Primitive Inventions

Let me set the stage. I’m flipping through the May issue of Wired, the one with a close-up of baby blue eyes (Al Gore) on the cover. “Climate Crisis! The Pro-Growth, Pro-Tech Fight to Stop Global Warming,” cries the lead article. As I write, Michael Klare, author of “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum,” speaks via the web about the geopolitical aftermath of oil exploration. “All of us [oil] addicts are increasing our military activity in these dangerous oil producing regions. So in my mind, it’s this aspect of the post-peak moment that should worry us the most, at least until the global warming effects become more profound.”

I figure this issue of Wired, of all issues, will be chock full of cleantech promotions. This is what I find:

Positioned in choice magazine real estate is a GM “Live Green, Go Yellow” campaign ad which reads, “Energy Independence? The answer may be growing in our own backyard.” The second ad in the magazine, on the very next page? GMC’s ad for a big old “all-new 2007 Yukon with available FlexFuel technology, engineered to run on either gasoline [you don’t say?] or E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) made mostly from U.S.-grown corn.” “When it comes to alternative fuel options, we’re all ears.” A glistening ear of yellow corn embellishes the background. MPG with this baby? It’s TBD…MIA.

Flip to the Chevron ad wafered between the Contents pages. “Russia, Iran and Qatar have 58% of the world’s natural gas reserves. The U.S. has 3%. So what does that mean for us?” Presumably, “us” is Chevron. The ad bullets a few steps the gas/oil company (with its serious operating problems in Africa and South America) has taken: “planning to invest more than 10 billion in developing gas projects over the next five years” and “created a four country partnership to build West Africa’s first regional gas pipeline.” Chevron’s ad campaign displays “open letters” from the company. (I must ask, who reads these letters…other than energy wing nuts?) This particular letter calls for increasing supplies of natural gas and, in consuming countries, “building the related infrastructure, including LNG terminals. This in turn, will require coastal communities to allow these necessary, but not necessarily pretty, facilities to be built in their backyards.” OK, one point for honesty; these facilities aren’t pretty. Much of this business (war, social and environmental degradation, sprawl, human rights violations) is anything but pretty, as Michael Klare is illustrating. A tear of paper clipped to the letter in the ad directs us to “willyoujoinus.com” where Chevron urges, “voice your opinion today and help create solutions for the future.” The opinions posted on the website don’t appear to be sanitized. Chevron’s ads (also available on the website) are, as one might expect, alluring and professional….pretty. But, to the heart of the matter, can this pony possibly find a new trick – one that doesn’t involve drilling and distribution of un-pretty petrol and gas?

Flip to the very next page. “The seeds of ecomagination have been sown…GE proudly salutes the next best things and the people that make them possible:” desalination technology, fuel-efficient and quieter aircraft engines, and fuel-efficient locomotives that exceed EPA emissions standards. GE says, “Take a look at the fruits of our labor.” Here’s the jig on GE. I grew up in New York, and no matter how many ‘good things it brings to life,’ I still associate GE with the Hudson River which it contaminated with PCBs. Adding insult to contamination, former GE CEO, Jack Welch, applied his corporate cockiness to the PCB problem on “60 Minutes.” That flew like a dead duck…and on heels of his divorce – the first one, but who’s counting – an unpleasant wrangle over assets that didn’t sit well with female contingents in Manhattan and Fairfield County. His latest personal imbroglio unraveled the marriage of a mellow and sweet former schoolmate. Sans Jack, I might “eco imagine” a brighter future for the company, encouraged by its financing of projects like 11MW of solar in Portugal.

Flip, flip to find a large, smiling Muppet, Kermit the Frog: “I guess it’s easy being green.” “Presenting the 36 mpg Ford Escape Hybrid, the most fuel-efficient SUV on Earth.* How green is that?” Don’t even ask, Kermit.

Flip, flip. “The Spallinos aren’t just the first fuel-cell family on their block. They’re the first in the world…Amazingly, the only by-product of the FCX [Honda’s hydrogen-powered vehicle] is a little water. Imagine a world with cars that don’t run on oil and don’t pollute. With the help of the Spallino family today, Honda is on the way to helping assure blue skies for all of us tomorrow.” What the…? Honda, Honda, Honda! Did the hydrogen just fall from that blue sky? Take this ad the extra mile. Put in a word about hydrogen derived from non-fossil fuel sources…and the potential for MPG ranges the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

No need to flip ‘cause here is yet another car ad… “Corners and trees. Both deserve to be hugged. Introducing the [Lexus Hybrid Drive] GS 450h” “Never before have the road and the environment been so embraced by any one luxury sedan…with better mileage and lower emissions.” Gas mileage for this lovely jewel is 25 mpg city/ 28 mpg highway. Harrumph!

