Category Archives: Economics

The Distillery: August 23, 2017

Triangles_Distillery_Text-smr

EcoOptimism’s current selection of favorite posts

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

We’ve got a plethora this week.

August 22, 2017

From Grist.org:
California defies Trump claim that environmental regulation kills economic growth

EcoOptimism’s take: Just more “fake news,” right? (It doesn’t get more EcoOptimistic than this!)

source: U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt

source: U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt

August 22, 2017

From Grist.org:
The eclipse was a test, and the solar industry aced it

EcoOptimism’s take: Chicken Little lives another day. CNBC headline on August 18 before the eclipse: “The total solar eclipse is going to knock out a lot of solar power.”

solar panels dark

August 14, 2017

From Environmental Network News:
Ozone Treaty Taking a Bite Out of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions

EcoOptimism’s take: In my sustainable design classes, when I describe all our environmental issues and my students begin to get totally demoralized, I point out there are some bright spots. One of them is an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, that addressed ozone depletion (aka ozone holes) by reducing the use of chemicals causing the depletion. This 1989 agreement has been an enormous success and the ozone layer is now predicted to return to normal within this century.

Those ozone depleting gases, CFCs, are also one of the greenhouse gases causing climate change and this article says “In a twist, a new study shows the 30-year old treaty has had a major side benefit of reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S.”

The ozone hole has stopped growing. Source: NASA

The ozone hole has stopped growing. Source: NASA

August 17, 2017

From Yale Environment 360:
Renewable Energy Prevented 12,700 Premature Deaths Over Nine-Year Period, Study Says

EcoOptimism’s take: It’s great when environmental actions, as illustrated by the ozone article above, have side benefits.

“The expansion of wind and solar energy, and the resulting avoided emissions from fossil fuels, helped prevent up to 12,700 premature deaths in the U.S. from 2007 to 2015, according a new study in the journal Nature Energy.”

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org

A Positive – and EcoOptimistic – Outlook

I recently came across this great post citing the reasons 2015 will be the year that changes the socio/economic/political world of energy production and thereby undermines climate denial. The post is by Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption, and presents some convincing evidence that it isn’t the politicians (though he cites the US/China deal) or the public, but the business world that will come around.

There has been a lot of discussion about not just climate denial but science denial. We’ve tried for years, starting perhaps with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, to convince the public by using science – and sometimes by using fear — that climate change is real. Many people have indeed been convinced, but it’s still less than a majority.

In Gilding’s post, he writes: “…science is now largely irrelevant in this process [of convincing people]. If the scientific evidence was going to shift the system, it would have done so by now….” He continues “What we have to look for instead is evidence of shifts in the human response, not the ecological one.”

The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic

The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic

He goes on to cite six reasons that the human – and especially the business – response is changing. I’ll list them here, but you should go to his post to read the explanations:

  1. The US China Climate deal – how change really occurs
  2. Collapse in oil prices [Which would seem counterintuitive, but many, including Gilding, have argued otherwise.]
  3. Solar price falls set to continue
  4. Market prices reflect economic disruption
  5. The political power of big business starts to shift sides
  6. Physical impacts accelerating and driving economic and security impact

While this list, without his explanations, seems a bit vague and jargon-y, it basically amounts to an EcoOptimistic outlook, that the economics of energy will cause businesses to come around to the realization that fossil fuels have no future economically as opposed to environmentally. “[W]hile many climate activists focus on the political power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, I see an industry scrambling to defend itself against overwhelming forces that will see it destroyed – not in a mighty moral crusade but something far more brutal and fast – the market turning on it.”

According to a Treehugger post, even the National Bank of Abu Dhabi — yes a Middle East bank heavily invested in fossil fuels — has concluded that “‘fossil fuels can no longer compete with solar technologies on price’, and that the majority of the $US48 trillion needed to meet global energy demand over the next 20 years will come from renewables.”

This goes to the core of EcoOptimism: that, contrary to the public perception, there is a synergy between economic and ecological goals.

There is much more in Gilding’s post. Though he doesn’t refer to it, the issue of our unfortunate inability to think in the long term lurks in the background. We humans concentrate on short term needs and issues. Long term ones are too often not considered in our decision making, especially when that long term is intangible and may not be in our lifetimes. This explains why some environmentalists now emphasize what the impacts will be on our children.

