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Al Gore, Clean Energy and A Better Nation
Alex Steffen, 21 Jul 08

Normally, I try to think in planetary terms and avoid parochial nationalism, so it's somewhat ironic that today a global perspective actually leads me to believe that what happens in America over the next 18 months is the most important global uncertainty we face. As we choose how to confront a host of planetary problems -- especially climate change -- will we have an America that leads or drags?

Al Gore stood up and showed what an America determined to lead would look like last week when he delivered a sharp speech calling for a bold policy -- the complete conversion of our electrical supply to renewable sources within ten years:

There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more -- if more should be required -- the future of human civilization is at stake.
I don't remember a time in our country when so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously. Our economy is in terrible shape and getting worse, gasoline prices are increasing dramatically, and so are electricity rates. Jobs are being outsourced. Home mortgages are in trouble. Banks, automobile companies and other institutions we depend upon are under growing pressure. Distinguished senior business leaders are telling us that this is just the beginning unless we find the courage to make some major changes quickly. The climate crisis, in particular, is getting a lot worse -- much more quickly than predicted.
...Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges -- the economic, environmental and national security crises. We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change. ...The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.

This is vision. Make no mistake. We need a clean energy economy: such innovation will slash U.S. emissions (especially if our transportation system electrifies), will bolster the American economy, will spur development of renewables around the world, and will help reduce geo-political tensions. Clean energy is a critical solution.

But there's a problem here as well. The problem with Gore's speech is its single-answer clarity, it's attempt to boil down our problems into their most important part. Renewables may or may not be "the lynchpin" of a sustainable society, but they are clearly far from the only answer.

“We need to make a big, massive, one-off investment to transform our energy infrastructure," Gore told a reporter. That's true.

But it's only part of the truth: that we need a series of parallel "big, massive, one-off investments." The problems we face will not be solved with one big effort, even a big effort on the scale of the lunar landings or the War on Poverty. The problems we face will only be solved by a wholesale transformation of many interlocking systems at once -- a transformation that aims to overcome many problems at once.

Do we need wind farms and solar arrays? Yes! But we also need to redesign our cities, so that we're able to grow green, dense, walkable communities that let us change our transportation systems, redefine our architectural practices and recreate our infrastructure.

We need revolutions in farming, fishing and forestry, one that makes sure that the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the materials we use are healthy and sustainable -- and we need better stewardship of the public lands and waters we all rely on.

We need a new relationship to water, water supplies and water consumption.

We need transformed product designs, new industrial processes, green metals systems, green chemistry and zero waste solutions to the garbage we create.

We need a massive wave of innovation, right now, in every single part of America's material civilization.

And we won't get that without a massive transformation in how this country works. We need tax reform (towards green taxes), new regulations, intellectual property reform, campaign finance reform, a restoration of our lost rights and judicial reform (to restore the integrity of our legal system), a huge move towards governmental transparency and the democratization of information, and active support for citizen media and public foresight. We need a new culture of corporate accountability, financial reforms to stabilize the system and restore confidence, an explosion of entrepreneurial energies and spurs to innovation (like new R+D investment incentives, competitive prizes, university research funding and the like). We need social innovation throughout our society, finding new ways to help people who are currently trapped in this nation's scandalous combination of poverty, debt, joblessness, lack of education and lack of health care to become people who are helping to create and build the solutions. That will take green collar jobs, sure, but also civic empowerment, labor rights and legal protections for those at the bottom; not only health care reform but a restored priority on public health; social marketing and community education to spread new innovations, and an overall focus on social well-being and human development, rather than merely GDP, as the measures of our success. In all these fields, radically successful models can be found around the world.

Bob Herbert tells of a Rockefeller Foundation poll finding that nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past.” That pessimism will be well-founded if we fail to realize that we have left behind us the time for incrementalism, for issue silos, for short-term thinking, for single answers.

The alternative is to engage a catastrophic moment with the politics of optimism. Existence is the ultimate proof of the possible, and we know that new solutions and better models exist now which answer nearly every problem we face. In most cases, we even know that employing these solutions together lowers their costs and increases their efficacy. It pays to think big.

