Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Do We Need a Green Shock Doctrine?

with 27 comments

I’ve always been dumb-struck by the ability of the “disaster capitalists” to pounce on virtually any crisis and exploit it to push through their usual pile of right-wing prescriptions for curtailing civil liberties and expanding corporate power. The idea, as laid out by Naomi Klein in her phenomenal 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, is simple: in a crisis you can pass policies that would be rejected by the public as too radical under normal circumstances. And certain neoliberal economists, particularly the protegees of Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics, have been masters at it. The PATRIOT Act, the corporate-friendly Iraqi constitution, and the free-market reforms enacted in Chile in the 1970s are just a few examples of the shock doctrine in action.

I’ve often wondered why greens have been unable to emulate that approach to push sustainable policies. What would a “green shock doctrine” look like? And would it be desirable?

In this recent post over at Worldchanging, Jon Lebkowsky points out a fascinating discussion on exactly that question that raged last week in the Campfire forum over at The Oil Drum. Guest blogger Altaira started off the discussion by noting a profound shift in the mood among many of her friends and colleagues in the environmental movement.

In brief, many now admit openly that human overshoot has gone way too far and that the programs they run are like band aids when the wound calls for a tourniquet. They lament the rise of expectations for a narrowly defined version of progress that will only deepen our predicament. It now seems undeniable that structural and psychological requirements for global economic growth have much more sway than any rhetoric about sustainability.

Although the depth of despair is greater than usual, most of these thoughts are old news. However, a couple of new conversational memes have emerged. First of all, my friends are turning inwards, becoming concerned about personal and family security. Second, they are considering adopting a new strategy that plans for responses to crisis and breakdown, rather than their usual fare, which is advocating for course corrections to avoid troubles.

The ensuing discussion is worth a read, though it focuses mostly on extreme scenarios — i.e. what green policies should we be prepared to push through in the event of the complete breakdown of Western-style industrial capitalism?

I think a more interesting set of questions is:

  1. What green policies are practicable now, in the face of current and potential crises?
  2. Is a “green shock doctrine” strategy even desirable?
  3. Has such a strategy ever been used before? If so, where, and with what results?

Regarding the first question, I’ll just say anything that gets atmospheric CO2 concentrations back down to 350 parts per million or less by the year 2050, and defer to my wonky friends at 350.org and 1Sky.org for the details.

The second question, I fear, may be moot. I believe a “green shock doctrine” is not necessarily desirable (any “shock doctrine” implies a measure of undemocratic exercise of authority in the face of catastrophe). But I do think it’s inevitable, as rising sea levels, droughts, and climate change-related resource conflicts drive leaders to impose more energy-efficient, sustainable policies on their populations.

Which leads us to the third question. I can think of at least four examples where some semblance of a “green shock doctrine” has been used to push through more sustainable policies in the wake of a crisis: 1. Curitiba, Brazil, 2. Japan, 3. Cuba, and 4. Greensburg, Kansas. Herewith, some thoughts on each:

1. Curitiba — In 1971, a young architect named Jaime Lerner was appointed mayor by Brazil’s military junta. As I wrote awhile ago in Utne Reader, Lerner set about reshaping Curitiba into what is often hailed today as the greenest city on Earth. He imposed a transit-oriented urban growth plan that concentrated new development along several public transit lines fanning out from the city center, with huge areas of open space set aside between them. The result is a hub-and-spoke growth pattern where nearly all homes and businesses are within walking distance of both transit lines and the city’s extensive park system. Lerner also invented what’s now known as “bus rapid transit” (BRT). Long articulated buses carrying up to 300 passengers each on dedicated guideways give riders essentially the same experience as light rail, but without the rails, resulting in much lower costs to build and maintain. BRT has spread fast in recent years, epecially in developing countries like Colombia, Guatemala, China and Indonesia, where equivalent light rail lines can cost up to 20 times as much to build. These days, Lerner avoids the question when asked, but he as been quoted in the past as saying he could not have accomplished what he did in Curitiba if it had been a democracy.

