Climate

Is the U.S. consumption binge over?

It looks like U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007. But are we really seeing the start of an even more fundamental change in the U.S. economy, driven by the hyper-recession, team Obama and other major trends (like peak oil and global warming)?

I’m very interested in what you are seeing and hearing from your friends and neighbors as well as what you think at the macro level.

The economic downturn is forcing a return to a culture of thrift that many economists say could last well beyond the inevitable recovery.

So began a front-page NYT story this week.  With the huge recent devaluation of two key retirement assets — houses and 401ks — thrift is the word of the day and the year and maybe much longer:

I expect that the savings rate will end up at the end of this recession higher than it was going into it,” said Jonathan A. Parker, a finance professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.”

But this isn’t just about spending less and saving more.

This is about a shift to a form of consumption that is based on renewable resources, that doesn’t destroy the planet’s livability — a sustainable economy, not a Ponzi scheme.

Here is where Obama comes in.  His stimulus package and first 100 days were the biggest push away from dirty energy in U.S. history, accelerating a massive transition to clean, safe sources of energy that never run out!  It is a key reason CO2 emissions have probably peaked.

In his big speech on science and R&D last month — “Our future on this planet depends on our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution,” vows “we will exceed [R&D] level achieved at the height of the space race.” — Obama took direct aim at a purely consumption-based economy:

So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. I want to encourage you to participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent “” to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.

Indeed, Obama used the word “create” 12 times in the speech, which suggest he and his speechwriters are sending a message.  Indeed that’s why Obama says things like:

“The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” (4/22)

“We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.”  (4/14)

“We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for our lasting prosperity.” (3/19)

Obama gets it.

If anything like the Waxman-Markey bill in its current form becomes law, then this country will begin a major transition toward making unsustainable energy more expensive while strongly encouraging efficiency and sustainable, clean energy jobs.

Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski began a national conversation when he said recently:

“Other than taxes,” Mr. Kulongoski said, “the hardest thing I find to talk with my constituents and my citizens about is about changing lifestyles.”

It was a wide-ranging critique, but the gist of it was this: Combating climate change and making the transition to renewable energy sources will be expensive, and Americans need to acknowledge and accept that….

Americans, he said, are acculturated to believing that “more is best.” It’s built into the economy, Mr. Kulongoski said. “It’s about the Joneses next door: if they’ve got it, I want it “” and a bigger one.”

“But at some point,” he said, “you have to be candid with the public and say ‘Why do two people need a 3,000-square-foot house?”

Not everyone in the sustainable community liked what Kulongoski said:

David Roberts, a staff writer at Grist.org, took the governor to task [see here]. Lifestyles, he said, are always evolving “” gradually “” with changes in technology, new modes of communication and so forth. Intimating that climate change will require abrupt and perhaps distressing lifestyle adjustments among Americans is, he said, counterproductive.

“People fear losing what they’ve got,” he wrote. “It’s fine to acknowledge that shifting to a low-carbon economy will involve big changes, but there’s no reason to feed the fear that those changes will be disruptive and unpleasant. They needn’t be.”

I don’t entirely disagree with Roberts, but I look at the matter differently, as readers know.

Humanity has only two paths forward at this point, as Obama said — “prosperity and decline”:  We voluntarily switch to a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net-water use, low-net-material use economy over the next two decades or the post-Ponzi-scheme-collapse forces us to do so circa 2030.  The only difference between the two paths is that the the first one spares our children and grandchildren and the next 50 generations untold misery aka Hell and High Water.

The ultimate change will be very significant, though I agree with Kulongoski, who said, “but it will end up making your life, and your children’s lives, and your grandchildren’s lives, better” and I agree with Roberts, who wrote, “Changing to a low-carbon economy could increase our quality of life” — especially compared to the alternative!

The combination of Obama’s policies and leadership (especially if he’s a two-termer) and peak oil (which will rear its pointy head as soon as the global recession is over) and the increasingly obvious and painful reality of global warming will bring about a lot of change.

The title of this post should really be “Is the U.S. unsustainble consumption binge over?”

Well, is it?

28 Responses to Is the U.S. consumption binge over?

  1. Gail says:

    Yes. But not because people have made a rational decision that to save humanity we must live a more sustainable lifestyle.

    Rather, they’ve just maxed out their credit cards, if not already in arrears, and they CAN’T continue borrowing to buy more junk.

    I think Obama is the greatest gift to mankind in a very long time but I am afraid the Global Ponzi Scheme ran out of control a while ago and may be unstoppable. It’s that paradox that when people stop buying, the producers of what they bought lose their jobs, and the next thing you know, we are in a downward spiral. Who knows how low that will go?

