Season Greetings

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I’ll be taking a few days off to visit family in Maine and to give my faithful readers a break as well. It’s difficult to leave with an upbeat message with hopes for real progress on the sustainability front scattered to the winds in Copenhagen. I have tried to find something to cheer about, but even those who have reached far to find something positive are not convincing. Tom Friedman’s column today was a great example of good and bad news. The bad news was that Copenhagen “was a bust.” The good news is that the Danes have been able to create a sensible energy economy, based largely on raising taxes on energy. Friedman was impressed.

As I listened to Denmark’s minister of economic and business affairs describe how her country used higher energy taxes to stimulate innovation in green power and then recycled the tax revenues back to Danish industry and consumers to make it easier for them to make and buy the new clean technologies, it all sounded so, well, intelligent.

He then points out the political impossibility of raising the gasoline tax even by a few cents, and asks:

How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things — whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit — are “off the table.” They’ve been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loud-mouth talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable and a citizenry that doesn’t even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.

The larger point here is not about lobbyists and loud-mouth talk show hosts or even about energy policy. It is that we have come to live in a make believe land. I have gotten further into Empire of Illusion (the book I mentioned yesterday), finishing chapters on the illusion of wisdom and of happiness. It’s all pretty depressing. Hedges, the author, has picked a handful of themes central to what most would call a good life or to what I call elements of sustainability. Awareness of the world around us seen through a critical lens that filters out all the bullshit, artifice, self-delusion, and wishful thinking is absolutely to sustainability. American exceptionalism has become a caricature. Climate change should awaken us to the fact that we are only one group of people on a finite planet we share with some six billion others and can no longer call the shots as we see fit.

Our moral basis for that exceptionalism has a hollow ring when we ignore the realities of global warming or plan to send tens of thousands of soldiers to secure “freedom” in a land we know is corrupt. Is our Congress any less corrupt? We are going heat up the planet. There is no question about that. It is just as sure as we know that an apple will fall from the tree, but we don’t know when, how much, and where. What to do about it is a truly daunting challenge, but to deny or ignore the consequences of inaction other than again seeking technical BandAids is unrealistic at best and immoral at worst. Using children to support our needs failed the morality test generations ago (although we still condone it de facto today). Inaction on climate change and on many of the other unsustainable ills out there today is little more than punting and leaving the mess we create to the next generations.

Sustainability is at heart the possibility of creating flourishing day by day and year by year. Flourishing or any other equivalent name one gives to what we would call the good or meaningful life, has to be deliberately produced within the real world we inhabit. It’s tough enough to cope with that world even when we come to understand it without wearing blinders or rose-colored glasses, but it is impossible when we fool our selves all the time. Hunger is hunger. Illness is illness. Addiction is addiction. The only genuinely sustainable source of energy is sunlight. How can the failure to price fossil energy at somewhere near its real cost be anything but illusion? We need to ask this kind of question everywhere and everyday as our world moves closer and closer to resemble Disneyworld or some other theme park. We are already intoxicated by the latest technological wonders, social media, the internet, and the knowledge economy. It will take more than a handful of the usual annual resolutions to wake up to reality.

Any way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or is this only an illusion)?

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