The climate movement has been going about its business fighting coal plants, promoting wind energy, and working for comprehensive carbon reduction policies. Suddenly, there’s a new development.
Yesterday, a New York Times article highlighted the challenges of development and the pollution it has caused in China. We imagine that the unprecedented growth China is going through is desperately valued by its citizens, and feel brutal when we argue that the industrialization fueling this growth is unacceptable. The opportunity is valued, quite desperately, but at the same it does not reach everyone, and the pollution is killing hundreds of thousands annually.
I attended a program called the Global Leaders Institute in New York City in July. The program was sponsored by Goldman Sachs and the Institute for International Education, and brought 75 students from around the world together for a week of trainings, speakers, discussions and actions around the broad frame of global leadership. I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with a number of students from China. One student shared the widespread poverty, illiteracy, and degradation of ecological services in western rural areas as good jobs were displaced to giant coastal cities. Another mentioned how sustainable community development was nearly impossible because local social organization was almost unknown and strongly suppressed if ever in conflict with the interests of the nation. And finally, I came to the discussion with one girl who, voice almost breaking, told of the incredible toll in lives and livelihoods that industrialization was taking on the country – with deaths from asthma and water pollution, sweatshop conditions splintering families and devouring days, and the pursuit of progress shoving aside whole neighborhoods, local economies, and community spaces for skyscrapers and factories and ever more coal-burning power plants.
We have argued that China will not stop the mad course of industrialization, but we should ask who will not stop. Is it the growth percentage-obsessed public officials who define the progress of the country or the hopes and dreams of the people who simply want lives that are actually better. Whose development is it anyway?
If you think I’m going to launch into a tirade against the unresponsiveness of a communist government to the needs of the people and laud the advances we’ve won with democracy, you will probably be as surprised as my Chinese friend was by what I say next:
Here in America, we also have working class people facing financial insecurity, social instability, and loss of community because their jobs have moved elsewhere. Here in America, we also have poor communities being surrounded by polluting energy facilities that give them elevated risk of asthma, cancer, and more. We still have millions of citizens being sickened by their food, whether by pesticides, or hormones, or simply the incredible glut of unwanted calories bringing diabetes, heart disease, and stress. Here in America, millions of people feel stuck in jobs they dislike simply for the paycheck, we have millions stuck at the end of a cul-de-sac with little knowledge of their neighbors, and we still have millions so alienated from their governance that they never make their voice heard. Here in America, the economy keeps roaring, turning out ever more consumer goods (and land-fill filler) and wealth for large corporations while yielding less and less of relevance to the average American. A few million homeless people walk the streets of our cities, farmers across the country are losing their land, and inner city high-school children have pretty high chances of going nowhere.
My friend from China was stunned when I told her this, because this is America, the land of dreams and capitalism; the place that has been developed. It’s funny how our internal problems rarely get told overseas. She then said something to the effect of: ‘if that’s what success in development means, I think we need something different.”
It’s time for the new development.
Since before the drafting of Kyoto, nations have been arguing over who should bear the cost for fighting global warming, and change-averse politicians have been frightening the public by posing action on the climate crisis as a grave risk to our economy. Even the activists are arguing that climate solutions will simply cost less than doing nothing at all – as cited in the Stern Report. Western climate leaders despair right along side global warming deniers that action here will do little since countries like China and India are growing so rapidly, and “will not accept limits on carbon emissions so that they can pursue economic growth”. Politicians and fossil energy lobbies repeatedly remind us that any gains that America might make will be wiped out in this industrial juggernaut, and therefore we have no reason to sacrifice and reduce our competitiveness if no one else will join.
I fear that even within the climate movement, we have accepted the assumption – that fossil energy use is directly connected to economic development, and thus that cutting carbon means a sacrifice. We levy policies which raise costs to energy producers, forcing them to reduce pollution by acquiring new technology or cutting down on production. Our rallying cries have been solar panels and hybrids: solutions that at least currently are not cost-competitive with the status quo, and unavailable to the global poor. When we push for higher fuel efficiency standards, we combat protests that it will raise costs not with the obvious argument that it will in fact increase economic competitiveness with Japanese companies, create jobs, and strengthen the economy, but with tired old argument that to avoid global catastrophe, it needs to be done. We see the solutions as limitations that the government must enforce upon us instead of an empowering opportunity to build something new. It’s almost as if we want it to be a sacrifice.
In a post on Sunday, Richard Graves noted that;
“China has become the environmental sacrifice zone for the global economy. We offshore jobs, factories, and pollution. The combination of an enormous workforce in poverty, a government willing to suppress dissent, and the availability of enormous natural resources has proved irresistible to globalized and highly mobile multi-national corporations. However, the combination of corrupt local officials, weak regulations, and the fast-tracking of industry has allowed every ‘low-road’ corporation that can save a buck in return for dumping toxic waste, venting poison into the air, or contaminating the bodies of its workers to find a home.”
