There is an inextricable link. A society can not end poverty without healing the ecosystems (local and global) it depends upon nor can it heal the ecosystems it depends upon without ending poverty, and a general prosperity depends on both ending poverty and healing ecosystems.
Maine has been seeking that general prosperity for as long as any of us can remember. Study commission after study commission has been trotted out, made its pronouncements, and receded into the background, but still the general prosperity eludes the people of Maine.
This is not to say that many of the concrete suggestions from these study commissions; better schools, better technical education, better communications and transportation infrastructure, more value added to local natural resource harvesting, more high tech, more bio technology, and more training for people in how to run organizations and businesses effectively, are not important. But it is to say that while the above may be necessary for prosperity, they are not sufficient, and the reports of the commissions are mostly recipes for the same old story simply couched in the latest buzzwords. And it is to say that some of the prescriptions that Maine has seen trotted out year after year are just plain wrong. Tax cuts for the rich never helped any community become more prosperous.
Another thing has also changed. The world now faces the intertwining of global warming and the end of the age of petroleum. Maine’s reaction to the end of the petroleum age and the beginnings of global warming is going to be the key to our prosperity, but none of our public officials are ready to understand just how important a factor this wilt be in our coming prosperity or lack thereof.
The reversing of global warming, the effort to bring fossil fuel consumption down to a point where the atmosphere is able to cleanse itself and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in it to below current levels will take a reduction of fossil fuel use to about 20 to 25% of current usage, cuts of 75 to 80% in how much oil and coal we use. In the last few centuries the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has gone from 270 parts per million to over 380 parts per million, and in the last few years the amount has gone up 2 or 3 parts per million a year. Current efforts such as RGGI and the Kyoto Protocols call for reductions of carbon dioxide emissions to 10% less than current emissions. All this does is marginally slow down the rate of increase, but it does nothing to actually reverse the trend and reduce carbon emissions to those that the planet can absorb in soil, wood, oceans without adverse effect and less than the natural breakdown of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is actually the only way to bring climate back towards one that does not threaten our highly stressed ecosystems even more.
The prescriptions for prosperity in the post petroleum age is to relocalize the economy. Much of this has been discussed for 20 or 30 years: solar energy, organic farming, shortening the food to table distance, keeping oceans healthy. Intensifying those efforts is a much greater priority now as the implications of the post petroleum world loom ever more in our eyes.
The one factor that seems to dominate the thinking of the study commissions, even if they never say so except when responding to the closing of military facilities, is the cost of the military in our securing the petroleum economy. The commissions are unanimous in believing that military spending is good for us, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is absolutely clear that making oil a national security priority has cost the United States mightily, and Maine would benefit greatly by getting off the oil/military treadmill. If one of our goals is to wean Maine from oil rapidly, then protecting the supply is a waste of money. Money spent on securing the oil supply amounts to billions a year, with Iraq being the prime sinkhole and is leading to a growing resistance to US imperialism and economic leadership. In Neo Con brains the resistance to the United States dropping boots onto the ground to protect “vital” oil, morphs into into a global war on terror, complete with tapping the phone of every American in hope of ending all resistance to government by Halliburton, but a more realistic assessment says that if we did not go around the world dropping boots onto the ground we would not engender such violent resistance and we could spend much less on the military and be even more secure.
Maine needs what used to be called conversion. Mass transit systems. Innovations in human scaled machines to work in natural resource harvesting so that harvests do not stress ecosystems. Truly affordable housing that cleanly generates more energy than the buildings consume. Put the industrial might to work on that instead of new and better ways to kill.
Maine needs to grow alot more of its own food. It is going to become too expensive to ship food thousands of miles, and every shipment adds to global warming. Pesticides, genetically modified organisms, natural gas based fertilizers, and overabundance of antibiotics all create dependencies and stress ecosystems. Maine has farmland, the economics of the food business are changing, its time. According to the World Watch Institute the last few years less food has been grown on the planet than is eaten in a year, depleting stocks worldwide. Factory farming is not going to be able to survive the end of petroleum. let alone the damage it does to soils and water supplies. Grow more food, bring more farms back into production. Do it in your neighborhood.
