01/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thinking Big Is Getting Big

It's clear that we've got big problems. Economists are now routinely saying that this is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The military analysis of how things are going in Afghanistan is grim. Climate scientists warn that we're running out of time and need to change course radically. In 2008, in addition to the worst economic crisis in seventy years, we experienced the worst energy crisis in thirty, and the worst food crisis in fifty.

Big problems need big responses, and big solutions, and what's really exciting are the number of new, big-solution ideas cropping up. Here's a sampler of four big concepts to whet your appetite -- like any big ideas, these have flaws and inconsistencies, barriers and obstacles -- but we've got to start thinking at the scale of our problems.

I'm not sure which combination of the exciting ideas below will be acted on first -- but our leaders have no excuse for going small, and the President-elect, so far, shows no inclination to do so.

The 2030 Stimulus Plan

Ed Mazria at Architecture 2030 has creatively married a proposal to ease the mortgage crisis with the concept of retrofitting homes for high energy performance and efficiency. Basically, if homeowners invest in energy retrofitting to lower their utility bills, the government will also lower their mortgage interest rate. Lower mortgage payments and utility bills have an obvious immediate benefit to homeowners, and housing prices would rise because buildings would be worth more.

According to its advocates, the 2030 Stimulus Plan would

in just two years,

  • create at least 8.445 million new jobs and
  • create a new $1.6 trillion renovation market

and in just five years,

  • save consumers $142.33 to 200.88 billion,
  • reduce CO2 emissions by 481.13 Million Metric Tons,
  • reduce energy consumption by 6.17 Quadrillion Btu,
  • save 1.83 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and
  • save 83.35 million barrels of oil.

Storing Carbon Through Regenerative Agriculture and Biochar

Then there is the idea put forth by the Rodale Institute's Tim LaSalle that if we paid farmers for the additional carbon stored by converting from conventional to regenerative, low-chemical agriculture (which his studies put at more than three tons of CO2/acre),  the agricultural sector could potentially sequester 25 percent of current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. That would enable us to combine major progress on climate with huge reform of our agricultural sector.  This concept is now being tested in Pennsylvania by Governor Ed Rendell.

This level of sequestration would be greatly enhanced if the newly emerging science of biochar, which suggests that by heating agricultural wastes or other organic material without oxygen we can convert up to half of the short-term carbon created by photosynthesis into long-lived biochar, which when added to the soil dramatically improves water retention and productivity. This could be an enormous, scalable way to increase both incomes and agricultural productivity in the Third World.

REPI -- The Pickens Plan in a Recession

So T. Boone Pickens's plan won't save $700 billion at today's oil prices, and private capital markets right now won't fund his wind turbines. But a public-power-based initiative called REPI, for Renewable Electric Power Power Initiative, could take advantage of surplus transmission capacity in the federal power system and the free borrowing authority of the federal government in today's markets to start supplementing the hydro power from projects like Lake Mead and Fort Peck with essentially free renewables: REPI advocates believe that they could get 20,000 MW of solar and 20,000 MW of wind under construction within two years, putting 180,000 people to work and paying the Treasury back with power sales. And Boone's core point, that natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than gasoline for whatever needs we have in future vehicles, still holds true, even with the collapse in the price of oil.

Whipping Poverty While Solving Global Warming

And finally, take a look at Green for All's Clean Energy Core, which with new funding of only "$3 billion per year over 5 years would be leveraged to underwrite the financing for a $50 billion public revolving loan fund -- with tax exemption, credit guarantees, and the ability to package loans for sale to secondary markets -- to make investments and leverage private money in the national building retrofit effort. The fund would be replenished both by its proceeds from projects approved for direct investment and through its sale of packaged loans via private investors." And this approach would be directly tied to job training and service opportunities to engage the next generation in the clean energy economy.

The good news is that at a time when we are suffering from the economic downturn and job loss, there is no shortage of big solutions that could lift us out of the hole we're in -- and that we've elected a President who's willing to make the leap.