29th December 2007 | Draft

Global Market in Indulgences

extending the carbon trading model to other value-based challenges

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Generalization of the model
Identifying fruitful value arenas for such trading
Other exchange/trading processes for consideration
Questionable cases for consideration
Cases anticipating generic formulation of such exchanges
Imperfections in the existing global market in indulgences?


In the light of the rapid development and deployment of proposals for carbon trading in response to global warming, there is a case for exploring the application of this model to other value-based challenges. This follows from an earlier investigation into a values "stock market" (Human Values "Stock Market": investing in "shares" in a "value market" of fundamental principles, 2006) and may well be seen as an adaptation and extension of that possibility.


As a number of commentators have noted, global carbon trading and carbon offsetting initiatives may well come to be judged by history as systemically analogous to the medieval sale of papal indulgences which were the subject of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences (1517) -- considered to be the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

Notably using the term "carbon indulgences", carbon offsetting proposals for "sins of emission" have already been critically compared with the medieval practice, as for example:

Clearly it is an environmental analogue to the "protestant reformation" which is to be anticipated -- although lessons will hopefully be learnt from its failures in offsetting "sins" by "virtues" in practice.

Generalization of the model

The policy mindset from which the strategy has currently arisen could promote application of the model to other forms of "sin", thereby constituting a somewhat dubious form of "value exchange" -- potentially to the considerable benefit of:

  • those who organize it and possibly take some form of commission on any such "sale"
  • those whose "sins" are thereby set aside and can continue to pursue "business as usual" without being assailed by a sense of guilt or any need to modify their behaviour
  • those who engage in the transaction, through their practice of a sin-free pattern of behaviour thereby absorbing the "guilt" of those with whom they trade -- and from which trade they may in fact derive both financial benefit and a recognition of their meritorious behaviour

Identifying fruitful value arenas for such trading

Clearly a systematic study of "value polarities" is required as a basis for exploring viable possibilities for such exchanges and offsetting. Such a study was conducted as part of the Human Values Project within the framework of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (currently accessible online). A selection from the set of 230 value polarities (tentatively) identified in that project (as Figure 3) is reproduced below.

The contents of the table below are presented in order of the number of cross-references to constructive (VC) and destructive value words (VD) identified in that project. Only the 50 higher order polarities have ben included below (from Figure 3). Polarity names are only indicative. Most-cited constructive value words are presented separately in Figure 1; destructive value words separately in Figure 2. An extensive commentary on the process is available. The words so identified have been used as a basis for relating values -- effectively as "drivers" -- to world problems (destructive values) and organizational strategies (constructive values) in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. In a further step these polarities were tentatively clustered by "value type" in Figure 4 -- suggesting an approach to identifying "value exchanges" appropriate to more specialized "trading" processes.

