The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves. (Rachel Carson)
Bernie Sanders through his 2016 primary campaign had revived a progressive movement that led to the election of several members from Justice Democrats into the US Congress last year. One of those elected representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, co-sponsored a resolution called the Green New Deal (GND) to address (1) climate change and (2) economic inequality. In summary, the GND aims to empower the working class by expanding labor rights/social safety nets and at the same time march towards zero-emission economy. I do agree that the GND resolution has great potential to reverse the economic inequality that has been exacerbated by forty years of Reaganism/Neoliberalism. However, I am not at all convinced that the GND resolution if implemented will lead to fundamental societal change needed to truly combat the climate change.
Purpose of this blog
With this blog, I hope to start a conversation towards what kind of change we must undertake to achieve a sustainable world. I am not talking about changes at the individual level although those are certainly important. I am talking about changes in the federal, state and local governments to pass and execute laws that will transform our society in order to achieve a sustainable world. At this point, I believe only the progressives are capable of making such necessary changes as you will soon see below what I think those changes should be. If you consider yourself to be a progressive, a supporter of Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren and you find the ideas below to be too extreme, just remember that Bernie’s policies that a lot of us considered to be too extreme merely a few years ago are now quite mainstream. In other words, the purpose of this blog is to continue to shift the Overton window among the progressives if they truly intend to combat the climate change as much as the economic inequality. Clearly, the intent of those lawmakers sponsoring the GND resolution is not to propose a comprehensive solution. Instead, the GND would lay the foundation for future legislation. It is therefore my intention not to criticize the GND, but to start the necessary discussion and sort out the details that can guide any future GND (aka the Green New Deal 2.0).
A little about me
Since this is my first blog, please allow me to introduce myself a little here. I am employed at an academic institute in the US, and my job is to do research in a life science field. That doesn’t say much about me. However, if I tell you whose blogs I regularly follow and which podcasts I listen to everyday, that should give you a pretty good idea of who I am. So, here is a semi-comprehensive list of the people/blogs/podcasts that I follow: Raúl Ilargi Meijer, James Howard Kunstler (JHK), John Michael Greer (JMG), Dmitry Orlov, Kyle Kulinski (Secular Talk), Mike Figueredo (The Humanist Report), David Doel (The Rational National), Richard D Wolff, Michael Brooks (The Michael Brooks Show), Thom Hartmann, Michael Greger, Brenda Davis, Paul Beckwith, Chris Hedges and Abby Martin.
Why I think the current progressive ideas are not enough
One reason I enjoy work by Raúl Ilargi Meijer, JHK, JMG and Dmitry Orlov is because I tend to think about long-term trajectories on a global scale. If you are familiar with any of them, you will not be surprised by my doubts on achieving zero emission if we generate 100% of our energy from renewable sources and everyone drives an electric car.
Let us suppose Bernie Sanders wins the 2020 election and becomes our next president to the dismay of the Republicans and establishment Democrats. Let us say Bernie is able to overcome the deep ‘corporate’ state and pass all the laws implementing his progressive policies (within the current Overton window). I have no doubt that the life of the majority will be improved tremendously with the rejuvenated middle class driving up various economic activities. Here comes the bad news for the progressives, who also care about the environment: the increased consumption can only mean higher greenhouse gas emission, more waste and more environmental damage.
But what about the increasing use of the renewable energy and electrification of transportation currently proposed in the GND? Aren’t they supposed to reverse the climate change? Well, building the infrastructure for renewable energy is associated with a large initial carbon footprint. Then, decoupling the maintenance of such infrastructure from the carbon intensive energy is still a challenge if it is even possible. We all know many European countries have been switching to renewable energy sources faster than us. We can take a quick look at how they are doing. For example, Germany, the largest European economy, now generates about half of its electricity from renewable sources; yet its emission is certainly not going down.
I am not saying we should stop switching to renewable energy. It is just that we should not expect to be able to slow the climate change by simply switching to renewable energy and public transportation. Two centuries of intensified global economy afforded by fossil fuels have led to today’s complex societies at the expense of ecological disasters, and many places have already begun experiencing destructive effects of the looming climate change. Renewable energy simply does not have the same energy intensity as fossil fuels to support today’s complex societies. It means we have no choice but to unwind the complexity in our societies to order to lower/eliminate our emission.
For a lot of us, such an unwinding process will certainly mean a significantly lower living standard, and will likely be a chaotic one unless we plan it carefully. I may be wrong, but I believe only a progressive government can implement policies to make sure there is little economic inequality and at the same time promote the drastic lifestyle changes required to simplify our societies and stabilize/restore ecosystems. It simply won’t work if we ask the majority of the people to make a sacrifice, while a tiny minority of so-called elites keep enjoying their lavish lifestyle. This has already been argued brilliantly by JMG numerous times (a recent blog can be found here). Even with the progressive policies that will drive our societies towards minimal economic inequality, it would still be quite challenging to persuade the vast majority of people to give up their current comfortable lifestyle.