    Add into the mix disastrous effects of climate change already happening, and worse already inevitable, and you have to wonder how society will hold together when it is no longer possible to ignore food shortages, for example.

    I certainly would love nothing more than to be wrong, so wrong. But I see a significant upheaval ahead, on every front.

  2. oxnardprof says:

    I don’t know if it is over or not. I think that continued advocacy by the President, and by others, will help bring about an adjustment in lifestyle. However, our economy is still based on consumption of commerical goods. Success is still measured in dollars.

    I encourage my students to evluate their carbon footprint in my class, and to consider their future goals in light of a growing carbon footprint. Some of the responses were encouraging, as a significant number of students are at least thinking of how their lifestyle and how it evolves will impact on the environment. A few are not yet convinced of a problem, I think.

    I am not aware of an analysis of carbon footprint by economic class. In other words, I have seen mention of how small a percentage of population has the great majority of wealth in this country. Does this same proportion hold true for carbon emissions? If so, then the economic crisis resulting in thriftier habits, saving more, etc will not have a lasting impact on carbon emissions.

    I did not see in the post a clear analysis of where this reduction in emissions has occurred. I certainly do not see it in driving behaviour, for example. With prices in the $2.30 range, most drivers are not attempting to conserve automotive fuel.

    President Obama has emphasized valuable points, and I took heart from his speech quoted in this post. I have also noted his suggetion that careers in finance are not as valuable to our nation as careers in service, manufacturing, research – or creative activities. (Creative in the sense of making something tangible.)

    To sum up, I see us at a fork in the road: we can continue on a path similar to the old path, or shift in a new direction. The old path, business as usual leads to a dead end. The shift to a new direction does have some hope for a long-term future. Since inertia will tend to send us on the old path, we need to continue to push in the new direction: measure success by more than wealth and material gain; value conservation over consumption (conservation of cash, energy, water, etc); …..

  3. oxnardprof says:

    By the way, I don’t think that the savings rate in the graph above, from the 60s to the 80s translated into a energy-conscious national lifestyle. So, I don’t think dollar savings rate is a good indicator of carbon savings rate.

  4. Modesty says:

    Let’s recall, too:

    “The engine of economic growth for the past 20 years is not going to be there for the next 20. That was consumer spending. Basically, we turbocharged this economy based on cheap credit.” But the days of easy credit are over, Obama said, “because there is too much deleveraging taking place, too much debt.” A new economic turbocharger is going to have to be found, and “there is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy … That’s going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office.”

    “Why Barack Obama is winning”
    http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1853025-1,00.html

  5. David Lewis says:

    I doubt if global economic growth over the next ten years will be that dramatically different than the previous ten years. 3% global growth doubles the size of the global economy in 24 years, 4% would double the size in 18 years, give or take a bit. Does anyone think doubling and redoubling economic activity can be accomplished without fatally undermining essential planetary life support systems such as the climate?

    Yet I believe economists would be unequivocal, from their point of view, that 2% global growth would be catastrophically low. I don’t see all the buzz about some new ethic taking over consumers as anything other than ephemeral fluff. People will spend what they can get their hands on.

    The essential problem is that there is a relatively small number of people who enjoy the living standard that Americans have, i.e. Europe, Japan, North America, and increasingly large pockets of population elsewhere, and a very large number of other people who want something like it. All the rest of the inhabitants of the planet will tend to keep on trying to achieve this standard of living.

    We might try to find another way by trying to estimate what a per capita emission of all wastes per person could be allowed on a planet of 9 or ten billion people if Earth was to have, for instance, a stable climate system and try to achieve that ourselves as a first step, but we are so far from that it makes discussion a joke. Then we’d have to hope we could influence everyone else on the planet or work in concert with them so all could achieve the same low level of planetary impact per capita.

    Nothing can be sustainable on a planet already committed to no ice at the poles, as Hansen says it is, yet civilization continues to compound the size of the problem it will eventually face on any number of fronts. So when I hear that what someone is doing is “sustainable”, I laugh.

    I’m still wondering what is happening to Andy Revkin. His latest article is headlined in the main NYTimes paper “Study Halves Prediction of Rising Seas” which would tend to cause anyone to believe that this means that climate scientists are such bozos they didn’t even understand how much ice was on land that could possibly melt and end up in the sea, but of course this is a distortion Andy cooked up for general readership consumption. The headline has nothing to do with the content of the article.

    Move over to Dot Earth and you’ve got the same story headlined “A New View of Antarctic Melting” which discusses the latest ice study indicating that a small part of the ice on Antarctica, i.e. West Antarctica, is felt by these researchers to have the potential to raise sea level by half of what others have thought it might contribute to the entire picture of global sea level rise during the coming century.

