Is to Be Done

The question of whether technology, politics and economic muscle can sort out the problem is the small question. The big question is about sorting out the human condition. It is the question of how we can deepen our humanity to cope with possible waves of war, famine, disease, and refugees. . . .

amidst the largest and deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Their first round of decisions will have been made by the time you read this book. But whatever policy emerges in the form of cap and trade legislation, taxation, and new regulations on carbon, they are only the first steps, and they will quickly prove to be inadequate to deal with a deteriorating biophysical situation. Emerging climate realities will drive this or the next president, probably sooner rather than later, to more comprehensive measures—as a matter of national and global survival. The problem for President Obama presently is that we are running two deficits with very different time scales, dynamics, and politics. The first, which gets most of our attention, is short-term and has to do with money, credit, and how we create

—Alastair Mcintosh s i write, the president-elect and his advisors are pondering what to do about climate change and account for wealth, which is to say a matter of economics. However difficult, it is probably repairable in a matter of a few years. The second is ecological. It is permanent, in significant ways irreparable, and potentially fatal to civilization. The economy, as Herman Daly has pointed out for decades, is a subsystem of the biosphere, not the other way around. Accordingly, there are short-term solutions to the first deficit that might work for a while, but they will not restore longer-term ecological solvency and will likely make it worse. The fact is that climate destabilization is a steadily—perhaps rapidly—worsening condition with which we will have to contend for a long time to come. University of Chicago geophysicist David Archer puts it this way:

a 2°C warming of the global average is often considered to be a sort of danger limit benchmark. Two degrees C was chosen as a value to at least talk about, because it would be warmer than the Earth has been in millions of years. Because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, 2°C of warming at the atmospheric CO2 peak would settle down to a bit less than i°C, and remain so for thousands of years (Archer, 2009, pp. 146—147).

But if the record of earlier climate conditions holds true in the future, it also means, among other things, a i0-meter sea level rise as well as warmer temperatures for thousands of years. Climate destabilization, in short, is not a solvable problem in a time span meaningful for us. But we do have some control over the eventual size of climatic impacts we've initiated if we reduce emissions of CO2 and other anthropogenic heat-trapping gases to virtually zero within a matter of decades. Assuming that we are successful, by the year 2050, say, we will not have forestalled most of the changes now just beginning, but we will have contained the scope, scale, and duration of the destabilization and created the foundation for a future better than that in prospect.

There is no historical precedent, however, for what we must do if we are to endure. Our biology, and specifically the way we perceive threats, was honed over the ages to respond to direct physical threats posed by predators animal or human. It did not equip us very well to perceive and respond to threats measured in parts per billion that play out over decades, centuries, and millennia. We respond, as noted above, with alacrity to threats that are big, fast, and hairy, and not so quickly or ingeniously to those that are slow, small, subtle, and self-generated. Our understanding of economics was developed in the industrial age and imperfectly accounts for the damage caused to ecosystems and the biosphere, and not at all for the destabilization of climate. Had it been otherwise, we would have known that we were not nearly as rich as we presumed ourselves to be and not nearly as invulnerable as we thought. Our politics are a product of the European Enlightenment and rest on the belief in progress and human improvement, which we now know are not as simple or as unambiguous as we once thought. The political forms of democracy reflect a bedrock commitment to individual rights but exclude the rights of other species and generations unborn. And it is in the political realm that we must find the necessary leverage to begin the considerable task of escaping the trap we've set for ourselves.

The challenge before the president and his successors, accordingly, is first and foremost political, not economic. Our situation calls for the transformation of governance and politics in ways that are somewhat comparable to that in U.S. history between the years of 1776 and 1800. In that time Americans forged the case for independence, fought a revolutionary war, crafted a distinctive political philosophy, established an enduring Constitution, created a nation, organized the first modern democratic government, and invented political parties to make the machinery of governance and democracy work tolerably well. Despite its imperfections regarding slavery and inclusiveness, it stands nonetheless as a stunning historical achievement. The task now is no less daunting, and even more crucial to our prospects. We need a systematic calibration of governance with how the world works as a physical system. Theories of laissez-faire, however useful for short-term wealth creation, have proved to be ecologically ruinous. Henry David Thoreau in our circumstances would have asked what good is a growing economy if you don't have a decent planet to put it on.

