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.

Advertisements

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

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.

Cities of Salt: the Myth of the Positive Energy Narrative

“How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” (Cities of Salt 134).

Like Oil!, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, is an example of the classic corporate ruthlessness story. A group of Americans, likely backed by the government, drill for oil in the 1930s Persian Gulf. They displace and abuse the groups of people there as well as destroy the environment. Cities of Salt begins with the Americans discovering oil in a desert oasis, called Wadi al-Uyoun. The Americans that come to the Wadi al-Uyoun are referred to with religious imagery. The people there wonder if they are jinn because they are not Muslims yet they speak Arabic, and do not appear to want the water that is found in the wadi. The emir tries to convince the people that the Americans are not jinn but rather their saviors with a more positive form of religious imagery: “Don’t be afraid. We want you to help them in every possible way. They have come from the ends of the earth to help us.”

When the Americans start drilling for oil in the wadi, the machines are described with religious imagery as well: “Lights that shone from them were like shooting stars” (98). Miteb al-Hathal, an elder in the community, is vehemently against the Americans taking up residence in the wadi. He sees the machines as a sign of the apocalypse: “Deep inside him he knew, when the thunder stopped, that the world had ended” (98). The people of Wadi al-Uyoun have similar feelings to Miteb al-Hathal as they “looked on with fearful eyes in utter silence, not knowing when the gates of Hell would open up and swallow everything.” Later in the novel, the Arabs still refer to the Americans using religious imagery. They name the pleasure cruise that arrives in Harran (I will explain more about Harran later) “King Solomon’s ship” and “Satan’s ship” because of the American’s wild displays of pleasure. The workers consistently claim that the Americans have some sort of supernatural powers: “The Americans have come between our men and their wives; they’ve made fools of us and tomorrow they’ll use their witchcraft to turn men into women and women into men! They’ll conjure us into monkeys! God damn them and the day they came here! God help us—I seek refuge in God fro Satan the accursed” (531). Munif’s use of religious imagery is reminiscent of the positive energy narratives found in religious myths. By making the Americans into devils, he is asserting, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there are no positive energy narratives anymore. There will never be another god or angel delivering life force in the form of an energy resource to a group of people suffering from sickness, death and other demons. Instead, the people will suffer at the hands of the new evil, greed.

After the Americans start drilling, the wadi ceases to be a paradise and can no longer sustain the community that lives there: “After destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth again” (106). As a result, many of the residents of the Wadi al-Uyoun follow the Americans to their new place of interest, Harran, in hopes of finding work. The Americans mock the workers in Harran because they do not know what they are doing. The workers also have to use dangerous machines that they do not know how to operate. Many of them consider leaving but as soon as they receive their first paycheck, they change their minds: “No one had ever dreamed of getting that much money, and none had ever possessed that amount before” (185). The Americans soon segregate Harran into two sections, American Harran and Arab Harran, thereby forcing the Arabic workers into the more rundown part of the city. In addition, the Americans divide the workers into castes. For example, they send the troublemakers to “Station 4,” which is notoriously dirty and difficult work, to segregate them from the other workers.

Mizban, an Arabic worker, dies as a result of poor working conditions, yet the Company refuses to pay: “The company stubbornly refused to pay any payment, because the ‘law is the law, and rules are rules.’ Their excuse was always that responsibility for the workers’ welfare had not been transferred to the company until after Mizban’s death, “and before that date the company did not recognize or assume any rights or liabilities’ (366). Mizban’s death and later, the death of Hajam, causes the workers to have their first thoughts of rebellion: “When workers talked about the armed Bedouin who were to avenge Hajam and Mizban—for they were all sure that they would come today or the next day—they lowered their voices and agreed that they would prepare a place for Ibn Hathal and his Bedouin to stay; they would be hidden in places that no one would discover, and Ibn Rashed would never find out” (384). One of the workers, Daham, starts carrying a gun around, and later fire is set to the American camp. The Americans believe that it is Miteb al-Hathal who is responsible but the novel is never clear. It is possible that a disgruntled worker is really to blame.

The Americans start work on a pipeline from Wadi al-Uyoun to Harran. They find the heat in the desert unbearable. In this instance, we see nature fighting back, since had they not destroyed the wadi, they would have had some shelter from the heat:

The Americans were in the same nervous, quarrelsome frenzy that had possessed them during the dredging of the harbor, with one difference: this time they were in the desert, in the midst of Hell itself. They were used to going back to their compound ever day, to its swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, but here, now, they were like animals surrounded by raging fire (505).

