During the 1973 oil and gas crisis, Ernst Callebach struck a national nerve with his novel Ecotopia. In it, the Pacific Northwest had seceded from the rest of America and liberated itself from the constraints of fossil fuels (and traditional morality). The left-coast enclave flourished on high speed rail, wind mills, solar energy, and organic farming—the whole litany of emerging green technologies—while the rest of the country descended into a revanchist wasteland.
Callebach understood Ecotopia to be an imperfect “semi-utopia”—a work in progress—and later he abandoned the idea stating, “We are now fatally interconnected, in climate change, ocean impoverishment, agricultural soil loss, etc.” The rhetoric of impending ecological catastrophe has only intensified, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (GND) presents itself as the latest vision of state-of-the-art sustainability. Compared to Ecotopia, the GND is only slightly less utopian, and potentially more divisive. The proposal begins with a definition of success—no greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—and proposes achieving it by any means necessary.
The fact of our interconnectedness, however, does not mean that the solution to the diverse problems of ecology can be implemented by a central authority. California wildfires may or may not have the same root cause as toxic algae blooms in Florida, and the focus on climate change as a unified problem in need of a monolithic solution may be the biggest obstacle to ecological restoration.
We must transition away from scarce, polluting sources of energy, but overhauling the entire American energy infrastructure is a vastly different problem from the social change that progressives have grown accustomed to effecting in a short period of time. If we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the lights would go out, the tractors would halt, supermarket shelves would go empty, and chaos would ensue. The Green New Deal’s 12-year timeline would accelerate a dystopia more closely resembling Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan petro-state than Callebach’s Ecotopia.
The Carbon Structure of Production
Properly scaled and positioned, renewables are approaching the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of fossil fuels, but they still require materials which must be mined, transported, and produced by hydrocarbons. As earth scientist David Hughes notes, in certain parts of the country, “a windmill could spin until it falls apart and never generate as much energy as was invested in building it.” Yet elsewhere, solar and wind are already cost-effective alternatives to grid electricity, and are voluntarily adopted based on the free market’s calculation of EROEI. Since prices contain the best information about relative scarcity, the test of a project’s sustainability is whether it would be implemented voluntarily.
The current economy, over-inflated by decades of cheap oil and debt-financed growth, can be compared to a cybernetic organism with a metabolism adapted to a naturally abundant but finite and dwindling food supply. The Green New Deal says that this petro-chemical Borg must stop eating by 2030, while gorging itself on the remaining food supplies in the hopes that the temporary boost in consumption will enable it to create new energy sources through vague and untested means.
“Decarbonizing the economy” by the methods proposed under the GND requires large, upfront capital investments, which produce massive carbon emissions now on the hopes of future carbon offsets. If CO2 is indeed contributing to our rapid demise, frontloading these projects is the worst possible course of action. Estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s High-Speed Rail, for example, show that it would take 71 years of operation to offset emissions of the cars it would replace. Thus a centrally-planned energy infrastructure could easily require more fossil fuels to produce less output. Without price signals to guide decisions, planners overlook the true costs of their projects, and politically-motivated funding would be misallocated to build solar and wind farms in the wrong places.
Over a century ago, the Austrian school of economics developed a theory of how central planning distorts the economy in similarly unsustainable ways. Austrian economics explains the booms and busts of the business cycle as the result of skewed investment in long-term fixed assets at the expense of intermediate capital and maintenance of the overall structure of production. These “malinvestments” are financed with artificial credit manufactured by banks rather than real savings from the population, so they cannot be sustained except through ever-increasing money creation. Eventually, the bad assets must be liquidated at much lower prices.
This is what happened in Venezuela, where revenues from the nationalized oil industry were used for years to pay for social programs until those promises were over-extended and the only way to pay for them was by printing money. The resulting hyperinflation gutted Venezuela’s most productive industries, including those needed to maintain oil production. Distorting the capital structure would make us more reliant on petroleum in the long-run, as centrally-planned infrastructure crumbled, leaving renewables under-developed and requiring large quantities of energy to maintain. At that point, more primitive fossil fuel burning technology would be the only way to to rebuild the economy along more realistic lines.
We can’t wave a policy wand and do away with burning carbon. The current structure of production—warped as it is by over century of malinvestment—depends on it. Instead, we should reframe the question to ask how we can get out of the way of the local actors who can transform the existing stock of capital into something that can sustainably feed a more advanced energy metabolism.
Local Emergent Orders and Sustainable Technology
Presenting “doing nothing” and “centralizing power in Washington D.C.” as the only options is a false dichotomy promulgated by those with a vested interest in the status quo. A decentralized ecological approach would recognize that managing emissions is one part of a larger equation that includes the natural carbon cycle.
In abandoning his Ecotopia concept, Callebach unwittingly turned his back on its primary virtue: regionalism. Alternative technologies can only be discovered through trial-and-error—at the state and local level, or in even smaller communities, startups, and groups of people dedicated to weaning themselves off our addiction to burning fossil fuels. We don’t need a Green New Deal so much as many green new deals. This means we must scale back both the obstacles to experimentation and the existing incentives favoring the status quo economy.