Few have even begun to reckon with changes of this magnitude; instead, we place our faith in better technology and incremental changes at the margin of the status quo, hoping to keep everything else as it comfortably is. There is much to be said for better technology and particularly for measured policy changes and doing things piecemeal, mostly because we are often ignorant of the side effects of our actions. Revolutions generally have a dismal history. But in the age of consequences, we have no real choice but to transform our conduct of the public business in at least three ways. First, and most fundamental, as a matter of public policy we must quickly stabilize and then reduce carbon emissions. To do so will require policy changes that put an accurate price on carbon-based fuels and create the incentives necessary to deploy energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies here and around the world on an emergency basis. Success in this effort requires that the president and his successors regard climate policy as the linchpin connecting other issues of economy, security, environment, and equity as parts of a comprehensive system of policies governing energy use and economic development. The details of such a policy were recommended to President Obama's transition team by the Presidential Climate Action Project (www.climateactionproject. com) immediately after the election of 2008, and many of the recommendations subsequently appeared in the president's climate policy. Beyond the policy details, the president will need to establish some mechanism by which to reliably coordinate national policies across federal and state agencies whose missions often conflict with the overriding goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Second, the president must launch a public process to consider long-term changes in our systems of governance, politics, and law. The goal is to create practical recommendations that enable us to anticipate and surmount the challenges ahead and ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that we never again stumble to the brink of global disaster. To that end I propose the appointment of a broadly based presidential commission to consider changes in governance and politics, including the necessity of a second constitutional convention. Neither idea is new. Presidential commissions have long been used as a way to engage thoughtful and distinguished persons in the task of rethinking various aspects of public policy and governance. The Ash Council, for one, laid the groundwork for what eventually became the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And the idea of a new constitutional convention has been proposed by legal scholars as diverse as Sanford Levinson and Larry Sabato, among many others (Levinson, 2006, p. 173; Sabato, 2007, pp. 198-220). In Sabato's words, the founders:

had risked life, limb, fortune, and birthright to revolt against their mother country, determined to stand on principle . . . But they might also have been surprised and disappointed that future generations of Americans would be unable to duplicate their daring and match their creativity when presented with new challenges. (pp. 199-200)

Facing challenges that dwarf any that the founders could have imagined, we should be at least as bold and farsighted as they were. Whether a presidential commission would propose to reform governance by legislation, amendments to the Constitution, a full-scale constitutional convention, or some combination of measures, their charge would be to reform our system of governance to improve democracy and promote deliberation in ways that soon produce wise and well-crafted public policies that accord with ecological realities. Beyond proposals by experts like Levinson, Sabato, and Robert Dahl that aim to make our politics more democratic and efficient, I propose that the Constitution be amended to protect the rights of posterity to life, liberty, and property. The people of Ecuador went still farther, changing their constitution in September 2008 to acknowledge the rights of nature and permit their people to sue on behalf of ecosystems, trees, rivers, and mountains,1 an idea that owes a great deal to Aldo Leopold's 1949 essay on "The Land Ethic" and to Christopher Stone's classic article in 1972 in the Southern California Law Review, "Should Trees Have Standing?" (Stone, 1974). What first appears as "a bit unthinkable" in Stone's words, however, is yet another step in our understanding of rights and obligations due some other person, or in this case, an entity, the web of life.2 And not once in our history has the extension of rights caused the republic to tremble. To the contrary, it has always opened new vistas and greater possibilities, with one potentially fatal exception.

That exception is the rights of personhood presumed granted to corporations by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad decision of 1886. Whether the Court actually made such a grant or not, it is long past time to rein in the power of corporations, for reasons that are patently obvious. "The only legitimate reason for a government to issue a corporate charter," in economist David Korten's words, "is to serve a well-defined public purpose under strict rules of public accountability" (Korten, 2007). That some corporations have got the new religion on energy efficiency or greening their operations or carbon-trading schemes pales beside the fact that none is capable of "voluntarily sacrificing profits to a larger public good," in Korten's words. And with very few exceptions they are incapable of helping us to reduce consumption, promoting public health, increasing equality, cleaning up the airwaves, or restoring a genuine democracy. It is time for this archaic institution to go the way of monarchy and for us to create better and more accountable ways to provision ourselves.

The presidential commission will need to carefully consider other bold ideas. Peter Barnes, for example, has proposed the creation of an Earth Atmospheric Trust based on the recognition that the atmosphere is a public commons (Barnes, 2006; Barnes et al., 2008). Use of the commons as a depository for greenhouse gases would be auctioned, with the proceeds going to a quasi-independent agency and at least partially redistributed back to the public, the owners of the commons. As the cap for emissions was lowered, the Trust would generate increasing revenues to help the public pay for the transition. There are other ideas to better harness and coordinate science with federal policy. One such proposal is to create an "Earth Systems Science Agency" by combining the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey to better collaborate with NASA. The new agency would be "an independent federal agency . . . with direct access to the Congress and Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget" (Schaefer et al., 2008, p. 45). The larger goal is to better align earth systems science with the creation and administration of public policy at the highest level as rapidly as possible.

