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Pollution as Theft: Accounting for Systemic Externalities

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a chemical plant juxtaposed with fractal tree branches
a chemical plant juxtaposed with fractal tree branches
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We leave things out. It's really easy to do and sometimes it's an innocent, unintentional omission.

We leave out key ingredients, factors, considerations, in the things we do, the things we make.

Science has done just fine with that for a long time, and for simple stuff, things that can be easily measured, counted and quantified, this can work out nicely.

But when things are more complicated, when things are built within more complex systems, simple math doesn't work. It never has. This was something that people could get away with when there was a lot of room for error, or for sloppiness.

Today we live in a very tightly interwoven, interconnected world made of of many layers of networks of systems within systems. One and one does not add up to be two when the addition process affects other factors. The sum, including the other factors, could be a negative number.

Noam Chomsky calls these un-included or ignored factors externalities. A simple example is the cost of producing a product in a factory that dumps toxic waste into a river-- the waste, and the cost of preventing pollution, is an externality that is ignored, or intentionally omitted. The affect of coal burning on climate change is another externality-- a cost that is not factored in to the total cost to the ecosystem. Living in and supporting a materialist culture where acquisition of things is embraced as a positive value, where production of more and more is seen as a positive economic parameter is another externality which ignores the weight the consumption of goods and packaging, which make up half of the material we produce, upon the ecosystem.

It's time to call the expenditure of externality costs without accountability theft or corporate welfare parasitism. We might as well start using the terms the wealthy and powerful use to disempower and even incarcerate their victims.

When you knowingly dump toxins into the air or water you are a corporate welfare cheat leeching off of the ecosystem and the commons that we all live in, depend upon and support. When you profit by not paying for the processes necessary to prevent environmental costs, you are stealing from the commons we all own a share of.

There are no privileges of wealth or power that should excuse abuse of the ecosystem. The problem is, the existing economic and power system is pathetically far behind the state of the art science. For hundreds of years, Newtonian and Cartesian scientific models, based on mechanistic, atomistic, quantitative approaches worked for simpler sciences. And those approaches were applied, metaphorically, to philosophies of life and religions.

Modern science-- the cutting edge scientific model that explains sub-atomic particle physics, genetics, ecosystems, living things and systems and a plethora of other new scientific fields-- is based on systems theory, a bottom-up approach that considers relationships, patterns and interconnections. There's no free externality lunch in systems theory. And the simple quantitative mechanistic models are replaced by qualitative models that are based on networks, interdependence and webs of systems at multiple, fractal levels. (My thoughts here are inspired by the book, The Systems View of Life.)

Reality didn't change. Our understanding of it has evolved and matured, to reflect deeper realities. Gravity didn't suddenly begin to exist when Newtown was bonked on the head with an apple. We just started to understand it. But now, we DO understand the ubiquity of externalities and it is no longer acceptable to operate as though they don't exist. It is a fraud and a lie to pretend that the web of connections are not a part of every decision to produce a product or offer a service. Failure to deal with the direct and indirect costs cannot be excused anymore. Pretending that these costs are not significant, or evading them can no longer be tolerated. It is theft, and the size of the theft, in the case of big companies with big factories is often grand larceny with value in the billions.

We need to adopt laws that recognize these costs and require that they be dealt with. As we learn more about how manufacturing and provision of services like transportation affect the ecosystem-- producing ecological costs-- we will identify costs we were not aware of. We need to identify ways to make manufacturers and service providers start paying for externality costs as soon as possible after those costs are discovered.

We need to go much further. We need to start thinking about ending non-sustainable, extractive businesses, replacing them with generative approaches, as Marjorie Kelly describes in her writings. Going even further, Kelly explores re-evaluating ideas of ownership, about an "ownership revolution" that leads to a non-extractive economy "aimed at generating conditions for life to survive."

At some point, the top-down, quantitative, self-centered mechanistic model, which emphasizes domination of nature and the environment must go the way of the flat earth theory. It's that far from the reality we now know exists.

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Rob Kall is an award winning journalist, inventor, software architect, connector and visionary. His work and his writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, the HuffingtonPost, Success, Discover and other media.

Check out his platform at RobKall.com

He is the author of The Bottom-up Revolution; Mastering the Emerging World of Connectivity

He's given talks and workshops to Fortune 500 execs and national medical and psychological organizations, and pioneered first-of-their-kind conferences in Positive Psychology, Brain Science and Story. He hosts some of the world's smartest, most interesting and powerful people on his Bottom Up Radio Show, and founded and publishes one of the top Google- ranked progressive news and opinion sites, OpEdNews.com

more detailed bio:

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, (more...)

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