Earth's Energy Future

 It will take a global response to take on climate change. Fortunately, there are visionaries and activists on the case: Deepa Anandakrishnan, Oronto Douglas, Denis Hayes, Josè Lutzenberger, Francesca Lyman, and Wolfgang Sachs.

Among the visionaries who are taking on the challenge of climate change is Denis Hayes, Earth Day founder, solar advocate, one of the people who launched the environmental movement. Denis is chair of Earth Day 2000, which will focus on global warming and the prospects for a clean energy future. YES! executive editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder asked Denis how climate change might get on the political agenda in the United States and how much leadership we can expect from the US government.

Denis: Four out of five Americans believe global warming is real. But it is not a top-tier issue in America. In part, this is because people don't see any way to effectively address such a massive, worldwide problem especially in the face of fierce opposition from the carbon fuels industries.

An even larger percentage of Americans favors obtaining our energy from renewable sources rather than coal, oil, or nuclear. But again, it is not a top-tier issue because people dont see an energy crisis to give the issue urgency. If and when people come to recognize that global warming is an energy crisis and that its solution is solar energy this broad-but-shallow support can be galvanized into broad, deep support. A solar lobby could become an unstoppable force.

It is very important for America, as the worlds largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to take a leadership role in developing a post-carbon energy sector. The United States, uniquely among nations, now has the wealth to underwrite a major energy transition. And the United States has developed many of the crucial renewable energy technologies to power the 21st century. Playing planetary chicken is unbecoming for a great nation, and the Senates adamant refusal to consider ratifying the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol is a source of international embarrassment. Actually, most of what the US Senate has done in the last six years is a source of embarrassment.

Sarah: What do you think are the keys to breaking the paralysis we seem to have in this country about taking on this challenge?

Denis: America likes to think of itself as a counter-puncher. We respond after we take a blow. World War II raged for many years before Pearl Harbor, but after Pearl Harbor America threw itself into a total mobilization. Space technologies that had languished for decades were accelerated at warp speed after Russia launched Sputnik.

If people come to realize that global warming is already happening that it is as real as the ozone hole; that all these hurricanes are not just random acts of the weather gods they will demand change.

Sarah: Who do you think might get behind such an effort?

Denis:Perhaps the right question is, who will oppose it? At least that's an easier question. Every industry that thinks that its economic well-being depends upon the world producing more carbon dioxide every year into the indefinite future will fight us tooth and nail. That includes the coal industry, most of the oil industry, most of the utility industry, most of the automobile industry . . .

Our allies on this political chessboard should include almost everyone else. The insurance industry is worried about the catastrophic losses that global warming will bring. Farmers worry that rainfall patterns and seasonal temperatures will adversely affect their crops and they see the economic benefits of sprinkling wind turbines through Midwestern corn fields. All major religions are motivated to maintain a stewardship compact to protect other species.

Most important, we must mobilize a standing army of citizens who will vote only for candidates who pledge to address this issue aggressively.

Sarah: You've mentioned that coal and oil companies are responsible for blocking political action. Now there seems to be a split among these companies. What do you think are the possibilities for seeing some significant change here?

Denis: There is more joy in heaven over repentant sinners than over the righteous who merely remain that way. I am delighted that the CEOs of British Petroleum, Shell, and Arco have now acknowledged the reality of global warming, and have abandoned their memberships in the Global Climate Coalition. (I'm not aware of any similar split in the ranks of coal companies.) Nevertheless, 99 percent of the investments of even these companies continues to flow in the wrong direction sometimes in enormously damaging ways. While condemning that damage, I'm willing to applaud their first tentative steps in the right direction, and encourage them to now try taking some giant strides.

Sarah: What do you think of the possibility for solar to really take off? I understand that a recent Greenpeace study demonstrated that the construction of one large photovoltaic manufacturing plant could bring down the price of solar to levels competitive with other forms of electricity.

Denis: David Brower sometimes says, “Thank God for Dave Foreman, he makes me seem so reasonable.” That's sort of how I feel about this new study.