    I guess this is what Rome was like as the barbarians closed in.

  6. Gail says:

    my parrot says…

    Obama! yes we can!!

    True story.

  7. Will Koroluk says:

    People are slowly coming around. People are understandably disenchanted with the pell-mell growth that dominated the last couple of decades. Some are starting to look at other models.

    Peter Victor, an economist at York University in Toronto, is one who believes we can live a better life in which we work less, buy less, pollute less, and combat global climate change while turning away from high-pitched consumerism. His message about a low-growth, low-carbon future may be heresy to some, but many find his ideas appealing. Since he published his latest book, Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster, he has had many requests to give interviews, to speak at conferences, to write magazine and newspaper articles.

    Curiously, he didn’t write the book in response to the current economic mess; he had begun it while everything was still hurtling along at an ever-increasing pace.

    His book has enjoyed wide readership in Canada. It might also appeal to American readers.

    And, by the way, I have no connection with him.

    http://www.pvictor.com/Site/Home_.html

    and

    http://www.yorku.ca/fes/about/people/faculty/profiles/VictorPeterA.htm

  8. Will Greene says:

    Did anyone see or hear about Obama’s excellent commencement speech at ASU? If you want more proof that Obama get’s the “Ponzi Scheme” that is (or maybe was) our economy read the text of that speech below.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/13/obama-asu-speech-full-tex_n_203287.html

  9. This is a very interesting post, and I’m pretty sure it’s true. It doesn’t feel like a recession, it feels like one of those periods that really shift our sense of what it’s all about. Those often come with new technologies, and if I had to nominate the emblematic one for this, it would the IPhone. The App Store, a completely dematerialized place, represents one pole of the new economy; the local farmers market (fastest growing part of the American food economy) represents the other. Or at least it’s a nice thought.

  10. The “economists say” part inspires nothing but skepticism in me: would these be the same economists who said there was no housing bubble, or that derivatives trading was a magic bullet for endless growth? If these folks could trot out a Krugman, Stiglitz, Sen, or even Baker, I might be willing to listen.

    As it is, it seems to me that the sample size is too small (which is to say, the time frame too short), and any claims made at this point amount to the fallacy of the Hasty Generalization:
    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/hastygen.html

  11. Jeremy Johnson says:

    Very good post, and I would like to believe it’s true. The decline of American consumerism would be wonderful. However from those that I know and what I see, people are not buying stuff because they don’t have money; not because they have had some fundamental shift in perception, some aha moment that has enlightened them to the dangers of rampant consumerism. No, it’s just cause they are currently cash strapped.

    I don’t know how many times, since the economic downturn I’ve heard, “I just can’t afford that right now”, but rarely have I heard “I don’t need that”. In other words I think many Americans are still consumer junkies, they feel the economic crisis was caused by greedy bankers, the climate problem is because of dirty coal and big companies, but very few are willing to admit their hand as consumers in the whole scheme. I think for the most part people are just waiting for the economic slump to run its course so they can get back to spending again.

    On the other hand I would say the number of American who are realizing the dangers of extreme consumerism is indeed increasing, but they are, I’m afraid, still the vast minority.

  12. paulm says:

    Lets face it the majority have a big ‘selfish’ gene. They will not be able to sacrifice now for later.

    Note also that the destitute are really living from day to day. They do not have the time, resources or leisure to save their future generations, because they are struggling to survive themselves in the first place.

    This portion of the population is increasing (in North America & world wide) because of the financial crisis and will continue to swell as peak oil and climate change begins to kick in.

  13. paulm says:

    There’s the rebound effect. Hadn’t heard it described as such before…

    ‘Rebound effects’ of energy efficiency could halve carbon savings, says study

    Research urges governments and climate policymakers to look beyond simple energy solutions and consider the indirect and economy-wide effects when forming legislation
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/14/rebound-effects-energy-efficiency

    [JR: I do have a search engine on this blog, you know. And no “halve” just ain’t true. Maybe 10%. Maybe.]

  14. hapa says:

    this isn’t trying to skunk the post, ok? truly.

    1) the savings rate is deceptive. it seems to be mostly three things: (a) saving nuts for the winter of losing your job; (b) panic about retirement; and (c) paying down debt you can’t refinance. it’s too early to say those represent a voluntary (or grudging) return to the earlier period where you had to save to buy stuff and you bought durable goods, carefully.

