international analysis and commentary

Do the right thing

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“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing”, Winston Churchill supposedly once remarked. “After they’ve tried all the other alternatives.” Whether Churchill ever in fact said this (the evidence is “no”), it is even more debatable whether this sentiment was meant as a compliment or an insult.

In point of fact, such a judgment could be offered on all humans, and human society in general.  As economist Herb Stein once put it more directly, “if something can’t go on forever, it won’t” – people, countries and societies either eventually find the right answer and do the right thing, or they cease to exist.

Most decisions, of course, are not quite so existential, but humanity collectively now faces just such existential choices on the issue of climate change. I cannot speak for all of humanity, but I am confident that, as Churchill might have predicted, the United States at least eventually will do the right thing.

The intense rainfall dumped by Hurricane Harvey in Texas (2017)

 

 

For the time being, however, we are going to try the alternatives.

President Joe Biden’s climate agenda appears stymied. Most people blame this on Senator Joe Manchin (West Virginia), the Democrats’ 50th vote in the Senate and thus the key to the passage of any legislation, who has doggedly refused to provide that vote over a range of (relatively minor) disagreements. I know Manchin reasonably well – I was a policy advisor to him throughout his governorship, and he has been a guest in my home as Senator – so my guesses as to his intentions are, while no more accurate, perhaps more biased and somewhat better informed than those of the average observer. My guess is that Manchin will find his – and his colleagues’ – way to some sort of legislation in 2022 that addresses some of the mass of concerns trying to squirm their way to enactment under the broad umbrella of “Building Back Better.” Those who portray him as a reactionary or interested only in protecting the family coal business profoundly misunderstand him. In fact, literally as I was writing this piece, Manchin told reporters that “the climate thing is one [area in which] we probably can come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” and, referring to the clean energy package, “there’s a lot of good things in there.”

Any step forward this year into a cleaner future, however, is likely temporary. As I discuss in more detail in the new issue of Aspenia (“Il crepuscolo di ogni cosa”: The twilight of everything), Republicans are likely to retake Congress this fall, and the presidency in 2024. Combined with their state-level assault on voting rights, control of the decennial congressional redistricting process, dominance of the Supreme Court for decades to come, and increasingly-open disavowal of democracy, Republicans are close to achieving a hammerlock on power.

If so, you can expect climate denialism and government attempts to lock in the country’s legacy, economy and culture for the remainder of this decade: As we saw during the Trump administration, Republicans and their base are essentially committed to outright warfare against the 21st Century, in misguided defense of an imagined Golden Age of manly manufacturing and coal-mining jobs, without such latter-day distractions as the IT industry, service jobs, or non-white people.

 

After 2022, in short, those hoping for an America that “does the right thing” will be waiting a long time.

At least, that is if “America” means simply its government. Outside the government – and this is why America’s now-minority reactionaries are so desperate to seize control of the government and never relinquish it to democratic majorities again – America is, more and more, inexorably “doing the right thing.”

 

Nowhere, in fact, is this future better illustrated than in the changing nature of the energy economy. Five, inter-related trends encapsulate the direction we are headed: de-reification, decarbonization, decentralization, decapitalization and denationalization.

 

The GOP and, through it, the federal government, has become the last redoubt of the Old Economy: While the Republican Party has, since its founding, prided itself on being the party of business, that now means basically that it is the political wing of dirty and dying industries. As in the past – in ways that Europeans have a hard time understanding because of completely different class dynamics – that means representing not just the corporate overlords in these industries but the perceived interests of their workers, as well: The Republican Party is the voice of the aggrieved carbon economy.

In its self-image, this is the only real economy, one where people perform real work, produce real value, uphold the country’s real values, and represent America’s real majority.  Unfortunately, these convictions about what’s real increasingly are running up against, well, reality: The economy increasingly consists of virtual and intangible goods and services, produced by an increasingly diverse universe of workers in an increasingly concentrated portion of the country that sees the world increasingly differently from the shrinking (though still sizeable) minority that constitutes the GOP base. That is why they (rightly) feel threatened, defensive and angry. But the fact remains that the nation’s, and the world’s, economy is moving further in that direction, and there is little the Old Economy advocates can do to stop that other than to seize the government and try to roll back the tide by edict – which is what they are doing.

