A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change

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.


92 Responses to “A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change”

  1. Lance – Your dreams certainly are way more coherent than mine.

    Mine usually end up where I’m trying to run, but I can barely move, and then I realize I am not wearing any clothes from the waist down. Then I realize that I haven’t studied or been to the Differential Equations class that I have a final for in 10 minutes and just realized I forgot to drop the class at the beginning of the quarter. But it doesn’t matter because just then there’s an enormous earthquake and Mt. Rainier blows up and I watch all this is slow motion.

    I’m not sure how those dreams bode for the next presidency, but I sure hope they have no affect on it.

  2. No need to worry about the consumption part. Deflation is taking care of it. Retail anecdote on Chris Martenson blog reveals that spending virtually halted in October ie: instead of selling the usual 700 cars a month at a Ford dealership in San Antonio, they sold 5 cars total. And the stock market continues to tank because everything is related to retail. It’s a good time to visit Iceland too—no crowds at any restaurants.


  3. Robert Roth says:

    I agree with Sharon’s analysis entirely, and with many of the comments, but unless I missed it, I would add the following: Gore focuses on centralized energy production, which on the public utilities model gives people zero control and makes profits for investors. Residential conservation is a decentralized approach with the quickest payback and lowest cost, and it also enhances individual empowerment and self-reliance. Weatherizing low-income homes is possibly the single most cost-effective investment that can be made. Low-income people don’t have the resources to do this for themselves, but the payback in energy savings is enormous, and like all residential conservation it is empowering, AND it has enormous impact in terms of job creation and stimulation of local economies. The federal government has had a low-income weatherization program in place since at least the late 1970s, but at present funding levels it will take centuries to complete. When I lived in Hartford on the third floor of a 3-story building, I weatherized the attic with help a friend who worked for the local community action agency. The next month, the price of heating oil doubled, and my family’s bill was cut in half! With funding, there is a network of local agencies that can gear up quickly to do more of this sort of thing. The Oregon Attorney General recently targeted some money from an antitrust settlement to augment such programs. As the lawyer who drew up the contract for the grant, I know the potential, but now retired, I no longer have the details handy. But it’s something to ask your Congressional representatives about. I will dig up details if Sharon or others are interested.

    And, carrying this one step further, a small group in Portland, Ore. conducts small-scale conservation workshops, teaching low-income people how to take matters into their own hands to conserve energy & save on fuel bills. Enhanced by inexpensive kits of materials, these workshops take the bang-for-the-buck even a step further than low-income residential conservation generally, in that the first few, cheapest things that can be done are utterly the most cost-effective, AND empowering. Most states, perhaps every state has a department that conducts low-income weatherization. Within reasonable limits, we need only pour on the money for enormous paybacks. Also with a grant from the Oregon AG, that small entity I mentioned has been developing materials and a curriculum to train-the-trainers, so that program too can potentially be replicated elsewhere.

    On an individual basis of course, those of us with the resources to do so should be having our homes energy-audited and taking advantage of tax credits and other incentives to invest in making our energy usage more efficient. For those who don’t have the funds, this should be an additional component of the federal program. States will be hurting for funds to keep these programs underway. This is one area where the feds should direct stimulus money.

    For those who keep suggesting Sharon run her stuff in the New York Times, I’m with you in spirit, but although I’d love to be pleasantly surprised, I think there’s a culture of elitism at the NYT that wouldn’t find her criticism of Gore quite respectable. The same snobbishness that denigrated Sharon’s homestead, as she described in a recent post, puts as much emphasis on the source as on the content, and more on appearances than substance, so that mere merit alone has little or no weight — or chance of publication.

  4. Trevor Bacon says:

    Going to have to sit down and have a serious read of your site but what Ive seen so far is very good. You have a clear perceptive outlook and an easy style, rather jealous really. You lot really seem to have got it together. Ill by the book when its out.

    You’ve probably seen it but I found this link to a British report that I thought was rather instructive.


  5. Sharon says:

    Deanna, I guess what I was trying to get at was that I think that Carter was lambasted for a failure of presentation, not as much the ideas themselves. And as someone else mentioned, we’re in a much more acute situation. FDR did pretty well on that front – and so have other leaders over time. For example, even before the war we were successful at boycotting British imports (Revolution – and boy was that a big deal, since most things came from Britain) and Southern cloth and sugar (before the Civil War). Other national examples exists as well.

