44 Slices
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8. Carbon Capping: A Cautionary Tale

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Our planet’s atmosphere is a sacred public trust that belongs to all of
us, and the right to pollute it should not be given away for free
.

—Senator Edward Markey

Many of the ideas discussed so far in theoretical terms collided with reality in 2009, when Congress attempted to limit carbon pollution in the United States. Like two previous attempts, this one failed. At the same time, though less noticed, Congress also missed an opportunity to create a fund that pays dividends to all Americans. The revenue for this fund would have come from selling rights to dump carbon dioxide into our co-owned air.

The story of these failures is both political and intellectual. In this chapter, I trace the transformation of a good idea—a market-based limit on carbon pollution—into a compromised and beaten one. This transformation was driven by the familiar Washington process of rent seeking, and its story yields a number of lessons.

THE IDEA OF CAPPING FLOWS of harmful substances, and then letting markets allocate them, goes back to 1968, when a Canadian economist, the late John Dales, floated the idea in a book called Pollution, Property & Prices1 At the time, Dales wasn’t thinking about climate change; he was thinking about farmers who polluted streams with chemical runoffs. Some farmers could reduce their pollution more efficiently than others. If a declining quantity of pollution rights were issued and farmers could trade them, Dales argued, farmers themselves would find the cheapest ways to cut their pollution.

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7. Dividends for All

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The spectrum is just as much a national resource as our national forests. That means it belongs to every American equally.

—Former Senator Bob Dole

What Alaska has done with oil, our whole country can do with air, money, and other co-owned assets. But before I show how, it’s worth exploring other ways to spread nonlabor income broadly.

A citizen s income. A basic income guarantee, or citizen’s income, is an equal amount paid by government to all, with the money coming from general taxes. There’s no means test and the income is unconditional. Leading advocates have included economists Robert Theobald and Nobel Prize winner James Tobin.1 In 1968, Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, and 1,200 other economists signed a document supporting the idea.2 Four years later, a modest version ($1,000 per person per year) was proposed by presidential candidate George McGovern, whom Tobin advised. Called a “demogrant,” it was poorly explained, badly received, and quickly withdrawn. No major US politician has proposed anything like it again, though the idea has caught on in Europe (see chapter 9).

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9. From Here to the Adjacent Possible

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.
When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on
the ideas that are lying around
.

—Milton Friedman

Building a dividend system as proposed here is well within America’s financial and technical capabilities. The ingredients to do it lie at hand. The organizing principles are over two centuries old and have been road tested in Alaska. Our challenge now is to scale the concept to a meaningful size.

That said, the current political environment makes such scaling all but impossible. It therefore behooves us to take a longer view.

As Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace noted in the nineteenth century, living systems evolve through a process of variation and selection. Many nonliving systems, including economies, evolve in a similar way. Capitalism in particular has been characterized as a system of “creative destruction.”1

One aspect of evolution that remained unclear for decades after Darwin and Wallace was whether the vary-and-select process proceeds gradually or in sudden bursts. In theory, it could work either way, but in 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper that argued, based on fossil records, that “the history of evolution is not one of stately unfolding, but a story of homeostatic equilibria, disturbed only rarely by rapid and episodic events of spe-ciation.”2 They called this pattern punctuated equilibrium, and it seems to apply not only to biological systems but to others as well.

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5 Stop the Invasions!

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

To get to San Francisco from where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It’s just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are mainly ranches, not much changed from a century ago.

Recently, a sign appeared by the road there. “SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE,” it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders. Then I saw the smaller print: “Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing.”

The sign was the work of a local organization raising funds to buy the land so that developers couldn’t. The large type triggered something many Americans feel: a brooding sense of impending loss. This sense begins with wilderness and open space but doesn’t end there. Everywhere we look, something we thought was off-limits to the market is falling prey to it: schools, genes, children’s imagination and play, urban water systems. Development is decimating our natural ecology just as big box stores are destroying the social ecology of Main Streets.

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22 Seeds of a Commons Movement

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Every movement requires a story. To claim the future it must first explain the past.

The true story of the commons does this. It explains how we lost the capacity to see our own wealth. It debunks the myth that privatization is always progress. And it shows how growth has become a form of cannibalism in which the market devours the bases of its own existence.

Many of us know this story at some level, but usually it is a story without a name or solution. The commons provides both: it is the commons that is being devoured and the commons that must be restored. What’s more, it is the commons that opens the way to a politics outside the left/right divide.

Some on the right are starting to see that the market isn’t the answer to every problem. Many on the left are coming to the same conclusion about government. So what’s the alternative? An alternative potentially acceptable to both sides is the commons.

If one looks closely, one can see the seeds of a new commons movement germinating. They’re visible in many places, from local land trusts to your laptop to your tabletop. They’re seen in battles against Walmart, patented seeds, and advertising in schools, as well as in open source software, free wi-fi hot spots, farmers’ markets, time banks, and big ideas like the sky trust.

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