Towards A New Access-Based Economic System

As I begin to talk about a new potential economic system, I think it is important to start with a few disclaimers:

1) The fundamental assumption upon which this new economic system is predicated is that capitalism promotes resource inefficiency due to a faulty valuation practice.

2) Describing an entirely new economic system within the context of one blog obviously leaves a host of questions unanswered. 

3) However, if the guiding principles sound intriguing, please help me to think of solutions to them rather than criticize as something “that will never work.”


Resource Efficiency

Any new economic system ought to be based around principles of resource efficiency.  We should be striving to obtain maximum utility per unit of raw material consumed.  An economic system that does not value raw materials (fossil fuels, forests, water, etc.) based on the regenerative capacity of the Earth is inherently flawed from a sustainability perspective.  We must pay for the replacement costs of raw materials in addition to the extraction costs.  That makes one ask a question that the majority of us probably haven’t asked:  How do YOU replace a barrel of oil?



It is possible to adjust the current economic model to be more sustainable – currently based on efficient allocation of capital – by imposing radical and drastic regulatory changes on the market.  For example, we could take every raw commodity and calculate the replacement cost perhaps based on the amount of sunlight required to create it.  This would make the price of fossil fuels skyrocket since their replacement costs are measured in millions of years.  However, this feels a lot like trying to engineer a desired result through an indirect method. Capitalism uses this same indirect approach to engineer a high standard of living through the efficient allocation of capital. But is this the best approach?

In the short term, implementing regulatory changes like these will likely need to form a part of the transition plan to any new sustainable global economic system based on the core principle of efficient allocation of material resources.   The fundamental societal shift that would need to occur would be to replace principles of “ownership” with those of “access”.  Before you write me off as a communist, let me point out that a system based on “access” does not mean equal access.


A World Without Ownership

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a hypothetical world without ownership.  All property, land, assets, and natural resources now belong to all generations of humanity to be held in trust by the living generation.   It sounds absurd to a Westerner.  Ownership is the principle foundation upon which economics and law are based.  Let’s ask ourselves, is utility derived from owning something or is it derived from using it?  Do you want to own the Ferrari or drive the Ferrari?  Do you want toown the shoes or wear the shoes?  Do you want to own the music or listen to the music?

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When you think about it, all the enjoyment from material things comes from using them, not owning them.  Owning something requires you to clean, maintain, protect, replace, discard, buy, and sell it.  Using something requires you to, well, use it and, of course, care for it while it is in your possession.  It is far more enjoyable to use a friend’s jet ski after he or she bought, stored, maintained, hauled, docked, and fueled it.  Ownership requires work and costs.  Using things do not.  So what is the fascination with owning things anyway?

Ownership is so old that it has become part of our culture.  But what if we changed that culture and our economic system replaced ownership with access levels?  An economic system based on access might be similar to playing a game at a fair where you accomplish a task to earn points (money or credits).  By accumulating more points, you qualify for higher levels of rewards.  In the real world, the reward translates to different levels of access for material goods and services.  By working harder and contributing more to the betterment of society – defined by productive contributions to maximizing efficient use of resources towards better standards of living – one could achieve higher access levels.

Access level one might be the most basic level of access that all human beings would be entitled.  It would consist of a community shelter with shared resources (shared rooms, bathrooms, clothes, etc.), basic nutritional food, access to education and basic medical care.  People would receive this just for being human and would be engineered to be provided at the lowest possible resource cost to society.  The opportunity exists to educate oneself in a pursuit that has been adopted by society as having potential to be beneficial to broader society.  Based upon merit and contribution, an individual could receive higher access levels.

There could be an indefinite number of access levels and categories.  Access level two might be an upgrade in the choice of food.  Access level ten might be an upgrade to a basic individual apartment.  Access level 100 could be a two-week vacation once per year, access to a car when needed, access to a boat at a local lake, and access to see a new movie once per month.  If you are Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you have the unlimited access card – you have access to anything whenever you want – a plane, the finest food, accommodation in any city, etc.   One could customize their access level based upon their personal desires.  However, no matter what access level you achieve, you cannot “own” or prohibit the use of any good while you are not using it.  After the plane drops you off or you move to a new city, that plane or apartment is available for someone else with a similar access level for use.