    2) fellow commenters: notice that joe said we need “a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net-water use, low-net-material use economy” — not “less shopping.” THIS IS MOSTLY ABOUT OUR BACKGROUND INDUSTRIAL FOOTPRINT. if we can make non-destructive things in non-destructive ways, shopping will remain part of our lives.

    beyond driving a typical amount, flying a typical amount, living in a typical home — beyond the mess the government and big businesses make in your name — and beyond eating typical amounts of meat as part of a typical diet grown the typical ways — beyond those five giant parts most people’s personal footprint is small.

    [JR: Not quite. I specifically included “low-net-material use.” That is inescapable. I have been intending to blog on this point — and I will.]

    3) i would also like to remind people that things like “medicine” and “rent” and “food” and “retirement savings” and “school” are part of “consumption.” when someone says something like “consumers make up 70% of the US economy” they’re adding up everything you ever pay for in your life — not just “ferraris and cheap wal-mart crap.”

    so, for example, while it’s true that americans create more waste than anybody ever, one reason consumption makes up such a big part of our economy is we’re sicker than people in other rich countries and on top of that, we overpay for health care — and until recently many of us were borrowing money to pay those bills — unsustainable.

    4) thrift is good. place is good. green living is good. setting and enforcing very high standards on industry is the life-and-death issue.

  15. Robert says:

    paulm – Jevons Paradox doesn’t exist. Joe says so.

    (something tells me your not going to see this post…)

  16. Ronald says:

    What’s the evidence from history? (Even if these examples are cherry picked.)

    1973 The year much of energy limits started in the industrial world. A war in Israel, OPEC nations not selling oil to the United States and Belgium, (Belgium supplying the airbase to the United States, Belgium, Israel airlift support) and the whole world has to get along with less energy. We changed some things and increased out awareness.

    1979 Second oil shock. Some of it is mixed in with a weaker dollar and inflation in the United States. President Carter installs Paul Volcker to head the FED (poetry unintended) and Volcker brings down inflation with his Monetarist policies. (It was Paul Volcker at the FED that reduced inflation, not anything that Pres. Reagan did, except keep Volcker in the Job.) Oil is more expensive and people and business figure out ways to use less of it.

    Then much of the momentum to using less carbon fueled energy is slowed and reversed with Reagan as President and his policies. Which of course were supported by many people, even if many didn’t really understand the consequences of what was happening and what would have been a better energy path.

    1989 Exxon Valdez. There is an Oil spill in Alaska. There is greater attendance at Earth Day rallies, more documentaries on energy use and celebrities have some interesting shows on how to take better care of mother earth, all signifying nothing. No lasting interest by the mainstream population.

    1994 The Republicans take over Congress from the Democrats as a repudiation of President Clinton and his policies. This was not a change in people’s thinking about government, that we need less government, and less government services. If this was a philosophical change, people would have started to save more because they realized and wanted government to supply fewer services to them and they would have to make up the difference. The savings rate went down after the 1994 election. The election wasn’t philosophical, it was just opportunistic, people just didn’t want to pay for government they consume.

    Since then we’ve had decades of below 20 dollar a barrel oil and if it wasn’t for the above 100 dollar a barrel we had for a few months, (and recession) energy wouldn’t be on the main stream population minds at all. The recidivism rate for society is pretty high when it comes to many things and including energy. Even myself, I drove a gas hog Jeep when gasoline was cheap even though my political philosophy is to tax gasoline at 2.50 a gallon and eliminate property taxes. Just look at how many people are able to stick to a reduced calorie food diet. That’s about the chance for society to get it’s act together.

  17. paulm says:

    The word is austerity.

  18. Rick Covert says:

    “I’m very interested in what you are seeing and hearing from your friends and neighbors as well as what you think at the macro level.”

    Joe,

    I what I’m seeing in my immediate family is that my brother, a rock ribbed die-hard Republican, is also an energy efficiency guru because it helps his pocket. He bought a 1970’s era Levittown home in northern VA. and has completely retrofitted it with more insulation, double glazed energy efficient windows, changed out the aluminum wiring for copper, (lower resistance to current and safer than aluminum), an efficient tankless water heater, electronic thermostat which he runs excruciatingly miserly in the winter and he drives an ’04 Honda Civic about 3 miles to and from work and combines his driving trips. BTW, he loves the Prius and would get one but can’t do it right now. I don’t think he can get anymore efficient than that.

    My other brother too, also a Rep., who used to live in N. VA. same style home, sane car, does efficiency too. Almost to a tee like my other brother. He moved to Florida though and he fetched a good price on the sale of the home and I have no doubt the energy improvements helped.

    My oldest brother is driving a smaller car but he lives in a larger home. His home is new though so I have to assume all the energy efficiency was built in. He commutes further to his job by car.

