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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Eight Panels, A Thousand Reflections:
Taking Stock of the 2008 St. Louis Roundtable

by Jane Anne Morris


The subject of “odd birds” came up more than once at the recent “Surviving Climate Change” Roundtable in St. Louis — and I’m not talking about participants. Someone explained that the length of daylight informs birds’ decisions to migrate, while temperature tells insect larvae (bird food) when to hatch. Today’s ragged overlap of those distinct ecological “triggers,” and subsequent spotting of seemingly out-of-place birds, was attributed to climate change. We were left imagining flocks of famished migrators wondering “Where da bugs?” while earlier (or later) masses of larvae wondered, “Where da birds?”

A similar disconnect permeated Roundtable discussions. Class divisions are still rife and ripe, and we need to remember that there is so much “restoration” of all kinds to be done — on both people and prairies — that none can be relegated to second rank.

Meanwhile, undesirable behaviors — from use of nuclear power-generated electricity, to dependence on cars, to eating low-quality, unhealthful, processed “food” from distant sources — are subsidized at both the individual and societal level. So it is the wealthy, should they so choose, who are most able to pay “extra” for such things as photovoltaic decentralized energy, or local organic food. This sets up a situation where “green” approaches appear elitist and classist, exacerbating the disconnect.

Determining a strategy that dissolves the disconnect, while promoting a green future, is our task as I see it.

Our gang: diversity

How excited should we be that biodegradable paintballs are now widely available? If you take it as a sign that eco-ideas are making their way into the “mainstream,” then you would have found fellow travelers at the St. Louis event. (Maybe soon NASCAR drivers will be wearing helmets made of recycled plastic water bottles, and fueling their cars with hemp biofuel. Yay.)

On the other hand, if you’re a Doom-and-Gloomer, planning for or even looking forward to Grid-Crash, and think the world is already vastly overpopulated with all-too-fertile human beings, then you, too, would have found yourself in good company at the Roundtable.

We heard that industrial infrastructures are incompatible with a sustainable good life and social justice; we were urged to appreciate the merits of (toxic) fly ash as a “green” building material for affordable housing. We heard calls for massive civil disobedience; we heard pleas that confrontation or “getting arrested” would turn people off.

Ideas dropped like coins, most with two (at least) distinct sides.

We should encourage our kids to walk to school. But, there are way too many of them (kids). Our cars should be efficient, and maybe electric and/or biofueled. But, there are way too many of them (cars), and where will that electricity come from? Factories should be powered by photovoltaic cells. But, there are way too many of them (factories), and most are churning out planned-obsolescence poster products.

We can’t live sustainably with markets; we can’t survive without them. One way of thinking suggests putting a dollar value on forest “services:” storing carbon, supporting the hiking boot industry, and so on. That way, we can factor forests into our econometrics. Another says we cannot be sustainable if we see rocks as dollars; a forest is not a resource, but a home. A forest, in this latter view, is also a model of a “real” economy, one that doesn’t “cheat” by externalizing costs onto other people, Earth, or future generations.

Some even questioned the assertion that real democracy was necessary. It was suggested that when democracy doesn’t work, a more hierarchical social structure is called for. Left undiscussed was to what extent the US political system is in fact democratic.

Those at the Roundtable did not share a common vision.

Those at the Roundtable did not share a common vision. Can we keep doing what we’re doing, except put efficient light bulbs in our sockets, solar water heaters on our roofs, biofuels in our cars, photovoltaic cells on our factories, breast milk in our babies, local organic food in our stomachs, biodegradable paintballs in our attack rifles...or do we need to make much deeper changes?

For some, the goal would be a society much like what we have now, but with cleaner air and water, worker cooperatives, and more windmills. For others, the future would be more localized, decentralized, lower on the food chain, lower on the energy chain: perhaps a network of villages. Do we start with worker capitalism and markets, and then plant some carbon-sequestering trees to shade the parking lot? Or begin with a network of sylvan glens with maybe a very small off-grid needle factory here and there?

There we all were, arranged in our glorious disarray.

I am not ridiculing, or disregarding, even a single comment. After all, I used my 10 minutes in the sun to talk about corporations and constitutional law. And yes, unless we get rid of either corporations or the constitution or both, both will be part of what we have to deal with.

The Roundtable was more than a discombobulated Show-N-Tell, but far less than a strategy session. In this stocktaking, I suggest some themes that it might be useful to cleave to more closely next time.

What we didn’t talk about

I arrived at the Roundtable with a clear sense of how I would organize my notes. I would keep two lists: one of what participants had consensus on, and a second of things we disagreed about. I expected the first list to be long, and the second one short, yielding clues about what issues we most needed to work through.

The opposite happened. A small handful of things seemed settled; a huge list unresolved. The list of what we all truly agreed on, judging from comments made during the two-day event, was so short that I can say it right here in few words: War and militarism are bad in all ways; breastfeeding is good. Single-payer universal health care probably makes sense. We should eat a lot less meat. Our foodsheds should be more local; organic food and small farms are good, too.

The impressionistic dash through issues at the beginning of this article offers only a glimpse of the range of contentious issues. I tried to chart out the remarks, and found myself looking at a diagram that resembled a pan of fried snakes (which is how Texans describe a San Antonio street map).

Roundtable organizers suggested a focus in their subtitle: “Producing less and enjoying it more.” That, I thought, would have led to a discussion along the lines of...if we produce just what we need (“not efficiency, but sufficiency,” as Carmelo Ruiz phrased it), then can we (North Americans? Earthlings?) get by all right? That discussion did not develop.

