The Price is Not the Cost

While we green types yearn for a culture-wide shift away from obsessive consumption and toward sane conservation practices, as long as energy, water and other basic resources are priced the way they are now, there’s little chance of people actually changing their behavior.

Our entire society is founded on the assumption of a perpetual supply of cheap fuel. No cheap fuel, no cars. No cars, no suburbs. No industrial agriculture — little industrial anything, for that matter.

But the price we pay — at the gas pump, in our heating bills — is not the true cost of this cheap energy. Most kinds of fuel, but especially the fossil kinds (petroleum, coal, natural gas), are heavily subsidized one way or another. Our tax dollars pay for R&D; many of these companies get such large tax breaks that they pay essentially no taxes at all. While we’re at it, we can even count the mountains of money we pay to build and maintain roads and bridges as at least a partial subsidy for the petroleum industry.

Meanwhile, there’s a subsidy we don’t pay in coin, but is instead taken literally out of the earth’s hide: Air pollution and water pollution, basically, but that sounds so abstract. It’s better to think of it as streams running orange from acid mine drainage. Mountains blown up for the coal inside. Soot and mercury from coal-fired power plants, settling in the river. Toxic fumes from natural-gas wells. Molecules of oil poisoning shrimp beds in the Gulf of Mexico.

Even the byproducts of fossil fuels — most of the synthetic chemicals that constitute a growing proportion of our everyday material world — result in this kind of blowback. The pesticides that sicken farm workers. The weed-killers that run off golf-course lawns, poisoning groundwater. The hormone-mimicking chemicals in containers of food, cosmetics and shampoo that leach out and make their way into our bodies, and are increasingly implicated in a host of health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

We subsidize these products, too — this time with our ever-skyrocketing medical bills.

Haven’t even mentioned such chart-toppers as ozone depletion and climate change. Right now, the people paying for the latter, for instance, are the victims of rising seas and most anyone whose water supply depends on glaciers, which are vanishing worldwide at what seems to be an acclerating rate.

In fact, civilization seems intent on living so as to create the maximum ecological havoc possible. If there’s something that’ll increase emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses, we’ll drill for it and burn it. If there’s something that absorts CO2, we’ll compromise its ability to do so — cut down the rainforests. Clear more woods to grow more grain to feed more cattle to release more methane so we can eat more meat. 

But none of this destruction is reflected in the grocery or energy bills we pay.  We’ve always assumed that the services nature provides  are free. But acidified oceans can’t aborb as much carbon, or grow as many shellfish. Oveworked, chemical-drenched soils lose their ability to grow food. Leveled forests can’t purify water. Extinct bats and birds can’t eat insects.

We have assumed, in other words, that nature is part of the human economy. But as economist Herman Daly (author of Beyond Growth and other books) points out, it’s really the other way around: The “economy” we wish to keep growing forever is only a subset of nature, one that has outstripped nature’s ability to sustain it.

The “cap-and-trade” scheme for carbon pollution that was debated this year in Congress was a meager attempt to begin to address this problem. It was not meager enough for the special interests and free-market ideologues who killed it, but it would have been a step in the right direction.

Still, there are better ways to make the price of energy (which effects the price of almost everything else) reflect its true cost. A straight-up tax on carbon at the wellhead and mine-shaft is probably the best. It would have to be steep, and, as suggested by environmental thinker Lester Brown, it must be offset by decreasing taxes on labor. (Raise taxes on the thing we want used less, energy, and lower them on the thing we want more of, jobs.)

Again,l it would be the merest start. But the longer the price remains as far from the cost as it is now, the harder it’s going to be to make good on the difference. And it’s a debt it’ll be especially unpleasant to pay.

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