Thinking Locally, Acting Globally 

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What if there were a product that everyone in this city, nay, this country, could use and benefit from? What if said product would not only reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and improve the state of the environment now, but would also slow the progress of global warming, and save its users money? And what if developing said product would also create jobs and businesses, and could potentially retool whole swathes of the economy? Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Of course, such a product exists. It is the solar panel, and as noted mustache Thomas Friedman pointed out recently in the Times, its time has come… everywhere but in the United States, where the technology has largely been invented and honed, but where its implementation has been poorly 
executed.

Friedman talks about an American builder of solar-panel factories: they’ve created a $1.3 billion-dollar business, but none of their 14 factories has ended up in the United States. “Five are in Germany, four are in China,� he tells us�two countries that, from different ends of the political spectrum, have managed to create environments hospitable to solar power. The U.S., on the other hand, with a mishmash of laws that vary from state to state, has made solar-panel installation harder to justify, pay for, and count on paying back over time.

What’s going on here? Why can’t we get a basic, national policy on tax credits, mandatory utility buyback (that’s when you get paid for the power you generate and feed back into the grid), and support of solar-production and installation industries? The benefits would far outweigh the costs (hello, tax revenue from employed factory workers making panels; goodbye, subsidies and environmental costs of coal-fired or other “dirty� power plants).

A lot of our looming environmental crises are similar in nature: a recent Worldwatch report suggests that one of the most viable ways of dealing with climate change is by sequestering carbon by changing our agricultural practices. They claim that 25 percent of global emissions could be offset through agriculture: long ago, I mentioned in these pages that if every farmer east of the Mississippi farmed like Joel Salatin, the farmer made famous in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it would offset ALL the CO2 produced by transportation in this country. Salatin’s kept such good records of his soil that it’s a cold, hard, fact. Using our farms to capture carbon is one of the most direct, and fastest, ways to deal with this huge problem�but in a country where the very nature of farming is determined by billions in farm subsidies and a big-ag stranglehold on the business, change can only come from the national government.

As we’ve seen with the healthcare freakout, err, debate, achieving consensus on a national level is well nigh impossible in these United States. Otherwise-problematic single-party systems like China’s have the advantage, as they can make, and implement, decisions about environmental policy. Our indecisiveness may be the very thing that robs us of our chance to fix our environmental woes, and benefit from the products of that fixing too: as Friedman concludes, “[China] no longer believes it can pollute its way to prosperity because it would choke to death. That is the most important shift in the world in the last 18 months. [It] has decided that clean-tech is going to be the next great global industry and is now creating a massive domestic market for solar and wind, which will give it a great export platform.� Which all sounds pretty nice for China, but leaves a gaping hole closer to home.

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