Reality Report: Talking with Richard Heinberg about the Green New Deal (transcript added)
2008 has been a remarkable year. About a year ago James Hansen of NASA gave a presentation at the American Geophysical Union meetings in San Francisco that showed how greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were already too high. Energy and other commodity prices rose and then fell spectacularly. Recently the International Energy Agency released a report that said fossil fuel production will not meet future demand without massive, and perhaps unrealistic, levels of investment. Now we are in the midst of epic convulsions in the financial system, and have just elected a new U.S. President.
The global crises of 2008 all relate to growth in debt, pollution and consumption reaching their limits, but will the incoming Obama administration recognize the new reality? This show discusses "Energy Realism and the Green New Deal" with Richard Heinberg of The Post Carbon Institute. Hear what message Post Carbon Institute is presenting to the incoming U.S. President.
And as a special bonus to this episode of the Reality Report, a song by Neal Learner that expresses what so many feel. Free MP3 DownloadTranscribed by Keith Mac Cuish
Intro: I am Jason Bradford, host of the Reality Report. I believe that solving a problem begins by facing the truth about its real causes. Our society is pressing against ecological and energetic constraints. We are at an historic inflection point in which decisions made today will have profound impacts for centuries to come. The Reality Report is recorded in the studios of KZYXNZ in Mendocino County, California and is a long format interview program of key thinkers of our time.
Jason Bradford: Alright welcome to the show. This is the Reality Report, I’m your host Jason Bradford. Today is December 15, 2008 and the global crises of 2008 all relate to growth and debt, pollution and consumption reaching their limits, but will the incoming Obama Administration recognize the new reality? Today’s show will discuss Energy Realism and the Green New Deal with Richard Heinberg. He’s a senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and you can see more at postcarbon.org. So Richard thanks for being on the show today. I know you’ve been real busy.
Richard Heinberg: Oh yeah, well it’s great to be with you, Jason.
JB: Alright, well it was a remarkable year; I think that most people would agree about that. About a year ago, James Hanson of NASA, gave a presentation at the American Geo-Physical Meetings in San Francisco and he showed how greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were already too high and we had an amazing commodity price rise until about July of this year and then they crashed spectacularly since then and recently the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report that said fossil fuel production will not meet future demand without massive and perhaps unrealistic levels of investment. Of course now we’re in midst of epic convulsions in the financial system and we’ve elected a new US President. So I’d like to spend most of the show discussing some wise responses to our predicament, but at the outset is there anything you’d like to say about the situation?
RH: Right, well there’s so much that can be said. I think 2008 has been an epic year with the oil price going up to nearly $150 a barrel and now crashing to closer to $50, actually under $50 a barrel and the reason for that has been the crash in demand largely. Also we saw a lot of speculators driven out of the market as a result of the financial crisis. The hedge funds had been buying into oil futures as the commodity prices were going up and then as the economy crashed, the hedge funds had to cover their loses elsewhere so they started pulling money out of oil futures and that caused the oil price which was already headed down because of declining demand, caused the oil price to really crash which in turn is causing a lot of potential investment in future oil production in the tar sands and the exploration in deep water and so on, a lot of investment that would go into future oil production is not being made because the investment capital isn’t there and the oil price is low. And because of that now, the IEA which just released its big report a month ago, it’s World Energy Outlook, has now just in the last forty-eight hours made a statement saying, as a lack of investment upstream, it’s now forecasting peak and world oil production at 2020. So this is a significant development. Now, obviously 2020 still from the perspective of many of us is still pretty optimistic. Nevertheless, it’s the first time that the IEA has put a number on the date of global oil production peak and it’s a date that’s not that far out – we’re talking twelve years from now.
JB: I know people who follow this all think that 2008 was going to be the peak because of the lack of investment, like you were saying, that is going on.
RH: Right, that’s my conclusion. I think that the highest rate of global oil production that we will ever see was achieved in July of this year and as a result of declining demand and lack of investment I think we’re unlikely to ever exceed that level.
JB: So is there, for those who study climate change, is this a joyful time because we’re not going to have those fossil fuels available to spew into the atmosphere?
