Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TANSTAAFL is Danish for "no deal": What we got out of Copenhagen.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Have you ever thought about what it would be like if we lived on the moon? On such a barren and lifeless rock, many of the things we take for granted - air, water, trees - would be imported and manufactured goods. Instead of exploiting them, we would almost certainly be paying for them. In his science fiction classic The Moon is Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein has a term for this: TANSTAAFL. It stands stand for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. In his lunar cities of the future, even air is paid for.

Life mirrors art.

The most definitive message out of the UN's two-week three-ring circus in Copenhagen is that if we want these things, we're going to have to pay for them. But unfortunately, our institutions have been operating as if they are free for a long time. The value of trees as air scrubbers, carbon holders, and fresh water producers has never been factored into the cost of cutting them down, or a fair price to save them. The ecological impact of extracting and burning coal and oil is seldom considered as part of their true cost as an energy source. The environmental cost of garbage, beef, cars, bottled water, and a million other man-made items is not reflected in what we pay to consume them.

The concept of doing so is called natural capitalism. It's not socialism or tree hugging, it is simply seeing the world's economy as connected to the larger economy of natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain us, and placing appropriate value on the ecological commons. Another way to look at it is as achieving "sustainable resource use"; a lifecycle based perspective on growth, production, and consumption. As long as we are tethered to this one tiny planet, it is the only long term model that will work.

So what good came out of Copenhagen? Acknowledgment of TANSTAAFL - that there ain't a free lunch. While no binding agreements were signed, there was explicit consensus reached ("The Copenhagen Accord") that the current carbon and methane intensive model of global capitalism has a cost, and that it's time to make a payment. Representatives from virtually every UN member country including the US, China, India, Brazil, and the EU members agreed that we need to come up with financial models to save rainforests, invest in cleaner renewable energy sources, consume less, and think holistically about how we achieve growth, wealth creation and a future world that is sustainable and socially just.

The bickering is all about who is going to pay for it, and of course the countries with the biggest wallets and the biggest bills are calling the shots. Did anyone really expect the Maldives to successfully set the agenda?

So while progress towards a binding solution to climate change was limited, at least the problem is now framed, and that's something positive we can take out of what otherwise would be considered a complete fiasco.

Unlike the moon, the earth is a generous and forgiving mistress. But the era of the free lunch is over.

You can download the Copenhagen Accord at this link (courtesy of the Washington Post.)

Photo copyright / CC BY-SA 2.0

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