April is nearly here and with it comes the possibility of leaving the house without a coat, gazing at a sunset long after we’ve left the office, and strolling amongst budding trees and sprouting flowers. The end of winter also brings a relaxing of winter heating bills and the dusting off of bicycles, running shoes, and golf bags. It is a glorious time of year.
After April and May pass us by, we will almost certainly turn on the television one sultry morning and hear the first report about the rising cost of gasoline as the “summer driving season” gets going. Based on current world events and the continuing growth of fuel consumption world-wide, I expect that we will hear a lot this summer about how much it costs to fill up a car or pay the electric bill. Before those reports arrive, I would like us to pause and take a moment to consider the full costs of the fuel that powers our everyday lives.
This past October, the world watched as 33 Chilean miners were pulled from what at first seemed to be a grave 2,000 feet below the surface of the earth. After nearly 70 days underground, all of the miners were brought back to a joyous reunion with their families and friends. The 33 had been mining gold and copper for about $1,600 per month. For miners caught in an explosion or collapse, unfortunately, such rescues are the rare outcome. Just one month after the Chilean miracle, 29 coal miners were killed after an explosion in New Zealand. The youngest of the miners was 17 years old. Accidents in New Zealand are infrequent, but that country extracts only a tiny fraction of the world’s coal. China, the world’s largest producer of coal, saw at least 2,600 miners perish in 2009. And while mine safety in the United States is much better than in China, U.S. miners still sometimes pay the price of extracting the earth’s resources with their lives, as we saw one year ago, when 29 West Virginians died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.
Twelve flips of the calendar also brings us back to the Gulf Coast oil spill, which wrecked havoc on the economy and ecosystem of the Gulf Coast. A wonderful profile was written in the autumn about some of the people who were trying to remedy the costs that befell the area. The dedicated individuals, which included a veterinarian, a charter boat captain, and a passionate grandmother, were trying to rescue the Kemp’s Ridley, “the most imperiled [species of] sea turtle in the world.” After an astonishing 40 million years on this planet, it was nearing extinction in the 1970s. Yet after thirty years of collaboration between the U.S. and Mexican governments, protection of nesting grounds, and the tireless work of many advocates, the Kemp’s Ridley had rebounded enough that removal from the Endangered Species list in 2012 was possible. Then the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.
Such disasters should cause us, I think, to be more deliberate and thoughtful in our energy usage. The electricity that heats the water in my shower or that powers my stove, is “the work of human hands,” to use a liturgical phrase. I should respect it–not waste it.
But the costs of providing us with energy for our homes, business and vehicles go beyond single disasters, because every day lawn fertilizers and car exhaust pollute our watersheds and our rubbish expands landfills. The price we pay at the pump, checkout line, or return envelope typically does not include the cost to society of disposing of the product packaging or removing the manufacturing waste from the rivers and coasts. This concept—called a negative externality—is a well-documented one. In short, it means that someone or some part of society who did not agree to bear the cost of another person’s consumption nevertheless incurs some of that cost.
There is much work to be done, through innovative thinking, private agreements, government regulations, and international compacts to try to lessen the incidents of negative externalities. On an individual level, internalizing some of these externalities ourselves by paying more for our products and services may seem just a bit more palatable when we consider the human and environmental problems created when we do not internalize the full cost of our consumption. Internalizing the externality is, in a sense, what we do when we choose an alternative energy source even though it is more expensive than a traditional source or when we pay a bit more for a product with an Energy Star or Fair Trade Certified label on it. We are agreeing to pay something closer to what it truly costs to produce that product. While individual action won’t in itself solve these problems, the commitment of individuals is the moment where the reality starts to become more solution than problem.