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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Economy verses the Environment

I’ve written before that one of the biggest challenges we face in preventing catastrophic global warming is convincing people that the environment is more important than the economy. Most Americans do not agree. In November, 70% of the voters in green-oriented Washington State voted down a carbon-free, clean energy investment proposal. Oil, gas and coal producers successfully argued that the plan would hurt the economy. However, here in Western Mass., the Easthampton City Council recently made a decision that indicates they are at least open to the idea that, when in conflict, protecting the environment must take priority over economic concerns.

The issue before the Easthampton City Council was simple. The Department of Public Works recommended that the City buy a standard gas powered SUV because it cost $7000 less than a hybrid SUV. The proposal failed because it required six of the nine councilors to vote yes and only four did. This is not a perfect measure because, among other things, an environmentalist might argue against purchasing any SUV, but it does indicate that at least some elected officials are willing to place environmental concerns above economic ones.

Unfortunately, the Easthampton City Council vote only provides a glimmer of hope that people are coming to this realization. The majority of green advocates are arguing, instead, that we can make our economic system sustainable without reducing business activity. Advocates of the Green New Deal argue that building a renewable energy-driven economy will create millions of well paying jobs, fostering economic growth. In other words, a win-win, sustainability and growth.

This position is understandable. Regardless of whether they have considered the greenhouse gas consequences of creating millions of new jobs or believe what they are saying is feasible, Green New Dealers know our species survival depends upon weening us off fossil fuel. They fear they won’t gather public support unless they convince people this can be done without major economic disruption. There is force to their argument because it will be difficult to get Americans workers, 78% of whom are living paycheck to paycheck, to take a financial hit unless the threat is serious, tangible, and immediate. Those who have barely survived the California fires, or hurricane generated floods, might make this leap, but they are, as yet, a relatively small minority.

Since the fossil fuel must be left in the ground if we are to avoid the collapse of civilization or worse, the changes the Green New Dealers are demanding are necessary. But if the millions of well paid, new green jobs occur within the context of a growing consumption-oriented green capitalist economy, it will lead to more production and more greenhouse gases. NBC news reported a few days ago that “[n]o matter that coal-fired power plants went out of business in record numbers, or that Americans nearly doubled their purchases of electric cars. The U.S. increased its carbon dioxide emissions in 2018,” because “[a] booming American economy meant increased industrial production, more truck and air travel and more offices and other workplaces to heat — all combining, along with other factors, to create the second-largest annual increase in the key greenhouse gas emissions in more than two decades.” Even with the addition of the modest socialist-oriented changes proposed by Bernie Sanders and his allies, increased economic activity will still generate more greenhouse gasses.

Perhaps we should pose the question this way to gain more converts:

1. What happens if the economy tanks? The recession of 2008, and the depression of the 1930’s provide the answer. It is an ugly picture, and of course, the most vulnerable populations, the poor and people of color, will suffer disproportionately.

2. What happens if the environment tanks? As in an economic downturn, the most vulnerable amongst us will suffer the most. Having to move to higher ground, enduring terrible storms and consequent long-term, massive blackouts, or dealing with billions of refugees will be terrible. But we face much worse. If the environment tanks we’ll be unable to grow our food, drink the water or breath the air.

Difficult as the economic disruption would be, even for a relatively well-off white guy like me, I’d chose it over extinction any day.  Read More 
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We Need Contraction

The oil and gas industry claims that the 11% drop in reported US Carbon emissions between 2007 and 2013 was due primarily to the growth in fracking (“When Human Consumption Slows, Planet Earth Can Heal,” 7/22/15, Common Dreams.) However a recent study in Nature Communications determined that 83% of the 2007-2013 reduction was the result of decreased consumption and production during the great recession, while only the remaining 17% was due to changes in fuel type. That makes sense; less economic activity lowers carbon emissions.

This simple truth has far-reaching implications. Our current economic system, based on growth, can’t adjust to this fact. But that doesn’t change the fact: the way to save the biosphere is to shrink our economy.

Progressive environmental activists know we must reduce our carbon footprint, but for strategic reasons, we advocate a mélange of solutions. We fight to ban fracking, stop the XL pipeline and divest from fossil fuel companies. This makes sense: if applied globally these actions, in combination with conservation, would significantly decrease economic activity, and thus lower carbon emissions. We also promote increased efficiency in heating and cooling appliances, air and automobile travel, better public transportation, recycling, and alternative solar generation. These actions, while reducing the carbon footprint of the products we buy and trips we take, may not lower total emissions if they result in our buying and traveling more, or using more cheaply generated solar power.

Significant segments of our movement celebrate a “green new deal,” that will create an economic boom and new jobs while greening our economy. This is dangerous self-deception. Everyone needs living-wage jobs, but if the additional millions of job-holders produce more products and consume as the typical living-wage worker and their families do today, we’ll collectively emit even more carbon and make the problem worse.

Therefore we must couple the new green jobs with significantly reduced hours and substantially increased wages/salaries for all workers, including professionals. These workers and their families must spend their increased funds and free time in a manner that does not produce more greenhouse gases. This complex of interactions won’t work without careful planning and re-education. We’ll make no progress if we create more consumers taking part in the throw-away society.

Progressive environmental activists are also reluctant to talk about population. We believe in sharing the world’s resources more equitably, but don’t calculate what that means as the global population approaches 8 billion. The issue of population control has racist roots and a history of unequal practice. In addition, five hundred million relatively affluent North American and Western European whites produce 80% of the world’s green house gas emissions, while billions of people of color in the third world have tiny carbon footprints. While masses of people living in poverty are not responsible for global warming, increasing their level of consumption to that enjoyed in the “developed world” will have a profoundly negative impact on the world’s carbon footprint.

Any comprehensive climate change program must deal with this triple challenge:

1. to decrease economic activity to limit carbon emissions.
2. to achieve a livable standard of living for everyone by increasing wages to compensate
for decreasing work hours.
3. to fairly re-distribute the dwindling resources of our planet to include the third world.

This monumental challenge can only be met by global agreement to replace competition with cooperation, replace profit with sharing, and to engage in physical, social, artistic and intellectual pursuits instead of rampant consumption.  Read More 
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