For a quarter century, I have probably been the most optimistic of the knowledgeable proponents of photovoltaic cells. It is absolutely clear to me that economies of mass production will drive the price down to very low levels along a well-understood learning curve. Still, certain people have thought me too optimistic. So I'm pleased to have this new Greenpeace-sponsored study that is so wildly optimistic that I now appear very reasonable by comparison.

There are technical reasons why I believe the Greenpeace study is actually too optimistic. But even if it understates the cost by an order of magnitude, the amount of money needed is still pocket change in terms of the benefits produced. Cost-effective solar cells will fundamentally change the human prospect!

Incidentally, I believe the government should purchase photovoltaic cells in large volumes at pre-set declining prices but it should not manufacture them. We want to encourage private competition for market share. The government should create a huge market for solar cells just as it did in the early years for semiconductor chips and then let volume drive the price down. Soon the market for low-priced cells will be dominated by private purchases just as it now is for computer chips. That is the strategy that launched the information revolution, and it is the best way to launch the solar revolution as well.

Sarah : Even if we get a lot smarter about solar, were still increasing our economic activity at an enormous rate and were still adding to greenhouse gases. How do we deal with this growth at the global level?

Denis: A solar energy revolution is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a sustainable society. A long litany of crises will remain in a solar-powered world. We would still face an epidemic of extinctions; myriad persistent pollutants; a human population beyond the planets carrying capacity; the specters of nuclear annihilation and bioterrorism. ...

Energy is just one component of the human evolution toward simplicity, elegance, and quality as the standards of material worth. In a sustainable future, people will embrace an ethic of wise husbandry instead of accelerating the rate at which resources are transferred from the mine to the dump. Gross Domestic Product will become less important than Net National Welfare.

An energy revolution will not accomplish all this. However, it will go a very long way toward avoiding a global warming calamity, eliminating bomb-grade nuclear materials from the arteries of commerce, improving public health, and improving international equity (sunlight and wind being more equitably distributed than oil and coal). Its a worthwhile goal.

Sarah: What gives you hope?

Denis: Since there is no survival value in pessimism, evolution has probably produced a predisposition toward hopefulness among humans. (Many of my environmentalist friends do a masterful job of suppressing this predisposition.)

Hope is an absolute prerequisite for any social change. It is, of course, best if there are legitimate reasons underlying this hope; false hope can lead to great catastrophes.

But zero hope produces zero action.

There are many legitimate reasons for hope today. For example, the communications revolution is making possible the creation of a true global consciousness. We can see the effects of our actions, and feel them as one planet. Ozone holes can be visualized, and the vision can provoke swift, effective international action.

Perhaps my greatest hope, however, is the belief that humans, like all other animals, have hardwired into our brains a powerful drive for survival. We overlay it with all sorts of intellectual constructs, but at the root almost all people have an intense desire for the human species to survive. And they have an intuitive understanding of what will promote survival.

To focus again on energy, if you ask a broad cross-section of the population whether they would prefer to create a world in which their children get most of their energy from coal, nuclear, or solar sources, 80 to 90 percent of the people will choose solar.

This is just one more bit of evidence that Thomas Jeffersons political insight was correct: The average citizen has a huge amount of common sense. And in an increasingly democratic world, widespread common sense provides a pretty solid foundation for hope.


Denis Hayes is president & CEO of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, and chair and CEO of Earth Day 2000

India, youth & a global future

Deepa Anandakrishnan I was raised in an Indian village where my father looked after the crops, and my mother was a homemaker. My childhood was full of playing in the paddy fields and mango orchards, chasing butterflies, and watching birds and insects. The village was so small that we knew practically everyone else by name.

Today, the village is a suburb of a big city, Chennai (formerly Madras) in the south of India. As more and more people moved in, we had less paddy fields, more cars and motorcycles, fewer bullock and horse-drawn carts, and a lot less fresh air and clean water.

As my country transitions to a developed society, these problems become especially complex because of the lack of awareness among people who nonetheless bear the impact of increasing environmental woes.

During an average day, an Indian woman living in a rural area spends about 80 percent of her time fetching water and collecting firewood for cooking. Imagine the difference a solar cooker, a solar light, and a solar water pump could make in her life. And imagine that there are still 2 billion of us on Earth who do not have electricity! In India, coal meets two-thirds of the energy requirements, and 2.5 million people die prematurely each year from air pollution, mostly from fuels used at home.

