The world

Like the man said, “in my house my wife makes all the little decisions and I make the big ones.  My wife decides which suburb to live, what sort of house we buy, the type of car we drive, where the children go to school and all that little stuff.  I worry about China and the WTO, nuclear disarmament, how to stop global warming and the other big stuff.”

earth apollo 8

Time to worry about the big stuff. Global warming, loss of forests, desertification, species extinction, coral reef bleaching, too little water, too much water, overpopulation, starvation, war, famine, Armageddon.

What can one do?  First, understand what is going on, then form an opinion and finally take action.  Simple…

To understand one has either to sort and interpret a vast amount of information or take a condensed version as the “truth”.  For instance, the National Geographic “Energy for tomorrow” (May/June 2009) is a good, digestible compendium of information. However, the ads by Royal Dutch Shell on the inside and outside covers raise the realist’s antennae. To be sure, the content of the booklet is factual and not influenced by outside pressure – yet – those ads do distract.

The Economist, in a lengthy section in Business in America “Surviving the slump” (May 30, 2009) addresses global warming, carbon tax and alternative energy in a section titled “A green revolution“. The section on the US cap-and-trade bill (as it stood in May 2009) is required reading. The fact that the bill will “give away 85% of the permits to pollute” illustrates the gap between good intentions and political/business reality. The Economist rarely pulls its punches, and seems a very balanced source of news. But, remember that it is a publication unashamedly on the side of capitalism, business and free trade.

Of the many sites and the conflicting information available, the realist can offer only one guideline; follow the money, who stands to profit from the information?  With that slim guideline, here are some additional sites, giving very different perspectives:

and here are a couple of the many sites casting doubt on the above:

On the “we must do something now” side:

Governments, at all levels, from the town recycling program to the UN provide immense amounts of data.

The Obama/Biden plan lays out the current US administration thinking on energy. Compared to previous policy it is a vast improvement. [The realist’s comments on the key points are in square brackets.]

  • “Provide short-term relief to American families facing pain at the pump”. – [I guess that a politician needs to say something like that to get elected. Maybe we need a lot more pain to switch to better cars]
  • “Help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.”
  • “Within 10 years save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined”
  • “Put 1 million Plug-In Hybrid cars – cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon – on the road by 2015, cars that we will work to make sure are built here in America” – [Are hybrids really the way to go? Diesel cars are getting mileage as good as or better than hybrids in Europe today. All electric cars may be a better way, especially with the idea of exchangeable batteries, available from your friendly roadside electricity station]
  • “Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.” – [We need to aim much deeper than that – we need somehow get to “zero” fossil fuels in 50 or so years. It is technically possible, but very difficult. Is it politically possible?]
  • “Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.” – [yes, but see what’s already happening with the first US cap-and-trade bill]

To reiterate; the approach to energy by this administration is so much clearer and realistic than before that it seems mean to criticize it.  It is a great step in the right direction, but needs to go much further, much quicker.

Just a couple more words on getting educated – nothing is simple! Solar energy, for example, should be a no-brainer. But it is not. Here is another discussion: “Why Not the Sun? Advantages of and Problems with Solar Energy” (Released December 2008)”.

Then form an opinion.  That is up to you.  For what it’s worth, the realist’s opinion is:

  • That global warming is influenced by human activity, that the results of global warming (coupled with population growth and impossible economic growth for that total population) will have negative effects on the quality of life of most people on earth.
  • That the timescale of these negative effects is not in some far distant future, but is here now, and will affect us (a little – I am writing this from a privileged position in the NE US after all), our children (somewhat) and our grandchildren (seriously) – without taking into consideration anything like the seventh generation.
  • That “something” will happen to rectify the situation.  That something may be a major catastrophe (or series of catastrophes – at least to those who get displaced, or who go hungry and thirsty), it may be a nasty “correction” within the capitalist system, or it could be a planned, gradual and beneficial transition to an alternative energy society.
  • That even if there were any doubt about the need to move to energy conservation, phasing out of fossil fuel use and sustainable energy generation, all of these actions still make sense on basic economic and risk management principles.

Then take action. To get anything done however, you either need to do it yourself (see the House section) or influence a politician.  Luckily, we (still) live in a democracy. So our voices should be heard and our combined judgment should be acted on by our elected representatives, and carried out by our public servants.

No one opposes clean air, clean water, pleasant beaches, fresh food, a profusion of plants and animals. No one wants strip mines or coal dust in their house or school.  No one wants chemicals in their ground water or antibiotics in their hamburgers. In a democracy, you can influence these decisions. If we, in the majority, remain silent then the noisy, well-funded minorities will continue to set policy.

Somehow our individual voices are swamped by louder and more organized demands, who typically represent some group who gains in some manner – by retaining (and expanding on) the status quo (“drill more”), by benefiting from subsidies (our taxes!), or by translating genuine needs into product sales. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches – having more oil available is good, subsidies allow new technologies to evolve to economic scale, and purchase of an energy efficient air-conditioner does save electricity. However, they do not make a meaningful dent in the energy requirements of our species.

At the pessimistic end of the scale, these actions can be harmful. Having more oil will delay the introduction of truly energy efficient transport. So we waste more of the precious stuff for another few decades. Subsidies assume that government knows best and may do harm. It has been argued (The Economist. “More light than heat: Bureaucratic meddling has harmed solar power.” April 7, 2008.) that Germany’s highly visible and successful subsidy of photovoltaics, in a country of relatively low sunshine, has driven the price of PV’s up to the point where countries with abundant sunshine, like Spain and, even more extreme, the countries of northern Africa, cannot afford the technology. The purchase of energy efficient gadgets hides the need for fundamental change in building construction and planning of heating and cooling systems.

Anyhow, once having an opinion let your representatives know what you want. They do react to public pressure! Here is where to contact them:

New Jersey:

This article in the NY Times indicates how Texas (yes, Texas) and California lead the US in alternative energy implementation “In the absence of sustained federal action to support clean energy and fight climate change, Texas and California are serving as important policy laboratories”

This is the sort of discussion you need to influence.

Good Luck…


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