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Who Moved Obama’s Win-Win Cheese?

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhether or not you like President Obama or his policy preferences, you have to acknowledge his consistency. Even those with “zero regard” for the president confess, “At least Obama is consistent.”

But not consistently. There is one issue, at least, on which he hasn’t held still, moving in and out like an octopus in a sunken ship. That issue is the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Based on his state of the union address, his current tack is a mixture of avoidance and vague allusion.

Yet Obama’s inconsistency on this issue is nothing to be hypercritical of. In fact, given this recent turn, we might even say, “At least Obama is inconsistent.” As odd as that may sound, it’s better to be inconsistent when you were, at one time, dangerously wrong.

Obama’s rhetoric on the issue has basically been through three phases, which can be categorized and paraphrased as:

  • Integrity phase. “Economic growth is ultimately not sustainable, and that’s becoming more apparent. We need a new economic model that protects the environment, like a steady state economy.” This was the pre-presidential, relatively innocent phase, a distinctive feature of the original Obamanomics.
  • Win-win phase. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Obama ventured onto this slippery slope of win-win rhetoric during the run-up to his re-election.
  • Avoidance phase. “Economic growth is my top priority, and let me elaborate on that… (Oh and by the way, we also have to protect the planet.)” In the state of the union address, this notion of protecting the planet was limited to climate change mitigation, and even this was kept in a separate compartment from growing the economy. No more win-win, growth and environmental protection. In fact, Obama used the word “environment” exactly zero times.

The progression from Obamanomics to the win-win rhetoric, while cynical, was predictable, but what happened next? What caused the President to retreat from win-win, nearly all the way back to a position of environmental irrelevance? After all, win-win has held a central spot on the Politician Bingo card for as long as baby boomers and younger can remember. Furthermore, the shining example of win-win since the late 1980s has been the marriage of economic growth to environmental protection. The wedding of these opposites allowed presidential candidates, from left to right, to appeal to pro-growth and pro-environment interests simultaneously. It didn’t matter that it was a scientifically fallacious shotgun wedding. It worked at the political altar.

Bingo Card

So what happened? Did Obama move his own win-win cheese, or did some speechwriter move it for him? It’s not like we have a trail – say a money trail – that’s easy to follow. With a lot of issues it’s easy to backtrack a politician from his or her mouth all the way back to Big Money. It might be big gun money generating rhetoric like “a good guy with a gun in every school,” or big tobacco money puppeteering, “I believe tobacco is not addictive.” No matter how wrong, such well-endowed rhetoric sticks around long after everybody understands how fallacious it is. Eventually, though, it either goes away or becomes an icon of ridicule.

Yet Obama’s dropping of the win-win rhetoric is different, because there is no money to be had from doing so. Big Money, even its better side in the grant-awarding foundations, will have nothing to do with talk about stabilizing the size of the economy or even slowing the rate of growth. In fact, Little Money doesn’t want much to do with it either. This explains the plethora of organizations promoting various notions of a “new” economy or a “green” economy without coming clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. They’re all chasing the money to keep their boats afloat.

Will the ironies ever cease?

Yet there are two things – both extremely powerful – that clarify the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, loud and clear. One is science; the other is common sense.

The science is sound and sufficient, but it’s not like the libraries are overflowing with it because, again, there’s little money available for such research. Therefore this type of research–ecological macroeconomics we might call it–tends to be swamped out by Big-Monied, “neoclassical” economics with its fallacious theories of perpetual growth. But ecological macroeconomics is there for the reading: theoretical and empirical detail about the trade-off between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, a stable climate, and ecological integrity in general. And we know that Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, has a background in the environmental impacts of economic growth.

So Obama’s relinquishing of the win-win rhetoric probably stems from a mixture of scientific awareness, plain old common sense, and perhaps a sense of pride. Obama recognizes that, with a short two years of presidency remaining, his legacy is ever more on the line. It would be a shame to end up like President Clinton, for example, who is haunted by the inconvenient irony of his own unmitigated and relentless win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Whatever the explanation may be, let’s hope Obama sticks with phase 3, or even comes full circle to phase 1, the more innocent Obamanomics with its recognition that economic growth is unsustainable and increasingly harmful in a century already slated for extinctions, climate change, water supply shocks and the like, all in proportion to our obsession with increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, otherwise known as economic growth.

Let’s also hope he starts using the word “environment” again, prominently and eloquently. This is the 21st century: the environment should be a central feature when assessing and discussing the state of the union. Let’s even hope Obama starts re-connecting the two issues–environment and economy–but this time so publics and policy makers on both sides of the aisle get used to dealing frankly with the trade-off. Only then can we hope for policies that protect the environment, sustain the economy, re-secure the United States, and help to stabilize the international community.

Iraq and the Military-Industrial Complex versus a True Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIraq has been in the news again as civil war looms. President Obama has sent several hundred military advisers to Iraq, perhaps in preparation for Iraq War III. George W. Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq War II and told the American Legion “Slowly but surely, we are helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom.” But the grim fact today is that US actions have achieved the very opposite of what was officially described to the American public as the objective.

A true cost or steady state economy can never be reached in a society consumed with perpetual war, especially warfare over oil. A steady state economy must have its energy supply based on renewable sources like solar and wind. To reach a true cost, steady state economy, the resources currently devoted to waging war must be transformed, and the use of natural resources like oil that are causing wars must be shifted.

