Who Owns the Sky? by Peter Barnes

Who Owns the Sky?: Our Common Assets And The Future Of CapitalismWho Owns the Sky?: Our Common Assets And The Future Of Capitalism by Peter Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short, vigorous, and persuasive argument for saving Earth from global warming by converting the atmosphere into a legally defined asset.

I came to this book by way of Peter Barnes’s more recent book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, in which he focuses more directly on the changes to “capitalism” implied by the ideas presented in Who Owns the Sky?. In the later book the author waxes enthusiastic about applying the “trust” concept to all kinds of commonly held resources, both natural and man-made. Those suggestions are intriguing, but the global climatic convulsion now in progress due to our burning of carbon is such an urgent issue that I wanted to read the earlier book as well.

I’m glad I have. In this book, published in 2001, Barnes walks the reader–briskly–through the line of reasoning that leads from the observation that resources that are not owned, such as the sky, are treated by modern capitalism as worthless, to the suggestion that they can be saved by assigning them a positive value. That means turning the resource, in this case the Earth’s atmosphere, into an economic asset. If we can do that, then capitalism, instead of degrading the sky by dumping waste into it, will start to protect it, because capitalists do not seek to destroy assets; they seek to increase them.

The question is how to achieve this. The author sees three possible approaches. One is having the government recognize the resource as a public asset, like the national forests, and take responsibility for assigning a price for its use. Another approach is to privatize the sky, so that one or more corporations acquire it as an asset that they manage. And the third approach uses the “trust” model: here the sky would be established as an asset in a legal trust, which trustees would manage on behalf of the trust’s beneficiaries, who would be, in this case, the American people. Each American, upon birth or naturalization, would acquire one nontransferable share in this trust, and would receive dividends from it for life. Upon the citizen’s death the share would expire too.

But is this practical? Can the sky really be owned? The idea here is not that people take ownership of the physical molecules that constitute the atmosphere. Rather, they’re taking ownership of the relevant and valuable part of the sky: its capacity to hold greenhouse gases. A cap would be set by government on allowable carbon emissions, and the Sky Trust would sell permits to companies that bring fossil fuels into the U.S. economy, of which there are about 2,000. Each permit would represent the right to store one ton of carbon in America’s share of the global atmosphere. Barnes goes on:

Companies at the top of the carbon chain would buy and sell carbon emission permits to suit their needs. On December 31 of each year, they’d have to own enough permits to cover all the emittable carbon they brought into the economy during the preceding year. If they didn’t, they’d be penalized. No emissions monitoring would be required–just financial reporting similar to what the companies already provide.

Thus, it’s a cap-and-trade system, similar to the one the United States set up to limit the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, but with two important differences. One is that the Sky Trust is conceived as an upstream system, in which those who first bring the carbon to market are the ones requiring permits, rather than a downstream system, as the sulfur system is, in which end-users are the ones required to have permits. This feature would make the Sky Trust feasible to administer, as well as making it more comprehensive.

The other difference is that the Sky Trust would be a legally constituted but nongovernmental body. Independent of government, its trustees would be legally bound to manage the trust solely for the benefit of its present and future beneficiaries. And every American would receive an annual dividend payment from the net revenues of the trust. This would help offset the increase in prices that would necessarily be brought about by the establishment of such a permit system, while those same price increases would also create incentives for people to use less carbon.

But is such a trust feasible in practice? Yes. Alaska set up a similar trust in 1976 for its citizens to participate in royalties from the extraction of oil in their state. Alaskans have been receiving annual checks for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. The Sky Trust would simply be a scaling-up of the Alaska Permanent Fund. (Alaskans will then find themselves getting two annual dividend checks. Sweet.)

Speaking for myself, I’m sold. Peter Barnes has persuaded me to abandon my support for green taxes–that is, government-enacted levies on various products and services–in favor of this new trust model. As he describes more fully in Capitalism 3.0, what he’s proposing is the addition of a whole new sector to the economy: the “commons sector”, to stand alongside the private (corporate) and public (government) sectors. I now see green taxes as a stopgap, to be used only until the resource in question can be set up as a commons trust.

Barnes is a good writer. His clear, folksy, humorous style tends to conceal the depth of research and thought that have gone into his work. This is good in that it makes for easy reading and should help his ideas reach the widest possible audience, but I fear that his popular style, lacking gravitas, might give an impression of being lightweight. This is a rare case in which I think the book could have been longer, to flesh out the ideas more and develop the argument more slowly, for there are many new and innovative ideas here, and the reader may need more opportunity to let them sink in.

But if that’s a criticism, it’s not much of one. Peter Barnes is an entrepreneur and he doesn’t like to waste time. The Sky Trust is an idea whose time has come–indeed it’s already overdue. As things stand, we’ve already committed Planet Earth to a massive heating that will take thousands of years to play out, even if we completely cease all carbon emissions before I finish typing this sentence. All life on Earth, including human life, will be scrambling to adapt.

The Sky Trust represents a rational, effective, and just method of reducing our environmental impact, while also preserving and enhancing the prosperity-creating power of capitalism. As ideas go, it’s a winner. Let’s swiftly complete the design phase and move on to implementation.

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