Powering the Dream & The Central Intellectual Question of Environmentalism (Book Review)

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, has a new book out--Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Basically a 300+ page tour of the century-long history of renewable energy development in the United States, it amply shows that if you thought people only tried to develop green technology in the past few decades you're sorely mistaken.

Since Madrigal was just interviewed for the latest edition of TreeHugger Radio (available on iTunes, or for your listening pleasure directly on the site here), I'll skip over the myriad examples of people dedicated to developing solar power, geothermal power, and wind turbines (a 1 MW one in Vermont back in 1945 even) long before environmentalism was even called by that name. Suffice it to say that it's a fascinating read.

Instead I'll add to the discussion a bit, taking up a point Madrigal brings up in the last chapter. Discussing the ongoing tug of war in the Mojave Desert between protecting habitat for endangered species and developers of large-scale solar power installations (protect habitat of one species versus helping protect the habitat of lots of species, humans included), Madrigal writes,

The environmental movement, as currently constituted, will have to learn how to deal with that build out [scaling up renewable energy]. Coming up with ways of reconciling the need for low-carbon energy with the desire to protect endangered species and wild habitat has to be the dominant intellectual challenge for greens of the next generation.

Alexis is right on here. Balancing multiple environmental goals at the same time, assessing local versus global impact of different projects, is at the center of environmentalism now and the in future. Unfortunately it's something that the current US political structure doesn't do all that well, with every cause and its proponents and detractors seeing it as the prime one.

I don't have an easy or even hard direct answer to that intellectual challenge, for one does not exist, there not being one grand solution, other than perhaps encouraging people to learn how to see any given situation (environmental or otherwise) from multiple perspectives simultaneously, detaching themselves and their immediate interests from the point of focus so as to better take in a mountaintop perspective. But that's really a meta-solution.

One that's slightly less so, taken from an interview I did with Professor Arvind Sharma of McGill University back in 2009. The interview was done for an article on Hinduism and the environment, published over a year later in Hinduism Today.

I asked Prof. Sharma how mankind could use Hindu traditions to help with climate change and environmental degradation today. He responded:

There is this very strong strand within Hinduism of restraint. The word for that is sanyam. Sanyam is a restraint, but it is a restraint which you observe on your own. You are not forced to. It is part of your own lifestyle. You don't eat or drink too much, not because there are laws against doing that. It is just out of a sense of propriety and decency.

There is another idea called maryada. Maryada is your self-imposed limit. So this strain within Hinduism is that you should not do all things, a sense of limit (not necessarily an externally imposed limit), can be a very important ingredient in the Hindu response.

You can further make the point by using two modern terms, maximizing and optimizing. Our modern tendency is to maximize and when you maximize you can be compromising your own long-term interests.

What that has to do with solar power plants in the desert, endangered tortoises, and the central intellectual question of environmentalism is this: A crucial part of balancing the impact of the first two (and the subsequent expansion of solar power) and the addressing the third is determining our own limits as a species, in this case as regards to energy usage.

Part of the equation is determining if and how current energy demand can be met with renewable energy without unnecessarily impacting the natural environment (assuming, as Madrigal points out that the very notion of an entirely pristine environment is suspect in most cases).

The other part is asking the tougher question of what amount of energy use is appropriate? What sort of self-imposed limits and restraint ought we place upon our energy use? Individually? Societally? How can we optimize our energy use and resource consumption so that both the current massive gaps in both standard of living and quality of life can be reduced, while at the same time minimizing environmental impact?

Powering the Dream is available from your favorite local bookseller now, or directly from Da Capo Press.

Join TreeHugger for a discussion with Alexis Madrigal on June 23 at 3:30 pm Eastern.
More on Renewable Energy:
Threatened Tortoises Slow Down Desert Solar Project
Anti-Wind Activists 'Talk Gibberish' Yet Greens May Soon Be Out-Flanked

Tags: Book Reviews | Energy | Renewable Energy | Solar Power | United States | Wind Power