Recent developments in Iraq highlight the decades of failure to put in place renewable energy that would have minimized the use of oil in the transportation sector. Trillions of dollars have now been spent on the Iraq II war, where more civilians than soldiers have been killed and billions more will need to be spent caring for severely wounded veterans from these ongoing wars.

A look at news coverage of the situation in Iraq shows what has been really driving the situation. In a June 3, 2013 New York Times article “China is Reaping Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom,” Michael Makovsky, former Defense Department official under the Bush administration, complained that “We lost out. The Chinese had nothing to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”

One year later, the New York Times featured a story about all this “progress” being put in jeopardy with the intense military offensive by extremist insurgents. The president of the oil service company Mediterranean International told the Times “The collapse of Iraq would bring an international oil crisis.”

Solar Panels

An important step towards escaping perpetual warfare over oil. Photo Credit: Michael Mazengarb

To escape from perpetual warfare over oil, I propose that the biggest category of funding in all the world’s military budgets should be for installing rooftop solar energy and wind turbines. These renewable resources are widely available, they do not require large central generating facilities for electricity or refineries and pipelines for oil and natural gas usage, they are tension reducers rather than enhancers, they are essentially waterless technologies, and they do not produce the serious pollution and climate disruption caused by fossil fuels.

The younger generation does not realize that Iraq War I in 1991 caused the largest oil spills in history: on the land, in the sea, and in the air. Massive clouds of oily pollution carried as far away as India. Did stability come as a result? Rather than stability, resentments worsened over the US behavior. Osama bin Laden cited the actions of the United States and transnational oil companies as the reason for his launching the terrorist bombing on 9/11.

While some strong efforts are being made to transform energy economies into a more environmentally sustainable form, particularly in some European nations, vast sums continue to be provided to support wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sums that could have been used for a solar revolution have fundamentally been undermining the movement for renewables.

But there is good news on the solar front. In one month this year, Germany got more than 70% of its electricity from renewable energy. Germany, with 36,000 megawatts (MW) in solar capacity, leads the world. But in 2013, China added at least 11,300 MW, making it second to Germany with 18,300 MW in overall capacity.

Solar power is starting to take off in the United States with about 4,800 MW added in 2013, increasing our total photovoltaic capacity by 65 percent to 12,000 MW–still far behind Germany, which is about the size of Montana.

President Obama supports legislation to deal with global climate disruption and has made some significant gains in transportation fuel economy, but the US is not a leader in bringing electric vehicles run by solar power into widespread use.

The price of rooftop solar has dropped 75 percent in the last five years and flat roofs are available throughout metropolitan areas, so the opportunity for Obama to do a lot more is present, but oil wars in the 20th Century have continued under his administration, even as many top military people worldwide are calling attention to environmentally driven conflicts as being top security threats.

Before launching a war against any country, the United States should take the vegetable test: would we be on the attack if that country’s leading export were carrots or green beans?

The key step to reaching a true cost, steady state economy is to keep the emerging solar revolution going full speed ahead. It is the underpinning of stability–the kind of stability needed for an environmentally sustainable economy.

Obama’s Top Priority Will Intensify Environmental and Social Crises

by Brian Czech

“Our top priority must be to do everything we can to grow our economy and create good, middle-class jobs. That has to be our North Star. That has to drive every decision we make in Washington.”
— Barack Obama, Economic Report of the President, March 2013

If I wasn’t fair I’d quote Obama thusly: “Our top priority must be to do everything we can to grow our economy… That has to be our North Star. That has to drive every decision we make in Washington.” Then I could say, “See how obsessed the president is with economic growth?” I won’t, because clearly Obama’s growth agenda is intended to reduce unemployment. But that doesn’t mean his growth agenda is scientifically sound or sustainable. Quite the contrary. And, while Obama may not be literally obsessed with economic growth, what should we say about a document that mentions “growth” 371 times, “sustainable” 35 times, and “natural resources” 6 times? The glass is not empty, but it’s nowhere close to half full either.

It’s true that the 452-pager is not straight from Obama’s mouth. Most of the document is really the Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, and probably much of that is written by the staffers of the Council rather than CEA members themselves. But you can bet a document like this is vetted like no other! No president will be quoted, pursuant to his own signature, “Our top priority must be to do everything we can to __________,” unless what fills in the blank is indeed the president’s top priority or very nearly it.

What fills in the blank is “grow our economy” (listed firstly) “and create good, middle-class jobs.” Why not just say ” create good, middle-class jobs and reduce the rate of unemployment”? Better yet, why not “stabilize the economy with a high rate of employment that is sustainable for the long run”? This would allow the president to raise desperately needed awareness of limits to growth, the damage caused by further growth, and the sustainable alternative of a steady state economy. But no, growth is truly at the heart of the president’s agenda, as described in more detail by the Council of Economic Advisers. “GDP” is used 197 times; “ecological footprint” not once.