It should be clear to us that our supposed ‘higher environmental concern’ has not prevented us from being the world’s highest emitters of carbon (China is on the verge of surpassing the US, but they have 4 times as many people), nor has it prevented us from expressing our ‘environmental concern’ by shipping much of our carbon and pollution-intensive industry to other. Yet in doing so, we’ve done away with most of our industrial economy along with some of the dirty industry – and as the New York Times makes clear, the Chinese are not necessarily doing well either.
We’re dealing with global warming. Carbon emitted in China is just the same as carbon emitted in the US, and in their frantic attempt to ‘catch up’ to us, the Chinese are also not taking the time to build more efficient energy systems. It’s time to end the debate of sustainability competing with development – that idea applied narrowly at the US-scale largely contributed to the current Chinese carbon boom. It’s time to forge a development paradigm that actually works: one that empowers people, strengthens communities, and sustains the world.
Some people have used sustainable development to mean destroying things slowly enough that they can recover. Forget it, that’s not what I’m talking about. In the climate context, that means slowing emissions – careful exploitation. It also means cutting growth in China. The new development is not about limiting growth, it’s about redefining prosperity.
Most environmentalists know about CFLs. You pay several dollars for a light-bulb instead of under a buck, but the energy savings it gets you in a year can mean $30 back in your pocket – while lasting 10 times as long so you don’t need new bulbs. A sacrifice? Now if they did full recycling of the mercury, metals, and glass in that light-bulb after it burned out, you’d avoid the chance of toxic pollution and landfill waste, and manufacturing would cost less than if they had to make the metal from virgin ore itself – the next generation of bulbs could be cheaper. But, you might argue, we don’t have an efficient collection system for old CFLs – it would cost too much to ship them back to the manufacturer. That might be true now, but if so, we’re missing an opportunity – why not have a community-wide collection facility for CFLs and other old appliances where they could be shipped en masse to be re-manufactured?
Is that too small scale? Not going to change the world? Let’s scale up.
A few colleges and universities have set up sustainability revolving funds. These innovative financing mechanisms allow colleges to put money into energy efficiency, renewable energy, and smart design systems, and use the cost savings or revenue to repay the fund, growing it into the future. Harvard’s Green Campus Loan Fund is the largest and most well-known on college campuses, with $12 million. Here’s more news, Harvard’s fund gets an annual Return On Investment (ROI) of around 27% – the economic opportunities in efficiency and other sustainability changes are so lucrative that it yields over twice what either the stock market or Harvard’s own professionally managed endowment can achieve. A sacrifice?
The most important aspect of such a creative strategy is making sure that it’s applicable everywhere, and in the case of revolving funds, I’ve been personally involved. While I can’t boast the remarkable scale of Harvard’s fund, or it’s history, I and a couple friends did set up a revolving fund, currently at $67,000, at Macalester College in 2006 while I was a freshman. Because community participation and engagement is so crucial in the new development, it was key to us that students created the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF), are significant partners in its management (the consensus-based CERF Board has 2 students of 5 members, the other three of whom are close allies among the faculty, administration, and alumni. Working with Facilities Management, academic departments, and other campus entities, students develop many of the projects and thus use CERF to both advance campus sustainability, engage in hands-on project development in climate solutions, and share their stories with others. My friend Asa Diebolt and I wrote a manual: Creating a Campus Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund to help other students, staff, and community members set up similar funds on their own. We’re still awaiting return results on our first projects – estimates are all between 20% and over 100% ROIs for various initial project – which will allow us promote expansion of the fund to campus administrators. The system has been met with cautious optimism: it sounds impossible that we could advance climate solutions, avoid spending valuable student time on onerous grants or fund raising, generate incredible hands on academic opportunities, and empower efficient long-term campus planning all while saving money, but that’s exactly how it works.
Achieving many things at once by doing it right to begin with is a key piece of the new development. It may take more forethought, planning, initial investment, and participation from the entire community, but it pays off big-time. It often means re-evaluating problems from entirely new scales. We started with efficiency in Macalester, now we’re moving to the community level. Instead of seeing each homeowner individually, our student group is working with non-profits and community leaders across the Twin Cities to mobilize neighborhood groups to pursue efficiency as a whole. Doing so dramatically drops the price since we’re buying in bulk, and cuts energy usage in an entire area, reducing the overall energy infrastructure needed for that area. Furthermore, using revolving-fund mechanisms, citizens can see investments in their own homes as simply parallel to the stock market – just significantly more profitable, and communities can amass their own capital to receive significant economic returns simply from their lower energy bills. We’re also experimenting with ways that wealthier citizens can participate as investors to lower income communities – providing the capital investment in efficiency that is paid off simply by lower energy bills (the residents pay no more than under business as usual). These systems are all in very early stages of development, but they offer opportunities for everyday people to take control of their own carbon footprint, energy use, and economic situation by working together in innovative ways. Our student innovators and non-profit experts have all the efficiency expertise we need to make this happen – the capital is in the neighborhoods. There’s little to waste on vanity projects, but enough to invest in lucrative ones. We don’t need subsidies – though we take advantage of whatever is available, we don’t need large energy companies, though we use their assistance on audits and such, and we don’t need government regulations – though we’re very active on driving them so more people are encouraged to step forward.
