Friday, November 28, 2008

21st Century Economics -- Part 1

This post is an introduction to a series of essays on economics. These essays outline what we can do to transition from our unethical, and ecologically destructive economic system to an economy that works in the 21st century.

From Spendthrift to Thrifty:
An Introduction to Ecological Economics

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to an interview that introduced me to the field of ecological economics. The man being interviewed was Nate Hagen, a doctoral student at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. I found his insights fascinating and after hearing his brilliant synopsis of the topic, I decided to learn more about it. By the way, you can find several good interviews with Nate and his colleagues by following this link:

Ecological economics represents a fresh new approach to understanding our market system. Central to this approach is the notion that economic activity does not occur in a vacuum; it happens within a rich context of human culture and social behaviour. And like every other human system, it is built upon ecological foundations.

We rarely pause to consider how completely we depend on the ecosystems of our planet. It’s a little like contemplating the miracle of DNA replication – we have a tendency to just take it for granted. This is understandable, particularly when the natural world is so vast and abundant that exhausting its bounty seems impossible.

It must have been difficult for people in past societies to imagine a world in which natural resources are becoming scarce and population is spiralling out of control. But we no longer have the luxury of naiveté. The most grievous oversight of contemporary mainstream economics is the failure to acknowledge the fact that every economic transaction depends on ecological stability.

As the current financial crisis has illustrated so dramatically, our global economic system is in dire need of a major overhaul:

  • In our economy, prices lie. The market fails to include the tremendous environmental costs of production in the final price of the goods and services it provides. Prices are determined solely on the basis of cost of production plus profit margin. This dysfunctional pricing mechanism is a dangerous oversimplification of the true costs associated with production and it is misleading consumers.

  • We have a broken monetary system of debt-based fiat currency which requires ever expanding amounts of public and private debt to maintain. Watch the video below to learn more about our fractional reserve banking system which essentially loans money into existence.

  • We have a regulatory structure that, instead of being updated and expanded to deal with the challenges of globalization, has been systematically dismantled under the misguided tutelage of market fundamentalists like Milton Friedman.

  • We have a lop-sided global economy that is driven by the consumption of wealthy nations and the production of poor nations (both of which are ethically and ecologically problematic). This is international trade run riot, and it leads to the notoriously long, wasteful supply chains that we euphemistically call globalization.

  • The American economy is particularly vulnerable because so much of our economic activity is based on discretionary consumer spending to buy things that are imported from overseas. And the size of our productive economy has shrunk dramatically relative to the size of the service economy. Basically, we no longer produce our own necessities, we rely on imports for most of them, and what’s left of our economy is largely propped up by the unsustainable spending habits of the addicted American consumer.

So, what happens to our global economy when America realizes it has maxed out its credit card and the international spending spree grinds to a halt?

I think it’s called a CREDIT CRUNCH-cum-ECONOMIC CRISIS-cum-SYSTEMIC FINANCIAL MELTDOWN. At least that’s what they call it in the news.

Maybe this will get our attention.

Maybe we will finally muster the ethical courage to grab the reigns of our economy and guide the markets to deliver what humanity truly needs and wants: a global economy that is both humane and ecologically sustainable.

Maybe we’re ready for....drum roll, please....ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS!!

**Part 2 of this series will be posted soon. It is a critique of classical economics in light of current ecological challenges.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Geo-engineering: Apocalypse Averted?

O.K. I admit it. I'm addicted to TED talks! If you don't know about TED, check out this website:

The talk I'm sharing today is about geo-engineering as a possible response to climate change. Sounds ambitious, I know. This has to be the ultimate techno-fix dream solution. Half-mad scientists have proposed all sorts of methods for artificially cooling the planet: a host of plans to sequester carbon for instance. I picture them scrambling behind the scenes with their research teams, desperate to patent the great silver bullet that saves humanity from climate chaos. But as crazy as it sounds, if climate change gets too scary too quickly, we may be happy to have an ace in the hole.

We all hope it doesn't come to that. We would love to believe that the human family is capable of coordinated, aggressive action to cut emissions in time to make a difference. But garnering the political will to tackle a problem that does not seem imminent is always difficult. Scores of climate scientists have testified before world leaders at these so-called 'earth summits', and we still lack the sense of urgency required to take bold action. Current evidence suggests we may have waited too late.

