Friday, November 7, 2008

My suggestions to Obama

The flurry of blogs and other interactive media offering suggestions to the transistion team is impressive, and presumably has only just begun. One consequence of the Internet Age is that interactive media can give ordinary people the impression that they are participating in all kinds of conversations from which they might have been completely excluded in past decades.

In some cases, the impression is actually correct.

I like some of the big environmental news blogs, particularly the Guardian's Comment is Free, where I've been able to respond and interact with important thinkers in Britain, and received some nice emails and comments in return. The other I like is Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog at the NYT.

I generally have a low opinion of the Times, especially since I got publicly dissed by Matthew Wald, their transport guru, for my suggestion in a conference presentation that depletion modeling and reserve numbers indicated that oil would soon become very expensive, possibly upwards of $100/bbl. This was in 2006.

How do you like that prediction now, Matty?

But Revkin is more sensible. His latest column asks for suggestions to Obama on how to handle planetary environmental problems. He got a hundred and fifty responses already.

Here's my answer:


The main problem we have is that our economic system requires perpetual growth, to pay the "growth dividend" that both national pension plans and stock portfolios require. But our planet can't survive the onslaught much longer. This isn't opinion. It's scientific fact.

Obama and his team probably will be the first presidential administration in history intellectually capable of realizing this. But even they will be afraid to do what needs to be done, because the American people do not understand this situation.

They will need to be educated. A major effort to improve science and particularly sustainability education at the school and general college level in this specific area will be needed before Americans will accept limits on growth for the sake of the environment. That should start right away.

Then another effort will be needed to determine what kind of economy, and what economic theory, will guide us in a world where physical growth of the economy is first slowed then curtailed, but where qualitative development is still needed for the sake of the poor (and even the overworked middle and upper middle classes). The work of Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland, and other ecological economists, has pioneered the field, but there's a long way to go between theory and practice.

It will be many years before my first and second suggestions begin to bear fruit. In the meantime, although most Americans do not yet understand why restraints on physical economic growth are needed, they can probably understand restraint on population growth. Programs in international aid that stress population control, education, and careful development, some (not all) of which were suspended by the Bush Administration, need to be reinvigorated (I give Bush credit for work in AIDs and a few other areas of AID). And they can also already begin to understand that we need to avoid the terrifying specter of climate destabilization. The many comments so far on a green jobs/technology "moon shot" are sensible, as long as we understand that even green growth can be ultimately problematic.

— Mick Womersley, Unity, Maine

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