    In my home, with considerably fewer funds to spend then either of my brothers, I have changed out all of my appliances for Star Energy ones. So goodbye 20 year old refrigerator, dishwasher, old washing machine and dryer. The dishwasher, particularly is a Bosch (I don’t own stock in or work for) which doesn’t use a heating coil to dry the dishes but instead uses water heated by the dishwasher itself and it evaporative dries the dishes. All of the lamps, with the exception of the 3 way ones, use CFLs and my kitchen flood lights are all CFLs. That dropped the energy consumption from the 5 floods from a combined 600 watts down to 100 watts. I sealed up the seams in my house with foam tubing and calk, and changed out the attic fan because the bearings in the old one seized up. New energy efficient curtains have had a dramatic effect on the temperature in our bedroom and with a new electronically timed 5-1-1 thermostat my wife has noticed the master bedroom is cooler. I have noticed that the A/C doesn’t turn on after midnight even when I set it down to 79º F like it used to with the old analog one. May mostly be attributed to the calking and the attic fan since the attic stayed warm well into the evening before I replaced it. I’m a customer of Green Mountain Energy and you can judge for yourself how green they are but that’s my utility provider. My car is a 2000 2.2 liter Camry with a 5 speed manual that is EPA rated 24 city but I have been able to hypermile to as high as 32 mpg city. Lately though I have had to use the A/C as spring in Texas is like summer in the northeast and that has dropped my fuel mileage down to 28.5 mpg.
    BTW, I saw, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” and it has inspired me to go for an electric car if I have to do the conversion myself. I’m linked up with our local Houston Electric car club and they have experts who know how to do conversions. I recycle all aluminum, glass, number 1 & 2 plastic. But Houston is just now starting a recycling program after a public campaign put on by a radio host on our Pacifica affiliate KPFT after learning we recycle only 2% of our waste. I still have to take my stuff to the city recycling center though and probably will for a while but it is an opportunity to combine it with shopping trips to my favorite electronic parts store.

    As for my coworkers, I work in IT and efficiency with electricity in the home and on the job is a religion practically. Our company moved us, not without grumbling, from a large sprawling complex into one building and it is mostly lit from a natural white opaque sky light. All the desk lamps use CFLs. The computers are all Star Energy efficient but I shut mine down for the day every day and unplug them.

    I don’t know how my neighbors are doing because I don’t have time to chat with them but if the hardware stores are any indication they are buying efficiency. For the first time at my local hardware store I saw a tankless water heater and off course the have oodles of CFLs. Target too carries them and they are priced for two 60 watt equivalents for around $5.00. I remember when I bought my first one 15 years ago and just one cost me $26.00 and you could only get them at Whole Foods or mail order. The price reduction trend can only continue.

  19. paulm says:

    Rick Covert,

    That’s is much more than most of us do! Good on you.

    Do you know what your carbon footprint is now?

  20. Rick Covert says:

    Paul,

    I have no earthly idea what my carbon foot print is but I think there is a calculator at the Green Mountain website that can tell me. And that is the minimum I can do now. If I had my way I would pull out my current A/C and install geothermal A/C just like Dubya did at his former ranchette up in Crawford. I still have to add in attic insulation and a thermal heat barrier to keep the heat out of the attic. Then I would put in double or even triple glaze windows if I could and a tankless water heater. My current one is 12 years old but it still works. Tankless water heaters aren’t cheap though. I priced them at the local hardware store and they’re double the cost of the tanked kind. That’s strange because, as my wife informs me that’s all they use to heat water in Latin America. It hasn’t been all going forward either. I replaced our cathode ray tube TV for an LCD HDTV which doesn’t use as much power as a plasma screen TV but does pull more current than a conventional cathode ray tube TV. It was either that or watch the TV go blank formerly Feb. 17th now June 12th.

  21. paulm says:

    Here’s a breakdown analysis showing the biggest impact we can have on conserving energy. Bear in mind that the average UK citizen uses 125kWh/d and US one uses 250 KWh/d

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/01/climate-change-debate-david-mackay

    (One kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the electrical energy used by leaving a 40-watt bulb on for 24 hours. )

    ~Put on a woolly jumper and turn down your heat-
    ing’s thermostat (to 15 or 17 °C, say). Put individual
    thermostats on all radiators. Make sure the heating’s
    off when no-one’s at home. Do the same at work.
    20 kWh/d

    ~Read all your meters (gas, electricity, water) every
    week, and identify easy changes to reduce consump-
    tion (e.g., switching things off). Compare competi-
    tively with a friend. Read the meters at your place of
    work too, creating a perpetual live energy audit.
    4 kWh/d

