The difficulty I have with sustainability is that it is a collective, not an individual good. there are plenty of things that are good for society, but they must also confer individual benefits in excess of the costs. If sustainability always presents itself as a block to conventional or economic action, sustainability will wear out opts welcome as a Generally Good Idea. It will revert to the province of acolytes.
Which is unfortunate, because it is time we began to think about stewardship on environmental resources, now that we are using so many of them. I am not assured that a religion of sustainability, based on the goodness in some of our hearts, is going to win the race.
There are many things that don’t confer goods on everybody, but that we accept as a general goods.
- Police, Building Codes, Permits, and laws all obstruct our free action in the name of public order. Builders , developers and businesses would often love to just do or make something, without he hassle of permitting and a back and forth with the government to make sure they are in compliance with arcane and voluminous regulations. The more regulations businesses, households and organizations have to wade through, the more the government filters for groups large enough to afford a lawyer. That is not a good thing, but that is also another topic.
- Transportation facilities, taxes, and “locally undesirable land uses” (LULUs) also put community needs over the needs of the adjacent landowners. This is the field of environmental justice, but it also the balance between noisy, dangerous facilities that the community needs to put somewhere. LULUs get cited where land is cheap and where the people living in the area don’t have the . time or connections to prevent them. “Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) is just another term for time and connections the few. People living next to roads seldom see better traffic on their street after the roads have been “improved”. For every ten percent improvement in capacity, the traffic on a road will increase 9%. This is as designed. The network works better by making that road operate worse. Traffic may even be faster, but that is no asset to the adjacent homeowners.
- Banking, Diet and Dentistry are all more personal assets that we forego right now for the sake of future health or prosperity. Though it is damn fun to eat all the fried cheesy food we want, years of experience tells us what happens in the coming weeks. Banks pay you rent for putting your money in savings accounts, even if that rate these days is ruinously low (again, another article for later). The meager payoff they offer is still higher than stowing cash under your mattress.
These are all poor models for sustainability in different ways, but They are all successful and accepted things that we want. Can we make sustainability into a kind of building code? I shudder to think of that bureaucracy. Also, it aligns sustainability with government, meaning that acting unsustainably becomes a revolutionary progressive act? Should we use a carbon tax to price the use of a major sustainability concern (atmospheric and bathyspheric carbon) into people’s buying decisions? Maybe. I have come to see a carbon tax as simpler and more understandable than a “Cap and Trade” model. The successful application of Cap and Trade in reducing Sulfur dioxide emissions had a marketplace of hundreds of actors that accounted for the majority of emissions. The good faith of transactions had to be monitored to ensure that brokers were getting what they bought. There are hundreds of millions of actors in a Carbon market, with billions of tiny smokestacks. Unmanageable.
I was thinking of the success of the cell phone and the smart phone in the last decade. These things offered unprecedented convenience and whole new expense for households. I still don’t have a smartphone. I have seen that my carrier charges even more than I thought they would, further chasing me away from the market. But I see that everybody that can afford one loves them. They offer obvious value. Fun, discovery and convenience. What if sustainability was like an easter egg hunt? What if there was an immediate rush with using less carbon, less impervious surface, walking more, eating vegetables, turning up your thermostat, recycling, cooking or composting more?
I want a sustainability that sells like iPhones.