Eaarth and Carbon Nation offer pragmatic, clear solutions.

On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.”  One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read.  McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:

“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived.  We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert.  The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet.  We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they’re not.  It’s a different place.  A different planet.  It needs a new name.  Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”

McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability.  I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear.  While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet.  He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza.  McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:

“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine.  Windmills will sprout across the prairies.  It will be exciting.  But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change.  I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match.  We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”

McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust.  McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:

“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project.  The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale.  Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”

At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government.  The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.

McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food.  “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I).  McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition.  Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.

Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner.  Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change).  The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face.  The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives.  One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to.  Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future.  However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.

Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences.  Eaarth is out now.  Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.

Status competition as it relates to flourishing

To achieve a steady state economy, we must first conquer what I will call status competition.  What I mean by status competition is the social pressure placed upon individuals to possess certain items to indicate that they are successful, wealthy, appealing, intelligent, creative, and so on.  As humans we do this sometimes subconsciously, because we attach status-associations to certain objects.

For instance, when I was shopping for a new home last year, many kitchens in desirable homes have granite countertops.  Clearly, this is a luxury item, but what does it indicate?  First of all, it indicates prosperity; additionally, one might look at a kitchen with a granite countertop and associate the owner with dinner parties, social connections, and fine dining.  Now, despite the aesthetic appeal of granite surfaces, it does not actually help its owner make better food, or make more friends.  The benefits to the object, beyond aesthetics, are purely the significations placed upon it by society.

Now, sometimes we crave material objects that appear to make our lives richer.  The new iPhone is a perfect example.  The advertisements feature users video chatting during important life moments, using visual communication; a wife tells her husband that she is pregnant, but not in so many words, and a father convinces his daughter to show him her new braces.  The commercials are appealing; my wife was won over immediately.  However, I have several friends that have perfectly good 3rd generation iPhones, trading in for the 4th generation model.  Apparently, they do not understand the resources involved in making these phones.  The 3rd generation iPhone is a device that provides incredible utility; 10 years ago it would have appeared cutting edge, and 50 years ago it would have appeared as a prop from a science fiction film.  Yet, for some of its owners, it is not enough.   Does it make sense for an object as resource intensive as a Smartphone to be useful for only a few years?  Can we sustain that into the future, especially given concerns over diminishing resources, and the problematic sources of many of those resources?

However, a bigger question might be whether that iPhone or granite countertop does anything to give their owners intrinsic satisfaction.  Given the wealth required to purchase those items, does the sacrifice of that wealth (and the work time to earn that wealth) help people become more affiliated in their communities, or become truly happier?  What if instead of a granite countertop and an iPhone, those people had the option of a four-day workweek?

Amartya Sen argues that our possessions, and the meanings we give to them, prevent us from being truly happy.

In his 1982 essay, “The Living Standard,”

Amartya Sen argues that:

Absolute deprivation in the space of capabilities (such as whether one can appear in public without shame) may follow from relative depravation in the space of commodities (such as whether one possesses what others do)… Some of the apparent conflicts in defining poverty (the “relative” versus the “absolute” views) may be avoided by seeing living standards in terms of capabilities and assessing the value of commodity possession in terms of contribution to capabilities and freedom.”

In the light of Sen’s point, it is clear that status competitions can diminish happiness.  Our lives today are full of material objects, and yet they do not necessarily make us happier.  Those of us lucky enough to have careers work longer hours, and we are bombarded with manipulative commercial advertisements that aid and abet these status competitions.  However, until we can begin the process of decoupling the material objects in our life from the emotional meanings we give them, the need for material objects will be exponential – we will never be able to achieve satisfaction.  More importantly, we will never be able to achieve the steady state economy that Herman Daly advocates until we are able to concentrate more on utility and satisfaction, and less on appearance and accumulation.

Is climate policy like prohibition?

Walter Russel Mead, the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a professor at Yale University, just wrote an unconventional and thought provoking analysis on the state of climate policy.

Mead, a Democrat who voted for President Obama in 2008, says, “the Big Green Lie is falling apart:”

“And it’s not about Climategate and Glaciergate.  It’s not about the science.  It’s not even about public confidence in the integrity of the green movement — although this confidence is unlikely to regain the levels of 2009.  Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the walls, and all the establishment commissions and investigations in Europe cannot glue him together again… Both the greens and their opponents need to understand that the reason that the Great Global Green Dream is melting lies in the sad truth that whatever the scientific facts of the matter, the global green movement is so blind and inept when it comes to policy and process that it has deeply damaged the causes it cares most about.”

Mead compares environmentalists to anti-alcohol activists before Prohibition:

“Who convinced Americans that the problem of alcohol abuse was real, destructive, and likely to get worse unless addressed.  These farsighted activists were absolutely correct: with the introduction of the motorcar alcohol was more destructive than ever; with more than 500,000 alcohol related highway deaths between 1982 and 2008, more Americans have been killed on our roads as a result of drunk driving since 1915 than have died in our wars. The problem is that the remedy proposed, Prohibition, not only failed to solve the problem — it made the problem of alcohol abuse worse, and it also reduced respect for the law and led to the rise of organized crime in the United States on an unprecedented scale.

The Prohibitionists were brilliantly, scientifically correct about the problem: they were foolishly and destructively blind about how to deal with it.”

Mead also compares environmentalists to Peace Activists who predicted World War II and tried to outlaw war to prevent it.  He also brings up comparisons to the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s.  Mead views the sum of Green policy prescriptions as Malthusian panic attacks, with anti-growth policies and corporate resentment sprinkled on top.  He acknowledges that Global Warming is a problem, but what does he think we should do about it?

Mead proposes that we simply “nudge” the economy towards energy efficiency, and lower

Walter Russel Mead compares Green policies to Prohibition.

taxes.  Mead proposes local solutions that will not be organized under one grand agreement, but rather be aimed to work on local problems; he brings up the example of the Indian government pushing to end fuel subsidies.  But will “relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with the climate” work?

Mead blithely describes criticism of neo-classical unending growth as “Malthusian fantasies” He ignores the real and growing evidence that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity, and we are creeping towards Earth’s limits.  By comparing environmentalists to an alarm clock “making shrill and irrational noise,” one wonders if he truly understands what it will take to create a sustainable world.  He prescribes, above all, serious attention and careful thought to the question of how to create that sustainable world.  He pines for a humanity that leads “richer, fuller lives in a cleaner, sustainable world.”  The mystery for me is how we will be able to continue this unending growth without reaching the Earth’s limits.  Ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza are creating a new economics that boldly goes beyond the Copenhagen policies.  Certainly, environmentalists would be well served to carefully consider what steps need to be taken.  I agree that we will not solve our problems with one global treaty.  However, we cannot simply rely on the whims of laissez-faire economics to deliver us to the sustainable future that Mead hopes for.

Reid to climate: drop dead. Can we afford inaction?

Ross Douthat admits Global Warming is a problem, but argues for inaction.

Today, in the New York Times, Paul Krugman and Conservative wunderkind Ross Douthat present competing theories on why climate change legislation is dead this year.  Douthat, surprisingly, admits that Global Warming is a genuine problem:

“…Conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.  Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fear mongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.”

Douthat blames the demise of legislation on conservatives; in his words there is “seemingly an unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.”  Of course, that framing of Global Warming is purposeful.  In Douthat’s mind, Global Warming is a problem for bird watchers to worry about.  In fact, Douthat provides the argument for inaction by making a dangerous assumption:

“…The assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime. But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose… Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.”

Douthat does not discuss the concept of externalities, and this is key.  An externality is the result of a transaction that is borne by neither the buyer nor seller directly, but rather by a third party.  In the case of our fossil fuel supplies, the externalities are only growing.  In addition to greenhouse gasses, you have pollution from coal plants that has measurable health impacts on communities surrounding them, and you have the ghastly side effects of hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas.  Of course, don’t forget about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The scary thing?  We subsidize these fossil fuels.  Douthat, however, just wants to rely on unending growth to solve all of our problems.  Unfortunately, the Earth will not support unending growth.  Douthat would be wise to read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, points the blame for the demise of climate legislation in a more

Krugman advises us to follow the money.

believable and useful direction.  In Krugman’s mind, we need to just follow the money:

“The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries — above all, the coal and oil industries — would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines.  Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades.  Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer.”

That is the key of course.  Producers of fossil fuels do not want to have to account for externalities of their products.  They would rather society at large bear those costs.  We are slaves to growth and slaves to consumption, unable to see the forest for the trees.  As Krugman points out, 2010 is the hottest year on record.  Inevitably we will need to place a cap on carbon emissions; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.

Ross Douthat should read this book.

How do we solve these problems?  Herman Daly, an ecological economist, offers some viable prescriptions.  I will highlight one of the most important ones, which you will not see any politician advocate: ecological tax reform.  Right now labor and capital (the value added) is taxed; ecological tax reform would end value added taxes and instead tax that to which value is added: the throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion) and returned to nature (pollution).  Ecological tax reform would reward entrepreneurs who are able to add value and innovation efficiently.  We want to encourage value added, and discourage depletion and pollution.  It sounds simple, but it goes against the neo-classical devotion to unending growth.  As such, Douthat and his fellow conservative denizens continue to believe in Business as Usual.

Bob Constanza on ecological economics and a shared vision for the future

What will you wear to the apocalypse?

Dr. Robert Costanza, Professor of Ecologcal Economics at the University of Vermont, spoke last month at Yale University about ecological economics, a field that he helped create along with Herman Daly.  In 1997, he wrote the seminal article “The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital,” which helped to define the economic worldview encompassed in ecological economics.

At Yale, Constanza spoke of creating a shared vision about a sustainable future:

“A key element in allowing us to do this is to create this vision of what a sustainable and desirable future would look like.  A vision communicable enough to a broad enough audience, to make the point that it is not a sacrifice to make this transition, really it’s a sacrifice not to make this transition.  I don’t think that choice has adequately been put before the public; I don’t think the public has been adequately involved in creating that vision.”

With ecological economics, Constanza is helping to create that vision.  He contrasts the empty worldview, in which growth is limitless, more is always better, and no resource is sacred, with a more realistic view of a full world, which considers the natural capital that is not considered within traditional economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product.  The full worldview considers the biophysical and sink services that the Earth provides, and many other assets that we take for granted, like water.

Constanza is onto something with his goal of creating a shared vision.  Many people look at the environment as a competitor with the economy; a resource can be protected, but only if it doesn’t constrain growth.  Unfortunately, that constraint is inevitable.  Finding a way to break through that traditional binary logic is a key to involving people in this discussion.

How can we change our economy from a jet to a helicopter?

Ecological Economist Herman Daly

Herman Daly, an Ecological Economist from the university of Maryland, argues that we humans will, sooner rather than later, have to transtion from a growth-based economy to what he calls a Steady State Economy (SSE).  In Daly’s conception, the economy has grown immensely over the last few hundred years compared to the static, steady state of the Earth; the more it continues to grow, the more it will have to conform to the Earth:

“That behavior mode is a steady state—a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy—much less a growing one. Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract. Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state—seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth.”

To further identify what a SSE would look like, Daly compares a growth based economy to an airplane, designed for forward motion, unable to hover in place.  Unlike the airplane, a SSE would be more like a helicopter, which is designed to hover.  In other words, the SSE would have a relatively constant population and stock of capitol, and maintain a reasonable rate of materiel throughput “within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem.”  To create the SSE, Daly recommends upstream resource taxes (instead of income taxes), redistribution of wealth, ecological protectionism, and an emphasis on durable, long lasting consumer goods.

To achieve these goals, decoupling will be necessary.  Absolute decoupling in when resource impacts decline in total, across the economy.  In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson points out that despite greater efficiencies and technological innovations, no absolute decoupling has occurred since the Kyoto climate summit:

“Despite declining energy and carbon intensities, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increased 80% since 1970.  Emissions are almost 40% higher than they were in 1990 – the Kyoto base year – and since the year 2000 they have been growing at over 3% per year…. [and] what’s true for fossil resources and carbon emissions is true for material throughputs more generally.”

So, decoupling will require hard work and sacrifices in our standards of living.  However, energy and mineral resources get more and more expensive by the day, as the Energy Returned on Energy Invested continues to drop across the board, from oil to copper.  Additionally resources that we humans have long taken for granted are becoming scarce.  Today the New York Times described new investments by Australian in desalination plants to meet the country’s water needs:

‘In one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects in its history, Australia’s five largest cities are spending $13.2 billion on desalination plants capable of sucking millions of gallons of seawater from the surrounding oceans every day, removing the salt and yielding potable water. In two years, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, Australia’s major cities will draw up to 30 percent of their water from the sea. The country is still recovering from its worst drought ever, a decade-long parching that the government says was deepened by climate change. With water shortages looming, other countries, including the United States and China, are also looking to the sea. “We consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine for climate change-induced changes to water supply systems,” said Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, an umbrella group of the country’s urban water utilities. He described the $13.2 billion as “the cost of adapting to climate change.”’

What this means is that the economy is already bumping up against the limits of the Earth.  However, the decoupling that Daly advocates will require careful coordination on development, between nations, not the type of ad hoc development planning that is evident in Australia.  Unfortunately, as Jackson shows in his book, the developing economies, especially in India and China, will require more and more resources in coming years.  The schism that was evident at the Climate summit in Copenhagen between Europe and the United States, and the developing economies belies that the careful coordination required to achieve decoupling is a long way off.  Unfortunately, I think it will take some much more vivid evidence of the economy bumping up against the limits of the Earth to inspire the necessary action and coordination.  The growth based economy, represented by the worship of Gross National Product, is in our DNA.  It will take a shock to our system to create the conditions for the necessary change.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.