    ~Stop flying.
    35 kWh/d

    ~Drive less, drive more slowly, drive more gently, car-
    pool, use an electric car, join a car club, cycle, walk,
    use trains and buses.
    20 kWh/d

    ~Keep using old gadgets (e.g. computers); don’t re-
    place them early.
    4 kWh/d

    ~Change lights to fluorescent or LED.
    4 kWh/d

    ~Don’t buy clutter. Avoid packaging.
    20 kWh/d

    ~Eat vegetarian, six days out of seven.
    10 kWh/d

  22. paulm says:

    Jevons effect…

    Energy Usage Increases Despite Efficiency Efforts
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/05/energy-usage-increasing-efficiency-efforts.php

    [JR: This is not the (imaginary) Jevons effect. It has nothing to do with it. Get a grip, already. I’m getting tired of your nonsense.]

  23. Rick Covert says:

    Joe,

    Looks like you’ll have to post something about Stanley Jevons and “The Coal Question” just to clear the slate. Even George Monbiot subscribes to the Rebound Theory mentioned in his book “Heat, How to Stop the Planet Buring.”

    From Energy Bulletin: http://www.energybulletin.net/node/22176

    Monbiot explains three paradoxes that profoundly affect conservation behaviours:

    The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate: As energy efficiency improves, people can afford more energy-intensive solutions, so improvements in energy efficiency can actually lead to more consumption, not less. So if many people buy hybrids, by lowering demand for gasoline they could make it cheaper and encourage more SUV purchases and use as well.

    The Rebound Effect: As energy efficiency improves, personal energy costs go down, allowing personal volume of use to go up with no net increase in cost. So if home heating fuel costs drop, people will turn up their house temperature, and if many people buy hybrids, they can afford to drive them more often and further than they might have.

    Regulation Actually Enhances Personal Freedoms: Strict home building and refurbishing codes, while increasing the cost of housing, frees the subsequent owners of the homes of the need to expend money wastefully on fuel and on short-term repairs.

  24. Jerry Lee Mayeux says:

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  25. Theodore says:

    We Americans are in a downward trend of de-industrialization that will outlive the recession. The reason is that manufacturing goes where wages are lowest. The result is global wage equalization. Unfortunately, we are having a wage decline the hard way, by layoffs and plant closings. Productivity is taking a beating because of this. Poverty is the inevitable result of the productivity decline. The easy way to accomodate wage reduction is to systematically reduce wages in a steady and consistent manner until a corporate recovery occurs. This is, of course, extremely unpopular with the affected workers. Employers seem to be incapable of doing this for several reasons, which I will not list right now.

    When an employer responds to a downturn with layoffs, it solves the short-term accounting problem, but leaves the company in a continuing non-competitive state. The only way to correct this is with deliberate and systematic wage and salary reductions. Prosperity is not a result of clinging to unrealistic wages. It is a result of the maintenance of full employment and the full productivity that goes with it.

    America will continue to loose its manufacturing capacity and employment until we learn to accomodate the downward pressure on wages that comes from globalization. The only other way to deal with this pressure is isolation, which is so profoundly unpopular that its implementation is almost inconceivable.

    Employers that continue to employ people at pre-globalization wages are doomed to shrink until they fail altogether. Continuing in this mode is the worst possible way to accomodate globalization, yet we cling to it, unable to change. We are destined for poverty by virtue of our ideological inhibitions.

    The “inevitable” recovery may not be particularly recognizable because of this trend.

  26. hapa says:

    theodore: “globalization” isn’t a monolith to explain foreign producers undercutting american workers on cost. there is a very carefully structured relationship of world currencies (and labor and environmental standards) that keeps some labor pools as export-oriented (such as china) and others as import-oriented (such as ourselves). this high-finance game is different from a more neutral “globalization” where people sell each other specialized or exotic things on an equal footing.

    whatever that fair trade future looks like with transport prices rising, it’s important to talk about the finance tricks and the free exchange of goods and services as two different but interrelated things.…

  27. Fragger says:

    Get Rid of the Poodle! A Call for a Sustainable Economy [Draft]

    “As a poodle may have his hair cut long or his hair cut short, as he may be trimmed with pink ribbons or with blue ribbons, yet he remains the same old poodle, so capitalism may be trimmed with factory laws, tenement laws, divorce laws and gambling laws, but it remains the same old capitalism.” – Daniel De Leon, in his November 2, 1908 Daily People editorial, “Trimming the Poodle”

    “You cannot solve a problem using the same consciousness that created it.” – attributed to Albert Einstein, presumably sometime after 1908

    Introduction

    Change! was the word repeated ad nauseam by both corporate political parties in the United States in the months leading up to the November 2008 elections. Yet, thus far, we have seen little to no change at all.