It can be argued that we may be able to reverse the climate change if the vast majority of us individually make the necessary changes willingly without persuasion from the authorities. But that is clearly a wishful thinking. After all, it is not in the human nature to use less energy than currently accessible in order to prevent a future disaster as Raúl Ilargi Meijer covered in his recent blog. That is also why I am relying on the progressives to lead the way because they are the only ones who seem to be serious about doing something to fix it. Another obvious reason is that all the ideas listed below involve going against powerful corporations, and only the progressives are willing to fight them.
So, what are the necessary changes we must make to stop the climate change?
It is obvious that none of the following ideas is new. I believe some are already in the GND. Also, this blog is not intended to be a comprehensive solution. Instead, I am simply presenting some ideas and activities that we know to be good for the environment, biodiversity, and our health. I believe we should promote and implement them no matter how challenging or inconvenient it is. You may find some of them to be quite bold or extreme, but some inspiring people are already living their lives based on these principles. Similarly, we must eliminate things that we know to be bad for our environment, our health or future generations no matter how many powerful corporations we must fight against. Note that I am not discussing renewable energy technologies in this post not because I am against those technologies. It is simply because they have been dominating the mainstream discussions on fighting the climate change so much so that other potentially more effective and meaningful approaches have been largely overlooked.
With that said, here is the list of ideas in no particular order where a progressive government must implement policies (along with renewable energy) to fight the climate change. If there is enough interest, I expect to improve them through debates/discussions in the future.
1. Implement an aggressive carbon/environmental tax
One of the most powerful leverages that any government has to persuade behavioral change is through collecting taxes. I believe the government should implement an aggressive carbon and pollution tax. A good place to start is Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Such a tax will make pretty much all economic activities to be more expensive, and the effects will be very regressive. A progressive government must make sure that the middle class and the poor have ample support and safety net to withstand the effects of this tax. In addition, I fully expect a progressive government to collect other hugely progressive taxes such as the wealth tax to help establish strong safety nets for the middle class and the poor.
2. Scientists/elites/politicians must lead the change.
Clearly, scientists and elites/celebrities must lead the behavioral change. Academic institutions must be forced to adopt policies that drastically limit carbon-intensive travelling of their scientists to attend conferences. We should eliminate at least 90% of such conferences and replace them with smaller regional or web-based conferences. Every institution these days has conference rooms equipped with sophisticated multimedia tools that can effectively be used for any necessary communication among scientists. Celebrities displaying lavish lifestyle should be publicly called out and criticized. Politicians also can’t have any excuse not to make the change. A good example was already set by the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who sold the presidential Dreamliner Boeing 787 last year. We can start with that and certainly must go further than selling an aircraft.
3. We must adopt plant-based whole food diets.
The science is pretty clear about the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet on human health. The government must overhaul dietary guidelines to reflect it instead of the current food pyramid put together by lobbyists from the food industry. The change is already happening in New Zealand, France and Canada.
The carbon/pollution tax proposed above will automatically make all animal-based food more expensive because they have much larger carbon and environmental footprint. In addition, the government should collect ‘health’ tax on all processed food that includes refined sugars and oils. We are already collecting taxes on sodas and sugary drinks in many places. Why stop with just the sodas? Then, the government should assist the poor with food programs to make sure they have access to healthy food (aka fruits and vegetables).
I am not saying we must entirely eliminate meat and dairy from our diets. But currently, we are consuming way too much meat and junk food. Many of my friends and colleagues visiting from Europe and China are constantly amazed by the proportion of obese population in the US. Clearly, we can improve the situation by cutting down on meat and junk food. I would set a dietary target such that at least 90% of our energy input must be obtained from plant-based whole food diets. I also expect a progressive government will waste no time to implement some kind of a single-payer Medicare-for-all system similar to those in other developed countries. Better health also means the government will be saving a tremendous amount of money on healthcare. It is a win-win situation.
4. We must eliminate intensive monoculture and adopt sustainable permaculture.
With drastic reduction in meat consumption, we don’t need the productivity of today’s chemical-intensive agriculture that causes pollution and damages ecosystems. All monoculture and animal factory farms should be replaced with sustainable permaculture farms and gardens. The carbon and pollution tax proposed above will achieve a great deal of that. In addition, the government should subsidize and actively train new farmers to start more organic permaculture farms and gardens. It will not be easy as it requires hard work, and there will surely be a great learning curve for many new comers. But I believe working close to the nature will be very rewarding for both mind and body. I will not hesitate to start a permaculture farm/garden myself and work on it full-time given enough support from government or community.
