Can We Earn a Living on a Living Planet?
February 23, 2015
It has been a tough couple of years in the effort to unite labor, community, and environmental groups, an alliance that has always been strained.
The extractive energy sector—coal, gas, oil—has historically had strong union representation and well-paying jobs. Tensions rose in 2011 after the Sierra Club escalated their campaign to close coal plants and 350.org, the climate protection group led by activist Bill McKibben, called for a halt to the Keystone XL Pipeline project. Even Obama’s relatively mild order this past June on reducing pollution from power plants was opposed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Mineworkers.
“Where is the transition plan for workers?
At a February 2013 meeting of labor and environmental activists, Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO’s director of policy and special counsel, yelled and pounded the table, “Where is the transition plan for workers? Why isn’t this part of your demands?”
Divisions will increase in the coming years, as two competing urgencies collide. Labor and community justice organizations will demand jobs, economic growth, and reductions in inequality. And environmental activists will increase pressure to curtail fossil fuel production in the face of climate disruptions. Both the politics and the policies of these goals seem to diverge. But must they?
“Pitting jobs versus the environment is a false choice,” says Joe Uehlein, a longtime trade unionist, now board president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which builds alliances between environmental and labor sectors. “We need to figure out how to make a living on a living planet.”
Visions of Growth
Liberal Keynesians and their trade union allies have long associated economic growth with better wages, tighter labor markets, and rising living standards. Rising gross domestic product (GDP), the traditional measure of growth, is said to reflect increased productivity. Of course, higher productivity doesn’t automatically yield better lives for workers—too much of it lately has been captured by the top one percent. Labor has never asserted that growth is the whole story—a broad diffusion of the economy’s productivity also requires labor market regulation, strong unions, progressive taxation, and social outlays. But still, it is hard to envision rising living standards without growth.
However, another important voice in progressive circles argues that our growth paradigm is a dead end—that we should face this fact and get on with the urgent work of transitioning to an ecologically sustainable new economy. “Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with,” writes Richard Heinberg in The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. “There are now fundamental barriers to ongoing economic expansion and the world is colliding with those barriers.”
In some respects, these two core constituencies of American progressivism are talking past each other. By “growth,” liberal advocates of full employment and other measures of a well-performing economy don’t mean the trajectory we’ve been on. Market economies, left to their own devices, have produced both social injustice and environmental predation. GDP has come under well-deserved attack for counting “bads” (pollution, crime, prisons, medical treatment for preventable illness) as if they were economic goods—and underplaying social indicators of well-being. A new economy could raise living standards for most people, at a lower planetary toll, although “consumption” would have different ingredients.
There was a time when limits-to-growth advocates were ridiculed by orthodox economists because the planetary crisis had not yet validated their warnings. Raw materials, contrary to their prophecies, were not becoming more expensive, but often cheaper. Some critics contended that they were elevating a lifestyle choice—voluntary simplicity—to an ecological imperative. Today, however, acceptance of the climate emergency is utterly mainstream and scientifically confirmed.
Yet there is still a fair debate about what sacrifices in living standards must be accepted (and by whom) to save the earth, and how to accommodate the aspirations of working people, in rich and poor countries alike, who never shared in the growth. Many in the environmental movement, especially “deep ecology” activists, counter that the survival of the planet trumps all other concerns. Humans must adjust to a lower level of material consumption. That view, which is surely valid as an existential assertion, is hard to accept if your level of material well-being has been declining for decades, or if you have never been party to Western-style consumption at all. Can this chasm be bridged?
For me, this conundrum is personal. My adult life has existed at the intersection of struggles to reduce economic inequality and to save the environment. For 30 years, I’ve worked as a community organizer and researcher on issues of affordable housing, community development, and growing wealth inequality in the United States.
But I also came of political age in the late 1970s, fighting against the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. While living in Mexico, I questioned whether the U.S. economic model could expand to the Global South without huge ecological costs.
In the 1990s, I co-founded a national organization to address wealth inequality. I worked with Bill Gates, Sr., and Warren Buffett to fight the repeal of the federal estate tax. Like many progressive Keynesians, I supported growth policies to remedy a stagnant wage economy.
While arguing for a better distribution of a bigger pie, I was immersing myself in the world of ecological limits and green economics. My vacation reading pile included books like Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, and new economy thinkers such as Peter Victor, Van Jones, Juliet Schor, David Korten, and Gus Speth.
In my Boston neighborhood, I co-founded Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition to build community resilience in the face of economic and ecological change. I encountered a whole neighborhood of local activists who were concerned about economic inequality and ecology, and were engaged in building a new food system, re-localized enterprises, and all manner of “small is beautiful” interventions.
In the back of my mind was a dawning appreciation of cognitive dissonance: How can we both “prime the economic pump” and recognize the “limits to growth”? The technical questions come entangled with political ones. Do my inequality and job-creation allies disbelieve the science of planetary boundaries, or do they fear the dire implications of conceding the growth debate to the political right? Are my enviro allies tone-deaf to equity and employment issues?
Is there a program that grows the good parts of the economy—and raises the standards of living in communities that have been excluded from prosperity—while shrinking the destructive growth? Can we redefine growth in a way that could satisfy the job seekers and the planet savers?
I spent much of last year interviewing some of the most thoughtful people in both movements, sometimes in the same room. I came away feeling that the quest for common ground is challenging, but far from hopeless.
The Ends of Growth
Joe Uehlein personifies this quest for reconciliation. A singer-songwriter as well as an organizer, he grew up in a union family in Lorain, Ohio, with a mother who organized with the clothing workers union and a father who worked in the steel mills and helped found the steelworkers union. “When I was 17, I got a job at an aluminum factory and became a member of the United Steelworkers of America,” says Uehlein, who grew up along the shores of Lake Erie.
In 1972, Uehlein was working construction, pouring concrete at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. He had to cross a picket line of anti-nuclear environmentalists to go to work. His union local put out a bumper sticker: “Hungry and Out of Work? Eat an Environmentalist.”
“We swam in the lake and ate yellow perch by the hundreds,” he says. “One day, there was a sign that said the lake was contaminated: No swimming or fishing.”
Today, he says, “There are people who say I’m no longer a trade unionist because I’ve spoken out against the Keystone XL Pipeline. That stings and it’s wrong.”
“There is short-term thinking in both corporations and the labor movement when it comes to climate change,” says Uehlein. “But the enviros need to understand that we won’t build a movement to reduce carbon emissions without addressing the economic security concerns facing a majority of workers.”
Another trade unionist drawn to the environmental cause is Ron Blackwell. Now retired from a senior post at the AFL-CIO, Blackwell has joined forces with Joe Uehlein to bridge the gap between blue and green—and strengthen these social movements.
“We are failing,” says Blackwell. “The atmosphere continues to warm and inequality continues to increase. We need to clarify the concepts that divide us and figure out how to grow human well-being.”
“For most trade unionists, growth means jobs,” Blackwell adds. “For many environmentalists, growth means destruction. Given that difference, it is mighty tough to build solidarity.”
Limits to the Limits to Growth
After talking to labor people like Ron Blackwell and Joe Uehlein in Washington, D.C., I am eager to talk to supporters of ecological economics. I am invited, as a guest, to attend a board retreat of the Post Carbon Institute, a group of respected intellectuals and activists rooted in the limits-to-growth tradition. We meet at a stunning mountaintop conference center, Earthrise, looking north over Petaluma, California, with gorgeous views in every direction.
I have read five of the Institute’s Senior Fellow-in-Residence Richard Heinberg’s books and hosted him as a speaker in Boston. He is representative of a group of independent scholars, ecological thinkers, and green economists who have been inserting nature back into the economic equation for decades.
