The Broken Thermostat

by Jinryu

I’m at University of Sydney right now.  It’s Sunday, 5:15pm.

I’m here because there is no air conditioning at my apartment, and it’s nice once in a while to use a full-sized screen (as opposed to my netbook) to get some work done.

Universities have this thing about portraying themselves as training the future of society and all that.  Education is important, nobody denies that.  My own university, University of New South Wales, is no different for University of Sydney in that respect– nor is it different to the unis and colleges back home in Montreal.  Reputation adds real and/or perceived value to the education.

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However, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors that makes you feel like you’re getting more for your stay, and a significant amount is just empty talk. Universities aren’t really that much different from typical profit-minded corporations that say one thing and do another.  It just makes good business sense to make marketing seem less like marketing, and make it seem more like a natural capacity for community and benevolence.

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Take, for example, university energy efficiency practices.  Every university tries to sell itself as caring about the environment, and using state of the art technologies in building materials.  They go on and on about policies and green plans and all that.

I’m sitting in an otherwise empty classroom in what is a more or less empty building– and the air conditioning is on full blast in all these rooms.  I have tried: I cannot turn it off. The computers are also all on.  Now I ask you… why?  Is that necessary?  Isn’t that a waste of electricity?

So what about that green policy?

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I’ve complained about these kinds of things before, and often the response is along the lines of:

“Well, they’re paying for it. They can spend their money however they want.”

 

In reality, while the latter statement is true, the former is not.  Even when the uni pays for electricity, it is only actually paying part of the actual cost. Indeed, for almost anything that we can buy in modern times, the amount we pay never represents the total cost of making that thing.

Australia gets the vast majority of it’s electricity from the burning of fossil fuels– mostly coal.  You take a coal plant, calculate how much it costs to find the coal, move the coal, burn the coal, and pay all the people to do that.  Then you figure out a little bit of a profit margin, do some calculations of supply and demand… and you get a fair price, right?

However, coal plant does not charge you for a lot of costs that it socialises.  The concept is more frequently referred to as “externalising.”

Suppose you pay certain price for a litre of gasoline.  Do you think that you have adequately paid for the fuel then?  Are you entitled to use it because you paid for it?  And have you really paid for it?

It slips our mind because most of the time, the socialisation of a cost is invisible.  An over-simplified example is the exhaust of an automobile.  When you drive it outside, it’s spread out pretty evenly and you never really think about it.  But what if you parked your car inside your garage, and left the engine running with the garage door and windows shut?  Even if emissions filtering is better nowadays than it was 20 years ago (when people would use emissions to commit suicide), would you really want to be sucking all that in?

The point is this: How much would someone have to pay you before you agreed to suck all that in?

Driving an automobile incurs a number of costs.  Yes, you have to pay for the car, the insurance, the fuel– but does that mean you’ve actually paid the real cost of your transportation?  How much have you paid other people to suck in those fumes?

The process of using something that offloads actual costs on other people who didn’t agree to it is the “socialisation” or “externalisation” of costs that I’m talking about.

I think there is a bit of a disconnection between what we pay and what we feel we’re entitled to, and that this disconnection occurs because socialisation of costs is a process that those who benefit from it don’t want you to pay attention to.  In a sense, free market philosophy has worked to develop a culture of entitlement that ignores actual costs.

Ironically, the socialisations that you hear about are mainly free-market capitalists complaining– they’ll tell you how unfair it is to make everyone pay taxes for public health care or education.  They’ll phrase a hike to minimum wages as a bunch of lazy people getting a free ride.

You can buy a cellphone nowadays for a hundred bucks.  If you want to go all out, you can get a top of the line smartphone for about 800.  Calculate your current wage– how many hours would you need to work before you could pay for that phone you want?

At my current salary, I could work between 4 and 32 hours to have enough money to buy one of those things.

If you think about it though– take the cheap 100 dollar phone.  Could you make something like that in 4 hours with your own hands?  What I’m getting at is this: how did it get to be so cheap?  When you consider the 800 dollar phone and how much more it can do than the 100 dollar phone, consider all the work that goes into developing a smartphone OS, all the components that go into it, the assembly process, etc…

The answer lies in the costs that we don’t have to pay when we buy it– the costs on natural environment and human rights.

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