This guy Black reads all of the good books. Read on and see what I Mean.
We’ve been here before, says Alexis Madrigal. Solar power, wind power, tidal energy, electric vehicles, biofuels made from algae — all of them have shown promise in the past, and some, like tidal turbines and electric cars, first showed up for duty more than 100 years ago. But why did they never reach lift-off, and why should things be any different today? That’s the question posed by Madrigal, a senior editor at the Atlantic and author of a new book called Powering the Dream. His answer may jolt many environmentalists. It’s time to put away Walden and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, he says, at least until we have thought through how the seminal ideas in those books can merge with the realities of the present and the future.
All of the visionary technologies that we see as the key to our future have foundered because they could not be scaled up to the mass market. Sometimes that was because the technology itself didn’t advance rapidly enough; sometimes it was because government was fickle about providing financial incentives; sometimes it was because powerful vested interests strangled the new baby in the cradle. (That one has never gone away, of course.)
The Edge: George Black on Climate, Energy, and Culture
For various reasons, Madrigal thinks the stars may finally be aligning. Climate change is our generation’s version of the oil shocks of the 1970s, only on a much larger scale; for the first time since Jimmy Carter we have a president who is seriously committed to clean energy; venture capitalists and big corporations see huge future sources of profit and are ready to invest billions of dollars to get there (assuming that government support remains constant). And even since Madrigal finished writing, instability in the oil-producing centers of the Middle East has increased our sense of vulnerability at being so dependent on fossil fuels. If all these currents of history weave together in the right way, we may at last get to the point where clean energy is produced on such a scale that it becomes cheaper than coal: a formula that Google famously calls RE < C.
That all sounds fine and dandy, except for two phrases that may already have stopped some readers in their tracks: venture capitalists and big corporations. The symbolic figure who opens Madrigal’s book is John Doerr, a venture capitalist whose view of the world is simply expressed: "I’m a raging capitalist. My job is to make a lot of money." And the symbolic project that closes the book is the huge Ivanpah thermal solar array planned for the Mojave Desert (in which Google has just invested $168 million) — in prime habitat for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Get used to it, says Madrigal. The world has changed profoundly. The adversary is no longer just your local factory dumping toxic effluent into the river (although of course there are still plenty of those). It’s carbon, and it’s global. The only realistic remedy is to produce renewable energy on a massive scale, and that can only be achieved by unleashing tremendous, game-changing economic forces. Heading into the woods with Thoreau is not an answer; at best, it may toss a piece of grit into the great cogs and gears of our profit-driven industrial machine. (Which was also true, incidentally, in the 1840s; spending a year in the cabin he built on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land didn’t stop the construction of a single mill or factory.)
That great machine is now ready to turn green, Madrigal says, in another episode of what he calls the "grand American narrative" — which President Obama, for one, embraces with enthusiasm. "Science! Technology! Progress! Economic growth! Unlimited everything! What’s not to love?"
Well, for many traditional environmentalists, plenty. For them (or do I mean us?), unlimited growth is precisely the problem. The ways in which we have used energy — the automobile, the suburb, the air-conditioner — have not just changed the way we live. They have changed who we are, what makes us human. We can’t have it all, and we shouldn’t want to.
Madrigal’s survey of our past failures to get renewable energy off the ground is endlessly provocative. Here’s one example: during the brief burst of enthusiasm for solar power in the 1970s, the cost of photovoltaics declined sharply. One reason was government support, but the other was that Exxon (or Esso, as it was still known in those days) invested heavily in the technology. Not because the corporation wanted to liberate us from petroleum, but because it saw solar as potentially profitable. Fast-forward to today: Exxon recently invested $600 million — about four days’ worth of profits — in a new company called Synthetic Genomics. Run by Craig Venter, who led the private effort to sequence the human genome, the purpose of the project is to research and develop the next generation of biofuels. I know, I know, Exxon is the devil incarnate. But what if the corporation, with all its cultural baggage — K Street lobbyists, bought politicians, unlimited advertising budgets, and so on — also becomes a poster child for our clean energy?
Madrigal is cautiously optimistic that we can square the circle, achieving a fusion of "old" and "new" environmentalism. The challenge is so urgent and overwhelming, he believes, that we will simply have to surrender some of our most cherished convictions. He’s a fan of the historian William Cronon, who says that the dichotomy between humans and the natural world has become an illusion; new energy technologies mean that large-scale industrial development can now occur without a heavy environmental footprint. Madrigal also pins a lot of hope on the fact that "many countercultural energy types grew up and became policy wonks," and thinks that if we try really hard we can inject at least some traditional environmental values into Wall Street and the corner office.
Do I share his optimism? I’m not sure. But in the end, I think my colleague Johanna Wald probably says it best when she tells Madrigal that for good or for ill, "We have to accept our responsibility that something we have advocated for decades is about to happen."