Change Can Be Real This Time

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 9:15am

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Local, natural food and farms. Clothing and household goods made locally. Community political and environmental initiatives. Walkability and cycling lanes. All these social options are gaining in popularity across the US amid the climate crisis -- and have taken a further leap with the pandemic.

All also figured in the worldview of back-to-the-landers and other escapees from the rat race who moved to Maine and other rural areas around the 1970s. Many of those 1970s newcomers have with time become wise elders in our communities. Many are thrilled and re-invigorated to see young people picking up on ideas stretching back to their own youth.

But there’s often a level of frustration, too. A been-there-done-that feeling with a tinge of futility. They tried organic-style farming or backyard gardens. They organized co-ops. They rode bikes, walked, fought for bus service, and tried to get others to do the same.

Nonetheless, we ended up with climate change and a federal government and national economic system more aligned with the neoliberalism of Milton Friedman than the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders. Why should it be different this time?

The frustration is understandable, but doesn’t take into account some important differences between the 1970s and 2020s – differences that arguably improve prospects for lasting change.  

As now, the 1970s was a time of economic turbulence. Aspects of the capitalist system that had worked well in the decades following World War II were suddenly failing. The causes of that failure were viewed differently then, however, and the prescription of neoliberalism that was adopted is more often seen as a cause of than a cure for today’s problems.

The energy system that runs our societies played an important role in both cases, too. But again, with critical differences.

From war’s end to the fading of the swinging, rebellious ‘60s, economic growth was so strong in the West that the captains of industry, as they were then known, could get ever richer and still have enough left over to spread around through rising wages and taxes to support expanding social support systems.

Cheap oil, coal and natural gas underpinned it, with all these fossil fuels readily available at home in America.

Then came the 1970s. US fossil fuel production no longer covered the bulk of our immoderate use and imports soared. Crude oil prices rose from $2.50 per barrel to nearly $40 as Opec governments from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia nationalized their oil reserves and demanded a massively larger return.

This fed into a cycle of rising inflation, and economic growth tumbled. Stagflation was the catchword. Many explanations are given for why the wealth ceased to be spread around at that point, but it’s indisputible that, since the 1980s, average American income has stagnated.

An explanation appealing for its simplicity is that slower grow meant corporations couldn’t keep enlarging both profits and workers’ pay. They chose profits and persuaded governments to go along. Although it’s a “zero-sum” explanation, it fits the facts. There was also the growing income flowing to oil exporting nations.

So what makes positive change more likely? Growth is slower than ever and Citizens United made corporations more politically powerful than ever. Doesn’t that make alternatives to neoliberalism all the harder to obtain?

First, it’s now become apparent even to the 1%, as they’re now known, that they’re going to have to share more with the other 99% in order to keep their customer base. Wealth consolidation and Federal Reserve Board policies keep the stock market afloat, but the system isn’t working for most people, and they know it.

Neoliberalism is overextended. The working class Trump base does not want to give more and more of the pie to Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley billionaires any more than the Left does. The center of the Democratic Party is moving back out of neoliberal territory toward Rooseveltian turf.

We will not return to where we were. But where will we go? That’s unknown, but wherever it is, fossil fuels won’t take us there.  The oil price rise that fed the 1970s stagflation is in reverse due to sagging demand. Global consumption of fossil fuels is near, if not already past, its peak.

Can we simply switch to solar, wind and electric cars, and keep everything else in place? That is what many on Wall Street are hoping when they advocate for “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – corporate performance criteria. One result of such investing is to pull capital out of the oil industry, so it will be too small to take the rest of the economy down when and if it collapses.

Replacing environmentally and economically costly fossil fuels that move around the world in supertankers with sun and wind that are available for free right here at home may set a pattern of small-scale, local economic activity that is copied just as widely as Big Business, Big Banking, and Big Agriculture followed the Big Oil model.

Renewables aren’t just different fuels. They represent a different way of being in the world. Or they can, if communities such as ours seize this opportunity for independence from Big Everything.