2. Japan — Many countries responded to the 1970s oil shocks by imposing steep gas taxes and other strong measures designed to steer consumers toward more energy-efficient behaviors. Japan, which has to import nearly all of its energy, took it to extremes. The country has some of the world’s strictest policies on waste reduction and energy efficiency. Every year, for example, the most inefficient ten percent of refrigerators and other home appliances on the market are banned. And all factories are required to increase their energy efficiency at least one percent per year. As the New York Times said in 2005, these policies have helped create a culture  in Japan where being more energy efficient is a patriotic act. That is one of Japan’s greatest competitive advantages in the new clean tech economy, and is a major reason Japan’s new government was able to offer one of the strongest carbon-emissions reduction proposals of any country in the runup to the UN climate negotiations taking place this week in Copenhagen.

3. Cuba — In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, its long-standing oil-for-sugar trade deal evaporated as well. So Cuba was forced to de-carbonize its economy virtually overnight. Large government-run bus-like contraptions called camelos (camels), pulled by semi trucks, replaced private cars as many Cubans’ main mode of transport. Not picking up hitchhikers on rural highways was banned. But the most notable effects were in Cuba’s agricultural sector. Faced with a cash crunch and a hungry and restive population, the government shifted food production from large, chemical-intensive farms in the countryside to small-scale organic farms and gardens on empty lots in the cities, called organoponicos. Today, according to the BBC, Havana alone has 200 such operations and produces 90% of its own fruits and vegetables within the city limits. Child nutrition has improved substantially. The organoponicos are run as privately-owned coops, where the growers are allowed to sell a percentage of their crops at farmers markets. And they provide thousands of jobs. This model may not be entirely replicable — setting up the organoponicos in the early 1990s required large amounts of enforced labor. But the result is a healthy, decentralized, low-energy, and secure food system. Surely there’s a lesson there for us.

4. Greensburg, Kansas — In the 2 1/2 years since it was flattened by a tornado in 2007, the tiny town of Greensburg, Kansas has been rebuilt as a model of energy-efficient, green architecture and design. But the political context that enabled the greening of Greensburg was a perfect storm (sorry, I couldn’t resist) that included a desperate population reeling from a major catastrophe (the town was nearly wiped off the map), a relatively progressive governor (Kathleen Sibelius), and some powerful celebrity and institutional sponsors (Leonardo DiCaprio and the American Institute of Architects) to push it through. And it was just one tiny rural farming town. It pales in comparison to the scale of the changes the “disaster capitalists” pushed through in Chile, New Orleans, South Korea, Iraq and elsewhere. You have to wonder, too, if it would have been possible under a different governor, or if Greensburg were an oil or mining town.

Each of these cases is worth a post of its own. And each one offers many lessons.

For me, they raise even more questions about what sorts of changes are possible or desirable in different political and cultural contexts, especially when the shit hits the fan. Perhaps the most unsettling question for a died-in-the-wool small-d democrat like me is this: Is democracy up to the task of sustainability?

I honestly don’t know.

27 Responses

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  1. Radical thinking is needed, and I’m glad you’re being courageous enough to ask scary questions like “will the ends justify the means”?

    I think your premise could be put another way: How will we ever save the planet if we’re always trying to be decent and above-board and the folks working against us are not?

    Could eco-shock-doctrine work? Should one be used? Such a method would in any case require that those in power have the greater good of the world in mind, instead of their vested interests alone. Which is alas, not the situation we find ourselves in.

    I agree that radical rethinking is necessary at this time.

    When humans transitioned from cooperative hunter-gatherer societies into agrarian ones and storing and building wealth became possible, we left cooperation behind and moved into a competitive system we still live in today. In a hunter-gatherer society, survival of the group required the cooperation of all. In the agrarian society, individual survival could be achieved regardless of the survival of the group. Get off my farm and away from my chickens!

    Now our survival as a species and as individuals requires our cooperation on a global level. This in itself is a shock-doctrine, delivered courtesy of the earth herself. The requirements of cooperation for survival will fundamentally change all our interactions, belief systems, political systems, monetary systems, etc.

    Keep dreaming up radical solutions, Leif. That’s what this time is all about.

    Vanessa LeBourdais

    December 15, 2009 at 9:46 am

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