Thursday, April 14, 2011

Earth Day Economics: A Green and Prosperous Future (Published in The Shepherd Express, Milwaukee, WI, 4/13/2011)

The astounding success of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 under the tutelage of a true Wisconsin hero, Senator Gaylord Nelson, marked the coming of age of the environmental movement in this country.  Environmental victories in the 1970s included the passage of such landmark legislation as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  Earth Day ushered in a new environmental era, and today the quality of our lives is much improved for it.
Unfortunately, our work remains unfinished.  
Our single greatest environmental threat today is global warming brought to us by the burning of fossil fuels to power our cars, heat our homes, grow our food, and fabricate and operate all our wonderful consumer gadgets.  Scientists tell us that greenhouse gases from fossil fuels act like a “tea cozy” around the earth bringing forth dangerous environmental harms reported in the news now on a daily basis—a shrinking polar ice cap, rising sea levels, more powerful storms, droughts, wildfires, and threats to endangered species.  
Bringing global warming to a halt can be accomplished with a simple act—freeing ourselves from the environmental tyranny of fossil fuels.  Some will say this is easier said than done, but doing so will bring on what I call  a “good boom,” an economic expansion based on a turn to compact living and clean energy that will lift all our boats.  
The first task in reversing climatic warming is to use less energy, and, thankfully, easy money-saving and life-improving steps are available including weatherizing our homes, buying energy efficient appliances, installing low energy light bulbs, and using energy efficient cars and public transit.  Both the quality of our lives and the amount of energy we consume bears an intimate connection to where we live.  Residing in compact urban neighborhoods instead of a spatially expansive suburbs will reduce our energy consumption by a third or more.  The urban renaissance occurring in Milwaukee’s Bayview, Brady Street, the Third and Fifth Wards, and Walker’s Point demonstrates that living at high density can be exciting and rewarding.  These neighborhoods offer ready access to work opportunities, an interesting and esthetically pleasing housing stock, a vibrant street life, entertainment, shopping, libraries, galleries, coffee houses, and cafes, and the ease of getting around on foot, by bike, or on a bus.  Compact cities and neighborhoods benefit both us and the environment.  
Milwaukee, as already reported in the Shepherd Express, is on the cutting edge of both the energy conserving “buy local” movement and its natural complement, urban farming.  In Growing Power’s refurbished greenhouse on the northwest side and Sweet Water Organic’s rescued Bayview factory building, water circulates from tanks filled with lake perch and tilapia to trays of leafy plants above them and back again in a closed loop that cycles nutrients from fish to plants and clean water back to fish.  Both operations use much less energy than their conventional rural competitors for getting food on our tables, and both offer a boon to the local economy by creating a totally new kind of employment for Milwaukee’s residents.
Necessary to moving beyond fossil fuels is a switch to truly clean sources of renewable energy.  Notwithstanding Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to bring wind energy to a screeching halt with onerous regulations, both wind and sun are the primary energy sources of the future.  As we do more of anything in our economy, the cost inevitably falls, and this is happening already for both wind and solar energy.  The Great Plains is on track to becoming the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, and throughout the Midwest industrial belt old factories are quickly being refitted to produce wind generators and solar panels.  Despite the naysayers, the wind and solar energy revolution is underway, bringing forth an abundance of new jobs—windsmiths, solar panel installers, weatherization specialists, solar engineers, wind and solar equipment fabricators, and, here in Milwaukee, urban farmers.
To be sure, the fossil fuel industry will resist going quietly and will defend to the death its right to pollute the atmosphere without cost.  Eventually, the industry will lose this battle and will pay the public piper through some form of a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.  Given the huge amount of revenues such a tax could generate, and the need to reduce our federal budget deficits, resistance to it will ultimately melt away. This will be especially true once we fully recognize that an emissions tax will redirect trillions of dollars from the petroleum dictators of the world to our own domestic clean energy sector.  Fossil fuel’s unjustified competitive edge will finally be taken away, and clean energy will win out creating an economic boom that will serve us all.  

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