I have to say, I’m oscillating between despair and hope these days when it comes to the environment. On the one hand, people all around me seem to be more and more aware, better informed about the “issues” and more willing to take action. On the other hand, when I look at mass media, whether it’s TV, newspapers or films, I’m often astonished by the same-old, same-old attitudes that prevail. How much do we know about Obama’s childhood, and his (God can we please stop talking about this NOW?) minister’s views on race? Can these things possibly matter as much as what he would actually DO if he were elected?
I wrote a piece on this last fall, discussing the non-appearance of environmental issues in campaign coverage and debates. Somehow, despite the fact that MANY of us [New Yorkers, Americans, humans] are desperately concerned about the environment, we’re still not getting the coverage or the answers we want, need and deserve.
I believe very strongly that individual action is productive and essential — it is, for the most part, what this column is about. Carry that cloth bag, stop eating meat, grow your own tomatoes: it all helps, and it’s the beginning of a massive cultural shift that’s going to have to happen for us to keep living on this planet without destroying it.
But there’s another side of the shift that hasn’t caught up to the individual action side of things. We’re not getting much, if anything, in the way of governmental involvement in the problems of transitioning to a carbon-neutral society. And transition we must, the faster the better. I recently read an article about environmental policy in Germany, one of the greenest countries in Europe. More than half the photovoltaic power generated in the world is generated in Germany, not exactly known for its blazing sunshine. How has solar power proven so successful there, while here it’s been trying to take off since the 70s?
In 2000 the German government passed a law forcing utility companies to buy power from “microgenerators,” aka folks who make their own energy with roof-top solar panels. Not only do the utilities have to buy the power, they have to buy it at rates higher than the going rate for carbon-emitting power. These higher rates mean that the building-owners’ investment in solar panels is paid back MUCH more quickly, and solar panels became a viable investment. So much so that even third parties — non-home-owners and others — want to invest in solar installations, because they make a 3-4% return on their investment (while doing something awesome for their country).
Before you cry “social welfare state!” or “big government!” remember that our federal government has long subsidized production, paying farmers, land owners, ranchers and companies to do (or not do) what it wants. Remember too that while a power company in Germany pays above-market rates for microgenerated power, they avoid the (considerable) costs of building new power plants, which are expensive whether they’re fueled by coal, gas or nuclear gunk. Furthermore, clean solar power eliminates the need for pricey cleanup down the line, saving power companies, municipalities and the national government even more.
The only trouble is we don’t have a program like this in the U.S. In fact, with Super Chimp in the White House, and oil lobbyists sliming up our representatives, we aren’t making any meaningful progress on energy issues, on a national level, at all.
Here in New York we need to demand better from our politicians. Fat-cat developers should be made to install solar panels on EVERY new building (a fraction of the total cost of any project, and a great draw for tenants, to boot), and Con Ed should have to buy power at, yes, higher-than-normal rates, from existing home owners who install panels. A few moderate changes, several well-chosen laws, and the city could begin moving in the right direction, toward energy independence.
And that would be just a beginning. We have to start passing the buck BACK to our government(s) — city, state and national. They have the power to implement programs that might actually be appropriate to the scale of the problem. As individuals we can recycle, change lightbulbs and take public transportation till we’re blue in our collective face, but none of that can make the huge cuts in carbon output that we need in order to preserve some semblance of life on earth.
Write the power! (And tell them you want to see change.)