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Stimulus, Response

July 13, 2009

I have been, as usual recently, thinking about the economy and the ecology, and how they are interrelated. And Mr Krugman’s latest op ed caught my eye as something speaking to a fundamental tension. Mr Krugman’s fears are something I understand and relate to. Action on the economy and action on climate change are both urgently needed, no later than yesterday. But Mr Krugman says that only more stimulus can fix the ailing economy—and he has a Nobel prize and may well be right, in fact probably is, and if he’s not I’m not going to be the person to point that out. And Mr Krugman thinks a stronger climate bill than has passed the House and may die in Senate (please call your Senators and demand that they pass a strong climate bill now) will be the bare minimum necessary to get a start on (perhaps maybe if we work very hard) not becoming crunchy frog, lightly killed, roasted and marinated in melting glaciers, and I completely agree.

But I find myself wondering if it’s even possible to have both things.

Economic stimulus, to help the people who most need it, has to buoy up the industries that the lowest wage earners work in. That means it has to somehow stimulate a boom in manufacturing, mining, textiles, food service, transportation, and corporate retail, among many other sectors of the economy. The aim of the economic stimulus is to promote consumer spending. What must the consumers spend their money on, if our economy is to recover? Manufactured goods, made from raw materials that we mine, clothing, fast food, travel, and knick-knacks from Walmart. Where do you think the bulk of our carbon emissions is produced? Do you think, in advance of economic stimulus, that we can afford to stop everything and retool the economy so that it depends instead on consumer spending on hemp reusable shopping bags and farmers’ market produce?

But wait! Maybe it is possible to do both. And now we are in territory where clever buzzwords abound: New Green Economy, Green Jobs Now, Renewable Future, and Clean Coal (oops, sorry, don’t know how that one got in there). Suppose we spent the stimulus on building out a new smart grid powered almost entirely by solar, wind, and sustainable hydroelectric, capable of sustaining a fleet of newly built private electric cars, along with high speed rail from one end of the country to the other. We could create a new green eutopia (as opposed to a utopia) while saving the economy too!

But here’s the problem: Until we have a new green economy, we don’t have a new green economy. We can’t do green manufacturing until all our factories are retooled for green manufacturing, and we can’t retool our factories for green manufacturing without producing a hell of a lot of manufactured parts. The old fashioned way. Which means producing a hell of a lot of carbon emissions. And if we’re doing that while still encouraging spending on all our old bad habits I mean, keeping the economy afloat, we’re going to see a spike in CO2 emissions, not a decrease—a spike that could very well be enough to kick off the next leg of the chain reaction that will cook us. We can’t even manufacture solar panels without producing more carbon than they will likely offset.

This means that we will have to cut back on every carbon-emitting activity that does not either keep us immediately alive—and I mean this seriously, not “alive” in the sense of our balance sheets in the black at the end of the quarter, I mean “alive” in the sense of not letting people die of starvation or preventable disease in massive numbers—or serve the buildout of this New Green Economy. And that is going to seriously wreck the economy.

The alternative is to try something really radical. Like retooling the entire economy to something unimaginably different from what it is now. Actually, it’s not so unimaginable, because people have been imagining and practicing alternative economies on small scales since Adam Smith. But it will take economists with a lot more imagination than Mr Krugman to come up with a complete new economic system that:

  • does not rely on exploding consumer debt
  • is not predicated on perpetual growth
  • does not subsidize the environmental costs of goods and services
  • doesn’t exacerbate the growing gap between rich and poor in this country
  • incentivizes carbon-neutral and zero-waste business practices at every level, and heavily sanctions anything less
  • still creates enough productivity to actually accomplish the rest of this green buildout

Can you imagine the effect this would have on average people? (I almost wrote “consumers”.) This will make the collapse of the Soviet Union look like a street fair in St. Petersburg. Can anyone here say their livelihood isn’t dependent on the very systems that are responsible for the CO2 input that is contributing to the climate disaster? I can’t. This would require millions of people to quickly learn new skills and go to work in entirely new sectors. This would be a shift in employment patterns unmatched even by the ramp-up to WWII, when we converted our automobile factories to build tanks and employed the women we wouldn’t send overseas to operate them.

I am presuming, of course, that you’re not a climate change denier, in which case I have very little time for you. At this point the scientific consensus is indisputable, except by a couple of cranks citing an astrologer for crying out loud. (I have plenty of respect for astrology where it belongs—as a matrix on which to project one’s own intuitions about one’s life circumstances and tendencies—but not as support for a supposedly scientific paper that seeks to refute the vast bulk of empirical evidence about a matter of life and death. I would also, despite my great respect for poetry, not claim that every major study finding that CO2 forcing is causing global warming is in error because the papers don’t rhyme.) Or if you’re under the impression that climate change isn’t really that big of a problem, then I also advise you to find something useful to read. (You might start here.)

Is there a solution to this mess? Yes. But unfortunately it means getting comfortable with being very uncomfortable for the next five, ten, maybe thirty years.

It means those of us who are counted “consumers” instead of people stop being consumers and become people again, cutting our own personal carbon emissions and those we we are peripherally responsible for by 90%.

It means cutting carbon emissions from every source that does not directly support survival and/or a transition to a carbon neutral economy to functionally nil, and cutting carbon emissions from every source we can’t do without as low as it will go.

It means the economy is going to crash and keep crashing, and the only “stimulus” we can afford to provide is safety nets to help as many people who are hurting as we can. If that means paying unemployed people in food and housing to build windmills, maybe even by hand, I’m for it. I’ll sign up as soon as my job vanishes, which it will.

It means we’re going to be eating a lot more simply, foods that can be productively grown closer to home, and while we’re working out the kinks in our broken food system we’ll have to figure out a way to feed millions of hungry people living in food deserts—whether that’s an inner city with no farms for two hundred miles or families surrounded by GMO corn and soybeans and switchgrass farms for a two hundred miles and nothing else.

It means those who are unconvinced are going to have to research until they know the issues backwards and forwards. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a refutation to climate change that hasn’t been thought of yet (hint: it’s not the sun). It means those who are willfully lying about climate change for political or religious reasons will have to be deprived of their power to mislead people. It means all of us will have to pull together, suck it up, and commit ourselves to national, global action to reduce CO2 emissions drastically, and that involves an enormous, concerted change in the global economy which will touch every single person’s life in some way.

It may mean we lose the Internet. Goodbye, Facebook; I will miss you, but not as much as I would miss oceans that aren’t acidic enough to dissolve my teeth. It may mean months of effective electrical blackout while we try to retool our grid. It may mean we stop having consumer electricity as a public good, and if we still have our old laptops they run on whatever we can produce off our rooftops and local gusts of wind. Goodbye, electricity; I will have to learn to do without you. What, practically, will that mean? I think we’d better be thinking about it in advance.

It will mean an increase in human suffering of every variety. That means we need strong communities and a commitment to taking care of one another. You’ll want other people around; the future is uncertain and no one person will have all the tools and resources they’ll need to thrive alone.

It will mean an economy, indeed a whole culture, that looks radically different in ten years, even five years, than it does now. We haven’t a minute to lose making it gradual. If any part of our culture can’t be sustained in a carbon-neutral world, it goes. It will be a huge help to inventory your life now and start figuring out what you will have to do without.

One of my aims for this blog is to help me do that for myself.

If you’re wanting some tools to think with, check out Casaubon’s Book, The Automatic Earth, and Club Orlov.

One Way. Straight Up. Go.

One Way. Straight Up. Go.

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