Starting with the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth, these futurists have been warning that we are overshooting the earth’s carrying capacity in terms of population, pollution, and resource depletion. In 1973, ecological economist Herman Daly published Toward a Steady-State Economy, offering an alternative vision of a steady-state economy operating within planetary biophysical limits. Climate change is one of these planetary constraints, but not the only one. The Stockholm Resilience Center has identified nine, including biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and freshwater loss.
Guiding the retreat conversation is Asher Miller, the director of the Post Carbon Institute, a serious-minded organizer in his forties who had previously spent a decade working on human rights. “The biosphere has surpassed limits of both what can be safely extracted but also dumped into our various ‘sinks’: our planet’s ability to absorb and process waste, such as carbon and methane,” Miller says. “In a small economy, circa 1900, we could ignore these limits. But with the pace of exponential growth since then, we have surpassed our earth’s carrying capacity.”
Another pillar of the “limits” view is that we are at the end of the “cheap energy” era. We are not running out of oil, but we have already extracted the easy-to-get stuff. As a result, we are scrambling for more “extreme” forms of fossil fuel production, including deep-sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracking, and tar sands extraction.
Some “limits” advocates say that our current model of growth and consumption, particularly in industrialized countries, does not add to well-being and health; no one denies that there are minimal material needs, but above a certain level the benefits of further material growth reach a point of diminishing returns. “Natural capital” is the foundation of our economic way of life, they argue. Once we hit hard limits—and the perpetual growth machine stops humming—then the billions of dollars in financial bets, based on the assumption of continuous growth, will tank. At that point, we will be left with both an ecologically degraded society and a stagnant economy.
Finally, some ecologists argue we must confront the anthropocentric hubris of our actions: Our growth model is destroying other species and habitats. Spaceship Earth is not for humans alone—and our fate is intertwined with the flourishing of other life forms.
I join a discussion with Miller, Mateo Nube from Movement Generation, and Diane Johnson. Nube and Johnson are both organizers and residents of Oakland. “We need a huge World War II–style mobilization to conserve energy and invest in renewables,” says Miller. “The bad news is, this politically won’t happen anytime soon. Which is why the local new economy transition movement is so important.”
“We need to protect our communities from extractive capitalism and re-localize our economy,” says Nube. “The changes we are seeing in our food system—the move toward local and regional production—is what we need in all sectors, including energy.”
“We have to be careful in our efforts to build community resilience,” adds Johnson. “If we are not intentional about social justice and equity, our resiliency organizing efforts could replicate the inequalities of the old system.”
I feel in sync with these conversations. With our national political system evidently captured by the extractive energy industry, many people are shifting engagement to the local level, where they have agency. Local action could be the base for a new economy political movement, when the opportune moments emerge. But Johnson has a point. Even these new community resilience movements could replicate the class and racial patterns of the old order.
“The Party is Over?”
I return to Boston from the mountaintop summit with the “end of growth” people, eager to talk to my neighborhood co-workers who advocate a “just transition.”
I pick up the conversation with my colleague Carlos Espinoza-Toro, the lead organizer for the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. I mention Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over, about oil depletion and its implications for the future of the United States’ standard of living.
“The party’s over?” Carlos repeats. “I wasn’t even invited to the party. In fact, I’ve been working at the party and hoping I would get to go some day.” He laughs, but I hear the sense of betrayal in his voice.
I reflect on what I know of Carlos’s life. I see him working at his father’s auto body shop in Lima, Peru. His father dips his hands into the chemical solvents, knowing they are toxic, but hoping for a better life for his children. I see his parents send Carlos off to the United States for an education, with hopes for a professional career.
“As organizers, we think of our work as the art of mobilizing people by raising expectations,” reflects Carlos. “People are engaged when there is a possibility of more—more dignity, more income, better working conditions, and a piece of the pie. How do we organize people around the reality that their aspiration—for a decent job, retirement security, a new car, a vacation, a better life for their children—is less possible? And what if the messengers are mostly privileged people, people who have been at the party?”
