Earth, the Sequel and the social justice of renewable energy

by Mike Gaworecki

June 13, 2008

Earth: The Sequel is pretty heavy on the numbers – tons of pollution, millions of dollars in venture capital, megawatts, gigawatts , and so on – but if you can get through the wonkiness, it is a very thought-provoking and inspiring book. Its overall theme is summed up thusly on the final page:

The question is no longer just how to avert the catastrophic impacts of climate change, but which nations will produce—and export—the green technologies of the twenty-first century. A cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide will mean billions of dollars for the innovators who figure out how to save the planet, and provide the opportunity to mobilize virtually every realm of economic activity.

In explaining the “Sequel” bit in the title, the website has this to say:

Earth: The Sequel is the riveting story of the next new thing that none of us can afford to miss: how the multi-trillion dollar energy sector is being transformed — right now — by the American entrepreneurial spirit.

Fred Krupp, author of the book and president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and his co-writer Miriam Horn make a compelling case for a cap-and-trade system as a necessary measure to spur the energy revolution this country needs. Cap-and-trade will level the energy playing field, they argue, giving fledgling renewable energy sources a fighting chance in today’s market. In making their case, Krupp and Horn provide intriguing snapshots of the most promising renewable energy technologies out there – solar, biofuels, ocean/tidal, geothermal, and more – the companies developing them, and the people behind the companies. Earth, The Sequel does a fantastic job of juggling its human interest angles with its business and technology reportage.

The technology I found most interesting: reengineering “the metabolism of yeast to ferment sugar into a pure hydrocarbon fuel.” Now that’s resourceful.

What I found most thought-provoking about the book, however, was a subject only mentioned in passing: the social justice issues that can get entangled with renewable energy development. For example, the Makah tribe have lived off the bounty of Makah Bay in Washington state for thousands of years, and now they’re using the relentless waves of the bay to generate electricity for their homes. The basic mechanics are this: three miles out from shore, a company called AquaEnergy Group has placed pistons that are connected to a buoy on the surface and anchored to the ocean floor. As waves wash past the buoys, the pistons are driven up and down, and they are designed so that they pump water into a turbine, generating electricity. The Makah and AquaEnergy are generating 14 megawatts with the so-called AquaBuOY’s they have installed so far.

The Makah chose to pursue renewable energy over fossil fuels, going so far as to help create the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary when the U.S. Minerals Management Service was proposing to reactivate leases for gas and oil development off the coast of Makah Bay. Now, that very same marine sanctuary the Makah helped create is the single largest impediment to developing their ocean energy project to commercial scale. Tribal councilman Micah McCarty sums up his view of the situation this way:

We are an ancient society that still has a living relationship with our ancestral fishing and hunting grounds. By continuing to sustain ourselves from these resources, we keep the breath of our ancestors alive. It has spiritual meaning. But we repeatedly run up against a belief that nature should be viewed without touching it, kept pristine. I understand where that view derives—it comes from people who live in a wholly altered environment, see a devastating human impact, and overcompensate for that devastation. But it winds up disenfranchising the people who depend on the land.

Marine sanctuaries are definitely a good and necessary thing, and no doubt performing an environmental impact assessment before installing dozens of AquaBuOYs is necessary. The technology is so new there is no previously compiled data for the stewards of the marine sanctuary to refer to. But how can we decide to deny a people their right to live off of their land however they see fit – especially a people who have been so violently denied their right to self-determination in the past as have the Makah tribe? There are two societal views of nature at odds in Makah Bay – the Makah tribe’s, which views nature as something to live with harmoniously while drawing life and sustenance at the same time; and mainstream American society’s, which has traditionally viewed nature as an inanimate resource we can use and abuse however we want, to the point that we have so severely depleted and degraded our natural resources that we now must atone for our sins by setting certain portions off-limits.

It’s a thorny and complex issue, one with no easy answers. Hopefully some compromise can be reached. Earth, the Sequel does not speculate on what the outcome might be for the Makah tribe, but in raising the issue at all the book provides a considerably hearty meal of food for thought. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the energy future of our society and the myriad issues we are facing.

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