Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Think: Less

The journalist Thomas Friedman deserves a tremendous amount of credit for raising awareness of energy and environmental issues within a global framework. His piece in the The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 2007, highlights many of the issues we face as a nation in the "greening" of Main Street. However, even an advocate for a green America like Friedman fails to recognize perhaps two of the greatest illusions under which we're all living .

Illusion # 1
In the introduction to "The Power of Green," Friedman states, "I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are--including a car culture." Later in the intro he says: "We have not even begun to be serious about the costs, the effort and the scale of change that will be required to shift our country, and eventually the world, to a largely emissions-free energy infrastructure over the next fifty years."

Hmmm. Perhaps the reason we haven't "even begun to be serious..." is that we haven't even begun to face the fact that shifting to a fully "largely emissions-free energy infrastructure" will, most definitely, radically alter our lifestyles. In other words, even before Friedman gets through with his introduction he has contradicted himself and exposed the first illusion standing in the way of an American Green Revolution. The illusion is that all we need to do is "fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way." So go ahead. Everybody jump on to the green bandwagon where no [radical] change in lifestyle is required.

Illusion # 2

Friedman refers to how President Eisenhower responded to the communist threat by building an Interstate system, which "enshrined America's car culture (atrophying our railroads) and locked in suburban sprawl and low-density housing," which all combined to get us 'addicted to cheap fossil fuels." A direct consequence of the growth of our successful car-based economy is that today, developing nations around the world are frenetically following the American model of development--complete with more and bigger cars for more and bigger highways so that more (and bigger) people can get to and from their more and bigger houses. This is a direct consequence of our success. The problem with consequences is that you don't always know what they'll be. Celebrated solutions to complicated problems often create unintended consequences that turn out to be worse than the original problem. Like kudzu, the vine planted in the South for erosion cotrol which has taken over entire mountainsides. Or the combustion engine--the perfect solution for cities battling the age-old horse manure problem.

The reality is that every energy solution on a national or global scale involves both a change in lifestyle and a known, but usually ignored, long-term consequence. The change in lifestyle is, of course related to the demand side of the energy equation. We--each of us--control that and are, ultimately, responsible for our own consumption. As for the supply side of the equation, Friedman lists some of the potential big solutions. I'm listing them here with some of their long-term consequences:

-Replace coal-fired power stations with natural gas fired ones.
If we do this on a massive scale, we'd end up importing huge quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG), probably from the same countries that feed our addiction to oil. And as I think we are all aware by now, many of these countries do not necessarily share our geopolitical views.

-Sequester underground massive amounts of carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants. Imagine if all the world did this, we'd transform the global warming problem into a CO2 concentration problem. Because one really big C02 burp from deep below the earth's surface would be catastrophic, we'd have to ensure that all of this gas stayed where it belonged. The consequence is a management problem out to, well, forever.

-Build more nuclear power stations.
This is my favorite solution, but it has a consequence as well. We have to manage long-term high level nuclear waste, decaying through its half-life, for tens of thousands of years and we can't even get Yucca Mountain, or an acceptable alternative, up and running to manage our waste today. Planning for tens of thousands of years is like planning for, well, forever.

-Halt all cutting and burning of forests.
It seems hard to imagine how this wouldn't radically alter our lifestyles, unless the world's population starts writing on papyrus (I can foresee an increased demand for sedge subsidies) and living in trees.

In other words, the serious long-term problem of global warming will be replaced by serious long-term problems of a different sort. Clearly demand side is critical... and, barring some startling new invention that creates limitless energy out of thin air, that means changes in lifestyle.

There's also a third illusion that has to be confronted before we'll make any progress "greening" Main Street and creating a green political movement on the scale of what Friedman advocates. The illusion is that we (very generally speaking, of course) care about the rest of the world--really care. I'm not going to even try to delve into the sociology of empathy and behavior, but it is interesting to note that, as just one example, we don't seem to care much about the hundreds of Iraqi citizens who die every day. We can't even get respected journalists like Friedman to report on the daily death toll of Iraqis. Americans only count American casualties. And Americans are only concerned (again, generalities here) about the American way of life. But, strange as it may seem, for America to truly go green, we have to care about what happens "over there." What we do here has repercussions around the world. We drive big cars, live in big houses and buy lots of stuff. Then we make movies about it and sell them all over the world where lots of people watch them and then decide that they too want to drive big cars, live in big houses and buy lots of stuff. Or some people may decide that the American way of life is bad and decide to fly planes into tall buildings to prove their point.

The bottom line is that we have to care about the impact our energy-guzzling lifestyle has on the rest of the world. Likewise, developing nations, like China and India, have to care about how they are developing and what they are pumping into the air. Friedman talks a lot about the political impact of oil and how it ties into national security. But, the same is true for electricity as well--especially if we start importing more LNG. The saying "Think Globally, Act Locally." may be trite, but it has never been more true.

I don't want to leave you thinking I'm disparaging Friedman. He's providing a valuable service by trying to create a national debate about these issues. However, I don't think we should kid ourselves. We have to recognize that this issue is ultimately about people and the energy they use and the goods they consume. We have to accept that we will most likely transform one long-term national or global problem for another. Acknowledging this is he first step to minimizing the impact. Finally, we have to accept less--less consumer goods and less convenience. There must be sacrifices and there must be changes in lifestyle if we are to make a difference. No pain, no gain.

Friedman states that his motto is "Green is the new red, white, and blue." But combating global warming isn't just an American endeavor. Green has has to be about other peoples' flags and colors, too. I'm working on a catchy motto of my own...something like: "Think: Less." It's a dangerous illusion to believe all of this won't require sacrifices to our lifestyles. We've got to quit thinking we need so much. It's a stretch, but just like we became the global model for consumerism, maybe Americans can become global models for de-consumerism,


Sukumar said...

Well said. My happy medium would be somewhere between Thomas Friedman's vision and Bill McKibben's world.

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. It is indeed a radical change, and a change that I fear many will be unwilling to implement unless the drastic costs of inaction are publicized and highlighted.