The Common Good

My Initial Response to President Obama's Speech

I was glad the president emphasized the need to break our addiction to oil in his speech last night, and I thought he did a good job of demonstrating commitment to the people of the Gulf region. But if President Obama doesn't specify the way forward by offering a legislative path, who will? Congress? Politicians whose re-election campaigns are heavily subsidized by the fossil fuel industries and who depend on voting blocs mis-educated by corporate media?

I hope that last night was simply the opening volley in what will be a focused, determined, well-planned, energetic agenda to make a new clean and sustainable economy the legacy not only of the president, but of the government, and not only of the government, but of our generation as a whole.

As I've thought about the current Gulf oil catastrophe and the longer-term issue of switching from a carbon to a solar economy, I think we need to make some bold commitments.

1. We have to envision a new and better way of life. We have to imagine that 30 years from now, virtually every roof of every home and building will be an energy-producing station. We have to imagine every window and every wall being replaced or upgraded for improved efficiency. We have to imagine new generations of transport, heating, air-conditioning, and lighting technologies. This will mean we will retool our manufacturing and home-building industries so they contribute to this new green economy. Doing so will stimulate the economy in the right way -- creating needed jobs and making a lot of good money (as opposed to dirty money) for wise entrepreneurs and investors. I believe that it will prove more profitable in the long run (in the best sense of the word "profit" -- not measured in dollars alone) to be the planet's wise stewards than to continue on as its reckless, short-sighted, and greedy plunderers.

2. We need to divert creativity, entrepreneurial energy and money away from building new oil rigs and coal mines and from fighting wars in oil-producing areas. We need to decrease expenditures on weapons -- which are non-productive assets. And why invest in nuclear plants -- which take decades to build and are ripe for their own kinds of disasters -- when that money could produce better and longer-term results when invested in the research and development of solar, wind, tidal, and biofuel (algae- and grass-based, not corn-based) technology?

3. We need to direct creativity and money and education toward a new solar-based economy. It will take an innovative government-business partnership (the kind the Japanese and Koreans pioneered in jump-starting their auto industries) to turn this thing around. We have to imagine a different America -- a new American economy. To get us there, again, we need to make an unprecedented investment in research and development, and we need to open-source the most promising breakthroughs so as many companies as possible can work with them.

4. All this will surely require a change in tax strategy. To fund #2, how about a tax on the automated and derivative trading industries that contributed to the Wall Street collapse in 2008? How about a tax on too-big-to-fail corporations, shifting the advantage to small and medium-sized businesses that demonstrate ethical and socially responsible business practices? (See, for example, the kinds of businesses supported by BALLE.) How about a rising tax on fossil fuels that steadily raises their cost to match the cost of renewable alternatives, so 100% of that tax revenue can be invested in research, development, and dissemination? This kind of tax reform would have a host of opponents, but it would increase the pressure on all of us to move in the direction we need to move in, and it would provide resources to the great endeavor in which we all have a vested interest: the conversion of a dirty economy to a clean one.

Speaking of taxes, perhaps its time to stop taxing income so much and start taxing pollution a lot more. Let's make it cheaper to earn "clean energy" money in a clean economy and more expensive to harm the environment in the dirty economy. Let's make it harder to privatize profits while externalizing costs and dangers by taxing the things we don't want instead of the things we do want.

5. This will also require a new kind of transparency -- for government and for business. We can't afford to have only two choices -- between an ideological left that holds business accountable but not government, and an ideological right that holds government accountable but not business. Where can the needed kind of transparency come from? I think it will require an enlivened democracy for starters, a democracy that takes more seriously not only its voting power, but also its spending power. That will require, among other things, a fair trade/ethical buying movement that is supported by a simple, clear, impartial rating system ... the kind of thing being recommended and explored in various ways. (See, for example, the ESRA and GoodGuide.)

6. These kinds of changes require something deeper than a shift in policy. They require a deep shift in values and vision, in faith and hope, in commitment and priorities. That means the faith community in its many varied forms needs to "get saved" -- saved and sanctified from serving as obsequious chaplains to the old, polarized, paralyzed, incompetent politics of the old dirty economy. Our churches, synagogues, and mosques need to heed the altar call to become the vanguard in the prophetic and pastoral task of creating the new, clean, and green economy needed by our children and grandchildren, not to mention every creature on our planet. Those of us who know something about the entrenchment and change-aversion in many of our religious communities know that this deep shift will take a miracle. But if politics is the art of the possible, isn't faith the art of the impossible?

If the current administration has become overwhelmed by the horrible hand of cards it was dealt, that would be understandable. Perhaps it's time for some courageous leaders from the faith community to move to the pulpit and say to all who are discouraged, "With faith, all things are possible." Perhaps it's time to tell political and economic leaders who are tempted by "realism" to start compromising on the needed vision even before it's been fully articulated, "Don't settle for less. Reach higher." Perhaps somebody needs to pull the president aside and encourage him with some good news to counteract all the bad news that's gushing in, and maybe even whisper in his ear every day or so, "Yes, we can!"

If political, economic, social, and faith community leaders start articulating a bold vision for a new economy and start demonstrating determined leadership in achieving it, I think they'll find growing numbers of us are fired up and ready to go.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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