IT ISN’T EASY BEING GREEN

“OK we’ve been peeing in the pool long enough. When it was just a few kids it was one thing but now that we are north of 7 billion we need to knock it off or the pool will be closed!”

Back in the 60s, hippies were preaching that we were wrecking the environment and there was a movement called going “back to the land”, as if had actually ever lived on the ‘land” in some previous life and not the suburbs most of us had actually grown up in. But they had their hearts in the right place even if raising goats for profit was really not going to pan out. My wife Margaret and I were a couple of those dreamy idealists. We moved to the country and put up a barn. We installed solar panels and composted everything is site. Margaret recycled when it was very hard to do. Our wooden-sided Morris Minor went 63 mph, got 38 mpg and we heated the house with wood and dogs (we still do). Fortunately we bought our land in the mountains overlooking Silicon Valley and not some backwater in eastern Idaho. Our scheme to raise buffalo (for what, hides?) didn’t exactly pan out. It seems they really do roam like the song says. So we got real jobs and here we are today.

Now the green revolution has caught up to where we were 35 years ago and everyone blinks with dilated eyes thinking its something new. It isn’t new but now it is more then a lifestyle. It’s necessary for life itself.

I just read an article by a leading editorialist, Paul Johnson, in Forbes. (I read Forbes because I want to see how old people think). Paul talks about the bogus global warming scam and he laments seeing newfangled power generating windmills wrecking his view. He discredits them as a medieval invention and not to be taken seriously. Of course printing was a medieval invention so maybe everything from that era isn’t so bad. It is simply beyond my ability to understand how some folks can complain that others are trying to tidy up the planet.
A big question many people wrestle with is: do people cause detrimental environment effects and if so how much? The answer is irrelevant. Slothful, pollution spewing lifestyles are not supportable on a personal or a societal level. Whether we are actually ruining the climate or not our lives are made less sustainable and ultimately less fun if we continue to pile up more patio furniture, appliances and all sorts of things that clutter out lives instead of making it more graceful. Will cleaning up the environment fix that? Not directly but decoupling from the couch and doing something more real than watching Dancing With The Stars might make a person more content.

Nearly everyone I talk to says TV is evil but they are in its grip and therefore, powerless. How did this devolve to a discussion of TV? Well TV is perfect example of an unsustainable model. It uses electricity to take control of one’s brain to stop one from experiencing actual life. TV makes you eat more and consume products you see advertised that until that point you didn’t even want (this isn’t you of course but, you know a guy who knows a guy who has three TVs or even five in a single home).

Today it seems that every topic (certainly when discussing the green movement) circles back to the economy. Who is responsible for our current state? We can blame the bankers. We can blame Wall Street or we can level our guns at the politicians. But the real culprit is much closer to home. Like Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and it is us. “Let me say that by no means am I preaching. I am as much a part of the problem as any of us but I do recognize that we individuals, in concert with classic good ol’ American Capitalism, have created an untenable situation. We are both victims and beneficiaries of all the genetic evolution and cultural predispositions to acquire stuff. Once again TV is a perfect metaphor to see how stuff is driving us crazy. It is not uncommon to see three four or even five controllers on someone’s coffee table (perhaps we should call them control centers). Each of these controllers has dozens of buttons which open ever more screens giving us options for our viewing pleasure. This array of controllers give us hundreds of options. Couple this with all the other devices like cell phones, computers, cameras, cars, kitchens and we have hundreds of buttons we can push to control…what? Well just a few functions really. We have hundreds of buttons we never use and so many choices that there is no way to make the best one. Try picking the best digital camera from the hundreds of choices. Confront an unfamiliar microwave and it will stop you dead. In a commercial kitchen where intense cooking takes place a microwave doesn’t even have a start button just a dial with a minute hand. How did we get to the point where all out cool stuff is actually anti us? The free market is merely satisfying out desire to amass stuff, a normal human response. Instead of gathering more spear points and fur blankets we surround ourselves with more horsepower and ever more complicated gizmos that seem to be complex for the pleasure of the manufacturer trying to fool us with shiny buttons. Is it any wonder that folks take home loans that they can’t pay in the future? They are just trying to find shelter.

