The Birth of Death, and the Hawaiian Sun
Hawaii is a dream. The warm air, the flowers, the hot sun on the ocean. My memories of it are so positive that I am suspicious of them.
Kauai was the birthplace of "The Death of Environmentalism," which we released at the Environmental Grantmakers meeting in 2004 at the decadently luxurious Hyatt in Kauai. It is hands down the most spectacular hotel I've ever been experienced. It's a toss up whether the best part about it is the fact that it is literally perched at the end of the beach, or the fact that it is surrounded by interconnected swimming pools.
Turns out the Hyatt, like much of Hawaii, is coal-powered. I say this not to shame anyone for going there. I for one feel not one whit of shame over swimming in its salt water lagoon and sipping its pina coladas. (Anyone who says they feel shameful for such behaviors are either lying or pitiable.) I'm not even accusing environmental funders of hypocrisy (at least not for going to the Hyatt). I point it out simply to ask a rhetorical question: what the hell is one of the sunniest places on earth doing getting its power from coal?
We need to start looking at sunny places powered by coal as an absurdity (Tucson, anyone?). I'll be the first to acknowledge that solar is more expensive than coal. But I'd bet that the Hyatt and most of the rest of Hawaii's affluent tourists can afford it.
How would it get done? The tourist industry could lobby the utilities and legislature to require increasing levels of solar. The state could subsidize solar directly. Or, given budget constraints, Hawaii could set up a self-financing solar revolving fund bond -- and a Homeowners Power Act allowing businesses and home owners to sell their solar power back on to the grid at full peak day-time prices.
Christine Thomas, Hawaii's Literary Lotus, did a Q&A with me in the Honolulu Weekly, where I suggested something similar:
Hawai'i's culture is rooted in love and respect of the land, yet paradoxically we depend on coal for energy, have limited mass transit, strong opposition to growth and change and have few environmental measures in place--not even curbside recycling. Are we thus in a great position to start creating a new politics in the "right" way, or do we have just as much work to do to eliminate the old paradigm?
It's crazy that such an incredibly sunny place like Hawai'i relies so heavily on coal. Going solar would allow Hawai'i to reduce its dependence on coal and would create thousands of new jobs for local electricians and builders installing solar panels. Solar is cost-competitive when the electricity costs are spread out over a 10 to 20 year period. One tool might be a "revolving fund" that lent money to homeowners and business owners seeking to finance their solar system. A small group of Hawaiians could probably convince the state Legislature to set something up like this -- the best argument is probably that it's good for the local economy and will clean up the air.
Christine asks about the reaction to Break Through.
Because of this, many environmentalists have labeled you and Nordhaus bad-boy naysayers--part of the problem, not part of the solution. Is this just defensive hyperbole in response to a call to change?
The negative reaction is coming from different camps. Some of it comes from people who believe that there just isn't enough planet Earth for everyone to live like we live--it's a mentality of limits, not possibility. Some of the negative reaction comes from the environmental establishment, which believes that new pollution regulations will solve global warming--a strategy that has already failed with Kyoto and in Europe. Still others are upset that we describe the ways in which environmentalism is too much like a religion and not enough like a church. Nature and science aren't "telling us what to do"--we have to decide for ourselves. And achieving that means creating new kinds of community that can create a new politics.
In the book we point out that there's nothing more "natural" about making solar panels from sand than burning coal. The decision to go solar isn't about getting right by nature, it's about getting right by a vision of the future that protects extraordinary gems like Hawaii, and all of its inhabitants, human and nonhuman. Doing so requires a politics focused more on a positive vision of ecological development than on nature protection.