    I think Timothy Breen’s work on the ways that rituals of non-consumption replace rituals of consumption is important here – I think you are right that consumption itself has to be replaced with something, but I don’t think this is as hard as it sounds, if addressing the larger economy could be put on the table – and that I don’t know about.


  6. becky says:

    if not the nytimes, at least consider forwarding your thoughts to obama’s new website..

  7. Rosa says:

    Robert Roth, the cold-weather states already have weatherization programs (or at least I know Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota do). It shouldn’t be that hard to make them national, though you’d need some engineering/design help for regionally-appropriate designs for areas where a wet cold winter isn’t the big issue.

    The problem with ours (Minnesota) is that it’s a combined utility bill help/weatherization program and when the utility bill part gets bigger, the weatherization part loses out. I’ve been looking around for a weatherization charity or political lobby that is efficiency/clean energy only and includes landlords/renters and multi-unit buildings, but I haven’t found one yet.

    The other awesome green-collar type job group I know of is a local group that hires “low-skilled” people to deconstruct homes before they are demolished. They resell the salvageable parts and have a lead remediation unit building owners can hire. It seems like you could pour an endless stream of money into lead/asbestos remediation, weatherproofing, adding hurricane-resistant features, and getting rid of mold in houses and apartment buildings. Those are all hard jobs, that need strict job safety regulation, but the work needs doing and the payoff in energy savings and public health would be tremendous.

  8. Robyn M. says:


    “Yup- I do get the student loan deal. I just don’t know why it keeps going on- so many students are taking on so much debt believing they will get really high paying jobs and be able to easily pay it back.”

    I think it keeps going on for two basic reasons. One, there’s a major timelag between making the decisions to get the loans, and finding out that the jobs aren’t there–namely, the time it takes to get through college. So the decision has been made before the hammer falls. But why can’t they figure out there’re no jobs before taking the loans? Well, now they probably can, given what’s in the news these days, but two years ago? I remember talking to my dad, who genuinely believed (given what he saw in the media) that my whole generation was graduating and landing $200k/year jobs out in Silicon Valley and as Executives du Jour for various companies. The radical income fall for everyone has been hidden by the overall statistics on income. It’s only now being revealed that incomes have been flat across the board for the better part of a decade. But even *that* stat hides the fact that incomes have been going up for the generation up from me (overall, until recently), and down for my own generation. So when we looked to our elders for advice, since they know all about this “loan” stuff, our elders genuinely believed based on their own experience and what they see in the media, that there really are great jobs waiting for us all, and certainly get the loans so that you can get the education and then get the jobs.

    As far as I can see, it’s been one monstrous, ugly bait-and-switch routine, and one that’s not even organized or run by anyone. The media wasn’t hiding income reductions for my generation to keep us getting student loans–they had the “confidence of the broader market” at heart. It was never any particular entity’s goal to deceive us (well, except maybe for some of those really evil private SL issuers that popped up near the end of the credit bubble), that’s just how it worked out. But, that’s my opinion. ;-)

  9. Lance says:

    Thanks for the article, Ani :-)

    Basically I got out of my undergrad degree with only $3000 in debt, which I paid off in a year doing fieldwork and living out of my car. Then I got a summer job at a federal agency that said if I got my MA in the same field, I would be converted to a permanent position. So I did so, accumulating about 20 K in debt for that MA. Went back to work, then the fed began downsizing, along with office politics, and low man on the totem pole, I was out on my butt. Historic preservation is unfortunately a small and specialized field and I couldn’t get work. So back to school for another degree in a separate but affiliated field with more opportunity, and another 30 K in debt (I didn’t have some of the basic requirements so it took a little longer). Then out, worked for another fed agency for four years, all soft money, no permanent employment, etc. downsizing etc. So here I am 50 K in debt on my own.

    My wife brought debt of her own and here we are at 100 K in debt.

    Not complaining, just the way life worked out. Somebody really needs to have a talk with kids just going to college as a default choice, but people also gotta realize that college/education is its own industry that requires growth of consumers to exist, and it not only makes bank that way, it keeps kids out of the labor market for 4 years or so which helps the unemployment numbers, right?

    So between kids automatically going to college because they think they should or they’ll be “losers” (ha!) and “discouraged workers” (aka us “layabouts”) who no longer are on unemployment nor working hard to find nonexistent jobs, who knows what the REAL unemployment numbers are??

