Building Back Better: Deferred Maintenance vs. Emergency Response

Now that I have read President Biden’s “fact sheet” on his infrastructure plan, dubbed the American Jobs Plan, I have to wonder whether it will devolve into an “upgrade” to “modernize” business-as-usual. What we need is a genuine emergency response to the converging crises of climate, a crumbling main street economy, and the continued enrichment of the super-rich by impoverishing the middle class and persecuting the poor, as the entire Earth System destabilizes further toward collapse.

Mitigation is the Only Viable Adaptation

One of the most important failures of vision in the public discourse on the growing climate emergency is the political focus on adaptation to the coming disruptions of economic life. Sea rise, more intense hurricanes, torrential rains and flooding, extended and deepening drought, and life-threatening water shortages must, of course, be adapted to since they cannot be stopped entirely. Yet, if we do not attempt to stop or at least counter them in significant degree, no amount of adaptation to the massive chaos they will otherwise produce will prevent societal collapse and global chaos.

For that reason, we must look at the “Build Back Better” plan with a skeptical eye. As Elisabeth Rush’ book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, so clearly demonstrates, the extent of sea rise we are already unable to stop will be devastating. Without extreme intervention in carbon emissions, entire coastal cities will be underwater in a few decades. The only adaptation to that is to move to higher ground, hardly a cheerful outcome.

Some proposals in Biden’s plan, such as revitalizing the nations’s urban water systems, are absolutely necessary. But if the administration ignores the structural and cultural causes of deeper problems such as persistent drought, pollution of major aquifers by oil and gas fracking, severe storms and flooding, etc., then building back crumbling systems will not matter. The global ecosystems that are failing due to continuing damage by the global corporate-controlled industrial-consumer political economy of endless growth, must be restored if we are to have a future.

Clean Infrastructure and Jobs vs. More of the Same

The trajectory of the global economy of growth has always produced fewer jobs than it creates. That has been partially offset by economic expansion. New jobs created are typically highly technical and scarce. On the other hand, cleanup of abandoned wells and mines, which cause continuing damage by pollution, would be labor intensive as would restoring ecosystems and regenerative farming among many other strategies for survival. Such efforts would not be politically glamorous nor supported by corporate elites who seek new markets for more products and services. Instead, it would require new forms of social organization, new cultural values, and very different behavior.

Retooling American manufacturing facilities would be nice, but not unless the goal is to minimize the environmental costs instead of the costs of labor. The entire history of corporate development has focused on reducing labor costs by both automation and outsourcing human work to less industrialized nations where labor is super cheap. Capital is mobile; labor is not.

The “Fact Sheet” tosses about the term “modernize” without defining it. I fear the incursion of ideas of the eco-modernists, who delude themselves into thinking we can continue the economy of endless growth without further damaging the Earth System upon which we depend for survival. The “Fact Sheet” touts the ideas of technological “innovation” and research and development of new technologies, although we have neither the time nor resources to pursue new hi-tech Band-Aid solutions to our predicament. Bill Gates is the well-healed poster child for this vanity.

We have the knowledge to transform society in order to harmonize with the ecosystems that constitute our living habitat. Yet we have not developed the vision of how to accomplish the necessary changes in how our society is organized. We are now organized around industrial extraction, production, transportation, and consumption. These are unsustainable. Yet we have not envisioned the new cultural or organizational forms of living that we must establish.

Transformation or Tragedy: Can the Institutionalist Revolutionize Our Culture?

We face a deep predicament in all this. We cannot go on like this, yet our “leaders” keep trying to salvage a failed unredeemable system rather than face the complexity of societal transformation. A policy of clean federal procurement, for example only buying electric vehicles, along with deploying a national network of charging stations, would be a great help in decarbonizing transportation. But the ultimate resolution of our deep predicament of how to live sustainably in a world we must make livable again will not be found only in mere technical improvements. We can only achieve that by deeply transforming the way we live, not just as individuals but by transforming or abandoning the institutions in which we are all engaged now. If ever the idea of “nation building” can have meaning it will point to the transformation of the failing industrial-consumer economy into ecologically sustaining communities all over the world.

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