Wednesday 8 September 2010

Sharing it out

I'm not sure that we'll ever know exactly how and when humanity moved from seeing the earth's resources as being something available to all of us in common to something which was owned by individuals. But once the process started, it was inexorable, with any resource which could be 'owned' becoming so, and ownership being increasingly unevenly distributed amongst the population, to such an extent that we take it for granted today that access to most goods and services is on the basis of ability to pay.

But not everything can be owned, and there are still some things which are shared on a more equal basis. I was on a time management course once, and the lecturer made a comment which I found particularly memorable. Time, he told us, is the one thing that is shared out entirely democratically.

We all get the same number of seconds in a minute, minutes in an hour, hours in a day and so on. We can't steal someone else's time, or put it aside for another day; we can't use it before it comes. (In context, his point was that the difference between being effective and ineffective was about how we use the time we have, not about how much we get, but that's an aside to my point here.)

The analogy is limited in some ways – we may all get 365 and a bit days every year; but we don't all get the same number of years. It's a useful analogy, nevertheless.

Another democratically shared resource is the air that we breathe; the amount we use is the amount we need, and there's no way - not that anyone's thought of yet, anyway – of giving more access to the rich than the poor (although the quality of the air might not be so fairly shared).

Most of the things we have or use are not shared in the same way; they are shared on the basis of wealth or income. That may not always be true within a country, but it's certainly true between countries. (It might be argued, for instance, that access to health care is fairly evenly available within Wales; but the difference between Wales and third world countries is dramatic.)

But how about access to environmental resources? For instance, if the earth has a given capacity to deal with CO2 emissions, that capacity has to be shared somehow between the inhabitants of the planet. At present, it's exploited on the basis of ability to pay; and for all the talk of reducing our carbon footprint, our economy works on the basis of an implicit assumption that the capacity is effectively unlimited. That assumption is clearly invalid, and needs to be changed.

I'm increasingly attracted to the idea of a personal carbon quota, issued equally to all on an annual basis, with the allocation reducing over a period until it reaches a level which is sustainable for the long term. Not only would it allocate one of the Earth's most valuable resources on an equitable basis, but coupled with a trading scheme it could also be highly redistributive.

The Tyndall Centre have done a lot of work on the idea, and a cross party committee of the House of Commons produced a broadly favourable report on the idea in 2008, but the then government killed any future work, largely on the basis of a fear that it might prove unpopular. I understand that concern, but if we only ever consider popular options, I somehow doubt that we will ever really get to grips with carbon emissions. Or inequality.

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