The Buddha said that we are the owners of our deeds, and must take ultimate kammic responsibility for them. In that we we can console ourselves that cosmic justice will ultimately be served. But it is of little for those suffering right now.
It seems a lot of people are unfamiliar with the concept of externalities, so let me define it first. Hopefully the better-informed people in the comments can define it better!
An externality is a cost of economic activity that is not borne by those who benefit from the activity.
In my high school economics, it was explained that a factory might make noise, annoying the neighbors. Or toxic waste might be dumped in a stream. In such cases, the company reduces its costs. It may or may not pass on those reductions to customers, so that they too indirectly benefit. But others suffer the costs.
This was explained more or less as a side-effect, a minor adjustment to the economic equation. But the more you look at it, the broader it becomes.
Pollution is an externality, with all its resultant harms. This includes mass extinction, and poisoning of waters and oceans. Externalities are also foisted on the poor and the powerless, working in unsafe conditions for a pittance. And not just the works, but their families and communities too.
Ultimately, climate change is perhaps the greatest externality of all. Facing the probability of global collapse of civilization, mass extinction, and the death of billions of people, we can no longer think of externalities as a regrettable side effect.
In fact, while capitalists like to argue that they drive wealth creation via innovation, efficiency, and hard work, it is tempting to see the profits of modern capitalism as being driven by our ability to extract value from nature, the future, and the poor, skim off profits, and externalize costs right back. The ones who bear the cost are the ones who have no voice and no power.
Currently economies handle externalities in a fairly ad-hoc manner, via environmental legislation, worker safety, and the like. But what if we were to recognize that all externalities are immoral, and strive to create an economy where all costs are borne by those who benefit?
This would make a radical change in how economies are structured. Take a simple example, a cabbage. A commercial cabbage is produced using chemical fertilizers, energy-intensive machinery, and environmentally-insensitive land clearing. A cabbage produced by organic farming—or what was until a few decades ago just called “farming”—uses local and natural fertilizers, less machinery, and uses land more responsibly. Now, we expect that the organic cabbage is more expensive, and pay a premium for it. And the capitalist argument is that the methods of production are simply more efficient. But let us factor the externalities back in: the cost to the future of using fossil fuels; the cost to the environment, not only of the chemicals used on the farm, but the production chain right back to the mining of the raw materials for the chemicals; the erosion of local communities due to corporate farming; and so on.
Once all that is done, it’s likely the organic cabbage is in fact cheaper. Not that it would have zero externalities: nothing comes without a price. But it would be a lot less. Why, then, does the commercial cabbage appear cheaper, while its actual cost is greater? Because its production has more effectively maximized externalities.
To accept the reality of the cost of externalities is a huge moral shift. People don’t like to acknowledge that their yogurt, their t-shirts, their carpets, everything they use and consume every day, has a cost to others, to the weak, the powerless and the voiceless.
This is the insight that the Bodhisatta had, when, according to the traditional story, he saw as a child the worms being overturned by the plough, cut up, exposed, and fed on by birds. And that was all-natural organic vegan farming!
All activity creates harm: we should accept this, and we should pay the cost.
Were we to do so, the economic landscape would be transformed. Most consumer goods would become massively more expensive, especially anything dependent on fossil fuels—which means just about everything.
So here is my question. I regard the elimination of all externalities as a moral imperative. Is there an economic system that takes this into account on a fundamental level? Have any mechanisms been proposed that would make it doable? Has anyone assessed the macro-economic implications? I am aware of attempts to address this in specialized contexts, such as Gugler’s cradle-to-cradle printing. Has there been any proposal for something like this on a wider scale? I’m think of something like the Green New Deal, but more fundamental, a basic principle of economic priority.