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Are greens these days just starry-eyed techno-optimists?

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Benjamin Sibelman
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Are greens these days just starry-eyed techno-optimists?

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Al Gore's group and others have definitely been heeding the lesson of that essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Rather than incessantly giving the “I have a nightmare” speech, they've been relentlessly upbeat lately about the potential for a new green economy that will make life better, rather than requiring any real sacrifice. All we have to do is use energy more efficiently, take the bus or bike when we can, buy local and organic (which, okay, does cost somewhat more), and oh yeah, demand that our leaders “save us from this climate crisis.” I'm hoping what they really meant there was “provide the necessary incentives to motivate industry and job seekers, so we can save ourselves.”

But then along comes someone like Sharon Astyk to upset the applecart. Sharon is the sort of environmentalist I used to think conservatives just made up as a straw man argument; she actually thinks we need to shrink the economy, raise unemployment (to reduce the number of commuters on the roads), and become a nation of “poorer but happier greenies,” an ideal that's deeply unattractive to the vast majority of Americans. And her argument against Gore's rosy scenario is concise and disturbingly obvious: Building all that new renewable infrastructure, most of it in rural areas that don't currently have the necessary population of workers, will itself be responsible for huge amounts of CO2 production, perhaps enough to push the world over a tipping point and precipitate the very catastrophe it's trying to prevent.

The obvious alternative is to focus on conservation and efficency and develop renewables at a slower, more realistic pace. To be honest, few if any highly-placed people are paying attention to Gore's ten-year timeline anyway; Obama's plan calls for a mere 25% transition in our electricity supply by seven years after Gore's deadline. But how far do we need to go here? Astyk actually claims that some efficiency measures, like building retrofits that add insulation to the walls to lower heating and cooling costs, are also worrisomely carbon-intensive themselves.

In the abstract, I have to admit that there is no a priori reason why we should be able to solve the climate crisis without reducing our quality of life. To claim otherwise is to work from the cornucopian assumption that there will always be a quick, cheap technical fix. But then, we do have a number of hopeful signs that the sacrifice Obama will need to ask us to make won't necessarily involve making the recession worse.
  • The massive power of the Internet: America's CO2 emissions have increased by about 20% since 1990. The SMART 2020 study seems to show that Obama's goal* of getting us back to 1990 levels by 2020 could be mostly accomplished just by using information technology to make our electric grid, transportation networks, and buildings “smarter” and enable more “virtual commuters.”
  • Biomimicry: Nature makes complex structures using nontoxic, room-temperature chemistry, in stark contrast to our current industrial practices, and those structures themselves are exquisitely adapted to make the most of whatever energy is available. Already, companies are looking into ways to make products that accomplish their goals the same way organisms do. One thing we've learned already, particularly from biomineralizing corals and other shelled critters, is that the right way of sequestering carbon is to solidify it rather than burying it still in gaseous form.
  • Pointless energy use: I'm not even talking about Las Vegas casinos here. In his book, Van Jones quotes Anuradha Mittal as saying that for example, “20 percent of California table grapes go to China, while China is the world's largest producer of table grapes. Half of all California's processed tomatoes go to Canada, and the U.S. imports $36 million worth of Canadian processed tomatoes yearly. . . . We are exporting what we are also importing because it is profitable for the companies doing it, not because it is good for the nation or the environment.” This kind of pointless trade-for-the-sake-of-trade is exactly the sort of thing Obama's carbon cap should stop in its tracks.
  • New coal power plants placed on hold: Thank you, EPA, for finally listening to the what the Supreme Court told you over a year and a half ago! The CO2 savings from avoiding both these huge construction projects and the subsequent plant operation are probably enough to build quite a number of wind turbines, while simultaneously providing an intense motivator for conservation. Local governments' long-term energy plans were probably founded on the assumption of those new coal-based supplies coming online. Now they'll be forced to look for simple things that just needed more political will (the ultimate renewable resource, eh, Al?), like programs to get people (especially apartment landlords!) to trade in all their old, inefficient appliances for Energy Star-compliant ones.
I'm sure Sharon Astyk would come up with some objection to each of these. My hope is that she'll come out with some actual numbers on the high carbon cost of making carbon-reducing tech, so she and Gore's people can have a real argument based on facts rather than conjecture.

*Note: it is somewhat worrisome that Obama doesn't mention energy efficiency at all in this speech.

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