And thinking big is also the only way we can restore American leadership on the international stage. As Al says, we must move first.

No one should underestimate the immediacy of the crisis or the scale of the work ahead, but we shouldn't let either frighten us into inaction. We have it in our power to remake this nation, and lead the world out of a moment of grave crisis. That alone should make it worth doing, but in this case, there's more -- because if we succeed at remaking America, we'll end up with the kind of country most of us want to live in, a country that's wealthier and more secure, sure, but also more creative, more dynamic and more in line with our core values of liberty and justice.

So as we start this journey, maybe it'll help to keep in mind Alasdair Gray's motto, "Work as though you lived in the early days of a better nation." Or, even, a better planet.

Photo: Windfarm outside of Walla Walla, WA, Creative Commons credit.

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You raise pertinent points, Alex, ones that Gore might well agree with.

But, when you're issuing a rallying cry, as Gore was, it's not a good idea to obscure the forest with trees. That comes later, in commentaries like this one.

There is a similar call made by a group calling itself the 'Green New Deal', who model their approach on Roosevelt's new deal, giving us 100 months (rather than 100 days) before climate change passes beyond our control.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 21 Jul 08

I agree with the first comment. I think renewables have a lot more of a "lynch pin" quality than you acknowledge, Alex.

More expensive renewables encourage energy efficiency, in turn encouraging more energy-efficient building design and integration of on-site renewables during construction (thereby saving the losses we get through transmission). The destributed generation that renewables, particularly solar, provide enables less dependence upon centralized power companies and a more competitive marketplace for energy production.

Not everything on your list is equally important. A 100% renewable energy system could be higher priority than everything else you mention, particularly given the timeline we're facing on climate change.

Posted by: Evan Thomas Paul on 21 Jul 08

Ra. Ra. Ra.

The honest truth, in my humble opinion, is that there has always been lots of 'talk'. I applaud Al Gore quite a bit, (even though he is still a hypocrite, he has a point) but the sad fact is that America still views itself as the most superior nation in the world, and -quite ironically, - has the a massive problem with illiteracy and a slumping economy because of it's blood lusting military-industrial complex. America has been playing the 'fool' and adolescent role in the world:
"I don't know, I don't care, and fuck you if you try to change me 'cause I already know everything."
It's about time America realized that it's chest-beating is based on false advertising and public propaganda hell bent on perfecting it's psychotic and paranoid xenophobia. The former president Wilson must be turning in his grave.

America, I say this: Grow up.

Posted by: Syntropy on 22 Jul 08

I have to agree that Gore's call to action is dangerously one-dimensional. He does mention briefly -

"At the same time, of course, we need to greatly improve our commitment to efficiency and conservation. That’s the best investment we can make."

But that is the only reference in his 3259 word speech to changing behaviors or reducing demand for energy. Apart from some wind turbines, geothermal energy and electric cars, it's business as usual. Gore and Dick Cheney apparently agree on one point - the American way of life is not negotiable.

I have another axe to grind. It's unrealistic to expect America to suddenly and dramatically leapfrog other countries with much more developed renewable energy industries and much more mature energy policies in one grand gesture. Regrettably, the pragmatic challenges are too great. Such calls inevitably breed unrealistic expectations that only bring disappointment when they fail.

Sorry if I sound cynical, but for me, a more measured approach is much more likely to succeed. Gore should try basing his policies on international best practice. Take Germany, for example, which has a huge amount of experience in encouraging renewable energy take-up. To suggest that America can achieve far more than any other country, in a much shorter timeframe, and without the many problems that other countries have had to face, is (I have to say it) the height of arrogance.

The days when the US could achieve anything it wanted, simply by wanting it, are long gone.

More here:

Posted by: Brett Robertson on 22 Jul 08

I agree strongly with the first comment. Especially in the green movement, there's a dangerous tendency to want perfection as a first step.

Large visions aren't, by definition, nuanced affairs. Surely Gore is aware of and agrees with most of the points Alex raises in this article. But this speech isn't the place to talk about walkable cities, or the need to rethink design strategies for nearly every industry. It was a place to point out that many of the problems Americans (including the vast majority who don't identify as green) face are strongly tied to where our energy comes from.

