Amish 2.0

I've been watching 'the corporation' lately (site, youtube) and it got me thinking (a lot).

The documentary starts with observing that legally - in court - corporations are largely equal to humans. Then they ask the question, if we would make a psychological profile of these 'humans', what would we diagnose? It would be psychopaths. You can easily make the exercise for yourself, by comparing the symptoms of that illness as describe in the Wikipedia article with what you know about corporation. The documentary goes a long way at fleshing this out. It is at the very least an interesting approach.


Sustainability

One of the things that struck me most was the description of our production system in comparison with early airplane experimentation. Watch yourself standing on a clip and throwing yourself down with your invention. At first you might think, this is so wonderful, this thing is flying. I'm flying! But then - and it might take you a while - you'll start realizing, this is not flying, this is falling down!

The system we have is not sustainable. We know this. We can't keep driving our fuel based cars, we can't keep producing chemicals and spreading them over the whole planet, we can't keep on plundering our resources, etc. We have a system that is not sustainable. We're not flying, we're falling down. If you think about it, about everything we make, sell and consume cannot be made forever.


Metric

I was thinking, how could you measure in how far something is 'sustainable'? It's not that easy (I didn't research it though, and I'll most certainly will not be the first one to ask the question), but I think that a reasonable answer will start from the cost of creation of a product (in material and energy) and will extrapolate this cost taking into account time and population. This will then basically tell us how long and for how much persons we can produce the good. We could simplify it and make a constant of the persons to 'all' (1). This gives us a simple metric that tells us how long we can continue producing a given good for all of us, before we fall down.

So for instance, the T-shirt that I'm wearing, what would its figure be? If we’d all be wearing this same T-shirt, all of us, how much generations would we be able to go on with it? I have no idea. Years, months, days?

Another interesting question would then be, supposing that we have this figure, how much better could we make it? By adapting the production process, the life-cycle of the product or maybe the good itself. Could we turn our 1 year shirt in a 10000 year shirt? Nudism is clearly our cure :-)

It's also interesting to take a historic perspective on it. As we go back in time, it looks as if the metrics are improving. There was less 'plundering' a couple of centuries ago, probably even less a couple of thousand of years ago to make the equivalents of T-shirts (2).

We could also think about how our society would be different if we’d have been using sustainability metrics for decision making. For starters, what would be the threshold? 300 years? 10.000? For as long as the sun shines? And how different would our society be? Would there be cars? (probably not, but trucks e.g. might exist). Computers? The internet? Obesities? Cholera? Democracy? Corporations? 40-hour work weeks? 4 hour work weeks? No idea.


Tax

But we are now of course, and we are stuck with the system that we now have and - especially - our dependency on it (imagined or not). Can we transform this system in a more sustainable one, a system in which all of the goods that we produce have acceptable sustainability metrics? The only way I see to combine both (current production system and sustainability) is by (artificially) incorporating the sustainability metric into the price of the goods. And the only way I can think of doing that is via some form of taxation. If all play by the same rules (which implies an international approach) the price mechanism will ensure that the players on the market start behaving sustainably - even the psychopaths (3).

I know a nice example of a similar undertaking that was quite successfully implemented in Belgium. A number of years ago government stated that all companies remained responsible for the industrial packaging waste that they produced and that they should be able to proof given (high) percentages of that waste got recycled or otherwise 'valorized'. In order to be able to cope with this regulation, Belgian companies voluntary created a nonprofit organization (Val-I-Pac) that bought recycling and valorization rights on the markets. Participants of to the nonprofit financed it pro rata their production of industrial packaging waste. A system of statistical, on-site and other checks ensures that all involved play by the book. The whole endeavor has been quite successful. Within a couple of years recycling percentages rose substantially.

Of course this example is not the same as a sustainability tax, but it shows that something similar could be possible and could have similar effects as in the Val-I-Pac case (4). Key to the success of such a system is not the 'tax' as such, but the fact that more attention is focused on waste production itself, on measuring waste, on analyzing waste streams, on preventing waste production, etc. And this is exactly what a sustainability tax should do, but then more broadly.

The money that it raises can then be used to correct situations (globally), or where possible, to make ‘platform investments’ that can bring series of sustainability metrics to better levels. Think building new types of transportation, or housing, or energy projects or basic research.


Yes we can

I don't know of course. I don't know if such a tax would have a lasting effect or if it would be possible to implement one. But I think we should at least try to do something fundamentally. It's more and more clear that we're not flying – we're simply falling down. As a father, this is something that I simply can't accept.

Other suggestions anyone?


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(1) This is not entirely correct of course; the population has and will change over time. There are also other issues with the metric. What is the threshold against which we measure? A 'late' candidate can be: until we are unable to produce the good any longer. We could get earlier with: until it has x 'damage' on a number of threshold parameters that we measure against. Maybe: until it starts impacting its own price. Note that, for all three ways of measuring you'll be able to come up with examples of goods that will produce a negative metric (i.e. it's too late already). Another issue with the metric is that you'll have to take the whole production and life cycle of the good into account (similar to TCO). The material with which e.g. T-shirts are created might be shipped all over the planet and will induce transportation and packaging 'costs' that have to be taking into account with the metric. Later on we wash and maybe iron T-shirts, producing another set of costs that have to be taking into account. And finally we throw our T-shirts away and they'll be burned or recycled (and transported again).

(2) I write 'probably' as the ‘all persons’ 'constant' might impact things here (making shirts of animal skin for 7 billion persons e.g., might be not very sustainable).

(3) The corporation documentary will show that that doesn't solve all issues with the psychopaths. But hey - let's solve one world problem at a time ;-)

(4) It’s hard to find exact figures though. Here you have them for 2005 and 2006 (Dutch).

Posted at at 2:33 PM on Monday, November 24, 2008 by Posted by eli | 0 comments   | Filed under: