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Fred Allebach
Connecting the Dots
Fred Allebach

Tell it like it is: A call for true cost accounting

Sustainability is a concept whose time has come yet for various reasons the powers that be, forces representing business as usual are hiding, hesitant and resisting taking steps towards the obvious. Why the avoidance? Well, the changes called for are seriously hard and will upend our current system. Major creativity and lifestyle changes are called for. The benefits of such action may not accrue to those who act now. We’re taking sacrifice folks, sacrifice of our current Life of Riley.

In one possible future, the rich and powerful continue to benefit from the current system and they fight tooth and nail to keep their privilege, power and control, even if it means sinking the ship for everyone else (like First Class Titanic survivors getting all the life boats). Another possible future could have a few enlightened wealthy tip the rest to collectively adaptive action. In this case, we’ll need a rich Ghandi type, a Siddhartha type, who divests all to show the way for the rest. Just think, Sandy Weil as the new savior! Go Sandy!

Regionally our flavor of unsustainable revolves around rampant tourism. Our tourist economy represents all the worst aspects of short-term, bonanza, bubble forming behavior. The failure of regional policy makers to reckon even any one little bit of negative externality from tourism is frankly naïve and shocking. See the following article from a nascent Four County Network that demonstrates a widespread dissatisfaction with our current North Bay course of action. http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/30744-north-coast-california-gathering-blasts-big-wine

Any sustainability program means basically to plan ahead, be smart, anticipate negative trajectories and take steps to adapt and improve our survivability. Apparently this is too much to ask of government or from people in general. As historian Barbara Tuchman said, people don’t change until the sewage is coming in the front door. Well, guess what, with the scale and numbers of our collective industrial impact on the planet, this time when the sewage comes in it will be too late to wake up. We need to wake up now.

A grassroots effort to demonstrate the true cost of our current socio-economic-environmental-ethical system is necessary. Relying on science at this point doesn’t matter as the truth of the situation has been obvious for a long time and has been ignored by the masses and by politicians. What we need is to address our huge sustainability crisis and problem through cultural means, i.e. show exactly why, economically and ethically, it makes sense to change the course of the ship. Appealing to self-interest, grandkids, creating new myths, getting an esprit de corps going, this is what people will respond to.

If we can’t wake up and see objective truths, then we must manipulate ourselves psychologically along avenues proven to work.

A critical part of any sustainability program is to elicit the true costs of our industrial system, of our tourist economy, and not allow the bottom line to be reckoned only by the 1% who run off with all the benefits. Sustainable cannot be construed to only mean “green” business or recyclable cups or more insulation on houses. The whole 9 yards, all effects, need to be brought out into the open.

In order to get at and demonstrate true costs, which are a keystone principle of sustainability, there has to be a serious systems literate entity capable of analyzing our county/ region-wide economy-society-environment-ethical gestalt. Implicit in true cost, or full cost accounting/ analysis is that there exists an all inclusive bottom line or context; i.e. that we are dealing with a whole system. What this means is that the full pie of human activity is considered: social, environmental, economic, moral/ethical, all of how our collective actions impinge on ourselves and the natural world. This is not too much to ask, to have our eyes open to the full consequences of our behavior.

Why would any group of people not want us to have an idea of the full scope of our actions? What is standing in the way of such a system-wide analysis that would then drive our regional policy?

As of now, no entity has stepped forward to provide such analysis because, presumably, it would be a complex, time consuming job, require serious expertise and cost a lot money.

A regional academic institution would have the means and credibility to produce such a cost/ benefit analysis, i.e. a true cost accounting of the tourist industry and our regional lifestyle and make some recommendations about how to change systemically so that we steer this ship of ours to a more survivable/ adaptive/ sustainable future. An academic institution also has the separation and independence from political ideology, through peer-reviewed, objective processes, to arrive at a universal, best-we-can-do-as-humans-solution. Academics have the potential to unmask and transcend ideological barriers and blinders, even my own.

Sonoma State has the resources, programs, personnel and expertise to take on such a system-wide, true cost analysis. UC Davis has sustainability people and programs. Somehow this step has to be taken: a serious systems literate study done to demonstrate true, externalized costs, not just of tourism but of our entire industrial-consumer oriented lifestyle in general.

From the Bay Area, we can lead the world; we can act in what is right and true, shine a light, be the new City in the Hill, even to our own detriment, just as we save water because it is ethically right, even though our neighbors are using more than their share. The Bay Area, City on the Hill for eyes open, true cost accounting.

I suggest that since governments do not appear inclined to be bold and things are moving altogether too slowly otherwise, that participants in the Four County Network take steps to identify an entity capable of large-scale systemic true cost/ cost-benefit analysis and that concerned citizens then be fundraised specifically for the purpose of hiring such a true cost accounting/ systems literate academic entity that will provide analysis of the factors we all see that are routinely ignored by the powers that be. If our representatives are failing to act in a timely fashion, we must act. Our policy wishes (concerning the unsustainable nature of our system) must be known in a larger, more meaningful way; writing letters and going to council meetings etc. might be emotionally satisfying but we might as well piss in the ocean for all the difference that makes.

This proposed, contracted-for analysis, by the Four County Network, or whoever can get it together to produce such a study soon, can then stand as a major statement about how grassroots, North Bay citizens feel the future should look like and this analysis can then be used as a roadmap to influence policy, politicians and government to take steps they currently appear too timid or uninformed to make.

Alternately, as public institutions, why can’t Sonoma State and/or UC Davis, or Humboldt State, or SRJC just do a true cost system-wide model for the North Bay or Nor Cal? Why should we need to beg for good, accurate information on the consequences of our systemic behavior? Go ahead provosts; here is where you can make a huge difference, with all the resources at your command. We're all taxpayers here, go ahead, tell us the truth.

All we are asking: tell it like it is.

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