Red meat tax: Pricing nature?

Danish Council of Ethics proposed to put a climate tax on red meat, aiming to both promote better public health and to reduce carbon emissions from animal farming. This proposal has triggered some controversies. Some argued that this measure won’t make a big difference to neither consumer behavior nor carbon emissions, some stood firmly against this “intrusion to freedom/lifestyle”, while some eager to see this happen for the well being of the planet…

In fact, using economic incentives as policy instruments is not uncommon: Carbon trading to cut emission; fines for untreated waste water to reduce pollution; charges for grocery bags to curb plastic waste … Even though sometimes less controversial and less obvious, the basic idea is similar: putting a price on activities that impose negative impact on the environment.

I had always been a big supporter on using economic incentives to make changes happen for a transition to sustainability because it seems to be the most straightforward and effective. However, listening to Michael Sandel’s talk on “the moral limits of the market” at IQ2 made me rethink my position…

Michael Sandel, one of the most influential political philosophers, most known for his lecture at Harvard University on the topic of “Justice”, turned his attention to the limits of the market society, arguing that the market value has crowded out non-market norms in almost every aspect of life.

I summarized the main points as below:

  • The big question: what role should money and market play in our society?

We have transitioned from a market economy to a market society, meaning that now money is in every aspect of life. Besides paying for basic needs like food and shelter, you can now buy friends, personalized wedding toasts, romantic dates and etc. You may consider this phenomenon fun, convenient or modern, but the problem of paying for these used-to-be-authentic human experiences is that money diminishes the actual value.

Economic incentives have been traditionally frequently used as instruments to implement policies in the form of tax, credit, fine, reward and etc. Professor Sandel proposed a few cases where money was used to incentivize for “good” and pushed the audience to think about the morals of it all:

Monetary reward for keeping fit (or even imposing a “fat tax”).

Supporters: it promotes public health and saves money on health care. Opposers: it is an intrusion to personal space; most importantly, it teaches the wrong lessons of why people should want to be fit: for the sake of money or for the sake of feeling good?

Monetary Reward for good grades/ reading books and etc in schools.

Does it work? Statistics showed: not really, and definitely not on the long term. Also it was argued that a economic price shouldn’t be put on something like education that has intrinsic values.

Paying residents to dump nuclear waste in their back yard.

The residents’ willingness to accept nuclear waste to be stored near their hometown decreased after being offered yearly compensation. People originally agreed to accept the decision for the sense of public responsibility. However, after being offered a price, the act became a financial transaction: money in exchange for potential health risk to the family, which got rejected by many.

Fine for being late to pick up your kids.

After a school imposed a fine for parents who are late to pick up their kids, the number of late parents went up: Before this rule they felt guilty about being late, afterwards they just felt that they are paying a fee for a service. What’s most alarming is that even after the fine was removed, the effect wasn’t reversed because once the ethos component was removed, it is not easy to have it back.


What’s the moral of all the stories?

We need to ask for more than money efficiency on the short term or we risk crowding out the good attitudes, norms and values that are worth caring about for its own sake. It is worth more pondering before translating “good” into monetary terms. 


So how does it apply to the “red meat tax”?

It comes down to the debate that if we should price nature to encourage desirable (environmental friendly) behaviors.

I like that the environmental impact of meat eating is getting more and more deserved attention and people would even make public effort on the moral ground that everyone should contribute to keeping global warming below 2 degrees. And I am definitely a believer that things (food and pretty much all consumer products) are too cheap, especially in developed countries. I would have even advocated for an environmental tyrant to rule the world so we can make things right with nature, and have more environmental justice for people.

However Professor Sandel’s talk did make me rethink my positions and support for these “quick and easy” solutions to solve fundamental societal problems. Fines on pollution and trading carbon emission seems to be direct and effective but it is impossible to make such pricing accurate because danger of harming nature is too much that it should not be tradable on the market that is fundamentally flawed. The economy doesn’t always do what we want it to do, the price doesn’t remotely represent real value at all, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to make it do that accurately.

Besides, such measures don’t necessarily inspire change of system, or the change of heart. The real change happens when people and communities relentless stand up for the value of a healthy eco-system and convince others of  it. Eventually, when the mass are informed, convinced and motivated, people would want to change their behavior not because they are paid a penny to but because their moral compasses are pointing that way.

So the “red meat tax” is not the best for the long run, but what if it’s an emergency?

Changing hearts and behavior takes time, maybe too much time. What if the intrinsic value of nature alone is not enough for the mass public to change their behavior quick enough? Reality is that human beings as a group have a tendency of not paying enough attention to what matters to the basis of our existence. Not to advocate for alarmism, but we have known that we are in multiple environmental crisis for a while and we are losing the battle to turn it around. Do we have the luxury to take the time to appeal to people’s heart?

The meat industry causes huge environmental problems (for details, watch “Cowspiracy” with a critical mind) on such a large scale that actions are urgently needed to address that. It is not even just about the polar bears but about environmental justice for the people. The rich, heavy meat eating, resource consuming countries aren’t necessarily the ones that will suffer the most from climate change or resource depletion. The people making a fortune from the heavily subsidized animal farming business aren’t going to be the ones losing their home to flood. Since economics is the ground for this injustice, isn’t it fair to take a small step to get it even on the economic ground? The “red meat tax” may fail because it is too petty as a mere incentive. What’s really needed is an awakening of the true cost of the meat industry followed with the question “can we really afford, environmentally and morally to consume it at all?”



Further reading:

NYC’s Bag Fee and Circular Economy

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