RH: Well, for climate, this is a complicated time. First of all, there’s not too much rejoicing that can happen because of oil supply limits because the real problem is coal. There’s also the problem now with the global financial collapse that the world’s nations are turning their attention away from solving the climate crisis toward solving the immediate economic crisis. So, we had the meeting in Poland just this last couple of weeks that didn’t achieve nearly as much as a lot of us were hoping that it would, simply because even the European nations that have had previously made substantial climate commitments are now backing away from those because they’re more concerned with shoring up their economies.
JB: I’m just wondering, the title of one of your books is, Power Down, and does the heightened public awareness stemming from the events of this year create an opportunity to realistically discuss and then implement a planned Power Down?
RH: I certainly hope so. There’s different ways of looking at this. There are some who would say that the economic crisis is already very severe and it’s going to get a lot worse. We may be headed into, well many people are saying we’re headed into another global depression like the 1930s, but there are those who say that it could be much worse this time in fact because the economy itself is so much larger, in other words, we have a lot further to fall than we did back in the Thirties. The entire global financial system is at risk. So, if that’s the case then it’s very likely that that event could basically suck the air out of discussion of just about everything else including future energy supplies, global climate change, you name it. If that’s true, then I think what we have to do is join the economic discussion but in such a way as to guide it so that the responses we choose to the economic crisis are responses that help solve these other problems in the long run.
JB: Yeah, you’ve written a couple of articles this month that are highly relevant to our discussion and I want to first touch on the one you entitled, Economists without a Clue. Given that the Obama Administration and other governments are the world are being called on to calm, stabilize, and re-regulate markets, I’m wondering what philosophical battles are being waged and what might they be missing?
RH: Right, well there has been a pitched battle for the last hundred years between two fundamental economic philosophies personified by the two great economists of the 20th Century. One was Friedrich von Hayek who was an Austrian economist. He was preceded by Ludwig von Mises who basically had the same philosophy but von Hayek was able to bring that philosophy forward and really win the day. It’s basically the philosophy that the free market is able to allocate labour, investment, distribution of goods and so on far more efficiently than government could ever do and von Hayek also brought in a kind of political dimension to this, he said, that free markets lead to free societies – politically free societies – that if you have the economic system controlled by government then inevitably government will also control the lives of the citizens. That was the philosophy essentially that was governing most of the world at the turn of the last century, around 1900. Then we began to see more and more great economic upheavals starting in 1907 then of course the Great War from 1914-1918, then the Great Depression of the 1930s. Already in 1917 we had a revolution in Russia, a Marxist revolution that led to the USSR. These folks were basically saying that, yes free markets work up to a certain point but they create so much inequality, so much pain, distress that it’s not worth it. The only way we’re going to have a functioning society in the long term is if the state controls the economy. So the Soviet Union was the great experiment of a planned economy, but after the Great Depression, actually during the Great Depression, another important economist of the 20th Century, John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, argued that even in capitalist economies there has to be government regulation and control in order to avoid excessive manias and economic implosions. He also suggested that when the economy is contracting, the government should be the source of economic stimulus, a sort of last resort. If there is over-production and under-consumption and therefore the economy is contracting, well the government can step in and create jobs and buy stuff and get the economy going again. So, Keynesianism from the Great Depression onward really led the day and the US economy during World War II really became a Keynesian economy – the whole idea of the military industrial complex was a very Keynesian idea. It wasn’t until the 1970s that von Hayek ideas started to come back. He had ensconced himself at the University of Chicago and there he had hundreds of students including Milton Friedman and some of his students went on teach students like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. By the late 1970s there was a sort of a counter revolution of free market economists who managed to essentially take over the economic theory of the US and Britain and therefore much of the rest of the world over the course of the last thirty-five years. But now what’s happening with the global economic collapse is that almost everyone is calling for government now to come in and organize Keynesian responses to the crisis. Milton Friedman, just two or three weeks ago, in congressional testimony, no excuse me, it wasn’t Milton Friedman, it was former Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, said that there was a flaw in his thinking. Virtually everyone now is calling on government now to come in and create these enormous bail outs to create jobs and stimulate the economy by creating enormous amounts of debt. So, it would look, on the surface, as though we are seeing another historic shift now from the free market side back to the government controlled, Keynesian side of economic theory.
JB: There are always some missing pieces to that perhaps, both of those theories essentially assume that you can continually grow the economy and expand the human consumption of resources.
RH: That’s right.
JB: So, is that still missing in their discussion – a real perspective like that?
