I have argued before that the price of products should include the cost of returning the materials used to create the product to their natural state in order for market pricing pressures to evolve more environmentally friendly products. But there is another way that our 'free market' capitalism fails us when it comes to long term sustainability.
In the free market system products are generally priced on the current supply and demand, with most of the cost of a product representing the manufacturing process costs, along with overhead and profit margins. While AVAILABILITY of the finished good does come into play (such as a limited supply of gold or diamonds), the LONG TERM availability of the resource is more often ignored, as long as current market pressures can be satisfied.
This is most easily seen in our supplies of oil and natural gas, where the world-wide supply a is considered inexhaustible, and the cost to the end user reflects primarily refining, distribution and profit. But it can also be seen in our over fishing of the oceans, or many other examples of where mankind is EXPLOITING rather than living in harmony with nature" resources. Nowhere do we have a Warehouse Manager who tells us 'you only have 20 years left of Atlantic Cod, so we're going to make that cost more'.
I think of the American Indian philosophy of making no decision without considering the '7th' generation. Not only does our current western philosophy towards economics ignore future generations, it ignores anything more than 10 years or so into the further that you can't buy 'futures' for, whether pork bellies, electricity or natural gas. We think we are considering future demand, but we are so shortsighted, we don't a even consider ONE generation's needs. (My other thought about the Native Americans is the example of how the buffalo was decimated to near extinction, simply to supply short term rations for western expansion. Where was THAT check and balance?)
Whether it's buffalo meat or oil and natural gas, or even our fisheries stocks, where is the long term impetus to price products according to how much there is left on earth's shelves? Who is the planet's storekeeper, who will regulate the finite supply of these materials that we have on spaceship earth and provide that necessary feedback into the economic pricing model? Where is the feedback loop; the pricing pressure that says: 'our supply is limited, you will need to pay dearly if you want to use it up in 25 years.'
Yes, it's hard to put an actual value on something when you are not really sure of how much of it you have on the shelves. But we can at least start by acknowledging that these supplies are precious and indeed limited. A 'depletion charge' of some sort would at least allow us to fund alternative products or provide a bridge around that product in the future.
We have to stop thinking that these products just belong to our generation simply because we are here to use them up right now, and assume that we have a right to do so. That is not sustainable, it's just plain selfish. Again, we are acting as children, unwilling to defer gratification and think of others.