[A-List] A New Deal or a War Footing?

Bill Totten shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Thu Nov 27 19:29:05 MST 2008

Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change

by Sharon Astyk

sharonastyk.com (November 11 2008)

In a sense, could anything be more heartening?  Al Gore, playing up
rumors he'll have a powerful role in the Obama administration, and
writing his dream list up for the New York Times {1}, amid a growing
Democratic consensus that what is needed is an environmental New Deal to
deal with the climate crisis, volatile energy prices and most of all,
the economy.  I mean yes, we're still throwing money at a problem that
defies money hurling, but instead of subsidizing Wall Street bonuses,
hey, at least we're doing something good for the people and the planet,

Well, let's slow down a little bit.  Al Gore in many ways has a great
laundry list, and I'm going to consider it as an example of what an
ambitious ecological New Deal might look like.  Here's the list - and I
think what's not on it is as important as what's on it:

First, the new president and the new Congress should offer large-scale
investment in incentives for the construction of concentrated solar
thermal plants in the Southwestern deserts, wind farms in the corridor
stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and advanced plants in geothermal
hot spots that could produce large amounts of electricity.

Second, we should begin the planning and construction of a unified
national smart grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the
rural places where it is mostly generated to the cities where it is
mostly used. New high-voltage, low-loss underground lines can be
designed with "smart" features that provide consumers with sophisticated
information and easy-to-use tools for conserving electricity,
eliminating inefficiency and reducing their energy bills. The cost of
this modern grid - $400 billion over ten years - pales in comparison
with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the
cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and
antiquated electricity lines.

Third, we should help America's automobile industry (not only the Big
Three but the innovative new startup companies as well) to convert
quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity
that will be available as the rest of this plan matures. In combination
with the unified grid, a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids would also
help to solve the problem of electricity storage. Think about it: with
this sort of grid, cars could be charged during off-peak energy-use
hours; during peak hours, when fewer cars are on the road, they could
contribute their electricity back into the national grid.

Fourth, we should embark on a nationwide effort to retrofit buildings
with better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting.
Approximately forty percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United
States come from buildings - and stopping that pollution saves money for
homeowners and businesses. This initiative should be coupled with the
proposal in Congress to help Americans who are burdened by mortgages
that exceed the value of their homes.

Fifth, the United States should lead the way by putting a price on
carbon here at home, and by leading the world's efforts to replace the
Kyoto treaty next year in Copenhagen with a more effective treaty that
caps global carbon dioxide emissions and encourages nations to invest
together in efficient ways to reduce global warming pollution quickly,
including by sharply reducing deforestation.

Quick - what's not on this list?  I bet you noticed, too - there's no
mention of consumption, either as an economic issue or at the personal
level. Rather like coming out of "An Inconvenient Truth" we're left with
the message that there's nothing for us to do other than lobby our
fearless leaders.

What's wrong with that?  Addressing climate change manifestly requires
policy solutions - but again we see ourselves trapped in the false
dichotomy I discuss in Depletion and Abundance (2008) between public and
private.  There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy
issue - seventy percent of our economy depends on consumer spending and
personal consumption.  Yet again we are being told that "personal
action" is something you do in the dark that makes no difference, while
the really important stuff happens at the government tables.

In fact, in reality, we know differently. At US government tables we've
seen exactly zero major policy shifts so far - yes, we had the worst
president imaginable, but that doesn't change the fact that under
Clinton, when Gore was vice-president, we saw the same zippo.  At the
same time, as consumers have slowed their spending, we've seen
projections of world oil use fall dramatically - for the first time in
decades, we are expecting an actual contraction in the use of oil.
Earlier this year, actual driving miles fell dramatically - as much as
six percent year over year.  Now these things were in reaction to high
prices - but they were consumption decisions made by private households
that in the aggregate made more real difference in the impact of our
emissions than all the treaties we've violated or refused to sign.

The assumption, of course, is that we make changes for economic reasons,
but that we'd never make them for ecological reasons.  My answer to that
is simply this - no one has tried asking Americans to make major shifts
in their lifestyle for the good of their country and their ecology in
thirty years.  We assume we know that this would never succeed - in
practice, we don't have the slightest idea what would happen.

Consumption is not simply accidentally left off the table by people who
underestimate its power or prefer only to focus on legislation, it is
left off because thinking about consumption undermines some of the
presumptions of wholly technical and policy solutions. In fact, if we
addressed consumption, we might have to change our basic assumptions
about what we can accomplish.

Think about Gore's list above in relation to consumption.  The first
thing, of course, that jumps out at you is the claim we have to bail out
the car companies, even though, as Deutsche Bank announced, GM is worth
nothing - its stock is worth absolutely nothing {2}.  Think about that
one for a second, and consider what has to underly our presumptions that
we should bail out a car company - underlying it is the assumption that
we will all be buying cars again fairly soon - shiny new electric ones.

