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Jan 2009
The Coming Eco-Industrial Complex

American business thrives on easy money—not low-interest money from banks, but stupendous sums of money from Congress, passed on through the departments of the federal government. Some think the system should properly be called "subsidism," not capitalism. Whatever we think of this mechanism, it created the victorious war machine of World War II and has generously supported the two dominant economic institutions of the post-World War II era: the military-industrial complex and the auto-highway-oil complex. Now, however, the writing's on the wall—the Cold War is over, the world market is nearing saturation with cars, and the climate consequences of internal combustion have become intolerable.

We face an opportunity for a dramatic economic transition. The U.S. is not a country in which altruism gets much done; perhaps no country is. Pious ecological exhortations, even if backed by government regulations, accomplish little. It is money that makes things happen. Although a strong and durable public majority now favors greater government spending on environmental-defense actions, Congress and leaders of industry have been surprisingly slow to pick up on the obvious possibilities. For six decades they have happily colluded with each other (and successive administrations) to support the armaments industry. Staggering military outlays no longer produce politically useful "victory" anymore, so new connections need to be made in those famous Washington corridors of power. In the process, Congress and business could create an eco-industrial complex as potent as the endangered military-industrial one. Its constituency would be vast, for nonmilitary outlays produce many more jobs per dollar spent than military ones. They also result in constructive, productive goods, rather than ever-more-sophisticated (and ineffective) last-war toys. Build a tank, and you just have a soon-obsolete tank; build a tractor, and you increase basic social wealth.

At least some Democrats sense strong public support for repairs and improvements for our infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, sewers, trains, and energy transmission lines. Well-greased industry mechanisms already exist for doing these things. Local governments facing submersion in garbage have supplied funding for an impressive expansion of firms such as Waste Management, Inc. Yet the real ecological needs of the country are much more extensive and expensive—which is good, since outlays create profits for the rich and jobs for the people.

  • We must create a new renewable-energy system to end our costly desire to control the world's oil. Wind and solar energy have become the cheapest new-power-generating technologies; photovoltaic and storage technologies are improving rapidly; geothermal is an enormous resource (and oil companies happen to know how to drill wells). The U.S. is rich in renewable energy resources and should aim at total energy independence, which will save vast sums in the long run.
  • We must rebuild our cities in the proven, compact forms of the world's great cities to reduce our dependence on petroleum-fueled cars. Sprawling suburbs need transformation from cultural wastelands into communities with healthy centers and the normal cultural richness that cities traditionally offer. A lot of tracks need to be laid and urban and suburban concrete poured. If we walk to transit stops, like New Yorkers do, we will even lose weight and live longer. If the Bechtel Corporation can build mega-airports, it can certainly build eco-cities.
  • We must develop a universal recycling system, so that all major materials (steel, paper, glass, aluminum, wood, plastic, even water) will be in steady and predictable supply, without sabotaging our support system, the natural order. A giant job-intensive industry must be created here.
  • We must restore our forests, fisheries, and agriculture to stable, net-positive productivity. At present, we are cutting more timber than we grow and catching fish faster than they can reproduce. We are even putting far more petroleum-based calories into agriculture than we get out in food calories—in essence, we are eating oil, a nonrenewable resource. And if we eat lower on the food chain and cut down on livestock, we will reduce our climate impacts even more than by getting rid of private cars.
  • We must put people to work restoring our rivers, waterfronts, and wetlands that generations of engineers, dumpers, and developers have trashed. Carry on with what the New Deal started!

Of course the new eco-industrial complex will be corrupt and mismanaged and full of waste, just like its predecessors. That spreads the money around; it's the American way. But if it does some of the big tasks that must be done to achieve a sustainable America, we can live with it. Indeed, we may not be able to go on living without it.

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