Pay for Your Own Environmental Footprint?

In a Nutshell: Land taxes and modern economic theory do not account for the environmental costs that we cause. Are you willing to pay your real costs?

Here’s the idea. Ecological footprinting, an idea begun at the University of British Columbia, is a way to estimate how much demand on resources we generate by our normal way of life. Our footprint is a measure of the global cost of our lifestyle. If given the choice, would you elect to pay the real costs of how you live rather than taxes based on the ‘market value’ of your property?

The recent critical assessment of MPAC by the Ontario Ombudsman needs to be extended to examine alternative ways of calculating the taxes that we pay. It is a privilege to live where we do and we all should be willing to pay our fair share of the costs to live here.

But it is not the real estate value of our property that generates the costs we cause for our municipality, our province, our nation or the land itself. It is how we live, not just at home but in all ways and all places.

If we could satisfy all our needs from our own property, grow our own food, devise our own technical aids and entertain ourselves, we could easily describe the footprint that our lives put on the environment – local, regional and global – almost. Almost – because we would still add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from breathing and from our fire.

The real ecological footprint for most of us is very much larger than our home place. We drive into town for food that was shipped from far away, and for our medical needs and much more. We feel that we need many technical aids that require lots of non-renewable resources to build and to transport to us. Tantalum for cell phones may even cause bloodshed in the D.R.Congo. We may migrate for part of the winter. And so, our impact on the environment, our footprint, grows very large.

But what of our urban neighbours – almost 80 percent of fellow Canadians? Often their footprint is even larger. And much of it is imprinted away from where they live. Cities and their dwellers are virtually dependent for many of their resources on surrounding regions, and other nations, often on other continents.  Cities may be economic engines but if we dropped a plastic dome over one, it would not last long.

So, if everyone paid for their own footprint, instead of taxes prescribed by MPAC assessments, what would be the difference in taxation for urban residents compared to rural, non-farm dwellers? Urbanites would have to pay for all the infrastructure that their lifestyle demands. Suburban living would become expensive because of the utilities needed to connect to the city core and to allow commuting. The costs of policing and of crime that persists also must be met. And high numbers and high density of people generates huge costs of integrative services. Basic communications, complicated social services, normal prevention of city chaos. Then there would be the costs of heavily polluted air, technically polished drinking water and, if totally realistic, the costs of water degradation by sewage and industrial wastes and even the costs of supplying essential recreation and spiritual renewal for the ubanites from the surrounding rural and wilderness areas.

Rural non-farm dwellers, on the other hand, could reduce their footprint measurably. Many services, common to cities and towns, are not supplied – high speed internet, cable, sometimes even workable phone lines, and ten-minute cardiac service are a few examples. Recreation and spiritual renewal can be found right at home, in the local community or in the surrounding landscape. Still, for some, habits carried over from an urban past can result in unusual amounts of travel and associated impacts.

The range of variation in environmental footprint size is wide in both urban and rural settings but the resource dependence of urban dwellers on environments outside their home community is much higher. On the other hand, generation of new wealth is clearly higher for urban dwellers. Can we afford to continue to ignore the environmental costs – the larger footprint – of urban living and make believe that somehow the increase in wealth generation negates the increased footprint that it causes?

Or does so much of that increased wealth get used up in costs of urban life that little is left to compensate those environments that the urban footprint lands on? Some new basis for assessing what we should pay for living here is needed. Should the environmental footprint of our lifestyle be a factor in that assessment?

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