In my last entry, The Butterfly Effect, I suggested that people would make different choices if they had a better understanding of the social and environmental impacts of their consumption. While products and services bombard us with words such as green, environmentally friendly, organic, rain forest certified, dolphin free, sustainable, local, etc, their meanings are at least confusing and at worst deceptive. My idea is to create a simple and easy to understand grading system (A, B, C, D and F) such as the ones you see posted on restaurants that guide people as to the social and environmental impact that a product embodies. The idea is to offer people with an easy way to become socially responsible consumers and businesses.
Such a grading system could be called the Environmental & Social Impact Grade (ESIG), the Social Responsibility Indicator (SRI), or the Embodied Energy Grade (EEG). My current favorite, however, is the Product Impact Grade (PIG). This grade would be a composite picture of the product’s impact and could include such elements such as its carbon footprint, embodied energy, employee’s working conditions and pay, social impact, management pay, expected life of product, impact on human health, and corporate transparency. These are just some of the element’s I’ve come up with off the top of my head. The grade could represent a statistical percentage or something more simple such as A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Improving, D=Poor, F=Fail
Ideally, this grade would be prominently printed on each product label – products ranging from cigarettes to diamonds, coffee to cars, and from food to furniture. While I’m sure there would be a great deal of controversy and heated debate about what elements should be reflected by the PIG, it’s also a discussion that is long overdue. Ideally, by reflecting a product’s sustainability, the PIG will also become a reflection of the social contract we hold with each other and our environment regardless of race or religion, wealth or politics.
Imagine if customers went into a Wal-Mart store and found most of their products labeled with a big fat “D” or “F”. They would still be the same products we’ve been consuming for years, but the grade will give people a sense of the sustainability of that product. No one likes a D or an F and such marks would provoke people to wonder what is behind the grade. The labeling would be tied to a product database that details the reasons for the grade. The grade would gradually affect consumption patterns and businesses will be forced to adapt.
This is an inexpensive, within-the-box solution that uses education to inform both consumer choices as well as business behavior. It does not need a global treaty to implement. Other than possibly requiring the grade to be printed, the PIG doesn’t need any government legislation. The result could be that people choose less sustainable practices because of price, but at least our unsustainability will be the result of our conscious choice and not our blind ignorance.
The Butterfly Effect is used to illustrate an element of chaos theory. It suggests the possibility that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the globe a few weeks later. As far as affecting weather, this seems to be more of a mental exercise rather than a meaningful explanation of weather. However, in our globalized consumer economy, it demonstrates how a seemingly innocent action in one place can have large, unintended consequences on the other side of the planet.
Examples of ill considered consequences of our economic system include growing corn for fuel which raises the cost of staple items in Latin America. Our disposable attitude towards technology leads to environmental pollution and poisoning in China. Making the automobile the cornerstone of our mobility increases productivity everywhere so that the society can afford them and then estranges those in a society who cannot (see The Transportation Trap). The connections are infinite and ubiquitous in our everyday lives and only seen by those who take time to notice.
What future do we want? Well, the one we’re going to get is the one we are building now and this is not the future I want. For myself, I do not want my prosperity to be the source or cause of someone else’s suffering – whether I understand the intricate linkages or not. I am sure many will disagree or have an opinion about. However, it’s an important enough question that we must openly and seriously discuss and debate it. It is not enough for governments to hold a conference; rather everyone must become engaged and involved in the conversation if we are to have a meaningful mandate for a change to sustainable systems.
I believe humanity has reached a unique point in its evolution – a place in time when we can and will define our character as a species. The difference between a child and an adult is in acknowledging their responsibilities. A modern world cannot ignore the “negative externalities” of its economic system and an advance society cannot ignore its responsibilities. So too, we cannot consider our civilization to be “grown up” until we acknowledge our responsibilities.
The challenge humanity faces is not a technical one – we already have the know-how to make our world sustainable. The challenge we face is one of collective will – we fear the uncertainty of change. I have a belief (probably naïve) that, like myself, the great majority of my fellow humanity does not want their prosperity to be the cause of another person’s suffering. If so, the means to bringing about a sustainable world may be found in tapping into this sense of compassion by making people aware of the Butterfly Effects of our globalized, consumption economy. The problem is: how? My next blog entry will propose a relatively simple, inexpensive and non-regulatory solution. My sincerest hope is that we choose a future we all want.
We teach the subject of social responsibility in our universities, we lecture the topic to our children and I think many assume that society is generally responsible. But, are we? It seems to me that just as a person is responsible for their choices, society is likewise responsible for its collective actions. What does this imply? It implies that society is responsible for the failure of the systems it implements and that poverty, homelessness, hunger and inadequate healthcare are the manifestations of our system’s failures.
My posts to the Sustainability Puzzle have focused on presenting a basic outline of how to re-organize ourselves sustainably. Now that we have a working design, how can we actually transition society into a cantilevered system of sustainability? Well, I think there is no silver bullet, but a great deal of the legwork can be accomplished through the tried and true carrot and stick approach of tax policy. Let me share my general thoughts with you.
One of the goals of a cantilevered system of sustainability is to cluster resources and communities around them. It aims to densify cities and dramatically improve their sustainability. These resource intense cities would be cantilevered by sustainable communities networked by smart rail systems in the space between cities. Because these communities are sustainable and provide their own services, they would not require government services and would be tax free (see The Grand Bargain).
In order to prepare for the new built environment, one change I would propose is to reformulate property tax assessments to include the actual cost of services to a property as well as an “unsustainablity” assessment. Properties that are less eco-friendly will be taxed at a higher rate than those that are resource-neutral. The tax can increase over a period of time to make carbon-hungry buildings uneconomical, incentivizing retrofits or altogether replacement. Another aim of the policy is to concentrate cities into a defined area — promoting vertical and green development while discouraging sprawl. This will inevitably result in abandoning structures as well as areas that are not populated enough to make it economical for the resources required to keep them within the domain of the city. There will ultimately be a lowest tax rate in the city, but since it will be connected by roads, education and health systems, there cannot be a 0% rate within cities. This 0% rate would be reserved for sustainable communities outside the city.
One of the greatest sources of our unsustainability is our transportation system (see Transportation Trap) and city sprawl encourages private car ownership. By discouraging sprawl and encouraging densification through an “unsustainability tax”, we’re promoting the economics of public transport and undermining the need for the private automobile. For example, currently malls pop up in suburbs that are only easily accessed by car and require new off ramps, dedicated traffic intersections, new sewage and water lines. Such infrastructure sprawl will become uneconomic as its construction and maintenance will no longer be subsidized.
The traditional argument would be that increasing taxes will slow down economic activity. However, it is also true that people will spend money to avoid taxes! If the policies are announced in advance and phased in over time, people and business will be able to make the physical changes and experience little change in their tax rate. The benefit will be a surge in building and innovation of technologies, services and systems that will result from this planned change in our built environment. This “call to action” will create a short-term boom of 10 years or longer during the transition into our new sustainable systems.
To read more on the wisdom of densifying cities:
Imagine we'd know which way to navigate towards a sustainable development of our planet.
A planet which has boundaries - or with more positive words "a safe operation space for humans". We must respect it. Yet, that is not enough. We must also seek to find socially just solutions. That is when we can speak of inclusive and sustainable development.