Friday, February 8, 2008

Kiss Me - I'm Irish!

Everyone seems to be "going green" now. It's as if it's St. Patrick's Day all year round - everywhere you turn everyone is removing their petroleum based, Chinese produced clothing to don a green-tinted sweater made of natural fibers. Gone are the days when to be "green" meant that one was a Birkenstock wearing anarchist. Now, even our bourgeois bohemians are hugging trees.

But, our embrace of green bears a good deal of resemblance to St. Patrick's Day in other important respects: on that one day of the year, everyone suddenly claims to be Irish whether or not that claim bears any relation to reality. Heck, a few years ago even the Irish started holding parades on that day, not to disappoint the American tourists who made special trips to Ireland to celebrate (quite a bit like all the revelers at Mardi Gras who have no intent to observe Lent, nor even the knowledge of what Lent is). Our environmental "greenness" is as substantial as our March 17 Irishness: each is wholly superficial and bears no actual relation to reality.

A case in point: out of curiosity, I attended the Washington D.C. Auto Show two weeks ago, and wasn't remotely surprised that every auto manufacturer prominently advertised all the ways that they are embracing a "green future." Signs bragging about the mileage of existing cars - as if the frequent invocation that a car can get 30 mpg will convince us that this is actually good mileage
(I guess it can only be construed in that way when we take the Hummer as the baseline of any such comparisons) - and a bright future of cars running on biofuels and electricity all sought to induce the collective illusion that we could expect a future in which we will live exactly as we've been doing and pay no costs. This is a feel-good advertising campaign that promises more of just what we've been doing - paying absolutely no attention to what it is we are doing. It's quite evident that we are all rushing to embrace the "green" label so that we can avoid actually thinking about what would be entailed to slow our destruction of the natural world.

Denizens on the environmental Left, our bourgeois bohemian centrists, even our Schwarzneggerian Republicans - along with various automobile manufacturers - all evince a great deal of excitement about the prospect of a "clean" biofuel-powered or plug-in electric car. No more dirty emissions, no more addiction to oil! Just fill it with vegetable oil or plug it in and save the planet.

Alas, were it that easy - as easy as putting on a hat that says "Erin Go Braugh." A report in today's "New York Times" recounts growing evidence of the enormous destruction and carbon emissions of "bio-fuels," the boom in which is resulting in the destruction of huge swaths of carbon-consuming rainforests and nature preserves. It turns out our rush to adopt this new, "clean" energy source - which, incidentally, is also resulting in the starvation of poor peoples who cannot afford the rising price of food, a consequence of our refusal to drive less to eat at "TGIF" and "Dunkin' Donuts" - is contributing mightily to the ravaging of the planet.

Further, enthusiasts of the electric car can spare nary a thought to the question of where electricity comes from (do we suppose we collect the static electricity generated by rubbing our sneakers on a carpet?). Well, what a surprise it is to most people to learn that we generate most of our electricity using coal, followed by natural gas and then distantly by nuclear, water, wind and solar. Our "clean" electric car future is going to be powered by a different (and still limited) fossil fuel, one that is considerably more polluting than refined oil and which is mined in ways that destroys the land and unsettles communities. As I've noted previously, our lust for coal (to power our IPODs and televisions) even trumps our sacred spaces. Once we begin to reflect on our desperation to continue our current rate of consumption and reckless addiction to profligate energy usage, it's quite clear that all the "green" that is being embraced is as genuine as the Irish heritage of our St. Patrick's day revelers. It's all a kind of pretending.

But, we're told by our techno-optimists, we'll just bury the carbon generated by coal plants and drive happily into less brilliant sunsets. The problem with this scenario is the pure fantasy that it peddles - a fact brought home with particular force last week when the Bush Administration pulled the plug on federal government investment in "Future Gen," once touted as our path to "clean coal" technology. As this program discusses, it turns out that sequestration of coal will require an industry as large and complex as the current oil extraction industry. Yet, that industry - in the first instance - took nearly a century to develop into its current form, and secondly, was able to become so massive because of the enormous profits that were generated from that expensive investment. What was being proposed - and was just killed - was a comparably large industry that would generate no return - would actually draw down on whatever energy (and resulting profit) that was being generated by the burning of the coal in the first instance. In the end, the Government was forced to face "the reality based" realization that such sequestration had no economic justification and would require such massive investments as to make the gains of burning coal nugatory.

This means two possible things: if we are going to have an electric fleet, it will surely be running to a great extent on "dirty coal" (Note that no one will call it that - it will just be called "coal," with adjectival descriptors magically disappearing). Or, the second possibility is that we really truly mean it about "going green," and thus forgo our current way of life, begin to make changes to our built community so that we can walk more, buy goods from more local sources, and live smaller and leaner and poorer.

For the record, my money is on a big self-delusive continuation of our St. Patrick's Day party. I think we are likely to make the transition to an electric fleet all the while enjoying the illusion and willed self-deception that we are helping the planet. Only unfortunate people living in certain parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado and Wyoming will know the difference (and, of course, the owners of coal company stock who live nowhere near those places and will be unaffected by the consequences of strip mining and "mountaintop removal").

Above all, we will continue to insist on living in a condition of willful separation, a state of complete oblivion from the consequences and costs of our actions, its impact on future generations and at a distance from the sources of our gluttony. Wendell Berry has written that the only movement that he would agree to joining is a MTTEWIID - a "Movement to Teach The Economy What It Is Doing." So far, it looks like it's going to be an exceedingly small movement, and barely noticeable from behind the tinted windows of our "clean" electric cars.

1 comment:

Stuart Buck said...

Further, enthusiasts of the electric car can spare nary a thought to the question of where electricity comes from (do we suppose we collect the static electricity generated by rubbing our sneakers on a carpet?).

Maybe there's a promising source here?