Washington Mutual’s shiny new skyscraper dominates the view from Sightline’s Seattle offices; to me at least, the echoes of Ozymandias are clearly audible: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
WaMu, seized by bank regulators before it could go bankrupt, had saddled itself with tens of billions of dollars of bad mortgage loans. But WaMu was, just a few years ago, a proud hero of the financial industry. In 2006, I spent two weeks at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where a professor assigned my class of nonprofit leaders to study WaMu as a case study of innovative business practices. The professor lauded WaMu’s mold-breaking techniques for extending credit to high-risk borrowers. What looked innovative then looks reckless now. Still, whatever its failings, WaMu was a dynamic institution filled with whip-smart northwesterners who mostly excelled at their jobs.
The problem, to employ a church metaphor, wasn’t bad preaching, it was bad theology—the theology, in the words of Oregon forester Roy Keene, of “lots now.” Like the rest of the financial crisis, the mechanisms and particulars of WaMu’s fall are opaque to me. But the fundamental principle is achingly familiar: the financial crisis is a sustainability crisis. Sustainability, at base, means “living within our means.” It means, in Keene’s words, not lots now but “some forever.”
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The US financial industry, in tandem with the real-estate industry, has apparently been flouting that principle and encouraging its customers to do the same for a good many years. Mortgage lenders like WaMu lent unsupportable amounts of money to would-be homebuyers. Recently, the New York Times did an insightful case study of how this reckless strategy took hold at once-cautious Fannie Mae.
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us will have to admit that it’s not just the mortgage-home-buying bubble of the last five years. In Cascadia, as throughout North America, living beyond our means is commonplace. Some of us, cornered by circumstances, have accumulated debt during a period of unemployment or a spell without medical insurance. Others of us, swept up in the optimism that pervades most bubble economies, have run up personal debt on credit cards or home equity lines and counted on future earnings or the continuation of stock-market gains to pay the tab.
Just so, as a nation, the United States is addicted to living beyond the means of its treasury: for eight years, we’ve raised federal spending while cutting taxes. The predictable results have been massive federal deficits and a truly colossal national debt.
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Finally, as Daily Score readers well know, we live beyond the means of our natural heritage as well. In fact, we have been spending the natural capital on which all life depends as if our planet were a business in liquidation. This week’s heart-rending installment in the ceaseless litany of evidence: a new study suggests one-fourth of mammal species worldwide face extinction unless we humans change our ways.
In case you read that quickly and didn’t give it a second thought, I repeat:
ONE-FOURTH OF MAMMAL SPECIES WILL VANISH FOREVER UNLESS WE HUMANS CHANGE OUR WAYS.
. . .
The moral of the economic-crisis story, like that of the ecological one, could not be clearer: We have to live within our means, personal, national, and planetary. “Lots now” must give way to “some forever.”
Fortunately, “some” can still be “enough.” It can even be “plenty.” The potential for a super-efficient, climate-safe Northwest energy economy is ample. We can have it, plus all the shared prosperity and security it promises, if we act together.
The key is to harness human ingenuity to these tasks. I’m imagining skyscrapers as imposing as WaMu’s full of whip-smart northwesterners all hustling not to further stretch the normal principles of mortgage lending but to plan and implement the transition to a healthy, lasting prosperity. We need bold, bright, and committed professionals to operate a regional auctioned cap-and-trade system, to plan and administer innovative conservation loans, to start legions of new clean-tech businesses, to plan and build (or rebuild) scores of compact, walkable communities, to design and construct world-leading transit and energy systems, and to train a new generation of green-collar technicians and tradespeople.
The transition to living within our means will take a lot of work. It’s hard to believe this week, when credit markets are coagulating and stock markets are plummeting (the combined value of all US stocks has now dropped $7 trillion). But we in North America, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, are still among the most productive, resourceful, and affluent people in the history of the world. If we believe in ourselves and take action together, we can make such work pay.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user chuck.taylor under a Creative Commons license.
