Friday, August 13, 2010

Large-Scale Solutions: Protecting the Commons, Individual Choices

Some large-scale solutions require no changes in governance at all, as they arise from individual and community choices. Others require the will of the people to place limits on private exploitation of the commons.

Those enamoured of "big fixes" tend to dismiss small behavioral changes as inconsequential. But they fail to grasp the ultimately large-scale consequences of widespread small-scale, localized, individually controlled changes in behavior and governance.

Consider the Pacific Trash Vortex which has gathered within the North Pacific Gyre. The vortex (or Great Pacific Garbage Patch), about the size of Texas (though some estimates claim it is much larger), is a gathering place for plastic and polymer particulates which have ended up in the Pacific Ocean.

The causes of the trash vortex are no mystery: plastic nets which have been cut loose by trawlers, and consumer plastics which have ended up in waterways and then carried to the sea, where sun and movement break them down into small bits which float below the surface, invisible to satellite imagery and the human eye.

The effects of the trash vortex are not yet known; maybe it's mostly benign except to the sealife which eats the bright plastic bits, mistaking them for food.

As I often point out, the world is not a rules-based videogame which operates according to simplistic ideological rules. The "free market" has created the plastics industry and sold the consumer on the benefits of plastic bags, plastic containers, and the "need" to drink multiple plastic-bottled beverages every day.

The "free market" has no mechanism to "care" about the trash vortex or to "fix" it with "market mechanisms." That requires governance imposing rules and limits on the plastic industry and the distribution of plastic materials for a greater good--a quality whose price/value cannot be "discovered" by the market.

The greater good is "obvious": preserve and protect the commons we all depend on (air, water, soil, etc.) from despoilation and exploitation for private/Elite gain.

Governance has the potential to protect the commons and also to enable and extend private exploitation/pillaging.

Various governments subsidize their fishing fleets to support local industry; as a result of this political choice, the seas are being trawled to extinction.

The governments which subsidize their fishing fleets do not subsidize the collection of abandoned fishing nets, so there is no financial benefit to retrieving the (eventually) deadly nets, which snare and kill sealife as they drift around for years.

"The Market" and the governments don't care until the food chain is decimated and there are no high-value fish left to catch. Then the fishing fleets will go home and rust away dockside, waiting for that magical day of renewed abundance which will never come (at least not in our lifetimes).

So what can individuals and communities do about the Pacific Garbage vortex that won't harm their own finances? Requiring "plastic" bags to be made of truly biodegradable materials would be a start, as would charging consumers money to use one.

Such a steep user-fee would simply recognize that there is a cost to the commons to the widespread use of plastic consumables which is not reflected in the market price. Indeed, the market is incapable of recognizing that cost, as I point out in Survival+.

Rather than charge a deposit on glass bottles only, a hefty deposit on plastic bottles would provide an incentive to collect and recycle plastic bottles rather than let them drift into waterways and the ocean. Recyclers would soon collect every visible plastic bottle because it offered a financial return to do so.

As consumers, we can see through the marketing con-game of "everything is better in plastic." Rather than buy endless quantities of small plastic soap dispensers, use a bar of soap which was packaged in paper, or buy a single humongous container of soap and refill the smaller dispenser for years, thereby reducing the consumption of plastic by a substantial amount.

If you have reason to fear your local water supply--all too many consumers have blindly fallen for the marketing hype to buy bottle water which is actually less tasty than their tap water--then buy a simple water filter and refill bottles (plastic or glass, thermos, etc.).

Remarkably, the world did not shrivel up and expire 40 years ago when there were no plastic bottles, plastic shopping bags and a plethora of plastic dispensers. It will likely survive their reduction.

On a larger scale, we might ask if manufacturing hundreds of millions of disposable plastic bags and containers per year is really the best use of the planet's remaining reserves of petrochemicals (oil). "The market" is incapable of assessing that trade-off because it can only "discover" the price of oil today and in the near future. It cannot assess the cost to the commons of the Pacific Trash Vortex.

Most plastics are chemically stable. The plastic building blocks and plates and millions of other consumables will last a long time, and they can be compressed and "hidden" in landfills. But the better choice would be to buy cardboard plates and wood building blocks. These choices harm no one and are not difficult to make.

If 100 million consumers stopped using plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic plates, etc., then that would lead to large-scale reductions in the amount of plastics which end up in waterways and thus the seas. The change would harm no one but the workers in plastics factories, who could probably be hired by paper recycling plants. Plastics manufacturers would have incentives to do some R&D in truly biodegradable polymers.

Some cities are pondering charging consumers 5 cents for each plastic bag. Many citizens (who after all, are citizens first and consumers second) bring canvas or cloth bags to the market to bag their purchases(we do). It requires no sacrifice or extra expense.

Some of these behavioral changes could be made without any change in governance at all; others require the will of the people to be expressed via the processes of governance and government. What should the will of the people be? To protect the commons upon which we all depend.

That is the right and proper role of government, as opposed to its present occupation of protecting and enriching Power Elites, fiefdoms and cartels.

We might change Tolstoy's wisdom to: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing his behavior."

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