Thursday, July 28, 2011

What works, what doesn't?  Eventually the public dialogue will get to this, once all the denial and posturing about energy and the Climate Crisis comes to naught.  Actually, at least two groups are looking closely at these questions: ordinary people who need to watch their energy costs closely and are open to alternatives, and the researchers, policymakers and journalists professionally involved in the technical and policy questions.

What doesn't work?  Michael J. Graetz in The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America's Environment, Security, and Independence (The MIT Press) looks at the U.S. policymaking history over the past 40 years, and sees that just about nothing at that level has been effective, and much of what was done (and not done) has made matters worse.  It's not an unfamiliar story--especially the machinations of the fossil fuel industries--but it's all here, in scholarly detail, though with particular interpretations.  It seems to support the suggestion by David Orr and others that the last best chance to avoid the fall into the horrors of the likely future were in the 1970s.  Graetz offers the ray of hope that the events of the near future could create enough public pressure to force needed changes in energy policy.

Why public policy so far has by and large not worked gets another answer from Brendon Larson in Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining Our Relationship with Nature (Yale).  That scientists and the technicians that tend to lobby for environmental laws use metaphors may be the first revelation of this book, especially to them.  That their choices of metaphors has been largely lame and hurt their cause is perhaps another.  I've long been frustrated with the predominantly tin-eared choices they've made, even in the labels and names, as well as other terminology--all of which are basically metaphors. The Greenhouse Effect, for instance, is neat scientific shorthand for a process, if you know what greenhouse effect you're talking about.  But for the general public, greenhouses are pretty good places--plants grow in them.  Global warming sounds very pleasant and inviting, especially in winter; happiness is a warm puppy, after all.

Words that become technical terms and then become cliches can be so confusing and mind-numbing that they become worse than meaningless.   For example, there are two distinct sets of actions needed to confront the Climate Crisis: dealing with the causes, and dealing with the effects.  Those two categories go by the names of mitigation and adaptation.  Do you know which is which?  Truth is, either could mean the other.

Larson asserts that metaphors employed until they become standard (or "naturalized") begin to limit critical thinking and establish a view that passes for scientific, foreclosing other interpretations and even other evidence. The standard interpretation of Darwinian evolution, favoring competition over cooperation with such ferocity that evidence to the contrary is dismissed is more than a metaphor problem, but it may be news to a lot of scientists that their metaphors (for instance, the selfish gene) become literalized, and dangerous.

"Environmental scientists may also have little opportunity to develop an appreciation for the power of language," Larson writes.  Maybe they should have taken a literature course or two?  I applaud this book for centering on this subject and for its insights and the issues it raises, though it's heavy going in places for non-academic readers.  But if that's what it takes for environmental and other scientists to take this problem seriously, it serves the future.    

Okay--so what does work? I've long felt that the best hope for a clean renewable energy future was in solar.  It's virtually unlimited energy, delivered by technologies that can be scaled from the very large to the solar cells on your house or your wrist, or maybe even in the paint on your car.  In Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn from Germany's Success in Harnessing Clean Energy (Prometheus Books), Bob Johnstone provides a history of the solar industry with most of the attention focused on Germany, where much of the action has been.  Just the fact that Germany has done so much, as counterintuitive as that is (sunny Italy, sunny Brazil, even sunny California---but sunny Germany?) suggests what the potential for this source of power might really be.  His account is full of characters and companies, and it is a business as well as a technology story.  If you're looking for something positive, try this account of entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of opportunity combined with ecological awareness and commitment,  resulting in technological, business and policy innovations.  And maybe even in something like a future.

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