I had been working with a organization called EXNORA International for the past six years, which works with the citizens of Chennai on solid waste issues, tree planting, and water quality. I was very much acting locally, lacking a global perspective.

But this changed when I participated in the King County World Conservation Corps program in 1996 in Seattle, USA. The Corps brings young adults from across the globe to work on environmental restoration. In Seattle, I heard stories about the environment from my fellow participants. On my return to India, I initiated a similar program, and then in 1998, I joined Dwight Wilson, a Seattle environmentalist, and five other enthusiasts from Argentina, Chile, India, Kenya, and Pakistan to form the World Corps. Our plan is to recruit, train, and mobilize young adults of all nations who wish to lead the worlds transition to a clean-energy future and to defeat global warming, poverty, and war.

My plan is to advocate the use of renewables with the hope that as they become popular, they will become economically viable, providing millions of people with access to electricity for the first time.

Together, we can bring about a social transformation, both in the majority and minority world, that will lead to conscious and wise decisions on our global future.


How fast can we make the earth smile?

Oronto Douglas We are involved in a struggle for survival. In the Niger Delta of my birth, oil transnationals are the undisputed lords and masters. The water we drink and fish, the air we breathe, and the forest and land that gives forth their abundance are under the firm control of resource hunters. This undemocratic control of resources has led to continuing degradation of our environment. Forest destruction, gas flaring, oil pollution, inappropriate road construction, canalization, and diversions of rivers and streams have become the nightmare.

Not only do these environmental abuses affect the survival of all life in the Niger Delta, but we now know that the recklessness has implications for the rest of humanity. The warning from scientists across the world that global climate change could have a catastrophic effect is an issue that my colleagues and I cannot ignore. We are a forest and fishing dependent people. My understanding is that the on-going economic activities in my country may be contributing to the unhappiness of tomorrows generation. Those who will pay are the innocent, the unborn, and those unprotected from globalization.

What history do we want to leave for people 2,000 years from now? Can you for one minute imagine a world where we do not take from nature what we cannot nurture and replace?

The Nigerian economy is oil based now, but this was not the case three or more decades ago. Oil has provoked conflicts, wars, and environmental damage. The social pandemonium created by our forced romance with hydrocarbons can be corrected fast via a transition to substances that promote ecological health. When the boom of the dynamites and the oil-related violence on our people are lifted forever, our land of violations will have some respite and our people will regain a land they can struggle to replenish. The skyscraper-flames of gasflares will collapse, but the rivers will remain polluted, and all around there may be waste dumps and polluted sites and anguish slapped on the faces of the survivors. We may never know how much we have lost in terms of biodiversity and peaceful coexistence.

Our dream is a post-petroleum society in which we can generate power without pain.

Can our people tap the abundance of the sun, the wind, and the oceans at the family and community levels without having corporate giants breathing down our necks? Can we ensure that by our benefitting from natures treasures we are not contributing to the destruction of our planet?

The transition must be based on the protection of traditional values of community, respect for elders, and protection of our environment and way of life. Indeed, we must aspire to reclaim and protect our primitive integrity. We must promote those survival strategies that ennoble nature and humanity. The challenge: How fast can we make planet Earth smile?

Oronto Douglas is the deputy director of Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Nigeria, [email protected]


Signs & Symbols of Change

Francesca Lyman It was yet another sign of global warming. This fall, the Nikolai Art Gallery in New York Citys Chelsea district unveiled a giant, 20-foot wide light-box sign that hovered just above the Exxon sign at the gas station next door. Virtually identical in its corporate blue and red letters, it read simply, global warming. Hanging it from a fire escape spanning the entire length of the gallery, the artists promised similar memes at other New York gas stations.

For those who take global warming seriously, the good news is that our petroleum economy is so profligate that much can be done to conserve energy without sacrifice. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if drivers in vast numbers turned away from the most gas- guzzling cars, like sports utility vehicles, they could lighten the load of our oil-driven transportation system, which contributes more than a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Plenty of post-petroleum tools are already at hand. John C. Ryan, author of Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet, spotlights simple items that are monuments to sustainability, notably the bicycle. Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance, Ryan writes. Nearly half the 50 million recreational riders in the United States or one out of five adults say they would sometimes bike to work if better bike lanes existed, he notes.

Another global-cooling object, the ceiling-fan, uses one-tenth the wattage of a medium-sized room air conditioner. It is just one of many environmentally attuned design features including well placed windows, skylights, superinsulation, and light- colored roofs that could help moderate climate, both in our energy-squandering houses and a greenhouse world.

Perhaps the most simple, silent and non-polluting technology, one using sun and wind to marvelous effect, is the clothesline. This became a symbol for students at Vermonts Middlebury College organizing against power plants, writes Ryan. Their simple message: sustainability can begin in our own backyards.

A Post-Fossil Way of Life

Wolfgang Sachs It has only been since the fossil reserves deep under the surface of the Earth were tapped that the gates to an age of apparently unlimited economic growth were thrown open. Prior to 1800, production was linked to the regenerative cycles of growing corn, cotton, timber, and animals, which made limitless growth unthinkable. The transformation of geologically highly organized materials, such as coal, oil, and iron has allowed the economy to overcome limits.

Today, after one and a half centuries of industrial progress, the hidden assumption that nature would provide never-ending generosity has collapsed. What worries me especially about global warming is the insidious nature of the impacts. The image of Manhattan suddenly flooded is wrong. Smaller things will change, slowly, invisibly, not directly attributable to climate change. Just as environmental effects are looming in the background of cancer, climate effects will loom in the background of weather changes, the spread of infections, and decreasing soil humidity.

As the world appears to be running out of nature rather than people, priorities must shift: it is much more intelligent to lay off unproductive kilowatts, barrels of oil, tons of material, pulp from old-growth forest, and water from aquifers than more and more people.

The scope for doing so is enormous if one considers that 94 percent of the materials extracted for use in manufacturing durable products become waste before the product is finished. The waste takes the form of heat that escapes from power plants, land that has been mined, irrigation water that has evaporated, and discarded biomass.

The mission of a post-fossil economy will be to provide well-being to people, using ever decreasing amounts of natural resources.

Is it possible that these limitations can actually provide new opportunities for a higher quality of life?

Getting around: Faster, further as well as more are the themes of fossil-powered progress. Trains, limousines and jets promise high speed. Indeed, the assumption that higher speeds are always better prevails to the present day.

However, the fuels, vehicles, roads, and runways require gigantic flows of energy and materials. Transport systems in the North are major sources and the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide emissions; yet, they have turned out to be the most intractable issue of climate policy.

Transportation illustrates that growth in quantity may after a certain point have diminishing returns in quality of life. Most advantages of car ownership, for instance, are relative advantages; they remain stable or decline when car ownership spreads. Moreover, growth in quantity may actually undermine fundamental sources of quality of life, such as friendship, community participation, security, or beauty. In a fully motorized society, the acquisition of one or more cars is often not a choice, but a sheer necessity. In sum, disillusionment is built into the process of mass motorization.

Likewise, production and life-styles based on high volumes of long-distance transportation carry an unsustainable load of energy and raw materials. For example, a German carton of yogurt, taking all ingredients and packaging cumulatively, travels around 9,000 kilometers before it reaches the consumer. A transport-saving economy relies on shorter distances, thereby favoring regional rather than long-distance economies.

Time scarcity: In affluent societies, time rather than money is the good that is lacking at least among the broad middle classes. Despite all their freedom to consume, people rarely have the option to choose how much time they will work.

In terms of well-being, gaining time can compensate for lost income, opening room for satisfying pursuits outside of the market sphere. And economic underachievers may help give rise to societies with greater reciprocity and a more vibrant civic life.

Too much stuff: Research into the psychology of happiness can neither find within nor between societies evidence that levels of satisfaction significantly increase with levels of wealth. In fact, in a multi-option society, people suffer less from a lack than from an excess of opportunities. The proliferation of options makes it difficult to know what one wants, what one does not want, and to cherish what one has.

In an age of exploding options, only self-reflective consumers will be able to maintain their identity. Conscious consumption may become a future-oriented attitude, for nature, for the world, and for oneself. Henry David Thoreau put it in a nutshell, when he wrote in his journal at Walden Pond: A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.