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EcoOptimism, or How We Come Out Ahead of the Game

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

By David Bergman

In the college ecodesign classes I teach, my first task usually is to address what we call “eco-literacy”: understanding the litany of environmental issues we face. Climate change, plastics in the oceans, acid in the rain, endangered species, resource depletion, environmental injustice. A seemingly endless list.

Doing this without leaving my students in utter despair is critical because, otherwise, what’s the point of ecodesigning anything?  Fortunately, it’s not that hard to show them the positive potentials, the paths to both environmental solutions and flourishing lives. It involves what I call “EcoOptimism.”

Rather than the conventional thinking that says environmentalism is a job killer, that we’ll have to sacrifice our quality of lives and that it’s a socialist (or Chinese) plot, EcoOptimism takes a different approach. It says we can come out the other side of our concurrent ecological and economic crises (ECO-optimism, get it?) in a better place than we started; that not only will the planet be healthier, but we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, can feel fulfilled and be more prosperous. It breaks the presumption, the false dichotomy, that environmentalism is at odds with our well-being and our happiness. It posits instead that we can eat our (vegan?) cake and have it, too.

That fulfillment and prosperity part is what we’re after. Yes, we can solve environmental problems. And we can even do that without incurring those things the lobby-fueled politicians try to scare us about. But we can have more than that. We can have lives in which we spend less time enslaved to cars, lives in which we spend more time with our families and friends, lives focused around well-being rather than the false numbers of economic growth (though that’s really another story, an article in itself.)

Thriving and flourishing, not merely sustaining, are two of the words we use to describe what should be our goal. And it’s entirely possible to achieve that goal.

(I once was carrying around a book that I was mid-way through reading, called Prosperity Without Growth. I was taken aback when a friend saw it under my arm and asked me why we’d want that, and it took me a second to realize she thought “prosperity” referred only to financial riches – as opposed to personal or social growth – and “growth” to personal enrichment. It’s the exact opposite, of course, in the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sense.)

So how do we get there, you ask? Here’s an example. For years, naysayers have been claiming that there’s a “war on coal” and its cousins, oil and natural gas. Our lifestyles and economies wouldn’t be where they are now without them, they say, and that abandoning them would make our lives more expensive and difficult. (Remember when George H.W. Bush wouldn’t sign the Rio climate change accords because “the American way of life is non-negotiable”?)

I’ll grant them the first part. There’s no doubt that our modern lives are in large part a result of discovering how to make cheap energy from billions of years of decomposed carbon. But after that, they’ve got it all wrong.

It’s not that we’re running out of fossil fuels. There’s enough in the ground to last us a long time. The problems are that, first of all, if we burn even a small percentage of it, we’ll need the fuel to get around on boats instead of cars. The other issue is that, as the easy to extract stuff gets used up, that fuel will get ever more expensive.

At the same time, and counter to what we’re constantly being told, alternative energy sources are getting less and less costly, and more and more reliable. One of the catchier arguments against renewable energy says “The sun don’t always shine and the wind don’t always blow.” The response to that is, you almost always have one or the other, and when you don’t, that’s what batteries are for. Of course, batteries have been historically expensive, heavy and sometimes toxic, but great advances have been made recently.

Even where the sun “don’t always shine,” solar power has become remarkably reliable. Germany is one of the “shining” examples. After the post-tsunami Fukushima meltdown, Germany resolved to eliminate nuclear power from its energy sources and emphasize renewables in its stead. Germany is not the sunniest of countries and yet it has frequently reached the point where it gets half of its power from renewables and on one occasion, nearly 90%.

Numbers like these are tricky and it’s been pointed out that the percentage of the country’s energy deriving from coal has also increased, but in part that was a short-term response to closing nuclear plants, and it will diminish as renewables come online due to being less expensive. Which also brings up the point that the decline of coal has nothing to do with a “war” on it, but is due to the fact that coal has just gotten too expensive, even after the Trump/Pruitt regulatory rollbacks. (Don’t get me started on the myth of “clean coal.”)

Nuclear power has a similar scenario. Even without including the disaster potential, when you do an “all in” calculation incorporating spent fuel storage, other environmental impacts and costs (the concrete used in cooling tower construction has an enormous carbon footprint), costs of decommissioning aged plants, protection from terrorism, etc., it turns out that nuclear power may be the most expensive energy source. It’s reasonable to declare that nuclear plants wouldn’t be built at all without massive government subsidies.

Ah, subsidies. “Free market” advocates decry the subsidies offered for renewable energy, claiming that they distort the market and make those sources artificially inexpensive. What they neglect to mention is the historical – and continuing to this day – subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry. Renewable energy incentives are a drop in the bucket toward leveling the field.

