Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- June 3, 2008

A New Day Dawning

Ernest Partridge


  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats.

The Partridges are feeling insufferably smug these days.

Halfway through the Bush regime, we cashed in our stocks, bought our house outright and tore up our mortgage. Though declining in value in this housing market crash, our modest home is our castle and now the bank cannot take it from us. We are completely free of debts. The Toyota Tundra truck, which twice took us to Alaska and on numerous camping trips, is now confined to necessary short hauls. An $85 fill-up last week convinced us that those long trips in the Tundra are luxuries that we can now do without. Last August we bought a Prius and, because we work at home, we have managed to drive it less than 800 miles a month. That amounts to about twenty gallons of gas or, coincidentally, another $85 a month. We can handle that. We are led to believe that in a couple of years, we might convert the Prius to “plug-in” electric power, and cut our gas consumption by two-thirds. We are also contemplating solar panels on our roof which might supply all our home electricity needs, with juice to spare to power the electric Prius and to sell back to So. Cal Edison.

Does that mean that we are well-prepared for the rocky times ahead?  Unfortunately, we are not.

Those same soaring fuel costs, made manageable to us by the Toyota engineers, are also borne by the trucks and railroads, etc., that bring food to our table. Also by the farmers who require petroleum to fuel their machinery and to produce their fertilizers. Add to all that, the cost of home heating, of petrochemicals (notably plastics), of the movement of all goods and services, and it soon becomes clear that petroleum is the primary indispensable commodity of our industrial civilization. When oil prices rise, so to does everything else. Whatever we might save at the pump, we pay more at the marketplace. . (See my “The Oil Trap”)

It is becoming increasingly obvious that with the extraordinary expansion of the economies of China, India and Southeast Asia, the demand for petroleum has outstripped the global supply which, for the first time, posted a slight decline from 2006 to 2007.  Don’t expect a significant post-summer decline in the price at the pump. Minus $4 gas is but a memory. “Peak oil” may at last be upon us.

If oil extractions decline from now on, so too must the global economy, absent a massive worldwide investment in alternative energy sources and a thoroughgoing reconstruction in personal life styles. (I prefer the term “oil extraction” to the usual “oil production.” The earth, not Exxon-Mobil, etc., “produces” oil and on a time scale of millions of years). But few governments are proposing such investments to a degree that will significantly offset the energy losses from declining oil extraction.  (Iceland and the Scandinavian countries are worthy exceptions).  And still worse none of the remaining presidential candidates dares even to suggest a commitment to alternative energy development sufficient to adequately deal with the oncoming emergency.

The good news is that we could conceivably avoid disaster. The far worse news is that we almost certainly will not.

There are just too many wealthy and powerful corporate interests invested in denial and in business as usual, and these interests control our government and our media.

The Prescient and Forgotten Warnings of The Club of Rome.

In 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day, the Club of Rome published its report, “The Limits to Growth.”  Utilizing computer modeling methodology that was state of the art at the time (and, since then, greatly refined and expanded), the report projected that continuing resource use at then current rates of growth would result in critical shortages in the early 21st Century, and a human population crash at mid-century. Sadly, the world economy is right on schedule, as it has continued its resource use and depletion roughly at the rate projected in 1972 by the Club of Rome. Reports from around the world of water shortages and food riots ominously suggest that the projected population crash might also soon be upon us.

“The Limits of Growth” was roundly criticized for many of its assumptions and for the alleged invalidity of its computer-modeling methodology. And yet the fundamental assumptions, projections and conclusions scarcely require computer modeling for their validation. Long before the invention of the digital computer and the development of modeling software, scientists have told us that planet Earth has a finite supply of resources, a finite capacity to absorb the waste products (pollution) of human activity, and, by implication, a finite limit of sustainable human population. The advent of industrialization and the explosive growth of population has brought about an exponential increase in the depletion of resources and the consequent outflow of pollutants. Fragile ecosystems are unraveling as the rate of species extinction is now greater than at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs, sixty million years ago.

