Monday, February 15, 2010

Ethical Innovation: Economics and the Environment

The "climategate" news is fueling the "deniers" of global warming (or climate change)and causing environmental advocates to find other ways to raise money for their overhaul of the world economy. Meanwhile, China, India and Russia continue to grow their economies on fossil fuels, thumb their noses at any binding climate agreements and the good people of the USA wonder what to believe. Even President Obama is speculating about nuclear power (and he pronounces "nuclear" correctly).

I think it is the height of hubris to think that humankind can seriously alter climate cycles. But it is also the depth of foolishness to ignore the serious environmental issues of the 21st century.

We need a new environmental ethic that thoughtful people of all faiths and nationalities can embrace. We need guidelines for planet care that do not destroy our fragile ecosystems while ensuring resources for future economic growth and sustainability.

There are three axioms and eight action steps we can affirm and pursue as we choose to cooperate rather than compete as a global community. There is room for entrepreneurship and private property while we provide for environmental regulation and the collective good.

Axiom One: We are stewards of an amazing planet and have the power and resources to destroy or improve many of its systems. Though I am skeptical on some aspects of climate change, the evidence of history reveals the impact we make on our cosmic sphere. When I was a child, the Great Lakes were unswimmable and the symbol of all that was wrong with capitalism. Today, they are much improved due to environmental regulation, economic ingenuity and the discovery that all benefit when we think long-term about earth care. I challenge my free market friends to not just rail against regulation - design products and services that have a softer footprint and renewability. You will be richer and our world will be here for our descendants. I challenge environmental advocates to realize that wealth is created from the judicious use of resources. Over-regulation will ultimately dry up the grants and taxes you depend on for your livelihood. Stop hating business and private property and see the connection between economic and political freedom.

Axiom Two: The economics of earth is not a zero sum game. Wealth can be created. Our planet is not one pie that must be sliced into seven billion pieces. There are some finite resources. But we are constantly discovering new ones and new ways to generate products and services. Rapaciously clearing the rain forests of Brazil is foolish. Those same rain forests have renewable resources that are making our lives healthier. An almost deforested Ohio is now awash in beautiful forests, with more trees that in 1900. We can heal and renew some ecosystems. Some cities in China (yes, China) are working to limit pollution and recycle resources.

Axiom Three: We must balance personal freedom and opportunity with local and global community cohesion. We know that over-centralized, state-owned and state-operated economies do not work long-term. We also know that unregulated global capitalism does not care one bit about the lives of locals. Recent Copenhagen climate change leaders wanted it both ways - a share in carbon-trading firms and Tata motors while urging the rest of us to live on less! At the same time, my father and friends are diligently resisting over development in a county that can barely sustain its current population.

Once we are past the Either/Or fallacy (community vs. private; freedom vs. regulation, etc.) we can take judicious action and build a better future. Here are some action steps that can improve our national economy - not at the expense of the planet, but in support of the long term good of the world.

Action Step One: Unleash current energy sources while developing greener ones. The USA has massive coal and oil reserves. Let's use them wisely AND develop the greener technologies. The Right rejects alternative fuels because of their expense ind infrastructure problems. The Left wants us all on bicycles until we have solar cars. I am using hyperbole to make a point. We can drill, develop carefully and unleash creativity. We can even consider nuclear options. One of the hypocritical realities about our European friends and rivals is that much of their energy is nuclear. It is easy for them to tell us to stop drilling while their fuel rods animate their economies! All of this activity must be done with real standards in place - enforced by the USA, not the UN.

Action Step Two: Localize and regionalize economic development. Take the decisions out of the hands of Washington, D.C. and place them with people who actually live there. We must rediscover City Hall and our state capitals. Our representatives in Washington need to stop boasting about their delivery of D.C. pork and start working to reduce the size of the federal government and unleash the creativity of local leaders. Republicans should be ashamed of voting against stimulus spending and then cutting ribbons for projects funded by the same dollars. Democrats need to balance a budget, period.

Action Step Three: Increase education concerning the environment, but do not make free enterprise or Western civilization the only evils! The consequences of seventy years of communism in the former USSR and Warsaw Pact is evidence that a centralized system can pollute much more than capitalism! At the same time, the Love Canal and Erin Brockovich narratives remind us that there are no "acceptable" human costs when there is prior knowledge of risk. The Sahara Desert is growing every year. This is the result of centuries of deforestation, warfare and short-sighted thinking. It will take private-public partnership to reverse this.

