handyThis is the first of a series of articles discussing some of the remarkable ideas in a new book called The Global Ideas Book. The book, with a forward by Charles Handy (pictured right) is the brainchild of the UK-based Institute for Social Inventions, and is a compendium of some of the 4000 ideas in the Global Ideas Bank, ideas and germs of ideas submitted by the public for free use and development by others. Described as “part suggestion box, part ideas network and part democratic think-tank”, what impresses me about this collection is the sheer ingenuity of the ideas. Thanks to Nick Temple, one of the book’s editors, for bringing it to my attention. You can buy the book here.

One of several concepts that grabbed my attention immediately is described by its inventor, Bradley Hall, as “A currency created to limit people’s exploitation of the environment”. I had been kicking around the idea of putting some constraint on the ability of the very rich to spend profligately without restriction, and Bradley’s proposition meets that difficult need and more. Basically how it works is this:

  1. Every individual would be given a flat, fixed, non-transferable amount of a new Environment and Social Currency (ESC), say, 10,000 units per month.
  2. A regulatory body would assign an ESC ‘price’ to each product and service sold, reflecting its negative environmental and social costs. So gasoline, for example, would have a high ESC price, while a service that has no negative environmental or social impact would have a zero ESC price. Theoretically, goods and services that actually improve the environment or social welfare could even be assigned a negative ESC price.
  3. Sellers would be required to charge users both its normal market-demand price and its ESC price. So there would be a strict limit, no matter how rich you are, on how much you could damage the environment and social welfare through your purchases. If you’ve reached your 10,000 ESC quota for the month, you’re simply not allowed to buy any more ‘bads’ that month — you’ll have to spend the rest of your money on ‘goods’.

As with any novel idea, its development will need a lot of thought and planning, to minimize bureaucracy (much of it could be done electronically) and minimize the risk of fraud (people buying in the ‘black market’ from vendors who don’t charge ESC). But what appeals to me about it is its extraordinary simplicity and egalitarianism. The fact that it challenges the presumption that money gives you the unlimited right to cause environmental or social damage is just the icing on the cake.

What do you think? Are there some other obvious problems with the idea? Any thoughts on how to implement it and avoid bureaucracy and fraud? Would you welcome it or see it as another undesirable imposition of government?

I’ll be describing some other ideas from the book on these pages in the coming weeks.

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  1. conan dalton says:

    Is is possible that a market in ESC would develop, allowing poor people, who can’t afford that much gasoline anyway, to sell their ESCs to rich people, so rich people get to pollute as much as they would have anyway?The idea reminds me of pollution rights that were assigned to countries as a whole, and then they started trading, and I don’t know the whole story but I understand that the impact on pollution was less than was hoped for …

  2. Doug Alder says:

    Too difficult I think and too open to neocon type attack of restricting freedom to purchase. Perhaps what would work better is to attach an escalating monetary value to any “bads” and that gets added to the price of the item/service being purchased after you have used up your monthly credits. The more into the hole you go the greater the cost for the same item becomes.

  3. Life Tenant says:

    This is the kind of thinking we need; this idea is provocative. Though in its present form it has some problems. First, it is not a currency, because it is not freely transferable – each person is only allowed their 10K and they can’t buy or sell among themselves. Rather, it is a rationing scheme. Each person would have a designated account, a ration card, from which debits would be recorded. Individual rationing is indeed a very intrusive regulatory mechanism. Why not let the credits be freely transferable – while it would allow the rich to buy more rights to pollute, at least they’d have to pay the poor for it, which they don’t have to do now.A bigger problem would be the assignment of prices. The environmental costs associated with goods and services tend to be non-market and so lacking the relatively objective measure of value that markets provide. This opens the door for all kinds of fraud and politicking. I don’t think I’d try to assign an envtl. price for every single product. Rather, pick out some of the big offenders, with clear impacts, like CO2 emitting activities, and levy a tax on them. I know, that idea has its own obstacles, since Reagan and progeny have managed to demonize taxes … maybe call it a user charge, which it is after all, a charge to use the global commons.

  4. Nick Temple says:

    You can give the idea a rating or make comments on it directly HERE or, if the HTML doesn’t work….here: http://www.globalideasbank.org/site/bank/idea.php?ideaId=3892

  5. judith rowley says:

    Seems an excellent idea. The government implemented VAT with all it’s complications. They therefore have the machinery to implement BAD’s, surely….

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Conan: I guess a black market in ESCs is possible, just as in any other currency where demand exceeds supply. But since each taxpayer would be assigned a fixed allotment of ESCs each month, electronically, it would be more likely that the rich would offer the poor a premium price for resale of ESC-paid products. That would be a shame, but it would at least have the benefit of helping redistribute some wealth from rich to poor. Like all the ideas in the book, this idea needs some thinking to get the wrinkles out.Doug: That’s an interesting idea, but it reinforces the impression that being rich gives you more right to pollute and use scarce resources.Subdude: Agreed. We need to be pragmatic about this, although I think the ‘stigma’ of rationing is overblown. To some extent we all ration now — especially in how we ‘spend’ our time.Nick/Judith: Thanks. And Nick, congratulations on a great book.

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