If we can achieve 100% renewables in 10 years, you can be sure that many of the other bright green ideas are going to come along for the ride. And even if not, we are certainly much, *much* better off than today.

The environmental movement has needed a "Put a Man on the Moon" vision and public buy-in for years. Hopefully, Gore's speech was that moment.

To argue "but wait, we can do better!" seems to be letting idealism get in the way of actual progress. Sometimes, the perfect really is the enemy of the good, and in this case, the good's a pretty fine option.

Posted by: Steven Skoczen on 22 Jul 08

Conversion is the key,
convert your home to renewable energy, convert your landscape to xeriscape and regionally adapted plant materials, convert your car to run on water, convert your lightbulbs to high efficiency, convert your commute to public transportation, convert your "public transportation" to mass transit, convert your old habits to the XXIst century...Please.

Posted by: Juan Lagarrigue on 22 Jul 08

Alex, I think this is an issue of framing. This kind of speech is not the place to lay out a deep and broad holistic policy. He's just trying to get regular people (and the presidential candidates...) to think on the same order of magnitude as the problem we face. The goal he's set is by itself already risky. It's been largely written off (even by moderate commentators) as nuts. Which I believe is wrong, and you do too. But that doesn't mean that getting written off is a good thing. Gore's a wonk. He knows there's lots of other devilish details. But until people are on board with the idea that there is even a problem of WWII magnitude out there to solve, they aren't going to be open to hearing all the detailed solutions... especially not when it means changing the way they live. But if he can get across the idea that there IS this huge, earth-shaking problem, then we have a chance of getting all those other things onto the agenda.

My main worry right now is that ads like the gas-pump one McCain is running against Obama right now, will be successful - a real economic crisis opens up huge new avenues of political manipulation, when people desperately want someone else to blame for their problems, and a quick fix.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 22 Jul 08

Develop Calera atmospheric CO2 when created cement and deploy worldwide would reduce CO2 by more than the Al Gore proposal

Specific energy plans that would do more than Al Gores vague challenge.

Offsetting peak oil and helping with CO2 with a fast adoption of cheap electric cars.
Key reachable development target: light electric cars

Rapid validation and deployment of some key technologies that are within our grasp will solve the issues confronting us. (excess CO2, air pollution, peak oil and allow for more energy for every person so that the developing world and developed world can become richer.)

Posted by: Brian Wang on 22 Jul 08

One thing I don't like about Al Gore's approach is that he never talks about about reducing consumerism! I am afraid he also thinks that the American Way of Life is not negotiable... and this is fundamentally wrong! All his solutions have to do with green technologies, but nothing with cultural change, which in my mind is the major problem we have, not only in North America, but in the whole world. Because now the developing countries with strong economic growth (mainly China and India) are trying to copy the wasteful American way of living.

No matter how many new and wonderful green technologies are discovered and implemented, the fundamental problems of consumerism and population are not being addressed.

Allow me to recommend a new book by Path Murphy called "Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change". Murphy is the ED of Community Solutions, he was the co-writer and co-producer of the film "Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil".

Briefly, Murphy says that for advocates of Plan A is just "business as usual", there is no need for any change, economic growth is the only way to go. Then, advocates of Plan B are happy with a status quo, their life styles, and hope to simply replace non-renewable energy products with renewable ones. They still believe there are no limits to growth, that a green market with solve everything, that is the government's and corporations' responsibility to make all necessary changes, not the consumers! He even says that Gore and many environmentalists are supporters of this Plan B.

On the other hand, the two key ingredients for his Plan C are Curtailment and Community. He says: "this plan implies permanent societal change to reduce consumption of dwindling natural resources in order to control and mitigate climate change. It calls for a resurgence of small local communities as the alternative to the American way of life that must be abandoned; And it accepts a reduced standard of living as part of being global citizen." The key action in his Plan C is to curtail, meaning buying less, using less, wanting less and wasting less. In other words, we need to change, from being consumers to curtailers...

