We’ve all got enough high school biology to appreciate that the big fish eat the little fish and so on down the line, but even simple, straight line interdependence has become a somewhat abstract concept these days. The line from our resources and capacities to our needs is getting very, very long. Salads don’t come from fields anymore. They just come from the store. The effort needed to move the ingredients 3,000 km to our table is buried in the transaction price, and we give it little thought. Over a half century of cheap energy and a “resources without limits” attitude has produced a cornucopia of goods in our neighbourhoods, and a progressively more entrenched idea that the citizen’s role in the ecosystem is as the unquestioning top-of-food-chain consumer. I consume, therefore I am.
The provocative documentary The End of Suburbia sets out much of the issue. One can argue with the timing, but a collision between finite resources and an attitude of infinite consumption seems inevitable.
There are, of course, some major problems with this attitude, not the least of which is using our unrealistic consumption model to judge quality-of-life issues, and public investment. How do we judge the value of public services to which we all have access, and for which we all pay? Can we put a price on having someone answer the phone, and responding with help, when we dial 911?
Well, ….., there are fiscal models that allow us to do exactly that, courtesy of the insurance industry. An example is the fire brigade widely used before the era of publicly funded fire departments. Your purchase of fire insurance, after an insurance appraiser evaluated the risk and potential loss of your premises, meant the insurance company would send their fire brigade to fight the fire, presumably to reduce the amount of its loss payout. The cost of the fire brigade was hidden in the insurance premium.
A comparable idea today might be the auto insurance plan, assessing your car value and your driving habits, and providing potential repairs for an upfront monthly fee.
So, where are your premiums headed? Going up? And the coverage you get? Going down?
Another financial plan for firefighting involves standing in front of your burning house and negotiating a price for assistance, after the fire starts. This second plan is usually more expensive, although involves many fewer customers in the transaction. Victims of this year’s snowstorm on the 401 (at least those without CAA membership) found out the price of a tow truck when it was wanted in two places at once. Highest bidder, anyone? What happens when I can fill up your tank, or his, but not both? Oooh, I’m a rich man!
There are reasons, you see, why we are willing to pay for services that we may never use. We share the burden together, and undertake the risk together. It forms a part of our quality of life, and supports our peace of mind. As a bonus, the public fire department might save you, not just your house. It’s also more efficient and cheaper in the long run to share the fire department than to have your own.
Across our province there are any number of excellent projects that would increase our public storehouse of benefits and capacities for all to enjoy and use. Some of these, like rapid transit initiatives, are physical infrastructure. Others are less tangible, and strengthen our helping hands as neighbours. We struggle to value these public benefits, however, precisely because they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace. We share them in ways that make fiscal sense, but are beyond market forces. As a citizen I understand the value, but as “taxpayer” I want to see a measurable outcome, within my commoditized and very private point of view. What’s in it for me, right now? Why do I pay for schools if I have no children? [Well, … , how about because someone has to pay into the Canada Pension Plan while you draw out of it, or tend your sick bed, like perhaps that educated child you helped to create!?]
To borrow an old saw, we want to know the price of everything in today’s dollars, but understand the future value of nothing. Since we can’t put a market price on future amenities (the value of inspiring and beautiful streetscapes and landscapes, breathable air, and the water quality of our streams, to name a few), nor restrict their enjoyment to paying customers only, we lack the tools to properly debate and decide questions of public goods. We are less and less committed to the common will necessary to create amenities for the future. Both debate and effort are especially difficult when the path of dependence from polluted air back to its origins in the tailpipe of my car is not understood, or worse still willfully ignored.
A second problem with our present arrangements is that the systems upon which we rely have very little redundancy. No Plan B. What exactly is our backup plan if fossil fuels aren’t limitless and the public purse bottomless? Electric cars? Ah, … , and where will the electricity come from?
Right! … From the outlet in the wall!
Our lack of understanding about the length and fragility of the energy chain, back through the utility grid to the power plant to the fuel source, leaves us vulnerable to bad decisions in good times. Solutions to our problems appear simple, because they seem close at hand (just plug the car in!) when in fact they are very distant (Saudi Arabia, or at the end of a long and energy-intensive industrial process in the Tar Sands).
Real alternatives will take time to build, and we won’t have that time if the need for a Plan B becomes suddenly and blindingly obvious. One way forward is to strengthen and support alternative networks and simple interdependences that are still in place, yet overlooked because they are not valued or sold. Support for local food networks, investment in neighbourhood relationships (with programs such as Kitchener’s Festival of Neighbourhoods, an initiative that our firm supports) and protection for the arable land in our watershed are inexpensive insurance schemes that ensure these pieces of infrastructure are still available when Plan A (the no-peak-oil-don’t-worry plan) springs a few leaks.
One of the most important civic elements in this insurance kit is sustainable rapid transit. In the unlikely event that we cannot discover, refine, package and transport enough things to burn in our cars and electricity plants, environmentally sustainable transit might become a wildly popular option for getting around. Better to have it ready, and in use, rather than wishing for it when it’s too late. No amount of investment in asphalt will be useful if the refinery runs dry.
Taxpayers are busy judging the value of public transit and other public benefits using 2011 accounting and studies that compare these systems to investment in more asphalt for the car.
That’s like judging the value of the fire department on a day when your house isn’t burning down!