Further, I propose the creation of a council of elders to advise the president, Congress, and the nation on matters of long-term significance relating to climate.3 The group would be appointed by the president with the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Bar Association, as well as civic, religious, academic, business, philanthropic, and educational groups. It would consist of persons who are distinguished by their accomplishments, wisdom, integrity, and record of public service, not just by their wealth. Their role would be, as the Quakers have it, to speak truth to power, publicly, powerfully, and persistently. The Council of Elders would be given the resources necessary to educate, communicate, commission research, issue annual reports, convene gatherings, engage the global community, and serve as the voice of the powerless, including posterity. Perhaps one day it could merge with a similar body summoned by Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson and including Jimmy Carter, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Beatrice Robinson, and Desmond Tutu into a Global Council of Elders. But at any scale the point is the same: in difficult times ahead we will need to hear the voices of the wisest among us to guide, cajole, admonish, and inspire us along the journey ahead. And those who govern will need their counsel, steadiness, and vision.

Beyond the details of policy and a reformed governing system, the president must resuscitate the role of the president as educator-in-chief using the office in the way Theodore Roosevelt once described as a "bully pulpit." Americans will need to learn a great deal about climate and environmental science in a short time. By skillful communications and the use of the powers of the federal government, the president can help to raise public understanding about climate science to levels necessary to create a constituency for the long haul. The president and others in leadership positions will need as well to build the case for:

• federally financed elections to remove money from the electoral process;

• reforming the Federal Communications Commission to restore the "fair and balanced" standards for use of the public airwaves;

• ending the revolving door between government service and private lobbying;

• desubsidizing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power;

• reducing the Pentagon budget by, say, half to accord with a more modest U.S. world presence in the world and a smarter strategy that aims for security by design for everyone not brute force to protect corporations; and

• making more radical changes that might someday lead a more civilized America to confiscate i00 percent of the profits from making weapons.

As educator-in-chief, the president must help to rebuild our civic intelligence, emphasizing why fairness and decency are fundamental to prosperity and our well-being lest under the duress of hard times we forget who we are. The president must also help to extend our notions of citizenship to include our role as members in the wider community of life and knowledge of why being good citizens on both counts is the bedrock for any durable civilization. The president must help us understand the ties that bind us together and extend our sight to a farther horizon.

The challenge of transformative leadership in the age of consequences, however, does not fall only to the president and those in Washington. Far from it! The greater part of the work will be done—as it always has been—by those in leadership positions in nonprofit organizations, education, philanthropy, media, churches, business, labor, health care, research centers, civic organizations, mayors, governors, state legislators . . . virtually all of us. It is mandatory that we all contribute to the effort to minimize and then eliminate carbon emissions, deploy solar technologies, make the transition to a post-carbon economy, reengage the international community, and come to regard ourselves as trustees for future generations. This is a paradigm shift like no other. It is what philosopher Thomas Berry calls our "Great Work." Like that of earlier times, it will be costly and difficult, but far less so than not doing it at all.

From nearly a half century of work in sustainable and natural systems agriculture, urban design, biomimicry, ecological engineering, green building, biophilic design, solar and wind technology, regenerative forestry, holistic resource management, waste cycling, and ecological restoration, we have the intellectual capital and practical experience necessary to remake the human presence

212 s farther horizons on the Earth. From intrepid social examples such as those in Kerala, Curitiba, Saul Alinsky's community organizing in Chicago, and the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, we know how to build locally based economies that use local resources and local talents to the benefit of local people (McKibben, 1995). Thanks to great educators like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, J. Glenn Gray, Alfred North Whitehead, and Chet Bowers, we have a grasp of the changes in teaching and mind-set necessary to make the transition. And from the most prescient among us, like Wendell Berry, Ivan Illich, and Donella Meadows, we know that fast is sometimes slow, more is sometimes less, growth is sometimes ruinous, and altruism is always the highest form of self-interest. This is to say that we are ready to transform our lives, culture, and prospects, and the time is now!

