Everyone reading this is probably aware of the precarious position we're in. Global warming is proceeding faster than the worst projections, and it's not just a question of everyone feeling a little warmer. Small changes in climate can have dramatic effects on the worlds ecosystems that have already been fragilized to the breaking point by human use. Changes in weather patterns can change storm patterns, destroying not only human habitations (such as New Orleans), but also potentially devastating shallow-water ecosystems such as coral reefs that form a key component of the ocean life systems that we humans rely on for food. Similarly, as if the lungs of the Earth (the tropical rainforests) weren't already in enough peril from direct destruction by humans, human-induced climate change may well finish the job.
But we can solve this, right? If you look around at our modern marvels, it would appear that we humans can create anything that we can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, these miracles are built on more than just human ingenuity and the shoulders of giants -- they're also built on a gigantic trust fund of free energy that we happened to find buried in the Earth's crust. And at the rate we're going, we'll have it spent within a generation or so. World peak oil production is right around the corner (if we haven't already passed it), and worldwide demand for energy is going nowhere but up. We're nowhere near getting ourselves weaned off of fossil fuels, and -- given our society's dependence on energy-intensive activities such as agriculture and transportation of food and people -- it's not clear the Earth minus its oil reserves will be able to support our population of six billion (and growing).
Part of the problem is increased energy consumption in the "developing world." Naturally people want to emulate the (currently) rich countries, and unfortunately they're doing it by making the same mistakes. Developing countries will be in a better position in the long run if they can manage to skip the dead-end step of refitting their cities to be more "car-friendly." But moving towards sustainability will probably require widespread literacy and education, goals that can't be accomplished simply or overnight.
Even apparently sustainable activities like agriculture and drinking fresh water aren't as sustainable as you might hope. Irrigation-based farming can lower the (fresh) water table and affect the quality of the soil in just a few seasons. Overgrazing can harm plant life beyond its ability to recover, and the resulting erosion does the rest. Sure, with effort humans can make the desert bloom, but for how long? And what will it look like afterward? The deserts have spread and expanded over the past few millennia of human use, even without the current global warming catastrophe to speed things up. It's true that modern industrial farming techniques have changed all the rules about how much food humans can produce per acre, but unfortunately this technological miracle (not only in terms of machinery but also in terms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) is largely based on inexpensive petroleum. (This is why I'm wary of "biofuels" as a solution to our energy problems -- a moment's reflection should make it clear that "biofuels" are nothing more than an incredibly inefficient and environmentally costly type of solar power.)
So are we capable of re-orienting our society towards something reasonably sustainable? I think we could if every human on the planet were to make sustainability a life-or-death priority. Yet -- while we humans are capable of surviving and adapting to amazing hardships when we have to -- it seems we're incapable of making even minor lifestyle changes for an intangible like "future generations."
Even if we see that investments in energy efficiency today can save us a lot in the long run, it's not clear we have the capacity to make any kind of real investments. People keep saying that Obama will have difficulties if the economy gets worse. I ask what do they mean "if"? Energy will become a lot more expensive, and we have no particular reason to project any respite. Meanwhile U.S.-style sprawl means that U.S. cities require several times as much energy per capita to run than their Asian and European counterparts. Then there's the economic crisis. The U.S. economy today is largely based on debt-fueled consumer spending, with an enormous trade deficit. I don't see how this can be viewed as a viable long-term economic strategy, yet the common wisdom still says that as long as we can keep "consumer confidence" (hence consumer spending) up, then everything will go back to normal, and the U.S. will continue to be an economic powerhouse indefinitely.
Your Libertarian friends will tell you that one of the mechanisms of the market is the fact that those who make bad investments go under, but the U.S. government has been cheating by habitually insuring the banking and financial industries. So investments are allowed to grow, but with a safety net that gets hoisted up higher as it goes, since it would be unthinkable for any wealth to disappear once it has been created, no matter how dubiously. But rather than escaping the discipline of the market, it looks like we've merely moved the risk up a level. The U.S. government (hence the American people) are now the ones who have made too many bad investments, and we're getting to the point where it's no longer realistic to suppose that the national debt can ever be paid off. The "almighty dollar" is barely holding its own against other foreign currencies, and (since the Saudi princes will no longer be motivated by helping their friend Mr. Bush) the dollar could take another hit if OPEC starts demanding payment in another currency. We could easily get to the point where the U.S. can no longer even "service" the debt (i.e. pay the interest). American common wisdom says that debt is not a problem because we can always grow the economy to dwarf it. I ask: grow it on what? More debt? Air? This is the economic strategy I like to call "patching Reagan's balloon" (a.k.a. "Voodoo economics"). We've just bought another 700 billion dollar patch that we can't afford -- do you think it will hold? Looking at this from the perspective of someone living outside the U.S., I'd say this bailout will provide the liquidity so that foreign interests can disentangle themselves from the U.S. financial industry as much as possible without losing their shirts. The shirt-losing will come later, to someone closer to your home.
A better investment would have been to spend the 700 billion on rebuilding America'a rail network, and getting it up to the technology level of Europe and the far east. Train travel is by far the most efficient type of travel, and (unlike planes, trucks, and automobiles) it's already largely electric, simplifying the transition off of fossil fuels. The more energy costs increase, the more you'll wish you had that efficient train network. Unfortunately, it would appear that the U.S. government is incapable of making intelligent investments. Uncle Sam can whip out the public credit card for some types of emergencies ("Oops! The banking industry royally screwed up!" or "Oops! That war we started cost way more than we ever expected!"), but can't seem to plan ahead. American common wisdom says that any investment that benefits the whole society is tyranny (socialism!). It's this same faulty common wisdom that causes Americans to think that somebody at the top (Greenspan, perhaps?) can just tweak a few variables and turn the right knobs to "fix" the economy without people having to make even the most obvious planning-ahead-type lifestyle changes (solar panels anyone? A smaller dwelling, closer to work, perhaps? A little less meat on that sandwich? A bicycle?).
Since Obama seems to have bought into this the-bailout-will-fix-everything common wisdom, you may be wondering why I campaigned for him so hard. It's simple. From reading his books, I gather that he has the clear head and leadership skills to unite the country and guide us (hopefully in the right direction) through the coming crisis. He's the one who seemed most likely to be able to avoid that other deadly-wrong bit of American common wisdom: that the solution to economic crisis is war. A President Palin would surely have "solved" our planet's problems by finding us an enemy to nuke. And while that solution may well benefit some species on Earth (by ridding the planet of its most destructive species), it won't help us much.
So, good luck! And happy 2009...