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Riding The Balance Wheel

Here is the president’s most pressing challenge: Can he and his cabinet restore our foundering economy but still reduce the damage we do to the environment?


By Charles Linn, FAIA

When I was a kid Itook an X-Acto knife and pried open one of my father’s broken wrist watches. In the bright sunshine I could see that it had much in common with the wind-up toys I had already dissected, but within the tiny, bright, golden gears was a component they didn’t have: the balance wheel. And if I put energy into the thing by shaking it just so, it would rotate back and forth, bringing the complex mechanism to life for a few seconds before stopping.

Riding The Balance Wheel
Photo © Keith Negley
The many things that ensure the quality of our lives interlock like the gears of a watch. But lately the pieces seem to be flying apart.

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All of the things that enable our quality of life—to name a few, the infinite number of things we can buy, own, eat, drive, build, our homes, the money we earn, and all the things required to sustain them—interlock like the gears in a watch. They are parts of a mechanism driven by the mainspring that is our economy, and the movement of each part is dependent on the others. In particular, our economy relies on cheap energy, abundant natural resources, technical innovation, and huge quantities of capital to keep things going. Above all, making everyone more prosperous requires economic growth. Sadly, we have never managed to figure out how to maintain a thriving economy without also increasing the amount of damage we do to the environment.

In 2008, many things went very wrong, very suddenly. Let’s review. The housing bubble exploded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 18 percent in one week. Fifteen banks failed. The prices of commodities like oil and natural gas, steel and other materials, and corn, wheat, and soybeans hit historic highs and then collapsed. The U.S. automobile industry went into a coma and lingers near death. Employers eliminated 2.6 million jobs, over 524,000 in December alone, and things are not much better around the globe.

There isn’t much comfort in knowing that even the brightest minds didn’t see this coming. For the past few years politicians, bankers, speculators, lobbyists, and yes, we consumers, have been cramming all the wrong-sized gears into the delicate clockworks that is our society, and now we are in crisis. Even before President Obama assumed office, the wisest of his watchmakers had already been at work for more than two months, devising interventions into this very complicated mechanism.

They’ve been tinkering with the parts government can control, and figuring out how to positively affect the others, a job that is made even more complicated by the fact that things cannot be allowed to stop.

We can take great comfort in knowing the President appointed physicist Steven Chu, a Nobel Laureate, who was the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), as Secretary of the Department of Energy. The LBNL has some of the world’s most renowned climate change scientists on its staff, along with building science and energy efficiency researchers who are well known to our profession. And, Carol M. Browner, whom Obama has named as his coordinator for energy and climate change policy, pushed for the enactment of very tough air pollution standards when she was administrator of the EPA during the Clinton Administration.

But in the spirit of looking at our government as one part of a complex mechanism of springs and gears, the way we deal with resource consumption and global warming does not stop with these appointments. Our society’s resource consumption habits are so interconnected that decisions made by those who lead the Departments of Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and the EPA, are inexorably linked to resource consumption, and its effect on the production of greenhouse gases. And, the poor state of the economy makes things even more complicated.

For example, Lawrence H. Summers, who was a deputy secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton years, argued against Browner's air pollution standards back then, because he believed enacting them would deeply damage the economy. His success was an unfortunate segue to eight years of policies by the Bush Administration, which refused to enforce rules against carbon emissions that were adopted during the Clinton years, and fought the enactment of others. Summers’ selection as the director of Obama's National Economic Council makes some of us déjà-vu-phobics tremble. Even if Summers’ views on global warming have changed, woe will be heaped onto any person who dares suggest policies that will cause unemployment in sectors like coal mining or slow down the recovery. And, as much as we might wish that we could solve our dependency on fossil fuels, things are not going to be simple. It will be a long and painful process that will affect many lives, and go on for a long time.

Economist Paul Romer has been quoted as saying, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and those words are particularly apt now. If Obama’s cabinet and advisors can’t figure out how to restart our economy without also decreasing the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere, we will face an environmental collapse whose effects will change us far more than last year’s sudden failure of our economy. Ironically, this potential environmental cataclysm has been predicted for some time now.

My childhood fascination with the balance wheel in my dad’s watch didn’t give me any insight into its purpose. Years later I learned that it serves to turn the ever-declining energy stored in the mainspring into constant beats so a watch doesn’t lose time. The balance wheel permits the illusion that things are going strong when they may well be nearing a halt. Interestingly enough, the effect of an increase in temperature on any watch’s mainspring is to slow the mechanism down. As global warming continues to affect us, whatever it is that functions as our society’s balance wheel—be it abundant prosperity, too much confidence that technology can save us, blind faith in our leaders, hubris, or many other things—is masking the fact that our time is running out.

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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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