What does this mean on Main Street? I will end on a personal note. I live in a small Midwestern city powered mostly by coal with a struggling downtown threatened by nearby megamalls. The city is roughly a microcosm of the United States in terms of income distribution, ethnicity, and public problems. Run our likely history fast forward, say, 20 years or more and the town would be in disrepair and seriously impoverished. To avoid that scenario, a group of concerned citizens have recently banded together to create another story. They include the president of Oberlin College, the city manager, the superintendent of schools, the director of the municipal utility, the current and former presidents of the City Council, and many others.

The task before us requires solving four problems. The first is to create a practical vision of post-carbon prosperity. Can we make the transition from coal to efficiency and renewable energy in a way that lays the foundation for a sustainable economy? The second challenge is to develop the financial means to pay for the transition, including the capital costs to implement energy efficiency and to build the new energy system. The third challenge is that of actually building an alternative energy infrastructure in

Oberlin, which means expanding existing businesses or building new ones. The fourth is to structure private choices so that people have a clear incentive to choose efficiency and renewables over inefficiency and fossil fuels and to buy more locally made or grown products.

In 2007, with outside support, the college launched two studies to help clarify our basic energy options. The first, by a Massachusetts energy firm, examined smart ways by which the city could improve efficiency and switch to renewable energy and thereby avoid joining in a risky, long-term commitment to a 1,000-mega-watt coal plant (without the means to sequester carbon) proposed by AMP-Ohio. The second study, specifically on college energy use, examined options for eliminating our coal-fired plant and radically improving energy efficiency to levels now technologically possible and economically profitable. We now have a factual basis on which to build a farsighted energy policy for both the city and the college.4 The college commissioned a third study to explore the feasibility of developing a new green, zero-discharge, carbon-neutral arts block on the east side of the town square, including a substantial upgrade of a performing arts center and a new green hotel.

What might that future look like ten years from now? Imagine, first, picking up an Oberlin phone book or going online and finding perhaps five new companies offering energy services, efficiency upgrades, and solar installations. Imagine a city economy that includes a hundred or more well-paying green energy jobs filled with highly trained young people from Oberlin High School, the vocational school nearby, and the college. Imagine local businesses using a third of the energy they now use but with better lighting and better indoor comfort at a fraction of the cost, with the savings forming the basis for expanded services and profits. Imagine a city that is sprouting photovoltaic (solar electric) systems on rooftops, installed and maintained by local entrepreneurs. Imagine the local utility (Oberlin Municipal Power and

Light) becoming a national leader in improving local efficiency (what is called "demand-side management") while actually lowering energy bills for residents. Imagine the possibility of a new four-star, LEED platinum hotel, conference center, restaurant, and perhaps culinary school as the keystone of a new carbon-neutral, zero-discharge downtown arts district that features great live performances in a new theater and a jazz club featuring student artists from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Imagine a revitalized downtown bustling 24 hours a day with residents, shoppers, students, artists, and visitors who came to experience the buzz of the best small town in the United States that is also the first working model of post-fossil fuel prosperity.

Imagine traveling just outside the city into New Russia township, where dozens of farms form a green belt around the city. In the summer they employ Oberlin teens, providing useful work and training in the practice of sustainable agriculture. Local farms flourish by supplying the college dining service, local restaurants, and the public with organically grown fresh foods. Beyond the green belt there is another forested belt of 10,000 acres that profitably sequesters carbon and provides the basis for a thriving wood products business. Imagine a resilient town economy buffered to a great extent from larger economic problems because it is supplied locally with biofuels, electricity from sunshine and wind, and a large portion of its food. Imagine Oberlin leading in the deployment of new technologies just coming into the market, like plug-in hybrid cars, solar electric systems, and advanced waste-water treatment systems. Imagine hundreds of Oberlin students, equipped with skills, aptitudes, and imaginations fostered in the remaking of the town and the college spreading the revolution across the United States and the world.

Imagine a town, churches, college, and local businesses united in the effort to create the first model of post-carbon prosperity in the United States, at a scale large enough to be nationally instructive but small enough to be both manageable and flexible.

Imagine that model spreading around the United States, cross-fertilizing with hundreds of other examples elsewhere in large cities like Chicago and Seattle, urban neighborhoods, and small towns. If, for a moment, you get very quiet . . . you can feel the transformation going on in neighborhoods, town, and cities all over the United States. It has grown into a worldwide movement that rejects the idea that we are fated to end the human experiment with a bang or a whimper on a scorched and barren Earth. It is the sound of humankind growing to a fuller stature—a transformation just in time.

Solar Power

Solar Power

Start Saving On Your Electricity Bills Using The Power of the Sun And Other Natural Resources!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment