Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Opportuntity to Create a Sustainable Economy

With all the rush and anxiety to get our economy (and the world economy) moving again we are at risk of losing an opportunity to redesign from the ground up the way the economy works. After all, what good would it be to recreate the same unsustainable, excessively consumer-driven system that we already know has been destroying the ability of the earth’s ecosystems to sustain life? In response to the crisis, American families seem to be following a logical course: reducing spending and personal debt and increasing personal savings. Banks and businesses are doing the same thing, and with good reason. Because so much of Wall Street value turns out to have been based on fraudulent (or at best, highly leveraged) transactions, it is natural for individuals and institutions alike slow down and look twice before leaping back into a “business as usual” scenario.

Unfortunately, as a result, millions of people have lost their jobs. And as the economy stalls and tries to find a new footing, millions more jobs will be lost. The question is, what kind of new jobs will be created for these legions of unemployed to fill? The opportunity before us is to encourage the development of new businesses based on principles of sustainable development. And it is not a small opportunity! Let’s start with energy efficiency. For decades we have been wasting unconscionable amounts of energy in the way we heat and cool our homes, businesses, schools, and public buildings. The market for retrofitting buildings with energy efficiency improvements—from weatherization and lighting to appliances and insulation—is enormous: hundreds of billions of dollars in the US. Some states are taking the lead on this. Vermont has led the way with an “efficiency utility” that has dramatically cut the cost of energy bills for many homes and businesses, and the Maine legislature is now considering two bills that would boost investments in energy efficiency and help underwrite the advancement of a multi-billion dollar efficiency industry, creating many thousands of jobs just within the state of Maine. (See Other states should follow suit, and the federal government should support and encourage these efforts.

The production of electricity is another area where huge strides could be made. Traditional coal, gas, and nuclear power plants are unbelievably inefficient. Even at peak efficiency, only about one third of the embodied energy from the primary fuel source gets converted into electricity. The rest goes up the smokestack or gets released into the environment as waste heat. Then, because of voltage losses in hundreds of miles of power lines, a tenth or more of the electricity that is generated gets lost in transmission. Even more disturbing is the fact that traditional coal and nuke power plants are designed and run at full power, and they burn up fuel day and night at the same rate whether the electricity is being used or not! Needless to say, a revolution in the way we produce and use electricity is urgently needed; and it offers the promise of a new multi-trillion dollar, high-tech industry. There has never been a better time for Washington to reset its priorities and policies on energy.

Other areas with enormous potential are ecosystem restoration and adaptation to the impacts of global warming. Sometimes these are one and the same. For example, the increasingly extreme storms attributed to climate change are overwhelming municipal waste-water and storm-water systems, causing degradation of our lakes, rivers, and coastal areas on a massive scale. The EPA estimates that nearly $400 billion is currently needed to upgrade these systems throughout the US. Other job-creating ecosystem restoration projects include cleaning up toxic sediments in rivers, harbors, and industrial sites, restoring and preserving wildlife habitat, and finding and retrieving abandoned fishing gear in coastal waters and estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Maine. Taken together, these kinds of projects can create many hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide and provide enormous societal benefits such as clean drinking water, swimmable beaches, and revitalized fisheries.

There are many other industries where reforms and re-invention could boost efficiencies and create jobs, including transportation, health care, education, and agriculture. But at the bottom line, we come back to consumer behavior. Under our current system, over-consumption is not only encouraged, it is subsidized by political policies that enable the exploitation of labor and resources by many of our ‘trading partners”--countries whose governments do not care about human rights, justice, fairness, or human dignity. This laissez-faire policy approach, which is so undermining to American values, has also undermined our nation’s ability to provide the basic goods and services upon which we all depend. We have largely exported to other countries the means of production for everything from clothing to electronics, and now we are even at risk of losing our ability to manufacture automobiles and many of our basic foods. Public policy and consumer behavior need to evolve hand in hand. Consumers are already focusing more on necessities, which is natural in a recession. But public policy should quickly adapt to encourage this more conservative form of consumer behavior while raising the bar with market signals to our trading partners to clean up their act. For example, we should stop importing goods and services from third world countries where laborers work in virtual slavery.

Finally, as this enormous restructuring of our economic system takes place, the government must ensure that individual families are not cast into poverty and homelessness, and that the out-of-work workforce is quickly trained to fill the jobs that a new, sustainable economy will create. The challenge is great, but the opportunity is greater. No one likes change: as long as the status quo was reasonably comfortable nothing was going to change. But now that things are in turmoil, now that people are already very uncomfortable—this is the time to seize the moment, making the kind of dramatic changes that were politically impossible before. Now is the time to re-engineer our economy—not by micromanagement and central control, but by using the economic power of our government to absorb much of the shock that threatens the well being of American families, and by crafting policies that encourage industries and consumer behaviors that are sustainable in the long run.

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