Action Step Four: This is a principle more than an action, but it is vital to our future. We must build our future on faith not fear. For two centuries, from Walden Pond to Rachael Carson, from the delusions of Rousseau to the follies of Paul Ehrlich, we have been assaulted with the immanent end of the world. At the same time, the Industrial, Information and Internet Revolutions, for all of their good, have also depersonalized work and dislocated millions of people. Being a Luddite is not the answer, nor should we capitulate to being cogs in a global capitalist scheme. We must affirm the dignity of each person, the sanctity of labor and the liberty of private property and entrepreneurship. We must also increase the visibility of those companies that believe in integrated social entrepreneurship that places community transformation as a primary mission.

Action Step Five: Refashion the United Nations and make it a forum for real economic and social discussion instead of a place for elites to live well, bash the USA and Israel and avoid looking at the structural evils in their own lands. A large percentage of the current committees and panels are a joke, especially with nations like Syria critiquing the USA on human rights! We do need the UN. But it needs to be a place to engage in solving real issues instead of allowing despots legitimacy and passing toothless resolutions. To my conservative friends: I agree that the UN must be improved; however, its elimination is not the answer. To my friends on the Left, let's stop all talk of "global governance." This is a code phrase for an elitist totalitarianism that will redistribute wealth and enrich a select few. Interesting fact: George Soros, darling financier of the Left, is heavily invested in Brazilian offshore drilling that will benefit China. So much for his environmental credentials. His aim is nothing short of the piecemeal destruction of the USA. Conversely, history is littered with the impact of international capital ruining self-sufficient agriculture and industry in the name of "development." Ask the former family farmers in Central America what they think of the United Fruit Company takovers of the 1930s to 1950s.

Action Step Six: Customize and localize unemployment benefits so that there is both compassion for the needy and a compulsion to look for work. The Right forgets that some localities simply have no jobs - so who pays for re-education and relocation? The Left forgets that human dignity includes a sense of productivity, not reliance on handouts. When a mill shuts down, real people are left destitute. The answer is not a paean to "free markets." On the other hand, the late Democratic Senator from New York, Patrick Moynihan, spent decades critiquing the failure of the welfare system and the generational dispositions and structures that are the consequences of an impersonal bureaucracy.

Let me inject a personal note here. I have spent years helping people who fell in between the cracks in our system. Some were injured at work and had to wait months or years for reasonable care. Others had addictions that were never treated. Many made poor choices and were on the streets. In all cases, they faced case workers who were either overwhelmed or uncaring. Welfare and workfare, care for families and the vulnerable needs to be local and involve the whole community, with public and private agencies cooperating to make a real difference.

Economic assistance is an environmental issue - we are interconnected and the good of all is a moral imperative. Karl Marx delivered scathing critiques of how factory workers were treated; however, his cures were - and are - worse than the disease. Adam Smith promoted the "invisible hand" of the free market - but he knew its operation required private and public virtue. We need to prosecute the white collar thief just as severely as the local drug dealer.

Action Step Seven: Unleash creativity and offer tax incentives - not just taxpayer cash - to companies and inventors who improve our lives and create wealth. Encourage local banks to start lending to enterprises that are innovative and demonstrate integrity.

Action Step Eight: Let's be part of a moral and spiritual renewal that offers hope and help, faith and action. I am a Christian and I want others to join me in my faith. That said, all people of humility and moral integrity can unite to enhance the lives of all around us. If we share wonder and a work ethic, we can partner in powerful ways. If we can have civil debate on our deepest differences, we will still be able to be peacemakers. If we will be accountable for our actions and affirming of the good of others, we can accomplish much. It is time to stop being victims. It is time to oppose totalitarianism in all forms. It is time to eschew homogenization and learn to live with our different universes next door, even while we cooperate where we can.

I am no fan of our current USA administration. I was not a fan of the previous three presidents, regardless of party. The office of President matters; however, he or she is not the key to the future we desire. The key is each of us deciding that a better future is possible.

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