Future Hope column, October 19, 2008
By Ted Glick
“Just because we can’t sell shares in nature doesn’t mean it has no value.” Thomas Friedman
“Big Oil and King Coal may have armies of lobbyists, lawyers, foreign diplomats and even military advisors, but Americans know that we can do better for ourselves, our country, and our fellow humans. As the writer Arundhati Roy says, ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’” Michael Brune
“Reversing global warming will require a World War II level of mobilization. It is the work of tens of millions, not hundreds of thousands. Such a shift will require massive support at the social, cultural, and political levels. And in an increasingly nonwhite nation, that means enlisting the passionate involvement of millions of so-called minorities—as consumers, inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, buzz marketers, voters, and workers.” Van Jones
This is a review of three recently-published books on the climate crisis and what we need to do about it: Thomas L. Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded—Why We Need a Green Revolution and How it Can Renew America,” Michael Brune’s “Coming Clean—Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal,” and Van Jones’ “The Green Collar Economy—How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.”
All three of these authors are in agreement that the human-caused heating up of the earth, caused specifically by the destruction of forests and the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, has brought the world and the USA to a profoundly critical turning point. All agree that we need to move quickly to a world energy system based upon conservation, efficiency and renewable energy so that, in Van Jones’ words, “we can save our ability to survive on the only planetary home we have ever known.” (p. 33)
But although the books are about the same topic, and although the general prescriptions for what is to be done are similar, there are very real differences between them.
Friedman’s book, over twice as long as Brune’s and Jones,’ presents pretty much a top-down, elite perspective on the crisis. This is not surprising given Friedman’s strong support of corporate globalization and, until the rise of massive Iraqi opposition, the Iraq war and occupation. The book deals with “five key problems: the growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricity haves and electricity have-nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss, as plants and animals go extinct at record rates.” (pps. 26-27)
His perspective about what is needed is not small-scale. He calls for “a system of government policies, regulations, research funding, and tax incentives that would stimulate a system for innovating, generating, and deploying clean electrons, energy efficiency, and resource productivity, along with an ethic of conservation. It takes a systemic approach to produce a systemic response. That has to be our strategy.” (p. 199) He goes on to say, “if we can pull this off, it will be the biggest single peacetime project humankind will have ever undertaken.” (p. 209)
One of the more interesting parts of Friedman’s book is his articulation of what can happen by marrying green energy and the internet, what he calls the “Energy Internet.” He describes a whole series of ways in which our homes, cars, workplaces and the consumer goods that use energy would be wired using computers and the instant communications of the internet to continually reduce, as much as possible and minute by minute, our carbon footprint.
Friedman is very strong on innovation and the market. He says, “We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems of the Energy-Climate Era. We can only innovate our way out, and the only way to do that is to mobilize the most effective and prolific system for transformational innovation and commercialization of new products ever created on the face of the earth—the U.S. market place. There is only one thing bigger than Mother Nature and that is Father Profit, and we have not even begun to enlist him in this struggle.” (pps. 243-244)
Given the spectacular downfall of a Wall Street and banking establishment that has been barely regulated over the past decade, I wonder if Friedman sees things any differently now.
It is problematic, also, that Friedman calls for government support for the building of 100 new nuclear plants, for “at a minimum government loan guarantees to relaunch American’s nuclear industry.” (p. 264). It’s not just the issue of what to do with all the radioactive wastes and the threat that nukes represent in an age of terrorism. Nukes are very expensive; why would we want to put money into them when wind farms, concentrated solar plants and widely-distributed solar panels on rooves are a so much better option?
It is even more problematic when Friedman says that our carbon reduction objective is to avoid a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels, or 560 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. This is completely off-target. The U.S.’s preeminent climate scientist, James Hansen, believes that our target has to be to bring CO2 levels down below 350 ppm; it’s at 385 right now. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a relatively conservative though important body, put forward 450 ppm last year in its Fourth Assessment report as a desirable objective.
I’m afraid that Friedman’s commitment to “Father Profit” and continued corporate globalization is obscuring his appreciation of the truth about what’s really needed if we’re one day to see the emergence of a life-affirming, sustainable civilization upon the Earth.
Michael Brune doesn’t take an elitist approach; just the opposite. His book provides a wealth of information about the specifics of the problem we are confronting, what people are already doing about it and ways that new people can get involved. It is very much, as Brune describes it, a “book about action.”
These are the kinds of specifics of the problem that Brune explains:
-peak oil, the reality that we are either at or just about at the high point of oil production worldwide;
-arctic oil and the new frontier of obscenely destructive tar sands oil production;
-oil imperialism in the countries of the Global South;
-the “seductive myth of clean coal,” the latest corporate lie;
-the need to “separate oil and state,” drastically reduce the power of oil and coal over our political process and government;
-the role of major banks in the funding of climate change;
-the role of the World Bank in the funding of climate change and oil imperialism;
-the problem of agrofuels and the potential of biofuels.
Regarding the controversial issue of biofuels, Brune believes they “may have an important role to play in replacing some oil use—provided that at least five conditions are met. They must reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially; not displace food crops and threaten food security for the world’s poor; uphold the integrity of critical ecosystems, particularly in tropical forests; and strengthen the human rights of community farmers and Indigenous people. Most importantly, biofuels should be developed only as part of a broader strategy to reduce fuel consumption and redesign mobility.” (p. 140)
Brune describes the successes of his organization, the Rainforest Action Network, in getting some individual corporations and banks to change their policies in progressive directions. RAN is well-known for being probably the most creative, militant and successful corporate campaign organization in the country. In the book he explains how RAN decides to target specific companies, how they run their campaigns and the victories they have won.
There’s much good information in the book about alternatives to the low-mileage-per-gallon, car-centered U.S. culture—plug-in hybrids, electric cars, public transportation, organized car sharing, and support for bicycling. There’s a chapter about solar and wind, the primary renewable energy alternatives, their potential, what’s already happening to advance them. And there’s a similar kind of chapter about energy efficiency, a critical part of the solution, especially in the immediate short-term as we face the urgent task of dramatic and rapid reductions of our carbon emissions.
My one overall criticism of Brune’s otherwise excellent book is that I did not feel a sufficient sense of urgency about the justice-based, clean energy path which he lays out. One example is where he says that “we can reach 20-30 percent [renewables-based electricity] within a decade.” Compare this with Al Gore’s visionary, and important, proposal that we set a societal objective of getting 100% of our electricity from renewables, particularly wind, solar and geothermal, within 10 years, by 2018.
Van Jones supports Al Gore’s vision in his book. In laying out the “Top Priorities for the Next President,” he calls for him to “fully embrace the agenda of the climate-solutions group 1Sky: 1) create five million green jobs as a part of a plan to conserve 20% of our energy by 2015; 2) freeze climate pollution levels now, then cut them to at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050; and 3) ban the construction of new coal plants that emit global-warming pollution, promoting renewable energy instead. Better yet, the new president should publicly pledge to meet Al Gore’s challenge of making United States [electricity] 100% free of fossil fuels by 2018.”
Jones’ book is different than the other two in a number of respects. One is the primary emphasis that he puts on the centrality of a “green jobs” approach in the green/clean energy revolution. But it’s much more than that.