RH: Absolutely and in my piece that is on postcarbon.org, Economists without a Clue, that’s my conclusion that in effect both of these economic theories are inadequate because they both assume the earth’s supply of resources is functionally infinite and that we can continue to grow our economies forever. Now there have been other fields of economic theory that have emerged over the last thirty years or so – ecological economics and biophysical economics – that recognize limits to resources and say we should create a steady-state economy that is well within the earth’s carrying capacity for our species, but so far those economic theories have been thoroughly marginalized and we even have a currency system that relies on continual growth in the money supply in order to stave off collapse. So until we change not only our economic theory but also our currency system, we’re more or less locked into this ongoing battle between the free-marketers and the government controllers.
JB: Yeah. Now I have seen some evidence that President-Elect Obama realizes that measures like GDP growth don’t really indicate prosperity and that our economy needs to go Green, as it’s called, but I’m also concerned that short-term fears of this economic collapse will led to various stimulus efforts that don’t actually meet our needs in the long-term and I’m wondering if you’re having similar mixed feelings when you wrote your latest Muse letter which was titled, Memo to the President-Elect on Energy Realism and the Green New Deal.
RH: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been especially concerned with discussion about infrastructure projects that focus primarily on road building and those of us who are aware of the peak oil dilemma are naturally concerned about borrowing hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, and then spending that money on reproducing the same transportation infrastructure that we already have which has no future in a world without cheap oil.
JB: Yeah, exactly. So, why don’t we spend the rest of the program discussing your memo? It begins with an overview of the problems, which we’ve already basically covered and then I see it having basically three other sections: a) essentially goes over what you think should be done, and then b) the second part is about how you think it can be done and then c) briefly you sell the benefits. Is that alright?
RH: Yeah, let me talk just for a moment about the document itself. What’s been published so far on Global Public Media in the Muse letter number two-hundred is a preliminary version of the document and its being fleshed out and supplied with footnotes and edited by a number of folks and also supplied with endorsements from a number of recognizable public figures. That will be published sometime in the next few days and we are aiming to get this document to the Obama transition team as soon as possible. I have been hoping that we’d be able to do that earlier rather than later, but these things do take time. Nevertheless, the preliminary version of the document is available online now at Global Public Media. I should mention also that in the new version the title has changed also to, The Real New Deal: Energy Scarcity and the path to Energy, Economic and Environmental Recovery.
JB: Great, that’s good to know, thanks for that additional background. So now let’s go through essentially the ‘what’ part of it. You have five basic points on that: it starts off with massive renewable energy so why don’t you go over what that means.
RH: Right, one more thing I should say about the document. There are lots of green new deal documents flooding the desks of the Obama transition team as we speak, so what’s the point of having yet another one? Well, the point of this one is really that so far the discussion about stimulus packages and green jobs programs and new deal programs, so far that discussion has been fairly narrow and we at Post Carbon Institute are seeing the need for a comprehensive approach that looks at not only climate change but also long-term energy security in terms of energy scarcity, the need to address energy scarcity – peak oil essentially. Our document therefore looks quite a lot different from many of the others that we’ve seen.
JB: That’s good to know, it’s very important to distinguish yourself because you’re right, I’m sure there’s a lot of projects out there that are vying for funding and influence. How do you grab attention and how do you make sure that it’s going to be something holistic and so I think that’s what’s great about having you on is that you have taken that broad view and long-term view and holistic view for a long time.
RH: We are very hopeful about the new Administration and the fact that they do see the need for bold action, but we’re concerned that if that action is not framed in a comprehensive way that really gets to the core of our fossil fuel dependency then it’s not going to actually succeed.
JB: Let’s go through the ‘what’ then.
RH: The problem is that we have a fossil fuel economy. It’s not just a matter of changing coal power plants for wind turbines and solar panels; our entire economy is based on fossil fuels. Eighty-five per cent or more of our energy is coming from fossil fuels; it’s our food system; it’s how we manufacture things; it’s our houses; how we design our cities; our transport system. It’s not a simple circumscribed problem, it’s inherently a systemic problem and that’s the first thing to understand about it. Then in the document, we offer a short discussion of fossil fuel depletion and in that we quote the IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008, which we talked about just a little while earlier, where the IEA has concluded that current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable. The sources of oil to meet rising demand, the cost of producing it and the price that consumers will need to pay for it are all now extremely uncertain. We don’t have to speak of peak oil in theoretical terms; we can at this point cite the IEA and other responsible parties to sound the alarm. Then, we follow that with a brief section on climate change because this is so much better understood among policy makers – we didn’t see the necessity to spend pages and pages of climate change. But the one thing we wanted to focus on with regards to that is that the problem of climate sensitivity has been underestimated and rather than aiming for a sixty per cent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050, in fact the science is suggesting now that we basically reduce emission by one hundred per cent or at least as close to that as we can possibly get by 2050 and that is an enormous challenge, but if that’s what the science requires, then we have to take it seriously.
