Hope for Climate Healing

California governor Jerry Brown is in Paris this week at the climate change conference. Chris Hayes had him on All In on Wednesday night to talk about California’s efforts to combat climate change. In setting the stage, Chris pulled footage from his visit to the San Joaquin Valley earlier this year.

The statistics on both sides are daunting. As the world’s eighth largest economy, California’s dispersed population consumes huge amounts of gasoline. In seeking to reduce carbon emissions, the state has opted to install a large number of natural gas electricity plants, while also pursuing an aggressive push into renewables (wind, solar and geothermal). In general, its mild climate means that CO2 emissions are low, but it appears that major reductions are still decades away.

Brown trumpeted California’s efforts, citing the state as a global leader in climate change policy. But if this is the best that we can do, how can he hope that the talks in Paris will chart a path out of a century that is projected to end with a 10 F increase in global temperatures?

The major impact of that increase will be desertification. As in the Middle East, California is seeing the consequences of glacial retreat. At the edge of the glacial range, we still had large snow packs on the Sierras, and it was this store of water that allowed the $50 billion agricultural economy to operate through the dry summer months. As the climate warms, farmers have pumped our aquifers down by nearly fifty get. Drip irrigation systems are now being adopted to maintain production with reduced water resources, but if temperatures continue to rise, snow packs will continue to decrease. The survival of agriculture in California is tied to our depleted aquifers, which are not a renewable resource.

The consequences to the nation as a whole are daunting. The San Joaquin Valley produces 40% of America’s food.

When I rediscovered Cat Steven’s Moonshadow a few years ago, upon hearing Morning Has Broken for the first time in two decades, I found  myself filled with grief as the opening piano meditation unrolled. It climaxed with a vision as the man now called Yusuf sang these words:

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.

In the vision, I stood on the edge of the Sierra foothills in the Central Valley. The desiccated land, scoured by wind and rain, gave no purchase to life. A pair of naked feet waited, and then began to pace across the ground. Behind them, water and life flowed.

As a student at UC Berkeley, I was compelled by the confusion I experienced in interpreting political discourse to establish my own definitions for moral dialog. When I got around to “hope”, I settled on “a connection to a future in which love is at work for you.” There is two parts to that – one is accepting love, and the other is honoring it. The first requires that we recognize our need, the second requires that we respect the needs of others.

In his conversation with Chris, Governor Brown offered this subtle piece of insight: “Modernity is individualism plus oil.” Individualism implicitly violates the first requirement for hope – it holds that we do not need others. That is sustained by oil, which allows us to consume two hundred times as much energy as we can produce with our bodies. With mechanization, we all live as though we have two hundred slaves.

But the conventions of individualism also allow us to ignore the needs of others, not least the needs of the voiceless flora and fauna that sustain ecological stability. Our fossil fuel consumption has destabilized the biosphere that some know as Gaia.

In reading the Book of Revelation, in the golden bowls I see prophesied with exactitude the climate disasters that threaten our civilization. Obviously the feet in my dream are those of the savior. But in assessing the gap between individualism and the surrender to love, I find myself recalling the experience of Jesus upon his return to Nazareth. Mark summarized it as follows [NIV Mark 6:4-6]:

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

How far will we fall before choosing to open our hearts to allow love to re-enter the world?

And you, Christians, the family he created: will you recognize him when he comes? Will you open your hearts and minds to him and – if not partaking of his burden – at least apprehend and so honor the strain and sorrow he bears as he heals with his flesh the great wound in the Tree of Life we have created in our monomaniacal pursuit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Or will you sit back in your seats, thrilling to the amplified harmonies of your bards, consoled by the airy myths they unfold, and say with offense [NIV Mark 6:2]:

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him?

The Currency of Understanding

Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit traces the history of economic thinkers from Marx to the modern era. I say “thinkers” because Nasar present a series of historical and psychological sketches of those that generated the ideas that most profoundly influence modern public debate about the management of economies. This is not a book for those seeking to understand economics.