The report does include a chapter called “Climate Change and the Path Toward Sustainable Energy Sources.” This chapter summarizes the science of climate change — cup has some drops — and makes the conventional economic argument that climate change is a “negative externality” of economic activity. It advances the equally conventional approach of “internalizing” this externality and obviating it by replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy. To summarize the position, “The Administration is committed to a comprehensive energy strategy that supports economic and job growth, bolsters energy security, positions the United States to lead the world in clean energy, and addresses the global challenge of climate change.” We may as well demand better dental hygiene and more money from the Tooth Fairy all at once. In a 90% fossil-fueled economy, a top priority of doing “everything we can to grow our economy” is to climate change what it is to biodiversity loss, water shortage, and pollution: a guarantee that it will worsen.

We can’t blame President Obama or the CEA too much. They are, as noted in the report, driven to some degree by the Employment Act of 1946 as amended by the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. That’s exactly why we need the Full and Sustainable Employment Act and its apt acronym, “Full SEA,” to remind us that the “rising tide” to lift all boats was as sustainable as a Ponzi scheme. We’re out of water and boat-building material.

Pursuant to the Full Seas Act, we’ll have an annual Report to the President on Population, Production, Consumption, and Capacity to help monitor how sustainable our economy is. With population data from the Census Bureau and production data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a slim new Bureau of Population and Consumption (BPC) will calculate our ecological footprint to determine how sustainable GDP is. The President will summarize the Report in the annual State of the Union Address. The hope is that one day we can quote something more believable, doable, and laudable:

“Our top priority must be to do everything we can to stabilize our economy and maintain fulfilling jobs for all who need work. This economy has to fit on our planet along with those of other nations, leaving space for other species as well. That has to be our North Star: a steady state economy that is fair, sustainable, healthy and happy.”

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope: A Truth Too Big for Obama

by Brian Czech

BrianCzech“Now, the good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue [climate change] while driving strong economic growth.”

With that sentence from his State of the Union address, President Obama capitulated to paltry cynicism. Alas, he will not be the president who finally comes clean on the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. Obama is now committed to win-win, green-growth rhetoric.

“Look,” as every politician likes to say, our economy is 90% fossil-fueled. Fossil fueling = greenhouse gases = climate change, says science. So expecting “meaningful progress” on climate change “while driving strong economic growth” is like expecting less gun violence while driving strong sales of assault weapons. The linkage between growing the economy — increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate — and spewing more greenhouse gases is even more certain than the link between weapon sales and violence.

Obama’s run down the slippery slope dates back to January 18, 2011, when he issued Executive Order 13563, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” The first stipulation was, “Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation.” Read it fast and it sounds great, but there is a fallacious devil in the details: “Our regulatory system must protect… our environment while promoting economic growth.”

Some of us tried to warn the President, his advisers, and whoever might listen that he had ventured onto a slippery slope. It seemed to begin so innocently. It was, by all accounts, only his first step onto the tantalizing talus, and one foot was yet firmly on the path of truth. He could have pulled himself back like a climber who sensed the danger in time.

But it wasn’t long — halfway between then and now — when Obama started doing the two-step on the slippery slope. That’s when he announced, “I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way. I think that is a false debate.” As if air and water pollution could somehow become “uncoupled” from activities such as agriculture, oil extraction, manufacturing, transportation… you know, just those little sectors that make the whole economy run.

So by January 2012, it would have been difficult for Obama to become the courageous leader we need, the one who tells it like it is about the trade-off we face between economic growth and environmental protection. It would have been difficult, but not impossible. Obama could have gotten off that slope with some skilled slaloming back to the forest where the trees of truth were verily rooted. But no, the vote must have seemed like an elusive leaf, wafting downslope over the talus, and that is the route he chose.

slippery slopeShould we try to get him off that slippery slope of unsustainability? Probably not. He’s out there so far now, sliding downward so fast, that getting him off would be too risky. By “risky,” I mean a tremendous amount of effort could be spent on salvaging the truth for Obama’s legacy. Such effort could easily be for naught, as Obama shows no signs now of propagating the new paradigm of sustainability he once alluded to. He’s uttered the win-win rhetoric one too many times; now he’d have to admit his mistake in addition to explaining the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.

It’s a particular problem for politicians, the inability to admit a mistake. Perhaps it’s less a matter of the politician’s personal propensities and more so a matter of political party pressure. Either way, it’s part of political life. You never admit a mistake. That’s why potential appointees get grilled mercilessly in their confirmation hearings. They are made to look foolish for their faux pas by enemies who know they won’t admit they were wrong. “Were you wrong,” Senator Blah asks Senator Bleh, in a tone of voice devoid of inquiry. Senator Blah is making a statement more than asking a question. Meanwhile Senator Bleh wiggles and waffles as if weapons of mass destruction were hiding in his pants.

Don’t put it past the politician to reinvent terms such as sex, crook, tax, and amnesty. Why, a politician confronted with his own mistaken statement will torture a term like a jock on steroids.

This latter propensity – reinventing words to justify fallacious statements or outright lies – helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable complicity of Al Gore in the ignominious win-win propaganda. Such internalized terminological tinkering must have been what allowed Gore to say with a straight face, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Gore surely knew that perpetually growing population and per capita consumption (the two arms of economic growth) was irreconcilable with environmental protection. But he also feared for his political life, so he probably thought something to the effect, “I can use ‘growing the economy’ in a way that means economic activity, just as trees ‘grow’ in a forest without the forest growing bigger.”