    This is especially true of our politicians’ approach to our economy. Amid much hand wringing over “zombie” and “vampire” banks, no one seems to be looking at the bigger picture of a Frankenstein economy that is composed of decomposing parts. Incredibly, the Democratic Party that currently controls both houses of Congress and the White House has continued the Bush Administration policy of throwing obscene amounts of tax money arbitrarily at selected corporations in an effort to “stimulate” the economy.

    In fact, this bizarre practice is the culmination of nearly 30 years of “trickle down” economics and centuries of robber baron capitalism. However, this habit of attempting to jolt our Frankenstein economy to life from the top didn’t prevent the recession of the early 1980s. It didn’t prevent the failure of the savings and loan associations – remember them? – in the middle to late 1980s. It didn’t prevent the stock market crash of 1987. It didn’t prevent the recession of the early 1990s. It didn’t prevent the Internet business boom and bust of the later 1990s and early 2000s. It didn’t prevent the real estate boom and bust that some believe is at the root of our current crisis. And it won’t prevent similar crises in the future.

    Clearly, we need real change – not just another change from Democrats back to Republicans, or from Republicans back to Democrats. Even the state capitalism that passes for “socialism” in some societies suffers from the same old, tired, top-down thinking.

    Clearly, we need to change our whole way of looking at and engaging in our economy. We need a sustainable economy – an economy that is powered by our core values of grassroots democracy, social justice, non-violence and ecological wisdom.

    What Is a Sustainable Economy?

    An Economy Powered by Grassroots Democracy

    In the United States and throughout much of the world, many claim to cherish democracy, yet few consider the idea that democracy shouldn’t end at the door to the workplace. Some believe that the dictates of property and ownership, no matter how unsafe, unequal and unfair, must be given an unquestionable supremacy in society in order for democracy to exist.

    Yet, under the Frankenstein economy, we can see how lacking in democracy our society truly is. A handful of people – people who may not even know, understand or care what is wrong with our economy – can make decisions that destroy the livelihoods of millions of workers.

    A sustainable economy will put basic economic decisions and the control of science and technology in the hands of the people. Every one of us will have a voice and a vote in managing our workplace, together with our fellow workers who work to produce the same good or service. We’ll elect our supervisors and managers – our fellow workers whom we recognize as the most experienced and capable in the work that we do. If these supervisors and managers fail to manage the workplace correctly, we, the workers who voted them in, can vote them out, delegating the responsibility to someone else. Management authority will flow from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

    In addition, this sustainable economy will be more efficient, because we’ll manage our own work, and will be able to assess the everyday effectiveness of the way that our work is done. We’ll be able to make necessary changes without having to go through layers of unsympathetic bosses.

    An Economy Powered by Social Justice

    Under the Frankenstein economy, economic exploitation is the underlying injustice that breeds all kinds of other social injustice.

    Extreme poverty and deprivation exist in an economy capable of producing great wealth. Employers and the governments that they control in countries throughout the world use fraud and force to suppress the aspirations of the nations’ working populations. In the United States, we are working longer and harder than ever, with all the personal and family stress that overwork produces. Even though we produce greater amounts of goods and services every year, most of us struggle just to maintain last year’s standard of living. Meanwhile, corporations use science and technology to lower labor costs and increase profits, to the detriment of, rather than for the benefit of, the majority.

    A sustainable economy will guarantee us the full product of our labor, and thus the full benefit of their rising productivity. Every one of us will have the inalienable right to be a working member of the community and receive full compensation for the work that we contribute to the common effort. No one will have the right to profit and enrich him- or herself on the backs of the people who produce the wealth.

    Moreover, our jobs will be secure, because we, not our employers, will own those jobs. Nobody is going to vote to eliminate his or her own source of livelihood unless the community of workers decides that he or she can produce something different that has a greater benefit for the community.

    However, because a sustainable economy will operate as a market-free system, in which we own our own product and distribute it among ourselves on a fair and equitable basis, all the nonproductive jobs required by the irrational market system will be unnecessary. All of us now doing nonproductive work will be able to join in doing useful labor for the improvement of the living standards of all.

    Coordinating our decisions with the rest of the economy – including the educational sector that can teach us new skills – we’ll be able to adjust our jobs to meet the changing needs and wants of society. Our livelihoods will be preserved instead of destroyed, with an added benefit for society as a whole.

