Post No.: 0356
The single-use plastic carrier bag charge in the UK, introduced since 2015, has been quite successful in decreasing the amount of plastic bags used. This was mentioned in Post No.: 0346. It’s a good example of taxation changing behaviours for the better. This mandatory charge rapidly resulted in a massive reduction in single-use plastic bag usage, and encouraged shoppers to use reusable bags when doing their shopping. This was a relatively small change to people’s lifestyles but it helps the environment greatly when it comes to reducing our total plastic waste. Good news!
We seem to have a much stronger record of making changes when they’re forced upon us than by sitting down and agreeing to them. This isn’t the first time that laws, regulations, taxes or subsidies have incentivised more desirable behaviours from us – in this case for the collective environmental good – when the free market has failed, struggled or stumbled at doing so on its own.
Most of us today understand that lead is a highly toxic metal – this was actually understood many centuries ago. So the banning of lead in petrol/gasoline made complete sense. There were cheaper and safer alternatives to leaded petrol before it was largely banned, but these alternatives weren’t patentable and therefore their profits and distribution couldn’t be tightly controlled by the petroleum-producing corporations. The inventor of leaded petrol was convinced it was safe, but of course he had a biased self-interested profit motive that clouded any impartiality. (Increasing amounts of data show a strong correlation between lead inhalation/ingestion and violent crime too.) Leaded petrol was gradually becoming less popular in the market but only a ban stopped its use completely in those countries that banned them. Today, only a small number of countries still allow it.
It was Thomas Midgley who was the first to use lead in petrol, and the first to use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a refrigerant in refrigerators too. Then after he harmed so many lives across the world with these two inventions – he inadvertently killed himself with another one of his inventions! Oops. Inventors are usually inspirational but not this one(!)
Talking about CFCs – the hole in the ozone layer was only allowed to start healing once CFCs were legally banned via an international treaty. The hole mainly affects those in the southern hemisphere but is caused by every nation in the world that emits CFCs because it’s a shared atmosphere. The international ban has overall been a success because the size of the hole has shrunk over the past couple of decades. (However, some countries unfortunately now appear to be behaving illegally by using CFCs again – this would be a matter of enforcing the treaty and punishing any countries or corporations that are caught flouting it.) The ozone layer acts as a filter that protects life on Earth from the potentially hazardous effects of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
We’re most ignorant or dismissive of things that produce a delayed harm. Things that very slowly kill us over timescales of years, such as asbestos, tobacco, lead paint or consuming too much sugar, are hard to self-regulate for because the link between cause and effect is not intuitive. It takes longitudinal scientific studies to work out the link. Without education, consumers won’t intuitively know what’s causing them harm for them to make the best choices for themselves. Yet even with education, humans overweight immediate and certain gains (e.g. that tasty burger today) and underweight far future and less certain losses (e.g. heart disease in the future) so still might not make the best choices for themselves in the long run.
The release of CFCs and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are also examples of ‘negative externalities’. These not only have delayed or latent effects but pass at least some of the harms/costs onto other people or future generations, thus these are even harder (if not impossible) to self-regulate for because those who contribute to the harms/costs aren’t the ones who’ll totally pay for them i.e. people don’t get what they deserve. It’s like a cat getting the pleasure of brushing her/his fur onto your body and clothes, but you paying for at least some of her/his pleasure because now your clothes are full of her/his hairs! (It’s critical to note though that if you choose to have a cat, the consequences of getting cat hairs all over your stuff will rightly be your own to shoulder!) Meow!
When someone drives a petrol or diesel vehicle, she/he chose it and benefits from the activity – but the costs of the carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants are passed onto everybody, including those who don’t drive. That’s neither economically fair nor self-optimising and is thus an example of a ‘market failure’.
When a link between cause and effect is delayed, this can also lead to disputed scientific claims because self-interested parties (e.g. corporations that profit from manufacturing or selling something that causes a delayed harm) can attempt to cast doubt on the link between something bad that’s happening today with something that happened or started so long ago. The introduction of regulations also becomes delayed because it takes time for the data to be collected to form a scientific consensus. So regulations tend to always need to play a game of catch-up, when some damage has already been done.
Laws, regulations, taxes and/or fines can attempt to introduce more immediate punishments for behaviours that cause harm to others – with the objective of correcting these market failures and creating a more fair economic system where they’re concerned. Government subsidies or grants could also be used in an attempt to introduce more immediate rewards for behaviours that prevent a delayed harm – with the objective of somewhat better-aligning the incentives for performing behaviours that serve better long-term outcomes.
