Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is Obama The Green Wave's Last Chance To Count?

There seem to be all kinds of waves and cycles in life, everything from the watery ones that King Canute wanted to prove he couldn't control through Kondratieff economic waves to really important cycles like the rise and fall in fashionable hemlines.

Now that the wheels appear to be coming off the world economic wagon in quite a serious way, it is easier to ask whether some grand cycles and waves are coming to major inflexion points, in particular the ascendant new green business wave and the old, but undoubtedly, effective fossil-fuel wave that has been mainly rising for hundreds of years.

Economic waves, such as Kondratieff waves, are still being argued over after nearly a hundred years and they involve quite a lot of assumptions and some complex notions, which necessitate a fair amount of detailed study in order to gain some literacy in their operation.

However, I am not going to attempt a disquisition on economic cycles, a subject I am currently exquisitely poorly positioned to talk about in depth, but rather I want to pose the following simpler but possibly rather more significant questions.

Firstly, if we grant that the world economy is going through a major downward dislocation and further that green movements, both citizen and business, tend to lose steam when money is scarce or energy prices drop, does the current upswing in matters of sustainable living and renewable energy have enough momentum to keep going through what could be a prolonged contraction, or must it be helped somehow?

I admit that this is a rhetorical question, because based on the evidence, I don't think there is as yet anywhere near enough real green business momentum to ride out what may be a very difficult period. So that brings me to even more important question number two. Is there enough political momentum to carry through the kinds of changes we need?

Much of the environmentally aware and energy savvy world is waiting with baited breath to see what future US president Obama is going to do to try to revive the American - and perhaps the world - economy, while hoping that he does this in large part by unleashing a tidal wave of green-collar jobs and energy saving, green energy and clean tech initiatives.

If Obama does this, then we might not have to run the experiment of seeing whether fledgling new green business strategies can make it through very hard economic times - an experiment that Thomas Friedman would surely say will come to a sticky end (again). The question will then be how best to make a new green wave part of the answer given the current state of tight money, imperfect public knowledge, and notoriously fickle voter and political will.

Friedman's point is that now is the moment for bringing in fuel taxes and widespread carbon taxes - it has to be done when there is political capital in the bank. The trouble is there is not much else in the bank, though since the US government seems willing to engage in financing by the printing press and national debt, there could be money for just about everything that green strategists could wish for.

Climate activists have been saying for some time now that we have only a few years in which to act to save the climate (peak oil analysts perhaps put the figure in negative decades), but if Friedman and activist-analysts are collectively right, then America may genuinely have just a few months to get on the right course, because if Obama's political capital starts to wane, all hope of bold strategic and infrastructural moves may be foreclosed. If scientists are right, and this really is our last chance to avoid runaway climate change, then this will be our final opportunity for a green wave that can actually get us on track for a very different - and better - 21st century.

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