Blind Man with a Pistol

Carbon Taxes and Double Indemnity

Stéphane Dion released his ‘complex and politically risky’ carbon tax plan yesterday. I’ve already written what I think of market-based solutions for the climate crisis, but I’m a big fan of repeating myself. By creating a carbon market, which, effectively, both a carbon tax a cap-and-trade system will implement, we begin to turn our environment into an economical resource. Sure, we kind of do this already, but such a move will make the marketability of our planet much more explicit.

As this year-old article from Wired magazine, who just celebrated fifteen years of pushing their technological and capitalist utopian fantasies, explains: Carbon? Hell, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

People understand the economic value of nature’s goods because we constantly pay for them: seafood, timber, copper, cut flowers, natural gas. But nature also provides services that stabilize spaceship Earth. Insects pollinate crops, wooded hillsides purify water, trees sequester CO2, and wetlands buffer cities against storm surges. How much are those services worth? Who knows. They’ve always been free, or treated as such. Nature has never submitted an invoice.

But they’re not free, of course. We can tell by the enormous price we pay when they decline or disappear. Think Hurricane Katrina, unpollinated crops, and deadly mudslides caused by deforestation. As the new age of environmental awareness dawns, people and governments are starting to put a dollar value on these services. In practice, that means paying to protect the land where services are most concentrated. And whoever owns the land can reap the profits.

Essentially, the carbon market is the first step in turning ‘spaceship Earth’ into a post-industrial economy: from a manufacturing-based environmental economy to service-based one. Things are getting a lot more complicated without any noticeable improvement in lifestyle. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that creating a carbon market will do anything to reduce emissions—in fact, such a strategy actually entrenches pollution in our economy. We can’t eliminate carbon in a decade anymore than we can eliminate the tar sands now: it will cost jobs to hard-working Canadians.

The carbon tax holds up green collateral in an insurance racket with massive risk (and massive profit potential). And here’s what Walter Huff, insurance salesman from James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936) has to say about his business (and if you recognize the picture in my banner, you’ll know I’ll quote from this guy whenever I get the chance):

You think I’m nuts? All right, maybe I am. But you spend fifteen years in the business I’m in, maybe you’ll go nuts yourself. You think it’s a business, don’t you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it’s the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It don’t look like it is, but it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the 00 to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won’t, that’s all. What fools you is that you didn’t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it’s a bet. That don’t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don’t look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts.

The difference between me and the Liberal party, and anyone who views a market-based solution as anything more than a stop-gap measure, is that I don’t think our future is worth the wager. There’s a reason why ‘nature has never submitted an invoice’: because it doesn’t play on our crooked wheel. It doesn’t want in, but we call the bet just the same. The money should never be worth more than the house, but you can’t seem to convince Canadians of that.

Oh, and the thing to remember about James Cain novels? The narrator is already dead.

1 Comment so far
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Wonderful insight, and as always so graceful. So much of the policy debate goes over my head, mainly because I can’t catch a context like this that I can understand and credit. I fear a lot of the debaters don’t have one, either.

Comment by skdadl

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