Businesses, too, driven by quarterly profits and reports, tend to think in the short term. But they’re now beginning to see the long term issues. When your primary resource appears destined to become what Wall Street calls a stranded asset, that gets the attention of board rooms.

What Gilding does discuss is another barrier: realizing the scale of an issue, but not being able to cope with it and, therefore, ignoring or even denying it. “This is not climate denial but an example of “implicatory denial”, the rather bizarre ability of humans to accept a risk but then stop processing the implications, just because those implications are so overwhelming.” That’s where the economic influences take over. If convincing the public (and Republican electeds) through either science or fear isn’t working, perhaps newly enlightened businesses – especially those that contribute to political campaigns – can.

Surprise: Environmentalism Actually Boosts the Economy

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

One of the premises of EcoOptimism is that environmental actions and solutions complement the economy. Too often, the assumption – particularly within the business world and among conservatives – is that the opposite is true. They believe, sometimes fervently, that environmental rules and regulation are a drag on the economy, causing job losses and working against the interests of capitalism and growth.

But by almost all capitalist measures, environmentalism has proved to be an aid to the economy. I was struck by this with an assortment of posts all in one day. The first was a report stating the U.S. solar industry now employs close to 174,000 jobs and grew at a rate of 28% in the past year, nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy. Few sectors, including oil, can make a claim like that. In fact, 1.3% of the jobs created in the past year were in solar industries.

Source: SustainableBusiness.com. Their caption reads: “This year, the solar industry expects to add 35,000 jobs, bringing the total to 210,060, a 20.9% increase.”

Source: SustainableBusiness.com. Their caption reads: “This year, the solar industry expects to add 35,000 jobs, bringing the total to 210,060, a 20.9% increase.”

A related post compared this to the number of jobs created in fossil fuel industries last year. The oil and gas industry, including pipeline construction, added just 19,000 jobs, compared to solar’s 31,000. And according to the US Energy Information Administration, coal mining jobs fell by 11.3% in 2012, a year in which solar jobs grew by 13%.

Bear in mind that this is looking at only solar jobs and related growth, not the entire arena of renewables. Wind is another area of rapid growth compared to the rest of the economy. A new report from the advocacy group Oceana found that “offshore wind [in the Atlantic] would produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.” As would be expected, pro-oil advocacy groups, who are promoting drilling for gas and oil off the East Coast, claim that that would create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue for states. Oceana says, though, those numbers are inflated because they are based on drilling in sites that are not economically viable. (Especially as the price of oil falls as it has in recent weeks.)

offshore wind stats

Furthermore, according to Oceana, drilling could put other jobs and industries, including fishing and tourism, at risk. This could have a much great economic impact: a potential loss of 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product. Wind, on the other hand, poses little risk. (Bird kills, while a concern, are smaller offshore and, in any case, are far lower than the aviary impact of air pollution and global climate disruption.)

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

All this makes renewable energy, to put it in Republican terms, a “job creator.” If only the Republican Party weren’t beholden to fossil fuel interests, perhaps they would see that and would see that this is, in EcoOptimism terms, a win-win solution.

Fracking and the Precautionary Principle at Work

Image: Inhabitat

Image: Inhabitat

I’ve written about the Precautionary Principle before (here and here), but because it’s a rare occasion when it gets applied in this country, it’s worth noting when it does find its way into policy.

The Precautionary Principle basically says that things should be proven safe before they are allowed. That’s generally the rule in Europe, but here in the U.S., chemicals and products and such are given the benefit of the doubt in an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach. Since there isn’t money to test every chemical, and there’s no incentive for companies to do so themselves, the safety of the vast majority of them is unknown.

So in the case of fracking, where there’s significant concern and doubt about its safety, the onus has been on the government to prove its dangers.

Happily, New York State has just gone the other direction and banned fracking precisely because we don’t know its impacts on air and water. Governor Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, determined that fracking could pose dangers to public health. Zucker is quoted in the New York Times as saying “We cannot afford to make a mistake. The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”

This bears repeating because it is a significant policy approach: The potential risks are too great. Zucker went on to say that there was insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the long-term safety of fracking.

That’s the Precautionary Principle at work; public safety first, business interests second. A war on business, I’m sure the political right will claim. Anti-jobs and all that. But what use is a job when you or your family are made sick? The New York Times article said Cuomo was apparently convinced when he asked Drucker if he would want to live in a community that allowed fracking and his answer was no.