So when the numbers are crunched and externalities are internalized (which is the only way a free market can accurately work), renewable energy sources become the most economical choices. And going forward, prices for renewable energy sources will continue to drop as technology advances and as production scales up. On the other hand, fossil fuels will only get more expensive. (Natural gas is a blip, seen as a bridge on the path to renewables, and is only cheap if the environmental costs aren’t included.)

We’re all familiar with the two best-known types of renewable energy: solar and wind. (It’s debatable, by the way, whether hydroelectric energy should be considered renewable given the environmental disruption dams cause.) But there are others either here now or on the horizon, some of them sounding as if they’re taken from sci-fi books or, more accurately, from a new genre called cli-fi. They include tidal energy, wave energy, kinetic storage (not actually an energy source, but a cool alternative to batteries), among others. Tidal energy, though rarely mentioned, perhaps because it is invisible, has been around for a while. One of the places it’s being tested is NYC’s East River. The East River, if you want to get technical about it, is not actually a river, but is a tidal strait or estuary, meaning that Atlantic Ocean tides come in and out. When an underwater turbine was tested a decade ago, the current was so strong that it broke the blades. With a newer, stronger design, the second generation test turbines are expected to produce over a megawatt of power, enough energy to supply 9,500 homes. And this is a relatively small tidal installation. Other locations generate hundreds of megawatts of renewable energy.

While earlier tidal energy “barrage” designs had significant ecosystem impacts, the new generation does not. And tidal energy has the advantage of being totally reliable and predictable, not subject to that “sun don’t always shine” criticism.

Though still experimental, wave power holds potential. In its simplest description, wave power employs the up and down motion of waves. Since waves are actually a function of wind generating friction over water, this might actually be considered a relative of wind power. One of the more interesting prospects is co-locating these with desalination plants, which require a lot of energy.

As with most energy sources, wind energy has ecosystem issues, the best known being bird deaths. While no one wants to kill birds, it’s been observed that fossil fuel-caused air pollution kills far more birds than do wind turbines. Complaints about human impacts, such as headaches and insomnia, caused by turbines have not been substantiated, but even if they prove true, it’s not a big deal to locate them farther away from populated areas.

Some find wind turbines to be ugly, defiling landscapes or shore vistas. (Trump lost a legal battle in 2015 to stop a wind farm offshore from a Scottish gold resort he owns. And environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr has hypocritically opposed a wind farm offshore from his family’s Nantucket compound.) Personally, I find fields of them, such as those in California, graceful and beautiful – especially when compared to the alternatives.

Yet another approach to renewable energy involves local power generation in combination with what are known as microgrids. This can involve rooftop solar panels and turbines, perhaps in combination with “cogen” plants that make heat and electricity at the same time. These microgrids can, in the face of larger grid blackouts, cut themselves off to prevent cascading failures. Post Superstorm Sandy, when the power went out in lower Manhattan, NYU’s microgrid stayed on, providing power to both their facilities and for neighbors to charge their cell phones. Looked at in these terms, microgrids help simultaneously with environmental issues and resilience in the face of disasters. In combination with solar panels, microgrids might have helped Puerto Rico weather Hurricane Maria, and in fact is being looked at now as a way to reconstruct their electrical grid to be better prepared for future storms.

There’s yet another alternative energy source, something the environmentalist Amory Lovins has called “negawatts” and which we more commonly refer to as energy efficiency or conservation. The thinking is that, of all the possible energy sources, the most profitable and cleanest can be the energy not produced.

Overall, there are two points to be gleaned here. One is the environmental aspect of avoiding all the issues of fossil fuels. Looking instead to renewables, with the technical exception of tidal energy, all these are found above ground, leading to a policy I call “all the above, none of the below.”

Circling back to EcoOptimism, it’s also apparent that we can do this without sacrificing jobs, economic growth or lifestyles and, going beyond that, can in fact actually improve our lives in terms of both health and wealth. All we need to do is cut through the bombast of negativism and political pandering to get to this win-win-win scenario.

David Bergman is, at various times, an architect, an ecodesigner, an author, an environmental economist, and a professor. He is the author of Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, published by Princeton Architectural Press, as well as principal of David Bergman Architect. He teaches sustainable design at Parsons School of Design. Bergman’s ecodesign work has been featured in publications including The New York TimesMetropolisDwell and Architectural Record. He has written and lectured extensively on sustainable design, and created the blog EcoOptimism. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and Certified Passive House Designer. He is also currently involved in a project to bring eco districts to NYC. Visit ecooptimism.com and davidbergmaneco.com to learn more about his work, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

See more from David on sustainability and planetary wellness, along with many other great stories, in our upcoming print issue ONE!

 

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