Solar: Self Interest in Alternative Energy?

 

If an alien arrived on earth and saw all this sunlight, he’d be amazed to hear that we think we’ve got an energy problem. (30)

Solar by Ian McEwan takes an interesting approach to the energy debate: self-interest. His main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could not care less about climate change, and would rather spend his time and money on cheating on his wife, eating and drinking:

Beard was not wholly skeptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that made up the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it, and expected governments to meet and take action. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about. And he was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in peril, that humankind was drifting toward calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail, and hundreds of millions of refugees surge from one country, one continent, to another, driven by drought, floods, famine, tempests, unceasing wars for diminishing resources. (17-18)

Beard is the head of the research center in Britain, although he has not published any new reports since his award winning “Beard-Einstein Conflation” on photoelectricty. When Beard’s latest wife, Patrice, caught him cheating on her she saw fit to have affairs of her own, first with gardener, Tarpin and then with Beard’s newest colleague, Tom Aldous. When Beard finds Aldous in his house in compromising attire, his already touchy opinion of Aldous goes from bad to worse. Beard confronts Aldous and then in a scene that should have been in a Final Destination movie Aldous accidentally kills himself. Beard is able to frame Tarpin for the murder as revenge for Tarpin’s affair with Patrice. Beard is also able to steal Aldous’s research on artificial photosynthesis and claim it as his own. Aldous’s theory uses Beard’s conflation theory so it is the perfect crime, or so he thinks.

Beard quickly becomes a “climate change convert” and one of the biggest names in solar energy. Beard travels around the UK to give conferences to businessmen in the energy industry to try to convince them to back alternative energy research. He tries to sway them with the idea that alternative energy research will one day make them a fortune, a thought that I had not considered until I read this book. The primary argument against taking steps to combat global warming is not that that it doesn’t exist, but rather that the economy is in too poor of shape to focus on it at this time:

“The planet,” he said, surprising himself, “is sick.”…

“Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive— perhaps as much as two percent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced, and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it, is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums. What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilization, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence. Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact— we barely understand how successful we have been. So of course we should salute our own inventiveness. We are very clever monkeys. But the engine of our industrial revolution has been cheap, accessible energy. We would have got nowhere without it. Look how fantastic it is. A kilogram of gasoline contains roughly thirteen thousand watt-hours of energy. Hard to beat. But we want to replace it. So what’s next? The best electrical batteries we have store about three hundred watt-hours of energy per kilogram. And that’s the scale of our problem, thirteen thousand against three hundred. No contest! But unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We have to replace that gasoline quickly for three compelling reasons. First, and simplest, the oil must run out. No one knows exactly when, but there’s a consensus that we’ll be at peak production at some point in the next five to fifteen years. After that, production will decline, while the demand for energy will go on rising as the world’s population expands and people strive for a better standard of living. Second, many oil-producing areas are politically unstable, and we can no longer risk our levels of dependence. Third, and most crucially, burning fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. But the basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit. Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money. And the answer to that burning question is of course exactly where that money, your money, has to flow— to affordable clean energy…You, the market, either rise to this and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest. We are on this rock together, you have nowhere else to go …” (170-173).

Of course Beard is not able to convince most of the businessmen. However, I still the think argument might have some merit. As always, readers with thoughts on this, please comment.

Many years later, Beard has developed his own solar power plant in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Beard receives a visit from a lawyer on the eve of his opening ceremony. The lawyer claims that Beard stole his research from the late Tom Aldous. The lawyer warns him not to continue with the press event and Beard brushes him off:

“Well, on behalf of Sir Jock Braby and the National Center for Renewable Energy, I want to put it to you one last time. If you agree to call off tomorrow’s media event and agree to revisit the patents situation, you’ll find us sympathetic collaborators who will certainly find a role for you in the development of a technology which rightly belongs to the Center. If not, then our first move will be to go to court to freeze all exploitation until this matter is resolved” (316).

Unfortunately, this is where self-interest fails. The National Center for Renewable Energy, where Beard used to work, wants to patent for Aldous’s research so that they can have the money and the recognition. What Beard did was illegal of course, but right when progress in alternative energy is finally being made, it is snatched away. To make things worse, Tarpin, who has finally been released from jail, smashes to solar panels in Beard’s plant:

“Someone’s taken a sledgehammer to the panels. They’ve gone down the rows and taken them all out. Shattered. We’ve lost all the catalysts. Electronics. Everything.”