I think we are quickly approaching a tipping point with the melting of polar ice. The glaciers in the arctic circle are receding at an accelerating rate, and it's probably too late to reverse that trend by cutting emissions. Losing the polar ice would have all kinds of severe ripple effects, so a tipping point for polar ice melting is effectively a tipping point for global climate. Without the Greenland ice sheet for example, the gulf stream current stops, throwing Europe's climate into chaos.

The tough fact to consider is that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere represents the accumulation of carbon emissions over time. So even if we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, the amount of CO2 in the air will still be far higher than the 350 parts per million target. And because we are rapidly destroying many natural carbon sinks through deforestation, it will take a while for mother nature to equilibrate. In other words, cutting emissions is a slow process, and it does not reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 over night. So, assuming the worst case scenario unfolds, what do we do to save the polar ice and preserve some semblance of climate stability? Support your local geo-engineer!

The method discussed in this video basically involves spraying loads of sulphates into the upper atmosphere to 'shade' the planet from the sun, particularly at the poles. We know that sulphates in the atmosphere have a cooling effect because scientists have observed it after the eruption of major volcanoes. Hypothetically, it could work. It could definitely cool the planet.

The obvious danger is that people assume that geo-engineering is a free pass to emit carbon. It is not. All it does is buy us more time to help mother nature recover balance. We have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere for a bunch of other important reasons. Geo-engineering is just a possible way of saving billions of lives in the meantime.

Hope you like the video. Post a comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Jane Goodall

I have to share a fantastic video with you all. The great field biologist Jane Goodall gave a TED talk a few months ago to talk about an amazing program she started called Roots and Shoots. Roots and Shoots is an initiative aimed at empowering young people to take action to save the planet through local service projects. It's a neat project, but that's not the main reason I'm sharing this video.

The real reason I have to share it is that I found her to be so inspirational. This is a truly brilliant and enlightened woman; and she speaks with such passion and hope about solving the most intractable problems of our time. Please take the time to watch this video. Jane Goodall has plenty of wisdom to share.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Suburban Clusterf#@k

The Tragic Comedy of the American Suburbs

In many ways, I am a product of the suburbs. As a middle class white male from Dallas, I am quite familiar with the setting and I’ve spent a large portion of my life either living in or visiting the suburbs. Almost my entire extended family resides there and my hometown is notorious for its sprawling suburban development. I know the suburbs. The suburbs are my home. Nevertheless, I despise what the suburbs represent: a psychological, social and ecological disaster.

More than any other settlement pattern, the suburbs embody the middle class American dream. We are all too familiar with the picture perfect fantasy: the white picket fence, the two story house, the 2 or 3 or 4 car garage, the meticulously manicured chem-lawn, and of course, the anti-depressed family of four with a dog and maybe a cat or three. As lovely as it sounds, this specific form of the American dream has had a ruinous social impact.

Socially F#@ked

It has never been an inclusive dream. Historically, it was largely the dream of white people who desired exclusivity, security, and privacy. These are understandable values when you are raising a family. However, the reciprocal values of strong community, social justice, and mutual trust are equally important. The phenomenon of white flight shows which value set was preferred.

White flight during the decades following World War II was driven both by the pull of the suburbs and by the push of urban decay. These white families were motivated as much by the alluring prospect of suburban retreat as they were by xenophobia. Either way, white flight was an escape strategy; and the suburbs represent the divisive impulse of the majority to socially detach from the uglier side of society: the crime and poverty of deprived urban ghettos, for instance.

Unfortunately as whites fled the inner city, so too did much of the political will needed to address the glaring social inequalities that were at the root of the problem. Once your family had successfully retreated to the comfort of the suburbs, these social ills were out of sight and out of mind. The quality of public education in the inner city no longer affected your kids, so who cares if the city school district is corrupt, or schools are not getting the funding they need.

As a result, the inner city was chronically neglected and these problems were basically ignored. Over time they became more severe, creating an ever-widening achievement gap between privileged, white suburbanites and poor, inner city minorities. So the regrettable social legacy of white flight to the suburbs was a new era of de facto segregation in America.


