In Praise of Political Virtue

“Sometimes when we don’t have all the answers, we need to have the courage to do nothing,” – Rep. Mike Noel Utah State Representative

If Mr. Noel is correct, then the politicians of the United States are the greatest collection of heroes since the Spartans came home on their shields from Thermopylae. His peers must be elated to find behavior that comes so naturally elevated to the highest virtue.

Doing nothing is less a conscious decision in the corridors of power in Washington D.C. than a custom; a cultural habit passed down from generations, nay, centuries of politicians for whom doing nothing almost always suited their temperament. A meme, like others in the natural world, that became central to self-preservation, a trait honed by the democratic evolutionary process, where the natural selection of victorious election after election gradually shrank even the most energetic idealist’s proclivity for accomplishment. Eventually, any inclination towards activity atrophied and withered until now it has become a strange and superfluous vestige of atavistic statesmen, like an appendix or a coccyx.

And so, with Noel’s call to not-arms ringing from sea to sea, several millions of gallons of oil are beginning to lap at the edges of Louisiana’s wetlands, images of dead brown pelicans and interviews with soon-to-be bankrupt shrimpers are just as inexorably creeping across America’s consciousness. Noel was speaking specifically about climate change and so far very little effort has been made to connect the dots but it shouldn’t take a PhD to illuminate how oil spills and the alternation of the planet’s climate are two sides of the same coin. Or perhaps Russian Roulette is a more apt metaphor because maybe the odds are in your favor but sooner or later it’s really going to hurt. Both the spill and climate change are inevitable consequences of a market demand: a demand that has grown unabated and unimpeded for generations, one that is rolling a black tarp across the Gulf and wrapping a blanket around the entire world.  These disasters, both sudden and gradual, are contingencies foreseen but ignored, in fact, more than ignored – mocked, scorned and derided.

Our fearless leaders have been courageously ignoring energy issues for close to thirty years, or right about the time Ronald Reagan had Jimmy Carter’s solar panels ripped off the White House roof. Symbolism is rarely so blatant, and with the painful memories of oil shocks and gasoline lines receding, after all it had been at least two whole years(!), America settled back into blissful ignorance of the what, where and how’s of energy production and consumption. This lasted for almost a decade until the Exxon Valdez ran aground and America was startled to see the playful seals that perform tricks at aquariums covered in black goo.

To their credit, intrepid American politicians held fast in their inertia and resisted the temptation to adjust policy, nor did their constituents really expect anything else, particularly anything that may inconvenience anyone. Besides, how many drunk tanker captains can there be? And so once more disengaged from the shoals of reality, America’s party boat continued to float on endless seas of cheap oil. All of which must have served as inspiration to today’s leaders who are imitating their predecessors and boldly embracing nothing. To be steadfast in the face of such turmoil – what moxie!

Well, yes, BP must be properly chastised. There shall be no surfeit of furrowed brows and shaking fists in the general direction of BP executives at congressional hearings, closed oyster beds, shuttered fishing boats or anywhere else delicately calibrated sanctimony can attract television cameras. But actual change? Change instigated by policy, by federal leadership? Let’s not rush into anything, after all, accidents happen. You can’t make an omelet without yada, yada, yada.   And so various energy policy legislation remains ignored in Congress like party guests whom no one can quite figure out how they made it past the doorman. “Oh my, who brought Waxman-Markey?” “Kerry-Lieberman, here, of all places? How dreadful.”

There are plenty of people, however, not heeding the inspiration of Mike Noel, people who are displaying what he might call a cowardly amount of energy, a craven tendency towards action and positively pusillanimous predilection for doing something. For despite, or because of, our leaders’ noble torpor, Americans are frequently characterized by our innovative entrepreneurial spirit, which is a polite way of describing a tendency towards crazy ideas and the persistent hope of making millions off them. Except, sometimes the ideas aren’t so crazy and that dream for success is tethered to the sincere desire to contribute to society, to make the lives of their fellow citizens just a little better. We are a nation raised on legends of Fulton, Edison, Ford and the Wright Brothers.

Ironically, those names all contributed to the need for 90 oil drills in the Gulf of Mexico. However, they also spurred decades of prosperity, prosperity that raised the quality of life for millions and it should not be environmental blasphemy to acknowledge it. We should be able to say ‘thanks boys, we’ll take it from here,’ and move on to new inventions, methods and processes. There is a whole new generation of American thinkers, dreamers and, hold on Mike Noel, ‘doers’ trying desperately to join the ranks of Edison et. al. all without so much as a tip of the cap from the political classes.

Developing green technologies and industries isn’t simply about doing things cleaner but better. Producing enough energy to meet our needs without crushing miners and blowing up rig workers has little to do with cleanliness. It is just better. Better is value-neutral, better is non-ideological and apolitical. At least it should be.

Some commentators claim there is no moral aspect between various energy production methods, implying, of course, that we shouldn’t favor one over another. Yet isn’t the death of innocents a moral issue? Those striving to bring ‘better’ to fruition think so. There are small armies of engineers, researchers, businessmen and investors mobilized collectively striving towards better. Any one of them could be applying themselves towards something with a higher chance of success but something, call it morality, or humanism or patriotism, is compelling them to dedicate their efforts towards alternative energy.  

Once we reject the established paradigm we can see answers all around us. For instance, most look at a landfill and see trash, others see energy.  Yard waste, orange peels and pizza crusts, really anything organic, contains hidden treasures of energy that can be released through biological processes in anaerobic digesters. The resulting biogas is a renewable source of energy that can be used to power our computers, heat our homes and propel our vehicles. In other words, we can harness energy from organic waste materials. This may not be considered this morally superior but it is unarguably better for, as far as I know, a digester has never exploded and poured trash into the ocean.

Can we replace fossil fuels immediately? No, of course not, sadly we are enslaved to our additions and will, in all likelihood, endure more oil spills, mine disasters and perhaps much worse, before our desires are bent in a new direction. The technology is ready, the expertise is ready and, many of us  are convinced  the public is ready.  What we really need are some slightly less valorous politicians.

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David Pierotti is a proposal writer at Harvest Power. The company develops, builds, owns and operates next-generation organics recycling facilities that harvest the renewable energy, nutrients, and organic matter from discarded organic materials using best-in-class technologies for composting, anaerobic digestion, and biomass gasification

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