmental Quality?

Illustration by Joe Tallarico

Who owns environmental quality? Most human beings hearing this question may respond, “Are you joking? How can anybody own environmental quality? It’s not something like a house or a factory or an enterprise, something tangible that you can put your hands on and own. It’s like asking who owns the sky?” But this question has already been posed—and is being answered by “the market,” that hallowed institution to which we are expected to turn to solve all our woes. It is being answered in ways that are deeply troubling to anybody interested in social justice, environmental sustainability, or individual freedom. Within capitalist economic systems, any scarce resource presents an opportunity for profit. From that point of view, the vital resource of air to breathe has no value because it’s abundant. Who would pay for air to breathe, since it can’t be packaged into boxes and put onto supermarket shelves, when (and this is critical) it is already available by other means? Here’s an enormous potential market, surely worth billions if not trillions of dollars, which is completely untapped. Wouldn’t it be an enormous stimulus to “the economy” if we could somehow wipe out the earth’s atmosphere, and then sell people their daily oxygen supplies in bottles? The “we” here of course refers not to you and me, but to those people who don’t know where to invest their millions of dollars of profits. We haven’t yet come to the point when people die for lack of their daily oxygen ration, because the quantity of breathable air has not yet become scarce and thereby profitable. However, the quality of air has declined greatly in many places due to industrial development and our heavy reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. Likewise, surface and groundwater quality has been seriously degraded in many places around the planet. Areas of beautiful landscapes, which were once ubiquitous around the world and within walking distance of even the most squalid urban quarters, have become virtually inaccessible to millions of people. Organic food that has been produced without the use of heavy doses of agricultural chemicals is typically more expensive than industrially manufactured food and is thus unavailable to millions of people. (Ironically, products such as “Old World organic peasant rye bread” are now being marketed to upscale customers in the United States.) We (and here the “we” does refer to you and me) are told that all such declines in environmental quality are a necessary price of progress, and that with even more progress, all of these problems will be fixed. After all, the rich in the core industrialized countries can buy environmental quality. They can choose to live far away from the centers of industrial production. They can pay for filtered tap water, and if they wish, they can buy bottled water from France or Fiji, even if the volume of oil needed to transport that water to the consumer may approximate the volume of the water itself. They can buy their peasant rye bread, their “artisanally produced” olive oil from a small organic farm in the Apennines, their arabica, shade-grown premium coffee from Colombia, and so forth. They can spend their vacations in the pristine places of the earth, while creating the demand for air travel that allows airports to gobble up ever more space and airplanes to emit ever more carbon dioxide. There are big and increasing markets for all these kinds of commodities, and after all, what the rich consume now, will become the norm for everybody in the future as economic progress continues, won’t it ? The reasons why these affluent lifestyles can not be extended to everybody is that they demand lots of natural resources and low-paid labor—the low pay consisting not just of low wages, but also of being housed in tiny, crowded, apartments, living in polluted environments, not having the leisure to escape even for short periods of time from miserable conditions. Capitalism as we know it since the last couple of centuries depends on ever increasing wants among the wealthy and the middle classes, and deprivation among the poor. Both the ever increasing wants and the deprivation are created by what I call scarcity-generating institutions—institutions that either create new demands, or restrict supplies, or create bottlenecks between supply and demand, in order to create profitable scarcities. (Scarcity always exists when demand exceeds supply, even if supplies are great in absolute terms.) For example, on the demand-creation side, planning cities such that you can’t get around without a car creates increased demand for cars; advertising and education that make you believe you can only achieve an identity and status through consumption increase demand for all kinds of commodities, while distracting people from understanding their most fundamental needs and how to fulfill them. On the supply side, destruction of environmental amenities makes people seek substitutes, such as vacations in exotic places, often at a high price. Meanwhile bottlenecks are created by monopoly or oligopoly markets in consumer products, in intellectual property rights, and many other commodities. In oligopoly markets, a few companies control the market rather than just one. For example, oligopoly markets for land, credit, and agricultural commodities that make it almost impossible for peasants to survive eliminate viable livelihoods and force people to