Storms are building. Floods are surging. Wildfires are blazing. Heat and drought are desiccating the earth. People are suffering, their livelihoods combusting like so much dredged-up fossil matter.
And yet the best our politicians, pundits and CEOs can offer is the suicidal promise to keep beating the same business-as-usual drum that got us into this existential bind in the first place.
If we’re going to have any kind of future on this planet, we must go beyond reduced carbon footprints, net zero, renewables — all the wishful, technocratic thinking of our leaders — and start calling the shots from below.
Welcome to our surefire solution to the climate crisis. (Excerpted in nine parts from Adbusters’ upcoming book, The Third Force: Field Guide to a New World Order.)
If you burrow deep into the innards of the capitalist algorithm, you’ll find a major flaw: the vast majority of humankind’s carbon emissions are unpriced.
Out of the trillions of transactions made every day in the global marketplace, only a tiny fraction reflect their true cost. From the tires on our cars, to the phones in our hands, to the Big Macs nesting in our take-out bags, every purchase we make is essentially a mistake. And each one drives us a little closer to global system collapse.
With every bogus transaction, another drop of meltwater slides off an iceberg, another puff of CO2 rises to the sky, another bubble of methane burps from the tundra. If we keep repeating that mistake trillions of times a day, week after week, month after month, year after year, what do you think will happen?
Economists speak the language of efficiency. Why are so many economists silent on these, the greatest inefficiencies of all? We’re selling off our natural capital and calling it income. Why is the profession of economics, when it should be rushing to the breach to lead us, so monumentally negligent?
Economists, this is your new brief. Let’s figure this out. What is the real cost of shipping a container load of toys from Chongqing to Los Angeles? Or a case of apples grown in New Zealand to markets in North America? And what is the true cost of that fridge humming 24/7 in your kitchen? That steak sizzling on your grill? That car rolling off the production line?
How much are the byproducts of our way of living actually setting us back?
The new accounting starts with the little stuff: plastic bags, coffee cups, paper napkins.
Let’s say the eco-costs turn out to be five cents per plastic bag, ten cents per cup and a fraction of a cent per paper napkin. We tack those on. Of course we’re already doing that with the various fees and taxes included in the price of tires, cans of paint and other products. But now we abandon the concept of ancillary fees and taxes and start implementing true-cost pricing across the board, from factory to doorstep.
This is the first step toward True Cost: a global marketplace in which the price of every product tells the ecological truth.
How much plastic is coming out of the industrial bunghole annually?
Economists, spin up a rough number. Say it’s a trillion tons. Then make your best guess at the environmental price we pay for our clogged garbage dumps, polluted oceans and the shitspray of plastic microbeads through the food chain. Say it’s $500 per ton. Every manufacturer, corporation and retailer that uses plastic in their business will be required to account for that.
Maybe it’s a surcharge of a quarter on every bottle of Coke. If Coca Cola can’t take a hit like that on their margin, they’ll have to change their business model. Likewise, the automobile industry will have to redesign their cars. Food producers will have to adapt.
The cost of living will rise, and that’ll hurt. But plastic packaging will gradually disappear from our lives. We’ll buy our milk in glass bottles and bring them in for recycling like we used to. We’ll wash our plates, knives and forks and use them year after year, some for a lifetime.
The garbage gyres in the oceans will shrink and finally disappear. Blight will vanish from beaches and ravines. Microplastics will stop plugging the tissues of every mammal, including us.
And the horror of bringing our children up in a world awash in plastic will be over.
Once we account for the environmental cost of carbon emissions, the cost of building and maintaining roads, the medical costs of accidents, and the noise and the aesthetic degradation of urban sprawl, your personally owned car will cost you around $100,000, and a tank of gas $150. You’ll still be free to drive all you want, but instead of passing the costs on to future generations, you’ll pay up front.
Plenty of people will howl and moan — at least in the beginning. A bitter meme war will be fought about how true cost disproportionately punishes the poor.
But once true-cost pricing is in place, car use will plunge and bicycle use will soar. City skies will be clearer. Breathing easier. Ride sharing will spike. People will live closer to work. Demand for monorails, bullet trains, subways and streetcars will surge. A paradigm shift in urban planning will calm the pace of urban living. Cities will be built for people, not cars. Catastrophic weather events like hurricanes, floods and superfires will subside. The spectre of global warming won’t feel so ominous anymore.
