Everyone from schoolchildren to oil executives knows that burning fossil fuels pollutes the Earth. We rationalize this dirty energy source over alternatives in myriad ways, but the simplest justification is also the most compelling:
Fossil fuels are cheap.
Cost considerations are the Alamo for the fossil fuel industry. As they can hardly argue with the environmental or social impacts of their product, cost is where the industry has to make its stand. When renewable energy inevitably reaches cost parity (i.e. when it costs the same as oil and coal), only fools or the morally compromised will continue to choose the option that is both dirtier and more expensive. And wouldn’t you know it? Recent economic data shows that fossil fuel companies’ defenses are crumbling, as cost parity is right around the corner. In fact, it’s likely that any oil or coal-fired power plant that began construction today would be obsolete before it was finished!
Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat. Blessed be you, periolous matter, violent sea, untameable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us. Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born: you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth. Blessed be you, universal matter, unmeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms of generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God…
Kristen and I met a few years ago by way of our mutual affection for Catholic priest/Harvard icon/dirty joke enthusiast Phil King. She and Phil are Harvard colleagues who together managed the White-Levy Program for Archeological Publications, and in accordance with that, Kristen works at the Harvard Semitic museum. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also a well respected academic tutor in the greater Boston area. When I was looking for a second job a few years back, Kristen was kind enough to hook me up with the tutoring agency where she works. After a while, I couldn’t hack it and went back to my day job, but Kristen grinds on. She’s basically their best employee, and gets flown all over the world to assist high-powered clients. These days when we hang out, we’re fond of chess. I usually beat her, but she’s getting better every time.
Our meeting was scheduled for a weekday afternoon, since these days we both keep somewhat irregular schedules. For food we decided on sandwiches from Cafe Kiraz, a local deli. I championed this place because they make my favorite sandwich in the whole wide world, the Patriots: corned beef and pastrami piled high on foccacia, snugly tucked under a bed of homemade cole slaw and drenched in Thousand Island dressing. Everybody’s got their comfort food, a meal that brings happiness and a sense of well-being, and this sandwich is mine. Kristen was nonplussed by my enthusiasm, however, and decided to order vegetarian chili instead. Seriously, I lay the god’s bounty at your feet, and you reject it for soup?
Channeling a little Mike Rugnetta: What if the purpose of life is to pass on information?
When life began on Earth, we had only the most basic method of sharing information: genes. Later we increased our capacity for information sharing through the spoken word, but then there’s only so much an oral tradition can hold. Later still we discovered the written word, giving information a form of permanence…but dissemination was limited as books had to be written by hand. Finally the printing press came along, and information began to disseminate rapidly, yet learning remained slow in the majority of the world where formal education had not taken root.
Today, we have the internet. Information is shared at the speed of light in a construct that penetrates deeper in to our cultural consciousness with each passing year. Information is never lost, every Tweet or Facebook post lives on forever. And every second of every day there are billions more pieces of information piling in to this collection as people build on eachother’s knowledge and culture.
Look at where we’ve come from, look at where we are, and then pause for a moment to think about where we’re going. If that thought doesn’t make you smile, you lack either heart or imagination.
The Limits To Growth makes it pretty clear that resource shortages are going to be the driving force behind this century’s economic collapse and massive reduction in human population. In today’s world of abundance, however, that’s a hard concept to get our minds around. I struggle to grasp it myself and struggle further with how to convey it to other people. Think of human civilization as a bridge, with every bolt holding it together as one of the resources we depend on. If we start removing bolts, the first few will have almost no impact. Remove a few more and the bridge remains intact, but we may see some shifting or evidence of stress. Remove enough bolts though, and eventually we’re going to find the one that causes the whole thing to come crashing down. Recently, articles have surfaced heralding the loosening of two important “bolts” in our bridge: phosphorus and helium.
First, from the sad-but-true files: kids parties of the future are going to be a lot less fun. The world has a finite supply of helium, and we’re currently burning through it so quickly that a leading academic is warning us to ban balloons this holiday season. As a chemist at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Peter Wothers isn’t making this call because he’s a Grinch, but because he knows helium has several very important uses other than brightening up a child’s day. Helium is a critical element in high tech manufacturing of semiconductors and fiber optic cables, industrial welding, and medical devices such as MRIs.
