In Environmental Ethics today, we consider one of the obstacles to a Great Transition: ideological hostility to the public sector. Germany, whose public sector not so long ago was the scourge of history, has shown the way with its Energiewende.
A war on climate change that strengthens local economies, spreads social justice, and secures health and happiness for all is one we can all enlist in, once we remove from our eyes that mote of disdain for public ownership and control. It won’t be an easy extraction, so deeply embedded as it is in our tradition of contempt for guv’mint initiatives.
Ronald Reagan said it’s not the solution to our problems but is itself the problem, and his unblinking acolytes haven’t doubted him. But we just have to keep reminding ourselves why governments are instituted among free men and women in the first place – to do the essential things the private sector can’t or won’t, for the common good. The public interest. The general will. It’s possible to serve our shared interest and will without sacrificing respect for individual voices in the collaborative effort of securing the general welfare. We shouldn’t let the specter of Rousseau or Lenin haunt or halt our public spirit.
So the Germans have achieved the world’s most rapid shift to wind and solar. Boulder and Austin have taken important steps that way too. Several reports have suggested we could all follow suit in the decades just ahead, if we harness that political will to do the public’s bidding. Some say the shift could happen as soon as 2030.
The Big Five oil companies keep promoting their own public spirit, in television advertising championing themselves as leaders in the race to transition. In fact, they’ve devoted a relative pittance to renewables. We shouldn’t be surprised. They’re in it for the money. The government, aka we the people, is going to have to mandate the transition. We’re going to have to make them pay.
President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech gets a mention today. I remember that speech, remember thinking how impressive a call it made for frugality in service of our survival and eventual flourishing. That’s not what the pundits heard, though, and Carter’s own adviser Christopher Lasch said it should have made a greater populist appeal for sacrifice from everyone including the corporate polluters.
“Why not the best?” was the rhetorical question Carter used to challenge us with. Part of why we fall short of our best is because our political culture has ingrained in us a deep self-mistrust, and an inability to grasp the Pogo-wisdom that we are our own worst enemy when we fail to see that the government is us. Nobody else is going to demand leaders “committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere.”
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