    Hey Crunchy, my dreams are usually more like yours, such as the one the other night where I was some Mafia guy’s elderly “Aunt Rose” he dropped off at a suburban airport, and I walked to the gates swigging some wine in a bottle.

    That’s why the one over 20 years ago remains so clear and weird, because it was so different than the regular ones.

  10. Robyn M. says:

    Speaking as a (currently) employed university educator, I really couldn’t agree more about reassessing the “EVERYONE GOES TO COLLEGE” mentality. I mean, yes, that will spell doom for mine and my husband’s careers, but they’re already doomed thanks to the recession and a few other factors (and really, I don’t fancy myself having a career in the first place). But all that being said, the pressure to attract and keep students is incredible at universities, the cost-cutting measures used to keep tuition low (which it isn’t), and the increasing lack of jobs out the other end…. it’s all such a sad show anymore. I don’t want to dump too much on higher education for it’s own sake; I got degrees in philosophy & french, neither have served me particularly well on the career path, but both have made me a vastly better person. But someone else observed that betterment of oneself is no longer the goal–just the piece of paper, and that is very true. Or worse, at some universities we’ve taught at, the goal isn’t even the paper, it’s the networking and getting your foot in early with the “good ole boys network”. Blah.

    I really think we’d be better served by a population who went to college only if the WANT to go to college, but who also have job possibilities if they don’t. Admittedly, there are no longer good job possibilities even if you do, but hey, set that issue aside? I remember seeing a very interesting speech from then-President of Indiana University Myles Brand about changing the scholarship rules for university basketball players, and working to create a “minor league” for basketball. That way, if people really want to play basketball rather than go to college, they can enter the minors, rather like people do in baseball. They aren’t forced to continue schooling that they don’t want or need. On the other hand, if they DO want to go to college while playing basketball, that’s fine, and there will still be athletic scholarships available. This pointed to the problem that people are being forced into a college path for no good reason. It seemed so sane…. FWIW, he’s now president of the NCAA, so maybe others have taken him seriously, too.

  11. Lisa Z says:

    Boy, there’s a lot of us aging Gen-Xers (can I put it that way, sorry!) who see the college/student loan folly. If the colleges weren’t already going to be in trouble b/c of the economy, I’d say they better watch out it ten years or so when our kids turn 18 and they’re not heading to college.

    I came out of college with 16k in debt and grad school added another 14k to that. I’ve never worked in my field (teaching or ministry). Instead I got married to a man 11 years older than me, we wanted to have kids pretty quickly and lived in a small town where he was a high school teacher but there was little employment opportunity for me. Didn’t want to work at the gas station or Pizza Hut, opened a home child care instead and babysat until 22 months after the wedding when our first-born came along. It took me a while to adjuct to being dependent financially on my husband, but we worked it out and both learned the value of having someone at home most of the time. It was less stress on both of us!

    Now yes, that sounds like I was just going for my M.R.S. degree, and I certainly was not. I loved school, loved learning, but that’s just the way my life worked out. I think for many young people unforeseen things happen that make it very difficult to pay those student loans, not the least of which is lack of good-paying jobs.

  12. Ani says:

    Robyn- I’d concur for sure re: many students don’t belong in college and are just there for the paper- I’ve been teaching as an adjunct and have mostly stopped due to burnout and disgust at teaching students who just want the degree but not the work that goes into earning it.

    I was accepted at a school of Naturopathic Medicine and after 4 years would have become a licensed ND in my state, but I was looking at well over 100K of debt if I did this- I didn’t have a good feel for that,especially as ND’s in my state are not covered by insurance for the most part. I was dreading trying to establish a practice and pay back this huge loan which many ND’s in my state are doing by taking on other work. So I declined my admission. Had I gone I would have recently graduated into this mess, like someone I know who now owes I believe $180K. So although I would liked to have studied to be a ND and practiced as one, I think I made the right decision to not take this sort of debt on. The thought of carrying this sort of debt load makes me shudder. I don’t know, maybe I’m too cautious but I didn’t like what I saw coming down the pike 5 years ago and made this choice.

  13. Pete Murphy says:

    Wow! This post drew a lot of comments in a hurry.