And applications of the Precautionary Principle yesterday were not limited to Cuomo, but included President Obama, who banned future oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay (though he didn’t ban mining there). At stake was a huge salmon fishery that supplies the country with 40% of our wild-caught seafood. Obama said energy development in the region could endanger an environmentally sensitive waterway and imperil vital fisheries. [Emphasis added]

Some may say it was a financial decision to save a $2.5 billion dollar industry but, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the energy reserves there vastly outweigh the fish, totaling $7.7 billion.

For a change, the oil industry lobbying interests didn’t prevail. Let’s hope the Precautionary Principle is applied to mining there as well. And, oh yeah, let’s also apply it to the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Elusive Silver Bullet

silverbullet

I just returned from Greenbuild, the annual conference and expo for architect, engineers, planners, builders and others involved in the green construction sector. The event, which has grown hugely in size (the opening plenary and dinner were held in the New Orleans Superdome!), was simultaneously over and underwhelming.

I went in part to cover it for the magazine Traditional Home, which has covered my work before. My job was to live tweet the things I found at Greenbuild that might be of interest to Traditional Home readers.

That turned out to be a bit of a challenge as many of the booths were displaying products that, while they were part and parcel of green building, were not photogenic or attention grabbing in obvious ways. (At the best of show announcement, I sat next to an editor, who groaned about the unsexiness of most of the winners, complaining they were making his job harder because they weren’t easy to write about.)

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

I did find plenty to tweet about (like this and this), but the experience reminded me that much of sustainability is not photogenic or headline grabbing. Wind and solar farms can be eye candy, as can futuristic concept buildings and cars. We tend, therefore to glom onto these images and adopt them as the goal, as the silver bullets that will solve our environmental problems.

But they’re not. Not because they aren’t good ideas, but because they are attempts at stand-alone solutions. There are, with the possible exception of a carbon fee, no silver bullet solutions. Our environmental issues are systemic ones and therefore need to be addressed systemically. That’s why a carbon tax is high on the EcoOptimism list. It addresses the systemic conjoined problems of climate disruption and consumption, not with a single “solution” such as solar panels, but by changing the game. By levelling the playing field of energy prices so that carbon emitters no longer get a free ride, it both makes “alternative” renewable energy sources the better economic choice and impacts our consumption patterns.

For instance, travel would probably become more expensive (at least until reliance on fossil fuels diminished) so maybe we’d stick closer to home, spending our money in local economies, having business meetings by Skype and having more time for family and friends. Not a bad tradeoff.

McMansions would become more expensive to heat and cool, encouraging the nascent movement toward smaller, more efficient and more urban homes. Out with two-story foyers and vestigial grand living rooms. In with homes that are better attuned to the ways we actually live. (I can hear the Agenda 21ers screaming now.)

But a carbon tax is not really what I wanted to write about. This post is about the false hope of – the desire for – a silver bullet. Much as I dislike extending the gun metaphor, the better approach is like buckshot. It’s deploying many tactics (yikes, more military terms), including the aforementioned solar and wind farms or the boring mechanical systems that dominated Greenbuild. It’s many tactics that, when taken as a greater whole, comprise a systemic approach: a change in overall strategies and mindsets.

That’s what it will take to solve this multipronged combination of serious problems. No one technical feat or government regulation—excepting perhaps carbon fees — is going to address climate disruption, ecosystem health, human health, social equity and the economy. They’re solvable; as the EcoOptimist, I’d better believe so. But they need to be addressed as intertwined issues, attacked on multiple fronts. (I just can’t seem get away from these military metaphors.)

In that sense, Greenbuild, as visually dull as parts of it may have been, is on the right track by putting lots of mini solutions out there. On occasion they get tied together, as happened with the demonstration house built for the show. Designed and constructed for the Make it Right foundation, the house pulled together ideas ranging from solar panels and state of the art insulation to locally procured furnishings. And the finished “LivingHome” will be dismantled and then reassembled in New Orlean’s Ninth Ward before being turned over to new inhabitants. (Parsons the New School for Design, where I teach, did something similar with its “Empowerhouse” entry in the Solar Decathlon.)

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

These aren’t exactly systemic solutions. A single house can’t be. But they’re steps along the path to rethinking and reanalyzing approaches to problems. Now if we can just please have a carbon fee, the stage will be set for some truly systemic answers.

Will the Solutions Come from Cities?

