A Global Marshall Plan?
The Network of
Spiritual Progressives is now among those advocating a "Global Marshall
Plan" to remedy the problems of poverty, homelessness, hunger,
health care, education, and environmental rehabilitation. Their proposal
has been shaped by Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor
of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine. Just as
the victorious United States helped the European countries devastated by
the Second World War rebuild their countries, the industrialized
countries should today help out the rest of the world.
Rabbi Michael Lerner
Basically, I like this idea. The United States does breathtakingly
little to help the less fortunate in the world. The NSP has put forward
a radical proposal that really amounts to a global, voluntary, and
massive redistribution of wealth. They propose a new international
agency governed by various religious, social, and cultural figures --
the names of the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, and Nelson Mandela are thrown
out as examples. The plan would be to support environmental
sustainability, and promote growth only insofar as it is consistent with
sustainability and compassion.
European countries receiving aid under the original
The basis of the plan is generosity, with most of the details to be
worked out later, although they do provide some details about what the
plan would not support (it would not be a cover for advancing
national or corporate self-interest, for example). In the Q&A
section the NSP responds to the question, "Arenít there areas of
this plan that need to be more worked out before you put this into the
political arena?" by saying, "No. The plan has enough details
for people to decide how they relate to it."
Where are we going with this plan?
It's not a bad start, but
we need to ask -- what would Isaiah do? The
purpose of this plan seems to be the classic liberal ideal embodied by
the original Marshall Plan: to bring the rest of the world up to
"our" level, or at least as far along the path as we can get
them, at least to a level that is livable and reasonably pleasant.
This simile just isnít appropriate to our current situation.
Bringing the rest of the world up to our level, or
even reasonably close, is neither possible nor desirable. Itís not
possible because the natural resources just arenít there. Just to feed
meat at the American level to the rest of the world would require
several times the available agricultural land in the entire world, and
even the current level of meat consumption isn't sustainable. And
putting everyone in cars? You've got to be kidding. We are in
fact at the beginning of a major oil depletion crisis, a crisis which
will reshape the entire world and force this proposal (and all others)
to address a completely different set of issues.
But even if we had a "magic wand" that gave us all the oil
we wanted (and solved the problem of global warming to boot), is the U.
S. lifestyle desirable in the first place? I think this question needs
to be addressed also. Everyone wants to be like the United States --
thatís why millions of Chinese now aspire to owning cars and eating
lots of meat. Is this where we want to be going? Doesnít this need to be
squarely addressed up front?
This Marshall Plan and the Original Marshall Plan
Letís start with the basics of the plan. They are going to set up
an international agency, generously funded with billions or trillions of
dollars, to distribute aid to the rest of the world. So far, so good.
But how appropriate is it to call this a "Marshall Plan"? The
historical Marshall plan evolved out of a unique set of historical
circumstances. The world had been through a destructive war which had
leveled countless cities. Even the victorious countries were
devastated. The Soviet Union, in victory, suffered 20 million casualties
and the devastation of much of its population and country.
Hamburg in 1943
But the U. S. mainland escaped almost completely
untouched. The attack on Pearl Harbor (which wasnít actually part of
the United States at that point) was the sole major exception.
America suffered many human casualties, but this occurred
mostly in battles in foreign countries. The U. S. was thus in a unique
historical position; it could power economic recovery.
Our current situation is very different. We are in a pre-crisis
state, or at the very beginning of a major crisis period.
We donít know how long this will last, whether it will turn out to be
a semi-permanent affair like James Kunstlerís envisioned "Long
Emergency," but at the minimum we seem to be looking at a decade or
two. Moreover, when things return to "normal," they are likely
to be very different. We are not in a state of world consensus or
near-consensus that followed the Second World War, with the battle over
and done. Itís quite the contrary -- the battle is in front of us.
The Problem of Resource Depletion
Environmentalists have warned for decades that fossil fuels could not
be consumed indefinitely. But this was always thought to be something in
the future -- something our children and grandchildren would have to
deal with, but not us. So we know that oil depletion is a problem weíll
face sometime, the only question is when. Oil and natural gas are the
problems weíre worried about right now, but in the future weíll
probably also worry about water, forests, soil, certain kinds of
minerals, and other things.
Cassandra: consistently correct about the future,
but not a model for most political leaders
This is not a problem unique to oil, itís just that oil depletion
is likely to be the first serious resource constraint weíve faced.
Global warming (essentially a pollution issue) is also extremely
serious, and in the long run is likely even more serious than peak oil.
But decades before global warming will have a major economic effect,
we will be facing serious problems due to oil depletion.