“Yeah, it was a great party,” I reply, mocking my own defensiveness. “Sorry that we affluent white people in the Global North ate all the food, drank all the booze, and trashed the house. Sorry it’s over. Now it’s time for you to sacrifice, tighten your belt.”
We are laughing. “I sure as hell don’t want to be the one to break the news to people,” says Carlos. “The only people who want to hear this are already Luddites.”
Among my community organizer friends, talking about any sort of limits to growth is a nonstarter, especially for those who were raised with little money, job stability, or creature comforts. The radical insistence on limits to growth seems the choice of privileged people who volunteer for a simpler lifestyle and then inflict it on others with far fewer choices.
I meet my friend Alexie Torres-Fleming, who worked for two decades as an organizer in the South Bronx. “There is a total disconnect across race and class when we talk about the ecological limits to future growth. It will not be heard unless you speak to deprivation, loss, anger.”
I call Asher Miller at the Post Carbon Institute. “Yep, there is a serious communications issue,” he says. In 2008, Miller worked on a presidential political campaign that had a serious internal discussion about climate change. The science experts and the political people debated whether the candidate should use words like “sacrifice” or “conserve.” They concluded they could talk about “efficiency,” because conservation signaled to people they were going to have to live with less.
“Remember the last major politician who tried to have an honest political discussion about the limits of our energy consumption?” Miller asks.
I flash back to being eighteen years old in 1978, and taking a Greyhound bus home from Boston to Detroit. On the rear of the bus was a big sign: “Thanks for taking the bus and saving energy,” signed Jimmy Carter.
I pull up several YouTube videos of President Carter addressing the nation about the energy crisis in 1977. In one video, Carter sits by a crackling fire in the White House, wearing a yellow cardigan sweater. The message is, “Rosalynn and I are conserving heat here at the White House, and you can make a sacrifice, too.”
I am struck by the directness of Carter’s words in another address to the nation. “Ours is the most wasteful nation on earth,” he pronounces. “We waste more energy than we import.” Carter notes that the U.S. consumes twice as much energy as European nations, with the same standard of living.
Carter’s program for reducing dependence on foreign oil started with conservation. “If we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices,” he says in the video where he sits by the fire, “if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust and make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive.”
Sacrifice. Conservation. Thrift. These are not words I’ve heard in recent decades. Not surprisingly—the public didn’t buy it. Ronald Reagan’s ebullient 1984 “Morning in America” campaign message drove a gas-guzzling Hummer over Carter’s austerity rhetoric. Reagan removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House, and since 1980, the discourse about energy and economic growth has been, “We can have it all!”
The lesson: Talking about limits may be anti-American, and it certainly won’t win elections. Optimistic abundance is the way to go.
Since Carter, climate change and energy policy have become political culture-war issues. The right promotes a “drill, baby, drill” energy policy, where any constraints on consumption are viewed as big government, job-killing liberalism. In Democratic Party politics, no one wants to be perceived as soft on growth.
Can better ideas work as politics? I make a date to bicycle over to Boston College and talk to Juliet Schor, a professor of economics and sociology, and the author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. But the next day it is nearly ninety degrees and humid, so I drive my car.
“Beware of people who say they can predict the future,” says Schor. “The climate cycle? The economy? Technological innovation? These are each huge and incredibly complex systems. And we’re talking about how they interact together. We can’t possibly forecast where we will be in the next decade.”
“The limits-to-growth folks are right about energy,” she adds. “We can’t replace cheap oil. But there are lots of unknowns, including the role of technological innovation to reduce waste and increase efficiency.”
Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute have been arguing across four decades that improved energy efficiency is the “largest, cheapest, safest, cleanest, fastest way to provide energy services.” According to Lovins, the economy could save 50 percent of oil and gas and three-quarters of electricity—at one-eighth the cost.
