Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Musings: More Green Keynesianism

Probably the only reason I usually publish a reflective piece around the college's winter break is that this really is a good time to reflect, and sometime the only time for several days' sustained reflection, given the college, wind research, and farm calendar. The end of the spring term, in contrast, is much more busy, as our wind field research gets going.

This time of year, if I wish to sit in my den for several hours and write something that isn't an administrative document or a wind report, I actually have the time.

That being said, what is there to say? The flurry of family visiting around Christmas is done. Blessed few sustainability activities take place in early January in Maine, unless we're talking about bio-fuel heat, which around here means putting another log in the wood stove. The college and the SusTech program are in good shape, doing more or less what they were meant to be doing in the world, despite the upcoming departure after this year's graduation of President Mitch Thomashow and VPAA Amy Knisley. Both these leaders have had their fair share of salutary impact on the college, particularly in fund raising and in academic quality, but the college is self-renewing and self-sustaining academically and organizationally at this point and can thrive without them, even though they will be missed.

At home the Womerlippi Farm is in winter recess, awash in hay and oats, awaiting lambs in March or April. Nothing requires much attention there once the hay and oats are doled out each morning. Aimee collects the eggs, while I shovel the snow and run the wood stoves. All is white and slow and peaceful.

And while our wind research program has anemometers whirring and logging all over the good old State o' Maine, there's little or no servicing to do this time of year, a deliberately planned circumstance. This is no time to handle steel structures in the field. You can lose your fingers that way. The small matter of a battery change for a unit atop a 100 foot radio tower in the western foothills can await the start of the term, the return of students who may wish to help with that project, and a very sunny day.

Our search and rescue team's efforts are also in winter recess. The state is covered in a new blanket of snow from the recent blizzard. Deep new snow means two things for search and rescue: Number one, anyone who is foolish enough to go into the woods on foot and get lost or hurt leaves obvious tracks for the Maine Warden's Service to follow. Number two, since few Mainers actually go into the woods on foot these days, only hardy Unity College types, it sometimes seems, most call-outs this time of year are for snowmobile accidents, and so the Wardens respond on snowmobile. These two together largely negate the need for large search parties of the kind we specialize in. Organizing chores for state-wide SAR do take place this time of year, and I have a few to do, but none that have to be done right away.

So it's a very quiet time, the quietest of the year, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Time to think. And what I am thinking about, of course, is climate change and energy and the future of global humanity.


But that is my real job, isn't it? If I'm hired and given the exalted rank of Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Unity College for any discernible reason at all, it's that I'm hired to regularly teach a basic class in global sustainability to the undergraduate students of the college.

I'd better have an interesting idea or two about this problem, hadn't I?

Most of my thoughts, however, it should be stated, are developments of ideas I studied while in graduate school at the University of Maryland's Policy School in the 1990s, where I studied under Professors Herman Daly and Peter G. Brown, now at McGill. If I have anything to add, it's footnotes. Useful, practical ones, I hope, but footnotes all the same.

At that time and in that place, with those professors and an international and cosmopolitan group of graduate students, it was possible, and even encouraged, to think quite large and far-reaching thoughts about the direction of humanity, and particularly about the problems of ecological sustainability. It was quite an education.

Since then it's been interesting to be an observer, from the relatively safe vantage point of this small hilltop farm, and this small environmental college, on the doings of the world and on humanity's slow progress towards a sustainable way of life.

In an earlier cogitation, I expressed the opinion, developed on the basis of study of the current American political rhetoric about green jobs and the ARRA stimulus package, that what we have begun to develop at this stage in the political economy of the west seems to be a green Keynesianism.

(Full disclosure: the ARRA, though the Efficiency Maine Trust, funds some of our basic wind research for the state of Maine.)

"Green Keynesianism" might be when the government targets Keynesian economic stimulus measures deliberately at the development of the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. In this case, in the United States, several ARRA-funded programs, and various other programs run by the Department of Energy, the military, and various state governments, including Maine's, take dollars from deficit spending, and inject them into the economy. Similar programs exist in the UK and European countries.