But in the real world, economic growth means more economic activity, more population × consumption, more GDP. It means more greenhouse gas emissions, less biodiversity, and a growing ecological footprint. It certainly doesn’t make for “meaningful progress” on climate change.

Now since even Al Gore, Earth in the Balance and all, went the way of the win-win greenwash, imagine how much less inclined President Obama would be to tell the truth about the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. The inconvenience of this truth must seem too much to bear. Too much to get elected with and — once elected — too much to stay in favor with the party.

So it’s easy enough to empathize with Obama. But that doesn’t make him a great president. No, Obama is shooting down the slippery slope — Farewell Mr. President! — and it’s time to look elsewhere for bona fide 21st-century heroism. It’s time to look for a future president capable of advancing the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth.

The Top Three Actions to Fix the Economy

by Rob Dietz

Fixing the economy will require more than tax code tweaks and stock market peaks.  Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that we need big changes to the way we run things on this planet. Even a partial list of today’s social and environmental problems sounds grim:

  • An unfathomable number of people (2.7 billion) live in poverty, scraping by on less than $2 per day.
  • Our penchant for burning fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere such that scientists are throwing around phrases like “runaway climate change.”
  • National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.
  • The health of forests, grasslands, marshes, oceans, and other wild places is declining, to the point that the planet is experiencing a species extinction crisis.

ResultEnoughIsEnough_Final_LoRess like these arise because the global economy has grown too big for the broader systems that contain it. We have too many people consuming too much stuff. Sure, the engine of economic growth has driven technological advances and provided a dizzying array of consumable goods. But it’s hard to argue that these material benefits outweigh the costs of social breakdown and environmental upheaval.

So we need a systemic change, but what are our options? We could try to increase the size of the planet, or try to find another one that’s habitable. But maybe it would be more prudent to focus on changing the economy. That means shrinking, and then stabilizing, the economy so that it can meet humanity’s needs while conserving and protecting the ecosystems that support life on Earth. The book I wrote with Dan O’Neill, Enough Is Enough, describes policies to do that, but as Peter Victor has noted:

The dilemma for policy makers is that the scope of change required for managing without growth is so great that no democratically elected government could implement the requisite policies without the broad-based consent of the electorate. Even talking about them could make a politician unelectable.

Victor’s statement rings true. For example, in the last U.S. Presidential election, the candidates sparred with each other over who could grow the economy faster and create the most jobs. Suppose that instead of trying to “outgrow” his opponent, President Obama had run on a platform of stabilizing the economy. You can almost hear President Romney’s inaugural address about more oil pipelines, more highways, more consumption, more, more, more. But to the climatologists, conservation biologists, and ecological economists (and even the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers) who are tracking the limits to growth, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to make room for our leaders to discuss economic stabilization. It’s time for them to begin working on an economy that aims for enough instead of always chasing more.

Victor_Managing_wo_GrowthFrom Victor’s quote, we can deduce the top three things we need to do to begin the transition to such an economy.

1. Achieve widespread recognition that our planet is finite and that our economy has to fit within ecological limits. Politicians can’t talk about the limits to growth because most of the electorate remains unaware of the limits. Even with increasing attention paid to climate change and other developing crises, the conversation rarely turns to overconsumption in the economy. Schools are not teaching ecological economics, and people are too distracted by the routines of daily life to pay much attention. We need compelling stories and broad public education to get people discussing critical topics  such as the relationship between environmental and social systems, humanity’s place within nature, and the benefits of a steady-state economy.

2. Provide a set of practical policies for achieving a steady-state economy. All citizens (even the politicians) need to understand what can replace the growth-obsessed policies in use today. As soon as people begin to get a feel for how a well-conceived set of steady-state policies can outperform the obsolete policies of endless growth, politicians will gain the broad-based support they need to overhaul the system. The heart of Enough Is Enough describes this set of policies, but even a quick glance at them confirms Victor’s point: the scope of change required is indeed great. That’s why we need more than just awareness of the problem and a set of policy proposals.

3. Cultivate the will to act. Economic changes won’t materialize on their own. People have to want out of the current system, and they have to demand the transition to a new one. Without such pressure, entrenched elites (in both politics and business) have no incentive to overturn the status quo. There’s an awful lot of networking and organizing to be done.

With these three actions, we can get the economy we want and the planet needs. The unelectable politicians will be the ones who cling to the wishful thinking of perpetual growth. It’s time to take a stand, to put aside the destructive mania for more, and let our lawmakers know that enough really is enough.

Climate Change Trumps Terrorism as Threat to National Security

by Brent Blackwelder

Climate destabilization eclipses all other security threats to human civilization except for a major nuclear war. But the current global economy gives no signals to investors and consumers about the profound implications of climate destabilization on water cycles, agriculture, and humanity’s ability to grow food for seven billion people.

The latest weather disaster, the monster Hurricane Sandy, demonstrated that changing environmental conditions pose a huge threat to U.S. security and stability. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of people in New York and New Jersey face grim conditions, with $50 billion in damages, over 20,000 homeless, and some dying of hypothermia.

