Our Ecological Leverage

Thomas Friedman quotes my colleague Joe Romm:

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate …’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

I’m not sure I would quite say that the wealth isn’t “real.” But you can probably think of it as a form of leverage. We use next week’s resources on Monday, in hopes of getting richer Tuesday, in the belief that the richer society will be able to respond to price signals sent on Wednesday and Thursday to come up with either better methods of production/extraction, more efficient ways of using resources, or alternative forms of resources by Friday. Therefore, come the weekend everything’s fine. This sounds a bit insane to some people, but it’s served as pretty well for basic commodities — that’s why the environmentalist wound up losing that famous bet about resource scarcity.


But this is precisely why it’s so vital to put a price on carbon emissions. The atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gasses is a form of resource. One we’ve been consuming at a rapid rate. But because there’s no price on using the resource, the rest of the mechanism isn’t working. New technologies that could do things in a less energy-intensive ways, that could generate power in cleaner ways, and even that perhaps could scrub carbon from the atmosphere are becoming more urgent but they’re not really becoming more profitable. At least not at the rate that the urgency of the matter warrants. And that’s what happens when you don’t have prices. It’s a situation where our leveraged growth pattern is ultimately bound for collapse. Consumption of fossil fuels has made us rich, and given us the capacity to develop and deploy alternatives. But we don’t have the incentive to do it, and it’s not happening. So with every passing year, the problem gets harder and harder to solve without any really meaningful work being put into doing the solving.