Schor points to innovation emerging at the local level—including neighborhood-based “makerspaces” and “fabrication labs,” enabling production of many things localities typically import, like snow shovels and wheelbarrows. People are planting trees and exploring new ways to sequester carbon. Young farmers are merging traditional farming wisdom with new technology and insights about soil fertility, boosting output while transitioning away from fossil fuel–intensive agriculture.
“We are redefining growth and wealth and measures of abundance,” Schor says, smiling. She puts on a broad sun hat and walks me back to my car, before setting out on foot for home.
I find Schor’s insights have a double edge. For the labor people, technological progress implies we can have our living standards and our sustainability, too. For the deep enviros, the inability to predict the future is reflected in the fact that climate change and sea level rise have proceeded much faster than projected, to the point of irreversibility. Without drastic reductions in consumption, they insist, technology won’t save us.
Growth of What?
“We are fetishizing growth,” says Ron Blackwell, the retired labor economist. “Growth of what? We need to make a distinction between dead-end growth and healthy growth.”
Blackwell is invoking an important debate among economists, such as Herman Daly, about whether it is possible to reduce the worst aspects of destructive extraction, consumption, and waste dumping (“throughput”) from production of goods and services that improve our lives. Some economists say these are linked together; others, including Blackwell, argue they can be delinked. Green energy, for instance, reduces throughput.
I’ve pulled Blackwell and Schor into a meeting of the New Economy Working Group, in Washington, D.C. “We shouldn’t overplay the role of growth in the debate,” Schor agrees. “We’re living with low growth now. But we urgently need to bring emissions down.”
“I agree the frame of growth is problematic,” chimes in Randy Hayes, a longtime environmental activist. “What I don’t find problematic is selective growth and selective de-growth.”
“It’s not growth versus no growth,” agrees Robert Pollin, an economist from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Some things should grow a lot, like the clean energy sector. Other things should shrink, like the fossil fuel sector. The growth from massive investments in clean energy will lead to millions of jobs.”
As an economist, Pollin challenges the idea that there is a trade-off between jobs and the environment. “The climate movement needs workers on their side. It can’t just be billionaires like Michael Bloomberg who care about the environment and drive the process from the top down.”
Pollin’s new book-length report, Green Growth: A U.S. Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities, spells out a bold plan to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40 percent over the next 20 years and create 2.7 million net new jobs. The plan assumes “the U.S. economy will not experience any slowdown in economic growth.”
Pollin’s program requires an annual investment of $190 billion over the next 20 years, essentially a shift of 1.2 percent of the GDP. This investment would be steered toward “dramatically raising energy efficiency standards in buildings, transportation systems, and industrial processes, and, equally dramatically, expanding the supply of renewable energy sources—solar, wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro, and clean bioenergy power.”
What is not to love about that program? We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand employment, and maintain our standard of living. I can envision candidates running for office and winning on a “green growth” platform.
“We need ideas like the Pollin program,” says Joe Uehlein. “It is a macroeconomy policy vision that complements the local community social justice work.”
I am elated, but it only lasts until I talk to Asher Miller again. He offers a cautionary note: The transition to renewable energy can’t be achieved without massive fossil fuel expenditure and carbon emissions along the way. “What we forget,” says Miller, “is that the process of bringing renewable energy to mass scale requires huge fossil fuel inputs for extraction, manufacturing, and transport.”
My friendly Cassandras have a point: The ecological and economic breakdown is already under way for most of the planet. For the economically secure in the wealthier nations, we can periodically wake up to the breakdown, but still ignore its systemic nature. But if you’re a Bangladeshi farmer, you’re already trying to survive climate change and you’ve possibly become a climate refugee. If you’re a farmer in the Central Valley of California, you are wondering if your unprecedented drought is part of a “new normal” with weather.
Power down. Use less. Reduce consumption. The ghost of Jimmy Carter is knocking on my double-paned insulated window.