In 1956, petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert noticed that oil
discoveries must precede oil production and that oil discoveries in the
U. S. had been declining for some decades. He correctly predicted that
U. S. oil production would peak at about 1970. Similar methods can be
applied to world oil production. World oil discoveries peaked in the
1960's, and have been declining steadily ever since. We are now
consuming about three times the amount of oil that we discover -- a
trend which is obviously not sustainable.
Many experts, from across the political spectrum, who have studied the situation have come to the
conclusion that production of crude oil will peak sometime between 2005
and 2015. Crude oil production in 2008 may exceed 2005,
just barely, but 2005 has not been definitely ruled out, and it is clear
that oil production has been essentially flat since 2005.
Now there are a lot of questions that will come up which I canít
answer in this short essay -- what about technological progress? What
about off-shore drilling, what about solar and wind power, what about
coal-to-oil, what about biofuels, what about ANWR, what about those huge Saudi oil reserves?
This has been addressed in numerous books and web sites. Rather than get
off-topic, letís just say that with oil at over $100 a barrel, not to
mention a huge housing crisis, declining incomes, and skyrocketing debt,
the burden of proof is on anyone who thinks that we donít have an oil
depletion crisis to show that this is so.
Oil prices, dollars per barrel. On June 26 it went
to over $140. And oil supplies aren't even declining, yet.
How serious is oil depletion? Hereís my ballpark analysis. The last
interruption of oil supplies, the 1979 - 1982 period following the
Iranian revolution, resulted in a very serious recession. But at that
time oil supplies only declined 5%, and it was a brief interruption.
Following the peak of world oil supplies, it is likely that oil supplies
would decline at a rate of about 3% per year, which means that over 5
years the decline would be 15% -- three times the decline which
followed the Iranian revolution. And it wouldnít be brief or
temporary, it would likely be permanent. So we are likely looking
at a very serious recession or depression, and a complete reconfiguring of the American economy.
This is not a case of a victorious and magnanimous America extending
the benefits of its way of life to others. It is a case of an America
struggling for survival in the face of massive inequality, a bankrupt
and military defeat in Iraq. As a practical matter, it will simply not
be possible for America to extend its largesse to the rest of the world
-- that surplus just doesnít exist any more, in the old economy. So
the whole analogy to the Marshall plan starts to break down.
Healing Ourselves, Healing Others
This would be my challenge to the NSP: before we start exporting our
"way of life" (or at least the material benefits thereof) to
the rest of the world, we might want to make sure that we have something
in the United States which should be emulated at all. Before trying to
save the rest of the world, we ought to work on saving ourselves. How
would we eliminate poverty and homelessness, and extend health care to
all, in the United States? Didn't Jesus say to remove the log in
your own eye before going after the speck in someone else's?
This should be the easy case, a lot easier than saving the
whole world, because the U. S. is a rich country to begin with and doesnít
have the level of poverty and ill health that we find in other
countries. But itís considerably harder than initially appears.
Letís start with health care. The problems with health care are
deeper than just saying that it needs to be made available to all.
Health care costs are increasing faster than the rate of inflation, year
after year. Now itís true that part of this is structural; a lot of
medical expenses are at the very end of life when heroic and expensive
measures may only extend life by a few weeks. But at the same time, we
need to look at the underlying entity, "health," which we are
trying to preserve.
One possible approach to health care
Look at the leading causes of death and disease in the United States. We have an
epidemic of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease,
gallstones, and other problems most of which are connected to lifestyle
choices -- such as food, smoking, drinking, and lack of exercise. These
problems are simply not found in the "less developed"
countries that donít have (because they canít afford) our lifestyle
When developed countries have been involuntarily forced back to a
simpler diet, the results have often been counter-intuitive. During the
First World War, neutral Denmark was subject to the Allied blockade of
the continent. The food shortages were accommodated by putting the
entire country on a mostly lacto-vegetarian diet. The death rate dropped
by 30%. During the Second World War, occupied Norway was also subject to
food shortages, and the death rates due to circulatory disease dropped.
In both cases, when the war ended, the death rates went back up.
Itís not just a question of "health care for all." We
have to address the underlying causes of disease, which in the richer
countries are due to the kind of affluent lifestyle that we lead. People
have pointed to the epidemic of obesity for decades. Everyone wrings
their hands and sales of diet books take off, but our diet doesnít
change, and obesity expands. Instead we export this defective diet
to Japan and China, which start developing increasing rates of heart
disease, cancer, and the rest. If we donít address the underlying causes
of the leading causes of death -- heart disease, cancer, and diabetes --
then health care costs will continue to escalate until the country is
bankrupt, no matter who we get to pay for it. I do not see a good reason
to support any particular health care plan over any other as long as
these fundamental problems of diet and lifestyle are not addressed --
until in fact they occupy a central position in our overall approach.
