Global Green Deal
A winning strategy: Globalize anti-globalization
Anti-globalization forces scored a major victory at the World Trade Organization talks last December, but what’s next? The alliance forged in Seattle between labor, environmental and other activists has the potential to transform American politics by empowering a civil society counterweight to the increasingly corporate-dominated system of the 1990s. But to achieve this, the alliance must enunciate a clear, compelling vision of a better society and how to get there.
One idea of great promise is the Global Green Deal, a practical yet transformative program to environmentally retrofit human civilization from top to bottom. Led by governments – but making full use of market mechanisms – the Global Green Deal would put people and corporations to work at tasks essential to our future: leaving fossil fuels behind in favor of energy efficiency and renewables; averting the looming global water crisis by installing drip-irrigation systems; halting the catastrophic epidemic of species extinctions (and the forest destruction that drives them) by reducing our demand for wood; and so on.
The idea is to renovate civilization from top to bottom in environmentally sustainable ways — retrofitting everything from our farms to our factories, our garages to out garbage dumps, our schools, shops, houses, and offices — and to do so both in the wealthy Northern Hemisphere and the impoverished South. Such a program would not only generate a great amount of economic activity, it would be environmentally restorative activity — the only kind the Earth can afford anymore.
Moreover, this activity would be labor-intensive, and thus create the millions of jobs needed to maintain living standards in the North while also tackling poverty in the South. And make no mistake: poverty is central to our environmental predicament. Most people around the world care about saving the environment, but for the poor in particular, putting bread on the table comes first. In a world where at least one billion people lack gainful employment, an environmental restoration plan that does not create jobs has no chance of success.
The perilous state of earth’s ecosystems leaves humans little alternative but to pursue this kind of environmental transition. The good news, though, is that, if we’re smart about it, we can actually make money in the process. Such establishment voices as AT&T and Japan’s Planning Ministry have predicted that a global environmental retrofit would be the biggest economic enterprise of the 21st century: A huge source of jobs, profits, and poverty alleviation.
A “Global Green Deal” is also a winning strategy for domestic American politics. The anti-globalization movement’s success in Seattle was based largely on what it was against — a global trading system that elevates corporate freedom and profitability above human rights, decent working conditions and a healthy environment. But to maintain its momentum, the movement must now make dear what it is for — a healthy environment and a prosperous economy This is a crucial strategic point. Even the strongest defense can never yield more than a draw. If our side wants to start winning for a change, we need to take the initiative and think big.
The Greening of Washington
The Global Green Deal starts from a fact well-known to Earth island Journal readers but much less appreciated by opinion leaders and the general public: we have in hand most of the technologies needed to chart a new course. In particular, we know how to use oil, wood, water and other resources much more efficiently than we do now. Increased efficiency — doing more with less — will enable us to use less resources and produce less pollution per capita, buying us the time to bring solar power, hydrogen fuel cells, drip irrigation, and other futuristic technologies on line.
Increasing efficiency also produces far more jobs than anti-environmental behavior does. Building railroad tracks generates 50 percent more jobs per dollar invested than buildings highways does. Incinerating a million tons of solid waste requires eighty workers, and putting it in a landfill takes 600 workers, but recycling it takes 1600 workers. Employing all these additional workers would have other benefits as well, including higher tax revenues for government and lower welfare costs) and more stable communities.
The environmental transition will not happen by itself, however — too many entrenched interests stand in the way While Ford and General Motors often talk green, they have made only token efforts to develop “green cars,” for the simple reason that their gas-guzzling SUV’s are hugely profitable. Hence the need for a government-led program like the Global Green Deal.
Every year, the US government buys 50,000 new cars for official use. Under a Global Green Deal, Washington would require that these cars no longer be powered by polluting fossil fuels; rather, they would have to be “green” cars. By replacing the government’s vehicle fleet with fuel-cell or hybrid-powered cars, Washington could help create market demand for green cars — demand that private capital could then step up to accommodate. Detroit would doubtless scream and holler about such a deal, but if Washington stood firm, Detroit would have to comply And before long, carmakers would be climbing the learning curve and offering consumers the competitively priced green cars they say they want. (There would be a certain poetic justice in this, for the government’s lavish subsidization of automobiles throughout the 20th century is no small cause of our current problems.)
We know this model of government pump-priming works; it’s why so many of us have personal computers on our desks today America’s computer companies began learning to produce today’s affordable systems during the 1960s, while benefiting from long-term subsidies and guaranteed markets under contract to the Pentagon and NASA. Thirty years later, the US is still reaping the benefits: the cyber-revolution is fueling one of the most extraordinary economic expansions in history.
The Global Green Deal must not be solely an American project: rich and poor nations alike must participate. China and India, with their gigantic populations and ambitious development plans, could by themselves doom everyone else to severe global warming and ozone depletion. Already, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal and second largest producer of greenhouse gases. But China would use 50 percent less coal if it simply installed the energy efficiency technologies now available on the world market, especially better lights, insulation and motors. Under the Global Green Deal, governments in Europe, America and Japan would help China buy these technologies, not only because this would reduce global warming but because it would create lots of jobs and profits lot workers and companies back home.
It’s worth noting that Northern governments subsidize foreign business deals all the time, notably in the fields of weapons and military equipment. But if taxpayers are going to be subsidizing corporations, shouldn’t the corporations be doing something socially useful, like averting climate change, rather than arming the world to the teeth?
