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By HERBERT F. RADFORD
American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller was known to pose an important question to himself by asking, “If the future of human civilization depended on me, what would I do, what would I be?
Doubtless, Fuller would have gone on to answer his own question at prescriptive length by offering up new perspectives as to what he saw as vital to keep “Spaceship Earth,” as he called our highly interconnected planet, in operating order.
If he were alive today Fuller likely wouldn’t be astounded by the pace and complexities of globalization, the speed with which digital and transportation technology are increasing integration of the complex natural, social and technological systems on which human life depend.
He would be astounded, however, at our insistence on continuing to follow one dominant economic development/growth model, with its reliance on mass production, consumption and waste — and all of it fueled by an energy infrastructure that remains almost entirely dependent on carbon-based fossil fuels. He would view this as highly problematic. He would take action.
As a species, humanity is confronted today with a challenge that we don’t seem to recognize or to take seriously. Put simply, as our population races toward 9 billion by 2050, we are faced with a difficult challenge in allocating ever-faster disappearing natural resources to sustain us. We are presuming that the same development models that helped create the enormous post-World War II middle-class economies in Europe, North America and Japan can be endlessly duplicated worldwide, utilizing a presumably endless supply of oil, gas and coal.
The reality, however, is something else entirely. Through exclusive reliance on fossil fuels as the means to power our technological systems, we pump some 80 million tons of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere daily. Irrefutable, peer-reviewed scientific evidence has shown this burning of fossil fuels is linked to climate change.
Based on rising atmospheric temperatures, we are fast approaching a point of no return, and stand to experience more frequent extreme weather, increasingly rapid polar ice melting, coastal flooding, species depletion, crop and food production destabilization, water shortages, and increased disease. It’s not a pretty picture.
We live, as Al Gore recently said in regard to global warming, under the influence of a “culture of distraction.” We are content with business as usual, willfully ignorant of the consequences of choosing to follow.
Faced with this increasingly less-hidden problem as the evidence mounts daily, we must ask ourselves how do we become better stewards. The answer lies perhaps in the revisiting the definitional meaning of the capitalistic system to which we subscribe.
Capitalism, as we know it, has served humanity well, albeit unevenly and imperfectly, in the sense that 350 years ago, before the industrial revolution, before 18th-century “enlightenment” gave us individual rights and freedoms, apart from a microscopically thin elite at the top of the economic order, everyone was poor.
Gradually, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, profits from mercantilistic trade were reinvested in manufacturing, theories of comparative advantage took hold in reality, labor was directed from agriculture alone to the manufacturing wage and the industrial revolution was born. The classic factors of production — land, labor and capital — formed the pillars of what we came to call the traditional capitalist system.
American physicist, environmentalist and writer Amory Lovins, in his 1999 seminal study of modern capitalism, offered a new interpretation of the factors of production based on contemporary realities by providing the definition of what he calls “natural capitalism”:
“In a traditional economic analysis of the factors of production, natural capital would usually be classified as ‘land’ distinct from ‘capital’ in its original sense. The historical distinction between ‘land’ and ‘capital’ was that land is naturally occurring and its supply is assumed to be fixed, whereas capital as originally defined referred only to man-made goods.
“It has been argued that it's useful to view many natural systems as capital because they can be improved or degraded by the actions of man over time, so that to view them as if their productive capacity is fixed by nature alone is misleading. Moreover, they yield benefits naturally which are harvested by humans, those being nature's services. ... These benefits are in some ways similar to those realized by owners of infrastructural capital which yields more goods, e.g. a factory which produces automobiles just as an apple tree produces apples.”
Lovins, in developing the concept of natural capitalism, began a decade ago to acquaint us with a new approach to viewing the interrelationship of natural and technological systems, and to set the stage for his argument today that fossil fuels are “capital” that should be preserved. He has taken his views to a new level in the movement to “reinvent fire” and address the limitations we have imposed in addressing climate change, saying that, “Saving and displacing fossil fuels can work better and cost less than buying and burning them.”
Lovins presents an argument which demonstrates that shifting to a new energy paradigm can save more than $5 trillion in net present value while supporting a U.S. economy that would be 158 percent larger by 2050. He has asserted that we can do this with “no new inventions, no new federal taxes, mandates, subsidies or laws, completely end-running Washington, D.C., gridlock.” He has asserted that we can end oil and coal use, for $5 trillion less than we currently spend with no act of Congress led by for-profit business interests, and that “our energy future is not fate, but choice and that choice is very flexible.”
But a central question emerges. If as science has shown we are in trouble and need to consider a more sustainable, non-fossil-fuel dependent economic development, what is required to get the attention of citizens and policymakers worldwide to recognize the environmentally destructive shortcomings of reliance on one monolithic, throw-away, fossil fuel-based approach to economic development and to mobilize to do something about it?
Is it imagery of the melting ice caps with giant ice formations breaking apart? Is it the live camera view of a runaway oil well spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for months? Is it imagery of dying, oil-soaked wildlife?
As compelling and exasperating as these images may be, as modern globalized humans, we have a short attention span. We are confronted with visual and other information overload. We have ceased to pay any real attention.
Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, offers an example of revisiting the true cost of the energy backbone of our time: fossil fuel in its most visible form, the oil we use to heat our homes and buildings and to fuel our transportation.
As described by Manzoor Ahmed in his review of sustainability and education:
“Stern, in a ground-breaking study carried out in 2006 on the future costs of climate change, identified a massive market failure as a key problem. He identified one example as being the failure of the market to take into account the climate change costs of burning fossil fuels.
“The petrol price of $3 a gallon at the pump in the United States in mid-2007 reflected the cost of discovering oil, extracting it, refining it and delivering it to the service station. It overlooked the costs of climate change, tax subsidies to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the health care costs for treating respiratory illnesses caused by polluted air, and the military costs of protecting access to oil in politically unstable regions. The difference between the market prices for fossil fuels and the prices that also incorporate their environmental costs to society is obviously huge. The International Centre for Technology Assessment calculated that factoring in other costs beyond those for production and distribution would put the price of a gallon at the pump up to $15 instead of $3.”
Put simply, if we educate ourselves to be aware of the true cost, meaning inclusive of the environmental costs, of reliance on fossil fuel alone, then perhaps we have discovered an attention-getting device. We are addressing the case and cause of environmental degradation at the wallet level, in the pocketbook.
If consumers see the complete cost of reliance on fossil fuel as closer to $15 a gallon and not $3, then perhaps an overdue awakening could be engineered.
In his 2008 book “Hot Flat and Crowded” author and New York Times columnist Tom Freidman asserts:
“... if we want to maintain our technological, economic and moral leadership and a habitable planet, rich with flora and fauna, leopards and lions, and human communities that can grow in a sustainable way — things will have to change around here, and fast.”
He is correct, things do need to change fast. Under the present paradigm of fossil-fueled, mass consumption and waste, time is short before reaching manmade irreversible instability.
How do we avoid this scenario? What is required is the mobilization of political will to convince ourselves and our leadership that change is at hand and that it’s a good business proposition that has the advantage of political neutrality.
As daunting as this may seem, Al Gore’s most important message from his 2006 and film “An Inconvenient Truth” is that “in America, political will is a renewable resource.” And renew it we must.
Providence resident Herbert F. Radford teaches advanced communication for Harvard post-doctoral researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.