move into the cities, desperately searching for jobs and accepting them no matter how little the pay. I am convinced that such scarcity-generating institutions are essential both to the continued increase in demand by the affluent and the continued supply of labor by the poor . Returning to environmental quality, too many environmentalists have themselves internalized this logic of scarcity. It underlies Malthusian notions of overpopulation – environmental destruction by the rich (by their disproportionate resource consumption) never appears to be a problem to Malthusians (people who believe that population will outstrip the earth’s capacity to sustain it), in part because they believe just as firmly as any cornucopians (people who believe that there is no limit to population growth) that it is completely natural and inevitable for people to have limitless wants. Instead, they blame the poor for any and all environmental destruction. Or consider the environmentalism of many suburbanites, for example, a community of affluent people in Bedford, a New York suburb, who maintain what they consider environmental quality by imposing minimum lot sizes of several acres, by preventing the construction of affordable housing in their vicinity, and by preventing the construction of asphalt roads to keep their area “rural.” Strategies such as this lead to greater urban sprawl, the necessity to build more spatially extensive networks of all kinds of utilities, the need for service sector workers to travel longer distances to work, and more erosion from the roads .Similarly, environmentalists in Austin, Texas, are primarily of the middle class, and find it difficult or impossible to form coalitions with the poor, because all the environmental problems that they perceive as important are of less importance to the poor, while they ignore the pollution problems in the poor parts of the city, or the need for efficient public transport . In spite of their high-sounding rhetoric, environmentalists of this type implicitly believe that environmental quality is a “post-material” good that you can get as a bonus after first getting your house with the two-car garage, your SUV next to your sedan, your plasma TV, and so on. Environmental quality as a scarce commodity must go to the highest bidder. But what if we turn this logic on its head? What if we want abundance and not scarcity? What if we refuse to create artificial needs among those who already have too much, and instead allow those who have too little to get what they need? What if we say that pure air and water, unadulterated food, beauty (both in cities and the countryside), and other necessities must be available to all? What if we declare our freedom to say that our desire for social justice and environmental quality is enormous, but that our need for marketed commodities is quite limited, in the face of the constant refrain claiming that calls for social justice and environmental quality are frivolous, while wants for commodities are limitless and must be satisfied at all costs? Consider this idea (which builds on an idea developed by Peter Barnes ): the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we inhabit, the animals and plants we utilize, the mineral resources we exploit were not created by us. By what right do a few of us have the right to claim all these as our own? What if all these were to be made our common property? For example, the air of a nation could be the nation’s property: every resident of a country would own a share (which could not be sold) and earn dividends on it. The income on air would come from the fees that polluters would have to pay for the privilege to emit pollutants into the air. The water of a river basin could be the property of all people living in that basin—and again, people withdrawing or polluting water would have to pay for their water use; an equal share of this income would be paid to each shareholder. Forests could be the common property of the people in the communities living in and around these forests; logging companies would have to bid for logging concessions and that revenue would be divided equally among all the co-owners. Mineral resources of high market value, such as oil, could be the property of the residents of a nation, while those of more modest market value, such as rocks in quarries, could be the common property of counties or cities. Companies wishing to mine these resources would have to pay fees, and this revenue would go equally to all co-owners. If land itself were to be made common property, it could be leased out in long-term leases, and the income from those leases distributed among all the people residing in a locality (anything built on the land, such as houses, would remain private property). All these forms of common property would have to be managed by democratic mechanisms, allowing all shareholders a direct or indirect voice in important decisions—for example, which resource uses to prohibit entirely, which resource uses to allow in return for fees, and how to distribute the revenue (for example, as monetary payments to shareholders, or as some kinds of goods or services). What would be the results of such a system? The institutions controlling these various environmental goods and natural resources would tend to increase the fees for their use or degradation, because that’s what their shareholders would want. This would make the use or degradation of natural resources more