When we think about fighting climate change, we naturally focus first on its direct causes. If it is caused by carbon build-up, our first thought is to cut or offset greenhouse gas emissions. Our thinking then glides logically on to finding ways of doing so, especially adopting new energy technologies and launching carbon trading markets (which are key to stimulating innovative solutions, to lowering the costs of abatement, to helping end the north-south impasse.)

All this is essential.

But it is not enough. Safeguarding the environment requires others levers, levers that are simple, fast, potentially adept, highly powerful. This power can only come from shifting the balance of forces in the larger society, balances beyond the limited circle of the problem’s immediate constituents.

The most basic balance, the first tradeoff society makes, is between the two primary factors of production. Should we use more labor or more natural resources (energy, materials, and land)?

For decades, we have been tilting the scale ever more steeply in favor of using things, not people. We define “productivity” in terms of how little labor we can use in production, rather than thinking about how we can maximize value by finding whatever mix of inputs will do so. In the U.S., more or less by accident, we have sent a giant “use things, not people” price signal as payroll taxes have increased from 1% to almost 40% of federal revenues over the last several generations. And now, in some of the current proposals to finance health care reform, we are considering further increases. This tilt is even worse in most other countries.

As a result of this incentive drift towards using things more and people less, the global system is consuming natural resources very aggressively.

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