Between the grims and the grins
by Allen Best
Do you believe in technology? I sure do. I came of age when electric typewriters were somewhat novel, a telephone call to a town only 10 miles away was long distance and a 30-volume set of World Britannica represented an exhaustive knowledge base.
But will technology enable us to stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions? Are scientists and engineers really smart enough to find a way that won't cause us to broil in our warming soup? Even among those who agree that human-caused climate change is a compelling problem, I see two very different views. Call them the techno-optimists and the techno-pessimists. Or the grins and the grims.
The happy warriors see the problem as solvable, if we are willing to redesign our lives. Energy must be used more efficiently, we need to deploy more renewable sources, and we need to do so in a dispersed fashion, with a solar panel on every rooftop, a turbine on every windy ridge and a lightweight electric car in every garage.
In this cheerful future, we can have very comfortable lives trimmed of gluttony but guided by intelligence. Amory Lovins is perhaps the most prominent proponent of this viewpoint. He's been at it more than 30 years, and if not quite a household name, he has nonetheless been greatly influential among energy policymakers, helping guide the United States to more efficient uses of energy.
But his argument has a soft underbelly. If all we do is milk more productivity out of energy, doesn't this encourage us to spend our savings in other ways? For example, if we can save energy building and powering our homes, aren't we liable to use that savings on outdoor Jacuzzis and swimming pools?
The counterpoint to Lovins at the Aspen Environment Forum and other sessions in the West has been James Howard Kunstler. He became famous for his stern criticism of post-World War II urban designs and suburban living patterns. He's funny in a snide and often profane way. Shown a '60s-style condominium building during a tour several years ago, he barked out: “Whoever designed that should be summarily shot." Because of global climate change, Kunstler sees darkness ahead, at least by standard definitions of prosperity, including virtual abandonment of that totem of 20th century ingenuity, the high-rise building.
Kunstler looks to the early 20th century for his inspiration, a time when energy was less abundantly exploited. Public transportation was used more frequently, and housing was more compact. Fewer among us lived like kings. Looking ahead, Kunstler foresees car-happy Westerners becoming increasingly dysfunctional. In the West, he predicts a mass exodus from Las Vegas and the other boomtowns of the last several decades. Technology, he warns, can never save our gooses.
Daniel Nocera, however, looks forward optimistically even as Greenland's glaciers turn into soup. He's a professor of chemistry and energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is guiding development in solar technology. Solar, he says, remains our only hope. Wind has limited application, he says, and as for biomass, even if all the vegetation on the globe down to the last blade of grass were converted into electricity, it still wouldn't meet global needs by 2050. Nocera has great faith in the ability of scientists and engineers like himself to swoop in and save us from harm's way. He makes this case even though some of these same scientists and engineers put us in harm's way.
Like it or not, I am drawn to the techno-optimists, and why not? Human ingenuity is impressive. I am thankful almost every day for the advances in acoustical technology that allow me to retain the hearing that my father and grandfather had lost by this point in their lives.
Yet Kunstler speaks to me, too. Abrasive and egotistic, he ironically argues the case for human humility. Our wizardry has limits, he admits, and our modern existence remains fundamentally reliant on the continued availability of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. That means our choices are much more difficult than choosing the right technologies from some giant Radio Shack of energy and climate solutions. Kunstler's grim message may be hard to swallow, but it needs to be chewed on as we address population growth, greenhouse gases and the limits we impose on producing energy.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about environmental issues from Denver, Colorado.© High Country News