JB: Sure, that’s right. That’s what I like about your ‘what’. It talks not just about looking at the numbers for how much fossil fuel consumption do we use and then just replace that with renewables, it says more: no, we really have to then think it systemically on restructuring everything from the food system to the building system and our transportation system. Do you want to sketch that out a little bit?
RH: Maybe before we get there, just another couple of points from the problem statement. There is a section that describes similarities to and differences from the 1970s because I think a lot of policy makers are very wary about pursuing big energy programs because the last time we did that back in the late 1970s under Jimmy Carter it turned out to be not very popular and very quickly the Carter Administration was out of office.
JB: So what’s different this time they might say? I don’t want to pull a Carter.
RH: This time it’s different. First of all the energy crisis isn’t going to go away this time. In the 1980s oil prices collapsed after the 1970s when we had the two oil shocks of ’73 and ’79. Well we are seeing the oil price collapse again but it’s not because of increased supply which it was in the 1980s, it’s simply because of declining demand, so that is a fundamentally different situation. In fact, we’ve probably seen, as we’ve said earlier, the all time peak of global oil production already. The second thing that is different from the 1970s is that the economic crisis is so much worse this time. We did see a very significant economic crisis in the ‘70s, it was the worst since the Great Depression, but it’s really – sorry to say – very minor compared to is unfolding now.
JB: Definitely. So basically called for massive renewable energy deployment, electrifying transportation, rebuilding the electric grid to handle all this of course, and then there is de-carbonize and re-localize the food system, retrofit building stocks for efficiency and energy production. That’s kind of the broad overview – any details you want to go into?
RH: Right, the food system has been left out of even the most comprehensive of the Green New Deal proposals that we have seen from other sources and I think that’s significant because first of all the food system is responsible for at least twenty per cent of greenhouse gas emissions so even if we’re only talking about climate change, we really should be including the food system in the discussion. But then if we bring energy scarcity into the discussion then we definitely can’t leave out food because we have an overwhelmingly fossil fuel dependent food system and if we’re looking at scarcity of fossil fuels that means we could also have food scarcity. The switch out of the food system to a non-fossil fuel basis is absolutely essential to any survival strategy.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. That’s probably the thing that stands out as, oh yeah, that’s distinctive. One think I think about also the food system is that if you look at the work of James Hansen and read books like, Climate Code Red, there’s the need to actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere and that can be done through certain soil practices, so there’s maybe a synergy there between climate change goals and the food system change.
JB: This is the Reality Report and I’m your host Jason Bradford and today we’re talking to Richard Heinberg. He’s the author of several books and he’s a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute – go to postcarbon.org. We’re discussing some recent essays you’ve written, articles you’ve written, one entitled, Energy Realism and the Green New Deal. Let’s get more now into how this can happen, because it’s really one thing to say, ‘hey, you need do to this’ but of course the devil’s in the details of how do you make a transition?
RH: The first thing that is necessary, of course, is a lot of money…
JB: Ironically, right.
RH: …because we’re talking about a project of absolutely enormous scale unprecedented in history. We’ve already spent, or allocated, several trillion dollars to bail out the financial institutions and this is cause for some concern because what’s going to be left over to create the kinds of jobs and programs that will be necessary to actually do the important work? We can live without a financial system, but we can’t live without food. So the very first section is a discussion of investment and capitalization and we try to indicate the scale of the investment that will be required which is in the trillions of dollars.
JB: What’s interesting is that one thing that might be helpful is because we have a fiat currency system, there’s just a way to create the money and you’ve sort of referenced some of the Kennedy and Lincoln Administrations did, so do you want to talk a little bit about that?
