Externalities

This article, from Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, is an excellent look at how unplanned things often happen when something well-planned is done.

These are called externalities in the public policy area, and can be troublesome.

In our Parkway, one externality is the results of the damage, to levees and the integrity of the Parkway (unplanned), from using the river as a flood conveyance vehicle (planned) for years.

Here is an excerpt.

For People and Planet
When will companies start accounting for environmental costs?
BY AL GORE AND DAVID BLOOD Tuesday, March 28, 2006 12:01 a.m.

Capitalism and sustainability are deeply and increasingly interrelated. After all, our economic activity is based on the use of natural and human resources. Not until we more broadly “price in” the external costs of investment decisions across all sectors will we have a sustainable economy and society.

The industrial revolution brought enormous prosperity, but it also introduced unsustainable business practices. Our current system for accounting was principally established in the 1930s by Lord Keynes and the creation of “national accounts” (the backbone of today’s gross domestic product). While this system was precise in its ability to account for capital goods, it was imprecise in its ability to account for natural and human resources because it assumed them to be limitless. This, in part, explains why our current model of economic development is hard-wired to externalize as many costs as possible.

Externalities are costs created by industry but paid for by society. For example, pollution is an externality which is sometimes taxed by government in order to make the entity responsible “internalize” the full costs of production. Over the past century, companies have been rewarded financially for maximizing externalities in order to minimize costs.

Today, the global context for business is clearly changing. “Capitalism is at a crossroads,” says Stuart Hart, professor of management at Cornell University. We agree, and we think the financial markets have a significant opportunity to chart the way forward. In fact, we believe that sustainable development will be the primary driver of industrial and economic change over the next 50 years.

The interests of shareholders, over time, will be best served by companies that maximize their financial performance by strategically managing their economic, social, environmental and ethical performance. This is increasingly true as we confront the limits of our ecological system to hold up under current patterns of use. “License to operate” can no longer be taken for granted by business as challenges such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, water scarcity and poverty have reached a point where civil society is demanding a response from business and government. The “polluter pays” principle is just one example of how companies can be held accountable for the full costs of doing business. Now, more than ever, factors beyond the scope of Keynes’s national accounts are directly affecting a company’s ability to generate revenues, manage risks, and sustain competitive advantage. There are many examples of the growing acceptance of this view.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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