We live in a world that's running out of stuff including the stuff that keeps you alive - clean air and fresh water for starters. There is not enough to meet our insatiable and persistently growing demand. The Global Footprint Network that studies these things has worked out that mankind now uses renewable resources (water, air, biomass) at 1.7 times the Earth's replenishment rate, its carrying capacity.
That means we're neck deep in a major resource deficit. The shortfall is visible, tangible, palpable and manifests in countless forms. It's evident in lakes that have dried out, rivers that no longer run to the sea, aquifers that have been rapaciously drained and now stand empty, vast and expanding tracts of deforestation, spreading desertification encroaching on once productive land, even cities. It's evident in increasing contamination and pollution of our waterways and coastlines observed in algae blooms and oceanic "dead zones." It's inescapable in the collapse of global fisheries as the industrial fleet chases species after species, "fishing down the food chain." It's evident in loss of natural habitat and biodiversity, the extinction of species terrestrial and aquatic. It's everywhere. You have to close your eyes not to see it.
Keep all of that in mind when you consider that a lot of what we're running out of is consumed, free of charge, by the same industrial sector that has given us so much crap that ends up obsolete or unworkable in such short order. In fact a recent study finds that none of the world's top industries would realize any profit if they had to pay for the resources they consume at no charge.
Coming from a civilization which, for most of its 12,000 year history, enjoyed a bountiful surplus of natural resources, we're not accustomed to seeing those resources in terms of ownership or value. We have to get our minds around the idea that assets are property and, if they don't belong to you personally, they very much belong to your society or, in the case of the atmosphere, to humankind in general. Then understand that your society, with the collusion of your political caste, is getting grievously shortchanged.
The notion of “externalities” has become familiar in environmental circles. It refers to costs imposed by businesses that are not paid for by those businesses. For instance, industrial processes can put pollutants in the air that increase public health costs, but the public, not the polluting businesses, picks up the tab. In this way, businesses privatize profits and publicize costs.
The majority of unpriced natural capital costs are from greenhouse gas emissions (38%), followed by water use (25%), land use (24%), air pollution (7%), land and water pollution (5%), and waste (1%).
So how much is that costing us? Trucost’s headline results are fairly stunning.
First, the total unpriced natural capital consumed by the more than 1,000 “global primary production and primary processing region-sectors” amounts to $7.3 trillion a year — 13 percent of 2009 global GDP.
That amounts to an global industrial system built on sleight of hand. As Paul Hawken likes to put it, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.
Of course the contrarians will say that, if we priced that natural capital and forced industry to pay, that would be passed along in ever higher prices. Not so fast. That overlooks what would happen to both production and consumption.
Free resources are freely consumed, subject to availability, and freely squandered. They're free after all. When those resources are priced, when they come with a cost, the competitor that uses them most wisely, with the least waste, has a market advantage.
Also, when the price increases, consumers will become less tolerant of shoddy manufacture, planned obsolescence and shortened lifespans, products that cannot be repaired or upgraded. Imagine if your appliances, out of the box, were good for 25 to 30 years. I've been in my current house for about 15-years and I'm already on my third stove. When the first two failed I was outraged to be told that the essential parts needed to repair them were no longer available.
Pricing natural capital is an essential step in transitioning to a steady state economy. It's not a nice idea. It's not an option. If we don't take that leap we won't have an economy.
If you're interested in this idea of pricing natural capital there are several good books you can find in your library. A good starting point is "Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival," a 1995 book edited by Thomas Prugh and containing essays by Robert Costanza, John Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland and Richard Norgaard. If nothing else you'll discover how we're all getting shortchanged by neoliberal governments. You'll also realize that continuing on with the status quo is not an option. If we don't change, and soon, we will be changed.