RH: Right, well we currently create money through debt and that means that when the government spends money it can only do so by going into debt and we’ve already created so much debt that future generations are compromised by what they can do because they’re going to be paying interest on debt that we’ve accumulated and so on. Actually however, that’s not the only way money can be created legally here in the US. During the 1860s and again during the 1960s constitutional provisions were activated – provisions in the US constitution were activated – enabling the government – the US Treasury – to create money directly and in fact somewhere in my filing cabinet, I have a five dollar bill that was issued in 1963 and it looks like an ordinary five dollar bill except on top, instead of saying Federal Reserve note, it says US Treasury note. In effect, government could spend money into existence directly without incurring debt. Now, this would have some side effects of course, everything you do does one way or another. It would probably decrease the value of the dollar internationally and in effect result in the US defaulting on at least some of its debt. Now, in my view that’s inevitable anyways, both of those things are more or less inevitable. One has to gauge, what are the benefits and the liabilities of different courses of action and in my view – and if folks are interested in knowing more about this there’s actually a book called, Web of Debt, by Ellen Brown that discusses this some more in detail; the possibility of government directly spending money into existence.
JB: Yeah, that’s great. I haven’t heard that before; I knew the concept but I didn’t know it actually been done in the US as recently as the Kennedy’s.
RH: Right and of course there are, I hate the term but, conspiracy theorists who say Kennedy and Lincoln were assassinated – at least partly – because they had taken this power away from the banking system.
JB: Right, I was imagining that would be a connection.
RH: I have no opinion on that, I haven’t looked into the evidence enough to see if there is enough evidence to support that idea, but it’s an interesting coincidence.
JB: The other thing you get into of course, is that we have these giant industries for building highways and for building heavy duty trucks and cars – of course they’re in trouble right now and you say they need to be converted to do something else; what might that be?
RH: If we’re going to save any part of the US based auto industry it should be to participate in the energy transition. It’s unlikely we’d need three big companies – GM, Ford, and Chrysler – but some form of industry could be salvaged that would make, for example, public transportation infrastructure. We’re going to need a lot of that. Meanwhile, given the way the economy is looking over the next few years and given our energy supply is looking over the next few decades, I would guess that our auto-fleet which up to this time has had a turnover of about fifteen years, in other words, not everyone buys a new car every year, it takes about fifteen years to change out the whole fleet. I think that’s going to increase to twenty five years to infinity basically. We’re going to be using our existing cars and trucks as long as we can and not really replacing them.
JB: It’s like going to Cuba and looking at all the 1950s vehicles or something.
RH: Exactly. So if that’s the case, we should adjust our thinking accordingly and put those people to work; put those industries to work producing what we really will need.
JB: The other thing I found interesting is the difference between your idea – how to allocate energy in a time of scarcity compared to what’s being proposed right now. For example, you have cap and trade mechanisms where rights and trade are allocated to the polluters and then they are allowed to buy and sell them among each other and you get into tradable energy quotas; do you want to talk about how that differs from most policy?
RH: Well, tradable energy quotas will work not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also allocate scarce fossil fuels if that’s a problem. Cap and trade, cap and dividend, cap and share programs all assume basically that there are plenty of energy resources out there and we just need to constrain our consumption of them in order to protect the climate. But if we are also faced with energy scarcity at the same time, that’s likely to undermine the carbon trading systems because the value of carbon emissions will periodically sky-rocket and collapse; we’ll have an extremely variable and volatile system. So the tradable energy quotas is essentially just a rationing system like we had during World War II. We know that those work in times of scarcity and many other countries have had rationing systems for fuel, food, tires, nylons, stockings, all kinds of things whenever really important things become scarce.
JB: It’s a way to ensure social stability and fairness as opposed to allowing the poor to become destitute then have unrest, like you’re seeing in Greece right now, for example.
RH: Exactly and if those quotas or rations are tradable and there’s in fact a government supported market then that does introduce a market mechanism so that if people – every year people know the total number of quotas will be declining, so they have to plan accordingly. Next year, I’m going to use whatever it is, three per cent or five per cent less energy, less gasoline than I did this year; so how am I going to do that? And then if I do my planning really well and I use ten per cent less, I’ll have some quotas left over at the end of the year, I can sell those and actually benefit financially. On the other hand, if I’m not so smart, if I don’t think about it, if I run out of quotas in the middle of the year, I’m going to have to buy them on the market and that will represent an increased energy cost so the system would reward energy conservers and penalize energy guzzlers.
