Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Earth Day Rant
Hank Stuever (no stranger to this blog) today claims Yoga Beri-like that Earth Day is passe because it's too popular. I have news for him. Like the whiny kid on Mothers Day that wonders when Children's Day is, every day is Earth Day. It's great to get together and hold hands and hug trees, but every day people all over the earth make a choice between damaging the earth and feeding their families.
Here is a dirty secret: Clean air and water are luxury goods. And like all luxuries and all necessities, there is a price for it. We Americans as a society started paying that cost in the 1970s when we passed the Clean Air Act and traded in Smokey The Bear (“Only you can prevent forest fires.”) for Woodsy The Owl (“Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.”) Delve just a little into economics (like the book Naked Economics reviewed here) and you learn about direct and shared costs and benefits.
Anytime tougher regulations are suggested, the resource extraction and waste producing industries band together to minimize their direct costs at the benefit of our shared benefits. Dick Cheney speaks for the oil industry, but who speaks for the trees? Senator Lorax?
Behind the general lack of civil rights and the suppression of internal minority groups, the environmental damage China is inflicting on itself and its neighbors is a major issue people are interlinking with the upcoming Olympics. I share their concern. Air pollution in Beijing is atrocious. From the top of the hill in Jingshan Park, you can’t see the front gate of the Forbidden City. The Chinese have been paying lip service to respecting the environment for some time, but the demands of economic growth have kept the coal-fired power plants chugging.
And when I mention China’s “neighbors” I mean the whole world. Smog from Asia works its way across the Pacific to acid rain on Oregon. A few years back when we went to Halong Bay in Vietnam, one of the most beautiful and serene natural places on earth (check out the pictures if you don't believe me), we passed a steady stream of large earth-moving trucks transporting coal from the nearby mountains that will end up in power plants in southern China. Vietnam is trying to balance mining with ecotourism, but selling off your backyard pays well. Just ask West Virginia.
Here in our own country we are leveling mountains and filling in stream beds to feed the coal plants that power the enormous internet engines of northern Virginia. A single building of internet servers can draw the energy needed for a small city. And coal is a dirty, dirty fuel. Back in the 80s when the threat of underpowered whiny electric cars was first being being bandied about, the hot rod magazines liked to point out that there is a smokestack at the end of every plug.
In London, they have spent nearly a decade peeling two centuries worth of grime and soot off of St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can see the restored white walls right next to the still blackened surfaces. Victorian London probably made modern Beijing look like a clear country meadow
The developing world sees our cars and highways and hears us preaching environmentalism and rightly asks “What about our turn?” It seems wasteful for me to drag 2,000 pounds of metal and plastic around with me everywhere I go just because I might have to put a dresser in the back of my SUV every now and then. Or even more ironically, to take my bicycle down the road for a drive.
One of the great advantages of a compressed industrialization cycle is that other countries can bypass our mistakes. In China and Vietnam cell phones are ubiquitous because it’s easier to raise a few cell towers than run miles of wire. The newly refurbished streets of Beijing are a mix of highways with access roads that have wide physically divided bike lanes. Their spanking new subway system has massive bicycle “park and ride” racks. It would be great if we could just skip the whole air-you-cut-with-a-knife phase and move onto clean energy sources.
Worldwide food resources are beginning to tighten and some doomsayers are already predicting that Malthusian chickens are coming home to roost. I doubt that, but our wildly optimistic hope that biofuels will let us extend our energy hogging ways another generation or two is looking pretty naïve. Burning food to power cars doesn’t make any more sense than burning dead dinosaurs.
The eventual solution will be a combination of big and little. I forsee a future where solar cells are as ubiquitous as semiconductor chips are now. But you can’t power a Google server farm without raising the albedo of an entire county. Nuclear power in some safe sustainable way will have to become a contributor, if only to make us less dependent on peoples that hate us because we have a six-hundred year head start on the philosophical cycle that runs from fundamentalism to enlightenment.
We as humans are lazy indifferent animals that tend not to be prodded into action until disaster is imminent, and then not always. Just ask Pompeii. We tend to do Just Enough and we tend to do it in The Nick Of Time. I just hope we aren’t Too Late.
BlatantCommentWhoring™:Will life be better or worse in fifty years?