Monday, November 13, 2006

Toward A Sustainable Future

It took ten years to put a man on the moon. It was done with pencils, slide rules, and manually operated machine tools. No laptops, no modeling software, and no PowerPoint presentations. The men and women who made it happen put a common goal ahead of personal ambition. Determination and long hours got it done; trial and error were part of the process. When they stumbled, they picked themselves up out of the dirt, walked off the pain, and got back to the job. Courageous leadership was cultivated and encouraged. Leadership that wasn’t afraid to say that everyone’s role was equally important. It was not about the leader’s exalted status, or personal mission, it was about getting the job done - putting a man on the moon.

Today, we do have laptops, modeling software, and PowerPoint presentations. We also have the Internet, cell phones, supercomputers, and electronic technology that would leave an engineer of the sixties speechless. What would that engineer think of what we have done with the legacy of accomplishment that he left us? Are smart bombs really so smart? Is a slimmer cell phone that important?

Now, the intertwined issues of global warming and the demand for sustainable energy confront us. The struggle to solve these issues will make the challenge of putting a man on the moon look like a trip to Wal-Mart. Exacerbated by the rapid economic growth of China, India, and other developing nations, the solutions will cross borders and every segment of society. Success will transform our lives with the promise of health and prosperity; failure will impose painful cuts in living standards, with diminished prospects for continued survival. Picture it - every coastal city around the globe inundated with rising seawater; fertile plains - national breadbaskets – reduced to drought stricken wastelands; as the Gulf Stream alters its warming course away from Western Europe, Paris shivers in winters as cold as Moscow, and London’s fog dries up and blows away, replaced with prolonged blizzards. The air will be acrid with the smoke of coal-fired power plants scattered around the globe. Nuclear power plants will sprout up, leaving a ten thousand year legacy of poisonous radioactive waste. Our Appalachian mountaintops will be stripped away and dumped into verdant valleys, pouring toxic effluent into our rivers and streams. Parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana will be permanently transformed by strip mining operations – dug up, graded over; turned into homogeneous nothingness.

With our technological savvy, you would think we would have concrete plans in place to dispel the threat of global warming and unsustainable energy supplies. Yet, the United States government has not even reached the point of recognizing the need for such plans. At the risk of sounding shrill – what the hell are we waiting for? Clearly, our federal government – both the legislative and executive branches – lacks the will, or the courage, to act. Action would require the president and lawmakers to recognize that real innovation is required, not the watered down, half measures suggested by influential corporations - corporations that buy their influence with campaign contributions. And why are automakers, electric utilities, refinery operators, coal mine operators, and oil companies opposed to measures that would minimize global warming and offer sustainable energy supplies? Because such measures would require short-term risk, and long term commitment - two things that are anathema to shareholder driven, risk averse, short term focused, myopic CEO’s. If your sole interest is turning a profit in the coming quarter, how could you, much less why would you, be interested in steering the corporate ship into unknown waters? If politicians are willing to be bought, and in return, provide subsidies and eviscerated environmental regulations, why divert from business as usual? Is there a moral obligation to do it? Maybe so; but to hell with that if the competition shirks their moral obligations. Besides, capitalism does not subjugate itself to morality. Capitalism is amoral – it bends only to the free market (favorable subsidies and regulations not withstanding).

So, what to do? Grassroots, trickle up policy change, not trickle down dissembling and denial. Individuals need to recognize that their legislators will not legislate in their interest unless they beg, plead, cajole, and threaten to vote for someone else if change does not happen. Taxpaying citizens need to recognize that an oil and coal powered economy is not in their interest – economically, environmentally, or socially, and that an economy based on renewable resources offers numerous tangible benefits:

Economic – Technological innovation creates wealth and jobs - both white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Tapping into renewable resources will require investment in research and development and manufacturing facilities. As demand soars for renewable energy technology, the potential return on investment is vast. With the right mixture of government reform - our tax dollars provide enormous subsidies to perpetuate a fossil fuel based economy – and government incentives, we could restore the productivity of our economy, pay down our crippling national debt, and ameliorate our trade deficit with the export of sustainable energy technology.

Social – Migrating towards sustainable lifestyles through conservation and innovation will help cure the sense of malaise that pervades our society. If we recognize the shared goal of fighting global warming with sustainable energy practices, we can combat the sense of isolation that plagues so many of us. This is something everyone can participate in – from children to grandparents. Public transportation, for example, does more than save energy, it brings people from different backgrounds and levels of prosperity together. It encourages common standards of behavior, tolerance, and respect for one another. Communities built around public transportation encourage walking and more frequent trips to smaller, friendlier markets and shops. And no, this is not incompatible with raising a family. It simply requires re-thinking how we spend our time. Instead of driving from one impersonal, crowded box store to another, you stop and pick something up each evening on your walk home from the bus stop or train station. Walking a few blocks with a couple of bags – even four or five – is not as debilitating as it might sound, and if you drag your kids along, they can carry stuff, too.

Environmental – Fighting global warming and developing sustainable energy sources will help keep this planet habitable well into the future. We could stop strip mining, oil drilling, and mountain top removal for coal extraction – all activities that turn pristine, productive ecosystems into poisoned, dying, wastelands. We could shut down coal-fired power plants that dump greenhouse gasses into the air and mercury on the ground. We could shutter nuclear power plants that threaten communities and create unmanageable waste. Instead of rationalizing these destructive activities dotting our landscapes, we could build wind turbines, capture wave energy in the oceans, and cover our rooftops with photovoltaic cells – all of which will provide energy closer to where it is needed, reducing the need for extensive networks of power lines. We could commit to conservation measures by using vehicles and appliances that are more efficient, and better insulation and windows in our homes. We could build smaller homes, closer together, and spend more time outside of them, in villages and cities with activities that we can walk to and enjoy with others.

Getting from here to a healthy future requires more than just hoping and praying for the best. Think differently, visualize change, and it will happen. A more optimistic, satisfying life with a future free from the spectre of oil wars, global warming, and environmental disaster is possible. Instead of sheepishly succumbing to the purveyors of the status quo, we just have to give real solutions a chance. Take responsibility, be informed, and make it happen.

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