Tuesday, June 17, 2008

But what about the economy?

Maybe it needs a revolution (Green with a gun).


We face two main problems in the world: depletion of fossil fuels, and climate change from burning fossil fuels. In the West we have a third problem, of us not producing much and importing a lot of stuff. The solution to all three problems is the same: reduce, reuse, recycle. "Just burn and buy less stuff" is apparently insane radicalism, as I've discussed before, but there you go. But to be fair, it is a radical idea in our society. It is indeed revolutionary.

Whenever we talk about "reduce, reuse, recycle", and start focusing on the "reduce" bit - as for example with the one tonne CO2 lifestyle, someone always says, "But what about the economy? If we stop buying so much stuff, the economy will collapse and millions will be jobless and homeless."

There are two good responses to this: "tough" and "not necessarily".

Almost nobody believes in a truly free market. We don't believe in letting four year olds buy assault rifles, letting Iran buy nuclear weapons, letting anyone buy heroin, or letting some mining company mine gold and pour arsenic-laden slurry into the river. Most of us believe in restricting or banning things which are dangerous to the community.

Where we differ is where we think we ought to draw the line. Some would legalise marijuana but ban crack-cocaine, others allow assault rifles to adults but not convicted criminals, others still have a "cap and trade" system for deadly pollution, and so on. But almost everyone agrees there ought to be some restrictions on some things.

So in talking about taxing fossil fuels, or issuing carbon rations, or similar systems, we are not talking about anything particularly new or radical. It's just an extension of what we already do. Soot from burning coal is harmful, so we restrict how much a coal-fired power station can emit. If we can restrict soot and mercury and radiation and heroin and arsenic, why not CO2?

When we make these restrictions, they hurt the producers of these harmful things. If we ban heroin, then Afghan opium poppy farmers' families go hungry. If we ban pouring arsenic into rivers, then the shareholders of gold mining companies - pension funds for your grandmother, the bank the young couple saving for a house put their money in to get interest - they all lose out. If we ban asbestos mining, asbestos miners lose their jobs.

If anyone complains, we say "tough." We decide that the harm done to the people producing this stuff by not letting them produce more is much less than the harm which would be done by letting it be produced freely. We consider the greater good.

If we don't worry about Afghan poppy farmers or young couples investing in banks or assault rifle sellers losing their income, I don't see why we should worry about coal miners or oil rig workers losing theirs. Tough.

But of course, it's not as simple as that. While the Afghan poppy farmer has not much else to fall back on, here in the developed West where 15% of the world's population consumes more than half its resources and makes more than half its pollution, we have safety nets, welfare and retraining programs and so on. Of course that is not possible if our restrictions cause a general economic collapse. But would that happen?

"Not necessarily"
Economies exist because people trade, not the other way around. Tom grows wheat and has more than he can eat, Harry has pigs and has more than he can feed. So Tom lends Harry some wheat to feed his pigs in exchange for a promise of some of the pigs later on when they're fattened up. There you go, Tom and Harry just created an economy - they have exchange of goods, and they even have credit, credit being getting something now in exchange for a promise of a share of something else in the future. It's not terribly difficult, even if the academics and politicians tell us we couldn't possible understand its genius and complexity.

Economies exist because people trade, and people trade what they have too much of in exchange for what they don't have enough of. We use our surplus to make up for our deficit. But people don't only exchange wheat and pigs, they don't only exchange goods, but also services.

If I watch a theatre play, listen to a musical performance, get advice from a lawyer or accountant, have a doctor look me over, get a massage from a masseuse, have an architect draw me up a set of plans for my dream house, have someone teach my child to read and write - these are all services, and require little or nothing in the way of consumption of resources and emission of pollution.

The world is not running short of oil because I stop on the street and listen to a South American band. The world's climate is not changing because I ask the doctor to check my temperature. Money is not flowing out of my country when I get a rubdown after a workout. These are all me spending money, buying services and helping the economy move along. A person could live the One Tonne CO2 Lifestyle and spend $1,000 a week on going to the theatre, the opera, out to dinner, and even pay to get laid - all things which use up little if any resources and produce little if any pollution compared to someone spending even $100 a week on fuel for their car.

Thus if people stop buying so much stuff, so many goods, that does not mean the economy will collapse. It can just change. People can simply offer and sell services instead. And when we look at the history of the world and its different economies, what we find is that this is a constant change, of having fewer people produce goods and more produce services. Indeed, those who produce services are often better-paid than those who produce goods. Who gets paid more, the carpenter or the lawyer? The potter or the doctor? The cook or the interpreter?

The Ecotechnic Revolution
Certainly if we restrict the consumption of fossil fuels and pollution our economies will change. I've said before, if we try to become an ecotechnic society, it'll be a change as profound as the Industrial Revolution was.

The Industrial Revolution gave us communism, the vote for women, fascism, antibiotics, two world wars, the United Nations, genocide, and the Internet, it gave us many things good and bad, reshaped the maps of the world and the nature of the societies on those maps. I expect that if we have an Ecotechnic Revolution, it will also give us many changes, good and bad; and part of any revolution is to change how the economy works.

We expect revolutions to be sudden and violent, but as Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, they are often quite gradual.
Sex before marriage. Bob and his boyfriend. Madame Speaker. Do those words make your hair stand on end or your eyes widen? Their flatness is the register of successful revolution. Many of the changes are so incremental that you adjust without realizing something has changed until suddenly one day you realize everything is different.

Good change always seems painfully slow, and bad change terrifyingly fast. Sometimes the good change even seems impossible, and the bad change very probable. I see this in blog posts from time to time, where someone in touch with what's happening around the world loses hope and starts crying "doom!" I'll gently tease them and offer hope or at least a more balanced view, and the response is generally hostile - more hostile from the male bloggers than the women, for some reason. They're attached to their despair and bitterness and don't want to let it go. Good change always seems painfully slow, and bad change terrifyingly fast.

Here then is the importance of personal action - reduce, reuse, recycle - to make good change seem possible. "If I can do it, anyone can." And here too is the importance of political action. "Let's do it together." As I've written before, we need individuals to take responsibility and communities which ensure fairness, need both individual and community action.

Only in this way can we have small changes every day which we adjust to until suddenly one day we realise everything is different, and we've had an Ecotechnic Revolution.

Green with a gun