The difference between the "green" form and other historical Keynesian measures is this deliberate target of stimulus at the development of the emerging green energy technology sector (increasing the money supply), and on widespread energy efficiency measures (a demand-side approach).

According to the various theories of my mentors in economic and environmental policy, the ideas of Herman Daly or Peter Brown, Green Keynesianism could never be sufficient to secure humanity's sustainable future. Keynesian economics is a growth economics. There are means and ends. The means is to increase aggregate demand to jump-start the economy when in recession and spur growth. The ends of such growth is to raise living standards and increase prosperity, while avoiding recession, war, and other mayhem.

Dalian ecological economics, in contrast, calls for economic growth to be discontinued as the primary goal of economic policy, and substitutes instead the concept of development without growth in material and energy throughput.

Indeed, since Daly first published his ideas, it has become apparent that some reduction in throughput, specifically of fossil fuels, will actually be necessary to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

Brown's best ideas, influenced greatly by Daly in the 1990s, were developed and expressed through the Quaker Institute for the Future's Moral Economy Project, with which I was involved, and took matters a step further, calling for a global "commonwealth" organization to take charge of governing the planet's environment and providing a "basic needs" income for all humanity.

Both thinkers are of course quite radical and well ahead of conventional opinion in the mainstream of growth economics and political economy in the United States and even Europe. But that might be the point -- they have realized that we need at some point to get away from growth economics.

For myself, although this seems quite ungrateful -- to repudiate my own PhD advisors! -- I'm become much more reflexive and conservative about ending growth and developing any world government. I feel we'll get there in the end. We must. It's the natural direction of humanity to develop both over the next century or two. But where I differ primarily is the timing. I'm content with Green Keynesianism for now, and the foreseeable future, as a stepping stone to a fully developed global political economy.

I can live with a few years or decades more of growth theory and non-world government, as long as the leadership of the west is intact.

My reasoning is, the world is unfortunately not yet safe for democracy.

The west has developed liberal democratic society, in which governments change peacefully by election, and in which freely elected politicians decide on the allocation of government resources based on a political process rather than any of the unhappy alternatives. Few non-western nations, India being perhaps the primary example, have succeeded in adopting these institutions.

What are the alternatives? Well, none good: one-party systems, religious doctrines, patronage, racial preference, crony-ism, elite culture, war, violence, brigandage, and the like. These are the Hobbesian fates which, like Keynes, I wish to avoid. As Churchill once said,

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

My feeling is that moving too quickly towards a steady state economy in the west invites China to become the most powerful nation in the world. And China is not a democracy. In the west in general, we have democracy, which we have developed and elaborated over the last, roughly two hundred years, but in my opinion this system is not currently widespread, nor internally stable enough, to survive a move towards an economics without growth, nor, indeed, any kind of world government. We must first manage a transition to renewable and low-carbon energy technology, and we must do it in such a way that the democracies are the masters of this technology.

If not, then we cannot guarantee that the great and continuing experiment that Lincoln outlined, and was instrumental in saving, government of the people, by the people, for the people, can endure.

Currently my hope is that this transition can be achieved in time. Unlike my former mentors, I am a trained technologist, an aeronautical engineer with a military training quite applicable to some of these technologies, particularly wind power, and I understand the basic physics as well as the policy and political economics of most green technologies very well indeed. And so I involve myself and my students with the development of these technologies, particularly wind power but also energy efficiency, solar power, and bio fuel forest systems here in Maine. I pay attention to the new information coming out of technology research. And I watch the news from the world of climate science too, like a hawk, partly so I can teach it, but partly so I can see what is happening.

It's a race.