If this concept seems foreign, consider that many products operate in this manner today.  Whenever one rents something, they socialize the costs of maintenance, storage, protection, etc. to enjoy the benefits of using it.  Renters have far higher rates of resource efficiency than owners – a rented DVD is watched far more times than a purchased DVD.


Maximizing Social Benefit Instead Of Profit

If properly configured, an economic system based on access and the efficient allocation of natural resources would maximize societal benefit per unit of natural resource.  Products would be designed to be both durable and recyclable, since the product’s entire life cycle would be controlled by the service provider.  Access levels would allow humans to share resources efficiently and equitably among a greater percentage of the world’s population.  The incentive to gain higher access levels coupled with satisfying the natural human desire to belong and contribute could promote people to achieve their highest potential in a pursuit that society found desirable.  Desirable pursuits might be based on both demand and importance coupled with the natural resource intensity of its production or service.


The criticism of access levels is likely to come from those who value “freedom” to do whatever you want.  Some might day, “if I want to blow up a mountain that I ‘own’, I have the ‘right’ to do this.”  If that is how one defines “freedom”, then this system will definitely impose on that “freedom”.  The mountain has likely existed for hundreds of thousands of years; it is a mind-boggling thought that a human being that exists for a fraction of that time could “own” it and decide to destroy the mountain. However, access levels would not impose upon and would actually enable one’s freedom to education, basic healthcare, food, and shelter as well as an equal opportunity to make a better life for oneself.  These are freedoms that the current economic system does not allocate evenly.

We live in a globally connected world.  Burning gasoline in North America affects the climate in South Africa.  Biodiversity loss along the equator has the potential to destroy natural cures from which all humanity could benefit.  In a connected world, people do not have the “freedom” to do whatever they want.  To maintain sustainability for current and future generations, present and future societies will have to make group decisions to guide the smartest use of limited natural resources towards our long term common goals.  It is time we recognize that a system based on waste and inefficiency of resources will not deliver long term prosperity and begin to think about adapting to a new economic model for the future.

What do you think about an economic system based on access? Discuss in the comments below!




  • Lj

    It is unsurprising that a proposal from a technocrat suggests we vest all our faith in the technocratic elite to divvy up the remaining resources .. but whats in it for the rest of us? Given that privelidge/(blindness to real costs) is a big part of our problem, why should non-elites agree to perpetuate it via your ‘access’ levels?

    The planet has flat run out of resources to run those ponzi schemes – too many chiefs, not enough bison, see? But please continue, the delusions of those close to the centre now comfort those of us on the periphery: “not long now”.

  • Julián

    I like and totally agree on the idea of access over property, and that you, by no mean, can have the “freedom” to destroy resources who aren’t yours but that are the resources of everyone.
    But personally I don’t see the “access levels” as the best option for many reasons.
    1st: How will it work with children or youths that are studying? Can parents give them access levels? It sounds strange to me, also it will sound particularly similar as how money works nowadays, but with lets say, a basic income.
    2nd: Who will define what job would be beneficial to the society? The government? Can’t this lead to an authoritarianism?

    • admin

      You raise excellent questions. I haven’t totally flushed out this idea. The idea is to start shifting values towards access as more of a transition to a resource-based economy. Right now, many want their own everything. I believe its a desire based on the wound of separation. If all the world is not me, then I compensate by trying to own or control it. This system is meant to be a transitional system…and if you look at the “sharing economy,” or collaborative consumption, new businesses like AirBnB and GetAround and many others are creating this economy today.