The American public, however, has been conditioned to think of national security in terms of terrorist threats. The Washington Post’s veteran Pentagon reporter Greg Jaffe makes the case that the world has never been safer, if security is to be measured by acts of human sabotage and terrorism. Jaffe asserts that according to “most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer… global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Jaffe appropriately criticizes presidential candidates and other politicians for exaggerating the national security threat from terrorism because they want to “cast themselves as potential saviors in an increasingly dangerous world.” During this time, he notes, more U.S. citizens have been crushed to death by furniture and televisions falling on them than have been killed in terrorist attacks (Washington Post 11/4/12).

Despite the way politicians are talking about national security, the reality is that over the past twenty years, national security has become more closely tied to environmental factors such as energy, water, food, and climate disruption. President Clinton’s State Department made the formal acknowledgment that deteriorating environmental conditions can cause conflicts and constitute threats to stability.

Hurricane Sandy comes ashore.

Rampaging global weather disasters pose serious challenges to governments around the world. According to Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, twenty to forty percent of losses from disasters are uninsured. The company says economic losses from climate-related disasters are substantial and rising. One news release states, “Over the last 40 years global insured losses from climate-related disasters have jumped from an annual USD 5 billion to approximately USD 60 billion.” Another news release says that “without further investments in adaptation, climate risks could cost nations up to 19% of their GDP by 2030, with developing countries the most vulnerable.”

To address the root causes we must move from our current global system of cheater economics and casino economics to a true-cost economy. In a true-cost sustainable economy, the climate-disrupting effects of coal and oil would be factored into their prices, and prices would rise beyond most people’s idea of affordability. Ironically, the current method for calculating national economic well-being (GDP), counts the billions spent on fixing storm damages as a plus.

In the presidential debates Romney and Obama competed to see who could be more supportive of oil and gas and who would accelerate the movement of tar sands oil from Canada the fastest. It was as if they were saying, “Let’s see who can generate the most greenhouse gases the fastest and create even more gigantic storms and weather disruptions.”

The extraction of tar sands oil is devastating the homes of native people in Canada and creating a wasteland scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Utilization of such a filthy fuel on the scale now being advocated means “game over for the climate,” according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

At least the victorious President Obama stressed that he wanted more renewable energy, whereas Romney opposed wind power, belittled concerns about climate destabilization, and joked about rising sea levels. Now is the time to demand that Obama fulfills the clean-energy promise he made in his first term. Along the way, we might even alleviate some threats to national security that are already on our shores.

Who Will Get This Economy Going? No One

by Dave Gardner

“We’ve got to get this economy going again!” Unless your cave lacks wifi, cable or satellite, you’ve heard this once or twice in the last four seconds.

Job creation and economic growth dominate the November election in the U.S. — perhaps more than any election in history. Campaign ads for local, state and national candidates all promise jobs. The presidential election this year has become a referendum on who can breathe new life into our economy.

News Flash: Neither presidential candidate will succeed.

What if our unexamined assumptions about the need and possibility of perpetual economic growth are wrong? What if robust economic growth is our civilization’s way of driving off a cliff? What if the planet is incapable of supporting continued increase in global economic throughput?

We’ll excuse almost anything if it happens in the name of jobs. At last count the U.S. Congress had passed 247 anti-environmental measures in its current term. The Republican Party wants to throw environmental regulations overboard because they throttle back the unfettered growth we must have. Across the aisle, many who normally exhibit a stronger environmental ethic are joining the massacre, so strong is the mandate to grow the economy and create jobs. Few, if any, are apologizing for sacrificing environmental protection on the altar of economic growth.

Our Democratic president, who four years ago promised to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, is now approving drilling in the Arctic, promoting hydraulic fracturing, and bragging about his support for fossil fuel exploration in national debates. Climate change has not even been on the table this election year.

Social critic Noam Chomsky observes: “The two major parties both propose that the colossal machine of everyday life in America can not only run indefinitely, but continue expanding, and include ever more member people who trade ever more schwag. All that is required, they say, is twiddling the settings of the machine, to get it back to running smoothly as it did in the good old days before the mystifying crash of 2008. They disagree slightly on which dials to twiddle.”

Politicians are ignoring the cascade of environmental crises, all tied to the huge scale of the human enterprise (population and economy) on the planet:

  • Climate disruption;
  • Species extinctions;
  • Depletion of soil fertility;
  • Collapsing fisheries;
  • Air and water toxification;
  • Fresh water supply crises;
  • Deforestation and desertification.

No question many people are struggling and feeling true pain from this “great recession.” Everyone needs meaningful work, a roof overhead, and a chicken in the pot. Yet throwing our natural world under the bus in an attempt to restore the robust economic growth we knew during the last century is not an intelligent way to secure these things. We ought not burn down the house to keep warm. We must leave for the next generation a world worth inheriting.

What is the business case for destroying the planet?
–Ray Anderson, founder and chair of Interface, Inc.

It’s time to examine the unexamined assumptions, time to re-evaluate our goals, our metrics, and our definitions of success — including what we mean by “progress” and the “American Dream.” They don’t have to mean more stuff. We’ve reached a point where our quest for MORE is detracting from the quality of our lives. It’s time to acknowledge that quality is more important than quantity.

The definition of the American Dream got hijacked.

In my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, calls our society’s infatuation with economic growth a “fetish.” He has many allies in suggesting that GDP growth is a poor measure of life satisfaction. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly tells us growth has become “uneconomic,” meaning its costs outweigh its benefits.