The very life-support system of the planet is facing radical transformations. Consider, for example, the atmosphere. All terrestrial and maritime life is sustained by a thin film of air, three quarters of which resides within five miles of sea level. In proportion to the diameter of the Earth, the atmosphere is thinner than the skin of an apple. And mankind is significantly altering the physics and chemistry of that life-sustaining “skin” – a fact unquestioned by virtually all atmospheric scientists outside of the employ of the energy conglomerates and a few right-wing think tanks. We’ve read and heard a great deal about “global warming” brought about by an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Less discussed, and possibly equally significant, is the fact that this CO2 is increasing the acidity of the oceans which in turn threatens the maritime ecosystems. At the base of those ecosystems are the phytoplankton which produce more oxygen than all the tropical rain forests.

Environmentalist warn us that “the Earth is threatened.”  Not so. The planet will survive for a few billion years more, whatever we might do to it. The urgent questions before us are whether and for how long our species and our civilization will continue to be a part of it, and what kind of a legacy we will leave to the generations that follow us.

The Perilous Optimism of the Cornucopians.

If the era of permanent scarcity, predicted thirty-six years ago by the much-maligned Club of Rome Study, “The Limits of Growth,” is now upon us, to be followed soon by economic collapse, what are we to do about it?

Perchance, deny it altogether.

With a blithe disregard of basic physics and ecology, not to mention plain common-sense, the late economist, Julian Simon assured us that human ingenuity (“the ultimate resource”) combined with economic incentives, would suffice to overcome all alleged resource scarcities in the future. “We now have in our hands – in our libraries, really,” Simon wrote, “... the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years... We [are] able to go on increasing forever.”

That optimism is reiterated in such free-market think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, all of which are generously funded by the energy conglomerates. The dogma of technological optimism – “don’t worry, be happy, we can grow forever for ‘human ingenuity’ will solve all our problems” – has been repeated so often by the mass media that most Americans believe it implicitly. It is woven into the fabric of our culture.

Unfortunately, most authentically “ingenious humans,” namely the scientists trained in the relevant disciplines, do not share this optimism. There are, they tell us, limits to growth, founded in the finitude of the planet and the laws of thermodynamics, that no amount of “human ingenuity” plus economic incentive can overcome. As my late friend, the writer Edward Abbey put it, “The ideology of constant growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” And as Paul Ehrlich once remarked to Johnny Carson: if an engineer proposed to design an aircraft with a constantly expanding crew and passenger capacity, we would  regard him as crazy. And yet, when an economist posits a theory that assumes a perpetually growing global economy, he is considered eligible for a Nobel Prize.

The official Bushevik response? Ignore the scientific Cassandras. Slash the funding of the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal scientific research institutions. Appoint political hacks and corporate apologists to rewrite the scientific reports.

For reasons too numerous to mention in this brief space, the economic/technological optimism of such libertarian and neo-classical economists as Julian Simon is shot-through with scientific and logic errors.  However, this brief and dogmatic complaint against the optimists requires elaboration, evidence, and argument, which I provide in a lengthy published article,  “Perilous Optimism,”  You are invited, even urged, to read it.

Policy as if Survival Mattered.

The Bush administration has effectively dismantled the capacity of the American economy to deal with the environmental and resource crises immediately ahead of us. Our productive manufacturing-based economy, which once led the world in output and innovation, has been shipped overseas and replaced with a non-productive finance economy which shifts cash from place to place and from the pockets of the poor and middle class who produce the nation's wealth, to the pockets of the super-rich who own and control that wealth.  Moreover, our national treasury has been looted to near bankruptcy, and the national debt is at an incomprehensible ten trillion dollars. However, the United States remains supreme in just one area of research, development and technology: the production of the instruments of war. The military budget, including the cost of the Iraq war, is approaching a trillion dollars, which is more than the military budgets of all other nations combined, as we spend billions of dollars apiece for nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and stealth bombers to use against no known enemies other than a few brigands hiding in caves. Here, if we release them, are the funds that might allow us to face the emergencies ahead of us.

Some economists warn that the U. S. economy could not withstand the shock of dismantling the military-industrial complex because it would result in a sudden surge in unemployment, the loss of federal funds to the hundreds of congressional districts with defense-related industries, and the loss of stock value of the major defense contractors.

There is no need to worry: Not if all research scientists, engineers, and workers are kept in place as defense appropriations are slashed by two-thirds or even three-quarters, and all the released appropriations are immediately rerouted to research, development and manufacture of solar, wind, geo-thermal, bio-mass and other alternative energy sources, to the building of a nationwide network of a fast-rail transit system, to the repair and restoration of the dilapidated physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, etc.), to no-waste recycling systems, and who knows?, perhaps even to international geo-engineering projects that might reverse global warming and restore the ecological integrity of the oceans.

