Green Will Save Us

I am a huge fan of Van Jones and his “Green for All” message . The man’s a modern day Prometheus. The message he developed, the connection he made between a community in need in his base of Oakland, CA, and the call to slow global warming, an ailing planet, is brilliant. The man deserves a Nobel for that alone. His persistence has paid off. His vision is infectious and hopeful. His common sense attracted serious, hard-headed allies, groups such as the United Steel Workers and the Sierra Club. Leaders were won over. And every other media headline has the phrase “green economy” in it. Those ones in between the other headlines that bespeak financial ruin.

To this day, I believe Van Jones is right on. But it takes the wind out of my sails, personally, whenever I go to a “green economy” event and the lobby is filled with people hawking their wares. It’s a visceral reaction; intellectually, I know they have every reason in the world to care about profits and promote their good work, but inwardly, I resent the reduction to marketing. It’s as if the only reason to save the planet is because we can make it profitable. Do the right thing, and make money too! The enterprise smacks of late night infomercial promises. And maybe now, because the whole world hopes Jones is right, the shine is off the product. It’s no longer the solution of intellectuals but of merchants, investors, professional environmentalists, marketeers. And now that Obama has embraced the vision, distorted enough to include the entire Democratic tent, everybody’s lining up for the green economy gravy train. And it’s a little depressing. Because the planet really is ailing and what does money mean in the face of that?

Take coal. Coal is the dirtiest, yet most abundant fuel on the earth. In the last few years, at the same time many nations in the world have been negotiating a reduction in greenhouse gases, the price of coal has been skyrocketing. So much so that new mines are being explored and old mines are being revamped to crack every last little bit of black rock energy out of the earth. Leave no stone unturned. In West Virginia, they turn over mountain tops. All this in the face of eventual depletion of the resource, not to mention the harms caused by burning coal. This is the raw demand of global economics, something brutal, with its own internal logic. There’s no underlying philosophy here beyond the price of the commodity; sustainability goes right out the window. But the coal industry now takes up the green economy crusade, passes its hat around, and we are forced to make room for the “clean coal” oxymoron. I know many feel it’s an important compromise given the reality of the economics and human nature, but I believe survival on this planet can be a powerfully motivating argument too. Maybe it’s time to start putting things in those stark terms. The problem is, doomsday thinking’s such a downer, and it doesn’t sell well either.

To be fair, the green economy is also the solution of steelworkers, and in this there is sincere reason for hope. Union employees, unlike slick Wall Street (or Madison Avenue or K Street) types, aren’t looking to make a killing, they just want a decent wage to raise families. At an Urban Sustainability Forum (The Green Economy: Economy and Environment Working Hand in Hand) last night, David Foster, Executive Director of the Blue Green Alliance , a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, spoke cogently of the impetus towards this green economy (which, for my money, could also be described as simply “the” economy), retooling the blue collar framework to green ends. A steelworker will make a steel blade that a carpenter builds a turbine structure for. Electricians will connect the power generated to the grid. Voila, wind power at a decent wage.

He expressed his anger at some leaders who, during a recent G20 summit, called for the restructuring of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) without acknowledging that it was the restructuring of these agencies during the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that helped lead the US into its current crisis. These institutions were originally founded after WWII to guide the burgeoning global economy.

“One of the core principles of the (post WWII) Bretton Woods era,” said Foster, “was that ‘poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere’. In the 1980s we went down the path of building a global economy not dedicated to that principle anymore.The role of the IMF and World Bank was to guide the global economy toward policies of full employment and infrastructure development particularly in the developing world, and yet during the years of this so-called Washington Consensus, when Reagan and Thatcher took over, these institutions were turned on their heads, the World Trade Organization was created and the new credo really became ‘prosperity anywhere is a threat to profits everywhere.'”

In the wake of the financial meltdown, he said, “I’m heartened that governments have suddenly rediscovered that free markets aren’t perfect and that these imperfections had better be managed by human beings for human purposes. This understanding is fundamental to getting the emerging green economy to be as good for workers as it must be for the environment.”

Meanwhile, this week at the auto show, Detroit turned out (miraculously, given its funk) some amazing ‘green’ choices. Fuel efficiencies out the gazoo – surely motivated by their own hope for survival. But the media, professionally contrary in its pursuit of the three minute story with dramatic flair, posed the question, with the price of gas so low now, why abandon the SUVs and the Hummers of the bygone Bush era blessings? Detroit is asking itself those questions too, making me so glad they didn’t get more public money than they did. Without the ability to calculate costs or to predict the future past the end of this quarter, Detroit deserves to go the way of the dinosaur fuel it relies upon.

My point is, when the world has changed and is suddenly different, it’s human to grasp for the familiar. The same fixes, the same news bits, the same old economic cycles. And that’s the danger. Because we need to look beyond the economic cycle this time. It’s dangerous if we think the goal of creating the green economy is to restore prosperity, rather than soberly remembering that more properly the hope is that prosperity will be a byproduct of the completely necessary work of restoring our environment.

In an economy, there are winners and losers, all motivated by profits. The ambitious losers come back again and fight another day; it’s a competition, a game. I’m not adverse to making a game of retooling for the future, game theory works marvelously well applied to economics, however, let’s not fool ourselves that this is child’s play. This is not a joke, a dream or a test. This is it, folks. We’re sitting at the adult table now, and it’s time to suck it up and eat our vegetables. To take an interest in our neighbors. To expect to pay the bill.

We’re taught in school and at home to look ahead. We need to see past the next quarter by 100 years, because we can. Anything less is irresponsible. Beyond that, to make it fun, to relieve the stress, then, yes, we make a game of saving the planet, make it as profitable as possible. But the US, China, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and India, all the nations of the earth, have the same vested interest in the outcome. We can’t outcompete each other for profit and still win, or even live to compete another day, so let’s be sure we understand that now, up front. We had better be motivated by something deeper than profits. A green ethos based on respect for the planet and each other, based on a solid intention to improve the lives of all people everywhere, that just might save us from ourselves. But if the only way we’re inclined to save the planet is by making it profitable, then we’re already out of luck.

2009-01-16 06:31:55

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