To illustrate some of the nastier psychological effects of suburban development, let’s take a look at the most exclusive type of sub-division: the gated community. And just a reminder before we begin our tour – humans are social animals. What we call a gated ‘community’ could be more accurately described as a self-imposed suburban ghetto for the privileged with a security fence surrounding it. And for many it is the apex of the suburban American dream: exclusivity, security and privacy.

But there is little true community within these quaint gates of heavy steel. As you enter, you are immediately confronted with a security checkpoint staffed by the community’s very own private security force (usually a bunch of teenaged kids whose patrol duties include tooling around the neighbourhood on golf carts). 8 foot privacy fences, enclosed garages and guard dogs keep the neighbors at a safe distance and ensure that any uninvited outsiders are met with the hostility they deserve. The range of activities within the gates is quite limited: no shopping, no restaurants or cafes, no public life whatsoever. It’s essentially a place for scared rich people to sleep and eat in relative peace; a glorified dormitory with a massive padlock on the front door.

A general mood of suspicion and fear pervades most households because the entire design of the so-called community serves to alienate and isolate individuals, rather than fostering the mutual trust upon which strong communities are built. This is the American suburb in its most extreme form, shockingly similar to the settlement patterns of white South Africans during Apartheid. It’s time to do better.

Eco Clusterf$@k

The ecological impacts of suburban development are equally disastrous. This is perhaps the most obvious downside of the suburban living arrangement. Nearly everything about the suburbs is ecologically damaging. Here is a brief list of the problems:

1. The activities of the typical suburb are strictly zoned so that residential space is distinct and separate from commercial space. Traveling between these zones almost always requires a car because of the long distances involved and lack of pedestrian accommodation.

2. The houses are much larger than they need to be, which wastes building materials and energy. The size of your McMansion is a status symbol in the suburbs.

3. The conventional building materials used in home construction have very high embodied energy, meaning that they require lots of energy to manufacture and transport to the building site.

4. The houses are often very poorly designed and poorly built. A common design feature is the grandiose vaulted ceiling which wastes a ton of energy. Windows are often placed on west facing walls without any shade. In places like Texas, this can turn a room into a solar oven during the summer time.

5. Lawns are little more than grass covered chemical and fresh water sponges of questionable aesthetic value, and they are usually maintained with gasoline burning machines. The suburban lawn is probably the single biggest waste of resources within the typical household. Most lawns don’t even produce any useful food or herbs. They are literally just energy and water sinks.

6. Most suburbanites don’t work in the suburbs. Many drive long distances alone in their SUV just to get to work every day.

7. The predominant culture of ownership in the suburbs values private property over shared use. So everyone owns their own lawnmower and weed-eater, and it’s not uncommon to see 4 or 5 private backyard swimming pools on a given block.

Anyway, I could go on, but most of you have heard it all before. The bottom line is that this whole situation is a huge clusterfuck, and we have to figure out a way to fix it.

The Consummate Critic

James Howard Kunstler is one of the most outspoken critics of the suburban way of life. He has called it "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and views the architecture of the suburbs as a symptom of our throw-away society. In his opinion, the massive investment dumped into suburban development after World War II not only wasted resources on a colossal scale, but also created a ‘geography of nowhere;’ a nation full of places that are not worth caring about. In addition he addresses the myriad and subtle ways that living in a landscape littered with strip malls and McMansions affects our attitudes and behaviors.

He has also criticized urban planners and modern architects, whom he dubs 'starkitects' for creating buildings and urban spaces that are scaled to accommodate machines rather than humans. A passionate champion of the principles of traditional architecture and urban design, he supports the emergent renaissance of the time-tested urban planning exemplified by many classic European cities. New Urbanism and the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism are two such approaches to urban design. Both draw inspiration from the cities of Europe and both can do much to revitalize the urban landscape, through an emphasis on creating quality public spaces for the community to gather, and through mixed use, human-scaled buildings which serve to bring the activities of the city together in symbiotic relationships.

Sensible design brings urban places to life – this is what the vibrant cities in Europe have going for them. Even the busiest European cities feel like a network of interconnected villages, particularly when you get off the beaten path. Almost every building is mixed use, with retail on the ground floor and private residences or office space on the floors above. And the settlement is always very dense, making neighbourhoods walk-able. Public space is emphasized and valued in the form of beautiful parks and plazas. This is a decent model for creating more functional, pleasing cities. The question of what to do with our existing suburban infrastructure is more challenging (more on that in future posts).

