At the World Resources Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland, the subject of prices bubbled up in ways that challenge the common assumption that “cheaper is always better.” I thought I’d share a few scattered examples:
–Many participants said that resources should be taxed to discourage their use and to help internalize their environmental costs. This should be done at the extraction phase—when ores are mined and trees are felled—for ease of administration and to realize greater reductions in environmental impact compared with interventions that occur later in the economic process.
– Ernst von Weizsäcker, one of the eminences grises of the materials-use community, noted that higher prices don’t have to mean poor economic performance. For example, Japan blossomed, more than many OECD nations did, during high oil prices between 1975 and 2000.
–The oft-heard conventional prescription to “get the prices right”—allowing market forces to evaluate scarcity and reflect it—has taken on a new and progressive meaning: getting prices to align with political goals, according King’s College economist Paul Ekins. For example, as Friends of the Earth UK notes in a 2008 report, the UK government’s efforts to set a price for carbon and to produce a carbon budget for the coming years has been based on climate change science, rather than on market dynamics.
The idea that we might be better off in a more expensive world may seem incredible, given the “sell more” ethic of consumer societies, with its relentless drive to minimize prices. But a more expensive world of food, housing, and transport resonates for me. Greater expense might push us to choose durable over short-lived, beautiful over shabby, fewer over more, simplicity over clutter. In other words, a higher quality of life. Isn’t that what we’re after?