Fishing has to change. Feeding global markets from regional ecosystems is impossible. The resource collapses. We have seen newly opened fisheries exploited until the populations crashes, often in two years. On the other hand we have seen the lobster industry continue because the catch is so well regulated and maintaining lobster populations has become part of the culture. Applying those principles to all fisheries will create fishing jobs as we shall need more organic harvesting regimes and different boats in a post petroleum world. Factory ships are toast.
Forestry and tourism are actually two sides of the same coin. Both ultimately depend on healthy forests, and currently what goes on in the Maine woods is not healthy. Forests cut twice as fast as they grow to meet the paper needs of the information world collapse and contribute to global warming. The race to cut more wood each year is a race to poverty. And the efforts to grow super trees can not make it up. Protect more forests, use the rest in ways that make them healthier as well as providing the wood we can use.
Forests, like the ocean, can not stand up to the demands of a global economy, but could we supply the region quite well if we rethought harvesting and processing technologies.
Ecosystem management and how we integrate resource harvesting into the economy leads to the discussion of trade as it is the global markets that make a few rich and speed up the collapse of ecosystems. The infamous study commissions always spin the public relations machine in the direction of “free trade”. First of all there is no such thing as free trade. Never existed, never will. Every country on Earth has protected some parts of the local economy and regulated the flow of workers. It is really just a matter of which parts of the economy the rulers of the country choose to protect. In the United States the government has chosen to protect wealthy professionals, knowledge workers, football team owners, and the military industrial and national security sectors of the economy. Many farmers are also protected, especially those in places where farmers can make a difference in elections. Most countries protect at least some of their farmers which makes sense as food is irreplaceable and security comes from growing it at home. The United States also, in vague and complicated ways, sees an abundance of low wage workers as a great advantage. Low wage workers lead to great profits for owners, so it seems pretty normal here, but in the long run paying low wages and the greater inequality it leads to, damages democracy and the economy.
Ecosystems also crack in free trade systems, deforestation is nearly always the result, and farmers are thrown off farms in huge numbers, often ending up in huge slums and shanty towns and contributing to a further deterioration of ecosystems.
You get the idea. Life is round, things are linked, and the post petroleum world is going to be a very different place. We can choose to take the path that leads to peace,democracy, and prosperity or we can take the path to corporate control leading to ecological collapse and a general poverty.
Here is what we can do.
Start building clean mass transit systems, solar and wind electricity systems, energy producing affordable housing. Take all of the industrial might now going into oil and the war machine and convert it.
Relocalize the food supply. Grow more food, eat closer to home and do it organically. Triple the number of farms and the percentage of food eaten in Maine grown in Maine in 15 years.
Massively upgrade the housing in Maine. Maine houses need to be net energy producers with clean energy. 75% of houses in Maine need to be net energy producers in 20 years. Start today.
Pursue modern technologies, computers, bio technology, and other knowledge intensive industries, but focus them on doing things sustainable in a post petroleum world. Codify the precautionary principle into the operations of these industries, so that we understand the implications of what is released into our communities before it is released rather than after it kills people. A stitch in time saves nine just might be a more productive approach to the economy than planned obsolescence and a massive experiment in what is safe.
Tourism will be more sustainable in a post petroleum world. It will rely on mass transit, freeing it from carbon emissions and people will have an opportunity to tour more intact ecosystems. Erosion gullies from over harvesting, muddy lakes and streams, and a fragmented forest do not bring tourists. A working forest handled with a light touch, serving regional markets while growing in size, diversity, and ecological values does draw tourists, while at the same time the lighter technologies create woods jobs. Processing more locally to save on shipping costs brings jobs as well. It will be interesting to see if the current owners of the Maine woods can make the transformation and what help the people of Maine will have to offer instead of the current subsidies that preserve the present power structure.
The State of Maine already makes tremendous giveaways to businesses in the name of economic development. The changes called for here will require an increase in governmental support in certain sectors of the economy, but at the same time we can eliminate and reduce subsidies that work against our needs in the post petroleum world. Tax policies focused on taxing pollution and depletion can direct investment towards appropriate areas while allowing us to reduce taxes on productive work.
Maine will continue its century long chase of prosperity while the world changes faster than ever. Relocalizing the economy, the near elimination of the use of fossil fuels, the revitalization of local natural resource industries, a focus on affordable housing that produces rather than consumes energy, and subsidies targeted towards truly sustainable industries rather than the military industrial complex may seem like a major challenge, but it is clear that the alternative will lead us to trot out new commissions on the economy every few years and ever diminishing returns.