NYC view

Image: Wikimedia

It wasn’t terribly surprising that the recent UN Climate Summit didn’t yield anything substantive, much less binding. After all, twenty years of world conferences and summits haven’t achieved much. Meanwhile, we’ve been dithering away the time while greenhouse gas levels have been rising, making it harder and harder to avoid horrific impacts.

So where’s the EcoOptimism?

Turns out it’s not with national governments at all, and that’s reason for hope. (Especially given the dysfunctional US federal government, hobbled by a Congress filled with the willfully illiterate.) In its stead, lower level officials, notably mayors, have been leading from the bottom up, changing mundane things like building codes and transportation programs.

Mayors lead cities, and cities are where a majority of us 7 billion humans live. Urban environments, according to Edward Mazria, whose talk I wrote about in the previous post, emit 75% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So focusing on cities makes a lot of sense.

The good news is that urban populations in the U.S. tend to be more politically progressive, voting heavily Democratic and not home to many climate change deniers. Thus mayors have political support for positive actions. Plus, as Grist points out, they’re “not beholden to rural, fossil-fuel dependent constituencies.”

The latest evidence for this alternative to pin our hopes on is NYC Mayor De Blasio’s announcement, timed to coincide with the summit, of new goals for energy efficiency of buildings in the city, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels.

GHGs OLTPS

In my previous post, I wrote about the pivotal role architects have in achieving energy efficiency and GHG reductions. That dovetails nicely with this urban direction, especially in cases like NYC where so much of the environmental impact comes from buildings. (Because more people use mass transit and fewer people drive cars, the transportation impact in dense cities tends to be lower.)

These bottom up initiatives have the potential create a trickle up effect to the national level. As cities embark on these programs – and presuming they are successful – they may provide the precedents as well as the political cover for Congress to come around.

So we shouldn’t give up on the Feds. While action from them is extremely unlikely currently, urban programs that are both ecologically and economically successful will disprove the allegations of the climate denier lobby.

Some Earth Week Optimism

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School.

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School. Photo: David Bergman

 

Amidst some intense deadlines, I’d started a couple of EcoOptimism posts in the past few weeks, and then discarded them because they weren’t, well, optimistic.

In my EcoOptimist-in-chief role, I sometimes find myself in a hypocritical position when I rail on a topic without presenting at least the silver lining. So I canned the critique of a new chair that was eco but, in my opinion anyway, quite ugly and counterproductive to the perception of ecodesign. And I bit my digital tongue when I began a rant on yet another round of climate deniers’ contorted and illiterate BS.

My malaise was released the other day when, concurrent with the completion of a major deadline, I attended a talk with green business expert Hunter Lovins. A prolific author and speaker, Lovins keynoted a New School student–organized event called (and I’ll try to reign in my non-EcoOptimist snarkiness here) Sustainapalooza.

The gist of Lovins talk was a twist on the old phrase “what’s good for GM is good for the country,” modernizing it into “what’s good for the environment is good for business.” Or to put it the other way around, in Lovins’ words, “the assault on the environment is also an assault on the economy.” Citing sources and businesses including the Harvard Business Review, Unilever and even Goldman Sachs, she emphasized that companies focusing on environmental performance are also leading in economic performance, particularly in the long run.  (That long run vision is strengthened, as Lovins noted, by the decision of people such as Paul Polman of Unilever to stop filing quarterly reports, a policy I’ve long advocated since the pressure of quarterly reports only serves to encourage short term thinking at the expense of looking at the bigger picture.)

Central to her talk was what she and John Fullerton have labeled The Regenerative Economy or, as they titled it in their FastCo article last fall, “transform[ing] global finance into a force for good.” In its current state, she explained, “our economy has become a financial system that expects human beings to serve its dictates and desires, rather than serving basic human needs and delivering prosperity in ways that can long endure.” In other words we work for the financial system instead of the financial system working for us. The needs of the financial system determine the economy, which determines the impacts on the planet when it should be the other way around.

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

 

Lovins cited a plethora of stats that support the premise of EcoOptimism:

  • A greener economy could create between 15 million to 60 million jobs worldwide over the next two decades. It represents a potential $10 trillion dollar economy.
  • The regenerative energy economy employs almost 3 million people TODAY – more than fossil fuel.
  • Green jobs increased five times faster than jobs in any other industry
  • Switching to renewables will cost 2% – 6% of world GDP – a bargain compared to the 20% of GCP that climate change impacts will amount to.
  • Companies in the Dow Jones sustainability Index outperform the general market.