      • demian dressler

        I am not quite certain how access differs from ownership in relation to resource depletion. I do like the idea of valuation based on a resource-linked metric. This of course would necessitate very heavy governmental regulation (some degree of price fixing) and would require this disposal of capitalist free commerce. Not a bad thing. But another version of the same principle is the carbon tax, which could weave more fluidly into the existing economic framework.
        However, the essential problem relates to some version of time and consequence awareness. There is a certain shortsightedness that is activated by the present military-industrial complex where a more dilated perceptive field, necessary for action, does not occur. I’m not entirely certain this is even specific to our time and place as other societies seemed to be afflicted with this myopia as well, save oracles, shamans, and the like…who often were simply delusional but did have a liminal viewpoint that allowed the scope of perception sufficient for prompting deeds in their present time. This is the crux of the issue, and the configuration of the change itself is a secondary item.

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  • Zack Ellsworth

    You are correct that a system of more community ownership is more resource efficient and a desirable outcome, but I am not sure your access system will move us in that direction. Say, for example, I have access to a car, what then is to discourage me from using that car as much as I can (much like your rented DVD example)? My points would give me access but not limit my use of all available at that level.

    Also, someone must still build and maintain all that stuff, where would the ability to do all that be derived from?

    There is also the problem of resources that take a long time to develop. If I am a farmer who toils for months, or years in the case of trees and some livestock years to grow and nurture and get to produce, what is to stop a person with the appropriate “access” from swooping in and taking the literal fruits of that labor? I might not feel to good about someone doing that.

    Finally, I will direct you to a couple of ideas you may find interesting about economies of the future. In the most recent episode of the Extraenvironmentalist John Liu talks about how natural ecosystems should have more inherent value than their derivatives
    I also have some ideas about the constraints of the future economy

    Thanks for posting this idea, I will be following its development

  • MaverickofSouth

    I agree with you that the end goal is a resource-based economy and the end of money, altogether. To that end, I like where you are going. I guess my main commitment is to ending economic slavery – being forced to sell (beg and pimp) one’s labor for currency upon which one is dependent for one’s livelihood. I struggle with the competitive nature and stratification inherent in your proposal but I also understand it has to tie in to where we are now. Stratification and competition do so much damage to the mental psyche of the individual and certain communities. I just feel like you start with a universal income. This has been floated before but as a minimum (or basic) income. Why not a healthy income for all? It seems to me that this is the best way to get rid of meaningless jobs that serve no benefit to humanity. I like the access idea but I want the basic access to include comfortable transportation, education, any medical care and maintenance that is required, and travel abroad to connect with and form friendships with our friends around the world. I also want more community/unity power to dictate what their goals and needs are and what businesses serve their best interest. Organic connectivity has to be a part of the formula. I guess I just believe that human beings should be relieved of the stress of being enslaved by economics. It should really support them in having a great quality of life and access. That should be the beginning jump of our transitional period. I still feel like we’re prioritizing economics over human health and comfort.

    • chrisagnos

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. Universal income is a great idea. I tried to give an analogy to this in access levels by saying everyone is entitled to a basic level of access, but you are right too.

  • Bill

    It seems to me that the concept of access levels does not eliminate the old ownership paradigm. Some entity must take on the role of ownership in order to make access available. So, the power of the few over the many would not change. Nor would the potential for abuse of that power…and it is unrealistic to think that there will not be abuse. I think it might be more effective to stop worshiping at the altar of continuous growth, and take a stewardship focus. Also, I believe in democracy (as flawed as it may be) and its ability to ‘evolve’ change. It’s not fast or clean, and it does not provide pat answers, but if the world’s citizenry have the freedom to choose (and exercise it in an informed, rational manner) we can solve our problems…assuming we don’t poison the planet to the point of making ourselves extinct before this evolution has a chance to work. I also believe we are in this current environmental mess primarily because our forebears in the industrial revolution thought it was okay for us to no longer be governed by the laws of nature…that we could build things without concern for what happens to them when they are no longer of use. What if, when the first car was invented, there was legislation that forced the makers to deal with the return of all its parts to their natural state? So, what about a ‘dust to dust’ system that realigns us with the laws of nature? I’m sorry if I appear a bit ‘scattergun’, but I think an ‘access’ system is to pat, narrow and does not deal with the core problems we face.

  • Stephen Stillwell

    However appealing this idea may be, changing the attitude of 7 billion people is a bit much to expect.

    We could however create an international currency.

    From my perspective, a free market system can only function when all people can freely participate.

