Don’t let them sell us the sun!
No one invented or created the sun. It came into being long before any living being walked upon the earth. It doesn’t belong to anyone. If anyone has a right to benefit from the sun, then everyone has an equal right to its benefits. No one has done anything to be more deserving than anyone else. In the foreseeable future, the sun will be the ultimate source of everything of economic value on earth. We are rapidly using up the usefulness of the earth’s non-renewable resources, including the solar energy sequestered and fossilized millions of years ago. As fossil energy becomes scarce, solar energy becomes more competitive, and eventually will be the only economically valuable source of energy.
Whoever controls access to solar energy in the future will essential control humanity. The usefulness of everything earth, including everything of economic value, ultimately depends on the usefulness of energy. Whoever controls solar energy will be able to set whatever price they choose to charge for its use, because all other economic value will be dependent on access to solar energy. Humanity simply cannot afford to allow anyone to control solar energy. We all have equal rights to benefit from the sun, and rights should never be given away, taken away, and certainly not bought or sold. We can’t let them “sell us the sun.”
No one invented or created the earth. Land was once recognized as a common good: something that didn’t belong to anyone but that everyone had an equal right to use to meet their basic needs. Land was never removed from the commons among many indigenous cultures, including Native Americans, and remains in the commons in some parts of the world. The Europeans began enclosing and converted land to private property during the 1600s. At that time, there was a provision that enough good land must be left in the commons to meet the needs of all who chose to use it.[i] Obviously, that provision was eventually abandoned and forgotten.
Wherever land was removed from the commons, a new kind of hunger and poverty was created. Poverty and hunger had existed before, but if anyone in a community that had enough, all had enough, because they shared the bounty of the land in common. Only when the land was privatized and enclosed, so it could bought and sold, was there poverty in the midst of plenty and hunger in the midst of gluttony. We are haunted still today by the mistake of “letting them sell us the earth.” We can’t let it happen again.
Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary, proposed that everyone be given a lump-sum payment upon reaching the age of maturity to compensate them for the deprivation of their “inherent right” to enough land to meet their basic needs.[ii] Obviously, Paine did not prevail, and poverty and hunger continued. In the early 1900s, Henry George gained widespread political attention by proposed a “single tax” on land as a means of alleviating poverty and hunger. Again, his argument was that no one in particular had created the land, so everyone in general should benefit from its use. Those who used the land had a legitimate right to claim compensation for “improvements” to the land but should compensate society for the privilege of using “the land.”
George’s land tax would have replace all other taxes and would be assessed in whatever amount deemed necessary to alleviate poverty and hunger. Obviously, George did not prevail, and poverty and hunger continued. The Georgist Society[iii] is still active and has since added fossil energy and the natural environment to its list of “land” or common property to be taxed. The taxes would be used for the benefit of society as a whole, but particularly to alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, the battle to reclaim the earth as common property would be very difficult. For centuries now we have been essentially “giving the earth” to whoever wanted to “develop” its resources — ignoring our collective responsibilities as caretakers of the earth. We have not yet “given them the sun,” but we are leaning dangerously in that direction.
I believe that solar energy should be declared the common property of the earth’s community by means of international treaty. All solar energy in the future — including photovoltaics, wind, and water — would then be developed by public utilities. The utilities could owned and operated by governments or owned and operated privately with public oversight. Existing solar energy facilities could be claimed under “eminent domain,” with current owners compensated from taxes on solar energy. Contrary to popular belief, exorbitant profits are not necessary to motivate research and development whenever there is a public commitment. The public sector is quite capable of developing an efficient solar energy system, with a strong public mandate and the necessary funding provided by taxes on solar energy.
Public utilities commissions would set commercial energy prices at levels deemed necessary to operate the public utilities, including reasonable returns to investors, with “profits” collected as taxes to meet societal needs. The top priority in pricing solar energy would be to generate taxes to alleviate poverty and hunger, as everyone has equal right to benefit from “taxing the sun.” The right of individuals to sequester enough solar energy to meet their personal needs would be proclaimed as a basic human right. Individuals could be collect energy for personal use at their homes or through participation in collectively-owned, community-based utilities. Those who choose not to participate in such enterprises, or who want additional energy, could buy energy in commercial markets. Communities would provide individual access to energy networks.
The details of developing and implementing such a program obviously would be a major national and global undertaking. My intent here is not propose a program that I can defend in every detail. Instead I am simply trying to explain the reason for my urgent plea: “Don’t let them sell us the sun.”
[ii] Agrarian Justice http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/Paine/agrarian.html .