When I started research on The Geography of Hope, my global survey of solutions to the climate crisis, back in 2005, it was a kind of dare. I told myself (and my publisher) I was on the hunt for “the state of the art in sustainable living,” that I was assembling “a patchwork map of a world that works,” but what I was really looking for was an answer or two for my newborn daughter – something I could tell her, once she was old enough to ask, about how we were going to get out of this mess.
There was a tinge of desperation to the project that I didn’t really admit to myself at the time. I barely understood what “sustainable living” was and I had no clear idea what I’d find, and I had a kind of cognitive itch at the back of my skull that said maybe I wouldn’t find much of anything. But I quickly came to realize that the tools for building this sustainable world were more plentiful and much closer at hand than I’d imagined. I soon understood as well that there were unique properties to the global consciousness in these first years of what has come to be known as the Anthropocene Epoch – this new geological age wrought in part by human hands – and one of those properties is a partitioning into discrete realities, particularly around questions of energy.
Blinkered by the silo vision of the early Anthropocene, what may be an everyday fact in one piece of the map can seem a preposterous impossibility in another. Germany can add more than 20,000 megawatts (or 20-odd nuclear reactors’ worth) of wind power alone to its grid inside a decade – and resuscitate the comatose eastern German economy in the process – and yet be totally invisible to the policymakers of the UK and the Big Idea trackers of America, who claim only nuclear power, which takes ten years minimum just to get its first kilowatt-hour flowing, can “scale.” I was amazed anew at just how far we’ve come in certain spots on the map on a recent research trip to Silicon Valley.
My first visit to Silicon Valley as a journalist was in the spring of 2001, just as the dotcom bubble’s burst was becoming undeniable. I’d been sent there by the Canadian edition of Time Magazine to write a feature on the Valley’s most prominent Canadians – this as part of a longer “Wired Canada” series on the dramatic transformations wrought by the digital “revolution.”
When the Time series was done, I wrote a sort of barroom rant of an essay for the late Shift Magazine. The essay detailed my frustrations with the Time project, my sense that this brave new digital world was somehow less than the sum of its parts and far less than the soaring rhetoric that accompanied each new widget’s debut.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with widgets, nor that I was being dishonest as a reporter to duly note the superiority of certain widgets to those of their competitors. It was, really, a question of what all these widgets were for.
I returned to Silicon Valley again just a few weeks ago, this time to report on the booming solar industry that has become a key contributor to the Valley’s post-dotcom-bust economic recovery. (Look for that story, “Solar Goes Supernova,” in the Dec/Jan issue of Fast Company.) There was a passage toward the end of my old essay that was stuck in my head as I landed at SFO. “[M]aybe,” I’d written back in 2001, “if the carpool lanes and commuter trains had been full, and maybe if there were solar panels on the roofs of those office parks and wind turbines in the vacant lots – well, hell, maybe then it would’ve looked revolutionary.”
Well, the carpool lanes were still underused and the commuter trains not nearly extensive enough to serve the region, but lo and behold I spied a terminal roof right there at SFO tiled in solar as I shuttled to the rental car lot. I hadn’t even left the airport and already there were auspicious signs that the revolution I couldn’t find last time might’ve finally arrived.
I spent the days that followed listening to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists talk in soaring, almost mythic terms about the solar boom’s potential, the pace of its innovation, the grail of grid parity finally within reach. I inspected new production lines and the rooftop solar installations that cover many an office park and an even larger number of Macy’s and Staples and Kohl’s stores throughout the Bay Area. (The Googleplex is particularly funky – its parking lot is half-covered in sunshades made of Sharp PV, and one section of the installation dangles big electric plugs just waiting for the arrival of the plug-in hybrid craze.)
I was legitimately awed at just how sophisticated the solar industry has grown in a few short years – whether it was SunPower’s radical transformation from glorified R&D lab to industrial titan or Akeena Solar’s move from its founder’s garage to a dozen offices selling its sleek Andalay panels (maybe the first truly designer solar panels the industry’s ever seen). This was no longer future-tense, and this was no longer a game for hobbyists and altruists. And this – really just eight years after I’d wished for its arrival in a kind of fever dream – this was the distant early warning of the arrival of the revolution we truly need. It was exhilarating.
And then I came upon a scene so perfectly attuned to this wave of excitement it seemed scripted. It was the night before I left, and I’d headed up to North Beach in San Francisco to do some touristy stuff – a walk through Chinatown, dinner at an old-school Italian place, a bit of browsing at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. I even ducked into old Café Vesuvio for a couple of pints. (So what if it’s more like a museum piece than the convivial dive it was when it was the preferred watering hole of Kerouac & Co.? It’s still one helluva cozy spot for a drink.)
I finished my drinks and talked nonsense with some Danish guys who’d just finished a coast-to-coast road trip and then I stumbled out into the night with just enough Anchor Steam in me to fuel an aimless hike up Columbus. With similarly booze-soaked Jeff Tweedy lyrics looping through my head (I’m an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue . . .), I cast a nostalgic glance at the Jack Kerouac Alley street sign and the books in the darkened windows of City Lights. Kind of just bathing in the glow given off by a legitimate epicenter of American culture – this is what I’m getting at.
I came upon a middle-aged dude stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, gawking slack-jawed at this sleek little two-seater parallel-parked there. I stopped, and just as he started to ask something like Ever seen anything like that?, it hit me that I had. In the window of the Tesla dealership in Menlo Park. This was a Tesla Roadster, the turbo-charged all-electric dream car of the green-minded geek millionaire. Out in public, parked in North Beach like any other stylish ride. (Tesla’s been hard hit by the economic storm since my visit, but seems to have weathered it alright.)
We were soon joined by a knot of twentysomething hipsters, who instantly recognized the Roadster and started circling it in naked fanboy awe. The owner showed up just then – a Tesla exec, it turned out – and the hipsters started peppering him with questions and asking after the company’s founder (who they referred to by first name like an old pal or beloved guru). Turned out they were all employees of Solar City, one of the young installation companies driving California’s solar boom.
The Tesla exec showed us the batteries in the trunk, and then he offered one of the Solar City guys a ride. He pulled out so quick and silent he was gone before any of us really noticed he’d started off. It was like a magic trick. We stood there in the North Beach night, all of us slackjawed now. We were like cartoon characters under a collective thought bubble that read Holy Shit!
I can’t speak for the others, but I was pretty sure I’d just witnessed a fundamental shift in the entire culture’s center of gravity. This was a much more hopeful Silicon Valley than the one I’d visited in 2001, one with a much better sense of the planet’s priorities.
Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com
Image credit: Ashley Bristowe
Nice story. I hope it portends the near future. We should demand that Detroit uses the best technology in all future vehicles. In return for their bailout. Too bad they were too greedy to do the right thing willingly.
Solar and wind are becoming the new “bubble” with the politicians forcing the badly abused consumer to subsidize these technologies while being aided and abetted by the crooks (aka Wall Street) that brought us the dot com mess, housing crisis and oil price run-up. History does indeed repeat itself.
If technologies (or industries) can not stand on their own two feet and compete, maybe we should remove them from the government pig trough. Gee ..., that would include banks, farmers, insurance companies and lots of other free loaders.
Government help for research and development is reasonable, but production should be subject to the efficiency of the markets.
Within this one story there are a dozen or more, each created by a group of insightful people or a forward thinking company that decided to bring the future into the present. Our federal government should be touting these success stories and encouraging others to follow suite. Often times it doesn't take legislation, just inspiration.