So am I against an unfettered free market? You bet I am. The free market gave us the great tobacco conspiracy where we were free to believe the great lie from the 40s and 50’s that doctors recommended cigarettes. Or car companies that fought the seat belt and airbag laws. Exactly were we put the pin in the map to establish the rules is the job of government but without serious punishment for lying and corrupting the information the process is crippled.

To a large extent it is the borrowing from our future that has gotten us a fix. If the future continues to be more lucrative than the past you can borrow today and pay back with more plentiful money later. But if the future turns out to not be bigger but the same size, or horrors, smaller then you have basically ate yer cookies up on day one of a four day camping trip.
It is impossible to separate the perpetrators and victims. We are locked in a tarantella of capitalism and desire and there is no clear path out of this crazy dance. We enjoy a society where the market is free to sell us things we really don’t want, bundled with the things we do. A large grocery store has as many as 10,000 things to eat. Most of the things are heavily processed foods because that’s the profitable and tasty stuff. Much of it is not good for the body and a lot of it really isn’t food but extracts of food with chemicals added to change the color, texture, taste and is, in fact, artificial food. The food industry is at war with us.

How can we get out of the forest of over-choice and over-consumption and find a way to sort out the beneficial from the harmful? Well, we actually have to march counter to our genetic imperative of gathering ever more stuff. Everyone seems to agree that more things don’t deliver more happiness yet we seem to keep piling it on. Just like watching your diet and exercise we need to ask ourselves if that next thing will bring us more joy or more anxiety. We have always been told that our economy must grow, that our piece of the action should get ever larger. Growth for growth sake! But is this really true? What if we just grow to full size – and live?

GOING GREEN

Tony Perkins played host to about 600 green entrepreneurs and venture types at the new Cavallo Center on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here is an old military base having been beaten into plowshares in the form a resort run by the estimable Post Ranch folks. It is very nice, in a Marin precious sort of way. The repurposed barracks with the broad lawn sweeping to the sea and the incoming sea is grand.

Chuck Reed the progressive mayor of San Jose told us about his big plans green up his city like no other city. He wants to do much more than be carbon neutral and his plan was well articulated when he spoke at Going Green. It is well worth a look. You can go to the web site and see the entire program and Chuck’s plan in particular. Chuck is so green he’s getting black and blue trying to find the money to put his proposals into action.
The conference brought folks from all corners of the green movement, except ironically the hippies who have either moved deep into woods or morphed into real people. What constitutes green anyway? Well, in the Sept 11th issue of Time Magazine Scot Case with TerraChoice surveyed products in an unnamed big box store that claimed a green component.

From Time, “The results were startling: of the 1,018 products they surveyed, all but one failed to live up fully to their green boasts. Words like nontoxic were used in meaninglessly vague ways. Terms like Energy Star Certified were in fact not backed up by certification. And the list of bogus claims went on. This is one small corner of the green movement and it illustrates the unregulated atmosphere we see today.”

There is both a great deal of duplication with overlapping technologies coupled with uncertainty in the markets in the green movement. Many of the green companies are hardware and personnel intense. Focusing on solar electric gives a good illustration. Making solar equipment is a long term play. Firms need at least four years of financial support and in the case of large solar arrays as much as 10 years. The solar entrepreneurs are hoping for at least part of the subsidies that the fossil fuel and nuclear industry have gotten over the years but even though the long awaited federal tax credits have been renewed it is a slim lifeline for these vital solutions.