Such a “reverse mobilization” is entirely feasible, for we have seen it happen before. In a matter of weeks, in 1942, the industrial base of the American economy was converted to the manufacture of the instruments of war: for example, the production of private automobiles was halted and replaced, almost instantly, with the production of tanks, jeeps, aircraft and artillery. And then, less than four years later, the entire process was reversed.

What is required this time is nothing less than a national consensus that the threat of global economic collapse, brought on by population growth, water shortages, climate change, resource depletion and the end of cheap fossil fuels, is far, far, greater than the threat of terrorism or of military attack by hostile nations. As an added bonus, coordinated international efforts to face and deal with the threat of global economic collapse will, at the same time, reduce the likelihood of both terrorism and military aggression.

If any of this is to be accomplished, national wealth must flow back to the federal treasury, a balanced budget restored, and significant sums must be directed to the reduction of the national debt. Count on relentless opposition from the “private” (i.e. corporate) sector, which must be constantly reminded that corporations and corporate officers ultimately derive their wealth from the labor of the workers and from the integrity of the national economy.

Some proposals:

  • Corporate tax loopholes must be closed. The practice of U.S. firms incorporating abroad (e.g. in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands) to avoid US tax obligations must be ended. The remedy is simple: enact a law that requires that government contracts be awarded only to firms incorporated within the United States.

  • Taxes must be assessed equally on both earned and investment income, albeit with tax advantages retained for socially significant investments.

  • High marginal personal income tax rates must be restored.

  • If domestic manufacturing is to be restored, and labor given a fair share of the national income, tariffs on imported goods must be imposed to equalize domestic and foreign labor costs.

  • Estate taxes must be reinstated. It will be extraordinarily difficult to retrieve the unconscionably huge funds handed out to corporate executives, some of whom earned in half a day what their median wage workers earned in a year. However, time and mortality can solve that problem if severe estate taxes are imposed.

  • Private and corporate money must be separated from politics through stringent controls on campaign financing and lobbying.

As the Club of Rome has forecast, and as the scientists have unequivocally warned us, the Golden Age of industrial abundance is coming to an end.  The choice before us is between enduring hardship and insufferable catastrophe. Constant growth and secure luxury, i.e., business as usual, is not an option. Not in the sort of world described by the sciences, which means, not in the real world.

The next President must set the nation on a radically altered course if catastrophe is to be avoided. We have, with the Bush/Cheney administration, lost eight critical years that can never be recovered. A McCain administration would doubtlessly extend their folly and hasten the advent of economic and ecological collapse.

Barack Obama has said little if anything about “the limits to growth,” and has even spoken of the need to “strengthen our defenses.” Perhaps he must, if he is to be elected. But recall that in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt ran as a fiscal conservative and altered his policies as he and his “brain trust” encountered and assessed the enormity of the economic crisis that they had to deal with.

Obama is, above all else, young, energetic and intelligent, which is to say, flexible and adaptable. His action proceeds from his thought processes, not, as with Bush, from his “gut.” It is reported that Obama responds thoughtfully to informed advice, and is quite capable of changing his mind in the face of evidence and cogent reasoning. And, in his apparently successful campaign for the Democratic nomination, he has demonstrated that he is a consummately skillful manager and administrator. In all these respects, he is the essential “Un-Bush.”

If Obama wins in November, the surviving influences of the corporate lobbyists and media may well succeed in defeating his programs and crippling his Presidency. We recall all too well what the corporate establishment did to Bill Clinton. Expect more of the same. But crises call for, and often evoke, bold leadership from a public desperate for direction. And the next President will face crises aplenty.

The education of President Barack Obama must continue past the day of his inauguration, and extend throughout his administration. And he must have the support of the enlightened scientific and progressive community constantly at his back. When a labor leader proposed a favored policy FDR, he replied “I fully agree with you. Now force me to do what you want me to do.”

Exactly! That’s how politics works.

Barack Obama can not lead us successfully through the emergencies immediately ahead if we the people simply elect him and then leave the rest to him and his elected and appointed associates. We are facing what William James (and Jimmy Carter) called “the moral equivalent of war,” which I prefer to call "the moral alternative to war."

With this alternative, as with all previous wars, we can only prevail if we sacrifice and respond as a united people.

Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .