Post-election Blues

electoral map

It didn’t take long to get over my relief following the results of Tuesday’s election. Great outcomes nationally, here at home in Massachusetts, and in Maine where I spend the summer. It turns out, the votes seem to indicate that we are a bluer nation, according to the networks color schemes. Blue is the wrong metaphor because there surely were more happy people than sad. A redder nation would signify an angrier nation, and, except for the discredited and mostly wrong Republican pundits, happiness outweighed anger. My observations, during an election cycle, are always badly distorted both by my own biases and by my home location in Massachusetts. Not only did Massachusetts elect a complete Democratic slate, but there was not a single Republican elected in any of the other New England states. So no matter which way I look, all I can see is blue, or blue-green in the case of the independent Senators from Vermont and Maine.

So what does all this mean for sustainability. Not too much. I see the US taking a step to the side, but at least not a backwards step. Maybe some discussion of climate change, but little action coming. Clean coal and clean-tech in any form is better than nothing, but still capable of reducing unsustainabilityonly by a hair. Whatever gains might be found here are likely to be offset by the almost certain effort to heat up the rather chilly economy. I expect something to happen here, but probably short of another big kick. Maybe a new infrastructure-building program, a much needed action with or without any connection to kick-starting the economy. But any overall economic growth will have a perverse impact on carbon usage and materials consumption in general. We are stuck in a catch-22 situation.

I know Paul Krugman would jump all over this next thought, but what about an austerity budget, not to reduce the deficit, but to reduce consumption, keeping the deficit the same or modestly reducing it. This would be aimedn not at the fiscal deficit, but at the sustainability deficit. Instead of its impact on GDP, the effects would be measured by the reduction in the gap between the present (material) economy and a steady-state (non-growing) economy, the important idea promoted by Herman Daly among others. This gap is not to be measured in monetary terms but by natural resources consumption. Material flow accounting (MFA), now increasingly being done at the national level, but not in the US, can provide the data for such measurements. Getting to a steady-state economy is not a choice. It is a necessity. It means taking no-growth or de-growth seriously and right away.

The last recession was an example of de-growth but of the completely wrong kind. What we need is a managed pattern, designed to cause the least pain by allocating the reductions to those that can best afford them. Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call to nature’s demand that we move quickly to a steady state at a level well below our present levels of consumption. I am sure those affected would prefer that the consequences are more equitably distributed. I have no macro-economic models at hand to predict all the secondary effects, but I know that any transition will be very painful, but, unlike a recession or depression that pops us unannounced, it can be designed to minimize the displacements and pain. But minimize only; there is no way to avoid it.

Obama has nothing to lose now by stepping way out on this issue. He is done as a political leader if he sticks only to a four-year agenda. If he is truly hopeful, he must do the right thing now in the face of the almost certain massive opposition to the kind of thinking and action needed to get the Planet to a place where we can begin to imagine that sustainability will become more than idle chitchat, and flourishing will begin to show up. Our lifeboat is sinking. Fashioning the plugs for the holes will take a long time and an extraordinary ability to remain hopeful as things will get worse for quite a while, and even his friends will probably question his sanity.

If the audacity of hope ever was called for, it is now. Presidents leave libraries as their most permanent legacies, but libraries are merely static places built for visitors and researchers. Obama can leave a living legacy for future generations by engaging in plain talk about the mess we are in. Not the mess in Afghanistan; not any fiscal cliff, not an army of uneducated or undereducated unemployed, but the mess the Planet is in. It’s not just climate change. That’s only a symptom—an unintended consequence of the way we live. If the United States is to be the leader of the world, as it often claims, then it is imperative that we look far beyond the present conflicts to the war our societies are waging against the Earth, itself.

Other leaders have taken on problems that were “unsolvable” and yet they beat the odds. Vaclav Havel is one of them. He never lost hope even while languishing in prison cell. Here's what he has to say about hope.

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.… Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Even our audaciously hopeful President can learn from him. We are, after all, a kind of prisoners on our planet.