The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet
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The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I am currently releasing the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing from Amazon as either a paperback or a Kindle e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.
72. It is never actually cheaper to do things wrong.
Cleaning up a polluted waterway is much more expensive than installing proper effluent treatment; recycling an aluminum beverage can costs far less than mining, transporting, and processing a chunk of bauxite. Failure to build proper environmental controls into production processes and land-use laws on the grounds that they cost too much is self-defeating. The only sure result of corner-cutting is missing corners.
We are far too prone to say "We can't afford it." As Buckminster Fuller pointed out, we face a "geometrical compounding of inevitable expenditures, originally sidestepped because we believed erroneously that we 'couldn't afford' their correction….We have no difficulty discovering troubles but we fail to demonstrate intelligent search for the means of coping with the troubles. This is primarily due to our misconditioned reflex which says that 'we can't' afford to do the intelligent things."*
The source of this "misconditioned reflex" lies primarily in a coupling of two well-studied economic factors, external costs and decision costs. External costs, as previously described, are the costs of a transaction which are borne by neither the buyer nor the seller; decision costs are the costs of switching from one means of doing something to another means of doing the same thing. Nearly all of the things we "can't afford" to do properly, from an environmental or sustainability standpoint, fall into one of those two categories. Usually, they fall into both.
Pollution control is an obvious example. "[W]e are saying now that we can't afford to do anything about pollution," complained Fuller, "but after the costs of not doing something about pollution have multiplied manifold what it would cost us to correct it now, we will spend manifold what it would cost us now to correct it."** This analysis is correct but slightly misleading: it fails to point out that the costs of doing something about pollution now are borne by factory owners and consumers, while the greatly expanded costs of doing something about it in the future are borne by society as a whole. The future costs, in other words, are external. Add the decision costs - pollution-control equipment is expensive - and you make it very difficult for factory owners to want to clean up their messes. They're paying a considerable amount of money to correct what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as someone else's problem.
Since there are two parts to this dilemma, there are also two parts to its solution. The first part consists of internalizing as many of the externalities as possible. This is the well-known "polluter pays principle." It is usually applied retroactively, to cleanup costs, but this is part of the problem: it allows Fuller's "geometrical compounding of inevitable expenditures" to take place before the expenditures are made. Creating a market in effluent permits is much more efficient, because it takes place up front: cleanliness becomes a thing you can sell. Environmentalists often look upon it as selling "licenses to pollute," but it will cost both us and the environment a great deal less in the long run.
But that still leaves the decision costs to deal with. Fortunately, there is a relatively simple answer here, too. Society can pay the decision costs. We can provide grants for the installation of pollution-control equipment, or we can install and own the equipment ourselves. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that the factory's cost barrier to installing the equipment would disappear.
There are two principal objections to this course of action, both of them specious. The first objection states that society shouldn't be providing largess to polluters. If you've followed the arguments above, though, you will realize quickly that this isn't largess; it's a purchase, by society, of a good that society wants (namely, clean water). Those who are getting the benefits are the ones who are paying the costs. One can, of course, argue that the person who causes a mess should clean it up. This is morally impeccable but pragmatically hopeless. It is also slightly circular. Society's demand for consumer goods is, after all, the ultimate driving force behind the pollution. If the person who causes the mess should clean it up, how does that take us off the hook?
The second objection states that paying for pollution control with government money is too expensive, to which the only proper response is "here we go again." If the factory can't afford pollution control, and society can't afford it either, then pollution will happen and the costs will multiply. "We can't afford it" is a false excuse. It is never actually cheaper to do things wrong.
*Fuller, Buckminster, "Technology and the Human Environment," in Disch, Robert, ed., The Ecological Conscience: Values for Survival (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), p. 177.
This completes Chapter XIV, "On Government." Next week: Chapter XV, "On Planning," beginning with Section 73, "No single set of land-use regulations will ever fit all of the land."
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