The Bright Side of Economic Turmoil

I often find myself trying to explain why next year, despite a worldwide economic slump, will present us with such a good opportunity to achieve our climate and energy security goals.

Part of the answer, of course, is a new President fully committed to our goals. We've also built years of momentum in the states (where, for example, 23 states have or are developing carbon limits and 13 states have strong energy efficiency programs) and with companies (where, for example, the US Climate Action Partnership has many of the country's top companies advocating strict carbon limits).

The hidden part of the answer is the tough economy itself. In short, the economic meltdown is forcing us to shift from a consumer society to an investment society. For the first time in generations, many influential actors, especially businesses and labor are now supporting clean energy alternatives and efficiency as a source of jobs, stable and independent energy, and economic stimulus.

One of NRDC's energy gurus, Ashok Gupta, explained it this way: The United States intentionally built a consumer society to help employ the soldiers and sailors returning from WWII. We encouraged consumption and manufactured the goods to satisfy the new demand. The manufacturing in theory would create the wealth to purchase to goods. So we'd get a spiral of manufacturing, employment, and consumption. (I'm not an economic historian, but I think this is a fair summary.)

Then the equilibrium changed. Our manufacturing moved abroad but we kept consuming and kept thinking consumption was important to maintain; after all, it was the basis of over 70 percent of our economic well being. But now the bubble has bursting and from the wreckage a new theory is emerging.

To rebuild our economy, we now must invest in the infrastructure we need. Business, which had opposed anything that they feared would raise energy rates or trucking costs, now see the primacy of job-creation.

Seeing the national economic benefits, business is now supporting home insulation, mass transit, renewable energy and related programs. Labor unions, previously lukewarm on new energy plans (higher rates they feared could affect manufacturing jobs), now see them as the major job opportunities.

The economic collapse is forcing many to revisit old positions and those new environmental alliances are part of what make 2009 such a surprisingly good opportunity for both economic and environmental progress.