The workers start playing pranks on the now vulnerable Americans. One worker captures a jackal and lets it loose in the American camp. He sings a afterward about nature will exact retribution on the Americans for their crimes: “O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/ Wherever you try to flee,/ The sun is above and the scorpions below./ The lizards mangle your balls/ And the foxes feast on your asses,/ O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/Where will you flee, O eyes of blue?”

When the Americans finish their pipeline they let go many of the workers and as a result a strike breaks out. The company doesn’t believe they are at fault: “We’re convinced that the matter goes beyond the firing of the twenty-three workers. The company has laid off workers in the past and there was no reaction at all. Not only that, the company subsequently rehired them, or some of them. But this time our preliminary assessments indicate the existence of other reasons, of acts of incitement that did not obtain in previous instances. We believe that these causes, these acts have nothing to do with the company.” The workers band together and feel more and more empowered as they do so:

They felt afraid, but still dared to say things they would never have said had they not been so consumed with sorrow and anger. Why did they have to live like this, while the Americans lived so differently? Why were they barred from going near an American house, even from looking at the swimming pool or standing for a moment in the shade of one of their trees? Why did they Americans shout at them, telling them to move, to leave the place immediately, expelling them like dogs? Juma never hesitated to leash out with his whip when he found the workers in “restricted areas” (595).

The company asks their Arabic security guards to put an end to the strike, without violence, at least at first, they said. However, violence is exactly what happens. First, two men are killed, but this seems to inspire the workers to charge despite the gunfire and overwhelm the company’s security force. The workers take the day and the company is forced to reinstate them: “His Highness ordered the reinstatement of all workers to the company, and the company has acceded to his wishes. His Highness also ordered for the formation of a committee to study and identify the responsibility for the recent events.” Munif ends the novel on a positive note, despite the fact that the Americans still remain in the Gulf. I tend to agree with Amitav Ghosh’s theory about the ending, that Munif wanted to give the workers the positive ending that he knew they would never receive in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Avatar: an Alien Invasion Film

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

 

The plot behind Avatar is simple: aliens leave their home planet, which they have depleted of natural resources, and invade a new planet with the hope of stealing its natural resources. Luckily, the people rise up and kick the aliens out with the help of a handy computer virus and the President’s kick-ass fighter pilot skills! Oh, wait a minute, that’s Independence Day… Joaquin Phoenix melts their skin with water and beats them with a bat? Nope, that’s Signs. Right, right, this movie is where the cowboys blow up the aliens that are searching for gold.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Avatar is just another alien invasion film, except that this time, humans are doing the invading. And what are they invading for? Energy resources of course!

The corporation that is inspiring the ruthless invasion in this movie is referred to as “the Company,” as James Cameron is rarely a fan of subtlety. The Company is after a super-conductive mineral named unobtanium, which is used for all sorts of things, including energy production. They fund an expedition to a moon, referred to by the humans as Pandora. Pandora appears to be a giant rainforest and is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned humanoids with cat-like features and cat-like reflexes. The Na’vi live in complete balance with nature, so naturally they are upset by the idea of humans mining their world for unobtanium. The Company funds a project called the Avatar program, where scientists mix human and Na’vi DNA to create Na’vi bodies that humans can “drive”. Being inside an avatar allows for humans to explore Pandora since its air is toxic to humans and its environment is difficult to navigate. The Company, who is represented on Pandora by a character named Selfridge (more subtlety), also hopes that humans who appear to be Na’vi will be more effective in convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine on Pandora.

Selfridge to Grace Augustine (lead scientist in the Avatar program): “Look, you are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? You look like them, you talk like them, and they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English. But after, what, how many years, relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”

Augustine: “Yeah that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”

Selfridge: “Right. Come here. [holds up mineral] This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science. Comprendo? Now those savages are threatening our whole operation, we’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution. So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”

