Perhaps we need to confront an old myth:

Myth X: The market functions well enough today because it’s pricing function is accurate.

My thesis is that the pricing function we have today is actually pathological and is based on playing with crooked dice and marked cards. We want the answer to be “cheap” — so we lie to ourselves, cheat, and rig our pricing function to get the answer we want.

When I ask people if they want a healthy atmosphere, healthy soils and clean water, they all say yes. If I ask what the value of these three conditions is, they have a very hard time ‘pricing’ them. Nor can they price the cost of NOT doing anything to keep our natural world clean and safe.

On the other hand, many people understand that the price of a soda pop, for example, should include all of its end-to-end costs with no externalities allowed. Include the cost of filling up the land fill, of causing obesity & diabetes, of bad nutrition, of the carbon foot print of trucking sugar water anywhere, perhaps even include the energy ‘wasted’ making a non essential ‘food’., etc. etc. etc.

Now, if we apply end-to-end pricing to fossil fuels, a much more accurate pricing function, then what happens, for example, to the price,of coal when its price includes ALL of the environmental damage it does [air, water, soils, landscape], the health hazards it creates, etc? If we do the same with fossil fuels from insecure and vulnerable off shore sources, then we must also include the military costs of defending them. What then becomes the honest price of Oil? Natural gas? Atomic power?

In general, we profess that we do not want to dictate people’s choices. We want to be free to inflict damages on our neighbors. But should we expect to pay for the damages of our choices up front? Most states require people to take reasonable steps to reduce the burden of emergency healthcare: seat belts and bike safety helmets come to mind. What about the damages people’s energy choices can inflict? Should we impose at least a $1.00 per gallon carbon tax on fossil transportation fuels? Or would it be more honest and market oriented to require end-to-end energy pricing, with no externalities?

Now, if we had an honest and all inclusive end-to-end pricing function, could we then eliminate ALL subsidies for all energy? Which would be more honest: Removing all subsidies and tax loopholes from fossil transportation fuels or layering on a $1.00 tax? Which choice would actually do the most to improve the health of the atmosphere, the soils and our water, while also improving the health of the market economy?

How would these two policy choices change the playing field? Can we model this?

On a related topic, David Yarrow led a small team of dedicated biochar supporters and had a great day at Shelburne Farms yesterday. One thing that became very clear is that it much more powerful to give people a positive story to be for, than it is to give them a negative story to be against.

For example, I would share my vision of hundreds of homes in a local community heating with carbon negative pyrolysis systems and selling or trading their resultant biochar back to their local Community Supported Agriculture farms. This creates a virtuous cycle where their CSAs could, completing the loop, start providing them with Nutrient-Dense Carbon-Negative foods. As people heated their homes, instead of feeling guilty, they would be looking forward to more nutritious and healthier foods in the coming summer and forever afterwards for generations to come. Further, as the biochar in the fields builds up, carbon negative pyrolysis heating will also help keep the waters clean by mitigating run off contamination.

The people I shared this vision with understood and were amazed at the possibility of even thinking that we could tie our heating systems and our food systems together in a new configuration that would help improve the health of the atmosphere, our soils and our water. They were excited to BE FOR this idea that warmth, food and cleaner water could be integrated into something greater than the sum of its parts. Liberating people from silo thinking, feeling guilty, and hopeless can be very energizing.

It is simply not good enough, not effective, to only offer guilty choices of bad or less bad, high carbon vs low carbon solutions. Our challenge is to invent solutions that can be embraced, will be embraced, because they are positively good for you and your future generations. We need solutions people want to embrace and feel good about embracing. Solutions that offer an enhanced view of the future, not a diminished one. We will do best to go beyond solutions that only offer people the option of feeling less guilty. This is the most likely way to create a positive feed-back loop that may be able to take these new approaches ‘viral’.

Of course, another alternative is for things to go way wrong and create situations where the governments are reduced to imposing rationing and other controls in response to chaos induced by climate disruption.

Additional Biochar resources:

1. Biomass Magazine

2. The Economist

3. Biochar Conference at UMass Amherst, Nov. 13, 2009

4. Introduction to Biochar: Six Posters from IBI