Once we tally the hidden costs of our industrial farming and food-processing systems, we raise the price of groceries to reflect the true cost of shipping them long distances. An avocado from Mexico will cost you $15. You won’t be able to indulge so often. And that shrimp from Indonesia? Once the eco devastation of mega-farming and container shipping are added on, it will run you about $35 a pound. A Whopper with cheese will quadruple in price. So will most meats, produce and processed foods.
You can still eat whatever you want, but you’ll have to pay the real tab. Inevitably, your palate will submit to your wallet. But the cost of organic and locally produced food will go down, nudging us all in that direction. Local farmers will be celebrated. We’ll grow tomatoes on our verandas, eat at home more and maybe lose some weight and be a little healthier. Bit by bit, purchase by purchase, our global food system will heave toward sustainability.
For years it’s been ridiculously cheap to use mega tankers to ship stuff across the ocean. That will stop.
Our current way of exporting and importing goods, the one economists have been touting as a way to spur growth but which depends on a mightily subsidized transportation system, will no longer fly. Globalization — capitalism’s bred-in-the-bone burden — will cease to be the dominant economic paradigm. Just about everything at the megamarts will cost more.
The whole tenor of world trade will be transformed. Exports and imports will stabilize at a reduced level. Trillions of purchases every day will come back to your neighborhood. A fairer, community-based marketplace will begin to emerge.
For conventional economists, True Cost is a gut punch. A true-cost Marketplace would slow growth, reduce the flow of world trade and curb consumption. It would force economists to rethink just about every axiom they’ve taken for granted since the dawn of the industrial age.
The efficiency of size would be challenged. The hidden cost of Walmart coming to town, revealed. The lie of never-ending growth on a finite planet, exposed.
“Progress” itself would be redefined.
True Cost could turn out to be one of the most traumatic and painful social projects we have ever undertaken. But also one of the most transformative.
In a true-cost world, there’d be no need for pleading and hectoring, no need to wallow in conflicting consumer emotions. No one would be badgering you to eat less meat. No one would make you feel guilty about owning a car, or for going on that holiday to the Bahamas. All you’re being asked to do is become a consumer in a new kind of marketplace.
Instead of “lowest price wins, and don’t ask too many questions,” Adam Smith’s invisible hand would start working its magic in surprising new ways. We’d become part of a worldwide process in which every one of the trillions of transactions made every day are working for rather than against us.
Only a handful of economists have bothered to think of externalities as anything but marginalia — a few paragraphs in Gregory Mankiw’s textbook. True Cost would remake the entire profession.
It would put a shine on the dismal science. It would ground economists, give them something real to do. It would create a virtuous, progressive occupation out of a retrograde one. The profession would become something a young grad would be proud to devote their whole life to.
After all, it would be seen as the essential discipline for working our way out of this existential crisis. And a crucial pillar of a nascent true-cost political party.
We push to get True Cost on the platforms of all the green parties of the world. We unite them with a unified crisis-fighting vision.
Once they start winning elections, that’s when True Cost will begin to jell into a unified global force and branch off into its own world-spanning political movement.
“True Cost? Great idea! But it’s never gonna work.” That’s what they’ll all say.
I get it. Nothing of this scope, on this scale, has ever been tried. It feels like Plan D — a last-ditch effort to be deployed after all the more “sensible” green-energy and techno options have been kicked around.
And our record of working together is pretty dismal. Look how we handled Covid. We couldn’t come up with a coherent global thrust to beat it back. Or to distribute the vaccines. Hell, some of us couldn’t even agree to wear masks.
But the global mood will change as our planet overheats. Ecological collapse is a slow-motion catastrophe. But once we pass a tipping-point — when resource skirmishes erupt into full-scale wars, and slow violence turns into fast violence, and suddenly it’s your children who are hungry and your house that’s being swept away and your country that’s at war — that’s when you’ll forget “never gonna work” and reach for the ax on the wall.
The human race is now a Pachinko ball tumbling through the machine. There is simply no predicting the outcome.
It could well be that the best efforts of scientists and political leaders and activists will come to naught, and humanity will spiral into a new dark age that beggars the imagination.
But it’s equally possible that 11th-hour desperation will galvanize the people of earth into a state of readiness for an unprecedented, life-saving mass action.
A crack may well open in the human psyche. If so, True Cost is ready-made to fill it — an idea so huge, so revolutionary that it’ll tip the balance of world power and steer humanity inexorably toward a sane sustainable future.
This moment has never been more precious. The stakes have never been higher.
The Third Force
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100k by the end of summer . . .
1 million by next year.