The Company recruits Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine, to take over his late twin brother’s avatar. Sully is approached by the head of security on Pandora, Colonol Quaritch, and asked to spy on the scientists, whom he believes to be less and less accepting of the idea of mining unobtanium. Sully becomes a bodyguard to Dr. Grace Augustine, the lead scientist in the Avatar Program, and her assistant, Norm Spellman. While Augustine and Spellmen are out researching the local flora, Sully’s avatar is attacked by the local fauna and is forced to flee into the forest. He is rescued by Neytiri, the Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri determines that Sully is protected by the Na’vi goddess, Eywa, after Sully is touched by a seed of the Eywa tree. She then takes him to her her mother, Mo’at who is the clan’s spiritual leader. Mo’at says that it is the will of Eywa that Sully learn the ways of the Na’vi. As Sully becomes more and more integrated into the Na’vi’s society, he begins to regret his mission to spy on them for Quaritch. Sully learns that Selfridge and Quaritch want to mine directly under the Na’vi’s village, (called Hometree). Quaritch becomes impatient and threatens to use force to remove the Na’vi if Sully does not convince them to move in a timely manner:

Selfridge: “Sully, find out what the blue monkeys want. You know I mean, we tried to give them medicine, education, roads. But, no, no, no, they like mud. And that wouldn’t bother me, it’s just that their…their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar.”

Sully: “Well, who gets them to move?”

Col. Quaritch: “Guess.”

Sully: “What if they won’t go?”

Col. Quaritch: “I’m betting that they will.

Selfridge: “OK, OK, OK. Look. Look. Killing the indigenous looks bad. But there’s one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement. I didn’t make up the rules. So, just find me a carrot that’ll get them to move. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be all stick. OK?

Col. Quaritch: “You got three months. That’s when the ‘dozers get there.”

 

Instead of convincing the Na’vi to move, Sully takes out a bulldozer that is set to destroy a sacred sight to the Na’vi and Quaritch manages to catch it on film. Quaritch also raids Sully’s personal video logs and shows Selfridge one of the logs where Sully admits that the Na’vi will never leave Hometree, so Selfridge, somewhat reluctantly, orders a raid on Hometree.

Col. Quaritch to Sully: “You let me down son. So what, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you’re playing for?”

Augustine: “Parker, there is time to salvage the situation.”

Col. Quaritch: “Shut your pie hole.”

Augustine: “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna to shoot me?”

Col. Quaritch: “I could do that.”

Augustine: [to Parker Selfridge] “You need to muzzle your dog.”

Selfridge: “Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?”

Sully: [to Col. Quaritch] “You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.”

Augustine: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in way that you can’t imagine.”

Selfridge: “Aw, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here, it’s going to land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.”

Augustine: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground. It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they are fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.”

 Col. Quaritch: “I’d say we understand them just fine thanks to Jake here…

[Sully on tape]: “They aren’t going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. For what? For lite beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never going to leave Hometree.”

Col. Quaritch: “So, since a deal can’t be made I guess things get real simple, Jake.”

Augustine, Sully and Spellmen are able to escape from the base, with the help of helicopter pilot, Trudy Chacón. Sully is able to rally of the clans of the Na’vi to attack the Company forces, in an attempt to drive them from Pandora for good.

Sully prays to Eywa to join their fight against the humans. The Na’vi fight against the humans and just when it appears that all hope is lost the animals of Pandora launch a concentrated attack and take out the remaining humans. The humans are forced to leave Pandora with the exceptions of Sully, Spellmen and a few other scientists. Sully says: “the aliens went back to their dying world. Only a few were chosen to stay.”

The plot’s similarities to an alien invasion film are a metaphor for how ridiculous it is for a company to come in and take a society’s natural resources. The audience is always behind the humans in an alien invasion film and feels a sense of global pride when they work together to kick out the invaders. So why do we think it is okay to send a company to a foreign country to drill for oil and commit atrocities to the people and the environment there in the process? Sully claims that the Company was able to do this by making the Na’vi their enemy: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on s*** that you want, you make them your enemy, then you’re justified in taking it.” The humans develop a convenient racism towards the Na’vi, calling them blue monkeys and referring to them as if they were animals, and so they feel justified in destroying them. Fortunately in this narrative, the weaker force is both able to revolt and win their revolution (with aid from nature herself!) against the invaders, even if that is not the way it is in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Futurama: Bender’s Game. Makeup for Dogs, That’s Where the Money is.

This extra long special comments on how the market encourages corrupt practices for harvesting energy resources and the lack of research put into alternative energy.

The episode begins with the Planet Express crew running out of fuel while they are out on a mission. Fortunately, they are able to use Nibbler’s dark matter poop as fuel to get them to a dark matter fuel station.

