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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 Marshall Plan

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 treasury, 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 choices.

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 many people.

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.

Environmental Sustainability

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 per se.

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 a man."

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.

Keith Akers
June 27, 2008