There was no taking this in properly. Beard pushed his plate away. Builder’s work. What would Barnard have needed to pay Tarpin? Two hundred dollars? Less?

“What else?”

“We won’t be meeting again. I don’t think I could bear the sight of you, Michael. But you might as well know, I’m talking to a lawyer in Oregon. I’ll be taking action to protect myself against what are rightfully your debts. We, you, already owe three and a half million. Tomorrow’s going to cost another half million. You can go down there yourself and explain to all the good people. Also, Braby is going to take you for everything you have and ever will have. And in the U.K. that dead boy’s father has persuaded the authorities to move against you on criminal charges, basically theft and fraud. I hate you, Michael. You lied to me and you’re a thief. But I don’t want to see you in prison. So stay out of England. Go somewhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty.”

“Anything else?”

“Only this. You deserve almost everything that’s coming to you. So go fuck yourself.” The line went dead. (322-323)

The point of this novel in terms of the energy narrative is that there is corruption whenever energy is involved. People are ultimately more concerned with themselves than they are with the environment, so even something as characteristically pure as sunlight can really be just as dark and dank as oil. However, I am going to make a great emotional and sentimental plea and say that it doesn’t have to be that way if we can find that our self-interest aligns with preserving the environment that gives us life.

 

Energy narratives found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.

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The Newsroom “Bullies”

If you have read my post on The Newsroom episode about the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, then you should be familiar with most of the characters I am about to mention. In this episode, Don Keefer asks financial news reporter, Sloan Sabbith to fill in for 10:00 anchor, Elliot Hirsch. The main topic on that nights show is the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Sloan is a good friend of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) spokesman, Daisuke Tanaka. She interviews him before the show and gets him to admit off the record that the radiation level is likely to increase from a level 5 (Three-Mile Island level) to a level 7 (Chernobyl level).

Sloan asks Will for advice on how to get Tanaka to admit that level is increasing on the air. He then criticizes her for letting her guests off the hook on her show when she knows they are lying:

Sloan: “So I’m hosting Elliot’s show tonight.”

Will: “I know, I’m the one who suggested you.”

Sloan: “You really think I can do it?”

Will: “No, I have no idea. So we’re gonna find out.”

Sloan: “All right. Well, your exuberant confidence notwithstanding, I have the spokesperson…”

Will: “[interrupts] from TEPCO, I know.”

Sloan: “He just told me off the record, that reactor three is causing what is a level seven, not a level five radiation leak. What’s the trick to getting him to say it on the record?”

Will: “There is no trick. You just don’t stop until he tells the truth.”

Sloan: “What do you mean you don’t stop?”

Will: “I mean you don’t stop. Sloan, I watch your show at 4:00 and you’re brilliant. But you let guests say things that I know you know aren’t true. And then you just move on. Ask the damn follow-up and then demonstrate with facts how the guest is lying. You can’t just sit there and be a facilitator for whatever bullshit the guest wants to feed your viewers. They’re not coming on to plug a move. It’s not Jimmy Kimmel. You knowingly, passively, allow someone to lie on your air, and maybe you’re not a drug deal, but you’re sure as hell the guy who drives the dealer around in your car. Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. Show me something.”

Sloan tries to follow Will’s advice, which causes her to accuse the company translator of misrepresenting her words and release the information that Tanaka told her off the record:

 

 

Sloan: “What’s the condition of each reactor?”

Translator: “[translates question into Japanese]”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “All six reactors are in stable condition.”

Don [watching from control room]: “Great, let’s wrap up.”

Sloan: “What about the partial meltdown at reactor three?”

Translator: “[translates into Japanese]”

Don: “Wrap up for me.”

Sloan: “[Interrupts Tanaka] Excuse me, that’s not what I asked. I’m asking him specifically about the core damage at reactor three.”

Don: “What’s happening?”

Translator: “[Translates into Japanese].”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese].”

Translator: “We know of no core damage at any of the reactors.”

