Magazines like to tease their readers with headlines that promise answers to seemingly intractable problems. Such seems to be the intent of the lead story of the December 2008 issue of Mother Jones, entitled “How to rescue the economy and save the planet.” Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz hold forth, among others, but I thought that David Roberts, in his article about green jobs, and Mark Schapiro, in his piece about Europe, offered the most concrete ideas about what governments can do — and that, after all, should be our focus.
Al Gore and Bill McKibben made clear the “urgency of now,” but failed, I think, to explain how we can cooperatively act as a society in the face of that urgency. Gore argues:
We are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits, and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes … The survival of the United States as we know it is at risk. And even more — if more should be required — the future of human civilization is at stake.
Bill McKibben persuasively argues that we must move towards 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — and we are now at around 380, which “means that we’ve got to transform the world’s economy far more quickly than we’d hoped.” Put Gore and McKibben together, and it seems to me that they are describing an emergency — and if this is an emergency, then we need some massive government-financed construction programs.
Now, Gore calls for a carbon-free electrical system in 10 years, and McKibben calls for a moratorium on coal plants, a cap on carbon, and an international agreement to implement the first two. As McKibben points out, “These are three of the hardest tasks we’ve even thought about since we took on Hitler.” Earth knows, these two gentlemen have done a lot more than your humble blogger to advance these programs, so I offer my own even harder tasks in the spirit of constructive criticism.
We are now witnessing a shift to a new paradigm, one in which it’s OK to “throw off old habits,” like bashing government, and to consider the “necessity of big changes,” like using the government to engage in, say, the following trillion-dollar-a-year crash program:
- build a new national electric grid, place a solar panel on every roof, and establish a national system of wind farms [PDF] to provide the baseload power that would allow us to shut down all of our coal plants;
- build a national electric freight rail system, a national network of high-speed electric rail, and an elaborate intraurban and suburban-urban transit system, all of which would allow for the eventual elimination of oil use;
- create a national network of local, organic, soil-building farming belts around urban areas, which would eliminate the massive carbon release of the current agricultural system and create a sustainable, healthy society;
- rebuild our urban/suburban areas to be efficient, mixed use, and dense;
- do all of this while “rescuing the economy” by creating a manufacturing renaissance.
This new manufacturing economy would have green jobs and blue-green jobs — let’s call them turquoise jobs. Our Fearless Leader, Dave Roberts, points out in the article “The Truth about Green Jobs,” “If the U.S. wants green manufacturing jobs, it will have to develop industrial policy to keep them here.” Jobs for solar and wind energy will create more jobs than the dirty jobs they replace. Investing in building efficiency would be paid back in three years. Wind turbines need as many parts as cars, and we need training for these green jobs, which could lift millions out of poverty.
And where would the money for all of this come from?
As Joseph Stiglitz points out in his article, “The Seven Deadly Deficits,”
There are only two ways to pay for these investments: raise taxes or cut other expenditures. Upper income Americans can well afford to pay higher taxes … [we have] but one major area in which to cut [spending] — defense … With so much money spent on weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist, there is ample room to increase security at the same time that we cut defense expenditures.
And in “Let’s Go Europe,” Mark Schapiro shows how Europe has actually gotten part of the way there (Note to China: follow Europe, not the U.S.):
[The European] Union has banned substances known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems from an array of consumer goods. It has mandated that materials in most packing, electroincis and even automobiles be recyclable; demanded that manufacturers disclose toxicity data on tens of thousands of chemicals; and imposed increasingly stringent energy standards on businesses and individuals.
The European regulation cost much less than expected, led to world-class exporting industries, and laid the foundation for a clean technology boom. Hey, sounds like a plan — and that’s not such a bad thing. After all, this is what John McCain said in response to a question on Meet the Press about the huge financial bailout: “The role of government is to intervene when a nation is in crisis.” And boy do we have plenty of crises!