This has been a summer of bad and even scary economic news. We are finally focusing on the huge percentage of Americans that are out of work. The official number of 9.1% is only the tip of the iceberg -- even government data report a number that tops 16% when you add discouraged and underemployed workers to the mix. The debt disaster, the stock market decline and the potential for European financial collapse are all a backdrop to this summer of discontent. Missing from much of the discussion of causes and impacts is a persuasive presentation of the fundamentals. What is going on here? How much do we really understand? To what extent are we in new, uncharted territory, where we really do not know the answers?
Let's start by reviewing a few new realities that are the reason the old answers may not be sufficient:
In America's classrooms and an increasing number of its corporate boardrooms, "sustainability" is the mantra of the moment. Even the casual observer sees a planet under growing stress. Young people have this nagging sense in the back of their mind that we older folks may have used everything up. Despite the clear sense that new facts require new thinking, the old paradigm dominates Washington and the U.S. national media. We are still fighting the ideological war between communism and capitalism and many continue to believe that we need to trade off economic growth and environmental protection.
The Republican right wing is attacking EPA and federal funding for fundamental earth science. What chance do we have to solve these complex problems when many in our governing elite believe that the science of climate change is a hoax? We also see the Obama Administration giving the Shell Oil Company conditional approval to drill for oil on Alaska's North Slope. Our advancing technology enables us to find and mine fossil fuels from increasingly distant and ecologically fragile places. Has anyone noticed the trend? This stuff is not as easy to get out of the ground as it used to be. These days we find ourselves drilling deeper for oil, removing mountains for coal or just exploding a piece of the planet to release natural gas. No, we are not running out of these resources, yet. We probably won't for a long time, but isn't there a smarter, cleaner and hopefully cheaper way to power our economy? Why aren't we working to develop that technology? That would be something worth going into hock for if we had to.
That is where the idea of sustainability comes in. We may generate short-term solutions to economic needs by drilling in the Arctic. It may help Shell's shareholders in the short term, but in the medium and long term, it seems like a retreat to yesterday's technology. Like a data system using an old computer language. It reminds me of that old video game, Pong. When people talk about sustainable economic development, they are talking about wealth that is generated by renewable resources: the sun, the hydrologic cycle, sustainable systems of food production. The one-time use of a finite resource is by definition not sustainable.
All of which leads to a set of questions that we do not really know how to address:
Eventually, just as cell phones are replacing landlines in America's households, new technology replaces old when it delivers something that is cheaper and better. The problem with waiting for the market to do this on its own is that if it takes too long, climate change will submerge our cities, and the process of extracting fossil fuels from the planet will cause irreversible damage to critical ecosystems. The same ecosystems that provide us with food and water.
As I look on this changing and uncharted economic and environmental landscape, I see more questions than answers. I am amazed when I hear economists, scientists, pundits and politicos arguing with great certainty that they have the answers. Who are they kidding? It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work transforming our economy from one designed for the 20th century to one capable of thriving in the 21st. It's well past time to admit that there are no easy answers and we really don't know how to do this. Yet.
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