Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why a Prius is ok for me but not anyone else

This post is about greenwashing, city design, and why I read Fortune magazine. It is a rant, cathartic at best. So, loyal reader, I am not offended if you choose not to take the Sidewalk this morning.

I was talking to my Aunt Jill this evening over dinner at Maudie's in Austin about how wind farms annoy me. I say this, of course, to provoke, but I do mean it. Green Mountain Energy, which was our energy provider until Lauren and I moved into the Airstream, claims 100% pollution free energy on their billboards. And this is the general consensus on wind energy. But it's baloney. The source of our energy is really only a fraction of the issue. Our consumption is just as much if not more a problem. And, the notion of obscenely massive wind farms being pollution free is ridiculous. It takes a fleet of semi trucks simply to deliver just one of those windmills. You can see them all the time on I-10 on the way to CA. Then you have to deliver, install and maintain the infrastructure to deliver all this power from the middle of nowhere to (and here's a segue into planning) the middle of nowhere. Okay, so once all this massive manufacturing, installation and maintenance is done, and not including impact to habitat, I guess it's pollution free. Except for the fact that we use all that guilt-free power to light garish houses, power an Asimov-like army of appliances, and fuel our dangerously fast and obviously overcompensating Teslas. And all this has an impact. Our too-bright homes and streets cause bird blinding light pollution. Our ubiquitous appliances contribute to our overly consumptive convenience culture. And gas-free and gas-lite cars encourage us to drive more, which I'll get to.

America's problem is not that energy pollutes too much. It's that we use too much polluting energy. You can achieve a similar effect by simply consuming less. Capturing ever more energy doesn't eliminate the sources of pollution, it simply enables our insatiability. 

Before I explore this conclusion any further let me first suggest some solutions. Better designed communities solve many of our problems. If you don't have to drive 15 miles to the warehouse grocery store, if you could simply walk or bike there because it was so delightfully close, an electric car isn't that big an impact. If your kid could walk to school and you could bike the mile and a half to work, then if you even still had a car, you'd care a lot less about its gas mileage. Less driving means more living because you're not stuck in that box all day and because people aren't crashing them into each other as much. 

Admittedly I have a Prius and I love it. Lauren and I bought it when spending too much for a car made sense to us. Now that it doesn't, I don't know if I can give up the energy consumption diagnostics screen or the biometric door handle. But that's because I trust myself not to drive more even though it's cheaper. I don't trust anyone else to not drive more and so I don't think anyone else should have one. Or a Honda Insight, which is also a Prius, but with better commercials. Because more driving is not what we need. Making something that isn't good for a person, town or nation easier and less expensive shouldn't be our goal. Rather, making it obsolete through superior planning should.

A brief return to solutions. Instead of massive windfarms in the Sierras or South Texas, we should disperse that capacity throughout our communities. We should have diverse forms of sustainable energy capture incorporated into nearly every structure throughout the country. Solar panels and windmills on roofs and in backyards. The cost would be diluted, the environmental impact would be nearly nonexistant because of the micro footprint, energy would be more reliable because redundancy would exist throughout your entire community, and the whole system would be more resilient to disaster and failure because it would be decentralized. 

Now, why I read Fortune magazine. To me, Fortune magazine is the voice that isn't interested in sitting on my shoulder and whispering bad advice, it's more concerned with gaining a controlling stake in both shoulders and edging out the antiquated devil and pathetic angel. It's my handy do-the-opposite-of-everything-we-say guidebook to life. Fortune's coverage of the Mojave desert land grab and their thinly veiled derision of advocacy groups' concerns for wildlife and habitat with an eye-rolling allusion to the spotted owl of yesteryear, perfectly illustrates my earlier conclusion. And that is: massive energy projects and shiny energy savers are not the sollution we think they are.

It would be wonderful if we could cover the desert in mirrors, trade in all our gas-guzzlers for battery guzzlers and illuminate the facade of our McMansions with beautiful soft-serve light bulbs and then all our resource and pollution problems would go away. But you don't get out of a consumption problem with more consumption. I believe William McDonough and Michael Braungart are spot on with their Cradle to Cradle concept, in which the manufacture, consumption and disposal of an object would be an improvement to the environment and community. But it still embraces the idea that we can have whatever we want forever. Bill & Mike's ideas will no doubt be realized and will be vital to achieving the Earth rendered in Star Trek. 

But our problem isn't dirty energy or underperforming machines or inconvenience at all. It is overconsumption. Our problem is this dangerous fear that less stuff is less happiness and the even more dangerous myth that more is always better. Admittedly, a gleaming albeit cramped 1973 Airstream Safari Land Yacht isn't for everybody and, indeed, there is a place for palaces. We should strive for appropriate consumption. Louisianna Purchase sized parking lots and interstate exchanges, windmills beyond quixotic comprehension, galactically visible trash dumps, swirling mid-0cean nebulae of plastic--these are not appropriate. And no amount of innovation or ShamWow carnival barking should deter us from reversing the course of our culture and economy to that delightful paradox that less is more.