Lexus bought two ad pages. “Performance and Luxury in a Hybrid. An interview with Dave Hermance, Lexus Executive Engineer for Advanced Technology Vehicles, to discuss how Lexus delivers enhanced performance while increasing the environmental quotient.” So what might be the “environmental quotient”? Emissions. “All Lexus hybrid vehicles are certified to exhaust emission levels far below what’s required in California, which has the most stringent standards in the world. This results in 80% fewer smog forming emissions.** The best-in-class fuel economy of the Lexus hybrids substantially lowers greenhouse gas emissions. (** Than the average car.)” Why not just compare the Lexus GS 450h’s emissions to the average two-stroke Thai tuk-tuk and make the numbers sing operatic? Harrumph, again!

A Sun Microsystems ad features a server chained and locked to a tree in the woods. “Introducing the world’s first eco-responsible server.” “Powering technology isn’t just costing companies a lot of money. It’s costing the environment dearly. Let’s change this.” “We’re proving once and for all that faster can be cooler, better can be cleaner, and cheaper can be greener.” Go for it, Sun!

Flipping forward (but not before reading a great article on free markets, “Crushing Competition,” and passing a Toyota ad for Hybrid Synergy Drive), I finally reach editorial mecca, “The Next Green Revolution. How technology is leading environmentalism out of the anti-business, anti-consumer wilderness.”

In this article, Alex Nikolai Steffen writes, “Americans trash the planet not because we’re evil but because the industrial systems we’ve devised leave no other choice. Our ranch houses and high-rises, factories and farms, freeways and power plants were conceived before we had a clue how the planet works. They’re primitive inventions designed by people who didn’t fully grasp the consequences of their actions.

“Consider the unmitigated ecological disaster that is the automobile. Every time you turn on the ignition, you’re enmeshed in a system whose known outcomes include a polluted atmosphere, oil-slicked seas and desert wars. As comprehension of the stakes has grown, though, a market has emerged for a more sensible alternative. Today you can drive a Toyota Prius that burns far less gasoline than a conventional car. Tomorrow we might see vehicles that consume no fossil fuels and emit no greenhouse gases. Combine cars like that with smarter urban growth and we’re well on our way to sustainable transportation.”

Tally up the cleantech ads in the May 2006 issue of Wired – which companies bought ad space (primarily transport and oil/gas), what they said (and, importantly, what they didn’t say) about their self-proclaimed greenery. Consumers may fully grasp the consequences of our actions and addictions. But we are in a primitive age of cleantech invention and market competition, one that offers few truly meaningful options to consumers. That is, for now.

Post-Script
The Wired issue wasn’t a complete dud for cleantech. It covered a brain-popping clothes washer from Samsung that “taps the molecular structure of silver to disinfect your clothes. During the wash cycle, it electrifies to sterling plates, releasing silver ions into the water. The ions kill odor-causing bacteria without hot water or bleach. You can defunkify your gym socks without polluting the environment.”

There was also some cleantech chutzpah from down under. “Saving the planet can be a real pain in the butt. Just ask Peter Bethune, who’s powering his speedboat with biodiesel made for fat from his backside. In May, the 41-year-old New Zealander embarks on a voyage to promote the use of renewable fuels and to break the record for circumnavigating the globe…Bethune’s contribution amounts to only a liter of fuel; the rest comes from vegetable oils and other animal fats. Besides, liposuction hurts. ‘I was bruised all over,’ he says, ‘It was a personal sacrifice.’” Liposuctioned fuel and personal sacrifice…heavens, a virtue! Why does Dick Cheney come to mind?

And, finally, there is a tiny entry in this issue of Wired, buried on page 040. It’s worth noting in light of the lead article.
Wired surveyed 784 of its readers and asked, “What are you doing to participate in the new green movement.” 51% responded that they are consuming less. 32% are using public transit or driving less. 28% are doing nothing. 11% bought a hybrid and 3% have installed solar panels or a wind turbine. The first two solutions are not, necessarily, technology solutions, nor is the third – ‘doing nothing.’

I wonder, if a human being meditates in the woods, does s/he consume nothing?

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