JB: Quite a change from what has been the social rewards thus far. Now, of course all of this is going to necessitate a lot of education and training because we’re talking about completely new jobs it sounds like. So this is where you get to the Green New Deal program – part of it where the big deal about the New Deal was that people were put to work doing things that were purposeful.
RH: Right, well President Elect Obama has called for the creation of five million green collared jobs which is a great start. I think we’re going to need a lot more than that. I’ve suggested in some things I’ve written previously – but just in the area of agriculture, we’re going to need something like fifty million new food producers over the course of the next twenty years. And by the way, these proposals in this document cannot all be enacted over the course of four years or eight years, we’re talking about an epic change in our society and it’s something that is going to take several decades, perhaps three or four decades at minimum. But what we can do, in one administration is change direction.
JB: How do you sell something like this – in other words, you’ve got a population that has been told, ‘you’re a consumer, keep spending and consuming so that you can keep the economy turning’ and basically we’re turning this over completely and really has to happen within a very short time period. So, how do you message this, how do you sell this to people?
RH: Partly through formal education. I think we could use the community college system and even the grade school system to start to impart skills that people will actually need in this new economy. Community colleges would be especially good because they’re so inexpensive and widely distributed throughout society. But then we also need public messaging through Hollywood, through the public relations industry, through the kinds of informal messages that were more or less embedded in twenty-four hours a day and sort of take for granted and right now that system of public messaging is, as you said, supporting the idea that we should buy and consume and use and waste as much as we can – that’s what makes us Americans and what makes us happy and so on. But in fact, we need just the opposite set of messages that help us to conserve and change how we’re using energy and other things. And in fact, we had something similar to that in the New Deal. We had Hollywood and even the business community were very much in line with the messages that were needed then – and also during World War II. I think something like that can happen now because if the government is bailing out whole industries including the banking industry, the financial industry, the automakers, soon to be the farmers and so on, there should be something given in return for that. I think one thing that could come back would be for advertising and public relations to start to take into account this different kind of messaging that needs to happen.
JB: Yeah, you think about people who went through that time period they’ve remained frugal their whole life in a sense and that kind of shift can happen very fast if it’s necessary for survival and also if its reinforced socially.
RH: Right, exactly.
JB: So, something that also I think is maybe distinctive about your plan here is what you call, planned decentralization – want to highlight that a little bit?
RH: Right, well those of us in the peak oil community have been discussing that for a long time in terms of what we’ve called relocalization: the idea that as cheap transportation fuel becomes not so cheap, or not so affordable, we’re going to have to shorten supply chains and rely more on our communities for production, as well as consumption. This is an idea that was also present during the New Deal in the 1930s, the idea of decentralism and in fact Arthur Morgan who was one of the great intellectuals of that period in our nation’s history. Arthur Morgan was the primary decentralist spokesperson in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, although the idea really can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and his idea of agrarianism. In the current situation, I think the decentralist ideas and strategies have to be taken seriously as we address the national transition away from fossil fuels. We have to take into account energy sources are largely going to be regional ones and our food systems are going to have to be largely relocalized, so this is going to have political and social dimensions to it as well.
JB: Definitely. I like also that – we’ll talk about this again at the end – you can sell this to people because there’s a sense of people like to think that they have some control and a sense of self-reliance so I think from all sorts of the political spectrum; they also like to be connected to each other but I tend to get a lot of people interested in these sorts of ideas very quickly, when you start talking about learning how to grow your own food and have your own renewable energy resources nearby and I think it’s a good sell, but it’s hard to sell it at the higher levels of governments because they’re about centralization in many ways.
RH: That’s right. So everyone has to trust, to a certain degree, and also be willing to be flexible and to change. Those of us who are maybe a little more – in our thinking we tend to be more decentralist anyways, we like to have local control; we’re suspicious about big government. Well, we have to understand that we got ourselves into a situation historically that’s going to require national and international action to deal with climate change, the energy transition and so on, but at the same time those who like to think in terms of big systems and centralized control have to understand the only way we’re going to be able to solve this is to ultimately decentralize our distribution and production systems.
JB: Yeah, you have to have flexibility of the mind to be able to see the benefits and tradeoffs in all these scales. The end of this sort of ‘how’ is about setting goals; what’s important about setting goals and targets?
