We Can Save The Environment And Get Rich

Matthew Yglesias and John Quiggin agree: we can keep getting richer and save the environment if, as the soon-to-be-bestseller writes, “we implement the right policies in a timely manner.” Seeing as I've made this argument in other forums before, I don't really disagree with the argument, but the likelihood of it being followed through. I'm pessimistic because, well, there's a track record here: the American government has been advised, in one form or another, on the necessity of investing in renewable energy since the 1950s, and we've seen precious little positive change.

Worse yet, in some ways we've seen a real retrogression here. In the 1950s, after America faced the wrenching oil crisis of 1948 – humorously, the “crisis” was over becoming a net oil importer for the first time ever – the Paley Commission recommended solar and wind energy as a way of reducing America's reliance on oil imports. This was presented as relatively uncontroversial, technocratic, blue-ribbon panel stuff but was abandoned by the Eisenhower administration in favor of the nuclear military-industrial-complex that was then just beginning.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and instead of sustainable energy being more dry technocracy, it's become fully enmeshed in the culture wars. Reagan famously (and totally symbolically) removed Carter's solar panels from the White House, the green movement was blamed for the decline of the logging industry, and George H.W. Bush said, en route to the 1990 Rio Summit, “the American way of life is not negotiable.” Note the words: Bush wasn't defending a standard of living, or a per-capita GDP figure, but the American way of life.

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