The other day, I stopped my car to chat with neighbors (a frequent occurrence in our chatty neighborhood). We quickly got to the topic of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its spreading devastation. D. told me that he’d heard an interview on National Public Radio with a worker at an oil and gas pipe factory in Youngstown, Ohio, after President Obama had spoken there to promote his economic policies. This worker was notably unimpressed with the president’s moratorium on offshore drilling. (According to the transcript on the NPR website, the worker, Larry Collins, actually said, “I’d like for [President Obama] to say it’s a go and let’s start drilling. The more rigs we have out there drilling, the more demand for our product.”)
To D., I snorted something snarky about Mr. Collins’s self-centeredness and shortsightedness and then realized in the midst of sneering that I had left my car running while we were chatting. Once I got home, I turned off lights that had been left on all day, presumably so our dogs and cats wouldn’t need to use their reading glasses. I remembered my father doing the same thing during the energy crisis of the 1970s, usually while asking, “Do you think your daddy owns the electric company?”
I recount this unremarkable scenario as part of my ongoing musings about violence and our usually invisible participation in and promulgation of it. In light of Martin’s last post, this seems like a precious way to continue the conversation about our individual and collective violence footprints, but after turning off the ignition and the lights, I realized that Mr. Collins and I had more in common than I had initially acknowledged. Am I prepared to examine my energy consumption—from the mechanical pencils in my desk drawer, to the food I eat, to the trash I throw away, to the investments I make—and change my expectations and habits? Am I Just Saying No to habits that keep drilling an attractive option to companies like British Petroleum? Well, no, not really. I keep hoping someone will invent something that will painlessly neutralize my energy cravings, sort of like those diet pills advertised in women’s magazines. But as Bill McKibben points out in an article in the latest issue of The Christian Century, we are addicted to cheap oil: “You think maybe, just maybe, that the needle BP stuck into the bottom of the sea flows straight into our veins?”
To me, one of the most appealing facets of the American character is our buoyant sense of optimism. Our hopefulness attracts hopeful people of all other nationalities, like Saul Griffith, featured in The New Yorker’s May 17 “Innovators Issue.” Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, he came to the United States in 1998 as a doctoral student at MIT, initially to work on electronic ink—the idea which eventually became the Kindle. The author of the New Yorker article, David Owen, describes Griffith thusly: “His hair, which is reddish brown, is usually an omnidirectional mess, and he often looks as though he had dressed from the bottom of the laundry pile.” I love that “omnidirectional,” which apparently describes Griffith’s brain as well as his hair: in 2004, he won the $30,000 prize awarded to the MIT student who shows great promise as an innovator, and in 2007 he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Since then, among other things, he has been thinking about and working on energy efficiency.
My favorite anecdote in the article describes Griffith, who now lives in San Francisco, riding to his lab on the prototype of an electricity-assisted tricycle he had designed. The tricycle included an enclosure for carrying cargo, and on the rainy morning in question the cargo was his infant son Huxley. The rain caused a short circuit in the tricycle’s wiring, resulting in a small fire under Huxley’s seat, which Griffith extinguished after hauling the baby off the trike. Writes Owen, “Huxley had reacted placidly to the crisis, as though, at eight months, he was already accustomed to life as the child of an inventor.” Genetic buoyancy and hopefulness at work here, clearly.
But the article charts Griffith’s growing disenchantment with technology as a means of avoiding the ecological disasters lying ahead. The things that he and his colleagues produce, while ingenious, often aren’t addressing the actual problems, because the problems aren’t fundamentally technological in nature. Griffith believed, for example, that waste from discarded cellphones could be reduced by the production of hand-cranked cellphones, using technology developed in the 1920s. But the problem of discarded cellphones isn’t technological, he realized, it’s cultural; people discard their cellphones because they want the latest model, not because their old phones stop working.
Griffith also notes that the nations with the lowest energy needs and highest standards of living, like Portugal, built their infrastructures long ago, when energy was much more costly than it is today. Houses built before the advent of cheap coal and oil were (and remain) energy efficient because they had to be; they are small, with small windows and thick walls. So here’s the kicker: “Such low-tech ideas are crucial to forming viable environmental strategies, Griffith believes, because implementing more complicated technologies… would consume natural resources and generate greenhouse gasses at unsustainable rates.” Griffith currently lives in what he describes as a “thermodynamic nightmare” of a house in San Francisco’s Mission District. “If I were building a house from scratch,” he says, “I could totally design a thermodynamically amazing, almost zero-energy house—but a huge amount of energy would go into building it, just in the materials, and right now most of that energy would come from burning fossil fuels.” In other words, in trying to use technological innovation to solve the problems of our increasing demand for energy, we’re more often than not acting like Wile E. Coyote, busily sawing off the branch of the tree we’re sitting on.
Assuming that Griffith has a broader perspective on the issues of energy use than I do, I am coming to lose some of my American optimism. I’m thinking that if, like Mr. Collins in Youngstown, I as an individual and we as a nation continue to take a short-sighted, self-centered view of our energy needs, I and we will, in effect, be demanding that BP and its cohorts keep taking the kinds of risks for which the Gulf of Mexico and the countless beings in, around, and over it are now paying in blood. What do we consider acceptable losses? What will make us change before we kill what is most precious to us, including our sense of hope?
I’ll try to write something cheerier next time, I promise.
What we’re reading
Heather: Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Martin: Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong