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Full spectrum sustainability:
Bringing together the climate change and economic justice movements

Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

To ensure our society is sustainable over the long term, we have to attend not just to environmental issues and climate change, but  to the economic crisis, and the depletion of natural resources. Responses that deal with all three aspects of our sustainability predicament will not only be more effective than those that don’t, but they can be framed in terms of whichever aspect can gain broader public support.  

The powerful corporate elites who profit from our continued addiction to fossil fuels have misled the public and blocked climate change response.  On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement is successfully raising public attention to economic injustice and the financial crisis, also caused by those elites. Both campaigns have much to offer each other.     

Occupiers are planning next steps for 2012, looking at new ways to get the public involved, and refining their visions of a more just society.  There’s a need to protest and withdraw from corrupt, unsustainable systems, and also a need to create new systems that are both equitable and sustainable.  The transition to a renewable energy economy can be a valuable frame of reference to add to this mix.  Besides addressing all three aspects of sustainability, it also builds an alternative economic infrastructure to the one controlled by the financial elites.

The 1% absolutely does not want us to realize how urgently this transition is needed because of their investments in the fossil fuel sector and allied parts of the economy.  Of the 10 largest global corporations, 6 are oil companies.   International Forum on Globalization has identified the world’s top 50 individuals whose investments benefit from climate change and whose influence networks block efforts to phase out pollution from fossil fuels.

What’s good for them is definitely not good for us.  Our continued reliance on fossil fuels subjects us to
the terrible pollution associated with fracking, tar sands development, offshore drilling spills, and coal-fired power plants - and the risk of catastrophic climate change.  It leaves us vulnerable to extremely volatile fuel prices from unstable foreign energy supplies, when we could be making cleaner long-term investments.  

Let’s be clear, a transition beyond fossil fuels is inevitable.  They’re finite resources, and will have to be replaced - to whatever extent is possible - by renewable energy.  We should have started the transition decades ago.  Continued delay is profitable for the fossil fuel industry, but increases the risk that it will be too late to make this transition successfully.  Economists may hope that the free market will generate new sources of energy, but that’s like playing the lottery in the hope of earning the next month’s rent.  The theories of economics were formed in the last 150 years, a period of constantly increasing growth made possible by constantly increasing fossil fuel supplies.   As we hit resource limits, growth as we’ve known it ceases to be possible. Even if we could undo the bailouts, re-regulate the financial industry, and get money out of politics, the economic system that we know can’t be put back together.  A new age is inevitable, but unwritten. 

We can choose to get out from under the control of the 1%, and start the transition to a renewable energy powered, steady-state economy now.  Many sustainability initiatives can be scaled up to become the new mainstream, if enough people connect the dots between climate change, resource depletion and the economic crisis.  A world that works sustainably for the 99% is possible, if we can remove the obstacles to the renewable energy transition.

A. The financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement

In just a few months, the movement has ignited simmering public outrage at economic injustice.  Occupy Wall Street was catalyzed by media activist group Adbusters, inspired by the Arab Spring protest movements of 2011, the occupation of Cairo’s Tahir Square, and the Spanish 15-M movement.  The practices of citizens using consensus decision making, and organizing themselves in general assemblies  instead of through official leaders and hierarchies, aren’t new.  They’re based on long traditions of many social justice movements – but their newfound popularity enables unusually rapid innovation.  

The movement goes far beyond a mere few demands.  As the Declaration of the OWS General Assembly explains, Occupy recognizes the entire system is in need of profound transformation.
The movement calls on people to peacefully assemble, occupy public spaces, and collectively create ways to address problems and generate solutions.  As Occupy Wall Street says:

“The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%...We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don't need Wall Street and we don't need politicians to build a better society…”

1.  What’s behind the harsh official responses to occupiers?    

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, but something about the Occupy movement has triggered intense government opposition.  We’ve all seen the images of UC Davis police pepper spraying peaceful demonstrators, and the 84 year old woman  pepper sprayed at Occupy Seattle. The midnight eviction of OWS from Zuccotti Park was part of coordinated crackdowns on Occupy camps in 18 cities with assistance from a little known law enforcement group tied to Department of Homeland Security.  Why? 

2. A closer look at the 2008 crash and the bailouts that followed

As Matt Taibi states, Wall Street robbed all of us, in the biggest heist in the history of robberies
Banks created trillions of dollars in debt to unscrupulous lenders to create huge volumes of junk home loans, all designed to be sold off as soon as they were created, chopped up and resold to suckers all over the world.  When the toxic home loans failed, they created unimaginable losses both for speculators and for countless workers who thought their retirement savings had been conservatively invested.  Instead of forcing the financiers to pay victims back, our government handed them billions of dollars in bailouts and zero-interest loans, and stuck taxpayers with the bill.

How much could the bailouts cost taxpayers? A Bloomberg report says that as of March 2009, the Federal Reserve bailouts to banks totaled $7.7 trillion.  Add future commitments, and the estimates rise: CNN says $11 trillion.  Center for Media and Democracy says taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $13.87 trillionThe Levy Economics Institute of Bard College says the bailouts cost $29.6 trillion.

The cost of all major U.S. wars combined $7.2 trillion, as estimated by the Congressional Research Service, including the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

After a third of U.S. savings and loans institutions failed in the 1980s and 1990s, taxpayers shelled out $125 billion, and about 800 bank officers went to jail. After the vastly larger 2008 crash, there have been no prosecutions.   

Some suggested responses to the bailouts

Occupiers focus on many concerns besides the financial crisis, such as social justice, housing as a human right, environmental protection, anti-militarism, and the need for increased democratic participation. However, raising public awareness about financial injustice has been critically important, and Occupy has been extraordinarily effective in that work.  Following are some remedies commonly suggested:   

Get the money out of politics.  Pass a law to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, that lets unlimited money into political campaigns.

Reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation.  Restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression era law that President Clinton removed, which separates investment banks from commercial banks.   

Ban Members of Congress from insider stock trading.  Isn’t it enough that members of Congress can earn huge fees as lobbyists when they leave office?  There’s a legal loophole that allows them to make massive profits from stock trading based on insider information they receive on companies on which they are legislating.  

4. It’s necessary to focus on the financial crisis - but not sufficient. 

The crash, the bailouts and the corruption of the political system are extremely important, but the current system is more fundamentally broken than both our politicians and financial elites would want to admit.  Many Occupiers and concerned citizens already know that to replace it, we have to take a view of reality bigger than theirs. And not have them control our vision for what is necessary and possible.

What if the political laws of gravity were suspended and our elected officials made every effort to remedy financial injustice?  The economy still wouldn’t be sustainable.   The conventional economic narrative ignores the debt crisis, as well as ecological and geological limits.  We need a post-growth economy that benefits everyone, not just a minority.

B. Depleting fossil fuel supplies, as well as climate change, make a transition to a renewable energy economy essential

1. Limits to oil production

In the last 150 years, the amounts of fossil fuels extracted from the earth have steadily increased.  On reaching the halfway point of any limited resource, production begins to decline.  Official sources have long claimed that world oil supplies will keep growing well into the future.  However the International Energy Agency has recently admitted that production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006.  It’s been on a plateau of about 75 million barrels a day since then, despite record high prices and intense efforts to find more. 

After WW2, the US was the world’s leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day.  But in 1970 US oil production peaked and went into decline.  Since then we have imported more and more of our oil from elsewhere – the Middle East, Mexico, Canada, Nigeria, Venezuela.  The world uses about 84 MBD of crude oil and other liquid fuels.  The US uses close to a quarter of that amount. 

Most of the world’s oil comes from a few hundred giant oil fields discovered long ago.  On average, existing oilfields deplete about 4% per year. To make up for it, each year, just to stay even, we must find new production capacity equivalent to the North Sea.  That hasn’t been happening.  New oil discovery peaked in the 1960s, and has been in decline ever since.   Every so often a big new oil field is found and touted as our energy future, but at current world rates of consumption, a billion barrels lasts the world only twelve days.

The IEA still claims that oil production will keep rising to meet projected growth in oil demand.  They chart a combination of
very optimistic increases: from unconventional sources, like deep water oil and tar sands; from fields yet to be developed, and from fields yet to be found. They expect half of all production by 2030 to come from oil fields that have not yet been discovered.  What happens if they’re wrong?  (See Energy Bulletin’s Peak Oil Primer; Wikipedia, Post Carbon Institute; and ASPO-USA.)

2. Major shortfall of liquid fuels likely within years

Independent experts disagree, suggesting that the world will stay on a plateau of production for the next 1-4 years, but will then begin a long decline.  We don’t know how steep the decline rate will be, how it will impact the global economy, and how far other energy sources can fill the supply gap.  

The U.S. Joint Forces Command puts out an annual report to guide future military planning.  The Joint Operating Environment 2010 war
ns that despite technological innovations and non-conventional oils, “by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in [worldwide] output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” (P. 29)   A British business group issued a 2010 report warning the UK to prepare for an oil crunch within 5 years.

We’re also approaching limits to supplies of natural gas and coal.  Since they are used mostly to produce electricity, they can’t easily substitute for liquid fuels, which is the resource crisis coming up first.  The current boom in hydrofracked natural gas is temporary, as supplies are greatly exaggerated.


3. Our industrial society depends on oil and fossil fuels.

It’s commonly said that we are addicted to oil, but that implies we could give it up if we chose to.  Fossil fuels are the most concentrated, versatile, inexpensive energy source ever discovered. We’ve built a global industrial society designed to run on them.   Even small shortfalls in fuel supply, let alone wider price swings,
will have profound impacts.   

- Most cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes run on oil or other liquid fuels.   
- Many consumer and industrial products are made with oil or its byproducts.
- Fuel-powered machines do our work - some use the concept of energy slaves.
- Every part of our food chain runs on fossil fuels: supermarkets, fast food chains, agricultural machinery, irrigation systems, pesticides and fertilizers, huge centralized feedlots, slaughterhouses, food processors and refrigerated storage.
  Each calorie of supermarket food we eat uses about ten calories of fossil energy to produce and transport. In the US, food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate.

4. Can we replace the oil with other energy options?

Neither tar sands, deepwater oil, fracked shale gas nor nuclear power can replace conventional crude oil for a number of reasons.  Neither can ethanol or biodiesel. Big energy companies would like us to believe that vigorous extraction of these energy sources, with minimal government restraints, will let us maintain our energy habits.  That’s not true.  Scientists have closely examined what combination of energy sources can power our society.

- The supplies of those fuels are exaggerated.
- They all have massive consequences for public health and the environment.
- Development of coal and tar sands would guarantee climate catastrophe.
- Energy resources can be compared by how much energy is returned for the amount of energy invested.  Some fuels, like ethanol, are so low they’re a wash.
- The cost in cash and energy invested to use them is higher than admitted.
- We have very limited amounts of cash, energy, resources and time, which should be directed toward the best infrastructure and R&D investments. 

5. Solar and wind power are necessary, but can’t fully replace fossil fuels

Solar and wind power can’t completely replace oil and other fossil fuels.  While we should build them out as much as possible, they now provide only a tiny fraction of our energy use.  They provide electricity, not the liquid fuels on which so many of our systems depend.  They are intermittent, and constrained by limited storage and grid transmission.   Conservation and efficiency should be our top priority.

6.  Some government responses to resource depletion

Climate change is widely acknowledged within US politics, but acting on it is usually squashed.  Pointing out that the government leaders are partly responsible for the financial crisis has not endeared the Occupy movement to the political class. Of the three, resource depletion is the least known.  Most government and business leaders are either unaware of resource depletion or don’t want to discuss it. 
  President Carter tried.  President Obama has ducked the issue.  So has PlaNYC 2030, the Bloomberg Administration’s long-term sustainability program.  

However there are some shining examples of government action. San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, and Bloomington, IN have all published official municipal reports on preparing for resource depletion. 

Before David Bragdon became the director of PlaNYC, he was president of Metro, a Portland regional government group.  New Yorkers could petition Bragdon to read the Portland report and bring the issues raised into PlaNYC. This writer's
 2008 report requested that NYC revise its planning and budgeting decisions to consider potentially higher energy costs and create contingency plans for price spikes. Those might include drawing up oil emergency response plans, based on fuel rationing plans of the 1970s and 1980s.

C.  What do we do? Three criteria for sustainability initiatives

Supporters of Occupy and climate change advocates might ask what initiatives respond to climate change, resource depletion and economic crisis at the same time.
As fuel prices and supply become increasingly volatile, energy conservation and efficiency will be much higher priorities.  As new financial disruptions take place, high unemployment and cuts in government services are likely to continue.

