There has certainly been a great deal of discussion of carbon taxes and various cap-and-trade and cap-and-auction frameworks among environmentalists. Recently, Nordhaus and Shellenberger used the term “public investment” as another mitigation strategy, a term which seems to refer mostly to research and development.

However, another alternative is direct governmental construction of the various means of transforming economies toward sustainability — what might be called public reconstruction. I thought I’d share three quotes from well-known writers that seem to be moving in this direction.

First, Richard Heinberg recently wrote about the problems of trying to solve both global warming and peak oil:

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The only way to avert massive social chaos and famine as extraction levels decline will be to devote public capital domestically toward the building of low energy infrastructure (e.g., electrified rail networks, trolley lines, wind farms) while moving many people to rural areas and teaching them to farm sustainably. Production and consumption will have to be largely re-localized, essential goods rationed by quota. Basically the same thing will have to happen in the poor nations …

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Some of the policies mentioned (such as the development of renewables and reforms to industrial agriculture) are ones climate activists are hoping to promote indirectly through emissions caps. My analysis suggests that it may be better to champion these policies more directly, and to buttress the argument with depletion data.

James Howard Kunstler, who is often thought of mainly as a gloom-and-doomer, has been very consistent about his alternatives, as in this October 29, 2007, post:

My main message to lecture audiences these days is “… quit putting all your mental energy into propping up car dependency and turn your attention to other tasks such as walkable communities and reviving passenger rail … “

Finally, recently Paul Krugman wrote that:

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… there has been a strong revival of economic populism. Democracy Corps asked those who believe America is on the wrong track to choose phrases that best described their views of what’s gone wrong. The most commonly chosen were “Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington” and “Leaders have forgotten the middle class.”

So it seems to me that in addition to trading and taxing we should also be talking about public reconstruction. My colleague Jonathan M. Feldman defined a similar concept, economic reconstruction, this way:

Economic Reconstruction refers to a process for creating a proactive vision of economic change. The basic idea is that problems in the economy such as deindustrialization, environmental decay, outsourcing, industrial incompetence, poverty and addiction to a permanent war economy are based on the design and organization of economic institutions. Economic reconstruction builds on the ideas of various institutional economists and thinker whose work both critiques existing economic institutions and suggests modes of organizing society differently. Economic reconstruction, however, places much more emphasis on the idea of alternative plans and alternative organization.