ECO-nomics: Creating True Wealth by Addressing the Climate Crisis

by Wahhab Baldwin

February 2020

Ever since the merchants of doubt started spending huge sums to fight against the United States dealing with global climate change, we have heard the narrative that even if it is real, dealing with it is far too expensive and would destroy our quality of life. For example, Republican lawmakers claimed that the Green New Deal, if enacted, would ban hamburgers, air travel, and ice cream.

The reality is far different. Scientific American recently published an analysis showing that a Green New Deal could rapidly lower CO2 emissions while also expanding employment over the next three decades by an additional 35 million job years (one job for one year). This was based on a carbon tax of $60/metric ton of CO2 starting this year and increasing by the rate of inflation plus 5% each year, with the taxes returned to households as a “carbon dividend.”

This report is encouraging as far as it goes, but in my opinion, it does not go nearly far enough. CO2 emissions, in this analysis, would decline (compared with business-as-usual) by 28% in 2030 and 37% in 2050—helpful, but not enough to meet the IPCC targets to keep warming to 1.5° C.

However, if we look back to the last two times the United States treated a situation as a true national emergency, we see that the outcomes were remarkably more positive. The first was the New Deal, in response to the Great Depression. The second, following close behind, was our entry into World War II. The results of these two strong, powerful responses to emergencies was astonishing.

The New Deal led to the transformation of the country’s banking system, support for labor organizing, Social Security, the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, rural electrification, support for farmers, food stamps, major support for housing and home loans, direct hiring of 8.5 million workers through the WPA, building hospitals, schools, roads, and other projects from the Lincoln Tunnel to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

In World War II, the U.S. not only produced hundreds of thousands of tanks, airplanes, and ships and had over 16 million Americans in the military (about 11% of all Americans), but brought women into the workplace, had 20 million homes with “victory gardens” providing about 40% of all vegetables eaten in the U.S.

These two powerful responses propelled the United States into being the richest and most influential country in the world. We were able to help rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan, have a boom in housing and automobiles, build a national freeway system, provide college education through the GI Bill, and maintain full employment even after a third of the workforce left military jobs. This period of prosperity lasted arguably until 1973.

Based on this, I believe there is ample evidence that a full-on emergency response to the climate crisis would actually lead our country to another extended period of great prosperity, as we transform our sources of energy, engage in massive energy efficiency programs, replace our cars, trucks, and busses with electric vehicles, have a major research and development program comparable to our effort to land a person on the moon, transform our agriculture sector, and take the many other steps necessary to reach net zero by 2050.

However, this is only looking at the situation through current, conventional ways of understanding economics. A key reason we are in the disastrous situation we face is that our system of economics is terribly flawed. An essential part of the climate solution will be replacing that flawed system with a form of ECO-nomics that is based on what we truly value rather than taking the spending and getting of money as our sole metric of value.

As human beings, what matters to us most is love, caring, security, comfort, and life’s necessities. We value beauty, including the beauty of the earth. Of all of these, only life’s necessities register in our current system of economics. Actions of destructive extraction, such as blowing the top off of a mountain and scooping up huge quantities of coal, while leaving a horrible, scarred mess behind, are treated as great good by our current, flawed economic system, because they generate money. The earth is valued at nothing; clean air is valued at nothing; animals and birds and trees are valued as nothing unless they are to be killed and exploited for profit. And as H. Thomas Johnson said, “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you’ll get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.”

As a result, we need an ECO-nomics that measures, and guides us, based on what really matters. It certainly needs to measure greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, and destruction of environment as negatives. But it also needs to measure increased human health and happiness as positives. Our current, flawed economic system counts raising children or caring for an aging parent as zeros, but clear-cutting a forest as a huge plus. This is profoundly wrong. We must use a humane, earth-centered form of ECO-nomics in place of our current system if we are to achieve our true goals.

Do we have to give up eating hamburgers to enact a Green New Deal? I would say that if we are eating healthier, organic foods, grown close to home, that are more delicious, more nutritious, more sustainable, as opposed to mass-produced fast foods from factory farms stuffed with trans fats, sugar, chemicals, and pesticide residue, that is a plus. It may be that this greatly improved and more delicious diet will include fewer hamburgers, but if so, that will not be a loss, but a benefit.

It may be that under such a system fewer of us will spend long hours every day in coal mines, eventually getting silicosis, but instead will work in harmony with the earth. Certainly we need to provide strong support for the transitions involved, but that too will be a huge plus.

It may be that some Americans with a net worth of $50 billion will find themselves with a net worth of “only” $30 billion, while caretakers in nursing homes and a stay-at-home parent caring for a disabled child will earn a living wage, but you know what? I’m all right with that. I think that billionaire and his family will somehow manage to scrape by on their reduced net worth, and the world will be a better place.

What we can easily see is that true wealth is not measured in dollars. In fact, the way we currently use dollars is precisely what is destroying our environment, leading to the sixth great extinction, and paving the way for possibly making the earth uninhabitable for human beings. We need to adopt new ways of measuring and rewarding behavior that support the changes we need to make so that all of us can share in a good and rich life on the beautiful planet we call home. So this is my vision. We need much more than incremental change to deal with the climate crisis. We need to treat it as the fundamental emergency it is and be willing to turn our way of doing business upside down to deal with it. That will create millions and millions of new jobs, even as it displaces some others. But to succeed, we need to go big. That includes not following business as usual, but changing from our current, badly flawed economic system to a form of ECO-nomics that is aligned with the earth and our true human values. Human beings created the form of economics we have today. We are perfectly capable of creating the form we need for tomorrow.

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