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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Ponzi, priorities, and global gridlock
June 28, 2011 - 4:00pm

In my spare time, I've been reading "Global Warming Gridlock: Clearer, More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet", by David Victor. Victor teaches at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD. His main points are that the way climate regulation has been approached on a global scale was doomed to fail because it doesn't sufficiently address the interests of (and differences among) individual nation-states, and that all the emphasis on regulation has actually retarded both technological innovation and preparations to mitigate impacts. While Victor's focus is on the global scale, his conclusion is that the only way progress can proceed in a timely manner is by shifting to finer units of granularity (nation-states, and "clubs" thereof.)

For ecological sustainability, of course, a single problem-set exists worldwide. Local symptoms will vary, but the root causes are pretty much all of a whole. Thus, if we go along with Victor's idea that action is best (and fastest) taken in bite-sized pieces, we still have to acknowledge that the global problem-set establishes major constraints for all local mitigation efforts.

When it comes to economic and social sustainability, however, notions of scale shift somewhat. We've become accustomed to thinking of the world as having one single, integrated economy. And one single, dominant culture. (Which, in both cases, just happen to be based on ours. Isn't that convenient?) The truth of the matter is that society and economy, like politics, are always local. Overdetermination may take place globally, but determination, per se, varies with circumstances on the ground. That much is evident without looking beyond US borders. Michigan ain't New Mexico. Not even close.

Which isn't to say, of course, that there aren't common elements. A regional shopping mall in the northeast looks a lot like one in the southwest. Airports are (once you get inside) pretty much all the same; what variation there is relates more to age than locale. Suburbs have the same basic flavor to them, no matter where the city they surround happens to be located. Those common elements all have their roots in what's sometimes called "the American way of life". Or "the American dream."

But, as Minnesota engineer Charles Marohn has pointed out, dreams are not reality. And it's likely to turn out badly, in the long run, if you try to live as if they were. Marohn's metaphor is of the suburbs as giant Ponzi scheme. A set of long-term obligations which can never be (have never been) supportable by means of the asset values created. Post-WW II infrastructure is failing before it's been paid for. As a result, society is faced with repair bills for which we haven't set any money aside. And that's true even without getting into the question of declining middle-class incomes, declining local tax bases, decreasing or unreliable consumer demand.

If social sustainability isn't achieved locally, it's not achieved. If economic stability isn't attained within pretty much every region of the country, it won't be attained nationally. And given the wide range of ways that climate change expresses itself, preparations for mitigation will depend on what region you're located in. (Tom Engelhardt pretty much gets it right, here.)

So should higher ed continue to teach students how to think globally? Of course. One of the constraints that must be kept in mind is that none of us gets to merely relocate our problems to some other part of the world. And the final success (survival) criterion needs to be evaluated on a global scale.

But a purely global perspective (which is to say, one which doesn't explicitly address issues of place) won't help us get where we need to be. Not socially. Not economically. And not environmentally.


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