The plot to destroy the planet in the meantime

Posted on September 6, 2009


parent-9780307406187 Keep partying, the cavalry’s just round the corner – and they’re dressed in miracle green.   I’ve been reading Brian Dumaine’s “The plot to save the planet: How visionary entrepreneurs and corporate Titans are creating real solutions to global warming”.

I’m pleased I read it after going to Susan Krumdieck’s talk last week.  This book could be the poster child for her argument that Green energy myths are causing paralysis.    The premise for Dumaine’s book is that we need to find a replacement for carbon powered energy sources:

There is no question about it.  It must be cleaned up. Carbon-·capture technologies, where the CO2, emitted from coal is buried beneath the ground, should eventually become feasible. New approaches, such as using algae to eat the carbon in coal exhaust, may also become commercially viable. Will  we be able to develop the technologies fast enough to meet this goal?

But there’s very little recognition of actually reducing consumption.

I’m not criticizing missionaries for saving the globe, nor advocating a damper on travel. But conservation is the low-hanging fruit for healing our ailing planet. Everyone wants to live a rich, abundant life, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that. In fact, it is a goal society should strive to achieve for as many citizens as possible.

Rather he derides such a thought

Despite the high prices and fuel shortages, when a cardigan clad President Carter asked citizens to turn down their thermostats and drive less, he was accused of fostering “an age of malaise.” Americans were vividly made aware of the risks of having an oil-dependent economy.


But we won’t be able to achieve this without advances in technology. It’s important to recognize that we’re not going to save our way out of this problem.

The book seems to be based on the assumption that America has a right to consume more than anyone else, and that the American way is too entrenched to even consider changing:

On the Continent, the streets are narrow, the cities dense, and the distances short…and besides, Americans love their cars.

And constantly returns to the refrain of it being someone else’s problem

Climate change is not solely an American problem.  Carbon emitted from Chinese coal plants warms the entire globe.

Which leads to a disturbing concept of ownership of the earth.    On page 11 Dumaine uses the “our” indicate American collective ownership “What are the obstacles to cleaning up our planet?”.   An otherwise enlightened passage about a discussion about the effects of climate change with an uncaring banker reaches its climax with “millions of refugees displaced by floods and famine who might head north toward the U.S. border” (which he sees as a “bleak  scenario”).

The Chinese economy is growing at 11 percent a year, and its new, well-heeled middle class is falling in love with the automobile. If the Chinese begin to buy and drive cars at the rate Americans do, some 800 million cars will clog China’s streets and spew greenhouse gases and smog into our atmosphere … This is a frightening prospect  (his emphasis)

While Dumaine is frightenly Americentric, we need to be careful not to assume that we are immune from such thoughts.  After all, the NZ government decided recently that it was only “fair” for us to target reductions nowhere near the global average.

This book is perhaps a perfect example of the danger of energy myths Krumdieck exposes. Even though Dumaine does seem to recognise the real problem:

The world’s thirst for energy grows each day.  If we continue on our current course, the global oil, utility, and auto industries will produce and burn ever more fossil fuel and emit enough greenhouse gases to irrevocably change our climate

the book is all about producing more and more energy.   So, we have chapters on developments in algal technology that will “munch carbon”, on the ‘rebirth of the nuclear industry”, and he celebrates Schwarzenegger’s ethanol powered Hummer.

In only one chapter (3) does he come close to addressing the real issue, reducing consumption, indeed he describes this as  “the first task”.

He is rightly cynical about misguided consumer efforts towards green consumption:

Using the world’s resources and then buying carbon offsets may soothe your conscience, but it is not a solution. The hedge fund millionaire who flies his private jet to Aspen to stay two weeks a year in his “green” 10,000-square-foot vacation home ten miles from town is not helping the climate. The health-conscious jogger who sips Asian bottled water should note the required energy to produce and ship each bottle to the United States. And the organic-minded shopper who buys raspberries in the middle of winter should understand that they have traveled from Chile in a plane that was spewing CO2 all along the five-thousand-mile route.

and sees much to celebrate in industry efforts to reduce consumption on a wider scale:

The cleanest, greenest power plant is the one that is never built.

Dumaine quotes  Jim Rogers CEO Duke Energy, proponent of the “Save A Watt” scheme:

What if the utilities got paid for generating less electricity? As he explains, “Essentially what I am proposing is that I eventually go beyond your meter and into your house. I might put in a more efficient refrigerator.

Dumaine says “getting consumers to switch to green products represents an enormous business opportunity” and indeed it does, but the book would have benefited from some critical analysis of criticism of schemes such as Save A Watt (load shifting, company profits vs community etc).  This is where the real questions lie,  what are the business models that see us buying less stuff?   Dumaine quotes Paul Hawkin, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have understood this implication:

Paul Hawken…complained about the growing popularity of so-called sustainable products, whether jeans or furniture built with wood from replanted forests. “Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase,” he said. “We turn toward the consumption part because that’s where the money is,” Hawken said. “We tend not to look at the ‘less’ part.

So, to conclude, and borrowing from Krumdieck,  Dumaine’s book seems to me not a plot to save the world, but a vector of a disease, a disease that is causing paralysis when we need to be moving.    In other words, this book is contributing to a misguided belief that technical solutions will miraculously save us so meanwhile we can go on partying.

Posted in: sustainability