It overall demonstrates that taxes and other financial incentives/disincentives or enforced punitive laws can work – economic motives and/or punitive external regulations can motivate people to behave more optimally. (In other contexts, it’s known that a vengeful, rather than benevolent, omnipresent and omnipotent god works far better to get people to follow the rules! Being, or feeling that one is being, watched works to reduce the chances of people cheating too.) The public may complain at first but if introduced gradually enough they’ll eventually get used to something that – in this context at least i.e. taking care of the planet and environment – is for everyone’s benefit rather than for the benefit of just a few in power. However, unless enough of the electorate in a democracy accepts the problem, wants to change and accepts that their lifestyles need to change, nothing more meaningful will likely be done (as usual). Meanwhile, the better-informed will possibly be ridiculed and persecuted for our convictions.
In the broader picture – if things always naturally self-correct and self-optimise for a good outcome for a species, or even life collectively, and therefore we don’t need to ever worry about nature and shouldn’t ever interfere with whatever life (i.e. whatever we) want to naturally do, then how come several mass extinctions happened in history? How come, even though the living body seeks homeostasis and has many self-balancing, self-correcting mechanisms, people still frequently get ill and need external medicines? Animals routinely go extinct, naturally – so isn’t that an argument for behaving somewhat unnaturally (if interference is considered unnatural) so that we’ll hopefully not follow the same fate of an estimated 99% of all species so far, who followed only their own instincts to survive?! Therefore we must take direct, conscious and collectivised care of our planet and not be blasé in thinking that it’s alright to leave things to individual free choice and to carry on as we want since ‘we’ll autonomously adapt and it’ll all self-correct nicely for us without intervention’. (Well it will self-correct, but probably not ‘nicely’.)
Yes, on occasion, (local) governmental interventions into environmental problems have made things worse (e.g. introducing non-indigenous species to try to tackle a fuzzy pest problem), but many interventions have been very successful (e.g. fishing quotas, conservation areas, soil erosion acts. Fishing quotas present some minor drawbacks but at least we still have these fish species, unlike those (apparently) delicious dodos and turtles that early merchants made extinct quite rapidly due to unfettered greed!)
This is much better than the ecological damage caused by some greedy and powerful multinational corporations. People who support an authoritarian state may be gullible towards the government they support (or are a part of that government), but people who support laissez-faire economics may be gullible towards the corporations and the neoliberal propaganda they support (or are a part of those corporations or the political parties/candidates they help fund to serve their interests).
Force is generally unpopular but it can work at the societal level, even if it’s not so effective in other contexts such as parenting or at work. This might be because we cannot incentivise or reward populations with subsidies or grants without public money to do so i.e. greater taxes must be generated somewhere in order to pay for these elsewhere. In which case it makes sense for high polluters to pay for incentivising low pollution (e.g. petrol/diesel vehicle users helping to pay for better public transport or cycling lanes via road taxes and greater fuel duties. Many people don’t understand that road taxes shouldn’t be to pay for things that are beneficial to road users but for paying for the negative externalities of vehicle pollution, hence why zero emission vehicles pay zero road taxes, in the UK at least).
Regulations create survival pressures in industries and so also spur innovation, or at least concentrate our efforts on the use of better alternatives. Unleaded petrol (although of course hardly perfect in itself) and CFC replacements work just as well for their intended jobs, for instance. But regulations aren’t just effective in the context of looking after the planet. For example, air travel is statistically incredibly safe because for every even minor incident or near-incident, regulators take it seriously, ground every related plane and regulate the **** out of the situation until the same thing shouldn’t happen again!
Of course, it’s about striking the right balance between regulations and freedoms though – regulations that are too restrictive can start to needlessly harm innovation and be considered to excessively impinge on our individual liberties. The only sensible political stance is therefore, in my opinion, somewhere in the middle.
Some people feel emotionally depressed and resigned for learning about global warming and other present environmental issues, yet there’s a duty to inform with scientifically-backed findings – and there are things we can still do to mitigate the worst likely effects. Laws and regulations may seem unpopular to some because they usually restrict people’s freedoms – but they have been proven to work. They overall work more than not work. We should maybe let the free market try first, but if it recurrently fails then there rationally must be external and independent intervention of one sort or another.
The generally successful cooperation of governments around the world has meant that the ozone layer is not an immediate problem anymore. We haven’t talked about the ozone layer as a problem for a while and there was no ‘slippery slope’ of governments constantly pushing new laws to eventually stop us from using fridges, spray cans and so forth altogether(!) We don’t talk about the problems of leaded petrol anymore either in countries where it’s banned too, yet people were and are still allowed to drive cars. Even the push towards fully-electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles (or some other transport solutions) isn’t about making everyone walk or cycle everywhere just to curb the population’s pleasure and freedom to drive(!)
We just now have to do the same thing with the, admittedly slightly more complicated, situation regarding greenhouse gases and global warming. We need legally binding treaties. There’s a precedent and there’s still hope…