There are many things we do not know about the future. But one thing we do know is that business as usual will not continue for much longer. Massive change is inevitable. Will the change come because we move quickly to restructure the economy or because we fail to act and civilization begins to unravel?
Saving civilization will take a massive mobilization, and at wartime speed. The closest analogy is the belated U.S. mobilization during World War II. But unlike that chapter in history, in which one country totally restructured its economy, the Plan B mobilization requires decisive action on a global scale.
On the climate front, official attention has now shifted to negotiating a post-Kyoto protocol to reduce carbon emissions. But that will take years. We need to act now. There is simply not time for years of negotiations and then more years for ratification of another international agreement.
It is time for individual countries to take initiatives on their own. New Zealand is leading the way, having announced in 2007 that it will boost the renewable share of its electricity from 70 percent, mostly hydro and geothermal, to 90 percent by 2025. The country plans to cut per capita carbon emissions from transport in half by 2040. Beyond this, New Zealand plans to expand its forested area by some 250,000 hectares by 2020, ultimately sequestering roughly 1 million tons of carbon per year.
We know from our analysis of global warming, from the accelerating deterioration of the economy’s ecological supports, and from our projections of future resource use in China that the western economic model — the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy — will not last much longer. We need to build a new economy, one that will be powered by renewable sources of energy, that will have a diversified transport system, and that will reuse and recycle everything.
We can describe this new economy in some detail. The question is how to get from here to there before time runs out. Can we reach the political tipping points that will enable us to cut carbon emissions before we reach the ecological tipping points where the melting of the Himalayan glaciers becomes irreversible? Will we be able to halt the deforestation of the Amazon before it dries out, becomes vulnerable to fire, and turns into wasteland?
What if three years from now scientists announced that we have waited too long to cut carbon emissions and that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is irreversible? How would the realization that we are responsible for a coming 23-foot rise in sea level and hundreds of millions of refugees from rising seas affect us? How would it affect our sense of self, our sense of who we are? It could trigger a fracturing of society along generational lines like the more familiar fracturing of societies along racial, religious, and ethnic lines. How will we respond to our children when they ask, “How could you do this to us? How could you leave us facing such chaos?”
As we have seen, a corporate accounting system that left costs off the books drove Enron, one of the largest U.S. corporations, into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, our global economic accounting system that also leaves costs off the books has potentially far more serious consequences.
The key to building a global economy that can sustain economic progress is the creation of an honest market, one that tells the ecological truth. To create an honest market, we need to restructure the tax system by reducing taxes on work and raising them on various environmentally destructive activities to incorporate indirect costs into the market price. If we can get the market to tell the truth, then we can avoid being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that leads to bankruptcy. As Øystein Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea, has observed: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.”
As we contemplate mobilizing to save civilization, we see both similarities and contrasts with the mobilization for World War II. In this earlier case, there was an economic restructuring, but it was temporary. Mobilizing to save civilization, in contrast, requires an enduring economic restructuring.
Still, the U.S. entry into World War II offers an inspiring case study in rapid mobilization. Initially, the United States resisted involvement and responded only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out commitment, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide of war, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three-and-a-half years.
In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced the country’s arms production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant shipping. He added, “Let no man say it cannot be done.”
No one had ever seen such huge arms production numbers. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the world’s largest concentration of industrial power at that time was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million or more cars a year. After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with automobile industry leaders and told them that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals. Initially they wanted to continue making cars and simply add on the production of armaments. What they did not yet know was that the sale of new cars would soon be banned. From early 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States.
In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. Strategic goods — including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar — were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on private consumption of these goods freed up material resources that were vital to the war effort.
The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation’s history — all for military use. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States far exceeded the initial goal of 60,000 planes, turning out a staggering 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard even today to visualize it. Equally impressive, by the end of the war more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 or so that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939.
In her book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how various firms converted. A sparkplug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats, merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts; a toy company was turning out compasses; a corset manufacturer was producing grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armor-piercing shells.
In retrospect, the speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning. The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces. Winston Churchill often quoted his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: “The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”
This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure the economy quickly if convinced of the need to do so. Many people — although not yet the majority — are already convinced of the need for a wholesale economic restructuring. The purpose of my book Plan B 3.0 is to convince more people of this need, helping to tip the balance toward the forces of change and hope.
Originally posted at earthpolicy.org.
Adapted from Chapter 13, “The Great Mobilization,” of Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at earthpolicy.org.
Get Grist in your inbox