Recently Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) posted on Gristmill, wrote in The New Republic, and published a book, all with the aim of offering a better alternative to the mainstream environmental agenda. In my estimation, they made three important points: Americans would respond to a positive vision of the future; global warming can only be solved if, in addition to regulatory policies, we embark on a program of public investment; and the public is quite open to the idea of public investment.

Unfortunately, they didn’t do much with that great start. I think I know why: the central thrust of the conservative movement since Reagan has been to inculcate the idea of “government bad, market good,” and the idea of making a virtue of public investment runs totally counter to a conservative world view. So in order to be politically relevant, N&S look to the two institutions that conservatives and moderates have been able to agree are legitimate sources of public investment: the Pentagon and government-supported R&D.

But that “won’t work,” as N&S declare about the possibility of mitigating global warming with a regulations-only policy framework. To be brief, the Pentagon is part of the problem, not part of the solution; and while R&D is always a good idea, the level of their combined program is only $30 billion per year, which would be great in this political climate but won’t do much for the global climate.

These negatives shouldn’t blind us to their advocacy of a positive vision and a public investment approach. One of the reasons public investment is not discussed more often in the environmental community, much less taken seriously as a policy approach, is that we have what I will call the problem of the political superego: before any such policy can even be considered by the conscious mind, the political superego dismisses it out of hand.

Which leads me to two of my favorite quotes: “The maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis,” spoken by Al Gore at a policy address at NYU in 2006. The other, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, the authors of Our Ecological Footprint: “In today’s materialistic, growth-bound world, the politically acceptable is ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is politically impossible.”

I want to use the phrase “utopian realism” to express this dilemma, and to point to a possible way out of it. The word “realist” means that the policies advocated are a realistic way out of our global crises, from a technical point of view. “Utopian” has two meanings here — first, that the political chances of these policies being implemented seem utopian; but second, that the implementation of these goals could inspire action. (The sociologist Anthony Giddens has also used the term “utopian realism”, in a roughly similar way.)

So I ask you to try to keep your political superego at bay for a few paragraphs, as I lay out a possible positive vision of public investment.

I’ll start with a couple of general ideas.

First, we should be talking about American governments spending on the order of one trillion dollars per year, not 30 billion. And that should be governments in the plural, not the government, as in Washington, D.C., which should be source of funds for local governments that would do most, though not all, of the actual investing. Public investment would usually mean a partnership between private firms and governments.

Second, we should be talking about completely eliminating subsidies and tax breaks as a policy tool, and replacing them with investment by governments; further, those investments would give governments some kind of rights with respect to the investment. As I shall explain, this might often mean that the private owners will share certain property rights with governments, in particular, promises to use their property in a sustainable manner. So, what would a utopian realist agenda look like?

First, governments could simply construct a nationwide renewable energy system. They could do this by allocating a certain amount of money per person in the U.S., and each person or family or building would use their allotment to purchase the solar, wind, and geothermal building systems that they saw fit. Even though the building owners would own the energy systems, their property rights would be shared with governments to the effect that they would have to use their equipment to provide energy in a sustainable manner.

It could be mandated, for instance, that every building would have to have an underground geothermal heat exchange unit that would take care of most of the building’s heating and cooling needs; it could also be mandated that, as in Israel, every building would have to have a solar heating system on its roof, and perhaps solar panels as well. Districts and municipalities could combine some of their funds to create larger solar thermal or wind farms, and could buy into huge wind farms in the Dakotas or solar thermal systems in the Southwest, for instance (and this would include storage).

Once the electricity-generating infrastructure was in place, the cost of electricity would be so much lower than coal or other generating technologies — since there would be no fuel, the cost would basically just be maintenance — that the “market” would shut down most coal plants almost instantly. Like everything else in life, however, there would be a trade-off: cheap electricity would be accompanied by a quota of daily (or monthly) electricity use: each person would have a set of kilowatt-hours per month that they could use, which could be accompanied by a trading system in kilowatt-hours. There is also one part of the energy system that would have to be federalized: the electrical grid.

The second aspect of a public investment agenda would involve the replacement of our automobile-and-airplane-centered transportation system with one based on trains. A high-speed train network would replace air travel within the U.S., and light rail, intercity rail, subways, and bus rapid transit would replace most automobile traffic, with neighborhood electric vehicles bringing people to transit stops or used for short trips. And this transportation network would use clean energy.

Third, governments could work with municipalities to construct “walkable urbanity,” the kinds of city and town centers that make transit efficient and that encourage walking. Governments can most easily change zoning to allow for, or even mandate, the combination of dense residential, commercial, and even clean industrial uses, and governments can work with private developers to build mixed-use centers and zero-energy buildings.

Fourth, governments would mandate that all agricultural products be grown organically, grown without destroying the soil, and grown without damage to other ecosystems such as rivers or the Gulf of Mexico. That would include the banning of factory farms, and banning the importation of food, biofuels, or meat grown in unsustainable ways.

An investment program would go further: governments would begin to buy farm land, particularly farms threatened by development, and sell it to farm co-ops that would have their property rights structured to ensure protection of soil and ecosystems. Governments could also mandate that all land be used sustainably. This could mean a halt to most, if not all, mining operations, and the halt to all deforestation.

Fifth, governments can help develop local manufacturing centers that will do the bulk of the construction required for the first four agenda items. We need local manufacturing in addition to local agriculture. If governments help private firms to start or expand, the property rights of such firms could be changed to require that employees own and control such firms, in order to keep manufacturing inside the country and make them more efficient.

And what about making the rest of the world sustainable? Simply apply this program to each continent or subcontinent, and repeat. Certain global commons, such as the oceans, would have to be controlled internationally, through the UN, with an outright ban on fishing for most of the oceans, for instance.

OK, so how would we pay for all of this? Now that I have proposed the virtual elimination of powerful industries such as coal, oil, automobiles, industrial agriculture and their allied pesticide and fertilizer companies, and the reversal of globalization and suburban sprawl, is there any other power center that I can offend? You betcha!

The resources that would be necessary for the realization of a utopian realist agenda could come from the three most powerful groups in our society: the military, which needs maybe a quarter of its annual $600 billion budget; the wealthiest one or two percent of the population, which could easily pay the taxes they used to pay before Reagan, when they paid a 70 percent top rate; and major corporations, that used to contribute 28 percent of federal revenue, and now only about 8 percent.

Consider the proposals I’ve made as part of the hypothesis that the problems of global warming, peak oil, and ecosystem destruction/mass extinction can be solved, or at least that their worst effects can be prevented, if this positive vision based on governmental investment could be realized. I’ll be elaborating on these points in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned! Next up: why this agenda could create the sort of broad-based progressive coalition that N&S discussed in their essay, “The death of environmentalism“.