This one’s been sitting in my bookmarks for a while, waiting for me to get around to blogging it. It’s worth waiting for. It isn’t often I read something that really shakes me, and this more than fit the bill.
Back on 19 feb, George Monbiot wrote about how costs are balanced in environmental accounting. His starting point was the crucial Stern Report, a document that joined with the IPCC findings to finally tip the balance on whether action is needed to stem climate change:
Sir Nicholas Stern… showed that stopping runaway climate change would cost less than failing to prevent it. But… few people bothered to find out how he had achieved this result. It took me a while, but by the time I reached the end [of his report] I was horrified.
Monbiot identifies problems with the way Stern measures the costs of climate change. All kinds of destruction, disruption, displacement and death are turned into a money figure: they are considered as “a reduction in consumption” equivalent to $30 per tonne of carbon.
Suddenly, as Monbiot observes, you are able to weigh up the cost of environmental destruction and human life as entries on a balance sheet. Sure enough, the UK govt’s argument to expand Heathrow airport follows this precedent. As Monbiot summarises:
The government claims that building a third runway will reduce delays, on average, by three minutes. This saving is costed at €38-49 per passenger per hour. The price is a function of the average net wages of travellers: the more you earn, the more the delays are deemed to cost you, even if you are on holiday.
This is the sort of logic that sits behind much public decisionmaking. On the one hand, Stern conscientiously evaluates human misery and death as a component of ‘reduction in consumption’; on the other hand, a City Executive whose plane is delayed is deemed to have its own social cost.
I should say, I don’t have a problem with the methodology in principle. Unlike Monbiot, weighing up human life in dollar terms doesn’t shock me; health funders and automobile manufacturers have to do the same thing all the time. What shocks me is the way in which these prices are set. The most cautious figures are used to call the devastation of our planetary ecosystem a ‘reduction in consumption’ – but somehow the most generous assessments are given to the cost to society of an exec stuck waiting for his plane another hour. And perhaps that’s enough to sink this methodology. The translation of non-monetary values into financial ones will always be so tentative and subjective and responsive to the biases of those performing the translation that the most hideous results are inevitable. And on this basis, the decisions are made that determine whether our planet is trapped into a horrible future. (Or for a Dubtown parallel – the decision to press ahead on the Wellington Bypass surely owed a lot to exactly this kind of accounting.)
Go read the article. Monbiot is always incredible, and this is a superb example of his writing at its pithy, excellent best. I was lucky enough to see him talking at the G8 in July ’05, and he’s going to be videocasting a talk to Wellington this Saturday morning for Writers and Readers Week. Perhaps my favourite Monbiot article of all time is Fallen Fruit, about why apples in the UK aren’t as nice as they used to be. (That one was even better with the photos.)