What’s the biggest, scariest threat facing the United States right now? I know for sure that it’s not immigration, free trade, or “radical Islamic terrorism.” And I’m going to resist the easy answer that it’s Donald Trump.
But I have a hard time deciding which of these two very real challenges is more urgent:
a) Slow economic growth—and just as bad, the unequal distribution of what gains there are—leading to a traumatic reset of the average American’s expectations for the future, plus spiraling bitterness and resentment over a “rigged system” that’s leaving the working class behind.
b) Climate change—the likelihood that greenhouse gas emissions will heat the atmosphere well beyond the 2°C limit envisioned in the Paris Agreement, given that the monthly global temperature record has been broken in each of the last 16 months, taking us most of the way to a 2°C increase within the first year after the Paris accord’s completion.
The difficulty is that both problems pose a threat to our way of life, so we can’t prioritize just one of them.
It would be fruitless to fixate on growing the economic pie, and/or slicing it up more equitably, if we knew that whole pie was about to be charbroiled by a shifting climate. But we also wouldn’t invest in battling climate change unless we were motivated by a belief that everyone—in current and future generations—deserves an equal shot at a safe, healthy, prosperous life on this planet.
But what if we don’t have to choose?
Maybe the two problems have a common solution. Maybe the massive investments needed to blunt the effects of climate change—in areas like zero-carbon energy and transportation technology and climate-change adaptation—are exactly the same kinds of investments we would make if we wanted to restore our aging infrastructure, strengthen manufacturing, provide millions of people with new skills, put them to work in rewarding jobs, and boost overall productivity.
It’s time to merge two disconnected conversations into one. The first is the quest among economists, historians, and technologists to identify the forces that power economic growth and divvy up the benefits. In particular, economists would like to explain the U.S. economy’s lackluster performance since 1970, after a century of explosive growth from 1870 to 1970. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century put these questions in the spotlight three years ago, but they’ve been getting renewed attention thanks to Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon, author of a blockbuster text called The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War (Princeton, 2015).
The second conversation is going on among climate activists, who fear that we’ll never be able to avert the worst effects of global warming through vague, Paris-style promises that nibble around the edges of the problem. What’s really needed, this group believes, is a society-wide mobilization of labor, technology, and innovation —the only precedent in American history being World War II. The main proponent of this argument is environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, whose August 2016 cover story in The New Republic, “A World at War,” makes electrifying reading.
If you haven’t read the Gordon book or the McKibben article, well, you’re in luck: I’m about to summarize them here. (But really, after you’re done here, go read them.)
The mission of The Rise and Fall of American Growth—an unlikely New York Times bestseller, at a dense 779 pages—is to reveal the full depth of the standard-of-living improvements that characterized what Gordon calls the “special century” beginning in 1870. (The changes were especially swift in the second half of that century, from 1920 to 1970.) Secondarily, Gordon asks why the productivity gains that drove these advances tailed off after 1970.
The technological leaps of the special century, which began with telegraphy and railroads and ended with mainframes and moonwalks, are obvious. But Gordon shows … Next Page »