Because so many of energy systems are large infrastructure plays it is essential that there be a floor below which energy pricing cannot fall or the companies will not mature. In the 70’s there was a solar movement. There were actually solar panels on the White House installed by Carter but Reagan laughed them off the roof and that made sense in the cheap oil era. Without a price floor, solar electric companies are reluctance to invest the money necessary to launch large array plants. As a result this business has moved to other countries. Germany and Japan are not known as particularly sunny spots but these countries along with Australia and Israel are running hard to bring ever increasing solar electric power on line.
It is unfathomable why politicians don’t get behind solar unless they are subject to skin cancer and actually hate the sun. Some folks are big behind renewing the nuclear option blindly forgetting that we never solved the disposal or dispersal problem. To pick life-killing gamma rays over life-giving visible light rays is environmentally, socially and economically inexpedient, unless you are in the pocket of these concerns. The actual cost of fuel must be totaled by adding cost of extraction, pollution and sustainability. Fossil fuels are limited, polluting, and will run out. Biofuels take tremendous amounts of machinery, land, water and processing. Wave power is very limited and has serious hardware problems. Wind is a good option but it involves big equipment with many moving parts and ever increasing environments problems of its own. Some of these mills are being designed with 400 foot blades that make a good deal of noise and don’t seem to turn when on the hottest days when peak power is required Only solar, and large desert array solar, has the potential to free us from the problems of the fuels above. Few moving parts, proven technology and free fuel forever when it is needed on the hottest days.

Bill Clinton lamented on the John Stewart show recently that if we had had the imagination seven years ago to go solar we would have a great deal less incentive to keep the oil producing in clover. We could have halved our oil imports, slashed our outflow of currency, created jobs and cleaned up the pool.

Co hosting the Going Green conference was none other than Scientific American. I was able to spend time with an old friend and one time next door neighbor from the Upper West side in NYC Bruce Brandfon who was then a reporter for Mother Jones Magazine and now is the publisher of Scientific American.
Scientific American has a new magazine to go with their 165 year old one. It’s called Earth 3.0 and is all over the green topic. It brings the gravity of the SA crew to this relatively new topic. Hummm maybe Paul Johnson will consider writing a column.

Solar and large array solar is a particular area of interest to me. Scientific American had a cover story in January where there was a good rundown on the notion that we could replace all the electricity we generate from fossil fuel with solar collectors. The authors proposed that we store energy as pressurized air underground to be used to run turbines at night. In fact there are many different large array schemes which use everything from concentrating mirrors to boil water to run turbines to parabolic concentrators powering high temp photovoltaic. Different systems answer different climate considerations but one thing is sure, the best places to put the systems is in high sun areas. The problem is we don’t have extra grid capacity to ship the power. It is practical to send power high voltages from thousands of miles but we need the wires to do it. Around 700 billion might pretty much cover this…oh gosh we just spent that. Darn, just missed it. Well since we are using the “T” word we have to ask ourselves and our politicians if we really believe in the future and if the answer is yes the obvious solution is solar.

John O’Donnell most recently of Ausra a large array solar firm that is building a PG&E plant near in Southern California) brought the muscle of Kleiner Perkins to bear on this problem by securing financing from Vinod Kosla, also a speaker at the conference. John and I were recently lamenting the state of energy development and commiserating on how far we have to go to get on a sustainable energy footing. He is working on projects that will lower the sea level from its rising future. John’s figure for how much land is needed to install an array that would power the entire U.S. grid is 92 sq miles of land (a trivial amount of desert land available in America).
John makes the point that changing light bulbs is a small act and many small acts will add up to a lot of small changes. We need big changes so perhaps we should focus on changing politicians not light bulbs.

I think that it is tragically misguided that we are trying to beat the price of gasoline back. We need high gasoline prices to encourage multiple car passengers. But won’t just the rich be able to drive? Well take Europe where the cars are tiny and the people seem happy enough.

For a full account of how we can fix our economy, get out of oil jail and create millions of jobs check out Van Johnson’s new book The Greencoller Economy.