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How Close to Catastrophe?

This is an understandable aversion, but it would need to rest, as Lovelock admits, on something more than aesthetics, and in this case the foundation is all but nonexistent. He quotes a couple of disillusioned Danes to the effect that wind power hasn’t been a panacea in Denmark, and says that Britain would need 54,000 big wind turbines to meet its needs, as if that huge number simply ends the argument. (The lack of adequate notes in this book makes checking sources laborious.) But in fact the Germans are adding 2,000 windmills annually, and nearing 20,000 total. Some object to the sight of them scattered across the countryside, and others are enchanted. In any event, whatever one’s opinion of wind power, it’s not at all clear that a crash program of building atomic reactors makes sense. Most of the economic modeling I’ve seen indicates that if you took the money intended for building a reactor and invested it instead in an aggressive energy conservation project (one that provided subsidies to companies to modify their factories to reduce power use, for instance), the payoff in cutting back on carbon would be much larger. This doesn’t end the argument, either—we will obviously need new energy sources, and the example of the French success with nuclear power (it generates three quarters of their electricity) means it has to be included in the mix of possibilities, as Jim Hansen recently argued in these pages.2 But Lovelock’s argument against wind power is remarkably unpersuasive.

Much more deeply researched, and much more hopeful, data come from the investment banker Travis Bradford. MIT Press has just issued his first book, Solar Revolution, which argues at great length and in great detail that we will soon be turning to solar panels for our power, in part for environmental reasons but more because they will soon be producing power that’s as cheap—and much easier to deploy—than any other source. This is a fairly astounding claim—the conventional wisdom among environmentalists is that solar energy lags behind wind power by a decade or more as a cost-effective source of electricity—but he makes the case in convincing fashion.

During the last decade (as Janet Sawin of the Worldwatch Institute has previously described), Japan has heavily subsidized the purchase of rooftop solar panels by home owners. The Japanese authorities began to do this, in part, because they wanted to meet the promises they made on their own soil at the Kyoto conference on global warming, but also, Bradford suggests, because they sensed that the industry could grow if it were encouraged by an initial investment. Within a few years, the subsidy had the desired effect—the volume of demand made both manufacturing and installation much more efficient, driving down the price. Today, the government subsidy has almost entirely disappeared, but demand continues to rise, for the panels now allow homeowners to produce their own power for the same price charged by the country’s big utilities. Japan in some ways is a special case—blessed with few domestic energy sources, it has some of the world’s most expensive electricity, making solar panels more competitive. On the other hand, it’s not particularly sunny in Japan. In any event, Bradford says the Japanese demand for solar power (and now an equally large program in Germany) will be enough to drive the cost of producing solar panels steadily down. Even without huge technological breakthroughs, which he says are tantalizingly near, the current hardware can be made steadily cheaper. He predicts the industry will grow 20 to 30 percent annually for the next forty years, which is akin to what happened with the last silicon-based revolution, the computer chip. No surprise, too, about who will own that industry—almost all the solar panel plants are now in Japan and Germany.

You can see signs of this change already. When I was in Tibet this summer, I repeatedly stumbled across the yak-skin tents of nomadic herders living in some of the most remote (and lofty) valleys in the world. They depended on yak dung, which they burned to cook food and heat their tents, and also often on a small solar panel hanging off one side of the tent, powering a lightbulb and perhaps a radio inside. Every small town had a shop selling solar panels for a price roughly equivalent to that of a single sheep. Solar power obviously makes sense in such places, where there’s probably never going to be an electric line. But it also increasingly makes sense in suburban developments, where new technologies like solar roof tiles are reducing the cost of outfitting a house to use solar power; in any event, the cost of such tiles would be a small part of the government-subsidized mortgage. These systems are usually tied into the existing grid—when the sun is shining, my Vermont rooftop functions as a small power plant, sending power down the line. At night, I buy electricity like everyone else; in the sunny months of the year, the power the house uses and the power it generates are about the same. All this would make more economic sense, of course, if the destructive environmental costs of burning, say, cheap coal were reflected in the price of the resulting electricity. That seems almost certain to happen once George Bush leaves office. All plausible presidential candidates for both parties are committed to imposing some limits on the use of coal. It’s already the rule in the rest of the developed world. But the testimony of Lovelock, Hansen, and the rest of organized science makes it very clear that it would be a wise investment, indeed the wisest possible investment, to spend large sums of government money to hasten this transition to solar power. Where should it come from? One obvious candidate is the Pentagon budget, now devoted to defending us against dangers considerably less threatening than climate change.

But even the widespread adoption of solar power would not put an end to the threat of global warming. The economic transition that our predicament demands is larger and more wrenching even than that. Some scientists have estimated that it would take an immediate 70 percent reduction in fossil fuel burning simply to stabilize climate change at its current planet-melting level. And that reduction is made much harder by the fact that it is needed at just the moment that China and India have begun to burn serious quantities of fossil fuel as their economies grow. Not, of course, American quantities—each of us uses on average eight times the energy that a Chinese citizen does—but relatively serious quantities nonetheless.

