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September 29, 2005

Getting Green

The polar ice caps are melting, and that only speeds global warming. We're running out of oil and even Yubbledew is asking people to conserve. (I'm still in shock about that one.) We've got problems, people.

That's why one of the highlights for me at the D.C. Green Festival on Sunday was listening to Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute, and author of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The following are just some notes I jotted down while listening to him speak.

First, the Earth Policy Institute recently learned that for the first time China is now consuming more than the U.S. in four of five basic resources—grain, meat, coal, and steel. The only thing the U.S. still leads in is oil. (Surprise.) That's total consumption. If China catches up to us in per capita terms, which it will do by 2031 at its current rate of growth, China will need: 2/3 of the current global grain harvest, 300 million tons of paper/year (world output today is only 156 million tons/year), and 99 million barrels of oil/day (total world output today is only 81 million barrels/day). If Chinese citizens owned cars at the rate Americans own them, China would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars; the current world car fleet is only 800 million cars.

The point of this is that the western economic model will not work for China. It won't work for India, which will have more people than China by 2031. It won't work for most of the world, and it can no longer work for us. We're running out of resources and the results are going to be catostrophic if we don't do something. (Speaking to this point, Brown also recommends Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

So what do we do? Plan B.

If everyone who owns a car in the U.S. owned a Prius we would cut daily fuel consumption by half. If we added a second battery to those Priuses and added a charging plug so we could plug them in at night (so they could run longer on electric only w/out the gas engine kicking in), the vast majority of daily driving in the U.S. could be powered by electricity alone. And if we invested massively in wind power, all of that electricity would be generated w/out polluting the environment or using up some non-renewable resource.

Biodiesel figures in somehow—comes from soybeans. Ethanol from sugar cane could also replace lots of our oil consumption. Brazil currently gets 40% of its automotive fuel from cane ethanol and it may soon get much more.

By 2020, 50-100% of European households could get their electricity from wind power, depending on how quickly Europe continues to invest in this resource. Just three states (North Dakota, Texas, and third I missed) have enough wind and land to build wind farms available to provide all U.S. energy needs via wind power. We just have to build the wind farms! (No need for the “nukuler” energy Bush wants to invest in.)

Brown said he's not discouraged about the future because often social change comes very quickly and we can't anticipate it. For example, look at what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. One day it was the communist bloc, the next it was a bunch of democracies. Or look at December 6, 1941. If you had polled Americans on December 5, 1941 about whether the U.S. should get involved in WWII, the answer would have been a resounding “No.” But after December 6, that turned around completely. We also followed that by restructuring the economy almost overnight to produce all the ships, tanks, aircraft, guns, and ammo required for the war. How did we do that? We made the sale of private automobiles illegal and converted auto factories into munitions factories. So we've revolutionized our economy before on short notice; we can and need to do it again.

One way to make this happen is to force the market to be honest about the cost of our actions. For example, the cost to society of smoking is about $7/pack. The production cost of cigarettes is about $2/pack. So the total cost of a pack of cigarettes really should be $9/pack. In another example, the cost to society of burning a gallon of gas is about $9, so added to the current price at the pump, a gallon of gas should cost about $12/gal.

To convert our economy and our lifestyles to sustainable methods would cost money. But put it in perspective. The U.S. budget for Iraq is $400-500 billion and climbing. That's roughly equal to the total annual spending of the rest of the world combined. To do everything called for in Plan B would cost about $150 billion worldwide of additional spending.

And we need to do this. Terrorism is a threat to our future, but not as big a threat as climate change, population growth, water scarcity, or the lack of planning to deal with these issues. The key solution is grassroots political action. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport; we all have to be involved.

Posted September 29, 2005 10:41 AM | ai books general politics

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