Sloan: “That’s not what Mr. Tanaka just said. He said our engineers can’t get close enough to confirm that. Please translate exactly what I’m asking and exactly what Mr. Tanaka is answering, including what I’m saying now, because I want him to be aware that he’s being misrepresented.”

Translator: “Miss Sabbith, I am translating. He is not being misrepresented.”

Sloan: “Ask him if he believed the radiation levels are going to a seven.”

Translator: “[translates question into Japanese].”

Don: “Please, please don’t go rogue.”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “The radiation was categorized at level four and then recategorized at level five. And that’s where it should remain.”

Sloan: “Ma’am, he didn’t say that’s where it should remain. You did. Furthermore, he told me…you know what? I’m just gonna…Tanaka-san [speaks Japanese].”

Don: “And now we’re doing the broadcast in Japanese…We’ll be right back after this. Just say that. Say it in English.”

Sloan: “[rips out ear piece] [continues conversing with Tanaka in Japanese].”

Don: “[screams] Put me back!]”

Sloan: “Mr. Tanaka, your company had this incident rated at level four, then adjusted to level five. How confident are you that that’ll be the highest level we see?”

Don: “At least we’re back to English.”

Tanaka: “[responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “At this point we see no reason that that level will need future escalation.”

Sloan: “Well, that’s simply not what Mr. Tanaka told me on the phone earlier today.”

Don: “No, no.”

Sloan: “When I spoke with him earlier, he said there’s enough evidence to raise the level to seven…”

Don: “Go back to Japanese.”

Sloan: “And now he’s not saying it, so I am.”

Don: “Oh, my God!”

Sloan: “So there it is. The Fukushima nuclear power plant is saying that the level four radiation leak that was raised to level five has a chance at being raised to level seven, which is the difference between life and gruesome death. We’ll be back after this with Sarah Bernhardt.”

Don: “Sandra Bernhard, you idiot! Oh, what the hell does it matter?!”

I worked as a reporter for several years, so I am familiar with what happens when you present information that you have received off the record. In fact in many cases you can get fired for such an action, which is almost what happened to Sloan. However, in this case, I think exposing what Tanaka said off the record is the right thing. Though the show implies that the reason Sloan did this is because she wanted to impress Will, I think that reporters have a duty to report danger even if they do not get it on the record. However, reporters typically find ways around reporting off-the-record information by talking to other sources or using logic to show that the source is not describing the whole pictures and these options are not really portrayed in the show. Ultimately, though, Sloan did the right thing. While TEPCO does releases the information that reactor three reached radiation level seven later in the episode, Sloan’s exposing of that information may have saved some people from danger, especially since in reality, some of the radiation levels in villages surrounding the Fukushima plant have been confirmed to be greater than those caused by Chernobyl.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, convenient racism.

Cloud Atlas: Fiction is Immortal

The third story in the Cloud Atlas sextet is “Half Lives: A Luisa Rey Mystery,” which the reader later finds out is a work of fiction being read by one of the later characters in the novel. Luisa Rey is a serious reporter who is stuck working for a tabloid in the fictional Buenas Yerbas, California, 1975. Luisa meets Rufus Sixsmith by chance one night. Sixsmith was formerly a scientist at the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant on nearby Swannekke Island. Sixsmith tells Luisa that he was fired from Seaboard for expressing his belief that the plant is not safe. Luisa attends the unveiling of the plant at Swannekke and listens to a speech by Seaboard CEO, Alberto Grimaldi. Grimaldi claims the Swannekke plant will help end the United States’s dependence on oil for fuel:

“Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction.”

Alberto Grimaldi, Seaboard CEO and Newsweek Man of the Year, is king of the dramatic pause.

“Its name is Oil.”

He is gilded by the podium lights.

“Geologists tell us, just seventy-four billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean scum remain in the Persian Gulf. Enough, maybe, to see out our century? Probably not. The most imperative question facing the USA, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Then what?’”

Alberto Grimaldi scans his audience. In the palm of my hand.

“Some bury their heads in the sand fantasize about wind turbines, reservoirs, and”— wry half smile—” pig gas.”

Appreciative chuckle.

“At Seaboard we deal in realities.”

Voice up.