    I haven’t read all of the comments, but where is there any mention of reducing the size of our population to a more sustainable level? There is simply no way that our current population of 305 million can be sustained from renewable energy resources at anywhere near the standard of living we currently enjoy.

    And beyond resources, Sharon lightly touched upon the issues of employment and per capita consumption, but she didn’t link the two because few people recognize the linkage. Advocating low levels of consumption is the same as advocating high levels of unemployment and poverty. Is that what we want? I think not. We can still enjoy a high standard of living sustainably, but not with the same number of “capitas” on earth that we have now.

    Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I’m not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news – growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I’m talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

    I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

    But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

    The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight other countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China – as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050. The U.S. is the only developed country still experiencing third world-like population growth.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at Amazon.com.)

    Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don’t know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  14. Ani says:


    Most of the population growth in the US is related to immigration and the immigrants having children, which they tend to do at a higher rate than the rest of the US population.

  15. Lynnet says:

    Why do students take out loans? Because without that bachelors degree, they won’t make the initial cut to the Human Resources Department.

    From the HR point of view, with, say, 4 jobs open and over 500 applicants, when they restrict the applications to only those with a college degree, they only have to look at 250 applicants. It’s an easy first cut. The non-degreed are never even considered.

    Jobs for which this restriction is not used by HR are much fewer than previously, most having been shipped overseas. The remainder generally have very low wages and zero job security or benefits. And buildings trades, which had a great many good-paying jobs requiring only technical traning, have suffered huge employment losses with the housing slowdown.

    The next problem is that scholarships are nearly extinct. Gifted students used to make it through mainly on scholarships, but not now. Since wages are essentially flat while costs go up, parents seldom have the load of extra cash to subsidize their children’s education. That leaves nothing but loans.

    People in school now and recently have suffered the worst for this: costs continually rising, scholarships and aid of various kinds disappearing, and at the other end, jobs few and hard to find.

    This is going to be a very tough problem to solve. Where are the programs to help the unemployed with their student loans? Wouldn’t that be better than shoveling money into big banks so they can buy other big banks?

  16. Reduce population? How, pray tell, can you do that in a time period of less than decades? Even if you were able to strictly enforce one child per woman (no exceptions for death or disability of child or remarriage) it would still take years and years to see a significant population reduction. I suppose you could be mathematical about it and line everyone up and shoot every tenth person but that method has real drawbacks. Or you could start enforcing mandatory euthanasia for anyone over 75 and any disabled persons of any age. Or you could release engineered viruses to kill a sizable percentage of the population.

    It is easy to say “reduce population”; much harder to do in any amount of time less than generations.

  17. Schmaral says:

    How about the govt. selling “green bonds”? I’d buy ‘em. But… first they’d have to satisfactorily prove the monies are being used to invest in green technologies which will benefit all, not just private companies, and not for shiny new SUV’s for Green Bonds staff, either. Yet, there’s the rub. How do we trust our government to actually tell us the unvarnished complete truth, a “relative” commodity to our elected officials. Actual fudge has more substance, regardless of which butts occupy various official govt. chairs.

    As far as falling petrol levels? Less consumption leads to fewer trucks on the roads delivering goods from overseas factories to fewer folks on the edge of loosing their jobs, homes, SUV’s, and crap. A layed-off friend keeps moaning, “I wish I wouldn’t have bought so many lattes when I was working. What I could do with all that money now!” I agree. Never mind the savings in styrofoam cups to your planet, too, aye? Silver lining.

    Face it. We as a nation are just starting to actualize the sheer amount of this rich but deadly Consumption Overload Diet we’ve been trained to “need”, and the consequences are scaring the heck out of us. But the piper is at the door, waiting to be payed, and payed he must be.

    Finally, even thought I’m typically a pretty positive outlook kinda person, I see an eventual third world environment within the next 100 years in the US. It’s gone too far for too long, and we just can’t seem to get it together. So… what would that make third world countries? Fourth world? Deserts?

  18. Pete Murphy says:

    Ani, you are certainly correct that most of our population growth is due to immigration. Approximately half of our annual growth of 3 million people is due to legal immigration (about 1.1 million) and illegal immigration (another half million). Much of the remaining growth in the native population is due to the high birth rate among foreign-born Americans. For this reason, my book calls for a huge reduction in immigration to match the rate of emigration, essentially removing immigration from the population growth equation for the U.S.