Kunstler refers to the built environment of America's suburbs as a ‘tragic comedy’; a cultural wasteland which does nothing to edify its inhabitants. The sad fact is that the suburban landscape was built for cars full of consumers, not people. Many of the places we have inherited are characterized by an alienating infrastructure which discourages one from truly engaging with others and enjoying a place.

Instead, we have grown accustomed to the drive thru convenience of our built environment. That peculiar kind of convenience, which is utterly inconvenient unless you drive everywhere, has become the primary value for most Americans when they interact with their urban environment. For them, the convenience of their driving experience takes priority over quality -- so it's more important to get a burger at the drive thru in less than 2 minutes than it is to get a decent burger. Likewise, every major urban development includes a gargantuan multi-story parking garage or a massive slab of asphalt to park the cars, regardless of the aesthetic sacrifice. In this way the built environment is simply a reflection of the deeper values of our throw away culture.

The same culture that is seduced by the glorious efficiency of McDonald's and disposable everything: plates, cutlery, contact lenses, diapers, etc. also accepts expendable buildings which are no longer aesthetically rewarding, but exist solely to facilitate our primary function in modern society, which is to consume. These facilities of consumption do little to foster any other type of activity within the community. They are designed to get you in, get you spending, and then get you out the door again, back into your car.

The Wal-Mart for instance, is not designed to be a particularly warm enriching experience, inviting you to spend your afternoon there. It’s a massive warehouse with bad fluorescent lighting. The irony is that you end up spending your entire afternoon there unintentionally, just trying to get through the gauntlet of diversions and through the check out.

We're quickly turning our cities, and the network of suburban developments between them, into clones of each other; destroying almost everything that is unique and special about a place. We are destroying the precious story of place for the sake of economic development, which all too often takes the form of a strip mall full of corporate retail. Many American cities feel like habitats for corporate retail establishments rather than habitats for humans.

I’ll turn it over to Kunstler now: enjoy! He’s actually pretty funny.

Related Links
(great example of a developer that's trying to create better human habitats)
(good wikipedia article explaining the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism)
(A San Francisco based non-profit organization that works with architects, developers, and planners, teaching how to implement the principles of New Urbanism)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lester Brown Lecture at Berkeley

This lecture is a very good overview of our current environmental challenges and potential solutions. Lester Brown is an environmentalist with experience and training in the field of agronomy. He brings an amazingly well-informed perspective to issues related to food production and energy. In this talk he discusses the big picture side effects of corn-based ethanol, the great potential of wind and solar hot water, and encouraging examples of the emerging new green economy. The video is a bit long (over an hour) but well worth the time. Let me know what you think.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paulson: Our National Dictator of Finance

$700 billion is a lot of money right? It's important to spend it wisely, right?

The government is making a complete mockery of the bailout oversight Congress supposedly fought so hard to get. Secretary Paulson and his team of ex-Wall Street bankers effectively have a blank check courtesy of the American taxpayer.

So far he has burned through almost half of the TARP money to sink even more cash into AIG (about $40 billion extra -- above and beyond the original $85 billion bailout) and to buy equity shares in failing banks. None of the money has been used to purchase troubled assets.

Last month Paulson announced that he thinks buying shares will be a more effective way to recapitalize banks than buying mortgage backed securities. This was probably a good idea -- the point is that he's done it with zero congressional oversight. Now he's announcing, rather than requesting, that the second half of the bailout money will be pumped into the ailing consumer credit market.

**News alert!! The private debt bubble in America has a huge hole in it and it's deflating fast -- there is no use trying to re-inflate it!!**

That's exactly the kind of thinking that got us into this mess; after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Alan Greenspan revved up the stimulus by slashing interest rates and the cheap money inflated an even bigger bubble in real estate. Our debt to GDP ratio is higher today than it was in 1929. The last thing we need in this country is more consumer debt. We can't borrow our way out of this. We need to accept the recession, end the debt-fuelled spending spree, and invest in a new productive economy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Grand Vision -- 6 Steps Toward a Stronger America

If I could change American society with a stroke of the key pad, then everything I'm about to write would happen exactly as it is described – it’s always fun to dream!

