Energizing America Fossil fuels burned brightly in their day, but now it's time to make the leap to safer, cleaner, climate-friendly alternatives
by Bill McKibben
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Everyone's sentimental favorites--solar and wind, the renewable twins--are in the mix too. Indeed, they're in the mix more all the time. Wind is already about as cheap as coal (the up-front costs are higher, but once the turbine is spinning, the wind itself is free), and solar panels have sprouted in places like Germany, where government subsidies have worked their magic--melting consumer resistance, building volume, and reducing prices so dramatically that the subsidies are no longer necessary. These technologies also give pause to some enviros (the fights over windmills off Cape Cod or along New England's ridgelines are transforming semi-noble NIMBYs into semi-ridiculous NIVMYDs, or not in view of my deck), but they will continue to grow. The question is, will we push them as hard as we can? That would be smart, but it would mean stepping on a lot of vested interests, especially since the best use of renewables may be to transform the energy system itself, from a model of highly centralized stations producing power to something more like the Internet, where your home or factory becomes both a consumer and producer of power. When the sun shines, the panels on my roof make my electric meter spin merrily backward. Until night falls, I'm a little utility all my own. Which is a neat idea, but one that will need different finance schemes and regulatory policies to expand significantly.
In fact, it's pretty clear that what we need most at this point is not just some new technology, but also--maybe even more--a planning system that takes full advantage of the ideas already on the table. The policy debate in Washington has grown so stylized and stalemated--it's a kind of Kabuki dance, in which one side says, "CAFE standards" and the other shouts, "ANWR!" and all recoil in horror--that nothing new ever happens, at least not on a scale that might make a difference. It's considered a deep breakthrough when President Bush announces in his State of the Union speech that we're "addicted to oil," even if his solution is to find us some new dealers. In the absence of real leadership from the top (Jimmy Carter was the last guy who tried, and politicians have not forgotten what happened to him), the best chance may be some leadership from the bottom.
An interesting, not to mention unlikely, experiment along these lines began in 2005 when a Parisian investment banker named Jerome Guillet began posting comments on dailykos.com, one of the world's most active political Web sites, where Democratic and liberal activists trade rumors, launch campaigns, and keep track of what Bill O'Reilly is saying. It's not a home for fringe radicals (Nevada senator Harry Reid [D] posts comments regularly), and indeed Guillet first got noticed with a series of posts debunking conspiracy theories that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was actually aimed at building oil pipelines across the region. "Then I started with the bug of writing there," he explains in Gallic-accented English.
Since Guillet's day job involves analyzing the economics of energy projects, he soon expanded his sphere to explaining the basics of the energy crisis. Before long, others on the site interested in the same issues found themselves working with Guillet to produce, revise, and then revise again a detailed 20-point plan they call "Energize America," a remarkably comprehensive energy strategy that pays full attention to political reality. Currently in version 5.0, the plan proposes ideas ranging from the Passenger Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act and the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit Act to measures designed to boost telecommuting, experiment with state renewable energy efforts, and put solar panels on 20 million roofs. It's precisely the kind of full-blown proposal that, if adopted, might fundamentally reorient our energy future.
"All of us have our pet projects," says Guillet. "Some of us are fighting for ethanol, some for solar panels. But as a group we're trying to push the idea that there is not a single solution. We need to push everything. And we need to make fossil fuel more expensive and then let people make their choices. Wind in some places. And maybe in some places nuclear can be made to work--it works not so badly in France."
Left to its own devices, the market will give us more coal power plants. "Something that has a high up-front investment and low operating cost--wind--is more expensive for the market to build than something that has high running costs, like coal," says Guillet. (It's the same reason the guy building new homes in suburban subdivisions doesn't put the more efficient--and more expensive--refrigerator in the kitchen.) Energy, he adds, is "a market that needs government intervention, regulation, and interference. And these are all dirty words in America these days. But governments are in the best position to internalize externalities. Governments can say, 'Our society suffers from pollution. If I tax your use of coal, that use will drop, and I'll have more money to build the trains that will cut pollution and to pay for the nurses to treat your asthma.'"
Indeed, though he might not phrase it quite this way, Guillet is describing what could be the most useful technology of all, the one Americans have all but forgotten: the technology of community. If climatologists are right that we need to bring the world's carbon dioxide emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to stabilize the climate, we're unlikely to succeed with new equipment alone. We need new attitudes and behaviors, not new lightbulbs and reactors.
And it's when you start thinking about those kinds of shifts that you understand what fossil fuel, with all its magic, has really produced. Not just wealth and global warming--but also a redefined human being, one far more individualistic than before. One, in the extreme American version, who lives in a big house (twice as big as in 1950) on the far edge of a distant suburb and drives everywhere (usually alone). One who depends very little on neighbors. In fact, one survey found that three-quarters of Americans don't even know their next-door neighbors, a novel condition for any human being at any time in history. (A novel condition, for that matter, for any primate.)
These basic shifts in our economies, habits, and ideas about who we are make it very difficult to deal with our newfound realities. Our food, for instance, doesn't come from our neighbors anymore, but travels on average nearly 2,000 miles before it reaches our lips. The average Atlantan releases more than 17,600 pounds of carbon dioxide every year just moving around. In fact, the ten cities with the highest per-capita CO2 production worldwide are all in the United States. That's partly because our sprawl makes public transit hard, partly because even when it's available, we scorn it, preferring instead the solipsistic convenience of our cars.
To get a sense of what happens when you think a little differently about who you are, consider western Europe. There, because people believe somewhat more in community and somewhat less in individualism, they've been more willing to pay taxes to support thriving cities, rapid rail lines, and all the other things that draw people together instead of flinging them apart. And the result? The average European uses 50 percent less energy than the average American. Fifty is a big number. It doesn't stop global warming, and it doesn't end worries about peak oil--but that's before anyone has done a lick of engineering, a speck of mechanical innovation.
It's not an easy answer; there are no easy answers. But there are signs Americans have begun to notice: Farmers' markets, for instance, are one of the fastest-growing parts of our food system, doubling in number every few years as they build community and reduce energy use. It's hard to think about peak oil and rapid climate change and then say, "Let's start a farmers' market." It seems too feeble a gesture. But it's a start. And if you drive there in your hybrid Honda--or, better yet, bike or take the bus--well, who knows where it all might end.
Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of The End of Nature. Published in 1989, it was the first book on global warming written for a general audience. His new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, on local economies in a post-growth world, will be available next winter.