Building a 21st Century Sustainable Economy

Building a 21st Century Sustainable Economy

By Cylvia Hayes

  (As Published in Just Below the Surface: Perspectives on the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. Copyright 2011 by Northwest Earth Institute.  Full workbook can be viewed here.


In 1998 Jim Carrey starred in the movie The Truman Show as Truman Burbank, an American insurance salesman living a pleasant life. Truman is a normal man, living in a normal town. He has a wife, neighbors and friends who stop by from time to time.

What Truman doesn’t know is that he has been living in a carefully controlled false reality since birth. He is the unwitting subject of the biggest reality TV show of all time. His every move is filmed and viewed by millions of people around the world. Truman is kept from the truth by a carefully constructed, elaborate set and a cast of supporting characters who diligently stick to a scripted message. Even when Truman begins to suspect something is amiss, the fear instilled in him by the show’s producers prevents him from crossing the long bridge leading out of town.

Prior to visiting the Gulf Coast, I hadn’t thought about The Truman Show in years. It first came to mind when the director of the beleaguered Gulf Shores Wildlife Refuge defended the oil industry. It struck me again at the BP Assistance Center, when a friendly young man from the state employment department was silenced with one stern look from his manager.

The Truman Show is a fitting analogy for all of us whose realities are shaped by the fossil-fuel-based consumer economy. On the surface, this reality seems acceptable and even advantageous: we have cars to take us wherever we want to go, plastic water bottles and shopping bags and an ever-increasing array of cell phones, computers, and electronic gadgets designed to make our lives easier.

However, every so often, something happens to make us question whether we’re really seeing the whole picture. For Truman, it’s little things like a piece of stage lighting equipment falling from the “sky” or an accidental glimpse of a filming crew. For us its catastrophic oil spills, species lost, livelihoods destroyed and communities unraveled on an increasingly hot and temperamental planet.

Just as the social and environmental costs of fossil fuels go unseen by most consumers, the economic toll of our addiction to cheap energy is also overlooked. Consider the cost of gas. We pay approximately $3 per gallon for gas at the pump. However, each year in the United States, the oil and gas industries receive approximately $80 billion in subsidies. Factor in the subsidies and the costs of deploying our military to protect ocean-going tankers and overseas oil facilities and the costs exceed $10 per gallon.1   We fail to recognize that we pay these costs through our taxes or, increasingly, by ratcheting up the national debt and burdening our children and grandchildren. 

Just as Truman’s filtered, constructed news reports prevent him from realizing the truth of his situation, our current economic system prevents us from seeing the real costs of fossil fuel dependency. This is a chief reason why America is unwilling to commit to moving toward a 21st Century, post-fossil fuel economy.

Oil, gas and coal interests insist that we can’t afford to evolve past fossil fuels, that alternatives are too expensive. And like Truman in his make believe world, we follow along with the storyline we’re told. In doing so, we miss an unprecedented opportunity to create new jobs and shift to clean and renewable energy sources. The wind, solar and biofuels sectors now generate revenues of $139.1 billion, larger than the international music industry, and are projected to be worth $325 billion by 2019.2

Energy efficiency sectors are projected to be even more productive. In fact, according to the American Solar Energy Association, under an aggressive federal clean energy policy commitment, renewable energy and energy efficiency could generate as much as $4.5 trillion and employ 40 million Americans by 2030.3

Clean energy advocates and entrepreneurs hoped that the Deep Horizon disaster would motivate the federal government to pass significant energy policy reform. Sadly, that was not the case. In July, 2010, the U.S. Senate abandoned efforts to develop a clean energy and climate bill. That decision had immediate negative economic repercussions: within weeks, the U.S. fell more than $11 billion behind China and other leading nations in clean energy investments. Now, each day America is losing out on approximately $208 million in job-creating investments as investors direct resources to nations with more aggressive clean energy policies.4

Our unwillingness to face the extent of our dependency on artificially low-priced fossil fuels, despite its grave consequences, is undermining our ability to compete in a global economy. So what can we do about this predicament?

Making the transition to a post-fossil fuel, sustainable economy is the greatest challenge and opportunity of our generation. The first step is to open our eyes to the actual reality before us rather than the scripted version constructed by fossil fuel interests. As noted earlier, fossil fuel is not as cheap as we are led to believe, and we are losing our economic competitive advantage by allowing other nations to lead the world in development and deployment of clean energy alternatives. 

The second step is to challenge our own identities. Our culture brands us as consumers. We need to think of ourselves as citizens, responsible for the course of our nation and our economy. We must be willing to challenge the status quo and imagine something better, greater, and more viable for the long term.

During the final scenes, Truman overcomes his fear and sets out in a small sailboat seeking truth and a new reality. The show producers dial up a terrible storm, trying to turn Truman back to his constructed life. He nearly drowns, but perseveres, defies his controllers, and breaks through into a whole new world.

Truman’s challenge has relevance for each and every one of us. Economies are human-made constructs that can and should serve the common good. Right now, we have an opportunity to create an economy based on clean resources that provide an abundance of jobs, energy independence and environmental restoration. The question is, will we continue to be controlled by scripted messages and fear or will we break through to a new reality?

1) Rocky Mountain Institute. Winning the Oil Endgame. 2004. Snowmass CO.
2) Pernick,RonandWilder,Clint.CleanEnergyTrends2010.March2010. Clean Edge.
3) Bezdek,R.RenewableEnergyandEnergyEfficiency:EconomicDrivers for the 21st Century. 2007. American Solar Energy Association.
4) American Businesses for Clean Energy, Small Business Majority, Main Street Alliance, and We Can Lead. A Costly Climate of Inaction. September 2010.

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Cylvia is a speaker, writer and teacher of Economic Evolution.  She is an award winning New Economy leader who is known for speaking truth to power.  

She is faculty in the Sustainability Department, College of Agriculture, Oregon State University and is founder and director of The ReThink.    

She is a smart systems thinker who understands and is able to describe the deeper connections between seemingly unrelated issues. She is also the former First Lady of Oregon.


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