RH: Well, this is exactly the hang up that’s happening with the climate negotiations right now in Poznan. The Western nations want to be able to say, well yes we’ll reduce our emissions by sixty per cent or whatever by 2050, but they are unwilling to set short-term goals that would actually help us get there. So the discussion about where we’re going to be by 2020 is kind of off the table and the less industrialized countries are demanding that the industrialized countries set short-term goals because otherwise they are just making empty promises. That applies to what we’re talking about to: the national energy transition. We have to set very high, but nevertheless achievable goals in all of these areas with regard to our food system, renewable energy, energy conservation, the insulation of millions of American homes – super insulation provision with alternative heat sources. All of these have to be supplied with targets that are also coordinated throughout all of these different agencies for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions, reducing fuel consumption, building renewable energy capacity, retrofitting the transportation system and so on. The Federal Government should take a lead in all of this by setting targets for all of its federal buildings and departments and its employees and States can be doing the same thing – and this is not trivial because the government is an enormous user of energy and if its setting the tone for the rest of society, I think that helps the whole thing go much more easily.
JB: Oh, certainly. For the past several years, it’s been local governments that have been really ahead of the curve in terms of caring about these issues and trying to set some examples, but they have such small budgets compared to the Federal Government, it can be really helpful to have all levels working together on this.
Well, why don’t we finish off – we have about five minutes left – on selling the benefits.
RH: Obviously this is a big job and not everyone is going to be all that excited to be giving up on the 20th Century American dream of two cars in every garage and a quick trip to the local Walmart to stock up on bags full of groceries that are all processed and trucked in from tropical countries and so on. I think it’s important that everyone involved, understands a lot ancillary benefits can come from this kind of project. Not only is it essential to stave off economic and social collapse, but just for example, in our addiction to oil we’re almost required to police much of the energy rich sections of the world in order to maintain open access to oil from say, the Middle East and from equatorial Africa. We, the United States, could save hundreds of billions of dollars a year through reduced military budgets if we didn’t have to do that. We could also save hundreds of billions of dollars by having a food system that substantially reduces massive health problems because of the kind of foods that we eat; problems like obesity and cancer. We could also dramatically reduce environmental pollution – most of which results directly or indirectly from our use of fossil fuels.
JB: Yeah, like the diesel standards that California is trying to implement right now. Amazing number of people inhaling that exhaust gives lung problems and asthma.
RH: Absolutely, yes.
JB: Definitely, definitely. This is something about GDP that Obama seemed to understand a bit is that GDP includes ambulance fees and hospital visits.
RH: Cleaning up after disasters
JB: And cleaning up after disasters, so…
RH: So, if the GDP grows when we clean up after disasters, maybe we need more disasters to keep the GDP up. It’s illogical thinking, but that’s the kind of rut we’re stuck in.
JB: Now, this is a deeper issue and it may be harder to sell, because part of what we’re briefly mentioning earlier was that when you have a population engaged in sort of work that is highly practical, let’s say, and they have skills related to community and self-reliance. Does that help make the population more well-adjusted and happy?
RH: Certainly, absolutely. People who know how to do things for themselves are inherently more contented, happier with their lives and this is being shown in happiness studies. And people who are completely dependent on systems beyond their control for their very existence – if you’re depending on machines and monetary systems and all the rest – you don’t even understand, it creates a deep seeded sense of dependency and inadequacy. Most of us carry that around with us all the time, twenty-four hours a day and we can’t even put our finger on it because everyone else that we know also has that same kind of sense.
JB: That anxiety. What about, at the end you sort of conclude that’s this is a way to heal political divisions; liberals concern over the welfare of others and conservatives concerns over autonomy and self-sufficiency.
RH: Right, there are honourable motives on both sides of the aisle, clearly in politics things get down and dirty really fast, but ultimately liberals are genuinely concerned over the welfare of others and they want to have a fair society and conservatives on the other hand are more motivated by a concern for self-sufficiency, local autonomy, doing it for yourself, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and so on. All of those things are perfectly honourable and they don’t have to be in the ideal situation, in a case, they don’t have to be contradictory. We can harness all of those motives together in our collective effort.
JB: All right, we’ll have to end the show there. Thank you so much. We’ve been talking to Richard Heinberg. He’s the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. You can go to www.postcarbon.org. We’ve been talking about energy realism and the New Green Deal. This has been the Reality Report, I’m your host Jason Bradford. See today’s show and previous ones at globalpublicmedia.com. Thanks to our members, thanks again Richard and my studio engineer, Tim Gregory. Have a great week everybody.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.