1) TRANSPORT -- The entire American fleet of automobiles needs to be plug in hybrid vehicles designed to run on liquid natural gas or bio-fuel, and the fleet should be drastically reduced in size by lowering demand for cars through massive public investment in local, electrified mass transit, such as light rail systems and streetcars instead of buses.

2) LIQUID FUEL -- Massive investment should be pumped into domestic natural gas production for the hybrids that are on the road, as an interim liquid fuel solution while the electric rail infrastructure is rapidly expanded. Bio-fuels can play a minor role, so long as they derive from cellulosic sources (such as forest waste) that don’t require the cultivation of new land or the misuse of grains.

3) ENERGY -- Of course we also need renewable energy of all kinds: wind and solar in particular, and R and D for new types like tidal. Wind is especially exciting: Lester Brown says we have enough wind generating potential to meet our current domestic electricity demand. Renewable sources of electricity are the long term solution to our energy problem. Electricity is by far the most flexible form of energy we use – it can be generated from a variety of renewable sources and it’s the most versatile form of energy. Electrified transit has to be part of the picture.

4) INCENTIVES -- A completely restructured tax system that creates incentives for people to do the right thing for the environment and discourages people and businesses from wrecking the place. Many (including Al Gore) advocate a carbon tax for economic activities that emit greenhouse gases, and I think that's a good idea. But we also need some government sponsored subsidies for activities such as installing rooftop solar hot water, rainwater harvesting, grid-tied photo-voltaic cells, compact fluorescents, shopping local, buying a hybrid vehicle. We could also lower the speed limit to 55 mph! These measures could dramatically reduce our overall energy demand. Conservation has a huge role to play. We haven’t talked seriously about conservation in America since the 70s, and as a result our energy consumption per capita is twice that of Europe. The good news is that we have a lot of wiggle room to reduce our consumption without sacrificing our basic creature comforts.

5) FOOD -- A brand new government PR campaign aimed at encouraging individual households and neighborhoods to grow their own fruit and veg. To maximize the effectiveness of this campaign, there should be a complimentary, free permaculture education course offered at community colleges throughout the country to teach people about intensive, organic gardening methods. This could save a ton of energy and potentially add to the resilience and security of our nation’s food supply. We need new, 21st century victory gardens! permaculture style.

6) COMMUNITY – One of the greenest things we can do is build strong community wherever we are. Interdependent groups that network, and interact and share are much more resilient to shocks than an individual, and they tend to consume much less per person than isolated households. In a strong community, it is also easier to raise awareness about climate change and fossil fuel depletion while encouraging those around us to respond by shopping less, cycling, sharing, bartering and repairing whenever possible.

**I know most of these suggestions are big picture solutions meant to be implemented at the national level. Obama's election has me waxing patriotic lately. Check out this video for a really cool, local, community-based solution to organize consumers:

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Brief History of the Age of Oil

Peak Moment TV describes the current human condition as follows:

“We are living at a peak moment in human history, a peak of human innovation, information, wealth and health, but we're also at a peak of population and consumption, with rising temperatures and declining resources as a result.”

The fuel that got us to this peak moment is oil. The incredible abundance of energy released when oil is burned has supplied humanity with the fuel necessary to make unprecedented advances in technology, population, wealth, etc. You can see it very clearly if you look at global population growth over the last century. Since 1900, human population has risen from around 1.6 billion to 6.6 billion (this period also corresponds roughly with the age of oil.)

The early industrial revolution was fuelled by coal, but in the late nineteenth century, we transitioned to crude oil. Ecologist Richard Heinberg says this was "like winning the energy lottery" because oil is such a uniquely energy-dense resource, and it is relatively easy to transport through pipelines. It is also about twice as potent as an equal volume of coal. So burning this marvelous stuff effectively increased the carrying capacity of the planet beyond our ability to comprehend at the time. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, we had no way of knowing that burning fossil fuels would lead to such explosive population growth, let alone climate change; the sky was the limit for the new economic growth made possible by burning oil.

