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Happy Days Are Not Here Again: Obama, China and the Coming Great Contraction

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Happy Days are not coming any time soon to America -- and not to most of the world.

This summer has convinced me that it is realistic -- not pessimistic or fatalistic -- to believe that we have reached the twilight of the oil-industrial age. A global reckoning is coming sooner than we would wish, and the US government and President Obama, sadly, are not stepping up to the leadership plate.

Even the short run looks gloomy, and the slightly longer run -- the next twenty to thirty years -- could be a turning point in human history.

You only have to turn on the TV news or read the newspapers to know that short-run economic developments are not encouraging. The recovery is tepid. The housing market has stalled badly. Unemployment remains above 10 percent in many states, including mine of California -- and where there is recovery, it is a jobless one. President Obama and his economic team took necessary but insufficient steps in responding to the economic crisis that they inherited. I agree with Minority Leader John Boehner that Obama should fire Summers, Geithner and the rest of his economic team -- but not because they have done too much; rather, they have done too little. I'd throw in Rahm Emanuel and other White House political strategists too for a gross failure to communicate. As Jonathan Alter in his book, The Promise, and John Judis in the current New Republic ("The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama," September 2, 2010) have analyzed, Obama's advisers appear to be more concerned with protecting the Obama brand than leading the Democratic Party, expanding their political base, or effectively taking on Republicans. They have let an ascendant Right capture the angry mood of a troubled public and provide faux explanations -- too much government, too much regulation, too large a deficit -- and a phony but compelling political narrative of socialism run amok in Washington, D.C. The outlook for Democrats in the midterm elections is not good, and it will surprise few political commentators if Obama and his party lose at least one house of Congress. Further political gridlock will ensue -- at least for the remaining two years of Obama's presidency.

Similarly with the economic issue, the Obama White House has blown a green opportunity with its slow and lackluster response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, once an adviser and supporter of Obama's, William Pfaff ("What Obama Should Have Said to BP," New York Review of Books) and others on the "professional left," as the White House likes to dismiss them, pointed out the stronger options that Obama had for responding to the situation and to BP's environmentally criminal action. Instead of using the disaster to stand up to a major oil company and to build support for passing at least a halfway-decent climate-change bill, Obama let the moment escape. Support for Senator Kerry's legislative efforts in the Senate evaporated and will not come again in Obama's first term. White House talk of "green jobs" as part of the poorly-conceived and badly-marketed stimulus package now sounds hollow and almost pathetic, in spite of good intentions and Obama's earlier green campaign rhetoric.

These political failures are not only disappointing to those who had hopes for a transformational Obama presidency and for the "change we need" in the country's economic and environmental policies; they have reduced the potential for international US leadership on these vital issues.

This summer I visited the eco-municipality of Visby, one of the greenest cities in Sweden on the island of Gotland -- once a Viking raiding center and later a major trading city in the Hanseatic League. An idealistic band of younger Finns and Swedes has initiated the World Ecological Forum in hopes that it might become a kind of "green Davos" where business, political and scientific leaders can find ways to build a genuinely sustainable future. I served as chair of the Plenary Sessions and also provided an analysis for participants of US green politics from progressive cities such as Santa Monica and Portland to state governments such as Vermont and California, on up to the frustrating politics of Congress. (A new book, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, by Eric Pooley, is a good and reliable report on the state of US climate-change politics.)

The most important speech of the conference was the address by Johan Rockstrom, a professor of natural resource management at Stockholm University and head of the Stockholm Environmental Research Institute. Rockstrom received the Forum's Global Impact award for outstanding environmental publication, given for his article, "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity" (Nature, vol. 461/24, September 2009). Rockstrom is a compelling scientific speaker who knows how to hold an audience (perhaps Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, should make a short documentary of Rockstrom's presentation). The message that Rockstrom expounded is very sobering -- he is not alarmist, but his presentation is highly alarming.

He and his colleagues have worked out the biophysical conditions that allowed human beings to appear and then prosper on the planet -- the safe operating conditions for humanity. They have quantified nine interlinked planetary conditions and their boundaries, which include climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and other eco-indicators necessary for human survival and civilized development. Three of these boundaries have already been overstepped because of growing global reliance on fossil fuels, industrialized forms of agriculture, and overuse of natural resources. The world economy is fast approaching almost all of the other boundaries.

Rockstrom and his colleagues' work and analysis deserves the widest possible attention -- yet few public figures in the US seem to have heard of him.

Sweden, along with other Scandinavian countries and perhaps New Zealand, has the greenest national policies on the planet. Yet, even Sweden cannot go it alone. Rockstrom explained to me that, by being linked to the global economy, his country cannot be carbon neutral because the products it imports are not manufactured to be. Certainly, countries like Sweden and even green US cities (described in the new book, Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, by Joan Fitzgerald) can be exemplars of sustainable policies and take political leadership to argue for them beyond their borders, but there is no local or one-country solution to the boundary dangers that Rockstrom describes. In this case, playing over the line can be a deadly game for humanity.

China is a major case in point. The second day of the World Ecological Forum was devoted almost entirely to China and its supposedly new green national policies. We heard from Chinese officials as well as from global business consultants as to how the Chinese government could simply mandate new green policies and that, in a short matter of time, the immense Chinese auto industry (now the largest in the world) would be all electric and all Chinese cities would soon be adopting strict environmental and sustainable policies. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and other commentators have expressed similarly optimistic assessments. Of course, it sounds nice and straightforward that a non-elected government can simply issue green rules by fiat and everyone will follow them -- but I am not convinced that it will be that easy. China's environmental track record in its recent rush to industrialization and modernization has not been reassuring. Elizabeth C. Economy, in her book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, and Jonathan Watts, in his journalistic book, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind -- Or Destroy It, are among many firsthand observers who have amply documented the country's horrifying amount of air, water and soil pollution. Anyone who has visited China in recent years can view the air pollution, dirty rivers, incredible traffic jams, and endless urbanization for themselves.