Oops. We posted a photo of the wrong WaMu tower—the old one, not the new one. We’ll fix that pronto.
Alan,I am a long time admirer of your logic, thinking, and expertise not to mention the mission of the Sightline Institute. I have read a few of your books, check out the Cascadia Scorecard every year, etc. And in fact my decision to relocate back to Seattle was in part due to my wholehearted belief that the PNW has the best chance of any region in the world to move towards real sustainability. This is my hope at least. But I am left wondering where the unifying vision is in this region? We have an array of groups (both NGO and government) working on all sorts of broad and important initiatives (read: cascade agenda, puget sound partnership, Sierra Club Cool State Campaign, blue green alliance, climate solutions reports, cascadia scorecard, Prop 1, plastic bag ban, Dept. of Ecology, WA Climate Action and Green Jobs Bill etc etc.)In some cases all these efforts overlap and sometimes reinforce one another. But I cant help but feel that without a comprehensive state mandated sustainability initiative with a set of tangible, solution oriented principles we are all left spinning our wheels in a disconnected fashion. And unless we are able to somehow combine all the resources at our disposal not to mention agree (as a regional NGO, Governmental, and business community) on a broad set of absolutely necessary priorities, then all of these efforts, initiatives, programs, reports are piecemeal at best – – – given the underlying drivers of what got us here in the first place.So what about a Blueprint for Northwest Sustainability that has principles, political clout, regulatory teeth, grassroots credibility and a vision that links and articulates the true magnitude of how we need to change our region? Something that basically imparts the message that without major overhaul of our BAU approaches we will not ever be on a true path to sustainability. Idealistic and perhaps naive, I know. It seems like you and Sightline are positioned to at least develop and articulate a comprehensive plan that would set forth a tangible and necessary road map for what WA (and perhaps the NW) HAS to do in the future if we (in the words of Tom Friedman) are to stop having a “Green Party” and start having a “Green Revolution”. A kind of document that says here is what we would be doing if we really were really serious about sustainability. Thinking out loud,Kit
Kit,I like your out-loud thinking and appreciate your writing it down. In the Netherlands and New Zealand, the national governments have developed and adopted Green Plans that do essentially what you call for: big vision, prioritized action plans, timetables and accountability, long-term enforcement and focus. Some good, hard-working Cascadians have tried to kick-start the same model in our place, most notably Bob Doppelt in Oregon.Unfortunately, it’s yet to catch on. Part of the problem is political culture: we’re not a people who believe in big coordinated plans. We tend to consider planning a suspicious, unAmerican activity. I do not applaud this characteristic, but I recognize it. We’re “pragmatists,” to use the local lingo: meaning, we only do one thing at a time. This gets us into problems.Another obstacle to a big, integrated response to sustainbility is political structure: only British Columbia has enough centralization of political power, because of its parliamentary system of government, to impose a unitary agenda throughout the institutions of the public sector. And even there, no ruling party can get ahead of the voters or they’ll be out on their ears (witness the tragic current drop in popularity of BC’s Liberals since they’ve implemented a carbon tax—and the opposition New Democrats have mischaracterized and attacked it).Cascadia can do much, much better, and Sightline has and will contribute to that progress. But we’ve found the most helpful thing we can do is arm the region’s thousands of natural leaders—in business, government, education, the media, and our communities—with information and inspiration to make them more effective. A single big, bold, comprehensive plan would be fun to write, but I don’t think it’d make as much of a difference as Sightline’s current strategy: focusing on particular opportunities such as climate policy.Of course, if you know of a source for a few hundred thousand dollars extra, perhaps we can add the big plan on top of everything else.Thanks again for your note. Picking a strategy for how to deploy Sightline donors’ contributions to the organization is my biggest daily challenge. Even with our current budget of $1.4 million a year, we’re a speck in the Cascadian economy and polity. We’re about the size of a mid-size car dealership. I’m proud of what we get done, with the support of so many Cascadians. But it’s never as much as we’d like to do—or as much as Cascadia needs.Alan
Alan, Brings to mind your description of Sightline’s modus operandi as “akido politics”. We may not have as much money in the budget as we’d like, but we find the most effective ways to use it. It may have been coincidental, but perhaps your writings are more widely read and appreciated than even we would suspect. This is the abstract of a scholarly article, Aikido Politics in Interview Interaction, published in Linguistics and Education, v7 n3 p201-20 1995:Analyzes how less powerful subjects in an unequal encounter, an admission interview in an educational institution, were able to counter the power directed at them by the more powerful subject through “aikido” strategies.