For Jones “green jobs” means above all else an understanding of the race and class dimensions of U.S. society, the necessity of shifting to a green economy that is inclusive, that brings in those who have been left out or kept at the bottom of the corporatized fossil fuel economy for a long, long time. He says, “any movement that seeks enduring, transformative change must be founded on enduring, transformative principles.” (p. 64) What are those principles? There are three:
-Equal Protection for All: “This ideal is key because, in an ecological crisis, those individuals, families and communities without money and status will always be hit first—and worst.” (p. 66) As we saw three years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit, if you are poor and black in this society, the odds are high that in such a crisis, you will be seen by the powers-that-be as a potential criminal rather than a person in need. “The catastrophe of New Orleans… was the logical, necessary, and inevitable outcome of the kind of politics that both major parties have been promoting for two decades. . . We must embrace, instead, the principle that says: ‘We are all in this together—come what may.’” (pps. 69-70)
-Equal Opportunity for All: “The task at hand… is to win equal opportunity and equal access to the bounty of the green economy, with its manifold positive opportunities. . . It is important that we wrestle with these questions consciously and openly—before the greening of the world’s economies proceeds irretrievably along the same lines as the unjust, unequal, gray economy. . . We need to engage and unleash the genius of all people, at all levels of society. . . We should not accept a world where people of color and low-income people are always first in line for everything bad and then are left to benefit last and least when it comes to anything good.” (pps. 71-73)
-Reverence for All Creation: “Our desire to survive as a species dictates that we become much better stewards—and partners with—the billions of nonhuman species with which we share this planet. . . We cannot continue indefinitely abusing those relationships. We cannot continue to tug at the web of life without tearing a hole in the very fabric of our earthly existence—and eventually falling through that hole ourselves.” (pps. 74-75)
Rooted in these principles, Jones is critical of “multinational corporations (who) benefit from lopsided trade deals that protect capital and copyrights, but fail to protect workers and the environment. Sadly, most of the economic power we need to green the Earth is still in the hands of people with a ‘pillage and pave’ mentality.” (p. 62) He is clear that it is essential that here in the USA and around the world that people “need government on their side—not on their backs. Until national policy stops rewarding the despoilers and the downsizers, no green enterprise or industry will be able to reach its full potential as a creator of U.S. jobs or a healer of ecosystems.” (p. 62)
Jones calls for a broadly-based “Green Growth Alliance” that can build the political power to make these changes, an alliance bringing together labor, social justice activists, environmentalists, students, faith organizations and green businesses. He calls for “more eco-populism, less eco-elitism.” He analyzes the decidedly mixed history of the environmental movement in the USA going back to the late 1800’s; indeed, he reminds/teaches us that before the Europeans arrived in the Americas that the Indigenous peoples “were geniuses at living in harmonic balance with their sister and brother species.” (p. 36).
Jones devotes considerable time reporting on the successes of a number of local efforts to “blaze green pathways to prosperity” in the areas of energy, food, waste, water and transportation. In the final chapter he goes more in-depth into “the government question.” He articulates a detailed agenda for the next President and Congress to dramatically accelerate the green revolution.
Throughout the book Jones makes clear that he considers progressive, eco-oriented businesses as absolutely essential to this overall process: “We are entering an era during which our very survival will demand invention and innovation on a scale never before seen in the history of human civilization. Only the business community has the requisite skills, experience, and capital to meet that need. On that score, neither government nor the nonprofit and voluntary sectors can compete, not even remotely. . . Civic leaders and voters should do all that can be done to help green business leaders succeed. That means, in large part, electing leaders who will pass bills to aid them. We cannot realistically proceed without a strong alliance between the best of the business world—and everyone else.” (p. 86)
It is a good thing that Thomas Friedman has written “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” even if it’s a book more for the elites than the grassroots. In this crisis, we need all hands on deck, and there’s a lot of good information and thinking in this book.
But Brune and Jones, each in their different ways, underline the fact that if we are to succeed, and if we are to make a green revolution that is just and fair, we cannot accept the same kind of top-down, corporate-dominated, race- and class-discriminatory leadership that got us into this mess in the first place.
The process of making a green revolution will be incredibly complicated. Jones alludes to this in an afterword to his book commenting on the McCain/Republican “All of the Above” slogan put forward during their Presidential campaign. “The main defenders of the planet-cooking status quo have largely given up spreading confusion about whether global warming is a real problem. They lost that fight. So their new tactic is to spread confusion about the real solutions. . .” (p. 193) And they have put Obama/the Democrats on the defensive as a result. In the final Presidential debate a few days ago, Obama volunteered the statement that his support of non-existent “clean coal” is an example of how he has stood up for something not popular within his party.
The climate movement, the potential “green growth alliance,” must move on from the November 4th election results to immediately shift gears into a dynamic and relentless campaign over the next six months to ensure that in the first 100 days of the new Presidency and the new Congress, we get strong legislation on climate and energy. We should support the plans of 1Sky (www.1sky.org) for “accountability actions” on November 18th, two weeks after the election at the offices of those elected to the next Congress. We should engage in local activity on December 6th, the International Day of Climate Action (www.globalclimatecampaign.org). We should all support the plans of the student movement for a major Power Shift conference of double-digit thousands in late February in D.C. We should be seriously discussing Gus Speth’s recent call for a “million-person march on Washington early in the new administration.”
193 days left until the end of the first 100 days.
Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network/U.S. Climate Emergency Network. Other writings, including past Future Hope columns since 2000, and contact information for him can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.