Monday, April 23, 2018

Looking at America


When I first saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth I had two quite powerful reactions. I loved the excellent first half where he explained the science of climate change. The second half, where he attempts to describe what actions should be taken to mitigate the problem, was just plain awful. I spent much of that time asking rhetorically, "Al, did you really watch the first half of your own movie? Do you REALLY believe you can prevent the ice caps from melting by talking people into hanging their wash out to dry?"

Since then, I have concentrated my efforts on the problem "What can we do to address climate change effectively?" The way I see it, there are at least 50,000 highly qualified scientists working diligently on the science of climate change but almost no one is giving serious consideration to what sort of actions are required to build a society that does not destroy the atmosphere. The reasons for this are complex but they must include examinations of the sociology, economics, engineering, and other social interactions that make it extremely difficult for populations to actually reduce the amounts of greenhouse gasses they generate. So while the climate scientists keep coming up with frightening warnings about what will happen if nothing changes, nothing changes. In fact, the situation continues to worsen.

So when I decided to address climate change, I was determined to concentrate on the solution end of the problem. Spoiler alert�this is a lot harder than it looks. There are excellent reasons why the best minds on the planet go scurrying for cover whenever the talk turns to remediation. But did this stop me? No-o-o-o! And quite honestly, the effort exhausted me.

I have a friend who has been doing video documentaries since the 1970s. One of his core beliefs is that nothing attracts or holds attention like pictures of big equipment doing big jobs. When the subject is the massive amounts of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere, big equipment is just everywhere. After awhile, these pictures�especially the ones showing the Germans strip-mining brown coal�triggered near clinical depression. Here is Germany�arguably the finest example of "green" technologies in action�mining 170 million tons of the dirtiest fuel in 2017 because it is their only fuel source still cheaper than solar.

Staggered by my renewed exposure to the vast, complex, and necessary machinery that produces CO2 in the course of normal operations, I added to my woes by exploring the increasing evidence that there is already so much in the atmosphere that even significant reductions in output wouldn't actually help all that much. For these folks, it's already too late.

And then the weather got very strange. By now, there has probably been more snow in Minneapolis to set new all-time records. Turns out that the same kink in the Jet Stream that almost eliminated winter in Alaska was bringing misery to the lower 48 including 4 Nor'easters in three weeks to New England and points south.

Of course, the government was doing nothing. Trump is struggling to form a government and the Democrats, saddled with an acute case of Trump derangement syndrome, have busied themselves with restarting the Cold War because it is easier to blame Russia for their political woes than to examine the dozens of perfectly valid reasons why they lost the election of 2016.

So I decided to take a road trip to escape the crazy winter and to celebrate the progress I did make on my climate change video. I had few plans but I wanted to see Tony in North Carolina and visit my brother in Florida. By the time I reached Illinois, I had named it my "Chill Out and Lighten Up" tour. Things were going as planned when my fuel pump took a dump just outside of Dayton Ohio�at 3:00 on a Sunday morning. By the time I got back on the road on Monday afternoon, I had managed to blow a $1000 hole in my travel budget.

My stay in Xenia Ohio was an eye-opener. There were no cabs to transport me from my cheap hotel to the shop where my car was to be fixed so I entered the world of Uber. Trust me, no one goes into private transportation unless other better forms of employment have dried up. I said to one driver, "Dayton was a famous and important town while I was growing up. How's it doing now?" I got an earful of the tale of Dayton's deindustrialization. I knew enough about Ohio's role in supplying parts for the auto industry so I took a shot, "Did you even lose Delco (the folks that manufactured the electronic parts for GM)?" He looked like someone who had just lost a child. Tony would later explain that Delco stood for Dayton Electronic Corporation and had been in the GM family from almost the beginning. I didn't know.

Tony was getting ready for the big model engineering show in Detroit. His business has taken a hit in the last few years�probably because the sort of people who make complicated things for fun are dying out. He keeps plugging away and has made significant progress on his book How America was Built. Mebane North Carolina was once the home to runaway textile manufacturing from New England. In the past couple of decades, they kept on running to places like Bangladesh and Vietnam. Developers have turned some of the old mills into housing but the original housing stock for the textile workers was very modest. On the other hand, I visited a niece whose husband is an engineer for AT&T. They live close to the research triangle near Raleigh. That neighborhood had some very nice housing.

The drive to central Florida went off without a hitch. My brother's splendid net-zero house is more wonderful than I had expected. In some ways it is like a hippie's dream house except everything works and was carefully and lovingly crafted. The Orlando area, OTOH, is an environmental nightmare�2.4+ million permanent residents and 51 million visitors per year. With no visible signs of central planning, it is a city built by real estate developers who think nothing of putting up 2000 homes on a two lane road with the hope the infrastructure will catch up. Traffic is a nightmare. On his side of town they have opened 3 large high schools in 12 years. Downtown Orlando is a forest of tower cranes. And in all that building in the center of the Sunshine State, there are probably less than 500 solar homes.

My recovery from near exhaustion goes slowly. This little thing took five days to write and I have left out a lot. My brother's house is very impressive and because he built it himself cost less than $150,000 including solar panels when they were still pretty spendy. So in theory, the solar future shouldn't be so difficult or expensive. But watching him in action explains why so little progress gets made�he is very organized, clever, and understands the market for the components of such a complex house. The typical lefty who is confused by any tool more complicated than a fork couldn't build such a dwelling in a hundred years and would still spend bucketloads of money in the process.

Hope to get back to fixing my video soon. Wish me well.

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