    Currently, our fertility rate is approximately 2.1 births per female in the U.S. In order to attain a stable population, this needs to fall to approximately 1.79. Why less than 2.0? Because of the steady rise in life expectancy.

    Teresa from Hershey: Yes, it would take a long time to reduce population significantly, although we could see some results in a relatively short time frame. So shouldn’t we get started? I certainly don’t advocate the kind of ridiculous approaches you mentioned (in jest, I’m sure). Nor do we need to adopt the heavy-handed approaches used in places like China and India. I believe that a system of economic incentives is all that’s needed. For example, tax policy could be used to reward people for choosing smaller families, instead of the current practice of paying people to have more children.

    The United States is the third most populous country in the world. Already we are devouring resources at a rate far above what can be sustained. It’s time to face reality and start addressing the root cause of the problem.

  19. DD49 says:


    Were you planning to post a follow up? I enjoyed the post, but thought you indicated a part two at least.

  20. [...] 14, 2008 by Lee Sharon Astyk critiques Al Gore’s climate change wish list for the next administration on the grounds that, among [...]

  21. Isis says:

    Pete Murphy,

    First of all, full disclosure: I’m a non-American currently studying mathematics in America, and planning on packing my bags when I’m done and thus contributing to America’s forthcoming brain-drain, which Drmitry Orlov has so eloquently written about. (If you haven’t read ‘Reinventing Collapse’, I strongly recommend that you do so asap.)

    Now, to my point. Since you’re advocating closing the borders for people, I sure hope you’re also advocating closing the borders for products as well. Because you see, as it is, American consumers are using about a quarter of the World’s resources, which is far more than is (or could be) produced in the United States alone. So, essentially, Americans are stealing other people resources, and then, in the name of this or that, self-righteously demanding that those (mostly brown) ‘others’ go back to where they came from, without stopping to think that most of these people come from places that are heavily exploited or otherwise racked by the said Americans.

    So, if you’re going to call for closing the borders for people AND products, then you and I will be more or less on the same page. But if you’re only calling for keeping the people out, while taking the products of their land bases, then, with all due respect, screw you.

  22. dewey says:

    Pete – you also write, “Advocating low levels of consumption is the same as advocating high levels of unemployment and poverty. Is that what we want? I think not.”

    This seems to reflect the post-industrial American mindset that average people’s only choices are endless paid drudgery and endless consuming, or else miserable squalor. We probably consume twice as much per capita as our ancestors did in the 1950s, and we do not think of them as having been degraded by poverty. Many of us middle-class people now would be delighted to accept a 50% smaller house size and/or domestic energy usage, half as many consumer goods and services, etc., if it meant we could also cut our work hours in half (or let one family member leave the work force) and if there was no other societal coercion to prevent it. Nobody loves being “employed” for the sake of it; they do it because there is no other way for them to get the goods they’ve been told are essential. The fewer goods you find essential to your comfort, the less work you have to do. That’s great for the environment, but it’s not so great for business tycoons, which is why the very idea sends capitalists into hysterics.

  23. dewey says:

    Also – with regard to the supposed dichotomy between high consumption or else poverty – poverty does not mean just that you are not rich enough to get anything that you would like. Poverty means either absolute poverty, a lack of the basic needs and comforts of life (food, warmth, safe water and waste disposal, clothing, etc.), or relative poverty, a lack of goods and services that others in your society have and tell you that you must have in order to be socially approved. That definition of poverty is deliberately ratcheted upward under our system, but there should be no reason it can never be ratcheted back down a bit. If you would feel “impoverished” using transportation methods that are typical of the middle class in other countries, maybe what you need is not more toil and debt so you can have a new SUV, but an adjustment to the attitude of your community.

  24. Vittorio Tauber, Pavia (Italy) says:

    Sharon, you hit the point: it’s all about consumption, although Obama, Gore and the mainstream experts (and common people) believe it’s a question of legislation and businness policy.
    On The Guardian today George Monbiot basically shares your view. He criticises though your relying on volountary abstinence as a mere wishful thinking, as well as leaving infrastructure mostly unchanged.
    A major social collapse because of 10% annual shrinking of GNP for several years would be likely, if not certain, in his words.
    But if volountary abstinence is based on a shifted mindset rather than on kind of franciscan poverty, then we still have got a chance.
    The french economist, philosopher, anthropologist Serge Latouche argues we can get rid of our lifestyle by putting in question, deconstructing, forgoing the set of symbols, customs, values that built our affluent society throughout -say- the last century. He talks about the need for a *decolonisation of the imaginary*, since he thinks we westeners are as colonised by corporations and advertising industry boosting us to compulsive mass consumption just as non-occidental countries were invaded and their native culture deprived by foreign armies (and today re-colonised and re-dispossessed by IMF and World Bank policies).
    It’s just a tip, in case you might find the *decolonisation of the imaginary* a useful tool to think it over.
    As an unimportant personal note, I agree with your relying on volountary abstinence, and I don’t think it’s a wishful thinking, unlike the effectivity of a Green New Deal.

  25. John Mills says:

    Population is the big problem – pardon the pun. I live in Australia, and although we have a ‘small’ population of 20 million we are in fact the worst nation, so we are told, in terms of resources used per capita.

    Unfortunately we have a global problem, and I feel that until the governments of the world address the steadily increasing, correction – exponentially increasing, world population, then any technological, or even any social based solution is a very temporary fix.

    What is the point in reducing per capita connsumption by say 10%, if in a few years the population has grown by 10%! We are going no-where!

    Of course we do need to act swiftly, and although bringing in ZPG could remove the human plague from the Earth in say 70 years, surely we could tackle the global warming problem on three fronts – improved technologies, reduced standard of living expectations ( of the ‘rich and carefree’ ), AND some sort of birth control on a GLOBAL scale.

    The amount of carbon dioxide generated by every extra human planted on Earth, over their lifetime, will far outweigh the total reductions achieved by countless others!

  26. [...] Author is Sharon Astyk. Read the whole piece and discussion here. [...]

  27. Jeff says:

    I like that the post is discussing consumption issues, and that there seem to be lots of people out there even in America who are skeptical that the light-green agenda of big centralized technological investments to solve the systems inherent problems. You all know the drill – hybrid/electric cars, giant solar farms in the desert, 1 billion ton biomass programs for fuel etc. To give Al Gore some credit, his point #4 was a consumption reduction – reducing energy demand in buildings.

    I mean, the technological solutions would, for sake of argument, halve the impact per unit of production, but if due to growth (in population and in affluence), you double the consumption, then you go nowhere, as 2.0 * 0.5 = 1.0.

    So won’t we need to do both? I mean, if you halve consumption AND halve the negative impacts per unit of production, then 0.5 * 0.5 = 0.25 – you reduce impact by 75% – more than by how much you reduce consumption.

    It’s not an either/or proposition – building wind turbines doesn’t have to cause a short-term carbon explosion as Sharon fears (I mean, more than we have already), because the investment money, steel, plastic and transport fuels to make and operate this hypothetical new wind turbine factory and its products will otherwise just be used to make a new plasma screen TV factory.

    So, I think:

    Yes to renewable energy for feeding into existing power grids (reduced long-term impact)


    Yes to stricter efficiency (pollution) standards for houses, offices, shops, and manufactured goods like cars and appliances.

    But also

    Yes to mass transit and bicycles for transportation instead of more freeways, ring roads and cars (giving up your car for a bike to ride around town is I believe the biggest single positive action a typical first world citizen can do for the environment, which also saves money).


    Yes to living within your means (as individuals and nations)


    Yes to stopping the economic growth fetish

    (a good start would be somehow fixing the monetary system so that the money supply is no longer created by private banks issuing loans and earning interest on the debt in order for rich investors/banks to be able to make more loans for an ever exponentially increasing debt – I’m not sure you could design a more destructive and unstable system if you tried!)


    Yes to dropping the fertility rate to less than replacement

    (Strictly no more than 2 babies per female is quite fair and reasonable for both human society and the planet – people still get to have children that have a chance to grow up healthy, fed and educated – and at least some parts of our planets’ awe-inspiring remaining wilderness and the non-human species they support get a chance to keep on existing).

  28. [...] expenditures on new “green” technologies.  See Sharon Astyk’s earlier analysis of Al Gore’s similar assumptions in a terrific posting from 2008, in which she explodes the [...]

  29. David says:

    Nice post. Looks like wind power is really starting to get some serious consideration in Australia now.

  30. [...] Astyk: ”A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change” (Casaubon’s Book, [...]

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