Kelly Sims Gallagher, one of the savviest early analysts of climate policy, has devoted the last few years to understanding the Chinese energy transition. Now the director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she has just published a fascinating account of the rise of the Chinese auto industry. Her research makes it clear that neither American industry nor the American government did much of anything to point the Chinese away from our addiction to gas-guzzling technology; indeed, Detroit (and the Europeans and Japanese to a lesser extent) was happy to use decades-old designs and processes. “Even though cleaner alternatives existed in the United States, relatively dirty automotive technologies were transferred to China,” she writes. One result is the smog that is choking Chinese cities; another is the invisible but growing cloud of greenhouse gases, which come from tailpipes but even more from the coal-fired utilities springing up across China. In retrospect, historians are likely to conclude that the biggest environmental failure of the Bush administration was not that it did nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuels in America, but that it did nothing to help or pressure China to transform its own economy at a time when such intervention might have been decisive.

It is precisely this question—how we might radically transform our daily lives—that is addressed by the cheerful proprietors of the WorldChanging Web site in their new book of the same name. This is one of the most professional and interesting Web sites that you could possibly bookmark on your browser; almost every day they describe a new technology or technique for environmentalists. Their book, a compilation of their work over the last few years, is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). There are many hundreds of how-to guides (how to etch your own circuit board, how to break in your hybrid car so as to maximize mileage, how to organize a “smart mob” (a brief gathering of strangers in a public place). WorldChanging can tell you whom to text-message from your phone in order to advocate for international debt relief, and how to build an iPod speaker from an old tin of Altoids mints. It’s a compendium of everything a younger generation of environmental activists has to offer: creativity, digital dexterity, networking ability, an Internet-era optimism about the future, and a deep concern about not only green issues but related questions of human rights, poverty, and social justice. The book’s pragmatism is refreshing: “We can do this” is the constant message, and there are enough examples to leave little doubt that sheer cleverness is not what we’re lacking as we approach our uncertain future. “We need, in the next twenty-five years or so, to do something never before done. We need to consciously redesign the entire material basis of our civilization,” Alex Steffen writes in his editor’s introduction.

If we face an unprecedented planetary crisis, we also find ourselves in a moment of innovation unlike any that has come before…. We live in an era when the number of people working to make the world better is exploding.

He’s right.

If there’s one flaw in the WorldChanging method, I think it might be a general distrust of the idea that government could help make things happen. There’s a Silicon Valley air to the WorldChanging enterprise—over the years it’s been closely connected with Wired magazine, the bible of the digerati and a publication almost as paranoid about government interference and regulation as The Wall Street Journal. Like Internet entrepreneurs, they distrust both government intentions and abilities—bureaucrats tend, after all, to come from the ranks of those neither bold nor smart enough to innovate. A libertarian streak shines through: “When we redesign our personal lives in such a way that we’re doing the right thing and having a hell of a good time,” Steffen writes, “we act as one-person beacons to the idea that green can be bright, that worldchanging can be lifechanging.” I’m sympathetic to this strain of thinking; I believe we’re going to need more local and more nimble decision-making in the future to build strong, survivable communities. But it also makes it a little harder to be as optimistic as you’d like to be when reading these pages, which are filled with good ideas that, chances are, won’t come to all that much without the support of government and a system of incentives for investment.

You can see a close-up of some of that futility in the new book Design Like You Give a Damn from the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity,3 a book that is lovely in every sense of the word. The group started by sponsoring a competition for new shelters for refugees, and the range of replacements that people thought up for canvas tents makes clear just how much talent is currently going to waste designing McMansions. There are inflatable hemp bubbles and cardboard outhouses and dozens of other designs and prototypes for the world’s poorest people and biggest disasters. As time went on the group also collected photos and plans for attractive buildings around the world: health clinics that generate their own power, schools cheap enough for communities to construct. Still, there’s something sad about the entire project—most of these designs have never been carried out, because the architects lacked the political savvy or influence to get them adopted by relief agencies or national governments. When there’s a disaster, relief agencies still haul out the canvas tents.

There’s another way of saying what is missing here. Almost every idea that might bring us a better future would be made much easier if the cost of fossil fuel was higher—if there was some kind of a tax on carbon emissions that made the price of coal and oil and gas reflect its true environmental cost. (Gore, in an important speech at New York University last month, proposed scrapping all payroll taxes and replacing them with a levy on carbon.) If that day came—and it’s the day at least envisioned by efforts like the Kyoto Treaty—then everything from solar panels to windmills to safe nuclear reactors (if they can be built) would spread much more easily: the invisible hand would be free to do more interesting work than it’s accomplishing at the moment. Perhaps it would actually begin to operate with the speed necessary to head off Lovelock’s nightmares. But that will only happen if local, national, and international officials can come together to make it happen, which in turn requires political action. The recent election-driven decision by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to embrace a comprehensive set of climate change measures shows that such political action is possible; on the other side of the continent, a Labor Day march across Vermont helped to persuade even the most right-wing of the state’s federal candidates to endorse an ambitious program against global warming. The march’s final rally drew a thousand people, which makes it possibly the largest global warming protest in the country’s history. That’s a pathetic fact, but it goes to show how few people are actually needed to begin working toward real change.

The technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness—local solidarity—has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we’re serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn’t involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter. A carbon tax would be a very good place to start.


How Close to Catastrophe? December 21, 2006

  1. 2

    The Threat to the Planet’: An Exchange,” The New York Review, September 21, 2006.

  2. 3

    A short essay of mine, which describes the Brazilian city of Curitiba and its efforts to integrate design and architecture into citywide planning and development, is appended to the end of the book.

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