Alan,You say there’s a need for a cap-and-trade system in Cascadia. In Canada, only the Conservatives and the union-backed New Democrats are talking about that.Here, environmentalists, progressive economists, the Green Party, the B.C. government and national Liberal leader Stephane Dion are pushing a carbon emissions tax.The B.C. government is already in the process of implementing it and the latest poll results suggests that there is a possibly—albeit slim—that the Liberals may form the next national government. The Liberals entire election platform is based on what they call the Green Shift (http://www.thegreenshift.ca/default_e.aspx)So, I’m curious. Why didn’t you even include taxing carbon emissions as an option?
Callie,I didn’t invent “aikido politics.” The term has a long history before our use of it in 2001. But thanks for your note!Daphne,We’ve written extensive on both carbon taxation and cap and trade. See, for example, my post: “Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Both!”BC is doing both. And Canada should as well.We’re watching closely, with fingers crossed and breath held, the developments in Canada.
Alan,Thanks for your response that you posted several days ago. Very informative and, as I have come to expect and love, a bit wonky. A few more questions when you have the time:Are you able to point me in the direction of where I might find those Green plans for New Zealand and the Netherlands?Has Bob Doppelt ever put together a northwest version of a “green plan”?Your point about BC political structure/culture vs. WA state political structure/culture is well taken. I guess I already assumed this to a certain degree. But it does reinforce my notion that the only way we are to achieve big ticket sustainability as regions, states, localities is via a federal “green plan” that provides the necessary framework for more regional and local action. Do you agree with this approach or is it more realistic to assume that we have to fundamentally change the political structure/culture first in order to even come close to fashioning such a comprehensive “green plan?” Seems a bit politically unfeasible, even given the potential that we might in the next two weeks have a liberal democrat as president, a filibuster-proof democratic senate, and a democratic majority in the house. Perhaps national cap and trade legislation is a first step in the right direction. But given the economic “crisis” I wonder how such efforts will be hindered.So the question that continues to occupy my thoughts is whether we build a real, green political movement or instead continue our piece by piece technical fixes? All of this presupposes that their is the cultural “space” to even build a powerful green politics in this country. I’m not convinced there is. Obviously some of these questions fall outside of the realm of Sightline’s role, but they are questions I feel I must ask of all of our current leaders in the region. Thanks again for all that you and Sightline does. Best,Kit
“Large-scale” planning is, in fact, held in suspicion. One need only, however, compare the successes of the Portland area Tri-Met planning on transportation to the rather dismal Sound Transit work to see that at least some “medium-scale” planning is better than scatter-shot solutions which often seem to not even target the highest priority “problems”. King County planning is further hindered by conservative politics dominating the very areas to the east of Seattle that are duplicating L.A. rather than developing a new way to pursue land planning. Effective land-use planning across county lines would be one interim step to making better decisions. Dealing with all of Cascadia is a challenge in that we have Western WA (not all in agreement) versus Eastern WA, then we have Portland versus the rest of Oregon (except maybe Eugene and Salem). I wonder if we’ll be able to get all pulling in a positive direction before the environment and economy decline to where violence arises before all can agree there is a problem.