Averting the Coming Clash
I see an approaching political and cultural clash. As the ecological crisis worsens, environmentalists become bolder, opposing any new fossil fuel extraction and working to put a price on carbon. But as economic inequality accelerates, we demand that our politicians create jobs, raising pressure to weaken environmental standards. Growth has faltered—not because the enviros are winning, but because the Keynesians are losing. Right-wingers and global corporations will be happy to deflect our progressive anger onto one another, stoking the culture war and pitting struggling workers against environmental protections.
Meanwhile, the push for energy independence in North America will lead to huge public and private investments in deep-water oil, tar sands, shale oil fracking, and pipelines to transport extreme energy, sources of many high-wage union jobs. The most militant elements of the environmentalist movement will expand direct-action tactics, blocking pipelines and confronting energy workers directly. There is an iconic news photograph emblazoned in my memory: The hardhats beating up the anti-war activists.
Does it have to be this way? Europe appears to have an easier time with this growth conversation. For decades, all major parties have embraced high taxes on carbon as only sensible. That’s basic leadership that our politicians lack. In Germany, the labor movement has embraced the rapid transition to decentralized renewable energy, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
“German workers have less to fear,” observes Joe Uehlein. “They already have a just transition in the form of a social safety net. These German workers are not afraid of losing their health care, pension, paid vacations, and affordable educations for kids. We need the equivalent of military base–closing legislation as we close power plants, with planning and worker protections.”
Joe Uehlein’s point about Germany offers a clue to uniting labor, community, and environmental activists. If we really want to fix the environment, then we need coalitions to rewire an economic system that currently exploits humans and depletes nature.
“What we enviros need to understand is the centrality of work in people’s lives—and that in a society with deep social insecurity, your job is everything,” says Uehlein. “One’s livelihood, retirement, hopes, and dreams. We have everything to fear from an environmental movement that is silent about workers. Sustainability starts at the kitchen table, meaning our kid’s education, savings, food, and next job.”
To talk about 100-year scenarios and the survivability of other species, without standing with the immediate survival struggles of most people, is to retreat to a privileged and deeply disconnected space. Until we address the underlying insecurities that most people face, we will fail in our efforts to build a common movement.
Many I spoke with invoked the legacy of Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader with roots in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) that started in the 1960s. I was lucky enough to meet Mazzocchi a few times, a man considered the Rachel Carson of the labor movement and a pioneer in the field of worker health and safety.
Mazzocchi’s view was that the environmentalists needed to become vocal advocates of a “just transition” program for workers, especially when green policies eliminate jobs. This program goes beyond the small and often ineffective job retraining programs, like those administered under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program after NAFTA. Mazzocchi called these transitional labor subsidies the equivalent of “burial insurance.”
“There is a Superfund for dirt,” Mazzocchi quipped, referring to the program for toxic waste sites. “There ought to be one for workers.”
In that spirit, the environmental movement needs to become a new economy movement that advocates for full employment, just transition for workers, and job-boosting public investment in education, infrastructure, and research. “We will fail if we can’t bring these movements together,” says Uehlein. “There is so much at stake. We have to blend our interests if we are going to reduce economic inequality and address the climate crisis.”
Those of us in the labor-equality camp need to understand that “making a living on a living planet” will entail more than the high-wage industrial jobs that organized labor has protected for a shrinking percentage of the workforce. It means rethinking livelihoods not just in terms of wage income, but meeting needs through self-provisioning, the sharing economy, community exchange, and yes, simplifying our lives. It may mean a shorter workweek, as wage work is spread around broadly.
Most progressives I spoke with, whether steady-state economists, community gardeners, doomsday preppers or “prime the pump” Keynesians, agree on a few points.
1. Conservation. We need to achieve European levels of energy conservation. We need a Marshall Plan of internal investment to retrofit buildings, raise auto emission standards, and reduce our carbon footprint. This is where technological innovation can make a tremendous difference.
2. Renewable Energy. Capital, subsidies, and incentives should shift away from the old fossil fuel economy toward the new sustainable and equitable economy. The Divest-Invest movement—to divest from fossil fuels—calls for reinvestment in a wide range of alternatives and new economy enterprises.