This is not a developing country, but the clean energy industry is a huge source of development. On our small farms in rural Minnesota, farmers are fighting the loss of the small farm economy and the agribusiness takeover by signing up wind energy leases and joining partnerships like Community-Based Energy Development to own their own wind turbines. With small loans and support from larger investors, small farmers are owning a stake of the new energy future. Similarly, as old industries like the St. Paul Ford Plant pull out, labor groups, concerned citizens, and the leaders of tomorrow pull together new plans for eco-industry centers and mass-transit, mixed-use communities, we’re looking for ways to cut fossil fuels, save the economic, social, and environmental costs of driving, provide jobs in an innovative clean industry sector, develop locally-owned renewable energy sources, and build the types of communities that pull neighbors together to generate yet more innovative ideas for the community and those around it. You ask who’s doing this: it’s students working with labor leaders working with non-profit experts working with neighborhood residents working with small businesses working with local politicians. We’re a community building a new future for ourselves: together we figure it out.
Still too small? Just some crazy anomaly out in the Twin Cities as some of my youth climate leaders like to remind me. Not at all. Do a bunch of research in your own community – you’ll probably find a bunch of folks (possibly scattered, hopefully coordinated) trying to do the same thing. Then, check out the national and global scene. The Apollo Alliance is pushing for a massive public investment in the clean energy sector to create 3 million new jobs, end our oil addiction and confront global warming. As UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kammen points out, investments in renewable energy create several times more jobs than equivalent investments in fossil fuels. And as Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center puts it, this economic activity can mean “Green Jobs, not jails” for low-income youth in America’s cities. A sacrifice?
When we contract for a large scale wind turbine for community-owned generation in Minnesota, we’re not buying from an American producer. The turbine will come from Spain, Germany, Denmark, or most recently India. That’s right, our most common provider of large scale wind turbines is now Suzlon, an Indian company that is building them in India and exporting globally. The US is falling very far behind. In Kenya, solar panels were more popular than fossil energy based grid interconnection for several years, until a government subsidized program made grid interconnection cheaper – this is Kenya, a poor third world country with tons of sun where solar power beats out fossil energy as more accessible to rural farmers.
As I’ve been reminded time and time again, there’s at least one carbon sector I can’t see any opportunity in: air travel. There just isn’t much of a way to get people around the world in any reasonable time without fossil-based jet fuel. Someone else will have to figure that one out – other than the obvious one of vacaioning closer and doing business electronically in the first place. Otherwise, the possibilities just spring up wherever you look – an the technology is advanced enough that we can get a huge start.
All these cases are driven by innovative individuals working together to create inspiring solutions that improve their lives and the lives of those around them, make sustainability the centerpiece of the new economy, and empower yet more people to get involved. Instead of pursuing growth in a way that ignores the communities, individuals, and ecosystems around them, these systems build prosperity by collectively enhancing them all. It’s truly an ecological way of looking at our economy and our lives. Note that it’s also not passive – it can’t really be done solely by large governments imposing regulations (although that can help) or by corporations coming up with new technologies to sell (though that can also help). Development that yields prosperity builds opportunities in a way that enhance, not degrade, the communities and contexts in which they are situated. This kind of economy requires active participation and engagement by the people and ecosystems that support them – the new society runs on people power. We can imagine CAFE and RPS and Energy Star standards all we want – it’s never going to happen across society and the entire world unless it becomes a part of our communities, our economies, and our lives.
Without a new development, achieving a climate neutral America as Jessie Jenkins argued in a recent post (and Carlos Rymer supported in a previous one) will be impossibly expensive and ultimately self-defeating – we would literally mitigate ourselves out of progress as do-nothing politicians have feared. As frightful as that sounds, a failure to dodge the climatic tipping points could be even worse. In either case, the result would be ruinous.
Without a new development, solving the climate crisis will be disastrous. With one, it will be not only cost-effective, but profitable. It will require investment in a new society unlike anything the world has ever seen, but it will pay dividends in economic opportunity, job creation, global peace, public health, stronger communities, human rights, and local self-determination beyond anything we can imagine. This is the point where we redefine progress, and build an economic paradigm that actually fulfills everyday people and sustains the world.
Make sure to take ownership of the new development. You can’t wait around for it – we are all the ones who will pursue it. The opportunities are in our hands. We can imagine that it’s someone else’s work, and let nations and corporations bungle the potential that they cannot realize without us while reaping profits that we could share. Or we can step forward, realizing that this kind of progress is development of ourselves by all of us, and for the entire global community.
I don’t know how positive development solutions will be reached in China when bureaucrats are missing even the most obvious opportunities for efficiency and community innovation, and I don’t know how susainable community development in the United States will change a culture of widespread perceived powerlessness. I am sure that the process of pursuing solutions for our own futures will yield wisdom and ability to face both challeges that we can barely imagine.
Most of all, I am sure it will not happen by waiting. Forging a resiliant, integrated, and vibrant society starts now, and we are the people we have been waiting for.