To redistribute wealth in the United States, youíd need a stiff
progressive income tax -- something that set the maximum after-tax
income at, say, about $100,000 to $150,000 or so per year. That would
require unheard of political will just in itself. But homelessness is
not just due to people not having money, it is caused by rising home
prices as well. For decades housing costs have gone up faster than the
cost of other goods, year after year, just like health care costs. Itís
no wonder that home ownership has faded further and further away from
At the time when home prices were rising everyone thought that it was
a good thing, because home ownership was such a good
"investment." But people do not need an
"investment," they need a place to live, and this terminology
reflects the interests of the rich. Of course owning a home is a
great investment if values are going up as fast as they did in many
parts of the country during the last three decades. But at the bottom
this is a gigantic pyramid scheme based on the mania for building more
and bigger homes in suburbia, all requiring more and more sprawl and
increasing dependence on cars. It obviously canít go on forever;
eventually everyoneís "investment" will have increased in
value to the point where young people just canít afford to buy a house
at all, and the whole scheme comes tumbling down. Then when oil starts
to run out, we then find that we have a huge infrastructure in which weíve
invested billions of dollars that is dependent on cars.
When will all this happen? Uh, it's happening right
about now. The U. S. is in serious trouble and redistributing wealth, while it is certainly necessary, is not sufficient
to deal with the problems that our oil addiction has created. If we try
to solve the worldís problems without solving our own, where is that
going to get us? The Chinese today are buying more and more cars, eating
more and more meat, and burning more and more coal. Funny thing, thatís
just what the United States has done for the last 50 years and is still
doing. A Global Marshall Plan that does not forthrightly oppose these
kinds of activities is not worth supporting.
Itís true that the NSP repeatedly says that their kind of
development would not support activities that are not environmentally
sustainable. So technically, one could make a case for supporting the
NSP proposal on the basis that it does in fact support an end to
suburbia, more bicycles and fewer cars, alternative fuels, and
vegetarianism. However, the NSP plan doesnít make any of these points
explicit, and if they were baldly stated in that way they would
instantly become the most controversial aspects of the proposal. What
the NSP treats as an incidental aspect of the proposal -- "oh yeah,
everything has to be done sustainably" -- is actually the most
difficult part, much more difficult to conceptualize than redistribution
But the NSP could be startlingly innovative by stating in so many
words that we have to substitute simple living and nonviolence for the
whole project of industrial growth. This is an issue which is uniquely
suited to religious and spiritual communities, rather than political
ones. No one wants
to be Cassandra, even if they're right -- it's not the quick route to
electoral success. How many political leaders,
even if fully informed about the environmental crisis, can stand up and
say, "guess what everyone, weíre running out of oil and our
lifestyles will have to completely change"? And if they did, how
long would they last? But perhaps this is exactly the sort of
thing we need.
Isaiah and Jeremiah: perhaps better models for what we really
need. Isaiah 66:3: "he who kills an ox is like him who kills
Roscoe Bartlett (a conservative Republican, for crying out loud) is the one
Congressional representative who has done the most to promote awareness
of peak oil, and he is almost completely alone in Congress. Among Democrats, Al Gore talking about global warming is
the closest we have. Itís not clear that heís aware of the
seriousness of oil depletion, and heís not running for office anyway. Even today,
after something close to a near consensus of the American public that
"something needs to be done" about global warming, no one is
really talking about sacrifice. In the back of everyoneís minds, even
the minds of liberal environmentalist Democrats, is something like this:
"a strong environment and a strong economy -- we can have both."
To talk in terms of a "Marshall Plan" at all is to evoke
the slogans of the liberalism of the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. This
was a period in which a triumphant America which had survived the crises
of a devastating World War extended the benefits of its way of life to
other nations. I have nothing against this sort of generosity -- quite
the contrary. But we need a lot more, and this "a lot more" is
actually the more critical piece. What we should be giving up to help
others is not our surplus wealth, but the substance of our whole
way of life. Our current era is one in which the "Marshall
Plan" simile just isnít the most appropriate one to our current
crisis. First we need to agree on a way through the environmental
crisis, then we can talk about exporting whatever model we come up with
to the rest of the world.
The fact is that the American economy and way of life is going to
come to an end, and deservedly so. What do you expect after decades of
expanding government and individual debt, ridicule of science, media
urging increased consumption, increasing fossil fuel consumption with no
thought about tomorrow, billions of animals slaughtered each year so we
can eat ourselves into an obesity epidemic, aggressive wars to preserve
our influence abroad, and encouraging others to emulate our example? We
cannot, and should not, try to preserve this way of life. What we should
do instead is think about what is worth preserving and work
towards preserving that.
June 27, 2008