Besides, governments wouldn’t have to spend more money under a Global Green Deal, only shift subsidies away from environmentally dead-end technologies like coal and nuclear power, If even half of the estimated $500-000 billion in environmentally destructive subsidies now being doled out by the world’s governments were pointed in the opposite direction, the Global Green Deal would be off to a roaring start.
Equally important, governments must reform skewed tax and accounting systems to correct the market’s environmental blindness. If the price of paper, for example, were forced to reflect the social costs of clear-cut forests, the price would go up — thus discouraging consumers from buying it while encouraging alternative approaches to producing paper. In this way, the Global Green Deal would enlist the awesome power of the market to enhance, rather than assault, environmental values.
The Global Green Deal is no silver bullet. But in the short term, it could kick-start the transformation needed to heal humanity’s relationship with the earth. In the medium term, bigger changes must be made. Population size must be stabilized both in the South and the North, and the hyperconsumption that is now common in the North and among elites in the South must be cut back. In the medium to long term, capitalism will probably have to be transformed so that the constant expansion in material terms of production, consumption, and waste is no longer a central feature of the system. Development, not growth, must become our motto.
Amory Lovins likes to say that the rote of government is to “steer, not row.” But it must steer in a fundamentally different direction than at present, and that will upset those who profit from the status quo. But like it or not, the rich need the poor if they are to save their own skins. Without the cooperation of the poor, there is no hope of dealing with global warning, forest loss, and many other environmental hazards that will punish rich and poor alike.
All this means that the Global Green Deal must begin in wealthy, technologically advanced countries like the United States. Officials in poorer nations are very interested in solar and other environmentally benign technologies, but they are adamant that they will not serve as guinea pigs while wealthy nations continue their profligate ways. The United Stales in particular must first go green at home if it wants poorer nations to follow suit.
Yet we must realize that technological fixes alone will not suffice. We must also re-learn how to share the immense natural bounties of this planet. Sharing is a concept we teach our children. It has been a basic survival tactic for humans for most of our history, and it remains a central message of most of our religions. Can we now rediscover it in time to save our planet?
The most difficult sharing will not be of money (the rich have plenty of that) but of environmental space. As Maurice Strong, the chief organizer of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, has explained, the wealthy nations must substantially reduce their production of greenhouse gases in order to make space available so that. Southern nations fighting poverty can increase their [italic] greenhouse emissions.
Many Americans will resist such sharing, in part because they simply do not realize how lavish their lifestyles are compared with the rest of the world’s. In taking for granted such luxuries as unlimited hot water at the turn of a tap and cars bigger than many people’s houses, Americans inadvertently exhibit the sort of arrogance and self-centeredness that has made the poor hate the rich since time immemorial.
Americans (who like to think of themselves as a generous people) are simply oblivious to how wasteful and selfish their lives appear to millions of malnourished, unemployed and homeless citizens around the world. In the face of such deep, pervasive poverty, how can the world’s most comfortable class insist that they cannot cut back on their own consumption — especially when so much of the cutback can be achieved through common sense improvements in resource efficiency?
“Love Your Mother” urged the wall posters from the environmental movement’s heyday in the 1970s, complete with an image of a beautiful blue earth as seen from space. Such images revolutionized humanity’s understanding of itself and its place in the cosmos, and we have the race to the moon to thank for it. That race also showed how a clear mission and deadline can focus resources and fire public enthusiasm, and it demonstrated that certain overarching public challenges cannot be left solely to the marketplace; government must play a central and leading role.
The Global Green Deal is proposed in that spirit. And the fact is, many labor and environmental organizations are already pursuing parts of this agenda: Friends of the Earth, US PIRG, and Taxpayers tot Common Sense, sponsor a “Green Scissors” campaign; Earth Island, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers and others have formed an Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment; Ralph Nader and his associated groups have long pushed government procurement reform; Lovins has shown that the technologies to change our environmentally harmful ways are already in hand. But we need to pull these efforts into a larger, more cohesive frame and package them more appealingly if we want to gain majority support. If we persist with incremental tinkering and policy-wonk language, we may communicate well within the Beltway but we’ll never win the larger battle — because the powers that be inside the Beltway rarely do what’s right unless faced with overwhelming public pressure.
Americans — and, in fact, most people around the world — know the environment needs fixing but they are afraid of the economic consequences. The message of the Global Green Deal is that we can have both environmental health and economic prosperity, if we’re willing to lake on entrenched interests and do what’s right for the human majority. As a slogan, the Global Given Deal can be easily grasped by both the media and the public. Moreover, it promises to appeal across the political spectrum, for it would stimulate both business and labor in the name of a universally-held principle: leaving our children and grandchildren a livable planet.
Just as the “living wage” campaign has given economic justice advocates the upper hand in 40 US cities, so a Global Green Deal campaign could shift the terms of debate about environmental and economic issues and confront America’s leaders with the kind of public groundswell that can’t be denied. The history of environmentalism hats been a story of individual citizens pushing for change while governments, corporations and other established interests follow reluctantly behind
It’s time to repeat that history on behalf of a Global Green Deal.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author most recently of Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway Books), now available in paperback, and a commentator for NPR’s “Living On Earth.”
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