The positive energy of counterfactuals: a rejected essay for Howies

Navarro Redwoods, CA

I was asked to write something for Howies‘ Autumn catalogue on the theme of “Positive Energy”.

I was in a particularly punchy mood as I wrote I think, and the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm tipped me in a direction that… Well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly surprised when it wasn’t printed – it’s not quite ‘on-brand” for them – but it’ll fit in just fine round here. So – remembering that although I’ve added some links, it’s written for print, not the web – here’s what I turned in:

Positive Energy / for Howies / Matt Jones / 871 words. 7.7.09

As I write this there’s a thunderstorm over my head.

It’s a cracking one too, literally. The thunderclaps are ear-splitting and it’s blowing the rubbish around on the dilapidated flat roof our studio windows over look.

The energy released by an average thunderstorm, according to wikipedia amounts to about the equivalent of a 20-kiloton nuclear warhead going off. A large, severe thunderstorm might be 10 to 100 times more energetic.

In a digital window in front of me, I’m reading the twitter posts of a friend (Gavin Starks, @agentgav, founder of carbon calculator who’s attending the “World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment” with luminaries such as Lord Brown, former head of BP, Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist and Mr Inconvenient Truth himself, former vice-president Al Gore. It’s an impressive line-up to be sure. But some of the most impressive things he’s recounting are coming from a delegation from China.

For instance, this from Dr Christine Loh (1), of Civic Exchange, China: “China believe they’ve cracked thin-film solar for domestic use” To explain it very simplistically: thin-film solar technology brings the price of renewable energy of the sun into the same ball-park as non-renewable sources such as oil and coal. That China, the factory of the world, is going to start cranking this stuff out could be game-changing, and biosphere-saving.

That China could become the world’s number one economic superpower has been received wisdom for a while now. What’s new is the suspicion they might be able to turn around their rapid ascent to claiming the top polluter crown from the USA. In fact, they might take the lead in clean, green technology from the West.

Gavin also reported this factoid from Al Gore: “China now plants twice the number of trees than the rest of the world put together. Every citizen must plant three”

Not should, not encouraged – MUST. And of course that’s part of the inconvenient truth about China – that their political system and attitudes to individual freedom are very different to those we hold dear in ‘The West’.

But – what if that’s what it takes to survive?

Al Gore again: “We must connect the soil to the energy to the built environment, to our population and to our politics”. We’re in a highly individualistic democratic society. Do we have something positive and captivating enough as a vision to get us there?

We’ve done it before. Over the last month I’ve been watching the commemorative programmes on the telly marking the 40th anniversary of the manned landings on the moon. Not only were they the product of the NASA Apollo space programme – more broadly speaking, they were the product of an ideological battle between the USA and USSR in the cold war.

And it got me thinking strange thoughts: would it have been better for the long term future if McCain and Palin had got in? If America were seized by a new ideological battle – frustrated and bruised from a prolonged, controversial war on an abstract noun, nationalist fervour was directed into a technological crusade to make sure China doesn’t reign supreme in green.

Instead of a space race, an earth race…

Technology isn’t the answer to everything – but hair-shirt green thinking isn’t either. Back-to-the-land doesn’t scale when there’s going to be 10 billion of us on it, and that’s even without the now-almost-inevitable changes in the climate. It’s certainly not the route China’s going to take.

Now, wondering whether GM food or nuclear power might have to gain widespread acceptance, or whether freedom is compatible with survival, or that Obama’s not going to push the US and the West far enough away from legacy thinking is pretty challenging to my personal politics. But, thinking through these kind of ‘counter-factual’ scenarios can throw up interesting possibilities. When we’re ready to think about throwing away the things that we hold most precious, we can see new ways to hold on to them.

Another friend, Sascha Pohflepp, just graduated from the Royal College of Art with a fascinating project illustrating a counter-factual history where Jimmy Carter won against Ronald Reagan, and gave us a 1980s where the arms race was transmuted into an energy race; where a fictional government agency – “The Golden Institute” (2), turns Nevada into a weather lab and Vegas into an array of gaudy lightning catchers that supply the USA with power; where the kiloton energies of thunderstorms are engineered with silver-iodide balloons, and giant gyroscopes near the North Pole harness the world’s rotation to keep the lights on in the West, while slowing down the Earth just enough to make the days longer in the USA than Russia…

Fantastic, crazy, impossible stuff – imagined with the scale and scope and audacity and sacrifice and ruthlessness that got us to the moon. That showed us the Earth. That might keep us here.

That China might be ready for.

Where’s our vision of a bright green future?

There’s the thunder again.


3 thoughts on “The positive energy of counterfactuals: a rejected essay for Howies

  1. The China approach is all well and good if it’s real. I remember when they banned plastic bags overnight but that didn’t stop me getting plenty of them when I was there earlier in the year. What China says and does do seem to be quite detached. Head from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and the industrial destruction is quite terrifying.

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