. Value Polarity
(selection from complete set of 230)
Value words
VP5863 Pleasantness-Unpleasantness 34 118 152 2.1
VP5624 Resolution-Irresolution 58 68 126 1.7
VP5467 Intelligence-Unintelligence 63 60 123 1.7
VP5974 Probity-Improbity 73 46 119 1.6
VP5674 Goodness-Badness 44 72 116 1.6
VP5733 Skilfulness-Unskilfulness 65 49 114 1.6
VP5938 Kindness-Unkindness 49 57 106 1.5
VP5161 Energy-Moderation 63 42 105 1.4
VP5516 Truth-Error 51 52 103 1.4
VP5980 Virtue-Vice 24 75 99 1.4
VP5785 Support-Opposition 62 35 97 1.3
VP5794 Accord-Disaccord 46 49 95 1.3
VP5513 Certainty-Uncertainty 43 51 94 1.3
VP5554 Communicativeness-Uncommunicativeness 19 75 94 1.3
VP5631 Desire-Avoidance 45 43 88 1.2
VP5914 Repute-Disrepute 49 37 86 1.2
VP5705 Action-Inaction 41 41 82 1.1
VP5890 Courage-Fear 32 50 82 1.1
VP5665 Appropriateness-Inappropriateness 23 57 80 1.1
VP5968 Approval-Disapproval 28 52 80 1.1
VP5533 Carefulness-Neglect 46 33 79 1.1
VP5026 Agreement-Disagreement 36 42 78 1.1
VP5660 Oversufficiency-Insufficiency 23 53 76 1.0
VP5762 Freedom-Restraint 48 27 75 1.0
VP5870 Cheerfulness-Solemnity 43 32 75 1.0
VP5896 Taste-Vulgarity 40 33 73 1.0
VP5157 Power-Impotence 38 34 72 1.0
VP5691 Improvement-Impairment 22 49 71 1.0
VP5927 Friendship-Enmity 41 30 71 1.0
VP5987 Chastity-Unchastity 25 45 70 0.9
VP5677 Perfection-Imperfection 27 39 66 0.9
VP5732 Facility-Difficulty 18 47 65 0.9
VP5672 Importance-Unimportance 31 32 63 0.8
VP5530 Attention-Inattention 28 33 61 0.8
VP5475 Knowledge-Ignorance 39 18 57 0.8
VP5501 Belief-Unbelief 31 25 56 0.7
VP5964 Respect-Disrespect 21 34 55 0.7
VP5481 Intuition-Reason 21 33 54 0.7
VP5948 Congratulation-Envy 0 53 53 0.7
VP5059 Order-Disorder 16 36 52 0.7
VP5878 Amusement-Boredom 18 34 52 0.7
VP5621 Willingness-Unwillingness 39 12 51 0.7
VP5685 Health-Disease 19 32 51 0.7

It is vital to note that, because of ambiguities in the English language, any one destructive value word (as identified separately) may be associated with more than one value polarity (and those relationships are evident in the online version of that database). The use of value polarities was seen as a way of addressing such ambiguity.

Carbon offsetting through a trading process is a concrete example whereby one group handles its negatively valued ("destructive") matter, namely carbon emissions, through the activity of some other group capable of ("constructively") absorbing or sequestering that carbon. The question in relation to the above table is with which of the value polarities is this specific process to be associated. Some candidates (from the above table) for consideration might for example include:

  • Pleasantness-Unpleasantness
  • Resolution-Irresolution
  • Intelligence-Unintelligence
  • Probity-Improbity
  • Energy-Moderation
  • Virtue-Vice
  • Repute-Disrepute
  • Carefulness-Neglect
  • Restoration-Destruction
  • Safety-Danger
  • Cleanness-Uncleanness
  • Productiveness-Unproductiveness
  • Fragrance-Stench

Such associations might justify inclusion of carbon trading within a particular type of more generic value exchange as suggested above.

Other exchange/trading processes for consideration

It is perhaps useful to emphasize that the Human Values Project was used as a way of establishing a value-based approach to associated projects within the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. As noted above, the value words were used as a basis for relating values to world problems (through destructive values) and to organizational strategies (through constructive values). Part of the editorial/research process was to ensure that the titles of the 58,157 profiled problems (see detailed statistics) and of the 57,082 strategies (see detailed statistics) carried the "negative" value associations underlying perception of a "problem" and the "positive" associations underlying and motivating any remedial "strategy".

Within such a general framework, clearly the value polarities point to a systemic approach to the organization of value exchanges through which the "negative" and "destructive" can be offset by the "positive" and "constructive" to the benefit of all so engaged. The "bad" is offset by the "good" implying the existence of many other arenas in which this could be done. There are however interesting ambiguities in what is valued by some as "bad" and by others as "good" -- which that project endeavoured to address.

This perspective provided the basis for a practical exercise in interrelating issues on the occasion of the 1992 Earth Summit (Configuring Globally and Contending Locally: shaping the global network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues, 1992), notably as in a tabular presentation (Inter-Sectoral Strategic Dilemmas of Sustainable Development).

