Perpetual growth under present circumstances threatens the ecosystem. The current system of energy usage is unsustainable. Zero growth in a depression threatens to create a permanent class of unemployed and underemployed persons, however. Debts and imports can rob wealth, but simply cutting deficits without generating wealth and growth will further erode living standards and democratic control. Scarcity leads to infringements on democracy and worsens poverty. The growth of waste–tied to war, rising administrative overheads in bureaucracies, consumption of less than socially useful luxury products, and use of energy-intensive transportation systems–will promote the kinds of growth that threatens the ecosystem and the economy. Oil imports can reduce security, increase debt and further the kinds of waste that undermines the economic foundations of a national economy.
What do we mean by “growth” in a regime where new wealth is created? A new definition of growth is needed, based on the expansion of wealth-generating activities tied to sustainable energy systems, locally anchored jobs, the development of innovations promoting human needs and energy-reducing investments like mass transportation. Technology that provides clean energy locally and to developing nations, reduces energy consumption in homes and buildings, facilitates home care for older citizens and reduces surplus packaging adds sustainable value when economic activity is expanded.
Therefore, we must grow the number of wind mills, mass transit systems, engineering activities that reduce or design out waste, and other means to reduce carbon footprints while simultaneously expanding jobs. Locally anchored production is necessary so that jobs don’t get offshored through global sourcing, unless there are real benefits to the majority of working people from doing so.
We also need to package or organize wealth in new ways. Mandating alternative energy is a critical and necessary step in the right direction, building incentives and markets for sustainable energy. Yet, sometimes the alternative energy is supplied by foreign firms, so the resulting jobs dividend is diminished. Wind cooperatives, municipal utilities and new financing systems are needed to encourage this local jobs dividend. The generation of green economic capital will extend green political capital. Building up a local complex of flexible domestic suppliers will facilate growth and change.
We need to understand the limits to “green jobs” proposals that don’t address: (a) how jobs will be locally anchored, (b) the quality of the job, (c) the need to build job ladders that promote qualified jobs, (d) the advantages to unionized jobs, and (e) whether a green job proposed is backed by socially responsible financial institutions. The very scarcity environment encouraged by austerity politics and wealth erosion has often lead to the scapegoating of trade unions. The attack on public investment and cheerleading for the privatization of everything is based on a political vacuum which only citizens’ active political mobilization can challenge. Deindustrialization, financial bailouts and war promote austerity by eroding wealth. Reindustrialization, alternative financial institutions and “ecological conversion” promote sustainable wealth. This “ecological conversion” involves the design of the economy, housing and living arrangements leading to decreased energy usage, commuting times and emissions.
The concentration of political, economic and media power sustain the present economic system and probability of negative outcomes. Yet, social and organizational innovations can provide alternatives and reduce the probability of these outcomes, depending on whether, how much and how people organize. Neither wishful thinking, nor sitting on the sidelines is appropriate in these times. The potential for trade wars, fights between localities, and even greater mass unemployment mean that we must put ourselves on the pathway towards comprehensive solutions. Piecemeal change is no longer the “pragmatic” option.
Inequitable tax systems, the permanent war economy, and power concentrated in companies lacking any sense of civic duty or social responsibility will deplete both the economy and the institutional foundations of democracy. Our ability to challenge big government and corporate actors that engage in this depletion is enhanced by our capacity to organize our own media, political and economic power. Voting, consumption, procurement, and audience power, can be integrated and extended through new institutions and networks that provide economic, ecological and democratic alternatives.
For further reading: Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power, New York: Random House, 1976; Seymour Melman, Profits without Production, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983; Manish Bapna and Vinod Thomas, “Three ideas that are good for both economy and environment,” The Guardian, January 6, 2012.
*-Note: This editorial does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the global teach-in as a whole.