That is, underlying the assumptions of a Gore-style New Deal is the idea
that we can do temporary bail outs because our consumption is going to
go back up - only this time we'll be consuming green products, including
our electric cars.  There are several problems with this - the obvious
one being that it isn't clear what will fund our ability to buy these
new cars in the coming years.  The assumption is that the new green jobs
will do so - and perhaps that's true, but there's a "turtles all the way
down" quality to this analysis - the new deal will give us the ability
to make these shifts, and the money will then only be spent for good
(despite the fact that historically, the more we spend, the more we
consume) ... I'm not convinced anyone knows how that might happen.

The less obvious problem is this - investment and purchase of all these
things includes an enormous front-load of fossil fuels.  And as far as I
know, no one knows whether a comprehensive investment in these resources
might not actually push us over the edge of a climate tipping point.

In order to understand this, I think we have to divide the kinds of
changes we make into two categories - the first are those that require a
large initial investment, usually of both money and fossil energies, and
that provide a later payback of those investments.  Think of it as the
mortgage-model of addressing fossil fuel usage - the bank pays a lot of
money upfront to the house seller, and then you gradually pay back the
investment over time.  We assume that the investment is a good one if,
in the long term, we get more out of it than we put in.

But consider this in the context of Al Gore's proposal, and James
Hansen's observation that we have less than a decade to make significant
inroads into addressing global warming.  What Gore is proposing is a
massive investment of fossil fuels - these are used at every stage of
the manufacture of wind turbines, concentrated solar thermal plants and
geothermal plants.  Most insulations are made from fossil fuels, with
fossil fuels.  Cars use tons of fossil fuels in manufacturing at every
stage from mining of metals to welding of materials.

In the very long term, we can imagine having enough fossil energy to use
wind to weld the cars and run the mining equipment - but we're a very,
very long way from that kind of payback - at this point, we'll be using
enormous quantities of fossil fuels across the board to piggyback us to
renewable energies.  And we'll be using them to meet all of our other
needs in the meantime.  The assumption is that it is a good idea to have
one long, last party, if that gets us to lower energy usage in the first
place - but the question is, does it get us to the lowest total energy
usage we could get to?  Or are there are other approaches that have less
risk of long term harm, and that ultimately reduce our fossil fuel usage
further - such as getting out of private cars altogether and focusing
heavily on energy consumption.

What scale is the risk of the Gore approach?  It is probably wrong to
use the term "New Deal" here at all - the New Deal, for the most part,
and with the exception of some dam building and a few other projects,
was a comparatively low input project.  That is, facing massive
unemployment, the New Deal concentrated on the use of abundant human
energies - they put people to work doing things that didn't require
large scale technical build outs - in the Civilian Conservation Corps
building trails and draining swamps, largely by hand, in social programs
and at picking crops.  The investments were large by the standards of
the day, but mostly the goal was to pay people a living wage.

The kind of project Al Gore is describing has much less to do with the
New Deal, and much more to do with putting the nation on a war footing -
that is, what we're really talking about is a build-out on the scale of
World War Two.  The idea of getting 100% renewable electric in ten years
is probably not possible, but if it is, it will be done, as Bohr put it,
by turning the nation into a factory.

And a particular kind of factory - Gore is proposing that most of our
energy resources be located in the dry, rural and desert west, in
mountain and flat areas that haven't historically supported large
populations.  That is, he's proposing that we build energy boomtowns -
which means that not only are we imagining frontloading an enormous
quantity of fossil fuels into the cars and insulation and generating
plants themselves, but into the places that we are building and
installling them.  Now we'll be adding roads, and schools for kids, as
well as huge concrete and metal facilities.  Now we'll be moving our
population into an area that manifestly cannot support a huge industrial
population sustainably - ie, we are talking about moving the population
temporarily into these boom areas, straining their water resources,
providing industrial jobs but probably destroying a lot of farming and
agricultural jobs that had relied upon ranching water systems.  And then
we're going to move them again - because they won't be able to stay
there.  There are reasons that the southwest deserts are already
struggling with their present growth.

And most of these projects will take many years to complete - let's say
that Gore is right, and we can do it in a decade, that there won't be
the cost overruns and deadline failures that are usually inevitable, and
that it is possible to shift our generating capacity that quickly (both
of which are unlikely), and that we can borrow the money and pay it back
later, and our kids won't mind (unbelievably unlikely).  And, let's
assume that this is enough to bring the economy out of a depression.
Even if all these things are true, we will also have just burned an
unbelievable quantity of fossil fuels in a massive build out.  Many of
the projects, including the asphalt for roads and the concrete needed
for the building of power plants will have been tremendously fossil fuel
intensive.  We will have spent an enormous amount of money, much of it
transferred to other nations whose manufacturing capacity we have relied
on and who produce the fossil fuels needed.