Questionable cases for consideration

In the light of the carbon trading model, inspired by the historical sale of indulgences, some specific cases that merit further reflection in offsetting "negatively" valued phenomena by "positively" valued phenomena might include:

Negative / Destructive

Positive / Constructive

Criminal behaviour Ethical behaviour / Probity
Indecent behaviour (obscenity, etc) Decent behaviour
Violent behaviour Peaceful behaviour
Abuse of human rights Tolerance of human rights
Substance abuse (smoking, alcohol, drugs) Temperance
Noisy behaviour Quiet behaviour
Overconsumption (food, products, etc) Abstemious consumption
Social exclusiveness Social inclusiveness
Relative wealth (?) Intentional poverty/simplicity (?)
Relative well-being (?) Relative ill-health (?)
etc etc

These creatively allow for continuing patterns of problematic behaviour while establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with those who can claim to be offsetting such behavior through alternative practices.

Cases anticipating generic formulation of such exchanges

Tolerance in problematic relationships: It could however be argued that community processes have always been essentially based on some form of "offsetting". Some freely engage in destructive behavioural patterns whilst others compensate for such behaviour through counter-acting strategies. The challenge of disputes between neighbours is indicative of the limitations of this model -- where a quiet neighbour "compensates" for the noisy behaviour of the other.

A more interesting classical example is the practice of some religious groups committed to praying regularly for "sinners" -- although how the latter benefit from this exchange is less evident. The accumulation of "merit" thereby calls for reflection in this context. Of interest in this connection is the systematic thinking on the part of different faiths regarding the relationship between "sins" and "virtues" and how associated insights might lead to more effective patterns of exchange (Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement, 2002; Towards a Logico-mathematical Formalization of "Sin": fundamental memetic organization of faith-based governance strategies, 2004).

Sin and absolution: To the extent, for example, that carbon emissions are seen in traditional terms as "sins of commission", a point of concern might be negligence relating to any unesxamined "sins of omission" -- as yet to be clearly defined at the collective level. Neglect of the overpopulation issue in relation to climate change is one such candidate, as argued elsewhere (Root Irresponsibility for Major World Problems: the unexamined role of Abrahamic faiths in sustaining unrestrained population growth, 2007). "Omission", as in the case of neglect of safe sex or family planning, might be indicative of such a "sin".

In considering the challenge of "carbon neutrality", "carbon sinks" and "carbon sequestration" from a systems perspective, the religious parallel points to the value of exploring the process of absolution. This is an integral part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. The penitent makes a sacramental confession of all mortal sins to a priest and prays an act of contrition. The priest then assigns a penance and offers absolution in the name of the Trinity, on behalf of the Church. Absolution forgives the guilt associated with the penitent's sins, and removes the eternal punishment (Hell) associated with mortal sins. The penitent is still responsible for the temporal punishment (Purgatory) associated with the confessed sins, unless an indulgence is applied. The various categories identified here would appear to offer scope for exploration in the pursuit of "carbon neutrality" -- as a mundane form of absolution and forgiveness of environmental sins. There are of course some theological issues that would call for much further reflection.

Conversion: The forgiveness of sins can also be understood as being associated with the religious process of conversion. This suggests its extension to environmental sins -- especilly with the emergence of faith-based governance. The use of military chaplains for confession, and the expressed intent of Tony Blair to seek conversion with papal blessing, clearly indicate means of salving consciences burdened by complicity in collateral damage. Inadvertent generation of greenhouse gases might be considered as an environmental form of collateral damage in relation to which "environmental chaplains" and "conversion" processes might be appropriately considered. Candidates for political office -- currently under pressure to indicate their religious commitment -- might be encouraged to engage in public confession of such past sins (as suggested by the criticism faced by Al Gore regarding his own carbon offsetting).

