Resource taxes

The Road to Resilience


Initiative 1631, which puts a tax on industrial carbon emissions in Washington State, easily qualified to go on our November ballot.  The main purpose is to wean us off high-carbon-emitting fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, and to reinvest taxes received for renewable energy and transitioning our workforce and infrastructure to a more carbon-free economy.  Besides mitigating against the worst case scenario for climate change, it helps to preserve the remainder of the Earth’s petroleum resource.  We are on track to use up in 200 years a resource that took millions of years to form.  By taxing it, we discourage ourselves from frittering it away needlessly.

Until recently, the Earth to us was virtually limitless, and its resources infinite and free for the taking.  The industrial revolution didn’t help matters by making it possible to extract and consume resources a hundred times faster than before.  The cost of those precious resources is only the cost of extraction, their innate cost to us is zero.  If we paid for them, who would we pay?  That is where the tax idea comes in.  We can’t pay the Earth in dollars but we can pay it in our investment in conservation and the shrinking of our overall footprint.

Even as we have begun to understand that all of our resources are finite, we haven’t begun to take seriously the idea that it might be a good idea to use them more carefully.

Human population growth is probably the biggest stressor on resource use.  We have been growing exponentially, but the good news is that the growth rate is slowing.  It took until 1800 to reach 1 billion people, another 124 years to reach 2 billion, 33 years to 3, 15 years to 4, but for the next three billion, the rate peaked at 12 years each and the rate is expected to decrease from here on out.  It’s good that we are growing more slowly, but the fact that we only have enough resources in the planet to support 2 billion of our 7.6 billion people living a US lifestyle, means we have to cut back drastically.  That is the core meaning of sustainability.

I want to draw your attention to all of the resources we use personally.  Let’s look at our most crucial resource and one that is dangerously depleted:  water.  Only 2.5 percent of the water on our water planet is fresh water.  Of that, 70 percent is (or was) frozen.  Of the remaining 30 percent (0.75 percent of all water), 70 percent (0.55 percent of total) is used for agriculture, 20 percent for industry, and just 10 percent (0.075 percent of total) is used for human consumption. We can already see the fight for water use even in a water rich region like ours.  Do we use our river water to produce power, irrigate farmland, or preserve salmon?  For power production and farming, we have options, but to save the salmon, we have no options.  That alone settles the argument as to whether we should remove the Snake River dams.  We have to remove them even though the replacements for power production and improved methods for farming are not yet in place.  We can’t continue to argue about whose ox is getting gored.  There will be a cost, and all of us should share it rather than leave the onus on the groups that will lose the resource.  An overall tax on water use, in the form of higher energy and food costs, will force the appropriate action.  We would use the tax money to build new renewable energy infrastructure and develop, teach, and implement more water efficient agricultural practices.

My time working at the Fixit Cafes on Vashon has brought another glaring defect in our economy into clear focus.  Because we put no intrinsic value on resources, it is cheaper to throw away many personal items, whether furniture or appliances, than it is to fix them.  With the fixit café, we have a way to step outside of the money economy and put back into use personal items that the economy tells us no longer have any value.  In fact, they are a liability because we know that we will have to pay just to get rid of them!  If we instituted a resource tax, we could make it economically justifiable for companies to design products so that they could be returned for repairs, easily repaired by the owner, or recycled directly into new products.  What we have here is a huge design and engineering bonanza waiting to be exploited!  All that is needed is for society to put a value on those resources by instituting a tax.  I 1631 is a good start.   Let’s extend the concept to all of the resources we use.

There were a couple errors in the last column.  I said that only 30 percent of eligible voters in our 34th district voted in the recent primary.  I was way off:  it was 46 percent, a good showing in terms of the pathetic standard in our country.  I also asked you to urge our senators to pledge not to take corporate PAC money.  In fact, Senator Cantwell has already done so, which leaves only Senator Murray in need of some prodding.