Organizations pursuing sustainability often describe their triple bottom line for measuring success – economic, ecological and social.  That framework can be easily modified.  Models exist for sustainable practices that respond to climate change, resource depletion and economic crisis.  While it’s inevitable that the status quo can’t be maintained, the transition to a steady-state economy will only succeed if best practices in energy, transport, food, supply chains and materials become the mainstream, very quickly.  To succeed they need to:

- minimize fuel use and reduce our addiction to petroleum
- minimize carbon emissions and pollution
- increase local resilience to disruptions
- create local jobs less dependent on the corporate economy and Wall Street
- build community connections

  Some areas where transformation is needed

To reduce our fuel use, we can support the use of bicycles, electric vehicles, and ride sharing services, and advocate for maintaining and expanding local rail and bus services – and rebuilding the US rail system.

Relocalization: Better still is reducing our need for transportation, by revitalizing existing urban centers & suburban communities, minimizing urban sprawl, and creating regional and local food systems instead of shipping food thousands of miles.

Local economic development: What local needs that can be served by local entrepreneurs and reduce the growing disparity of wealth? Early phases of an alternative economy are underway, featuring consumer and worker cooperatives, barter networks and credit unions.Government and business leaders are asking what industrial sectors can again be profitable again in the US. 

We can start with adopting energy conservation best practices and education in our homes and businesses.  Approaches include green building, retrofits, insulation and weatherization, installation of high efficiency lighting, energy control systems and solar photovoltaic and thermal systems.  We need much more government support at all levels for renewable energy.  We also need plans at all levels of government for energy price and supply disruptions

Food and agriculture: Besides starting school & community gardens, there are over 52,000 acres of yard space in NYC, and countless acres of roof space too.  The NYC Council has great plans to develop a regional food system

2.  Opportunities for sustainability organizing at the community level

Personal changes are necessary but insufficient.  Government action is needed, but is often blocked by political and cultural factors.  By organizing at the community level, wherever we can get traction, we can eventually involve enough citizens to trigger the wider government responses needed.

Activists can choose to occupy public spaces – or turn to other projects.  Just a few months after it started, Spain’s 15M movement voluntarily stepped back from maintaining its encampments. They turned their attention instead to bringing about the changes they want to see in society as a whole.  15M activists found that their capacity to enact solutions increases, both as more occupation sites are organized, and as their occupiers collaborate with groups that can solve problems on a local level. 

Those drawn to the renewable energy agenda might want to look up the
Transition method of community organizing, which catalyzes grassroots retrofitting of communities for climate change, resource depletion and economic turbulence, while deepening social justice.  Started in the UK just a few years ago, it’s been applied most successfully in small communities.  In the signature backcasting exercise, participants envision their community successfully adapted by 2030.  Working backward, they brainstorm what steps they need to take to get there and pick a few to start with. Hundreds of communities around the world have begun Transition initiatives, or have been influenced by them, such as Brooklyn’s Sustainable Flatbush.  What might be productive opportunities for Occupy supporters to explore?


Connect the dots.   Many projects address one or more aspects of sustainability, but aren’t aware of the broader context of all three together. Many more sustainability initiatives are ready to be scaled up and become the new mainstream – but only if enough people connect the dots between climate change, resource depletion and the economic crisis.  What if we broaden the question "How can we make sure we all get our fair share in this system," to include "How do we make sure we all get our fair share in the new system--a lower-carbon system--and how do we handle this transition?”  

Connect with communities and local networks.
What local organizing campaigns might emerge in 2012 that advance both social justice and environmental sustainability?   What initiatives can be carried out at the community level that remedy economic injustice, and set up models for decentralized, resilient, local production of goods and services? 

Develop new jobs and livelihoods less dependent on Wall Street and the official economy.  Levels of poverty and unemployment are on the rise in the US. What if President Obama doesn’t enact a sweeping green job creation plan?  More research is clearly needed into how the cooperative movement, entrepreneurship and cottage industries can support the renewable energy transition while putting people back to work – so we can do it ourselves.


Full spectrum sustainability: bringing together the climate change and economic justice movements
Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

A sustainable world that works for the 99% is possible, if we can respond to climate change, economic injustice and resource depletion at the same time.  The transition to a decentralized, renewable power economy can be the frame for that agenda.  Just as the financial elites had a hidden role in the bank bailouts, the 1% is blocking that transition to reap more profit from their fossil fuel industry investments. Because of depleting supplies of fossil fuels, as well as climate change, further delay may prevent a successful transition. Besides blowing the whistle on the 1% again, occupiers and sustainability advocates can collaborate to speed up the transition locally.  Read full article.