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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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Welcome to 2019: Buckle Up

In 1968 my favorite Phil Ochs’ song was the title track from his 4th album, Tape From California. I’ve forgotten some of its words, but one stanza remains etched in my mind: “The anarchists are rising, while we’re racing for the moon. It doesn’t take a seer to see the scene is coming soon.” It captured the revolutionary fervor of 1968, but its prediction was not to be.

50 years later, that dramatic prediction is upon us for an entirely different reason.

It is hard to be optimistic about our species’ prospects. In the coming decades almost 10 billion of us face monster storms, more erratic temperatures, rising sea levels and resulting resource depletion that will decimate the productive capacity of the planet. We will endure deprivation on an almost unimaginable scale, and history teaches us that tribalism rises whenever societies face such threats.

I use the concept of tribalism, rather than racism, although the two are deeply interrelated, because I see the former as having more to do with what we identify with and the latter as what we are against, or who we identify as the enemy. It is understandable that people seek to “find their tribe.” We crave the community and sense of belonging this gives us, but it is so easily manipulated to turn people against each other.

Trump is a manifestation of tribalism, as are leaders of many countries from Russian, to Brazil and Turkey. As the seas rise, and the crops fail, the number of refugees, recently estimated by the UN at 69 million, will swell to hundreds of millions, or even billions fleeing misery. Authoritarian leaders will have fertile ground to till as they employ fear to goad people to protect what is theirs from evil hoards of interlopers. What we see now at the Mexican border only hints at what is to come.

On the other hand, our species is awakening to the danger. There is worldwide recognition that we must develop an unprecedented international movement to save the productive capacity of the planet. Masses of Europeans are already involved and indigenous peoples’ resistance, now most pronounced in Latin America but growing in Africa and Asia, has the potential to develop into a world-spanning effort to resist our current capitalist orders’ global death march. Even in our own country, where climate change denial remains powerful, thousands of young people, and their indigenous allies, are dedicating their lives to preventing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and the concept of a Green New Deal is gaining momentum.

This as yet amorphous set of movements is the antithesis of tribalism. It celebrates diversity, embraces refugees and seeks to provide sanctuary. It recognizes the commonality of our humanity and envisions a world grounded in cooperation, not competition, in equity over profit, and on living sustainably rather than requiring endless expansion. Fueled by each new climate change-related disaster, it is gathering recruits daily.

These diametrically opposed social movements are growing, and are bound to clash. “It doesn’t take a seer to see the scene is coming soon.” There is hope for a good outcome, but we face a tidal wave of turmoil so it is time to buckle up.  Read More 
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