Penitence: Analogues to religious penitence have of course long been developed in the treatment of criminals -- incarcerated in "penitentiaries". The highly relevant feature of this process is the manner in which "doing time" in a penitentiary leads to a final condition in which the convicted individual's "dues to society" have been paid, justifying release. Incarceration therefore bears interesting parallels to the sequestration so desperately sought in the case of carbon. Crimes are effectively "washed away" by the penitential process -- recalling analogues to "laundering", as in "green-washing" and "blue-washing" which have already been partially explored in the case of the environment. Of course any such parallel then raises possible issues regarding "environmental recidivism".

Buying debt: From a systems perspective again, the well-established process of "buying debt" may be understood as a financial take on some of the above possibilities -- where debt (notably "bad debt") is the problematic value for which compensation is sought. Buying debt in exchange for conservation of tropical forest -- debt for nature" swap -- was first initiated by Conservation International in 1987 (Peter Dogsé and Bernd von Droste, Debt-for-Nature Exchanges and Biosphere Reserves: Experiences and potential, 1990). Such swaps are now subject to criticism (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Debt for Nature: a swap whose time has gone? 6 November 2001). Curiously an innocent person may be admit guilt and "do time" for the guilty party in fulfillment of some other obligation.

Carousel fraud: Other cases are suggested by multi-party trading in any form of debt. A particularly interesting example lies in the subtle complexities of "missing trade fraud" (also known as carousel fraud) involving the theft of Value Added Tax (VAT) from a government by exploiting the way VAT is treated within multi-jurisdictional trading (cf David Ruffles, et al. VAT missing trader intra-Community fraud: the effect on Balance of Payments statistics and UK National Accounts, 2003). Such cyclic fraud has proven to be quite difficult to detect. Might this also be considered as a form compatible with a generic model and indicative of the abuses to which it is vulnerable?

Human rights abuse: On a larger scale, abuses of human rights by some countries may well be compensated, or reframed, by a form of acquiescence on the part of other countries -- effectively an invisible trade off or abuse "offsetting". Similarly members of the world scientific community acquiesce with token protest, if any, to the continued "scientific" whaling practices of one country -- being rewarded for their tolerance through other channels. It might usefully be asked to what extent "tolerance", as promoted by the United Nations, is to be understood as the strategic framework underlying a form of global trade in "indulgences" -- or, if not, how any appropriate distinctions are to be made.

Use of proxies and surrogates: Even more intriguing is the possibility of including into the general model the use of "surrogates" by which violence is deliberately undertaken (as in torture in countries to which people are transferred by extraordinary rendition). Again the country undertaking such tasks derives benefits from its association with the country consigning people in this way -- which may in turn claim, in all conscience, not to have undertaken any form of torture.

Scapegoating and demonisation: This classic community process has long beeen used as a means of projecting problematic conditions onto a real or imaginary other -- thereby cleansing the community through such disassociation. Negativity is therebey "sequestrated" and, in the case of a tangible other, may be subject to cleansing processes -- including burning at the stake. The role attributed to the elusive Al-Qaida, and to the even more elusive Osama bin Laden, may yet prove to be significantly associated with some such conscious or unconscious psychosocial process. In a supposedly secular global society, this phenomenon is especially complex for Christians for whom it would be difficult to cast and garb an actor that resembles more closely their conventional physical representations of the historic Jesus.

Self-indulgence: Most curious is the extent to which patterns of overconsumption -- especially by those in the developed countries and as a growth target for those in developing countries -- may be recognized or challenged as self-indulgent. For the individual the art is then to engage in some activities -- notably in food consumption -- that allow others to be engaged in as "indulgences". This is understood as a "balanced diet" as a means of avoiding excessive carbon sequestration in one's own person. It would appear that this mechanism is what is being generalized to a global scale to include carbon "indulgences" -- a self-indulgent global society (calling for resources from 3 to 5 "additional Earth-like planets"). Curiously an emergent "Prosperity Gospel" school of Christian belief holds that God wants people to be rich and to have material goods far beyond their needs (see critique by Shelby Meyerhoff, The Gospel of Self-Indulgenc, 2007; for a Jewish variant, see Marvin Schick, Self-Indulgence In Religious Jewish Life, 2006).