expensive, and encourage more resource conservation throughout the economy, thus promoting environmental goals. In our present economy, increasing the prices for natural resources would allow a few people to get fabulously rich at the expense of everyone else, but with shared ownership of these resources, that wouldn’t happen. That’s because the income based on environmental resources, distributed equally among all shareholders, would provide a guaranteed basic income for everybody (perhaps on the order of a few hundred dollars a month per person), in addition to any of their other sources of livelihood and income. For people of above-average income, this would be a net loss, because the additional money they would have to spend for all the resources embodied in the consumer products they consume would exceed the dividends they receive from natural resources. However, for people of below-average income, this would be a net benefit—not only because the dividends would exceed their increased expenses due to increased natural resource costs, but also because that income would be guaranteed. No matter whether they were employed or not, they would still remain co-owners of the natural resource wealth of their nation and their locality, and therefore get that income as a right. Such a guaranteed income could allow people working at two minimum-wage jobs to give up one of them; it could allow some working parents to reduce their hours of work in order to spend more time with their kids; it could allow some people to take time off from work or work fewer hours while pursuing further education or training in order to improve their future job prospects; it could allow some people to quit demeaning jobs; it could allow some women with abusive husbands to divorce. In general, people with low and precarious incomes would be empowered and less desperate for jobs, thus making them far less exploitable. This would be a step toward a more just society. At the same time, because this environmental-resource-based income would go to everybody equally (regardless of their other sources of income), positive incentives to work would not be eliminated. Social welfare payments, essentially derived from taxes on labor, could be substantially reduced. Thus even advocates of the market and its freedoms should have no theoretical objections to such a system. They would of course object in reality, because their power and privileges would be diminished. Some people may be bothered by the idea of lots of people getting unearned income. In response to such criticism, I would say that huge amounts of unearned income already exist, but the vast majority of this income goes to the small percentage of people who own major shares in corporations, or who own a lot of land. My proposal would lead to the more equitable distribution of unearned income. Obviously, this idea is utopian. It’s also just one piece of the complex puzzle of trying to build a sustainable society; I’ve only discussed the ownership and management of environmental resources in this article. There would be considerable challenges in creating truly democratic management structures for such large bodies of people. Some of the sources of income I mentioned above, such as fees on air pollution, would, I hope, one day disappear simply because polluters would work very hard to reduce radically the pollution they cause. Whatever we do, we do need to use natural resources, so other sources of common revenue would remain. Despite these kinds of problems, for utopian ideas to become reality, people have to fight for them, and before they fight for them, they have to conceive of them, discuss them, and thus refine them. This idea is still only at the conceptual phase. The more general idea I wish to express is that we must urgently search for ways in which environmental quality can be made to belong to everybody, so that the environment can be protected, while we advance the interests of those with the least power and wealth. Environmental protection at the cost of the poor is a recipe for disaster—an immediate disaster for the poor, and a delayed disaster for the environment and the rich—because ultimately those policies will fail. Wolfgang Hoeschele is an Associate Professor of Geography at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He may be reached by e-mail at whoesch@truman.edu. Notes 1. This paragraph should not be construed as a condemnation of people engaging in the forms of consumption mentioned—we all act under conditions of constrained choice, and the important thing is to understand these constraints, rather than to blame people for the choices they make. I myself engage in some of the types of consumption mentioned. 2. This thesis is explained in detail in my as-yet unpublished book manuscript entitled “The End of Scarcity: Profit or Abundance? A Political Economy for Freedom, Equity, and Sustainability.” I have also explained this thesis in an academic article, “Research Agenda for a Green Economics of Abundance,” International Journal of Green Economics 2 (1): 29–44 (2008). 3. This example is taken from James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb, New York, Routledge, 2004. 4. See Steven Moore, Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt, Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books, 2007. 5. Peter Barnes, Who Owns the Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism, Washington, D.C., Island Press, 2001.