I also thought that “producing less and enjoying it more” would lead inevitably to a discussion about bioregions and carrying capacity...of North America, of the Mississippi watershed, of Earth, of something. But that didn’t really develop either, though it was mentioned.

Don Fitz tried to wrestle discussion into addressing the distinction between individual efforts (say, walking to work), and societal policy (often taking the form of laws). I was struck during the weekend by how often we discussed individual actions, and how infrequently we talked about government or societal policy. Even the presentations about innovative, “green” buildings mentioned getting variances (that is, exceptions and special permits) from current standards in order to do something “good,” as opposed to establishing standards that encourage (or require) sustainable, minimal-footprint practices. This reinforces the notion that green building practices are exceptions to the norm, and continues to place the definition of “normal” into the hands of those who feed off profits from a profligate system.

I was struck during the weekend by how often we discussed individual actions, and how infrequently we talked about government or societal policy.

We also didn’t critically discuss whether the individual measures that we might voluntarily take — the efficient light bulb thing, for instance — would, if accumulated from the efforts of millions of people, ever amount to the kind of substantial reduction in overall resource use that is our only chance at mitigating climate change. We mentioned so-called “renewable” energy (solar and wind, among others), but never discussed who should control it: the same transnational corporations that build coal and nuclear power plants, or perhaps the public? And, speaking of corporations, at a time when it’s commonplace to hear that they “rule the world,” it was striking how infrequently they were mentioned at the Roundtable.

Toward strategy

Having spent most of my adult life watching corporate strategy successes, I have to admire people in the corporate world for their clarity, their learning curve, and their spirit of follow-through. It doesn’t require unanimity of “vision” by any means.

Throw investment bankers, small-town car parts store owners, manufacturing executives, and members of the self-described evangelical right into a room, and they might have consensus on even fewer things than we did at the St. Louis Roundtable. But they don’t let this stop them from being effective. Why?

One of the reasons is that they work together to eliminate things they agree are wrongs. If Greens did the same, we could focus on eliminating, for starters, all of the wrong-way incentives and subsidies that make “doing the right thing” easier for those with fatter checkbooks and thicker skin.

We could accept, in Carmelo Ruiz’s words, that our focus should be on not just efficiency, but sufficiency, and that sufficiency should be taken as not a floor but a ceiling. In that context, efficiency becomes an assumed value for the individual, and a legislated goal for society, but it is not enough. In a society such as ours where production for profit (not need) is a shibboleth, sufficiency as a goal requires that we reverse the direction of most incentives.

After all, part of the reason we’re in such bad shape today is that doing many good things (using grey water, having off-grid solar houses, eating locally grown organic food, walking to work) is illegal, inconvenient, or excessively expensive. And why is that? Because good things are made difficult, while the non-green, destructive path is subsidized.

… good things are made difficult, while the non-green, destructive path is subsidized.

In the simplest language: we need to remove the bad subsidies and wrong-way incentives.

Consider one difference between the railroads and the car/highway system. Though railroad corporations received mind-bogglingly huge subsidies from all levels of government, at least for a while they were responsible for keeping up both the rail cars and the rail roads. With automobiles, that changed. “Private” industry — car manufacturing corporations — profit from selling cars, while the public takes on the cost of maintaining the “roads” — gas taxes don’t begin to pay the costs of road or parking lot maintenance.

Removing the government subsidy of cheap combustion-engine transportation (gas prices, highway maintenance, roadway expansion, etc.) would reorganize many aspects of our lives: how far away our food came from, how far we traveled (if at all) to “work,” and so on.

To take another familiar example, everyone “knows” that decentralized, renewable electricity is more expensive than “cheap” nuclear or coal-generated electricity. A long list of government subsidies, from tax structure to eminent domain policies to lackadaisical enforcement of environmental laws, makes this so. The energy cost of mining and transporting coal, waste heat at the power plant, the electricity needed to run the power plant itself, and power line losses, added together, mean that when you turn on a light, you are receiving at most 10–20% of the energy in that coal. We can call that “cheap” and efficient only because most of the costs are covered by hidden subsidies.

This isn’t the place to even begin to list other “wrong-way” incentives and subsidies that encourage abhorrent practices in agriculture, health care, construction, manufacturing, and transportation, to name but a few. It takes no great feat of research to scare them up. But presenting them in list form would provide clear targets that do not require universal harmonious accord on every detail of our “vision.”

We could emulate the Right and challenge not only laws but judicial doctrines that stand in our way. When we face a setback, we can adjust our tactics and continue our campaigns. Most wrong-way subsidies are based on blatant breaks for the Haves and the corporations, and great (and perhaps intentional) ecological misunderstandings; neither can withstand knowing scrutiny.

… a focus on altering society’s current subsidy structure would begin to clear up the “disconnect” that sometimes places Greens at odds with each other.

In addition, a focus on altering society’s current subsidy structure would begin to clear up the “disconnect” that sometimes places Greens at odds with each other. Working “for” a forest or prairie would no longer appear on the ledger as working against the poor and disenfranchised. The forest is a real economy, as ours is not. Each wrong-way subsidy that is removed or reversed would change incentive’s arrow. Those who “go green” would no longer have to pay “extra” to do so. We might then see a greater convergence of all of our “visions,” even among those we now regard as adversaries.

Corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her new book is Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy (Apex Press, 2008).

© 2008 Jane Anne Morris

[17 dec 08]

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