RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Economic Drivers Wanted

With all the stuff the Prez and Congress have on their plates, it’s not surprising that stuff is slipping off. They’re trying to make things better, no doubt, but in our neighborhood we’ve gone from being a little on the poor side to really, sadly needy. People are applying for food stamps who never thought they would need them. A formerly cool geek, a young dad, who used to set up computers, sent his wife over the other day to see if we needed someone to clean out the gutters.

She had a sad story, and the new sadness and potential for economic growth is one of the reasons senators need to pass the clean energy bill quickly, whether they believe it will help climate change or not. For my part, I doubt that more nuclear or more ethanol will help anything, and I’m withholding judgment on carbon trading and sequestration, which sound too much like new financial scams. But conservation, wind, solar, water and geothermal energy promise sustainability for our battered little planet.

As farmers, we’re aware as anyone that the climate is changing. My county has had a major climate “event,” like a devastating tornado or hail storm, every year for the last nine. But many of my neighbors argue that the climate has been getting warmer since the end of the last Ice Age. There’s no reason, they’ll point out, the climate should have become stuck in the 1950s, when farming conditions were practically perfect here in the Midwest. Man’s activities have nothing to do with it, they’ll say.

I’ll argue back that, even if we don’t know what a balanced climate looks like, we need to quit dumping carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air. Usually, I slip in something bland and harmless about how we also need to stop farming away our topsoil and polluting the air and water with poo from the big hog barns.

And then they’ll say something about “God’s hands” and that pretty much ends the conversation. Not that God is a straw man or anything, but reason goes out the window when He comes into the room.

As a student of history rather than God, I see the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Bill, the one that just passed the House, as one step in a long tradition of government help in boosting new technology and as a way to block the poverty that’s creeping into our heads. Poverty in our heads means poverty passed on to the kids. The geek’s wife says that all the geek does all day is hang out on the Internet, a habit that might keep up his skills but also might lead to habitual stupidity and chronic unemployment.

This is a guy that tried to do the right thing — went to school to learn a skill, started a business and competed fairly well in the marketplace setting up networks for medical businesses. The fact that he sent his wife out rather than approaching us himself shows his embarrassment about the situation … “what am I doing with two SUV’s and a bass boat?” he seems to be saying.

Worse, the kids have seen that Dad does nothing all day, so she’s having trouble getting them to do their chores on their little farm and garden. So, even though we have always cleaned our own gutters, I’m tempted to see the geek on the ladder.

But Waxman-Markey gives society a new hiring option. Here’s what Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and sponsor of the new bill, said: “Today we have taken decisive and historic action to promote America’s energy security and to create millions of clean energy jobs that will drive our economic recovery and long-term growth ...”

Mandating new energy standards for buildings and industry means new jobs for young people with backgrounds in technology. It’s not spending the day on Twitter or Youtube, but spending the day designing systems that turn off power when people leave a building or systems that direct solar energy to batteries for storage and stop the flow when the batteries are full. This is an industry that will use the highly trained and the untrained who will need to learn to install new equipment and fix it when it breaks.

Waxman-Markey is a chance to change our energy system from carbon-based to clean. In the past, every big change in technology has led to creation of entirely new, undreamed of industries. Energy and transportation, in particular, have been major drivers — uh, engines — uh, well, you get it — of the economy. As new technologies start to work, the industry creates more potential and interest in retrofitting businesses and homes.

On the other hand, the longer we go down this economic decline, the more the recently unemployed will become chronic and the tradition passes to the next generation.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

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