WOW ! this sounds quite radical, quite un-American, isn't it ? I truly believe this is the way to go, and we all need to begin curtailing.. yesterday!

We need to take responsibility for the damage we have done and take action. It is not only the governments and the big corporations the "evil doers". I am afraid we all are part of this mess.

Posted by: norberto rodriguez on 23 Jul 08

There are three powers that regulate change: The people or culture, the governing bodies, and those who control the money or capitalists. All three respond to the others when a shift occurs. In terms of a paradigm shift, all three must be lobbied simultaneously, for without a solid foundation made up of all three, any change is destined to fail or be overpowered. These three components are not equal, however. The strongest and most integral is the power that lies in our culture. Although, policy can be modified and corporations can adapt and manipulate, neither can withstand a refusal of the people to co-operate or acquiesce.

The challenge is therefore to revolutionize our own culture to be one that does not tolerate failings in the other two sectors. During World War II we were forced to become a society of frugality and conservation (for the war effort). After the war ended our culture was bombarded with advertisements, encouragements, and re-assurances that it was our duty, right, and true desire to consume all that we saw fit. It was a masterfully executed campaign to reverse what had become our culture of less, to a culture of bigger and better and more. It is human nature to respond to our desires, and so commercial America simply dictated our desires to us.

What we need now is another cultural shift, this time away from overconsumption and back towards conservation, but not for a war effort: for sustainability. We need to make it hip, cool, and desirable to reject what is hip, cool, and desirable right now. It will take a concerted effort to resist the commodification of our renewed values towards the minimal. We must use the same tools that have been used against us for so many decades. This means that art, in all forms, must be reclaimed from profiteers and used again as a means of expression and reformation. We can remove the vail of cool from excess and nihilism, to be replaced by compromise and passion.

Posted by: alex on 23 Jul 08

In a near ideal world, people would live in energy efficient (passive) homes which would meet most of their energy requirements from solar panels installed on the roof. The remainder would be supplied by wind or tidal turbines. People would commute in electric cars and recycle the batteries.

This is just the beginning.

In a near ideal world....

Posted by: Jash on 24 Jul 08

Al Gore needs to focus squarely on reducing the dependence on oil by the US. He is probably behind Barack Obama energy policy. ......
Presidential candidate Barack Obama has committed himself in Berlin today to stand as one on Climate Change and he said he wants to save the planet. What is the plan for weaning us off our dependence on oil and will car manufacturers start making vehicles that use alternative fuels? How does that dove-tail in with his plans for the middle-east?The world community needs to know what is Barack Obama's plan.
Andy Grove of Harvard Business School and former head of Intel Corp is unimpressed with the energy policies of the leading presidential candidates, Republican Senator John McCain and Barack Obama. Grove maintains the most important issue is getting away from the dependence on oil, not moving to renewable energy by 2018, as recommended by Al Gore which `is addressing the second most important problem,'' Grove said.
Carmakers should adopt open-source policies to share technology and commit to honoring warranties when consumers do such modifications. Grove says he is encouraged by conversions of pickups and other autos that have been done by individuals and small shops for years. Batteries and motors are installed to add all- electric range and reduce vehicle's gasoline use.
``I would love to give a lot of light and limelight to these people who have been doing this in their garages because there are a lot of them,'' Grove said. ``This is how the computer industry became a very large industry.''
Grove is calling for the U.S. to offer tax credits or interest-free loans to retrofit vehicles. Grove maintains, “All these objections are absolutely valid in a peace state,'' said Grove, such as high costs, a lack of batteries sturdy enough for daily use, no recharging infrastructure, and harmful environmental effects if coal-fired plants are the main energy source are not valid in these times.
In Silicon Valley, Grove is prodding venture capitalists to fund electric vehicle technologies and he is aiming to tap the entrepreneurial drive that led the region to dominate software and Internet businesses. is interested in alternative fuel vehicles
are you?

