Almost everyone agrees that much of America’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, electrical grid, power plants, etc.) is in desperate need of repair or replacement. Economic ideologists of corporate “free enterprise” oppose public investment as they attempt to drive corporate taxes to near zero. Nevertheless, we must find a way to move beyond these old powerful forces and ask the more important question. What infrastructure? Here is where we must part with the economic ideology of general “growth” as the answer to every economic problem. Climate disruption forces economic policy to be driven by the immediate need for carbon-neutral infrastructure.
Ecological Energy Production
First and foremost, we must radically reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. If we don’t, climate chaos will soon turn into economic and social chaos. Simply repairing existing infrastructure would add a lot of carbon and stimulate more carbon-producing activity. Under current conditions, almost any construction or reconstruction process would worsen climate disruption because it relies on fossil-fuel energy. To develop “carbon neutral” industry or products will inevitably involve some carbon emissions too. The only way to minimize that is to go to the root of the problem: energy production. Some predict that within two or three years, half of automobile production will be electric cars. Great. But if the energy to produce them continues to be from coal-fired power plants, well, not so great.
So, in considering the upgrading of U.S. economic infrastructure, the first priority must be to convert energy production from burning fossil-fuels to the proven renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, geo-thermal technologies. Hydro-electric generation is great, but there is little opportunity for it. To be clear, nuclear power is a non-renewable, highly expensive and dangerous, and an economically futile path. That is why neither big investors nor big insurance companies will touch it without government guarantees and subsidies. For an ecological economy, nuclear power is simply off the table.
Strong Systems: Distributed and Human Scale
So called “economies of scale” are over-rated. At a certain stage in the industrializing era, bigger factories that took advantage of labor-saving technologies were more cost-effective. But beyond a certain point, returns diminish and size becomes a burden. The power grid is a good example. The big investor-owned utilities have profited from their monopolies — by law, not by efficiency. The giant electric grid with long transmission lines is very inefficient and vulnerable. Now, “smart-grid” technology is available and can better manage a grid, reducing waste. But size is still a problem.
Systems analysts have long known that the larger and more complex a system, the more vulnerable to disruption it is. Smaller self-sufficient power grids, interconnected for backup, are much more reliable, efficient, and defensible. With today’s advanced science and technology, small local systems have advantages that were not available to small tribes and communities of the pre-industrial world. Today, large complex systems are vulnerable to climate chaos, terrorist attacks, and internal system failures, not to mention internal corruption.
Whether it’s power grids, industrial production, food production, or other economic activity, small local systems are the most effective. But they are strongly resisted by powerful existing institutions. The problem, of course, is that the entire trajectory of the industrial and industrializing worlds has led to centralization and gigantism. Concentration of wealth, income, and political power in the hands of an integrated power elite has been the result. This has prevented the establishment of a rational economic policy to serve the public interest. Distributed power, whether electrical, economic, or political, conflicts with the interests of the power elites. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to not only respond effectively to climate chaos, but to establish viable economies for human societies.
The Hard Part: Achieving an Ecological Society
The power elites have a firm grip on the existing national economic and political institutions. That is clear. That renders electoral politics nearly moot for effecting sufficient change quickly enough. In the little time left before climate disruption engulfs the world in economic, political, and social chaos, radical changes are necessary. Any time extreme changes must be accomplished in a short time, a lot of unknowns arise. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety causes resistance. Add in all the corporate propaganda and political stagnation is a likely result. That is the state of the national political scene today; not so, local communities.
Despite all the denial propaganda, many people are directly experiencing the immediate impact of the initial stages of climate disruption. Drought, floods, extreme storms, and other extreme weather events are confronting people’s lives directly. Awareness is rapidly growing. The U.S. may be lagging behind most countries in responding to the threat, but public awareness is catching up quickly.
An uncountable number of small groups all across the country are taking action in their local communities to spur adoption of solar energy, resist fracking, and establish community action networks to accelerate societal response to climate disruption, from the grass-roots up. That is exactly the last best hope for human mitigation of global warming and for adaptation to the effects that are already upon us. Part III of this essay will discuss the particulars of the localized political and economic actions that may bring about an ecological society.