    Furthermore, a sustainable economy will direct our science and technology to producing what is most beneficial to the most people, not what is merely the most profitable for a few. As our productivity continues to rise, the hours of work required to produce the goods and services that we need will decrease.

    Work will continue to be an important part of our lives in defining who we are as individuals – but it won’t be the only part.

    With a shorter workweek, we’ll have time to develop our other talents and personal potential. We’ll have the time to be the best parents, students, friends and neighbors that we can be.

    An Economy Powered by Non-Violence

    Under the Frankenstein economy, a few people enrich themselves by taking the lion’s share of the wealth produced by the work of the majority, society is divided into opposing interests, and the result is conflict and strife.

    Employers and the governments that they control wage battle against one another and against us for valuable resources, for control of markets, and for trade advantage. Exploitation breeds destructive oppression, irrational hatreds and war.

    However, we do the actual fighting and dying. We are caught in the middle of these conflicts, suffering the most and gaining the least from them.

    In a sustainable economy, we will work together as a unified community of workers, promoting intelligent cooperation and peace.

    An Economy Powered by Ecological Wisdom

    Under the Frankenstein economy, the air is being made unfit to breathe, industrial pollutants are poisoning the water and land, the earth’s resources are being exhausted, and rising temperatures threaten the very future of civilization.

    A sustainable economy will ensure that resources are used wisely and aren’t wasted. When we’re working for ourselves, we’ll understand the importance of making the right choices when it comes to what to produce and how to produce it.

    The quality as well as the quantity of goods produced must be considered. These goods should be made to last so that they don’t stress the environment by being thrown away and replaced sooner than necessary. This will also reduce energy use and decrease the production of greenhouse gases, by reducing overall production levels.

    How goods are produced is also critical. The time and resources that minimize industrial pollution and waste must be allocated to ensure that we maintain a rational balance between consumption and preserving the environment.

    A sustainable economy will achieve this balance because the purpose of production will be to meet the needs of people, and not to sell ever more merchandise for maximum profit through reckless and unplanned growth.

    How Will We Build a Sustainable Economy?

    Neither the Green Party, nor any other political party, nor a minority faction of workers can impose a sustainable economy on society. A benevolent dictator can’t give it to us. A philanthropic elite can’t grant it. It can only come into existence through the creative, coordinated action of the majority of workers.

    Political Action

    Nonetheless, we need the Green Party to represent and advocate a sustainable economy in the political arena. Through political activity, competing principles and programs rally support and votes, and, by winning a majority, become the ruling principles of society.

    For a sustainable economy to come into existence, we need the Green Party to act in the political arena because existing laws protect and enforce the property interests of employers. If we were to start simply running our workplaces ourselves and assuming ownership of the product of our labor, the police would be called in and we would be arrested for trespassing and theft.

    We need the Green Party to win a majority vote and enact new laws that validate the new system. The legal way would then be open for a peaceful and democratic change in the economics and governance of nations.

    However, the Green Party can’t credibly advocate a sustainable economy if it doesn’t stick to the principles essential to the creation of such a system. Thus, throughout this process, the Green Party must remain true to its four pillars: grassroots democracy, social justice, non-violence and ecological wisdom.

    Likewise, it is important for the Green Party to legislate with the goal of the new system in mind, and not to content itself with merely “trimming the poodle,” as Daniel De Leon put it so aptly in the quote above more than a century ago.

    Economic Action

    As essential as the Green Party will be to the success of a sustainable economy, equally important will be our simultaneous organization in our workplaces.

    Labor union organization will unite us in the economic arena as our organization in the Green Party will unite us in the political arena. Organized labor will realize our economic power as wealth producers, and enable us to challenge the financial power of employers from a position of strength.

    As our strength and confidence grows, we’ll challenge the dictatorial authority of the bosses in our workplaces. We’ll expand our own authority through our elected union representatives and labor councils, thereby creating the representational framework of the coming sustainable economy.

    Thus, when political victory is won at the polls, and the Green Party enacts the legal change to a sustainable economy, we’ll be mentally and organizationally prepared to assume its responsibilities.

    Political and economic action is the one-two punch that will create a sustainable economy.

  28. Lisa Hammer says:

    Ironically, the United States is going to lean on an other-than-democratic society to get out of our debt-ridden ways.

    And the fascinating “one-two punch” that I see comes as: “one,” China’s one-child policy to curb population growth–where would the world be now without it?
    And “two,” China’s response to global warming and the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

    Yah, we’re waiting for “two.” But you think if they did the one, they can’t master the second?

    Perhaps freedom’s been overrated.

    Hey, scientists, please calculate HOW MUCH ENERGY America could save this summer if guys in suits took off their jackets instead of wearing them indoors.