In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world.
–Herman Daly, Former World Bank Economist

The evidence is compelling enough to convert smart people who spent much of their professional lives in pursuit of growth. Commentaries are appearing in major financial and global affairs publications questioning the possibility of perpetual growth. Financial gurus — Jeremy Grantham, Paul B. Farrell, Jeff Rubin, and John Fullerton, to name a few — are warning us we are hitting the wall of resource scarcity.

We are experiencing The End of Growth, as energy expert Richard Heinberg describes in his thought-provoking book. It’s a brutal truth we must face. We have hit peak oil, peak food, peak biodiversity and peak water. We had a good run, but the party’s over. The days of 3% annual GDP growth and ever-increasing material wealth are behind us. Stimulus packages, tax cuts, deficit spending, austerity — it doesn’t matter what we try, we cannot repeal the laws of physics.

 Yet the political climate demands that our representatives and candidates avoid telling us the truth. We don’t want to hear the truth. Recent history tells us we can have it all; that is all we’ve known for the past 300 years. Ronald Reagan swept into office telling us we could and would have more.

There are no limits to growth, because there are no limits of human intelligence, imaginations, and wonder.
–Ronald Reagan

Chomsky offers: “Reality knows we have entered a long-term compressive economic contraction; that there is no way we can persist in the current living arrangement; and that the necessary outcome to avoid immense human suffering can be described as the downscaling and re-localizing of everything we do.”

We need a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr., a true leader with the integrity and courage to tell us the truth, and the charisma to inspire us to follow. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • The pie isn’t getting bigger, and over 7 billion of us want a slice.
  • We do not get to be materially richer next year than we are this year.
  • Our children don’t get to have more money and more stuff than we had.
  • That’s okay, because money and stuff are not what really matter in life.

Not one of the candidates on the ballot for U.S. President is telling us this. The most hopeful sign in the political landscape is a write-in campaign for two steady-state economics candidates, Rob Dietz (editor of the Daly News) and Bill Ryerson (CEO of The Population Institute and President of Population Media Center). The centerpiece of their platform is to transition the U.S. to a steady-state economy. Of course, this ticket is a few hundred million dollars shy of being a contender. And it’s a cold political reality that today no candidate can win election on a platform that respects the laws of physics on a finite planet.

Regardless of whom we elect as the next U.S. President, in four years we’ll still be in the great recession. The only difference between the two major candidates is how much damage we’ll have wreaked on the environment in our futile efforts to restore growth, and how much the rich will profit while we waste precious time.

We can live sustainably, practicing the intergenerational golden rule, and — in so doing — live good and happy lives. But this requires us to recognize growth is no longer delivering the goods, and it can’t continue anyway. It requires that we seek not a growing economy, but a healthy economy — one that is not liquidating the planet’s resources. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can enter the next phase of true human progress.

Dave Gardner’s documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, includes interviews with Brian Czech, Herman Daly, and Peter Victor. The film is being rereleased this week in a special edition. The “Final Cut” is a lean 54 minutes and includes new bonus features, some previously unseen. For more information, visit www.growthbusters.org.

Cheater Economics

by Brent Blackwelder

Cheaters are lurking in the U.S. economy, corrupting what should be an honest game of production, commerce, and trade. “Cheater economics” refers to the corporate welfare system in which corporations are given special tax subsidies and granted access to loopholes for avoiding tax payments. Cheater economics drains away needed tax revenues, leaving governments with the lose-lose choice of running up deficits or reducing services, or both. Often this means cutbacks in environmental, health, and safety protections. Thanks in no small part to the cheaters, the debate on public finance in the United States has shifted to deficits and the need for cuts. To those seeking funds for worthwhile programs, the answer is, “Sorry, we’re broke!”

We must reframe the debate if we wish to eliminate corporate abuses and get serious about establishing a sustainable, steady state economy. And we should start by getting rid of the cheaters.

Some examples of cheater economics are blatant, such as welfare handouts to polluters. It’s bad enough that corporations are allowed to externalize the high costs of their polluting activities, but what’s worse is that taxpayer funds flow to dirty industries (e.g., oil and nuclear reactor companies) in the form of direct handouts and tax loopholes.

Other examples of cheater economics, however, are more subtle. One of the less well-known rip-offs, which benefits the top 1% of income earners, is a taxpayer subsidy for short-term speculation in derivatives. Traders, who can buy and sell complex derivatives in a matter of minutes, are allowed to claim a large portion of the resulting income not as a short-term capital gain, but as a long-term gain (which is taxed at a lower rate). Fortunately, the Senate is looking into this rip-off, and Senator Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan) has introduced legislation to shut it down.

Republicans and Democrats alike have helped set the stage for cheater economics through financial deregulation. Today’s Republican leadership continues to push for deregulation, but prominent Democrats, going back to President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, have also been prime drivers of financial deregulation.

President Obama won the election in 2008 just as the financial system collapsed in response to the deregulatory extravaganza promoted by both Republicans and Democrats. Those that destroyed the financial regulatory framework by repealing effective laws, such as the Glass-Steagall Act of the 1930s, brought on the devastating subprime collapse.

But Obama, as a new President with tremendous support, failed to seize the initiative in 2009. Instead the aggressive right wing brilliantly framed the debate over the size of government, the tax code, and unemployment. Thus the Republican leadership established a strong message in favor of: 1) cutting government spending as the way to deal with the deficit, 2) abolishing EPA’s environmental regulations as the way to relieve unemployment, and 3) maintaining low taxes on the wealthiest 1%, because raising taxes is never the solution.

And now there’s another looming setback to efforts aimed at reining in the cheaters. The IRS, the tax collection arm of government, is being cut, which will seriously limit the agency’s reach when it comes to tracking tax dodgers and overseeing the collection of legitimate tax payments.

The election year offers a prime opportunity to push back against cheater economics by reframing the debate. Let’s start asking who is hijacking the revenue. We are not broke. Simply closing the numerous tax loopholes would bring in more than the $1.2 trillion the Republican leadership has been demanding in budget cuts over the next decade.

Annie Leonard, the creator of the popular Story of Stuff video, is leading the charge to reframe the debate. Her new video, The Story of Broke, calls for a shift in government spending to invest in renewable energy and other industries that can provide jobs and a healthy environment. Another movie, We’re not Broke, is also helping to change the message. This new film, backed by the Tax Justice Network, tells the story of how corporations are dodging taxes and how seven fed-up citizens are working to make the corporations pay their fair share.

Another way to reframe the debate is to showcase the benefits of environmental regulations. A review of the scientific literature on the causes of job loss shows that environmental compliance costs are small. Only among a handful of the big polluting industries are the costs greater than 2%. Furthermore, the health benefits of environmental regulation are enormous.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that safety and environmental regulations are responsible for only 0.1% of job losses. Frank Ackerman’s Poisoned for Pennies provides more details on this story. Despite the facts, various Presidential candidates and the Congressional Republican leadership persist in attributing the loss of jobs to environmental regulations and call for the elimination of the EPA.

So the question to both Republican and Democratic candidates this year should not be, “What are you going to cut or deregulate?” The question should be, “Why aren’t you getting rid of cheater economics?” Now is the time to demand the honest economy we all deserve.

Rescuing Obama from the Slippery Slope

by Brian Czech

One year ago this week I wrote that Barack Obama had finally done it. He had taken the tantalizing trail to a notoriously slippery slope. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he promised, “federal agencies (will) ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth.” In other words, we would have our environmental cake and eat it too, for the sake of economic growth.

For some time after the op-ed, Obama did little to promulgate this win-win rhetoric, and those of us who prefer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth regained some hope. Economic growth is a serious topic, and so is environmental protection. We’d like Obama to come clean and tell it like it is: There is a fundamental trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.

Maybe the truth about economic growth and environmental protection doesn’t make for an easier choice between the two, but what kind of a choice can be borne of a lie?

Now it’s fairly reasonable for Obama to say, as he did last month in a speech to EPA employees, that “Safeguarding our environment is also about strengthening the economy.” There is no doubt that safeguarding our environment protects the strength of the economy. But Obama’s exact wording is a stretch because strengthening usually connotes growing the economy. That cannot be done while truly safeguarding the environment. Economic growth — increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate — does and must have a growing environmental impact. That’s Ecological Economics 101.

Obama fell further down the slippery slope with “I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way. I think that is a false debate.” But I don’t buy the notion that Obama is that oblivious to the truth. Surely he knows our skies, rivers and oceans gradually fill with the byproducts of production and consumption. But as with all politicians, he also knows that the average voter doesn’t detect the dulling of the skies or the graying of the waters during the course of one electoral cycle. So he hunkers down on the slippery slope, content in avoiding the attention of a really inconvenient truth.

Once in awhile, though, a spotlight shines on the slope, such as in Sunday’s Washington Post article by Juliet Eilperin, “Obama administration slows environmental rules as it weighs political cost.” Rules aimed at curbing auto emissions are on hold, as is a proposal to regulate soot, because of the toll these and other environmental protections would take from the rate of economic growth. In other words, the administration knows darn-tootin’ well that bona fide environmental “safeguarding” can’t be reconciled with economic growth. They also suspect that the political cost of prioritizing environmental protection over economic growth at this point in history is more than they are willing to pay.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, this prioritizing of economic growth over environmental protection in a world of endangered species, oil spills, and climate change, if only presidents who model themselves after Ol’ Abe Lincoln were at least forthright about the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. Why can’t Obama just come out and say, “I realize that the #1 concern among Americans today is jobs. That’s why I’m doing all I can to help grow the economy. And I’ll continue to do this, as long as we realize that growing the economy does have a growing impact on the environment too. So while we’re growing the economy today, we must turn some of our attention to how we can transition tomorrow to a stable economy, or what they call a ‘steady state economy.’ That’s the vision of the future, and the sooner we explore it, the more prepared we’ll be.” Or something like that? At least then we could respect him for telling the truth on economic growth and environmental protection.

Would that really get him unelected? Who says? How do they know?

But the truth-telling onus is not entirely on Obama. Frankly, I think we should be far more disappointed with the many “environmental” organizations and agencies who themselves pollute the internet and airwaves with the win-win wimpsmanship. They’re the ones who could empower Obama to tell it like it is without being so worried about political consequences. As it is now, it’s hard to blame Obama for fearing the role of Lone Ranger in a wilderness of intellectual laziness.

It’s too late in this article to elaborate on these organizations and what their problems are, but count on it for another day in the Daly News.

