The New Development

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 Chinese citypollution 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.

9 Responses to “The New Development”


  1. 1 jessejenkins Aug 27th, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Excellent post Timothy.

    You are absolutely correct that a new sustainable development paradigm is much needed and that tackling climate change and building the Climate Neutral America (and world) we desperately need is not a moment of sacrifice, but one of tremendous opportunity.

    There are tremendous benefits to be gained from solving the climate crisis and transforming the way we make and use energy (and the way we develop our economy) ranging from the economic to the environmental, from societal, to public health, and from security and international relations.

    It’s time to brush off the scare tactics of status-quo-loving vested interests who tell us that solving the climate crisis will involve terrible sacrifice and economic devastation. We know better than that! We know that solving the climate crisis involves seizing the tremendous opportunity the crisis represents to build a richer, healthier, safer, stronger, sustainable America and world!

  2. 2 Gabriel Elsner Aug 27th, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    wow – great post… the most inspiring one ive read on ighih. thank you and i hope you keep inspriing

  3. 3 R Margolis Aug 27th, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    I do not think it is scare tactics to state that either switching or retrofitting 80% of the worlds’ electric power capacity will be cheap and/or easy. It was interesting in that, in the 90′s, the US was going less carbon intense by the rapid construction of natural gas turbines. Over 200 GW of these devices were built as the capital costs were cheap (~$500/Kw) and gas was $2/MMBTU. This of course ended when North American gas peaked and prices are now over $6/MMBTU.

    If there were carbon neutral technologies with these kinds of prices the utilities would rapidly transition. Not that the transition cannot be done or is TOO expensive, just that we do not yet have the REALLY cheap solutions sitting on the shelf.

  4. 4 R Margolis Aug 27th, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    One interesting example of a transition that almost was concerned the large build of natural gas turbines during the 90′s. Over 200,000 MW was built in less than ten years. During that time turbines were cheap (~$500/KW) and gas from Canada was cheap too (about $2/MMBTU). Utilities were avoiding coal and nuclear plants. It came to an end when demand outstripped supply (gas is now around $6/MMBTU). I would offer if new technologies can be brought to market cheap, the utilities will switch.

  5. 5 Carlos Rymer Aug 28th, 2007 at 2:23 am

    Great post. Lots of examples of the mechanisms we need to make the changes we need. I think this kind of thinking is what will get us out of the climate crisis. But I also think that we need to think beyond.

    If we look at many of the different problems we face, from poverty to global warming to wars, a lot of them are due to inadequate decisions that could’ve been prevented by simply adding different representation into decision-making or getting the incentives right to begin with.

    In order to solve global warming and the larger environmental crisis, people will need to implement solutions themselves. But how to get there is the hard part? Will our current government solve our problems by itself? Probably not. We need to put incentives for good behaviors/products/services and punishments for those that make society much worse.

    In my opinion, the way to do that is to look at the entire system that our society is and see where problems originate — decision-making and valuation. In the case of our atmosphere, it has no value right now. A few things are regulated, but you can dump CO2 like mad and you pay nothing. In the case of forests in Brazil, you can take them over as long as you own the property, even if it affects society as a whole. In the case of governance, a few people who know nothing about the plight of small farmers all around the world will make decisions for large ag companies.

    So, we need to reform governance and incentives. We need to 1) make government more representative of productive, environmental, social sectors of society, and 2) put incentives in place so that we fully value everything that’s valuable to us.

    In order to do these things, we need to have lots of us understand it, because we have to, in essence, make these changes or demand them. We can begin to think now, however, so that we can change it later. Governance and economics work best with continuous improvement (especially as times change).

  6. 6 Zoë Caron Aug 28th, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    So ironic – I haven’t written a blog on here for a while, but I felt the need to write on China and sustainable development as I am wrapping up writing a book chapter on development solutions in the face of climate change.

    Glad to see you beat me to it – and an excellent post at that!

    I think that the transition we are seeing China go through is a clear signal that where we go (as industrialized countries) they will follow (so-called developing countries). The car has become a symbol of wealth and the upper class, unfortunately. But until major countries like the US make the transition away from a car-dependent society, we can’t expect others to.

    In the meantime, China is taking more progressive steps than many countries around the world, despite their increase in emissions. They have implemented vehicle emission standards comparable to that of the European Union. Beijing has committed to hosting net zero carbon Olympic games. More than that, China has ratified the Kyoto Protocol – an act of responsibility and leadership that the federal governments of US and Australia have yet to take.

    You’re absolutely right that sustainable development is the way forward in light of climate change. Let’s also remember that industrialized countries have a responsibility to employ sustainable development mechanisms in our own back yard, not just in “developing” countries.

  7. 7 M Kapadia Aug 29th, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Development is necessary to improve quality of life up to a certain extent.

    However, modern technologies give so much more options…….

    This has resulted in consumerism ….need for earning more… lack of quality in life ….more stress….poor environment and poor health …. need for more entertainment gadgets…. lack of heart to heart talks….. more family issues!!

    This is the story repeated all over the world. However, for developing countries, they easily fall for attractiveness of better living and novelties for gadgets. This is due to tremendous pressure from business and political forces who need to sell in other countries these technologies / products for their own survival and growth!

    There has to be efforts to USE MINIMUM RESOURCES in our day to day life, which only can slow down this cycle of consumerism and new products, thus resulting into better environment…. and ultimately balanced quality of life!

    This reminds me of a movement which emphasizes creation of a forum to buy / sell only used articles of all kinds / gadgets for all our needs – as far as possible, rather than buying new ones! That is an excellent idea – we got to make a beginning to that as well!

    Let the message go to all thinking people. Let not DEVELOPMENT lead to DEATH / DAMAGE to mankind!

  8. 8 NW Sep 3rd, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Tim -
    The revolving loan fund model you lay out is a powerful example of how new energy technology can strengthen both economies and communities. You also highlight the real, complex reasons behind China’s inability to change course even though there is tacit recognition close to the highest levels of government that China faces both chronic and emergency environmental threats. There is a level at which we can redefine prosperity, but also a level at which basic needs must be provided for before rural a Chinese person starts to think more about heart disease then hunger and status when the possibility of eating beef every day presents itself.

    My question relates to the fact that to have a revolving loan fund, one must first have something to loan: capital. This is, of course, in shortest supply in the developing countries that are at a point of choosing high- or low-carbon paths to prosperity. It is in even shorter supply in the places in China that you mention suffering the health, environmental, and social impacts of the most rapid industrialization in human history while reaping few of the benefits. For those with capital and the ability to raise more, the kind of community involvement you suggest – and which I would see as a key way to influence perceptions about how it is possible to achieve prosperity and what that consists of, becuase people must see a way to profit from it themselves – would be percieved as anathema to their power and influence. China could retool its factories to supply wind turbines to the world, but the factory effluent might still flow right into the rivers where workers get their drinking water, and the increasing demand for cars wouldn’t slacken. On the question of China, I will admit that I’m stumped.

  9. 9 AJ Sep 17th, 2007 at 12:34 am

    No way to save energy on air travel? You’ve got to be kidding. How about not flying unless it’s necessary? We have more and better alternatives today than we have ever had: teleconferencing, video-conferencing, cell-phones, e-mail, photo-sharing, webinars are the obvious ones. We can also choose to vacation close to home just as we can choose to buy food grown close to home. Do you have to go to that ball game, wedding, birthday, class reunion, global warming conference? Are we all entitled to see all the places we want to see before we die? Would your parents have gone in 1950? Every mile we fly consumes the same amount of gas as a mile of driving alone in an average car, and the per-mile global impacts are even worse.

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About Timothy


Timothy is a youth climate leader based in St. Paul. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. I've been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. Timothy is a recent graduate of Macalester College, where he did exciting work on revolving funds, carbon neutrality, and cross-campus sustainability leadership development. He now helps run a community energy efficiency and community-based energy cooperative and is core driver of Grand Aspirations and the Summer of Solutions. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

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