    All people can freely participate only if they are enfranchised.

    Enfranchisement in a free market requires secure capital.

    If this planet’s resources are assumed to be the property of all its inhabitants, and we agree that the planet has value, we can use this value as basis for a fiat currency, to be evenly distributed to each, and secured by the state in permanent local trust accounts providing a regular dividend.

    Each adult claims their share, signs a social contract, deposits their share and collects dividends in exchange for cooperation (respecting rule of law).

    A share worth about a million returning 1.25% would provide a thousand a month, which would secure a minimal access. This would allow the market to provide more efficiently the basic needs of all the people. 2% growth is generally accepted as sustainable, and with the acquired personal sovereignty afforded by a basic income the market can finally approach its ideal.

    The world economic system will need to find 7 quadrillion in secure investments, which may seem unlikely, but debt is what the system currently understands, and if people can get secured loans for say a quarter of their share, for a home or other secure investment, that would account for maybe a third of the required cash flow.

    I think this is easier to understand, fair, and creates an economic structure that would provide the benefits we seem to recognize as needed, without “imposing radical and drastic regulatory changes on the market,” which is kind of a non-starter, or infringing on the sovereignty of any nation. Though it would change the nature of nations competition for the best and brightest, and refugees would not leave empty handed, as their share would be transferred to their new location.

  • Joey

    Although I think it sounds reasonable, I fear many people will be concerned by “access levels”, simply because it is new unknown terminology, and it is easy to imagine the worst implementation.(*A) Anyway, in many ways money (citizen credits) already provide essentially that kind of system! (Although money does some crazy other things too, like interest, investment and war. It might be nice to consider the similarities/differences between the existing and proposed systems in detail.)

    I wholeheartedly agree with the two earlier ideas:

    1) The cost to the environment should be reflected in the market cost of a thing. But it is not a new idea. Why has it not already been achieved? Because people want stuff? Because China would not agree to it? How can we make it happen…?

    2) Helping people to realise that ownership is NOT actually the goal. That is something I have long believed, and I think you said it very well. But since sharing is a more efficient use of resources, I wonder why that too hasn’t happened already. We have public libraries, but public tool sheds are far less common. (Tool rental is quite expensive.) Why is this?

    Partly I think (2) has been discouraged by a market that coerces us to consume and own and hoard (see “Marketing is Violence”). But also partly there is the simple fact that things you lend often come back in worse condition, if at all.

    You might expand upon the way in which care for equipment could be regulated and encouraged. (Perhaps when you borrow a jet-ski you might also get an instructor with it!) (Perhaps return condition could be worked into the credit/access system somehow…)

    (*A) I am very keen to be challenged by new ideas. It really depends if your motivation is to nudge our imaginations, or to present a well reasoned idea that you hope will become popular / go viral / save the world. Thanks as always SM. <3

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  • Kharu

    “Desirable pursuits might be based on both demand and importance coupled with the natural resource intensity of its production or service.”

    I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot– that we ought to have sustainable careers. That if we are working at a job at a planet-raping company, that company will not be around when the resources run out. So we ought to learn new trades– and the ones we already know and love, say engineering, construction, production, farming, could be retrofitted to a new economy. The biggest field that’s going to need a makeover is business. The idea of problematizing the concept interest leaves an entire financial industry out of work and disgruntled since they hold most of the money now. To think these people will “wake up” and go quietly is a mistake.

    It’s like Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield– at times it’s necessary to fight for what’s right. Hell, maybe our machines of war can be retrofitted to target bankers and politicians in the new economy. m/ m/

    • Chris Brown

      Kharu, you make some good points. It occurs to me that societal values must change at a fundamental level in order to effect a transition from the current insane paradigm to sustainability. Industries or products would have to be evaluated as to whether or not they contribute positively to society. Drag racing for example would be deemed a profligate waste of resources from a sustainability perspective and would have to stop. People would have to be rational enough to recognize that the environmental costs of such forms of entertainment are not worth it in the long run. We have a LOT of work to do to convince drag racing fans of that, though. I hope we can do it.

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