These revanchists complain that industries like coal are dying because Democrats are strangling it with government regulation and propping up uneconomical alternatives like solar with government subsidies. The truth is more the reverse: Republicans under Trump enacted sweeping tax changes to subsidize carbon-based fuels and to undermine solar and, more generally, all technology, knowledge-based industries, science and higher education. This will only be more the case once the GOP gets back in power – the official policy of the United States will be, in the words of William F. Buckley, the founder of modern American conservatism, to “stand athwart history yelling stop.”

But, as with premature pronouncements of its end, history has a way of working its will. Far greater value lies in innovation in digital and biological technologies in coming years than in digging more material out of the ground to turn it into more things (not that such activities will completely cease or even abate). For those without an economic or ideological reason for denying reality, climate change is already affecting industries that rely on weather patterns (like virtually all global trade); they cannot afford to pretend that this does not matter, and they are changing accordingly. The major automakers are not shifting their entire production lines into electric vehicles because it is more profitable to spend billions kowtowing to fashionable “woke” opinion – they are doing so because the physical realities of the world will make it far more economical to abandon carbon-based fuels as the cost of further emissions into an almost-full carbon sink necessarily rise. Coal is not dying because of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; one can pretend so for only so much longer.

 

Read also: Which roadmap for energy transition?

 

The slow shift away from carbon-based energy sources (not to mention carbon-based life forms…) is part of another, much larger shift. Today’s technologies – from the internet to blockchain, and even, as George Will recently pointed out, the humble shipping container that revolutionized modern trade – are increasingly dispersed and decentralizing. This is already having profound effects on every industry, on culture and politics, and will further undermine governments as we know them in coming years. The energy revolution is a part of this: Solar, wind, biomass, and other alternative energy sources are not just “green(er)” – they also represent a shift from centralized production, generation and distribution systems to ones in which individual households can generate their own energy supplies (and in jurisdictions where there are feed-in tariffs, meet the supplies of others). This, like much else about the direction the world is headed today, is a more “democratic” form of production. That, of course, is why powerful incumbents – like fossil fuel conglomerates – and revanchists fight it.

Another related phenomenon is decapitalization. For most of my life, I have had to purchase my home energy needs from a major corporation that supplies either electricity, oil or gas. In more recent years, the options of using solar or some sort of coils I do not understand, installed under the ground out back of our house, have presented themselves: These would be great, allowing me to heat my home and run its appliances more cheaply, more planet-friendly, and freed from the constant demand of feeding some corporate beast; the only problem is that they are capital-intensive and would require a hefty upfront investment on my part. But new technologies also are making access to capital more ubiquitous – “democratic” – by fractionating it.

The actual ownership of capital assets – cars, homes, production facilities – will decline markedly in the years ahead, as will the “intensity” of physical capital – similar to the virtualization, or “de-reification,” of everything discussed earlier: Like many others, I have not installed solar panels on my roof, yet – but we did install lights to line our driveway that are cheap, mass-produced, can be stuck in the ground by hand without any larger electrical infrastructure, are even quite attractive – and run entirely on built-in, miniature solar cells. Like most technologies, energy systems will become smaller and less material-intensive in the coming years; the biggest challenge is reducing the size, weight and cost of energy-storage systems – batteries – but this, too, will be surmounted, as it must, because the economics will demand and drive it.  Eventually, these decentralized, cheaper, less physically- and capital-intensive technologies will be widely available and near-universally used.

And that takes us to our final de-lightful, de-lovely de-velopment (that is Cole Porter, for non-fans of American musical theater): denationalization. All these same technological changes are undermining the authority of all incumbent agglomerations, including nation-states. In the United States, the world’s leading example, as the federal government has ground to a halt and Republicans try, largely successfully, to throw it into reverse, subnational governments are becoming leaders in climate change policies.

This is a global phenomenon: The world’s cities and metropolitan regions are becoming the policy and innovation leaders on not just climate but all aspects of quality-of-life and economics. This is part, again, of a larger devolution, as state governments in the US assert their right to buck the federal government and make their own climate pacts with foreign governments, and subnational units worldwide begin asserting greater autonomy from nation-state behemoths. (This has been reflected in handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well: Look at which types of government units have performed well, or poorly, over the last two years.)

 

Read also: Urban power: still strong but humbler?

 

As power and authority in general are shifting from national to subnational levels, and from governments to private entities and individuals, so too is the locus of climate action, specifically. In all these ways, the world is moving toward more sensible technologies, social systems, and governance structures around energy usage – hopefully, before it is too late.

The institutions of American government, too, undoubtedly one day will once again “do the right thing” and enact legislation wholly appropriate to the new energy and environmental age in which we will then be living.

By then, however, they will be irrelevant.