Lovins’ talk was not without realism. She referenced the conventional business stance and the political climate (or would that be anti-climate?). And she criticized herself. “If I was any damn good at this,” she commented, we’d have made more progress. That’s unfair self-criticism, I’d say, being as she’s far from the only one who’s been unable to break our socio-political quagmire. But let’s not detract from the optimism here by diving back into that topic.

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

A Letter to Mayor de Blasio: Don’t forget the environment as a cause of inequality

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

Your campaign platform based on the “tale of two cities” was compelling, highly needed and, as evidenced by your election landslide, popular. Having lived in Manhattan for over 30 years, I’ve watched and experienced the extreme economic and demographic changes first hand, changes which accelerated greatly during the Wall Street- and development-friendly era of Mayor Bloomberg.

Your focus on inequity during the election, though, came at the expense of virtually any discussion of environmental issues. In part, this might have been an effort to differentiate yourself from your predecessor’s emphasis on addressing the environment. From the broad mandate of PlaNYC, to the striking rethinking of city streetscapes, down to one of his final accomplishments, the banning of plastic foam food containers, former Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental accomplishments were huge.

It would be a shame if you de-emphasized – or worse, rolled back – these laws and initiatives, particularly because there is a strong correlation between environmental issues and inequality. The most obvious of these is well-documented: the high rates of asthma in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This arises from the placement of noxious uses where both land values and political clout are lower. Clearly this has health effects, but it also impacts income (lost work and increased health costs for those who can least afford it) and education (lost days at school).

Similar overlapping relationships can be found in other areas including access to mass transit and parks, programs for energy efficiency, and food deserts. (While it’s somewhat understandable that the first test of Citibike was in the densest parts of the city, there’s a strong argument that it’s more needed in areas where transit is less accessible, where bicycles can provide the last mile.) In another significant example, many of the areas of NYC most at risk from storm surges and rising sea levels are the poorer sections of the city.

Overall, this relationship between environmental issues and inequality falls under the definition of environmental justice:

The concept behind the term “environmental justice” is that all people – regardless of their race, color, nation or origin or income – are able to enjoy equally high levels of environmental protection. Environmental justice communities are commonly identified as those where residents are predominantly minorities or low-income; where residents have been excluded from the environmental policy setting or decision-making process; where they are subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and where residents experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations, requirements, practices and activities in their communities. Environmental justice efforts attempt to address the inequities of environmental protection in these communities. [source]

The synergisms in addressing inequality and the environment are a perfect example of EcoOptimism: solutions that simultaneously solve ecological and economic problems while also improving our quality of life. Environmental impacts span both halves of the “two cities” with, if anything, harsher effects on the parts of the city you campaigned for. Hopefully, you and the members of your new administration will see the importance of this and expand upon the groundbreaking environmental work of your predecessor.

 

Laissez-faire: the environmental version

I tend to write a lot about messaging and sound bites [here and here, for two], sometimes with the simple sounding proposal that the environmental movement needs better and catchier phrases. (For instance, something less dull and abstract than “the environmental movement.”) So a sentence in a current post in one of my most favorite and least catchily-named blogs, The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, caught my eye: “Laissez-faire takes on a new meaning — it is the ecosystem, not the economy that must be “left alone” to manage itself and evolve by its own rules.”

What a neat twist on the religious-like belief in conventional laissez-faire, the doctrine that the so-called free market, if “left alone” – which is a near literal translation of the term — will provide the best outcomes.

A reasonable response to that orthodoxy is: the best outcomes for whom? Herman Daly, the renowned economist and author of that post, similarly turns the laissez-faire idea on its head by suggesting that it’s the environment, not the market, which should be left alone.

A closer translation of laissez-faire is “let do.” And that interpretation, I think, is even more suitable as an approach to the environment because, from our human point of view, it is what the environment does that is critical to our existence. Interfering in the environment’s ability, honed over millennia, to do things like purify water and air, and maintain the exquisitely balanced temperature of the troposphere, is in the interest of neither us humans nor that free market that supposedly makes our lives better.

So how can we co-opt the phrase or come up with our own (preferably in the authoritative tones of a foreign language)? Any of you French-speakers out there have suggestions? At the risk of trivializing another powerful slogan, and since I’m bound by my fluency only in English, my dangerously off-the-cuff first thought is “let my environment do.”

OK, I withdraw that suggestion. Contain your sighs of relief. But I stand by the idea, or rather Herman Daly’s idea.