At an absolute minimum, in order to do this without pushing the world
over into a tipping point, we'll have had to radically regulate everyone
else's other carbon usage.  More likely, we'll find we can't do that -
because we need consumption in order to keep the economy going enough to
keep this build out funded.  Remember, World War Two was funded with a
combination of loans from countries who had no choice but to lend to us,
and investment by ordinary Americans who paid what was essentially a
voluntary additional tax in the form of War Bonds (yes, eventually they
paid off, but there was no certainty that they would, particularly if
the US lost the war).  It is not impossible to imagine Americans in a
recession giving the government a big chunk of their change to use for a
while, but rather harder than to imagine discussing consumption radically.

Any response to climate change is going to have to take seriously the
costs of that response - the costs in terms of long term economic
security, and the environmental costs.  It may well be that we are close
enough to our tipping point that we can't afford a decade of massive,
intensive industrialization that raises our use of fossil fuels, even
for a big payoff on the other side.

And the payoff is the real question - Keynesian investment presumes a
later boom.  What will the next boom be, after we've done our
environmental retrofit.  The assumption is that we'll be leaner, better,
doing more with fewer resources.  But we've never done that before -
what we've seen many times over the years is Jevons' paradox - that as
we refine our energy usage in one sense, we expand it in another.
Thomas Princen, author of The Logic of Sufficiency (2005) does a
remarkable analysis of the problem of an efficiency focus, and comes to
the conclusion that simple streamlining doesn't have the power to
resolve our ecological dilemma - it can't, in the end, lead us to what
we need.

What do we need?  Well, there are strategies for dealing with climate
change that don't require a massive investment of fossil energies.  They
are, of course, unsexy in a legislative sense, mostly because they are
enacted by ordinary people, and focus heavily on conservation. On the
other hand, as we have seen with the shifts people are making for
economic reasons, they provide immediate, dramatic paybacks, with fewer
dangers.  It is obviously not possible to reduce our energy usage to
zero - we will still need investment in renewable infrastructure, in
insulation, and we will still need companies, perhaps car companies, to
build rail cars and windmills.  But the difference between a gradual
build out, that takes into account the ecological and economic costs of
this shift, and takes the New Deal, rather than the war as a real model
- ie, it emphasizes what ordinary people can do with human energies and
small-to-moderate investments and a massive build-out that attempt to
keep business as usual.

A New Deal model of ecological adaptation would consider what we could
do with the least possible increase in long-term indebtedness.  It would
ask our population to make short term, radical sacrifices in order to
ensure a better world for their children and grandchildren, to make real
the words "for ourselves and our posterity" enshrined in the
Constitution.  Instead of building out all at once, we'd prioritize our
cutbacks, dropping our energy consumption both radically and rapidly -
fifty percent in five years is probably feasible.  Meanwhile, our
investments in renewable energy *and* in people would enable not just
short term jobs in boomtowns, but a long term renewable economy -
shifting our focus to food, health care, education.  Instead of tax
incentives that apply mostly to those rich enough to pay substantial
taxes, we'd focus on low input, often human powered improvements to our
lives - putting people to work building basic storm windows and helping
people retrofit their homes.

In order to do this, we would need to address the size of the economy,
and the growth paradigm.  And if we do that, we can't leave future
generations large debts - period.  The reason for that is that instead
of a boom-bust cycle, we will have a smaller economy, one that probably
won't produce enough money to pay lots and lots of interest, as well as
meeting needs. The good news is that stable smaller economies are
possible - instead of removing large chunks of the population from the
workfoce into hellacious unemployment, we could encourage voluntary
departure for people willing to do the ordinary work of reducing energy
usage - homeschooling their kids and keeping them off the buses, growing
food, tending the elderly and disabled in their homes and communities,
rather than shipping them to nursing homes, cooking meals instead of
driving to restaurants, mending and fixing things instead of throwing
them out.  Reducing our consumption is likely to be impossible as long
as we insist that we need everyone in the workforce, serving the larger
public economy and commuting to their jobs while stopping at McDonalds
on the way home.

The thing is, the odds are that in a world of energy decline, we're
facing a smaller economy anyway.  But we have a choice of how we face it
- we can manage its decline (and my next post will explore how we might
manage its decline) and we can manage our roles in it.  We can
acknowledge that it seems impossible to have a sustainable economy and
endless pressure for growth - and that it is morally unjust to force
future generations into a boom and bust cycle to pay off the debts of
their parents.  We can restrain ourselves, emphasize radical shifts in
consumption, while also gradually and carefully using our remaining
energy resources to build out renewables that can bootstrap us to a
sustainable economy - and a sustainable culture.

Or we can do what we're doing - borrow like there's no tomorrow, ignore
the reality that tomorrow does always come, and ignore the vast elephant
taking up all the space and air in our room, instead of talking about







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