Hedonism: This belief, providing a philosophical context for self-indulgence, emphasizes personal pleasure as the primary purpose of life. Hedonism may be used as a justification for evaluating actions in terms of how much pleasure they engender in comparison with the pain to which they give rise. Christian hedonism is a theological movement holding that humans were created by God with the priority purpose of lavishly enjoying God through knowing, worshiping, and serving Him. Radical Islam holds however that hedonism is a primary characteristic of the western decadence to which its adherents are so fundamentally opposed. The consequent dynamic might be seen as a collective means whereby the self-indulgence actively promoted as the epitome of the western lifestyle is effectively "offset" through the violence it engenders -- so destructive of "self". The manufactuere, sale and use of weaponry would then be an expression of this process in an "unconscious civilization" (cf John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, 1995).

Substitutionary atonement: Any form of "sin" or "self-indulgence" raises the interesting question as to whether levels or scales of indulgence are to be detected -- somewhat ironically as in food chains in ecosystems. Are those "taking on" or "consuming" the excesses of others, through some compensation mechanism, to be perceived as at the higher levels of such an "ethical food chain"? From a theological perspective, this consideration relates to the continuing right (arrogated by the priesthood) to grant indulgences (possibly only with a specific papal mandate) and the challenge of self-indulgence in any such role.

This right follows from the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in Christian theology which holds that Jesus Christ died on the Cross, as a substitute for sinners. It stresses the vicarious nature of the crucifixion being "for us" and representational Christ representing humanity through the Incarnation -- in effect a "sequestrator of last resort" to combine the language of carbon trading and financial lending. It would be curious if the response to "global warming" (with its biblical connotations) came to be associated with an institutionalized process of substitutionary atonement at the mundane level.

Imperfections in the existing global market in indulgences?

In these various senses a "global market in indulgences" may be already be said to exist -- but it is the imperfections and inefficiencies of its mechanisms that require careful review. This is especially important in the light of emerging proposals for a new global institutution to 'manage' the atmosphere and the environment 'on behalf of future generations' (Jorge Buzaglo, Climate Change, Global Ethics and the Market, Post-autistic Economics Review, issue no. 44, December 2007). Is this the culmination of the efforts of the United Nations to cultivate multinational corporations through its Global Compact? (cf "Globalization": the UN's "Safe Haven" for the World's Marginalized -- the Global Compact with Multinational Corporations as the UN's "Final Solution", 2000)

Do such points make a strong case for updating Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences (1517) -- especially with the shift towards faith-based governance?

One of the concluding comments of the above-mentioned Human Values Project (from which the above set of 230 value polarities emerged), noted the challenge interrelating such value dilemmas within a universal set of values, clearly characterized by conflicting systems of values, and by transcending particular "credos" to integrate requisite variety. The challenge to comprehension was noted as meriting particular consideration.

The approach proposed was to interrelate values through tensional integrity, namely to use those very polarities as a means of ensuring an emergent form of order (see Figures below). It is an interesting characteristic of such tensegrity structures that they can only exist in dynamic equilibrium. In that sense they might offer new insights into the requisite dynamism of any more fruitful "global market in indulgences". Here of course the "indulgences" are represented through a shifting equilibrium of stress and comepensation -- metaphorically an effective container for any "clash of civilizations".

Schematics illustrating potentially more fruitful ways of comprehending the integrity of a universal set of values
(namely structures onto which the "value polarities" of Figure 3 might be mapped)
A tensegrity structure, with each strut representing a particular value polarity to constitute a complete, but comprehensible representation of a universal set of values A spherical structure indicating the kinds of global pathways that might need to interlock as the pattern underlying the tensegrity structure on the left
Spherical ensegrity with each element indicative of a value polarity Interlocking cycles indicative of global pathways required to sustain a tensegrity
Union of Intelligible Associations:
remembering dynamic identity through a dodecameral mind
, 2005 [images]

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