Recently, the Science and Environmental Health Network launched their True Cost Clearinghouse, an extensive archive of articles, studies and reports about the hidden ecological and social costs behind pricetags and standard cost-benefit analyses. We've talked many times on Worldchanging about ecological economics and ecosystem service valuation -- the process of internalizing the value of our planet's natural assets and resources. It's a crucial factor to attend to as resources grow more scarce and mass-production/mass-exploitation make commodities ever "cheaper."
True Cost Clearinghouse looks to prove itself to to be a highly useful resource for aggregating much of this vital, hidden information in one searchable database. As they say in the introduction to the project:
We hope gathering these studies in one place will serve the following functions:
Correct some of the huge distortions of current cost-benefit analyses. These new studies give weight and reality to the costs and benefits that fall to the public and to the commons, as opposed to industry and developers. They put numbers where there have been none before, or where they have been ignored. We don't want to get trapped in trying to prove everything by the numbers and assigning a price to things that are beyond monetary value, like health and life. But avoiding economic analysis can lead to the assumption that all economic arguments favor industry and economic enterprise as we know it. And they do not.
Get the attention of those who listen to economic arguments. That includes not only policymakers but also large segments of the public who are resistant to changes to the status quo. Studies that put numbers to the cost of harm and the benefits of precaution can give policymakers a rationale for rejecting arguments that privilege "the economy" over health and wholeness. They can help communities get a handle on the real choices they face in economic development.
Begin to break the stranglehold of money as the sole measure of what we value as a society and how we make our decisions. The precautionary principle directs us to go ahead and take necessary protective action based on the best available information, not to wait for science's standards of proof. That doesn't mean ignoring science; it means incorporating science into our decisions but not backing off and letting science decide. Nor does it mean ignoring economics; it means incorporating what we value into our decisions, and monetary value is only a part of this. We cannot let monetary values alone make the decisions.
Encourage more studies like these in the next several years. Paradoxically, we may have to use money and numbers to help us get beyond making our decisions by money and numbers alone. Over the next few years we have a chance to change the terms of the debate about money and numbers by pushing them as far as we can toward reality. In this process we can make explicit what we value, what can be monetized, and what cannot. We have a chance to shift the debate through numbers to value, ethics, and responsibility.
The True Cost Clearinghouse places a strong focus on public health and human welfare -- both key components of a big-picture discussion about veiled costs. TCC also has a useful list of online resources for those interested in further reading. In-house at Worldchanging, we have an ongoing series about this topic, jointly authored by Hassan Masum, Chad Monfreda and David Zaks, introducing key ideas and tracking the shifts in this debate. Keep an eye out for the next installment of the series.
"Begin to break the stranglehold of money as the sole measure of what we value as a society and how we make our decisions."
I have a problem with this approach. I think that externalities absolutely MUST be translated into dollars and cents. This is the premise of "Natural Capitalism," outlined in the book of the same name by Amory Lovins. It's a brilliant book.
I notice that later in the article, there is a grudging admission of this fact:
"Paradoxically, we may have to use money and numbers to help us get beyond making our decisions by money and numbers alone."
What's wrong with money? I'm a little tired of ideologues blaming money and capitalism for everything that's gone wrong. Greed is good. It's just that we have been measuring the wrong things. Don't you think it's a good idea to enlist the profit motive toward cleaning up the planet for a change?
Put corporations to work doing what they do best: making money. And change the rules so that helping the planet makes MONEY.
You'll never see things get cleaned up so fast!
BlackSun, the problem with using money as our single metric is the problem with using any single metric: we fail to see what we don't measure.
I design buildings. I pay a lot of attention to energy. But if my sole metric is watts per square meter (Btu/square foot), I'll overlook vital things like available light levels in candelas per square meter, ventilation rates in cubic centimeters per minute, lateral forces in kilograms per square meter, and so on.
How would you express literacy rates or infant mortality in dollars or Euros? You could try, but you'd only be defending your point, instead of seriously addressing these issues.
I'm not for one moment disagreeing with your enthusiasm for markets. But it's a thought trap to reduce complex systems to a single tool or measurement.