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.

Accident: A Day’s News. Energy Narratives in Real Life

The narrative structure of this novella by East German author, Christa Wolf, is relatively simple in comparison to most energy narratives. However, it is this simplicity that makes this narrative truly insightful. The main character watches and listens to the news on the day that the rest of Europe learned about the disaster at Chernobyl, while at the same time she worries about her brother who is undergoing brain surgery. The narrator constantly addresses her brother throughout her stream of consciousness. In addition, the narrative switches back and forth from the narrator worrying about her brother to her worrying about the effect that the radiation on her health, the health of her neighbors and most of all the food she eats:

Where are you now I hear that the pollutant emissions following the reactor accident are more concentrated than here. Should we be outraged? Uneasy? Should we allow our feeling to become confused; worse still should we repress them as being insignificant? Insignificant values when measured with a Geiger counter? I know what you’re going to say. Don’t say it. Starting tomorrow, I have decided to cut down on milk and avoid lettuce. Today I’ve resolved to eat and drink everything one last time without a trace of bad conscience. (55-56).

The narrator associates her paranoia about her brother’s surgery with her lingering fear about the radiation from Chernobyl. In order for her to start thinking about her fears logically, she needed to receive a phone call from her sister-in-law about her brother’s status:

The telephone, not a second too soon. I hear that most important of all words: normal. Completely normal, did the nurse say? Really? We can stop worrying? The operation was a success? Oh. Really. I knew it. You, too? Of course he’s not awake yet. That’s the least of our concerns, don’t you think? I heard you were doing well, brother, circumstances considered. I was prepared to bless the circumstances…Now I make myself something to eat. Can listen to the radio. In Sweden the radioactive contamination of the air had gone down further. And the contamination of the ground had gone up in turn. (53).

The concentration on domesticity in this novel allows the reader to think about how she would react to a distant, looming danger. Most of us do not live near a nuclear plant, work in a coal mine or work for a major oil corporation, so we cannot always relate to what the characters in these energy narratives experience. However, this novel discusses everyday life: what the narrator has for dinner, the fact that she doesn’t want to work in her garden with gloves on as the reporters suggest that she should, and even the nervousness she feels sitting by the phone waiting for news of her brother.

I learned about this novella from reading Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. Heise analyzes several environmental texts in terms of risk. She argues that the average person’s sense of risk is skewed to consider situations with more dangerous although less probable consequences to be more risky than situations with less dangerous but more common consequences:

Statistical considerations, usually the probability of a particular adverse event multiplied by the magnitude of its consequences, tend to shape expert opinions, while the public’s view quite often defies such numerical calculation. The risks associated with nuclear power plants provide an obvious example: based on the very limited number of actual accidents and deaths nuclear plants have so far caused, experts tend to rate their risks as relatively low, while nonexperts, regardless of the low statistics, assess them as much more hazardous than, say, coal mines or highways, which cause a much larger number of fatalities annually. (Heise 124-125).

Wolf’s text tends to follow that argument. The narrator perceives nuclear power as being a larger risk than fossil fuels:

Well we heard [the reporter] say, there was no such thing as an absolutely faultless prognosis in such a young branch of technology. As always with new technological developments, one would have to take certain risks into account until one fully mastered this technology as well. That was a law that also applied to the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy. Now I should have grown cold. Now I should have been shocked or outraged. No such thing. I knew very well that they knew it. Only, I had not expected that they would also say it—be it only this one time. The text for a letter went through my mind in which I—imploringly, how else—was to communicate to someone that the risk of nuclear technology was not comparable to any other risk and that one absolutely had to renounce this technology if there was even the slightest element of uncertainty. I could not think of a real address for the letter in my mind, so I swore out loud and switched channels (Wolf 103).

According to Heise, this novella inspired dozens and scientists and intellectuals to fight over whether her critique of nuclear power is justified (Heise 182). Some agreed with Wolf and others asked how she can critique nuclear energy without commenting on the risks associated with burning fossil fuels. The point is, however, that they talked. A work of fiction inspired a conversation, and that is the purpose of any energy narrative.

 

In spirit of that conversation, what do you think? Are the risks associated with nuclear power justified? Is nuclear power more or less risky than burning fossil fuels, especially considering the global warming debate? Is there a better alternative to both energy sources?

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation.

The Hunger Games

The plot of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is driven by coal. The main characters in the series, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, all live in District 12, which was formerly known as Appalachia: “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep” (42).  In this post-apocalyptic world, District 12 provides all of the coal for a country called, Panem, which is ruled by “the Capitol.” District 12 is one of the poorest districts in Panem, and is divided into two social classes, the coal miners of the Seam and the merchant class that sells to them, a clear example of exaggerated inequalities and convenient racism. The worlds of both classes revolve so entirely around coal, that the curriculum in District 12 schools is entirely based on it:

Somehow it all comes back to coal at school. Besides basic reading and math most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Whatever the truth is, I don’t see how it will help me get food on the table. (41-42)

The descriptions of the coal miners in District 12 are quite similar to the ones in King Coal: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (4). Not only is it uncomfortable work, coal mining appears to have returned to being just as dangerous as it was during Sinclair’s time:

Then there are the mine accidents…A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. (178-179).

As she references in this passage, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her to be the provider for her family. Without Katniss’s help her family would starve:

Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one. (28).

