Of climate hawks, traditional environmentalists and finding energy heroes

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Atlantic Monthly senior editor Alexis Madrigal gave the noontime address at this year’s E3 conference in Minneapolis last week and offered his view that the Green Tech movement will gain momentum, and the ones who will bring this new message to the public will be….engineers.

Madrigal wrote the book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, launched Atlantic Monthly’s “energy” Internet channel and previously was a major contributor to Wireless magazine’s blog, Wired Science.

Green Tech can and will find new heroes who can capture the public imagination and effectively convey the need for alternative energy, according to Madrigal.  He noted that today’s two big protest movements—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—share the common feature of drawing power from and contributing power into an Internet-based system of distributed knowledge. A similar groundswell for new energy technologies could arise the same way.

To point in the direction of how Green Tech might win the day, Madrigal projected a slide of Brooklyn. The photo showed the city brought to a complete halt by a major snowstorm last winter. In a stark, graphic way, these city dwellers were made to face the results of climate change. Anomalous weather events have become more and more frequent and are not just something that happens to the environment, but now they are events that overwhelm the way we have engineered our cities to serve our everyday lives.  That’s harder to ignore than other phenomena that impact the environment.

His prescription for a winning political message—“Green Tech has to get away from the rhetoric of “saving the earth” and talk instead about ‘saving the civilization we have built.”

One interesting development noted by Madrigal is the conflict arising between camps he calls the “climate hawks” versus “traditional environmentalists.” Climate Hawks are those who have accepted global climate change as the most fundamental environmental challenge facing us, and so would prioritize the deployment of green tech. Some of the most heated resistance against green technology has come from traditional environmentalists who worry about wind power arrays that threaten bird life or solar power installations in deserts that threaten tortoises.

Traditional environmental groups are ‘built for certain things’ like preserving land and endangered species, or fighting pollutants that might be called more traditional than atmospheric chemistry. In contrast, the entrepreneurs and science students at the E3 conference are the ones who not only will develop the solutions to climate change, but will be uniquely suited to helping America get excited about renewable energy.

“We need heroes, and I like to look to the people who built the current power generation system,” said Madgrigal. He acknowledged how it has become fashionable to criticize them, but “think about what these engineers and inventors and business leaders were able to do from 1900 to 1965. They drove down the cost of electricity and at the same time increased the size of generators and the amount of power at our disposal.”

Although Madrigal said the profit motive was a strong element, these people did what they did “to make the country a better place….we need to draw some of these people into our narrative—the people who wanted to build it bigger, better.”

One audience member, in asking a question of Madrigal, proposed that Prof. Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer and longtime proponent of grain ethanol and other renewable energy sources, is a bona fide Green Tech hero.

Madrigal said this can be the story of Green Tech—the next step in an ongoing effort to build America and make it bigger and better.

Madrigal also offered the notion that the Green Tech scientists and entrepreneurs in the room could strengthen their position by including the concept of ‘resilience’ into the technology they are trying to develop. Today’s technological civilization offers wonders like just-in-time delivery but at the same time suffers a kind of fragility whereby a single problem can bring a whole system to a halt.

He ended by telling the attendees of the E3 conference of his confidence that they will win out. Madrigal said, “You are on the right side of history!”

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