In my version of green Keynesianism, not unlike the original, the reason for a period of continued economic growth is to protect civilized life by ensuring that the democratic civilizations are strong enough to protect themselves. In this view, the primary hope for democracy, possibly the only hope, is that the great democratic countries increase in strength at the same time as we develop and deploy an energy technology that weans us away from dependency on fossil fuels and also gives us independence from those forces arrayed against democracy. In the meantime, we can hope that more figurative Berlin Walls come down, and more democracies are born or developed.

I would not wish to live in a sustainable society without freedom of speech and religion, freedom from fear and want.

Unlike Keynes, however, the main reason I want to protect and further democracy by continuing economic growth is not to preserve the kind of elite culture Keynes loved. Keynes was a famous "Bloomsberry," a member of the Bloomsberry set of avant-garde liberal artist-activist-philosopher-writers and notable sexual hedonists that graced London before and after World War I. A major theory about Keynesian thought, from his biographer Skidelsky, is that it was developed to protect the possibility for this kind of higher culture.

I could care less about so called "higher" culture myself. My people, if they were artists at all, were working class British folk artists and traditional musicians, or nonconformist church singers of various persuasions. My grandfather served in the Great War that Keynes conscientiously objected to (while financing it through his UK Treasury job), and then served again in the second war Keynes sought to avoid. My other grandfather returned from civilian service in that war to put Keynesian economics to work building social housing for other returning servicemen. I was also a serviceman, for nearly seven years during the 1980s.

Indeed, without two distinctly Keynesian programs, the Pell Grant and the Stafford Loan, I wouldn't be writing this now. I'd probably be on the ground under some broken airplane with greasy hands, smelling of kerosene. For me, Keynesianism is personal, and more about breaking down barriers in society than maintaining them. And if my green Keynesianism is about protecting anything, it's about protecting the kind of independent Jeffersonian life we live, at Unity College and on this small farm, not a life of higher culture. Raising potatoes, not Picassos.

It's also about avoiding conflict.

This semester will see another of my students on a military plane heading east, bound for Afghanistan. Unity College students, my students, some of them at least, perhaps unfortunately for them, serve in the military.

(I read recently in the New York Times that only one or two students from Yale each class serve in the military.)

Our students need the now-generous GI Bill money for college, a program I supported and argued for, and so they serve. And so they are in harm's way, while the children of the elite in this democracy and others do not serve. And of course, our students are primarily rural, working class, down-to-earth, not at all from the kind of elite culture Keynes venerated.

What will happen to the security of the great democracies if fossil energy becomes more scarce, and if climate change continues to destabilize large past of the Muslim world?

And who will then serve us, to protect us?

Unfortunately, if we don't invest in a very great green Keynesian project of developing and deploying green energy, I see a future of conflict exacerbated by climate change, during which my people, the rural and working class people of the democracies of Britain and the United States will be asked, or required, to serve to protect those elites.

In the meantime, several of those elites, notably the Koch Brothers and Don Blankenship, but also many, many others, including many members of the current political leadership, are busily spreading the lie that climate change is not happening and a shift away from their energy technologies is unnecessary.

It will be a while before we sort all this out, and it will probably require climate change to get a bit worse, worse enough to get more Americans to pay attention (as if tornadoes on New Year's Eve were not enough). This is of course going to happen eventually, possibly soon, although I'm not looking forward to it. It seems more likely than not that the predictions in a recent paper by Judith Lean and David Rind, related to the expected effects of the eleven year sunspot cycle (among three other modeled factors that together explain eighty percent of variation in recent global average temperature), will prove correct, and that the next five years will see a considerable worsening of severe weather and other symptoms of increased atmospheric energy. Especially if we get another El Nino year.

That should be enough.

It had better be. We can't afford to let things progress very much further.

American public opinion is clearly the key factor here. Which brings me, more or less back to where I started. In a few more days time I will go again to work in the classroom teaching the basics of climate science and energy technology to two new classes of Unity College juniors and seniors.

Ho hum. Back to work. Not much time for reflection then.

But at least I know exactly why I'm doing it.

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