Currently, the most active managers of carbon—Big Agriculture and Big Oil—are being allowed to pass the costs of their negative externalities onto future generations. Carbon taxes are a weak solution, since we lack a good method of measuring the relative costs and benefits associated with CO2, but we could easily end the roughly $40 billion a year subsidies to agrobusiness and the fossil fuel industry. Corporate welfare concentrates land and energy production in the hands of a few businesses, which have little incentive to innovate beyond their short-sighted practices that erode soil, pollute water, and destroy biodiversity on land and at sea.
A model decentralized solution for land management was recently offered by retired Utah congressman, Michael E. Noel. A rural farmer and grandfather of 48, Noel is the anti-AOC—if anyone has a stake in the future of planet Earth, it’s him. He persuaded President Trump to downsize two national monuments in Utah, handing the land back to the state. This will make room for more holistic land management practices that have been shown to sequester carbon in the soil (true “decarbonization”). Soil health is our ultimate wealth. Anything built on an eroding foundation is false wealth.
While there are clear downsides to the clear-cutting practices used for ranching in the Amazon, “green grazing” by buffalo and other megafauna was the norm on the North American range for millions of years. Before humans arrived and hunted them to extinction, large herds of herbivores kept carbon locked up in the soil with their dung-and-hoof-work, and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.
Just before retiring, Noel introduced H.C.R. 8 Concurrent Resolution on Carbon Sequestration on Rangelands, which “calls on the President of the United States to direct those federal agencies currently permitted by law to implement management practices that increase soil carbon sequestration to develop, in a timely fashion, comprehensive plans to achieve the maximum amount of carbon sequestration possible in ways that will increase the economic and environmental productivity of rangelands.”
This state-based solution merely requires Federal government to step out of the way. States can employ different frameworks for managing their land’s carbon storage capacity, mixing private and public ownership with different kinds of usage and decision rights.
We must also come to terms with the fact that humans have inexorably altered the landscape, and are now embedded within their ecosystems. Just as Native Americans periodically burned the underbrush, we must clean up after the mess we’ve allowed to accumulate through preventing natural forest fires. There are gigatons of dead, rotting wood and other biomass that pose a fire threat in the western United States. The President has been criticized for blaming the U.S. Forest Service on the recent California wildfires, but there’s a grain of truth in what he’s said. Under pressure from environmental groups, the Forest Service has been preventing the necessary decluttering of our nation’s tree farms.
Part of this solution is simply harvesting more timber—the ultimate renewable green building material. It also might involve setting up a distributed network of small biomass processors that can turn larger pieces of dead trees into wood chips, which can then be burned in wood gasifiers.
If a tree decays in the forest and there’s no one there to burn it, does it still generate emissions? The short answer is yes – normally, woody biomass just breaks down into methane and other greenhouse gasses. But a Berkeley startup called All Power Labs offers a promising wood-burning gasifier generator that represents the cutting edge of environmental technology. Burning it in a gasifier is actually carbon negative to the extent that it leaves behind some “biochar.” Unlike a centralized solar “Tower of Power” hooked up to long transmission cables (which entail a loss of efficiency that increases with distance), small gasifiers could be run by small business collectives near the sources of wood, perhaps in conjunction with new ranching practices. If the federal government wanted to incentivize this, it could offer tax credits to anyone who purchases such machinery, and additional incentives for production of carbon-offsetting biochar.
Finally, the ocean must be recognized as a wilderness resource to be stewarded—not something off-limits to be kept “pristine.” Catalina Sea Ranch, a new shellfish farm in federal waters off the coast of Los Angeles, is being touted as a potential savior of the sea, and there are many more possibilities for regenerative aquaculture. One thing slowing it down is the patchwork of overlapping regulations and agencies tasked with protecting our coastline. Some of these regulations are valid (few want to see massive wind farms while gazing out to sea—GND approved or otherwise). However, there are many technologies that can be deployed at or below the waterline in ways that enhance biodiversity without interfering with existing maritime activity or marine wildlife.
Catalina Sea Ranch is a hybrid of a for-profit and an environmental philanthropy generating nutritious protein from excess nutrients in the water column. The founder, Phil Cruver, invested much of his personal fortune in the hopes of creating a truly sustainable business. It took him nearly a decade to anchor the first shellfish “longlines,” due to the byzantine rules of the California Coastal Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other state, local, and federal authorities.
These proposals are just a small sampling of what is possible outside of the narrow conversation around greenhouse gases and the inherently limited schemes for their management at the hands of central planners. The Green New Deal has been valuable for starting a conversation that recognizes the unsustainability of our current trajectory, but it misdiagnoses the roots of the problem and goes even further astray in its proposed solution. We all have a stake in securing the resources to meet the challenges of a changing climate. There are better ways to build the future, namely by fostering a decentralized, experimental approach to clean technology and management of the carbon cycle.
While a sense of urgency may be warranted, we should not be cowed into submission by politicians claiming to have all the answers to an allegedly imminent crisis. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, the original New Dealer, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
(Featured image source: The Climate Reality Project/Unsplash)