However we have known for a long time that crude oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, and geologists have observed repeatedly the bell-shaped curve of oil field production. In fact, back in the 50's an American petroleum geologist accurately predicted that the peak in U.S. crude oil production would occur between 1965 and 1970. In retrospect, we know for a fact that we peaked in 1970 because despite huge investment in exploration and new discoveries like Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, the U.S. has never been able to produce as much oil as it did in 1970. The U.S. currently produces approximately half as much oil as it did in 1970. Consequently, we've gone from being the world's leading oil exporter (pre-peak) to the world's leading oil importer (post-peak).

Of course the impact of this peak was not felt by most Americans because we were able to import oil cheaply from overseas. This supply of imports has been fairly reliable and stable, with the notable exception of the Arab oil embargo of the 70s, which caused a huge price spike, leading to record prices that were not surpassed until earlier this year. Incidentally, we've not only broken the record, we've shattered it completely -- prices increased another 50% after surpassing the inflation-adjusted high of 1980. We hit the record price of $147 a barrel without an embargo or a hostage crisis!! Imagine what could happen to prices if there was a serious supply disruption.

The cause of the price spike over the summer has been debated ad nauseum by all of the experts. Was it supply and demand or was it speculation? This always struck me as a false debate – it was clearly both. But speculation does not start trends; it reinforces existing trends, so I still feel that the market fundamentals of supply and demand were the main forces driving prices up.

Soaring demand from the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) created an extraordinarily tight market before and during the summer of this year. And most oil exporting countries were producing flat out, meaning that they had no spare production capacity. In fact many key non-OPEC producers, such as Mexico, Britain, Norway and possibly Russia have entered an irreversible phase of declining production. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are the only countries in the world with significant spare capacity. This is a basic description of the supply and demand situation during the summer. And while the oil market was tightening, investors were moving loads of capital out of equities and into commodities to protect their assets from inflation. Oil became the commodity of choice for these investors because of the pre-existing trend in the market.

Prices have fallen sharply from their summer peak as demand slackened and recession fears drove speculators out of the market. But at over $60 a barrel, oil is still pricey relative to historic levels; and the recent price drop shows how volatile the market has become over the past 5 years. It is interesting to note that with the exception of the price spike during the embargo of the 70s, the price of a barrel of crude has stayed below $40 (2007 dollars) since the 1870s, and usually hovered around $25 until 2003.

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, oil prices have quadrupled -- rising sharply from around $35 a barrel in 2003 to over $145 a barrel at the peak in July. During this period, the price of oil has risen dramatically and in a non-linear fashion, characterized by huge price swings. The most recent and severe price swing punctuates a worrying trend: increased volatility in the market. This is consistent with the predictions of energy analysts who are concerned about peak oil.

So, when will global oil production peak? Some in the oil industry, including Texas oil men, T. Boone Pickens and Matthew Simmons think it’s already happened; some think it’s happening now; others think it will happen sometime between 2010 and 2030. That covers most of the predictions I’ve seen, although there are a few who don’t believe in the peak oil hypothesis at all (mostly those who have a conflict of interest with honesty, such as OPEC and ExxonMobil).

There are also those who believe that oil is an inexhaustible resource that derives from non-organic sources. I guess, according to them, we should stop calling oil a fossil fuel! The main point is that just as there is a broad scientific consensus that recent climate change is anthropogenic, there is likewise a consensus that peak oil will happen within our lifetime. We can quibble all day long about when it might happen, but it really isn’t important. Just as it isn’t important to predict exactly when we will pass the point of no return with climate change.

The important fact staring us all in the face, but often ignored, is that burning fossil fuels is not sustainable ecologically or economically. Therefore, the energy transition must start now. We are living in a fool’s paradise, and the sooner we begin moving toward fossil fuel independence, the smoother the future will be.

Here is a good overview of peak oil by one of the world's foremost peak oil researchers, Richard Heinberg.

**for more information on peak oil, check out The Oil Drum website. The link is listed in my favorites.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

“Change We Need”—Can Obama Deliver?

Barack Obama is a special leader, with a special opportunity. As he has emphasized with such eloquence in his campaign speeches, this is a defining moment for America and the world. At a moment of tremendous uncertainty around the world, President Elect Obama has risen to power against great odds because he had the audacity to hope.