“I am here today to tell you that the cure for oil is right here, right now, on Swannekke Island!” He smiles as the cheers subside.

“As of today, domestic, abundant, and safe atomic energy has come of age! Friends, I am so very, very proud to present one of the major engineering innovations in history … the HYDRA-Zero reactor!” (103)

Sixsmith watches the same speech from the television in his home and feels even more compelled to expose that the Swannekke plant is unsafe:

Frustrated and weary, Rufus Sixsmith addresses the TV.

“And when the hydrogen buildup blows the roof off the containment chamber? When prevailing winds shower radiation over California?”

He turns the set off and squeezes the bridge of his nose. I proved it. I proved it. You couldn’t buy me, so you tried intimidation. I let you, Lord forgive me, but no longer. I’m not sitting on my conscience any longer. (107)

Shortly after his vow, Sixsmith is murdered by Bill Smoke, an assassin for Seaboard.

Luisa begins to investigate Sixsmith’s murder and realizes that he had written a report with all of his findings and was going to go public with it just before his death:

“He was murdered, Jakes.”

Jakes represses a here-we-go-again face.

“Who by?”

“Seaboard Corporation. Of course.”

“Ah. His employer. Of course. Motive?”

Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jakes’s mock conviction.

“He’d written a report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting approval. When it’s approved, Seaboard can license the design for the domestic and overseas market— the government contracts alone would mean a stream of revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith’s role was to give the project his imprimatur, but he hadn’t read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response, Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence.”

“And your Dr. Sixsmith did what?”

“He was getting ready to go public.” Luisa slaps the newspaper. “This is what the truth cost him.” (p. 114)

Luisa befriends Seaboard scientist Isaac Sachs who gives her a copy of Sixsmith’s report: “some five hundred pages of tables, flowcharts, mathematics, and evidence” (140). However, before she can use it to expose Seaboard, Bill Smoke pushes her car containing both her and the report off a bridge. Luisa manages to the escape but is unable to save the report. Meanwhile, a plane with both Grimaldi and Sachs as passengers explodes mid-flight, killing everyone onboard. Seaboard’s head of security, Joe Napier, seeks out Luisa after she is attacked by Smoke. He pleads with her to drop the story and save herself. Federal Power Commissioner, Lloyd Hooks takes over as CEO of Seaboard. It becomes apparent that Hooks hired Smoke to kill Luisa, Sixsmith, Sachs and Grimaldi to ensure the success of his coup. Luisa receives the location of another copy of the report in a letter from Sixsmith delivered after his death. She is able to get it but Smoke and Napier kill each other in the process. Luisa is able to expose Hook and the following article is printed about him:

LLOYD HOOKS SKIPS $ 250,000 BAIL PRESIDENT FORD VOWS TO “ROOT OUT CROOKS WHO BRING IGNOMINY TO CORPORATE AMERICA” A BYPD spokesman confirmed the newly appointed CEO of Seaboard Power Inc. and former Federal Power Commissioner Lloyd Hooks has fled the country, forfeiting the quarter-million-dollar bail posted Monday. The latest twist to “Seaboardgate” comes a day after Hooks swore to “defend my integrity and the integrity of our great American company against this pack of nefarious lies.” President Ford entered the fray at a White House press conference, condemning his former adviser and distancing himself from the Nixon appointee.

“My administration makes no distinction between lawbreakers. We will root out the crooks who bring ignominy to corporate America and punish them with the utmost severity of the law.”

Lloyd Hooks’s disappearance, interpreted by many observers as an admission of guilt, is the latest twist in a series of revelations triggered by a Sept. 4 incident at Cape Yerbas Marina Royale in which Joe Napier and Bill Smoke, security officers at Seaboard Inc.’ s controversial Swannekke Island atomic power stations, shot each other. Eyewitness Luisa Rey, correspondent to this newspaper, summoned police to the crime scene, and the subsequent investigation has already spread to last month’s killing of British atomic engineer and Seaboard consultant Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the crash of former Seaboard CEO Alberto Grimaldi’s Learjet over Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and an explosion in Third Bank of California in downtown B.Y. which claimed the lives of two people. Five directors at Seaboard Power have been charged in connection with the conspiracy, and two have committed suicide. Three more, including Vice CEO William Wiley, have agreed to testify against Seaboard Corporation. The arrest of Lloyd Hooks two days ago was seen as vindication of this newspaper’s support for Luisa Rey’s exposé of this major scandal, initially dismissed by William Wiley as “libelous fantasy culled from a spy novel and wholly unworthy of a serious response.”  …   Cont. p. 2, Full Story p. 5, Comment p. 11.  (434-435).

