Is money the only effective behavior modification tool on a societal level?

April 4, 2007 9:26 am

It used to be that we were all inextricably connected to the planet and each other. We lived in small villages or other little communities, got our sustenance from farming or gathering, and bartered with each other. The baker would trade bread for horseshoes. The doctor would trade consultations for eggs. The farmer would trade grains for plows. Everyone took as much as they needed to live their lives. Manual and animal labor limited the amount of resources we could harvest. We had nowhere to put our waste, but nearby our communities, so we knew how to use and re-use things to their utmost potential.

Today, we have no idea how our actions impact the environment or society around us and far away. Machines powered by fossil fuels enable us to extract as many natural resources as we want, crave or desire from the planet. Industrial processes turn those resources into “stuff” for us to buy and use, and often use up and throw away. And machines transport our waste away from our communities.

Most of us are completely disconnected from the natural world by using money to buy stuff. All we know is that this widget or that gadget costs X.

We don’t know how much energy was used in making it. We don’t know what raw materials went into it. We don’t know how the raw materials were transported. We don’t know how production affected the environment. We don’t know how much the people working on it were paid, and whether that was a fair payment. We don’t know how discarding it will impact the environment.  

We don’t know anything except the price. And very often the people making the gadget externalize lots of costs. Especially the costs of throwing it away and how that contributes to slowly making our planet a pigsty for us to slowly suffocate in our own waste. Along with all other living beings. Everything we use and throw away still stays on the planet. It may not be in our neighborhood because it gets transported “away”, but it goes somewhere. We don’t know exactly where. We don’t know exactly how.

Since money is all we know, money seems to be the only answer to modifying behavior. That means that if a society wants to influence the way its members behave, the only way to do that is through taxation. If buying gas for your car causes the atmosphere to heat up, tax it some more to make people think of other ways of getting around. If buying a computer will cause toxic chemicals to leak into our water supplies once it’s discarded, tax it some more so people will think of other ways of accomplishing what they think they need a computer for. And use the taxes to support responsible re-use and final disposal, to support research into ways to design products with re-use in mind, to support mindsets that encourage living sustainably and lightly on the earth.

I know that lots of people bristle at the idea of taxes. It just seems to me that we as a society don’t understand anything but money, so we need to use monetary means to get to societal ends. The biggest of which is our obligation to future generations of the human species to enjoy life as we enjoy it right now.

2 Responses to “Is money the only effective behavior modification tool on a societal level?”

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Kathy wrote a comment on May 1, 2007

Reluctant as I am to say this, more and more I feel like the answer to your question is yes. Despite all the means of persuasion that we employ as we try to steer our world towards a better future, it may be that money is the one universal motivator.

Taxation is one way this may happen, but it’s not the only way. Good old-fashioned price signals could eventually do the same thing – have you seen the price of a gallon of gas lately?

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