Economy, environment, and bright green thinking

Great line in the New Yorker by David Owen, in “Economy vs. Environment”: “we are borrowing against the world’s dwindling store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes.”

Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007, and they don’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Replacing oil is going to require more than determination.

I watch with interest as Austinites talk about green and clean energy and make the industry large within their hearts and minds; in fact I suspect there are relatively few local clean energy companies – only eleven listed in the Austin Business Journal’s last Book of Lists.

Owen’s article isn’t about clean energy. He notes that economic decline is actually beneficial to the environment, though “environmental benefits of economic decline, though real, are fragile, because they are vulnerable to intervention by governments, which, understandably, want to put people back to work and get them buying non-necessities again—through programs intended to revive ordinary consumer spending (which has a big carbon footprint), and through public-investment projects to build new roads and airports (ditto).”

The arguments that global climate change isn’t happening, or isn’t an affect of human action, really say that we don’t want to accept the implications – that we have to change our lifestyles to have an impact on global warming. This doesn’t have to be bad news – it can be seen as a call for significant innovation that will result in low-impact, high-quality ways of living. Consider bright green environmentalism, which “aims to provide prosperity in an in ecological sustainable way through the use of new technologies and improved design.”

More recently, “bright greens” emerged as a group of environmentalists who believe that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes – and that society can neither shop nor protest its way to sustainability. As Ross Robertson writes, “[B]right green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the “tools, models, and ideas” that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions.”