Finding Character

Rick Friedman/ DER SPIEGEL

So now that I’ve settled on the classic “journey” structure (for the moment), I’m turning my attention to characters. Who’s going to populate this book of mine? And who’s going to keep readers turning pages?

I’ve got folks who could certainly serve: from a buttoned-down astronaut who now spends his time studying how to deploy renewable energy most effectively to a mustachioed oceanographer raised in the Himalayas who would like to use marine life to rejigger the skies. There’s even the man Stephen Colbert asked: “Are you trying to play God, sir? Because you certainly have the beard for it.” (That’d be George Church, who’s also been in the news lately for saying the resurrection of Neanderthals is imminently feasible and possibly desirable.)

The problem is I have no single character who can carry the entire saga of the Anthropocene. My only hope is that I can somehow weave these characters in and out of some over-arching narrative but I’m worried that what will actually happen is that I’ll just write a couple of scenes or set-pieces and then that’s the end of that character for the rest of the book. (Call it seven to 10 articles masquerading as a book, or “journalist’s syndrome.”)

I guess the only way to find out is to start writing…

The Enduring Mystery of “Structure”

Our one (and only) spaceship

As I set out on this book writing project, the first (and by no means smallest) challenge to surmount is how in the world I’m going to structure a book about a bunch of misfits having a scientific argument. I guess when I put it like that it doesn’t sound so terrible but the danger is that I end up with eight, loosely connected profiles that don’t add up to much. And my ambitions are much larger than that.

So I think I’m going to be imposing an artificial superstructure, like a narrative overlay that can then pull the reader through the book. The idea, at present, is to tell the story of the Anthropocene from the bottom of the sea on up to the far reaches of space, with stops on land (naturally) in between. Organizing the information this way may let the reader feel the pull of what’s to come.

Or not.

The End of the World As We Know It, or I Got an Anthropocene Book Deal

Humanity is now writing a new chapter in Earth’s history. The choices we make now will help set the thermostat of the entire planet for at least tens of thousands of years. If people, plants and animals don’t like the climate of 2100, 2500 or even 25000, they will have us to blame. And if human civilization is to persist to see that climate, we have our work cut out for us.

Which is why I’m writing a book. We are the first life to transform this planet with the possibility of consciousness about it, terraforming terra herself as a result of our actions (albeit mostly unwittingly to date). If we want to ensure that the Anthropocene is more than a blip in the history of the planet, it will take all of our smarts and our technology to begin to master formerly natural systems, such as short-circuiting the millennia it takes to recycle water or the eons nature requires to turn tons of old, dead plants into fossil fuels.

This is not about preserving Nature with a capital N or bringing stasis to what is (and always has been) the dynamic flux of life, chemistry and plate tectonics. This is about managing change, adapting and ensuring the resilience of our civilization, our fellow life and even our planet.

I’ll be chronicling my efforts to craft a narrative history out of that topic here. So set out on this journey of disillusionment with me? Any and all help, insights, pro tips or just words of encouragement truly welcome. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Can the U.S. build a clean, green economic machine?

Can cleaner sources of energy not only power our economy but also drive a recovery from the Great Recession? That’s the question confronted by policymakers across the U.S.—and by debaters in the Intelligence Squared series hosted March 8 by New York University.

The list of political proponents of a clean, green energy economy is long, ranging from President Obama down to John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And the anecdotal evidence thus far seems strong: 2,600 manufacturing jobs in Colorado as a result of Danish wind turbine-maker Vestas—plus the farmers in that state who reap profits from the wind blowing over their fields while continuing to grow crops like wheat. Or the green jobs growth in China, Germany or California.

“Green jobs are the largest source of growth in California [with] job growth 10 times higher than in any other sector,” former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the second annual Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit on March 1. “China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas. We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas.”

But the list of economic counter-examples is also long, including the offshoring of the steel industry that laid Braddock—and all of the Pittsburgh area—low, jobs-wise. In fact, the Rust Belt might also be called one of the downsides of cleaner air: If you want to avoid local air pollution, a simple solution is to shift the coal burning responsible for it far away—as outlined in an infamous memo from Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank. And, faced with diminished economic prospects, clean energy companies—EvergreenSolyndraRange Fuels—have recently begun laying off American workers.

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate: what is clean energy exactly? And what creates jobs?

The answer to the former depends on who you ask, but it certainly encompasses renewable energy sources such as dams, hot rocks, solar and wind, and may include sources like nuclear or cleaner-burning natural gas. Or even “clean coal.”

Clean coal is an oxymoron akin to family vacation or jumbo shrimp,” argued pundit Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future at the debate on March 8. “If everything is clean energy, then nothing is.”