Next year, President Obama will decide whether to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which will carry 800,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on earth for export. I don’t doubt Obama’s heart is in the right place…says the right things on the climate when pressed. But talk is cheap, so in February me and a few thousand of my friends are headed down to Washington to give him a piece of our minds. Sign up or find out more about this action here.
If anyone in the Boston area is keen to spend 16 hours on a bus with me, I could do with the company. Should be fun!
When I close my eyes and conjure an image of a wind turbine, typically it’s towering over a corn field somewhere in the expanses of the American Midwest. Instead I should probably be picturing my own backyard, as New England has seen some of the fastest rates of renewable energy development in the nation. Cape Wind is the largest and best known project in the region, but unfortunately it’s also one that has been bogged down in fierce controversy. Whether Cape Wind succeeds or not, other wind projects in the region march on unimpeded, with several due to begin operation by the end of the year.
The first of these projects to come online will be the Hoosac wind farm in Florida, MA. This installation will be completed by the end of 2012, generating 28.5 megawatts of clean and delicious renewable energy (enough to power about 10,000 homes). I actually got to see Hoosac in action a few weeks ago when Sarah and I were out at Mass MOCA for her birthday. I didn’t know anything about the project at the time, so discovering a bunch of mountaintop turbines merrily spinning away put a big smile on my face. Hoosac owes much of its success to governor Deval Patrick, who has engineered a dramatic increase in renewable energy for Massachusetts in recent years. When Patrick came into office there were only 3 megawatts of wind power in the commonwealth, but by the start of 2013 there will be 100 megawatts. Quite an impressive achievement!
This is the first climate talk where Jeff essentially took the lead, contacting everyone and organizing a time and place for us to get together. It was kind of nice to have my hands off the reins for once, and as a result I felt a little bit like “booked talent.” Wanting to make the most of my bigshot moment, when I arrived I immediately commandeered Jon and Jenni’s bedroom for my dressing room and demanded to be served only cucumber water and green M&Ms.
Jon and Jeff were long time coworkers, though Jon has since moved on and now does investigative work on corporate mergers and acquisitions. Jenni is Jon’s girlfriend, and a lawyer working on behalf of labor unions. I’d met her only once, but our humor is similar so the banter was great. Jon informed me early on that Jenni grew up watching very little television, and as such she might miss out on any pop culture references we made. I thought he might have been exaggerating, but no.he.was.not. It was fun explaining pop culture to someone who just knew nothing about it, and it was interesting having that mirror…until someone is paying attention you don’t realize how much of modern conversation involves movie references and Simpson’s quotes.
As I’ve mentioned before, this site and its undertaking have been a pretty big leap of faith. I don’t doubt the science of climate change or the scale of the crisis, but when your life veers so sharply away from business-as-usual it’s natural to second guess yourself a little. That’s why I was heartened this weekend to discover a few other people like me, people who have taken similar leaps to pursue big issues in non-traditional ways.
The first was Wen Stephenson, former editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe and former producer of NPR’s On Point. In the last few years, Stephenson had become disenchanted with the mainstream media’s reporting on climate change. Specifically, he objects to the urgency (or lack thereof) with which news of events that so clearly threaten of the lives of millions of people is being reported. Like me, he quit his job to pursue climate activism full time, knowing that he might never be hired as a journalist again. In early November, Stephenson wrote this brilliant article for the Boston Phoenix, which begins with him confronting his Globe colleagues:
On October 2, I led a climate protest inside the offices of the Boston Globe. OK, it was really a meeting in a small conference room with editorial page editor Peter Canellos and members of his staff. But it was, in essence, a protest. …I told them I was there, in that room, because the national conversation we’re having about this situation, this emergency, is utterly inadequate —or, really, nonexistent. And I looked Peter in the eye, and told him that I’m sorry, but that’s completely unacceptable to me. If we can’t speak honestly about this crisis — if we can’t lay it on the line — then how can we look at ourselves in the mirror?