Pollution and the commons

When I look at the history of sustainability, it appears that we ignore true economics for the sake of convenient economics. What does that mean? When we examine economics, intrinsic in the discipline is that we are a society. Economics is a human construct and doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unlike, say physics. With physics, regardless of whether or not humans and societies exist, rocks still fall, force is still mass times acceleration, etc.

Economics, on the other hand, is the attempt to understand human behavior with regards to commerce. In some ways, we invent economics as we go. There is no immutable law that says that humans must behave a certain way under certain economic conditions. They are merely tendencies. The tendencies under a barter system are different than the tendencies within the gold standard. What has been ignored in recent economic developments is the responsibility to the commons. This is particularly important because of the impact massive modern industry has had on the commons.

The "commons" contains the things we all share, like air, water, and soil. (click to enlarge)

The “commons” contains the things we all share, like air, water, and soil. (click to enlarge)

The commons is essentially the things that we all share. Nobody has the exclusive rights to air or water, at least not yet. Because we all share these things, true economics would suggest that we all pay for their access and that we charge those who trespass on the commons. A simple example is found with fishing licenses. When people fish, they use more of the public good than those who don’t, therefore a license helps us pay to maintain the areas fished. The licenses also control how many people are permitted to fish. It’s simple.

Unfortunately for our society, our convenient economics and their greed have trumped the process to price in externalities like pollution, specifically carbon emissions. We all pay to have our trash picked up, but we don’t all pay for the pollution we emit, at least not financially. This is particularly egregious by large polluters like coal power plants and oil refineries. This is particularly ironic when we hear the pushback to a carbon tax or stricter pollution policies as, who’s going to pay for this? This specious question is designed to misdirect the conversation from who is currently paying for it. In truth, we all pay for the tragedy of the commons collectively even though we don’t all contribute proportionately.

Air pollution has been linked to rising rates of asthma and respiratory disease (click to enlarge)

Air pollution has been linked to rising rates of asthma and respiratory disease (click to enlarge)

It is now becoming evident that we pay through the burdens on our healthcare system and public health as pollution increases poor health conditions. Some obvious conditions like asthma are well know to be affected by pollution, and overall, 200,000 people die every year from pollution.

This tragedy of the commons has become complete madness, to such an extent, that the possibility of talking about climate change, its reality and its effects, seems virtually impossible. Therefore this piece is focused merely on the most obvious aspects of pollution. What can’t be found, however, in the denial of climate change and all of its implications is that pollution, greenhouse gases or not, is bad. We don’t want to breathe pollution. We don’t want to drink pollution. We don’t want to eat pollution. This is all regardless of climate science. I’ve yet to meet a climate denier that has made the argument that pollution is good, that they want to suck on a tailpipe.

All of that said, we need to begin to price into our economy the cost of pollution. It is currently an unpriced externality and being unpriced and with the enormous tax breaks the fossil fuel industry receives for being fossil fuel companies, we are actually, as a society paying TO pollute instead of to not. Why would we incentivize creating more pollution in any sane world?