That's from the recent documentary "The End of Poverty? Think Again" (available at Amazon, Netflix and some Redbox locations).
So how do we reduce our demand for non-renewable natural resources? (I don't see much long-term upside in increasing the supply of energy by using more of our soil -- or water or fuel -- to provide biofuel, though it may be a boon in dealing with the supply problem short-term.)
The right question, I submit, is how we do we adjust our incentives to produce a reduction in demand for oil, coal, natural gas, so as to leave a decent quantity of each for all the future generations and for the people of other nations. (And, not so incidently, to reduce the pollution we produce which now shows signs of exceeding the ecosystem's ability to carry it.)
What is it that we do now that we can do differently?
Well, we can adopt measures that encourage people to
- live closer to their work
- use public transportation more
- use cars less
- live in modern homes constructed with energy-conserving technologies and design
We can adopt measures which make it affordable to live closer to their work -- if they choose that. I'm not talking about subsidies, incidently. More precisely, I'm not talking about adding subsidies.
Some will say, as George H. W. Bush did in 1992 at the Earth Summit, that "The American way of life is not negotiable."
Dick Cheney is quoted (May, 2001) as saying that "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." As irritating as I found most of his pronouncements to be, I can see a germ of truth in this one.
I have friends who seek to reduce their water usage in order to save the environment. They save the water in which they wash vegetables, and measure their use by the cupful. It seems to me that while their efforts are admirable, in the absence of changes to the incentives which permit some people or other entities to continue to use water heedlessly to water lawns and rinse driveways, their efforts are pointless and maybe even counterproductive. (Problem? What problem? Why do we large users need to change our ways?) WE HAVE TO CORRECT THE INCENTIVES!
It seems to me that a carbon tax is a step in the right direction. Establish it, announce it, implement it on some predictable schedule. Industry will adjust. Individuals will adjust. And make sure that carbon tax applies to energy used in global commerce and travel, as well as domestically.
But the single reform which I think will make the biggest difference is a tax shift. If we were to shift our taxes off buildings, and onto land value, here's what we could expect to happen:
- Urban land which now sits vacant or underused would be put to something approaching its highest and best use. That might be more housing, or more commercial venues, or some combination thereof.
- Developers of well-located land would be competing with each other to provide what the market wants, be it housing or more grocery stores or more shops, or more office space. Landlords competing for tenants would lower their asking rents and tune their offerings to meet the demand, at all levels on the income spectrum, not just the high end.
- The density this redevelopment would create would provide the platform for better public transportation -- more frequent buses, more subways, more commuter options.
- People who would prefer to live closer to their work or to the cultural or other amenities which larger cities can offer would be able to find housing they can afford. Those who want to live in the suburbs on the 1-acre lot with the picket fence would have less competition for such homes, and be able to afford to buy one closer to the center of things for less of their income or a shorter mortgage.
I attend a liberal suburban church where every week the Prayers of the People include this statement: "The world now has the means to end extreme poverty. We pray that we have the will."
We need to act locally -- through basic tax reform -- to shift the incentives which currently nudge us toward using cars more, polluting more, living in older houses which consume more energy and create more pollution -- and rewarding land speculators more than we encourage the sorts of entrepreneurs who create jobs.
IT is ALL INTER-RELATED. But relatively few of us see the connectedness yet.