The Sustainability Movement in 2011, Part 3

January 26th, 2011

This little survey of the state of the sustainability movement going into 2011 would not be complete without looking further at policy and practice in a number of increasingly problematic areas, from water, to energy, to agricultural runoff, to education, and so on. As always, the rhetoric far outpaces the reality. But it’s important to know where each of these are, so we know where we’re starting, and what we need to move forward.

Despite the failure of climate change legislation to pass the Senate and become law, the Obama administration remains clear that the problem is an urgent one. In a speech on September 20, 2010, Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter led off the “Sustainability Education Summit” with the following:

In last year’s address at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change, President Obama left no doubt: it is imperative that we act now to create a sustainable future.

He said: ‘Our generation’s response to [the challenge of climate change] will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it — boldly, swiftly, and together — we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe. ‘

As the President made clear, we must not let this happen, and we will not.

But we need to commit ourselves to a Call to Action to answer the following questions:

Who will prepare the scientists, technicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and global humanitarians that can convert urgency into opportunity, replace fossil fuel dependence with clean energy innovation, and rebuild our economy and society on a new and greener foundation? Who will educate citizens ready to master these new realities and ensure exemplary stewardship of our planet for now and for future generations? []

While there are some interesting programs being pursued, these remain limited and preliminary, intended to demonstrate the possibilities rather than to fully realize them:

Through the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, our Office of Vocational and Adult Education is funding a green-focused technical assistance academy. Right now, the Department is working with five states – Ohio, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, and Illinois – over two years, to develop replicable models for taking ‘green” programs of study to scale from high school to 2 and 4-year programs of study. [ibid.]

Still, this represents considerable progress over the attitudes of the Bush administration, and President Obama seems to have a knack for coming back to politically difficult problems and finding a way through them, even though he has so far failed to inspire the nation to take up these kinds of challenges on a societal scale.

But policies coming out of Washington and realities on the ground are two different things; and in the end its not the rhetoric but the results that count. On this front we are, of course, still losing ground, and the question is what to do about it.

Let’s take the case of energy. We have a lot of different initiatives taking place, especially within individual states, but these are not always driven by any kind of clear or coherent vision. In New Jersey, where I live, the policies have been quite far-sighted though not fully coherent; the programs, on the other hand, have been a combination of manipulation and incompetence — a boondoggle for the solar PV industry (which is the least efficient renewable), an administrative nightmare for contractors and homeowners looking to weatherize or upgrade their homes, and very little progress on any other front.

In this context it’s helpful to get a broader view, which is what former Bush administration energy secretary Spencer Abraham tries to do in Lights Out! Ten Myths about (and Real Solutions to) America’s Energy Crisis (2010). Part of what’s notable about this book is that it reflects the mainstream view very clearly and coherently, and may well portend the shape of things to come as America continues to try to “muddle through” without a real national debate or national policy.

Indeed, the American ideal is to avoid anything like a rational discussion of alternatives and let “the invisible hand” of the market sort things out for better or (as it is turning out lately) for worse. Only when it looks like things are going irretrievably badly do people like Abraham call for government intervention; but at least it’s notable that he does so in several areas.

Abraham’s own story is instructive. A former senator from Michigan, he was completely surprised to be chosen as energy secretary, rather than be assigned labor or transportation. For one thing, as a senator he had sponsored a bill to abolish the Department of Energy. To his credit, he acknowledges that he had to dance around this and use some personal charm to get confirmed; and that once in office he had a lot to learn.

In the end, however, his prescriptions are dismally conventional ones, aiming at achieving a mix of 30% nuclear, 30% renewable sources (including hydro), and 30% “natural gas plus coal gasification (with full carbon capture)”—and he suggests that half the cost of achieving this implausible mix be borne by the federal government: essentially a right-wing, pro-industry approach somewhat disguised as an even-handed, “fair and balanced,” all-of-the-above kind of strategy that takes us further down the wrong path.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much the path that the Obama Administration has been pursuing as well, although perhaps with a clearer recognition of the goals that a transition to clean energy will need to meet. None of the policies currently in place will lead to anything like the stabilization (never mind the reduction) of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s needed is a huge wave of innovation, not just in the technology for generating and distributing energy, but also in the way we use it, and the things we choose to use it for.

Which brings us back to the fundamental need for a shift in our collective thinking, to put the engines of science and the economy to the service of sustaining life rather than exploiting it, and for leadership in clearly articulating this alternative vision. It’s not just a question of doing more with less; it’s also a matter of doing less—but doing what’s smart and what matters, not what’s wasteful and unnecessary. This is going to be difficult to decide. But unless we choose what we can do without, nature (or the economy) will decide for us.

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