Technological Progress for Dummies, Part II

More than One Kind of Nut

by Brian Czech

“Failure breeds success,” I hope some famous person once said. For I have failed to accomplish the goal set out in Part 1 of Technological Progress for Dummies. The goal was to summarize an article — in plain language and in less than a thousand words — that described why technological progress cannot reconcile the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I found I couldn’t do it without several thousand words, and too much plain language is as difficult to digest as a dollop of jargon. As for the article itself, it’s long and full of jargon.

And now for the successful offspring of such abject failure. (Drumroll, please.) I can successfully say that most folks have tightened a nut or two.

In the old days you would have used a monkey wrench. Then a tidbit of technological progress happened and you had a box wrench, which allowed you to tighten that nut a tad more efficiently. When they finally invented the ratcheting socket wrench, you were really in business. It seemed like you could tighten far more nuts with the same amount of elbow grease; five nuts to one when you threw in some coffee!

Such is the basic pattern of technological progress. Invention and innovation allow you to do more with less. Well ok, maybe not actually “less.” If you tighten five nuts to one, you’re prone to using five times the nuts. And the ratchet set is something you have to add to the toolbox. But you can definitely tighten more nuts without working harder, so in workaday parlance, you’re doing “more with less.” If you want to get technical about it, you could say you’re producing more output per unit input. Your productivity is increasing.

For the economy as a whole, productivity increases with technological progress. It’s an impressive process; nearly awesome at some points in history. It makes us proud of the human race, boosts our confidence, makes us think the sky is the limit. Many are even led to believe we can grow the economy without impacting the environment. After all, if we can do more with less, how about doing more with a lot less?

And why stop there? If we invent and innovate enough, maybe we can do more with no more! We can just keep growing GDP without using any more wood, water, minerals, petroleum — natural resources in general. No more steel, nuts, or tools. No more stuff, no more energy.

It’s reminiscent of the alcoholic announcing, “I’m not drinkin’ any more, but just as much.” We may not be using more natural resources to produce more goods and services, but if we’re still using the same amount we can’t really say we’ve stopped impacting the environment, can we? Especially since we had to dig deeper for the minerals, drill deeper for the petroleum, etc. And notice we haven’t even mentioned the flow of pollution (and won’t, to keep things simpler.)

So it’s time for the really big guns. Now we’re going to produce more, not only with way less, not only with no more, but with nothing at all! We’ll just beam it all up. Why not? After all, research and development expenditures in the United States alone are some $300 billion per year. That oughta buy us out of any problem, including this one! That’s why economists like Robert L. Bradley, Jr. announce, “Natural resources originate from the mind, not from the ground, and therefore are not depletable.”

Now if you’re a scientist worth your stellarator, you can see through the subterfuge in a nanosecond. The first law of thermodynamics tells you there’s no producing something from nothing. You can’t even get perfectly efficient with the resources you do use, because that would violate the second law of thermodynamics. So there’s a limit to technological progress — doing more with less — as it applies to the full collection of materials at our disposal along with the energy we receive from the sun.

The problem remains, however, that for purposes of plain language, the laws of thermodynamics and even the phrase “laws of thermodynamics” don’t cut it. Only in plain language can we make a difference in everyday life and public policy. That’s why President Obama signed the Plain Language Act of 2010.

So here’s some more nuts and bolts. Remember how doing “more with less” leads to five times the nuts? Tell your local Robert L. Bradley, Jr. that we shall all refuse to tighten five times the nuts without five times the bolts and washers, along with additional material to be tightened. And if we’re assembling things for market — quite necessary for GDP growth — we’re now assembling more of them. That leads to more transportation, storage, and retail services. More electricity all around, too, along with the wiring, fuses, bulbs and such. Plus that power plant in the background, with all the nuts and bolts therein.

Now with this type of expansion going on everywhere that the proverbial nuts are tightened (all around the world, in other words), information services help to orchestrate it all. Everybody better have a computer, cell phone, and Twitter feed. Operating at this level, you may as well start advertising, too. Banking, insurance, and other service sectors will also play an expanded role.

Notice that, in addition to not even mentioning the flow of pollution, we also haven’t mentioned the agricultural sector — farming in plain language. But of course we’re going to need plenty of it, to feed all the folks with the manufacturing and service jobs. With all the food they’ll have to produce, they’ll need cell phones and GPS units in the air-conditioned cabs of those 30-foot-wide combines. And plenty of extra nuts and bolts.

So that old ’90’s notion that we could keep growing the “Information Economy” without using more resources — and without any more environmental impact — was like a highly productive conversion of grass into bullpies. All that information, which was supposed to beam us up to Shangri-La, was nothing if not tied into the regular old economy down on the farm and everywhere else in the Land of Nuts and Bolts. The computer was nothing more than the ratcheting socket wrench of the IT sector, which was distributing marching orders for an ever-larger ecological footprint.

At a thousand words now, I’m thinking this is all the success my failure can breed. Enough for one column at least. Someday I may also find a way to convert that earlier-mentioned article, condensing concepts such as niche breadth, trophic levels, and economies of scale into plain language of a thousand words or less, refuting the macroeconomic environmental Kuznets curve and solving the Jevons paradox (which really isn’t so paradoxical) in the process.

But it’ll drive some nuts. In fact, many more nuts, albeit more efficiently.