An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Externalized costs have been on my mind for a very long time. Ours is a self-enclosed biosphere. All costs are ultimately internal, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

My sense of the political has been rooted in environmentalism, from early on in my life. This worldview has been informed by a larger environmental sense of the world, including the social and economic environment. It’s always been how I experience reality, as something far beyond the false divisions we create and reify—between individual and collective, self and world, society and nature.

My young political sensibility was expressed in school papers I wrote about externalized costs, a gut level intuition about what was being lost. These papers were about overpopulation and pollution. Now here I am as an adult and everything has gotten far worse, some might say beyond the point of no return.

Pollution and environmental destruction knows no boundary. The natural world cares not about our ideological beliefs. It doesn’t matter who is fault when the costs come due. The free market is and always was bullshit. Nothing is free, even if we don’t see the price tag. In fact, capitalism is rather costly. The ultimate cost might be greater than we can afford.

These costs are highly personal. I’ve talked many times about lead toxicity, the costs of which are numerous and yet still measurable. For every IQ point lost to lead toxicity, it is a specific amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. Multiply that by many IQ points lost for untold millions of people. The costs are devastating and that is considering just one of many costs.

Considering all pollution and environmental degradation, that is the cause of 40% of the deaths worldwide. Those deaths include working men and women who were helping care for family members. Those deaths represent human potential thrown away. Those deaths didn’t just happen instantly but followed years or even decades of illnesses, suffering, and healthcare costs.

Other costs are also economic on the larger scale, which also can be measured. For a long time, I’ve suspected that many corporations would go bankrupt if they were ever forced to pay for their externalized costs. This was shown to be the case with a recent UN report:

“The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.”

This means these industries are environmentally a net loss to the global society. They aren’t contributing more to society than they are taking away. All the rhetoric of capitalism, meritocracy, and progress is lies built upon lies.

We obsess about individual problems when that isn’t the real danger we face. We make people feel guilty about recycling at home while corporations throw out so much potential recyclables as to make all the rest look minuscule. Similarly, almost all the pollution comes from big biz, not from people driving their cars too much or whatever. If we wanted to make a dent in these problems, we’d tackle it at the largest level of the most major contributors to these problems, instead of tinkering around the edges.

Meanwhile, these companies that profit from human misery, from the forced sacrifice of present and future generations lobby the world’s governments so that they’ll make even greater profit. They get tax breaks and subsidies. They hide their profits in fake businesses and secret overseas accounts. We debate about whether taxes are too high when any rational and moral person is forced to admit that taxes don’t come close to offsetting all the costs these filthy rich corporations force onto the rest of society.

Why do we tolerate this? Are we mentally deranged? Are we suicidal?

If the unsustainable costs of industrial externalities doesn’t incite mass outrage and force systemic global reform, then there is no hope left for humanity. We are doomed. Saving capitalism from communism will be the least of anyone’s worries.

Is anyone paying attention? It’s only the survival of civilization as we know it. No biggie. Have we grown so cynical and fearful that we can’t even face reality barreling down on us like a freight train? We are looking at a nightmare scenario.

Costs can be externalized and deferred. But costs can’t be denied.
Even if we are lucky enough to die before costs become due, do we really want to be such sociopathic assholes in the legacy we leave for the coming generations, for our children and grandchildren? They will curse us for what we did and failed to do.

We will be among the most hated generations ever born. There will be no forgiveness for us. Memorials will be built in memory of the evil we committed and the destruction we caused.

Of course, we could in this moment begin to lessen some of this harm. We could prepare for the consequences we’ve unleashed. We could give these next generations a fighting chance. Will we?

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