The response of people around the world to Obama’s hopeful message has been overwhelmingly warm and positive. A day after the election, I watched in awe as Nigerians in the ancestral village of Barack Obama Sr celebrated his son’s historic victory. An Afro-Colombian community on the northern coast of Colombia staged mock elections just so they could cast a symbolic vote for Barack Obama. Children at the school in Indonesia that Obama attended as a youth, watched the returns with eager anticipation. And my personal favorite: In Japan, Obama supporters from across the country, including a few American ex-pats, converged on the town of Obama, Japan for a huge victory party as the U.S. electorate made history. It truly seems that at least for the moment, American voters and onlookers around the world have put cynicism aside and allowed themselves to hope. As Oprah said publicly, “Hope Won!”

This is the first great contribution of Barack Obama – he has made it O.K. to hope again. He has energized a weary people with his enthusiasm and vision. After the duplicity and complicity of the Bush years, even the most die-hard American cynics are starved for something to be hopeful about. When you add the continuing economic crisis, geopolitical tensions over scarce energy resources, and ever more pressing ecological challenges to the picture, it’s clear that the opening decade of the 21st century has not exactly been full of hopeful news.

That is precisely why we need Mr. Obama. The incompetence of George W. Bush bred cynicism, and his fear-mongering tactics paralyzed many Americans. By contrast, Obama’s bold vision for America has inspired hope, and his reassuring, explanatory communication style will mobilize us to create the change we need. Fear paralyzes and hope mobilizes.

For me, this is the great promise of an Obama administration: that his leadership will unlock the collective genius of the American people by engaging citizens on an unprecedented scale to act with a renewed sense of purpose and focus. We cannot afford diversions right now, solving our problems will require ingenuity, foresight, perseverance and sacrifice.

A Time for Action

Given the severity of global resource depletion, climate change, and the pressure of over-population, we are facing an ‘all hands on deck’, ‘all investment capital on deck’ scenario to address these issues. The silver lining of the current economic recession is that there are plenty of idle hands, and the number is growing fast, especially in the construction sector of the economy. But, as you may have gathered from the news lately, in terms of investment capital the outlook is not so sanguine.

At the moment the government is the only entity capable of investing on a scale that could make a difference nationally. And the government has already stretched itself way too thin by funding the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the war in Iraq (total cost is over $500 billion), not to mention the chump change we dropped on the Fannie and Freddie, AIG, and Bear Stearns bail-outs. These bills are truly enormous, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. Treasury is issuing bonds like crazy, piling debt on top of debt in order to stave off financial apocalypse.

Our fiscal situation is grim – no two ways about that. But if we can get out of Iraq, we will save over $100 billion a year and the best case scenario for our illustrious portfolio of toxic mortgage backed assets is that we recover a significant portion of our money. Assuming the best case occurs, maybe our government won’t go bankrupt. But, regardless of what happens in Iraq or with TARP, we have to pass a massive stimulus package aimed at helping the middle class, even if it means maxing out the national credit card. But we don’t just need checks in the mail, we need real investment. I think that if we fail to do this, we could watch a huge portion of the middle class fall into poverty. Such is the severity of the current recession, and such is the inherent vulnerability of our current economy (more on this in future posts).

We are at the front end of a recession that is likely to be lengthy and severe; now would be a great time for our government to invest in a more ecologically sustainable future. One of the first things President Obama will do is send a comprehensive economic stimulus package to Congress. We need this money to go into new national infrastructure projects. Private industry hates taking on projects like this even in the best of times, because it’s difficult to make a profit short term. But during a recession, government funded infrastructure projects are a win-win: they put people to work and they benefit the country long term.

In the 30s the New Deal’s PWA built bridges, canals, and dams. Today, we need an electrified rail network to move people and goods, and we need renewable energy infrastructure. Taken together these projects have the potential to significantly reduce our national demand for fossil fuel derived energy. Some energy experts are calling for a major outlay for renewable energy, particularly wind, so that we can scale these efforts up to a level that will have an impact. How we respond to these ecological constraints is the issue of our time. If we don’t get this right, social security and health care and education won’t matter.

How does this fit with Obama’s vision for America?