Katniss had to sign up for the “tesserae” at an early age. Beneficiaries of the tesserae receive a year’s supply of grain and oil in exchange for their submitting their name into the Hunger Games lottery additional times. The Hunger Games is a battle royale between young adult representatives of each district. The Capital hosts it every year as punishment for the rebellion of the districts many years earlier. Naturally, Katniss and Peeta win the famous lottery and are sent to kill each other and kids from other districts in the Hunger Games arena. With some clever survival techniques and a political romance, both Katniss and Peeta make it out alive, but it seems that they might have accidentally inspired a revolution in the process.

In Catching Fire this revolution plays out. The Capital cracks down on each of the districts, especially District 12. They close the mines, introduce more capital punishment, try to starve the citizens and eventually send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena. However, these tactics only cause the rebellion to spread:

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don’t receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we’ve forgotten they are illegal. Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family (Catching Fire 131-132).

Finally at the end of Catching Fire, full-blown rebellion brakes out. The Capital firebombs District 12 in retaliation and most of the population dies. A few people are able to escape including Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Katniss’s family and eventually in the final book, the districts are able to overturn the Capital and establish a new government for themselves.

The Hunger Games series is one of the clearest examples of the life and energy equivalency that I have studied. The Capital does not care about District 12 as long as they meet their coal quotas. They do not have any safety laws in place. They do not care if there are accidents or deaths in the mines, as long as their coal quotas are met. To ensure that their energy is paid for, as all energy must be paid for with life, the Capital creates the Hunger Games, which requires two human sacrifices from District 12. Their deaths make sure that the coal is paid for. In the year that there are no deaths from District 12 in the arena, the Capital loses their energy, and in order to get it back they must go to war. However, the rebels realize that they can pay for it with their own lives and so the Capital is destroyed in this pretty bleak energy narrative.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in these novels: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Damages Season 2

In the second season of Damages, the ruthless Patty Hewes is back and this time she is taking on an energy corporation. Patty believes that Ultima National Resources (UNR) may have had her friend Daniel Purcell’s wife killed because he could prove that a substance they use in their coal plants, called aracite, is toxic to both humans and animals. Ultima has had come through many class-action lawsuits, like the one that Patty intends to bring to their doorstep, unscathed with the help of hotshot lawyer, Claire Maddox.

Tom: “Ultima National Resources is destroying the environment. [hands Patty a photo] West Virginia. Acid rain from coal burning powerplants has pushed mercury levels to 87 times the national average. Residents tried to bring a class action the judge through the case out of court.”

Patty: “So they’ve had more than 200 lawsuits filed against them in the past three years?”

Tom: “And they’ve lost exactly one of them. They didn’t even bother to appeal. Know why? It was for 100 million. That’s two days’ profit for them. You’re right, this is huge. But what does it have to do with defending Purcell?”

Patty: “I have no idea whether Daniel killed his wife but his consulting firm has worked for UNR for more than a decade. He must know more than he’s telling me.”

After receiving a tip from Purcell, Patty sends Ellen and Tom down to a UNR coal plant in West Virginia to find a journalist who is doing research on the toxicity of aracite. Purcell contacted the journalist about aracite after reading one of his obituaries. Josh has been attempting to gather information about aracite ever since and has been routinely thwarted by Ultima CEO Walter Kendrick’s thugs.

Josh: “One of the county’s largest hog farmers hanged himself after his whole stock got wiped out. Mr. Purcell thought he knew what was killing the animals.”

Tom: “When we first got here there were fires alongside the road and there was a smell.”

Josh: “Yeah, that’s the dead livestock. They burn them at night. Draw a circle around the county, and every quarter mile closer you get to Ultima’s facilities, there’s a 30 percent increase in livestock fatalities.”

Tom: “Can you prove that?”

Josh: “Yeah, I’ve got the research. But it’s not only affecting livestock. Leukemia rates around here are 145 percent above the national average. And anyone who speaks out against them, anyone who speaks out against them gets silenced.”

Tom and Ellen take back a water sample that Josh managed to grab. Patty has Purcell test the water, but he dumps the sample into the lake behind his house instead. Purcell flips on the stand and says that aracite is not toxic and forces Patty to drop the case. It is later revealed that UNR personnel helped Purcell cover up his murder of his wife after she threatened to go to the EPA with evidence that aracite is toxic and so ruin the deal Purcell struck with UNR for money in exchange for his silence. However, Purcell does make Kendrick promise to clean up aracite in West Virginia and to stop using it all together. Kendrick assures him it will be done and asks Purcell to come work for him. The murder of Purcell’s wife is yet another example of the life and energy equivalency. Her life pays for energy.

It becomes apparent that Kendrick wants to go through a merger and Patty’s investigation into aracite is preventing that, and with Patty’s case now out of the way the merger goes through. Later, Maddox discovers that Kendrick is involved in a trading scheme and tries to have him ousted from the company. She fails and is fired herself but she tips Patty off about energy trader, Finn Garrety, whom Kendrick is using to control energy prices:

Claire Maddox: “A couple weeks ago, Walter Kendrick asks me to defend a prostitute on cocaine charges. The john’s name was Finn Garrety.”

Purcell: “I don’t know that name.”

Maddox: “I did some research. Turns out he’s a big player on Wall Street. He trades energy futures.”

Purcell: “Since the merger I’ve been watching UNR.”

Maddox: “And?”

Purcell: “They’ve had some unusual power outages across the country.”

Maddox: “I was told that too much energy demand was placing a strain on the grid.”

Purcell: “Maybe. But what if someone at UNR was purposely shutting off the supply?”

Maddox: “The price of energy would go right up. If Walter Kendrick is leaking information about the timing of the shutdown, an energy trader would know exactly when to place a bet.”

Purcell: “They’d make a fortune.”

Eventually, all of the events play out and the EPA starts to clean up aracite in West Virginia.

 

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