The Green Economy

January 31, 2010

The National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) holds an annual conference in Washington DC that is intended to generate key recommendations for government, educators and the private sector. I participated in this year’s conference, which was held Jan. 20—22. The theme was “The New Green Economy”. Morning sessions with big name speakers and panelists are followed by afternoon breakouts with more focused discussions that are intended to generate the recommendations for the report that the NCSE generates based on the conference deliberations.

I heard Bill Spriggs, an Assistant Secretary of Labor, get grilled by someone in the audience because their pet project had not been funded. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency heard it, too. She decided not to take questions. Plenary panels included Robert Costanza, the well known ecological economist, U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D. New Jersey), Lisa Kantor, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, and my friend David Orr, former Provost of Oberlin College in Ohio. The journalist and former Clinton staffer David Gergen moderated one of the panels, and he kept bringing the conversation back to the election of Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s senate seat. The general consensus is that this was very bad news for he environment, because Brown had campaigned on his opposition to Obama’s plan for reducing greenhouse gases.

The most interesting panelists dealt with economic issues. Richard Freeman, a Harvard labor economist, talked about how a shift to renewable fuels would be extremely beneficial to job growth. He also said the U.S. cannot expect a full job recovery until 1016. Kyung-Ah Park from the investment bank Goldman & Sachs said that China and India were getting the jump on the United States in the new Green Economy. Both countries have invested heavily in technologies like wind power generation, electric cars and liquid fuels from biomass. She said that the U.S. would very likely be buying these technologies from Asia if investment did not pick up quickly.

Overall, I would say that three themes dominated the discussions of the new Green Economy. First, there was talk about alternative energy systems that would be compatible with the existing infrastructure: liquid fuels that substitute for gasoline and wind, hydro, solar and geo-thermal that substitute for generating electricity with coal. Second, there was climate change. The assumption was that Brown’s election had driven a stake through the heart of schemes for limiting carbon emissions, and there was much pessimism all around. The energy and climate themes are tightly connected because without some policy mechanism for limiting the use of coal and petroleum fuels, alternative fuels do not look like a good investment over the short run.

The third theme was the rise of life-cycle analysis, especially in the private sector. Speakers from Dupont and GE noted that this tool for estimating the total environmental impact of products, from mining of resources through manufacturing to use by consumers and finally disposal, was helping them make batter choices about which products to develop. The hope is that government policies would support the use of this planning tool both by large private firms and by public institutions such as universities or government procurement agencies.

Small scale and local efforts such as Thornapple CSA did not get any significant discussion from the speakers on the podium. The two exceptions were David Orr, who talked briefly about efforts at Oberlin to source from local suppliers, and Tim Jackson, a British professor, who mentioned the emphasis on food systems in Europe. My sense is that the leadership in the Federal Government today is searching for ways to pursue a Green Economy without encouraging much in the way of local action. The tone of the conference certainly did not lead me to think about change in the way that large corporations dominate our current economy. On the one hand, I can’t say that I blame them. We certainly need to curtail the impact of large corporations!

Yet it would also be nice to see some space carved out for smaller scale community based efforts somewhere.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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