To salute Obama’s election, a British newspaper published a collection of Obama’s speeches, beginning in 2004 when he burst onto the national political stage as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In these speeches, Obama consistently outlines his vision for a more unified American society, motivated and focused by the values we share, and mobilized by hope for a better future. He repeatedly emphasizes his commitment to ensuring that government works on behalf of ordinary people. What a novel concept -- a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people!

At present, the speeches exist only as political rhetoric, and I am well aware of how fleeting political promises can be. But in our modern age of excessive corporate power and influence, it’s refreshing to watch a politician address the issues of corporate greed and political corruption – even rhetorically. After all, the words of charismatic leaders can be very powerful. It was the soaring oratory of Martin Luther King that touched off the civil rights movement, and social movements often rally around the words and ideas of a persuasive individual.

Obama’s vision for America is compelling indeed; voters turned out in record numbers to support him. Now it’s time to see what he and his new Democrat-led Congress can do. It will be interesting to see if and/or how his priorities as president differ from his campaign promises. With the specter of the financial crisis still looming and a recession on his hands, something is bound to fall lower on his list of priorities. I personally think it’ll be healthcare, but we’ll see. In his first press conference, Obama indicated that it was high time to set politics aside and start getting things done. Right now it seems that the economy is top priority, and I’m very interested to see what form his economic stimulus package takes. He has talked about investing in renewable energy and re-tooling motown to create green jobs. This would be a good start.

Right now everything is in flux, so there will undoubtedly be many surprises in the coming years. But if Barack Obama can tap further into the reservoir of latent enthusiasm and energy that exists among us, and if his leadership decisions as president reflect the ideals espoused in his great speeches, I believe we may look back at this election as the beginning of a marvelous green revolution in America.

**If you are interested in learning more about a potential Green New Deal, check out this article on the Post Carbon Institute website:

"This recession or depression is appearing at the exact historical moment when action to end our dependence on fossil fuels is required in order to avert the chaotic collapse of the entire human enterprise." --Richard Heinberg

Friday, November 7, 2008

My First Blog Post!!

I'm super excited to finally be blogging! I hope the content on this site is useful and timely. The purpose of this blog is to facilitate an open-ended discussion about the future of our species; our habitat, and our culture. I want to create an online dialogue with readers to address the most pressing challenge of our time, which I feel is summed up well by the phrase on my homepage:

"there are too many of us, using too much stuff too fast."

About This Site

This blog will explore how our collective response to current ecological constraints can build stronger communities, create more ethical economies, and restore balance to our lives. The body of work presented here comprises an ongoing cultural analysis of American life. The main thrust of this analysis is to assess the sustainability of our current life-ways and to highlight more adaptive alternatives to current patterns of resource use. The ethical values underpinning much of this work derive from the deep ecology, voluntary simplicity, and appropriate technology movements.

Because the focus of this site is both an assessment of problems and an exploration of solutions, some posts will simply detail the nature and scale of our environmental challenges. Of the topics discussed in these posts, peak oil and climate change will get the most attention, but I will also cover deforestation and soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, overpopulation, and pollution. However, the majority of my posts will be solution oriented. The chief goal of this site is to empower individual households to take meaningful action in response to the full range of challenges discussed here. So practical solutions will be my central focus.

I believe that the informed action of individual households is a powerful model of change for the larger community. There is great revolutionary potential in the momentum of these changes occurring simultaneously in communities all over the world. This is grassroots social change in action! It all starts with the creation of visible alternative models in the community; the seminal element of every popular revolution in history is activism at the level of the household/local community.

Many useful alternative models of human settlement and resource use already exist. Perhaps the most well known and comprehensive is permaculture design, which emerged in the late 70s with the publication of ‘Permaculture One’ by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture represents a broad-based holistic strategy of achieving ecological sustainability through observant, thoughtful design. It is a system for constructing human habitats that ‘fit’ into the larger ecosystem in every sense.

Other models include natural building, homesteading/self-sufficiency, ecovillage and cohousing settlements, small scale renewable energy, and voluntary simplicity. On the homepage there are links to learn more about each of these topics. Modern information technology has facilitated the rapid spread of these alternatives by enabling communities to exchange ideas and practical knowledge quickly and easily. My goal is for this website to further that amazing diffusion of ideas, so that more people can jump for joy into this lifeboat called utopia.