Can you believe the price of dark matter? It would be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winners’ sperm. –Leela

Later in the episode we find out that the reason that dark matter prices are so high is because of a dark matter shortage. However, it becomes obvious that Mom, who controls the world’s only dark matter mine, is controlling the supply of dark matter so that she can increase the price. (Consumers often complain that today’s oil companies might be controlling the oil supply to drive up gasoline prices.)

Professor Farnsworth tells the crew that it was he who discovered a way to turn dark matter into starship fuel when he worked for Mom many years ago:

Back in those days [dark matter] was just a worthless inert curiosity and I was smashing it in a particle accelerator in an ill-conceived attempt to create a more durable harpsichord wax. But as Deepaz Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason…and thus against all probabilities it happened. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that all dark matter in the universe is linked in the form of a single, non-local metaparticle…so in one instant I transformed all dark matter everywhere into a new crystalline form, making it into the most potent fuel since primitive man first ignited mastodon flatulence to heat his cave. –Professor Farnsworth

Mom stole the Professor’s work and fired him, but he made sure to keep a failsafe in case Mom ever went out of control:

Professor Farnsworth: “You see in the instant the energy crystal was created, there also came into being an opposite crystal made of pure anti-backwards energy…if ever the two crystals should meet their wave functions would collapse like Raymond Burr’s trampoline once again rendering all dark matter inert and useless as fuel.”

Hermes: “But then we’ll have no fuel.”

Farnsworth: “Ah, but once we free society from dependence on Mom’s dark matter, scientists will finally care enough to develop cleaner alternative fuels.”

Fry: “Scientists like you.”

Farnsworth: “No not me. I’m too busy developing makeup for dogs. That’s where the money is.”

Unfortunately, Farnsworth has forgotten where he hid the anti-backwards crystal, but he eventually discovers that his son is using it as a 12-sided die in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Farnsworth and the crew travel to dark matter mine to use the newly found crystal in to neutralize the dark matter. The crew discovers that Mom’s mine is farm—Mom has captured all of the Nibblonians (Nibbler’s species) and has placed them in cages so that she can harvest their poop. This farm gives Mom an unlimited source of dark matter. Mom’s enslavement of the Nibblonians is similar to the treatment of other labor forces in energy narratives. The Nibblonians possess an energy resource and are held against their will and forced to labor to give that energy resource to Mom, who is the stronger force in this narrative. Strangely, there is no theme of life for energy exchange here. It does appear that the labor is in anyway fatal to the Nibblonians. However, the Nibblonians do rebel when they have the chance to, which is characteristic of an energy narrative.

After a long and complicated series of events the Professor is finally able to bring the two crystals together and so render all of the world’s dark matter inert. Farnsworth and the crew use the Nibblonians to pull the Planet Express ship home, calling it “Nibbler Power”. Hopefully, following this narrative earth’s scientists develop forms of alternative energy as Farnsworth suggests they will, that is, if it is more lucrative than makeup for dogs.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Futurama: The Birdbot of Icecatraz. A Tragic but Faraway Story

Professor Farnsworth sends the Planet Express crew on a mission to tow the Juan Valdez, (reference to the Exxon Valdez), “an orbiting supertanker full of rich Columbian dark matter.” Leela refuses to go on the mission because she concerned that the tanker will leak dark matter oil into a penguin preserve on Pluto that the tanker must pass by.

Leela: “Dark matter oil? What if we hit something? The tanker could leak.”

Professor Farnsworth: “Impossible. The tanker has 6,000 hauls. So unlike me, it’s entirely leak-proof.”

Leela decides to join a group of protesters instead of captaining the mission, leaving Bender in charge. Naturally as a result of Bender’s inferior piloting, the tanker catches on an iceberg, which cuts through all 6000 hauls and causes dark matter oil to leak into the penguin preserve.

Bender is ordered to five hours of community service to clean up the oil spill. In addition, the dark matter oil causes the penguins to greatly increase their reproduction causing overpopulation.

Just like the episode in my last post, “Birdbot” uses extremes to point out the ridiculousness of how governments and corporations handle oil transportation, spill prevention and spill management. Granted, this episode also pokes fun at environmental groups as well. However, a supposedly unleakable tanker leaks into an animal habitat (adorable penguins instead of fish, gulls and other ocean dwelling creatures) due to lack of corporate and government oversight. The environment is severely damaged and is unable to be cleaned up and the animals suffer horrible consequences, just like in the event of a real oil spill.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, environmental degradation and destruction, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.

The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz Episode highlights