But for those involved in public policy debate, I would characterize Grand Pursuit as essential reading. It is one thing to talk abstractly about the relative merits of economic and fiscal policy. It is quite another to confront the historical context and moral concerns that drove the currents of economic thought. During the era that Nasar considers, Western civilization was confronted with profound existential threats. Economics was not about allocating the privileges of wealth – it was about preventing widespread loss of life through mismanagement that led to starvation and/or war.

The success of economics as a science is tied intimately to industrial entrepreneurship – to the process of incremental improvement that successively multiplies the value produced by individual effort. As Nasar documents, it was the observation of this effect that eventually gave economists the courage to believe that society could be liberated from ecological constraints.

In the agricultural era, the value of labor during planting and harvest so far overwhelmed the cost of survival that communities banded together to preserve their members. Parents taught their children almost everything that they needed to survive. Against this cohesion was mounted the vulnerability to environmental and political circumstance (drought or war could destroy the community), and lack of education that slowed innovation. Given the primitive motivations of the populace, economic thought was dominated by Malthusian precepts: any attempt to improve the lot of the lower class would result in increased birth rates, and an inexorable drop in wages to subsistence levels.

In the agricultural era, the stability of currency was paramount: sellers wanted to be certain that the currency they gained from selling grain one year could be recouped for equivalent goods in the next year. When governments abused this trust by printing money, economists concluded that money must be backed back a tangible good, such as gold. When industrialization and capitalism took root, the constraints on money supply choked the pace of investment. It took nearly half a century for economists to respond to the fact that currency was backed, not only by government-held gold reserves, but by the capital goods (machinery and buildings) that supported production, and the education and skills of the workforce.

One of the primary lessons of the history Nasar documents is that financial obligations are secondary to production, and that countries that effectively manage production (to wit: without undermining fiscal stability through inflation) almost always grow out of their obligations. Failure to recognize this opportunity entrained Europe in the terrible hardships following World War One and drove it inevitably to World War Two. (One might argue that we face this same problem today in the debtor nations of the third world.) The second prejudice to be overcome was the idea that each nation could chart independently its economic course. This should have been obvious to the colonial powers, but it was only when WW II ended that Europeans were forced to recognize that they would have to cooperate to ensure access to the resources that industrialization converted to consumer goods.

Nasar begins her survey with Marx and ends with Sen. This brackets the second great threat to the survival of Western liberalism: the proposal that planned economies were the only way to prevent economic collapse. This was not an idle question during the Great Depression. Unemployment depressed earnings, and as prices fell due to lowered demand, the value of savings increased, and the capitalist incentive to invest vanished. The Western economies were confronted with wasteful idleness of their productive capacity, and no means to stimulate demand. It was Keynes and others that encouraged governments to deficit spending and jobs programs that stimulated consumption. That eventually got economies rolling again, or at least it did in Europe – in America, FDR lost his nerve in 1937, and full economic recovery did not occur until the nation was forced to rearm under the threat of German and Japanese aggression.

The lesson of this history is that governments do not need to control all aspects of the economy. As long as leaders ensured demand sufficient to stimulate investment, individual initiative will produce the triple benefits of innovation, growth and – as falling prices outpaced population growth – increased wealth. The centrally planned economies of the East (principally Russia and China) were repudiated not by military power, but the basic laws of fiscal probity and industrial growth.

While Nasar does not articulate clearly the essential points of economic theory, that perhaps is just as well. The history makes it obvious that the greatest economists were pragmatists, not dogmatists. They were concerned principally with how things worked, not with abstract principle. They were driven by the desire to prevent, manage and recover from crises that political and economic parochialism wrought upon Western civilization.

I believe that this is why Nasar ends her survey with the economic moralism of Sen. The great thinkers of economics were successful because they cared enough to commit themselves relentlessly to study of the systems that secured the well-being of their countrymen. They confronted hardship, and felt deeply the need to overcome it. One would hope that their conclusions – that wealth can survive only when it is a tide that lifts all boats – would be appreciated better by economic and financial decision makers who have yet to have to face such crises. Else, as Santayana famously observed: “Those that cannot recall history are doomed to repeat it.”