This part of Cloud Atlas is yet another example of the life and energy equivalency. Hooks has chosen his human sacrifices to pay for energy, very similar to what the Capital does in The Hunger Games. However, he is unable to murder Luisa and so his plan for that energy fails.

Also, I like to think that the reason that “Half Lives” is described as fiction in Cloud Atlas (character Timothy Cavendish receives a “Half Lives” manuscript later in the novel) is the same as my own reason for reviewing works of fiction about energy. It is far more likely, however, that the work is fictitious so that the audience will consider whether souls can just as easily be contained in characters in fiction as they can in live persons. Stories may in fact be alive, in a sense. Regardless, the fictitious nature of “Half Lives” allows for later characters such as Timothy Cavendish, Somni and Zachry to interact with the story on some level. Cavendish reads “Half Lives” and then his memoirs are made into a film about his life. Somni watches that film and then Zachry’s people deify Somni. Major events of human history are hidden from Somni and Zachry but both are able to interact this text. Fiction is immortal. If this is true, than fiction is great rhetorical tool for moving ideas throughout history.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, insurrection

The Chernobyl Diaries: The Insensitive Energy Narrative

I want to start by saying that this film is extremely insensitive to the victims of Chernobyl, which extend across much of Europe and Asia and not just in the local area, as the film seems to suggest. While Chernobyl victims have suffered from many maladies as a result of the nuclear disaster, the most common of these is thyroid cancer. I don’t want to diminish the awful effects that these victims have suffered but there is no way that the radiation would be able to turn people or their future children, even if they were in the immediate area, into zombies. That being said, The Chernobyl Diaries is in fact an energy narrative.

Four Americans go on an “extreme tourism” trip to visit Pripayat, the town where the workers of Chernobyl lived. The radiation levels have just recently dropped enough for the town to be explored. The leader in the group, Paul, claims that the town will be interesting to look at, as it was abandoned in just a few hours.

Chris: “You guys see where this is going. We’re going to Moscow as we talked about.”

Paul: “Can I please finish? So there’s this place called Pripayat. It’s a town right next to Chernobyl. Uri, [in Eastern European accent] who is very excited to take us there, is an extreme tour guide. He’s gonna show us this city that was abandoned overnight. Literally, they had no time to take anything. Factories, schools, stores, homes, apartments, everything is still there. Imagine the photo shoot you can have there, Amanda?”

Amanda: “Okay I here that but radiation levels or something. It’s probably pretty dangerous, right?”

Paul: Nope, we’ll only be there for a day. A few hours we see some cool s*** and then we split.”

Uri, the tour guide, says that nature has been given free reign to heal itself, and that it has reclaimed the city. If there were a major theme in this movie, this would be it. Pripayat has experienced a return to the wild, and its inhabitants have therefore become animals.

Natalie: “What exactly happened in Chernobyl?”

Uri: “The Chernobyl disaster was a result of failed systems tests. It caused sudden power surge and reactor number four become one with the air.”

Natalie: “One with the air?”

Paul: “Vaporized.”

Chris: “It exploded.”

Uri: “Nature has reclaimed its rightful home.”

As most horror films are like to do, after this peaceful yet foreboding exposition, the true horrors come out. Mutant humans, who have been living there for many years, attack the Americans and none of them make it out alive. It is unclear whether or not these mutants are victims of the original disaster and just never made it out or if the government has rounded them up and held them there away from the public. Either way, one thing is clear, Pripayat has indeed returned to its wild side.

Despite the fact that the only true horror in this film is how insensitive it is to the victims of Chernobyl, it does contain several energy narrative characteristics such as nature fighting back and political oppression.

Readers, if you know of some other, less insensitive energy narratives about Chernobyl, please let me know.

 

Energy narratives found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism.