Sharon November 11th, 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, 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, right?
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 10 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 40 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_ between public and private. There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy issue – 70% 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 0 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 6% 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 30 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. 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 WWII. The idea of getting 100% renewable electric in 10 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, WWII 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_ 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 0 – 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 – 50% in 5 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 consumption.