3. Pricing Carbon. Raise the price on carbon as quickly as possible. Use the proceeds of these funds for immediate green infrastructure investments as well as per capita dividends to individuals to offset the regressivity of the tax.
4. Power Down the Wealthy. Among progressives, there is agreement that the world’s rich need to power down, reduce excessive consumption, and pay restitution for decades of excess. We need to levy steep taxes on private jets and mega-mansions to offset their real environmental costs.
5. Community Resilience. We need to re-localize and regionalize our economies, specifically food systems, energy production, transportation, and other core businesses.
But there is no agreement about who else, aside from the very wealthy, should also be powering down. From a global equity perspective, many argue that the entire United States needs to immediately reduce its fossil fuel consumption. Similarly, there is no agreement over what would constitute a sustainable standard of living and level of consumption. Nor is there agreement over the urgency and timeline.
A huge rift remains over how to spend the remaining “carbon budget” over the next two decades. If we have a limited carbon budget, less than 500 gigatons of carbon, that we can burn before we push the earth’s temperature two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels (and that’s a big “if” that ignores the unknowable impact of feedback loops and climate science), how should it be spent? Should it be invested in infrastructure transition? Should a global priority be focused on lifting up the global poor, the people who were not invited to the party?
My personal takeaway: We should adopt the “precautionary principle.” Since we truly don’t know all the future holds—but have strong evidence that we’re approaching fundamental biological limits—we should proceed with all deliberate speed to reduce our fossil fuel use, even if it slows traditional measures of growth. We can start with waste and face the reality that our American way of life, even with advanced conservation technology, uses more than our global fair share.
Yet by embracing a “just transition,” we can combine reduced energy consumption with greater equity and community resilience. At the same time, I want to be part of a larger movement to promote macro-policies like the Pollin plan. And that effort has to be worldwide.
In negotiating a global treaty to reduce carbon while improving livelihoods in the Global South, progress has floundered largely due to the failure of the North, especially the United States, to take its overproduction of carbon seriously. It’s hard to expect China or India to agree to a serious program unless the U.S. is a full partner. An entente between the labor and the environmentalist perspectives could help change U.S. policy, which in turn could advance the necessary global collaboration.
It is hard to imagine today that the federal government, held hostage by Big Oil, could significantly address the climate crisis and reduce extreme wealth inequality. A lot of our work, therefore, is to prepare and be ready for a trigger moment when the wider public understands the failings of the old system and is ready to accept a new vision. Like preparing for the next hurricane or weird weather event, we should plan for a transformative political moment.
“Things can change quickly,” says Joe Uehlein. “As a kid in 1965, no one was thinking about pollution and Lake Erie. Then the Cuyahoga River caught fire and bam! Earth Day in 1970.”
A Better Party
Is the party over?
“We are going to organize a better party,” says Juliet Schor. “The party under extractive capitalism has made people sick, overworked, disconnected from one another and nature. We want to transition to a new economy that is radically more equal and better for the flourishing of humans. We will not make progress if we stay in the “old growth” paradigm. We have to offer a different paradigm with different measures of well-being and community resilience.”
The great labor leader Samuel Gompers is often misquoted as saying, “More!” in response to the question “What does labor want?” Here’s what he actually said, in 1893: “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.” He was way ahead of his time.
What do labor, community justice advocates, and environmentalists want?
We want less inequality and more dignified work that contributes to the greater good and is safe from toxins and hazards. We want the material basis of economic prosperity and the ecological bounty required to thrive—clean water and air, fertile soil and wholesome food.
We want our children to flourish, their bodies to grow strong and healthy, with full voices and laughter. We want our elders to be honored and treasured. We want vibrant communities of art, creativity, song, and learning.
We want less toil and more rest. We want the weekend and a few more weekdays to delight in one another and care for the young, the old, and those in need. We want time to care for the earth, to be generous stewards and protectors of the commons, passing it on undiminished to future generations.