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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.

Times of a little less money
April 26, 2010 - 6:04pm

In the course of my most recent mutterings, I made reference to the Great Depression. I did so to demonstrate that even terrible economic failures are survivable, not to indicate that economic suffering on the scale of the 1930s' experience would be necessary to avoid climate failure. Indeed, the best information available seems to indicate that nothing even remotely similar will be required.

An economist at Greenback (yes, I do talk to economists, and one of them even talks to me in return) tells me that the best indication in the literature is that creating a sustainable energy network for the USA (the worst case, on a national basis) would cost somewhere between 1% and 3% of GDP growth. That is, at the end of the process US GDP would be only a couple of percent smaller than it would otherwise have been. It's basically the same as missing out on one year's growth. Over a forty-year period.

Not a Great Depression. Not even a decent recession (negative growth). Just the equivalent of a 12-month flat spot, or an average decrease in growth of one-twentieth of one percent, compounded. Pretty minimal, for the level of benefit to be attained. No trillion-dollar bailouts. No nationalization of the entire energy sector. Just a slightly lower annual growth rate.

Perhaps even more important, the reason (I'm told) that growth will be slowed is because capital won't be invested to maximum advantage. Rather, a good chunk of capital will have to be invested in projects/industries with suboptimal efficiencies of scale, and relatively high labor requirements.

From a macroeconomic optimization standpoint, maybe that's the bad news. From the point of the American working stiff, it's pretty much the opposite. Creating a sustainable energy grid will require lots of skilled labor, and many of the jobs can't be off-shored. While recent recessions have been characterized by "jobless recoveries" (capital gets back to work, but people don't), solving the energy/emissions crisis may well require creation of high-employment economic slowdown.

A little less money in total, for sure. A lot more employment, just as certainly. Given that something like 70% of the economy is driven by consumer purchasing, it seems likely that the long-term smoothing effects on GDP will also be net-positive.

Ecological sustainability, economic sustainability, even social sustainability all rolled into one. Somehow, it doesn't seem like too great a price to pay.

(Not that I entirely trust economic projections, you understand. And certainly not ones that go forty years out into the future. But if we're going to be shaping our expectations based on something . . .)


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