5. We must consume less and eliminate waste.
Recycling is not enough. We must reduce consumption as much as possible. Again, with the right incentive from the government like the carbon tax, we can discourage unnecessary consumption that has become rampant today. Currently, each person in the US generates about a medium-sized suitcase full of waste every week. We must reduce our waste such that no more waste goes to the landfill. All organic waste must be composted to be used as natural fertilizers in permaculture farms and gardens. All single-use plastics must be eliminated. The government must impose strict regulations on the way manufacturers design products so that they last longer and individual parts can be replaced rather than entire products.
6. We must restore forests and nature.
The government should greatly expand programs to plant more trees, restore forests and help recover natural ecosystems. Those monoculture farms that are no longer needed must be converted to forests with native tree species. Regrowing forests and rewilding the nature will help absorb CO2 and lower greenhouse gas emissions. We do not need unproven fancy carbon-capture technologies to reverse the trend of rising atmospheric CO2.
7. We must modify suburbans and cities to be pleasant again.
Although a lot more farmers will be needed on permaculture farms to produce healthy food, a lot of us will still live in cities and suburbs. All suburbs must be transformed into walkable and bike-friendly neighborhoods with robust public transportation. Any person, who does not own a car, should be able to go to work in an efficient manner. Again, owning a car should become prohibitively expensive with carbon and pollution taxes. All lawns must be converted to some sort of gardens with a variety of plants for edible fruits and vegetables.
8. We must discourage all wasteful activities.
All wasteful and hyper-stimulating forms of entertainments and activities must be strongly discouraged or eliminated altogether. I would start with many major sports such as NASCAR, Olympics and Golf as well as sin-based activities such as gambling, lottery and porn industries. With aggressive carbon and pollution taxes, NASCAR, Olympics and Golf will become too expensive to continue any way. The sin-based industries should be strongly regulated and discouraged simply because they tend to corrode moral values and exacerbate socioeconomic problems.
9. We must reorganize our employment.
Obviously, there will be major reshuffling of employment in different industries. Those in wasteful, unproductive and racketeering industries (examples include finance, health insurance, fossil fuels, automobile) will have to find jobs in other industries. Some will start permaculture farms or be employed by the government to plant more trees or clean up the pollution. Most machines running on fossil fuels should be replaced by human labor. It doesn’t mean we can no longer build large complex structures. Remember the Empire State Building was built in just over one year in 1930 without modern machinery.
Some technologies today especially those involving electronics and computation are quite efficient, and we should certainly not abandon them. That means it will still be impossible to prevent losing jobs that involve a lot of repetitious activities to machines. The government simply must make sure that the benefits of such technologies are fairly shared among the employers and employees. As long as the unemployment remains high, the working hours must be reduced without affecting the benefits enjoyed by the employees. For example, if the productivity increases by twenty five percent due to improved technologies, the official working hours must be reduced such that people only work four days a week instead of five while earning the same benefits. The government should also promote workers-owned enterprise just like the UK Labour Party is proposing.
10. We must transform our political and financial systems.
The current political/voting system is ancient and clearly broken. First, big moneys such as rich individuals and corporations must be prohibited from making any contribution to political campaigns. Second, all current/former law makers, government officials and their family members will be prohibited from being employed in industries that are influenced or benefited by their policies. Third, policies must be implemented to encourage more people to participate in the democracy. One such policy is ranked-choice voting, which makes sure no vote goes to waste. Fourth, governments should no longer use nor report GDP as a measure of economic success. A good replacement is Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for various environmental and social impacts. The tax laws should be simplified such that most people should not need to file tax returns every year. Any financial activity that can lead to dishonesty must be strictly regulated or eliminated altogether. Examples include fractional-reserve banking and derivatives trading. Another good idea is to break up all news-reporting agencies owned by large corporations and strictly make them non-profit organizations. The protection of journalists and whistleblowers from prosecution/revenge by rogue government entities must be strengthened. The government must immediately stop prosecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner and many others.
11. We must have a foreign policy that will persuade other countries to adopt similar transformation
Obviously, we must immediately stop all regime change wars and plan to bring our troops home as quickly as possible. This will save a large amount of defense spending that can be used to benefit the people and the environment. All these activities listed above to combat the climate change will dramatically weaken globalization of economic activities. I would expect the US will still be trading with foreign countries although at a much lower extent. The US must leverage its power to encourage other trading partners to improve their environment and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Any country that does not transform their economy to become environmentally friendly will face severe environmental tariff should they want to export their products to the US.
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