Whenever I meet a Hummer, tension rises in my chest, unkind thoughts develop in my head and my hands tighten and tremble, as if they want to signal something.
I've long wondered why that happens, and I think I've finally figured it out. It has something to do with a song, economics and the courteous way to walk your dog.
I first heard the song when I was a kid: "This land is your land, this land is my land..." It spoke of the majesty of the natural world around us: endless skys, golden valleys, Great Lake waters, sparkling sands. Your land, my land -- the environment we share, belonging to no one and everyone at the same time. Borderless and critical to us all.
So it stands to reason that no one has a '"right" to pollute our shared environment. It could even be argued that everyone has a responsibility to pollute less -- particularly, to consume less of the fossil fuel whose emissions are destabilizing our climate.
But I'm pretty sure I know what the Hummer driver would tell me if I tried to explain that. "Buzz off, Buddy. I paid for this gas, and I can use it however I like."
Alas, he'd be right by conventional economics, because conventional economics don't factor environmental impacts into prices. Things tend to be priced based the labour and other resources that went into them. But air and water are considered to be limitless, so they are regarded as freebies. In the world of economics, they're called "externalities."
Put another way: if there are two ways to manufacture a product -- a dirty way that is very cheap and a clean way that is a bit more expensive -- conventional economics dictates that the first way will always be used to manufacture the product.
Which brings us back to the Hummer driver. Sure, he paid for his gasoline -- but that price only covered the costs of extraction, transportation, refining, distribution and retailing, plus taxes and a bit of profit for everyone along the way. Not a penny was paid for water fouled or emissions generated. We've become so accustomed to using our waterways, oceans and atmosphere as free dumps that we rarely give it a second thought.
True, we all need to get around. But a Hummer, because of its atrocious inefficiency, pollutes without consequence a disproportionate share of our collective environment -- figuratively, your land, my land. Monster pickups and SUVs don't fare much better.
Most communities have bylaws requiring pet owners to pick up after their pets. It's common courtesy to leave a trail clean for those who will follow.
Most of us get it for pet droppings. We'd never let our pet foul a neighbour's yard and we'd be upset if their pet messed ours. But we seem to have a harder time recognizing a parallel: the unfettered fouling our atmosphere promises consequences much more unpleasant than stepping in dog droppings for those who will follow us.
Ours to steward
Our environment is a common asset: your land, my land. When we buy gas, we may think that we've bought an entitlement to pollute, but we haven't. If we understand why it's proper to clean up after our pets, it shouldn't be a stretch to understand the moral imperative of keeping the planet livable for those yet to come.
That's why putting a price on carbon is so important: it will ensure each of us, from Hummer drivers to Prius drivers, pays for the damage we do to our collective environment, and give us an incentive to pollute less.
And until that happens, I'll try not to be rude to the Hummer drivers I meet.
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