Why Making It in America Is Climate Smart

Dec 10, 2012 | Updated Feb 09, 2013

According to Google, use of the phrase "Think Globally, Act Locally" peaked in 1996, and has declined ever since. That may reflect how hard it is to practice this idea. During my years as Executive Director of the Sierra Club, the conflict between the club's intellectual commitment -- to think globally -- and human instinct -- to react powerfully and narrowly when threatened locally, was one I never really found a fix for.

So we may need to find proxies -- values or ways of thinking that help us get the right answers even if they are asking different questions. And one such proxy, I would argue, is the idea of making it locally: one manifestation of which, in the case of the United States, is the increasing public fervor for the importance of making stuff in the U.S., of reviving our manufacturing base. "Made in America" it turns out is a pretty fair proxy for "Think globally."

To understand why, I'm going to crib from a recent -- and well worth absorbing -- volume by Alex Steffen, Carbon Zero, which explains how badly off-course much of our thinking has drifted. Steffen asks us to imagine our ecological impact -- in this case carbon emissions -- as cakes, and our desire to live more sustainably, or reduce carbon emissions, as a diet.

He then describes three common ways of measuring these impacts, or counting the calories, we are using -- he calls this "footprinting."

Geographic footprinters say, "I will count only those cakes I both bake and eat at home."

Most measurements of carbon emissions are geographic, like recent announcements of how U.S. carbon emissions are declining. They are, but the measurements being released are incomplete and don't tell the whole story, because they are geographic.

Production footprinters say, "I will count all the cakes I bake, whether I eat them or not."

In the case of carbon emissions, this makes countries like Angola look like major emitters, even though most of what they do is extract oil from their territory and ship it to rich countries like the U.S. to consume. And a very rich country like Singapore which imports almost all of its food and fuel and materials from other countries looks very virtuous on this scale.

Consumption footprinters say, "I will count all the cakes I eat, no matter who bakes them."

Steffens argues that consumption footprinting is the correct way to measure out impact -- because it requires us to think globally as we act locally. Stopping a locally damaging project is only globally helpful if as a result the total amount of damaging consumption goes down -- and we only should get credit if it is our consumption that declines. If we block a mega-feed lot in California, and as a result people in China eat less beef, they really deserve the ecological credit. And if an even worse feed-lot gets built in Africa, we've actually done harm.

This matters -- a lot. A recent piece by Dieter Helm in Yale Environment 360 points out that once you take into account the carbon embedded in the consumer goods imported by, say, the United Kingdom, what is scored by the Kyoto Protocol as progress towards lower emissions is actually a serious increase in pollution:

"It is carbon consumption that measures the carbon footprint and hence responsibility, not the carbon production in particular geographical areas. Yet remarkably the Kyoto framework does not take consumption into account. Instead it focuses on carbon production, and mostly in Europe, where deindustrialization and the collapse of the former Soviet Union make compliance with the targets easy. For example, the UK's carbon production fell by more than 15 percent between 1990 and 2005, but once imported carbon is taken into account, carbon consumption went up more than 19 percent. This explains how carbon production can be falling in Europe in line with its Kyoto targets, while global carbon emissions keep going up."

But persuading societies to measure their consumption in evaluating environmental harm is a very heavy lift -- we don't see the damage our driving does to the Niger Delta. This is one place where I think reviving manufacturing as a centerpiece of economic policy is important. If we decide that the steel we use in our cars and bridges and buildings is going to be American steel, we will care a lot about how much pollution it generates. If we import it from Korea, we are going to focus more on the price.

But the concept of the American economy as a post-industrial, service-only economy, which has dominated public conversation since the early 1990's dismissed the idea of local manufacturing as outmoded. The ecological cost of all the shipping of goods this required was fairly obvious, and has received a lot of important and deserved environmental discussion, particularly in the "locavore" movement. But less focus has been drawn to the fact that an economy which makes its own stuff is much more likely to take ecological responsibility for how it makes that stuff than one which just imports.

(Post-industrial would be fine it meant that we no longer consumed the fruits of industrial production -- but if all it means is that we import them, it's very dangerous.)

Fortunately, there is a host of other important reasons for bringing back manufacturing. It generates higher wages, spreads its supply chain more broadly, and is the key linchpin in the innovation process; it links markets and innovators in a way that no other sector can do. Manufacturing provides the kind of job diversity that is needed for a middle-class society. Equality is almost inconceivable for a modern economy that doesn't make stuff. Even as retrograde an industry as oil now has players -- Chevron -- who recognize that if they want to be seen as part of a American revival, they need to put on their manufacturing hard hat, not their oil producer Stetson.

And the American people, and perhaps more important political operatives, get this opportunity. In a poll this summer by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, by a sizeable margin, voters rate manufacturing as the industry "most important to the overall strength of the American economy" and support a national strategy to restore America's global leadership in manufacturing:

"Significantly, a majority of voters (56 percent) no longer see the U.S. as having the world's strongest economy, and fewer than 25 percent think anyone in Washington is doing a great deal to help enforce a level playing field for U.S. manufacturers. However, 88 percent of voters believe that it's possible for America to have the strongest economy, and 92 percent believe that it is important for the U.S. to regain that position."

A post-election analysis by Kantar Media's CMAG showed that after images of either President Obama or Governor Romney, the single most widely used image in 2012 campaign advertising was a factory, that 975,000 politics ads mentioned issues relating to manufacturing and its importance.

So the table is set. If we ever started measuring our ecological impact correctly -- by the cakes we eat, not only the ones we bake -- manufacturing could become the ecological buzz-word of this century.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."