I don't believe that the Chinese and its current government will save us -- but they could be part of a global solution crafted and promoted by the United States, if we have the political will to do it.

Later in the summer, my wife and I visited Vermont -- probably the greenest state in the country. We had lunch with a young editor of Chelsea Green Press, one of the leading publishers of books, on sustainable farming, organic living, sustainable economics and green politics, and we paid homage to Ben and Jerry's, the home of caring capitalism. If any state is going to manage the coming Great Contraction of the global economy, it might well be Vermont. It is state of small-sized cities, independent farms, and a highly-active, locally-based food production and distribution movement. While in Vermont, I finished James Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. The author used to write for me and my fellow editors at the alternative newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, back in the 1970s. He is a solid journalist and nuanced critic of American auto-based urban development (see his earlier book, The Geography of Nowhere). The Long Emergency is a harsh and hardheaded view of the decades ahead and what might happen in the US as the biophysical boundaries analyzed by Rockstrom are overstepped. It is a reminder that environmentally-induced change is a far greater danger to Americans than any form of terrorism.

In Kunstler's view, semi-rural states such as Vermont and Oregon will fare better in the difficult decades ahead -- but they will still not escape the overall economic downturn that is coming. He calls it "The Long Emergency." I prefer the term "The Great Contraction," taken from a sci-fi novel that I read this summer, The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (listed by Time as one of the ten best books of 2009). It is set in a future Bangkok, protected by huge dikes from rising seas caused by global warming, powered by bioengineered elephants and beset by food plagues caused by corporate bioengineered crops. In this future world, global trade relies on wind-powered clipper ships and lighter than air blimps. It is not a happy place.

Our final trip of the summer was to Montana to a friend's ranch where we could hardly escape noticing how many trees had been destroyed by an infestation of the pine beetle. Thousands of once verdant green trees have turned brown, cracked and brittle. Our friend's teenage daughters told me that global warming was to blame. Curious, I did some quick research and learned that the pine beetle has killed more trees in recent years than all forest fires in the west. A combination of drought, warmer, drier weather, and warmer winters, has allowed the pine beetle to expand its range to higher elevations and devastate forests in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Washington. Cold winters used to kill off many of the beetles and prevent them from reaching these forests. Since 2010 was the warmest year in recorded human history (and most scientists attribute this to climate change), the betting is on the beetles for the future. Mother Nature is not greatly impressed by Republican denials of scientific facts. Needless to say, these reality deniers are not promoting a religious revival of American Indian beliefs either -- of respect for the land and a desire to live in harmony with the earth. Our teenage friends had been watching the film Dances With Wolves and found themselves, not surprisingly, moved by the Indians' plight. The US record on that topic is not heartening -- and the main message from today's tribes is that if you build a casino, the punters will come.

From sweltering heat in Moscow to killer floods in Pakistan, the weather this summer has been yet another warning sign. If you doubt that it is going to get even wilder and weirder (and hotter) in the coming decades, then read scientist Heidi Cullen's new book, The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet -- just the facts, and they are troubling. These environmental changes will have severe economic as well as social and political consequences. The golden age of globalization has already come to an end. If we don't move more rapidly towards a greener globalization, then we are in for both economic contraction and environmental disorder. There will be famine, floods and plagues of Biblical proportions.

In the short run -- the next few decades -- the future is not going to be an easy place. Whether it gets better or worse after that, we cannot know -- but it seems certain that our actions now and in the coming years will determine the answer.

At a final conference lunch overlooking the Baltic Sea, I asked Rockstrom whether we are at the point of no return. He said that it is true we have passed the peak production of oil, that some effects of climate change are already here, and that we have injured some biological realms -- but the earth is not yet beyond repair. Like most Swedes, a master of calm understatement, Johan said that it is not too late to change course. We can preserve a safe and healthy operating planet for humanity and perhaps build a decent, sustainable and more equitable human society. We have time -- but he could not say exactly how much. When I pressed him, he said probably until the middle of the century -- about thirty or forty years or so, at which point, if we haven't already begun to change course, then we will reach a tipping point and life on the planet will go downhill at a much more rapid pace.

What do we need to do as Americans? Tom Friedman thinks we need a Green Tea Party -- and perhaps that would help. We certainly need a broader-based environmental movement that links environmental threats clearly to our economic future -- and to our economic present. We need an alliance with China -- and that should be the number one priority of US foreign policy, not the war in Afghanistan or confronting Iran or North Korea. Public opinion is in our favor. There is a climate majority. Nearly 75% of Americans tell pollsters that they believe the earth's temperature is warming and that human behavior is responsible. Solid majorities think the nation needs a fundamental overhaul of its energy policies and expect oil to be replaced as a major source of fuel with 25 years. Yet, our political system seems unable to act and our president unable to lead.

Is Obama a lost cause for progressives and environmentalists? I would say not. It's likely that he will get reelected in 2012, almost whatever the outcome of the fall midterms. He is a good campaigner, and the Republicans do not have a viable national candidate or a message that is not simply negative and backward looking. After re-election, Obama could bring on board a more progressive and tougher economic team. More environmental bad stuff will likely happen on his watch and give him another opportunity to pass climate-change legislation and take the lead on green issues. He certainly understands what is at stake; whether he can act on it as a leader is unclear.

I am willing to give hope a chance -- and Obama too -- for awhile longer.

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