Setting aside that question for the moment, consider the question of jobs. Not only is there the issue of the quantity of jobs created by any given industry but also the quality. So perhaps there are more jobs in installing or cleaning solar panels than in making them in the first place, a process that tends to be automated. But are those good, high-paying jobs? The kind of jobs to replace the often unionized, say, autoworker jobs that vaulted immigrants and Americans alike into the ranks of the middle class in the 20th century?

At present, there are three engines pumping out American jobs: construction, innovation and services. Rebuilding the American energy infrastructure would ultimately drive job growth in all three, from building new nuclear power plants to retraining auto mechanics to work on electric cars. And there’s the export market to think about: most of the growth in energy infrastructure will take place in the rest of the world, noted private equity investor Kassia Yanosek of Hudson Clean Energy Partners. “Clean energy will drive exports, which are critical to future growth.”

And that growth depends on manufacturing—because any energy revolution would require a lot of hardware. But if ET (energy technology) follows IT (information technology), most of that manufacturing may be done elsewhere, like China, just as Apple’s iPhone is conceptualized in Cupertino but assembled in China. And if we lose manufacturing, we might, in the end, lose innovation.

“If pilot scale manufacturing goes away, which is closely related to [research and development], R&D will suffer,” says ARPA–e director (and mechanical engineer) Arun Majumdar. “That is a big danger and we should do all we can to keep at least that manufacturing—if not more—here in the U.S.”

That said, large equipment like a wind turbine tends to be manufactured close to where it will be used, simply because it’s difficult and expensive to transport large, heavy pieces (think of all those wind turbines not fitting under highway overpasses). And that uncovers another facet of the clean energy debate: any energy source starts to look dirtier and dirtier the bigger it gets.

So there’s the mounting opposition to wind farms from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the Columbia River valley in Oregon. There are the ongoing lawsuits about the endangered desert tortoise holding up solar thermal power plant development in the Mojave Desert. There’s the furor over Big Corn, which has received at least 40¢ per gallon in subsidies since 1978 to ferment the 200-proof “corn whiskey” that now amounts to some 10 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, 13 billion gallons of ethanol in all. And there’s the fact that burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, which is still a lot of CO2 as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

“If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to 1 billion tons by 2050, today, right now, CO2 from natural gas use is 1.2 billion tons,” said Steven Hayward, think-tanker at the American Enterprise Institute at the Tuesday evening debate. “It’s above the target for every source.”

No energy source is without its flaws, but there are economic, environmental and military reasons to avoid spending $1 billion a day on imported oil, among other spurs for an alternative energy revolution. “National security is very dependent on energy security,” noted Steven Chu at an address to the ARPA–e summit on March 1. “Energy we create at home is wealth creation at home.”

And America needs all the wealth creation it can get. “Americans are not a people who sit out a revolution,” former Colorado governor Bill Ritter noted in the debate at NYU. “There is a revolution upon us now, a clean energy revolution and it’s global. Will we lead or will we follow?”

The Problem of Scale

It’s the essential challenge of our attempt to wean ourselves from old, reliable fossil fuels for energy:

From the dust-blown steppes of Inner Mongolia to the waters off Shanghai, China installed more wind turbines in the first half of 2010 than any other country — 7,800 megawatts of potential power production, or more than the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In fact, in northeast China alone, autumn and winter winds now produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, roughly 5.5 percent of the total power generation in the region. That’s up from 534 million kilowatt hours just five years ago.

But despite this rapid progress, wind energy still only generates a tiny fraction of China’s electricity. Indeed, even with aggressive government backing and green energy mandates, such “new energy” — including wind, solar, nuclear power plants, and biomass — accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s electricity production, compared to more than 70 percent provided by coal, which produces roughly 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every metric ton of the dirty, black rock burned. And as China’s economy continues to expand at a dizzying rate for the foreseeable future, wind and other renewable sources of energy will not even be able to keep pace with new demand, meaning fossil fuel burning will continue unabated.

This is hardly unique to China. In the U.S., electricity produced from the breeze has increased 13-fold in the past decade, yet still only provides 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity — compared to just under 50 percent provided by burning coal. Even Denmark, which has done more than any other country to boost wind power, struggles to integrate an intermittent generating resource into a grid whose customers expect the lights or the television to come on whenever they flick the switch.

As the world attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels — a result of the converging desires to combat climate change, improve energy security, and create green jobs — renewables such as the sun, wind, water, and hot rocks will play a larger role. So will energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, that are cleaner than the current favorites, coal and oil. The question is: Can any of these resources — or even all of them put together — begin to approach the scale needed to transform the world’s energy supply?

And even if the world’s economies can muster the resources and willpower to wean themselves off fossil fuels, how many decades will it take? And can we move fast enough to stave off the potentially calamitous effects of climate change?

Read the rest on Yale e360.