Monday, June 15, 2009

Is conservation alone enough?

A few issues ago, High Country News printed an op-ed by Sarah Gilman called For the Love of Wastelands.

In this piece, Gilman argues that all land has value, and those values would be at risk to development of alternative energy resources, whether solar, wind, or other. She ends by advocating that we look for renewable opportunities in areas such as abandoned mines and alfalfa fields and ends with this paragraph:

Those are the kinds of alternatives we should exhaust before we move on to industrializing our "empty" spaces. But there's another approach we seldom even discuss: Why not simply use less energy?

Make no mistake about it: conservation alone is no silver bullet. Yes, conservation is often overlooked in favor of supply-side solutions. Yes, huge gains can be made through energy efficiency programs. I fully agree and support energy conservation efforts—in fact, some conservation should be made mandatory. However, we can’t fantasize away energy impacts by thinking all we need to do is conserve more. If we as a nation are really concerned about curbing our use of fossil fuels—a monumentally important direction for us to take—we need to have a serious discussion of where renewable energy projects and their associated infrastructure could be placed.

Let me be clear: conservation should be goal #1. We can instate some mileage/emission standards like Obama is asking. We beef up efficiency standards for new appliances and new houses. This won't be easy politically, but it is possible. Somewhat more problematic is a gas tax and carbon tax. Until we take money out of politics, lobbyists are going to make this politically difficult (not to mention the problem that politicians pushing these important laws will likely face tough times getting reelected). But for the sake of argument, let's assume we can do that too.

Even with the strongest efficiency standards in place, we won't be able to force everyone to conserve. There are still existing houses and buildings that won't meet standards and it's hard/impossible to force existing building owners to meet new standards. There are existing vehicles, and there will always be the freedom to drive to work if you want. I hope we drive prices of fossil fuel based energy through the roof, but there will always be gluttons who can pay those prices. Too much conservation is optional and always will be.

Fossil fuels currently supply 85 percent of the primary energy consumed in the United States. So how in the world can we conserve enough to not need more alternative energy than we have currently?

I agree we should look for places such as abandoned mine sites and alfalfa fields first, and although it’s a great goal, it’s naive to think we can “find ways to develop large-scale renewable energy plants and transmission without sacrificing landscapes.” A HCN issue or two ago there was an informative piece about resisting solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Of course, there are important ecological values there. Now we have a writer telling us there is even ecological value in “wastelands,” and of course Sarah’s right too. This is my point: nearly every single place has value and every single proposal will be in someone’s backyard and will be opposed and probably litigated by someone.

As environmentalists, we need to sit down at the table and play a CONSTRUCTIVE role in deciding where the best places are to build our new renewable energy system. Opposing every alternative energy project is obstruction, not constructive discussion. When environmental interests merely veto every renewable project, it has disastrous consequences for our world: We simply fall back on the same destructive fossil fuels we currently have in place. Resist solar development? More coal gets burnt. Resist a transmission line for wind energy from Wyoming to Vegas? More oil gets burnt.

I don’t like energy impacts any more than anyone else, but if we want to get serious about a clean energy future, we need to accept some impacts. It’s going to be fascinating, a little frustrating and a little encouraging watching America transform to green energy in the next decades.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Has Radical Islam Defeated Moderate Islam?

There’s little doubt that over the last 10 or more years, in the fight within Islam, the extremists are winning. There’s more anti-Christian and anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of Muslim communities than ever before. Wahhabi Islam (the extreme, ulta-conservative Sunni brand of Islam radiating from Saudi Arabia) interests have spent a lot of money spreading violent Islam to many corners of the globe. They pay for insurgents to travel to Iraq and blow themselves up. They pay for teachers to set up brainwashing schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The more radical Hamas won popular elections in Gaza. Some of this is due to US policies, but I’m not na├»ve enough to maintain that if we went out of our way to appease the Islamic community that they would stop hating us. So, is the war within Islam over? Have the people and their leaders decided? I sure hope not. I think a good case can be made that the fight is not over and that the underdog moderate Islam has a chance to come back in coming decades.

As with many issues, I look first at the people on the ground that drive such a shift. In the case of people moving in the direction of Wahhabism, it’s not like the people in Islamic communities are actually selecting radical "desert Islam" over more tolerant "urban Islam." It goes back to an important point that Muslims are like everyone else—they want justice, stability, a way to make a living, and education for their children. In many instances they’re choosing between corruption or fairness, school for their boy or no school at all, some hospitals or none at all. Let me explain. Let’s look at Afghanistan. Afghanistan was chaos before the Taliban. No one could leave their houses in Kabul at night because of the brutal clans manning checkpoints all across the city. There were no decent schools, few opportunities to get your son an education of any kind. Officials were corrupt, and if your wealthy neighbor had a dispute with you, he could bribe the police and win the dispute. So it’s not extremely surprising that when the Taliban offered order, justice and schools, some people of Afghanistan moved under the Taliban’s umbrella. They weren’t choosing radical Islam per se, they were choosing between very tangible things that made a difference in their lives. We can see the same thing happening in other areas of the Muslim world, whether Gaza or Iraq. I believe once moderate Islam can offer these things to people in Islamic communities, they will rush under the moderate banner faster then they’re moving to Wahhabism.

Additionally, many times they cannot make a choice at all—there is no choice to make. The groups with power force the people to conform to their brand of Islam. The people might not becoming more radical, just their leaders. When the power shifts and Muslims are free to chose which variety of Islam they want to practice, the people will gladly abandon the Wahhabi ship. Of course, some of this power is gained by radical Islamic recruiters referrencing US policies such as unlawful occupation, indefinite detention and torture of young Mulims, etc. If the US could temper its tone and shift its policies to eliminate these recruiting tools, their power would decrease.

Another reason I have a more optimistic outlook on Wahhabism versus moderate Islam: petrol dollars are providing the resources for Wahhabi Muslims. Whether it’s insurgents in Iraq or brainwashing schools in Pakistan, these are paid for by oil dollars. Oil won’t be as big of a source of power for the extremists in the future. As oil production peaks in the Middle East and countries detach themselves from Saudi’s teat, extremists are going to have to deal with less resources. In a couple decades, their funding source could be substantially reduced. Americans can definitely help here, by instating policies and changing practices that reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

What we’re seeing is a temporary shift that, if we play our cards right and moderate forces within Islam are brave enough to step up, is reversible.