Posted by: Karlamandabell on 24 Jul 08

The problem is not so much our capitalist economy as it is with our nation being built on fear. Fear of each other, fear of tomorrow and fear of uncertainty! Every day we are being bombarded with new fears...this is another one of them, meant in its end, to promote nuclear energy.
I might not be so eloquent or as wordy or technical, but I do see the red herring in Al Gore's new proclamation!

Posted by: igmuska on 25 Jul 08

Once the USA have truly seen the need for a specific course of action, they are almost unstoppable in their determination. Both WWII and the moon race have shown that.

But right now, the USA aren't quite there yet. Those who wish for "change" now mainly regard it as simply the reversal of eight years of the Bush administration, but Bush only aggravated existing trends - the problems go much deeper than that. It will take a few more years until the USA truly reach bottom - and see the need to change course.

Posted by: Jürgen Hubert on 27 Jul 08

You know it's funny, a lot of people here say America should grow up, when in reality, the entire world needs to grow up. We as a human species need to grow up, instead of being the violent, greedy, and lazy monkeys we are.

Posted by: BobHands on 29 Jul 08

Can someone explain how so many well-intentioned people are failing so miserably to share a common understanding of what is happening in our planetary home in these early years of Century XXI?

There are moments like this one when it appears to me that we in the family of humanity must be living within some huge manmade construction reminiscent of the ancient Tower of Babel. Whatever the reasons for our spectacular failure to communicate meaningfully and sensibly about what somehow could be real about the workings of the Earth and the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things, these circumstances are incredible and present the human family with a potentially colossal threat to life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.

As an example, let us look at the growth of absolute global human population numbers. In 2008 there are more people literally existing on Earth on resources valued at less than $2 per day than the total human population in the year of my birth. Our population numbers have been skyrocketing in our time and are projected to continue skyrocketing to the middle of this century when our numbers are anticipated to reach 9+/- billion and then somehow, magically I believe, automatically stabilize. The is no unchallenged scientific evidence to indicate how this “demographic transition to population stabilization” can possibly occur. This has not kept many so-called experts from continuing to say that the preternatural ’science’ on which they rely is outdated and fatally flawed.

A mere 108 years ago, at the beginning of the 20th Century, human numbers worldwide were between 1 and 2 billion. Most people can agree, I believe, on these numbers.

Now let us look at the relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably frangible planet we inhabit. Many experts have asked the question, “How many people can the Earth support?”

No reasonable and sensible person would say that an unlimited number of people can exist in a limited world. That cannot be. It also follows that the size and make-up of Earth naturally limits the growth of human production and per human consumption activities worldwide. The growth of these activities are subject to certain biophysical limitations of Earth. Endless growth cannot occur in a finite world.

What do you expect will happen if human propagation, production and consumption activities continue to grow, given their current scale and expected annual rate of increase? Please know that comments are welcome.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 30 Jul 08

Very good post. The best thing about Gore's spech was that he set a date, and a nearby one--he acknowledged that if we're going to do any of these things, we need to do them soon, before the damage from climate change has become so expensive that we no longer have the resources.

Posted by: bill mckibben on 30 Jul 08

Mr. Salmony, you are correct that overpopulation is a tremendous problem. The question is, what are you doing to promote the education of women and girls? After all, that is the only just means of decreasing population growth.

Posted by: SAF on 2 Aug 08

We also need a massive wave of socialization, right now, in every community across America and the rest of the world. We need to learn to see with each other's eyes, to feel what the other feels — especially when the other does not look like us. We need to step beyond national loyalties into a loyalty to the world, for "the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens" (Bahá'u'lláh).

We need to learn to see the spirit and nobility in ourselves, in each other, and in the natural world. We need to understand that we are each a part of the global system, not separate and above nature, and that we must take both individual and collective responsibility for the environment that nourishes us all. Or, as Martin Luther King said, we must learn to see that "all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." That is justice.

This interconnected, dynamic worldview, which we can cultivate in ourselves and our neighbors, will be the crest that brings the tipping point in collective will. Without inculcating these ethics and norms, it is difficult to believe we will summon the gumption to break the status quo, to remake America and the world on our own terms rather than on the back of post-climate ruin.

Posted by: sfuqua on 2 Aug 08



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