Earth Day is a Time for...Anger
Have We Made Progress This Trip Around the Sun?
Let’s note that Earth Day was born in 1970 not as a celebration, and not as an occasion for greenwashing press releases, and not as a moment for photo ops—but as a honking big protest. Maybe the biggest protest in American history—by some estimates there were 20 million Americans on the street April 22, 1970, which would have been about ten percent of the then-American population. The Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth has famously calculated that if you get 3.5 percent of the population engaged in a fight you generally win, and that first Earth Day proves her point. The environmental movement went—to use the kind of automotive metaphor we should probably be abandoning—from zero to sixty in no time flat: within a very few years we had a burst of Congressional legislation protecting clean air, clean water, endangered species, and much else.
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Because, officially, we take the environment more seriously now, and because those early efforts really did clean up much of the most visible damage, we no longer have protests on that scale. But we should, as the last year illustrates.
In April of 2022, it was possible to hope that the Biden administration (elected with the unwavering support of environmentalists, especially the young people of the Sunrise Movement) was on the verge of a breakthrough—the Build Back Better bill seemed set to pass, with a Clean Energy Pricing Plan that would force utilities to steadily up the share of renewable power. But then Joe Manchin—Big Oil’s Democrat—stripped that stick out of the bill. Biden replaced it with a carrot—big tax breaks for renewables—and then watched as Manchin teased and played with that as well. In an effort to curry Manchin’s favor, the administration passed up possible executive action: it’s busily approving new leases to drill on public lands. And then, presented with the greatest teachable moment in energy history when Vladimir Putin launched a fossil-fueled attack on Ukraine, it’s whiffing: instead of invoking the Defense Production Act to spur renewables production and energy conservation, it’s decided instead to set off a “frenzy” of construction on the Gulf Coast in order to send liquefied natural gas off to Europe. The infrastructure won’t mean a thing to Europe for three years or more—that’s how long it takes to build these ports and pipelines—but it will guarantee a few more decades of pouring methane into the atmosphere (and the more times you freeze and thaw and ship and pipe that gas, the more methane it leaks). “The outlook for LNG demand growth are really quite robust going deep into the 2040s, even to the 2050s,” Dustin Meyer, vice president for national gas markets at the American Petroleum Institute, boasted to the Washington Post. But since (as Justin Guay points out in a powerful piece) much of Europe is pledged to get off fossil fuel as the decade ends, “most of the LNG created by the industry’s vision ultimately will likely go to China.”
Biden and his team have been cheerleading this longterm disaster for the shortest term of gains—apparently they think it somehow will get them off the hook for high gas prices. But it won’t (posit the voter who’s angry about $4 gas but willing to overlook it because in three years we’ll have a more robust LNG export infrastructure). Meanwhile it’s destroying their political standing with allies, especially young ones, whose support for the president has collapsed. The number one issue for young voters? Climate change. Because they’re going to actually still be living on this planet “deep into the 2040s, even to the 2050s.”
Obviously the Republicans would be worse—they are arsonists on a burning planet. (That’s why we want Biden to get the politics right; so they don’t waltz to what increasingly looks like an easy win in November). Obviously Biden’s team includes wonderful people. Obviously they are getting good things done, every day, for which we should be thankful. Today’s order on old-growth forests is a good example, but it’s not the only one—the administration has been making steady, incremental progress. But physics doesn’t hand out trophies for making the old college try; climate scientists have said we have seven more Earth Days to cut the world’s emissions in half. With Siberia and the Southwest ablaze this Earth Day morning, we desperately need to see some fire from the White House.
More news from around the world of climate and energy
+One threat constantly raised by skeptics of renewable energy is that we will run out of the minerals necessary to build out these new technologies. It’s a reasonable fear—but not an insuperable one, as Tesla demonstrated when they announced this week that they’d built half the batteries in their cars last quarter without using nickel or cobalt.
“Diversification of battery chemistries is critical for long-term capacity growth, to better optimize our products for their various use cases and expand our supplier base. This is why nearly half of Tesla vehicles produced in Q1 were equipped with a lithium iron phosphate (LFP) battery, containing no nickel or cobalt. Currently, LFP batteries are used in most of our standard range vehicle products, as well as commercial energy storage applications. As a result of our energy efficient motors, a Model 3 with an LFP battery pack can still achieve a 267-mile EPA range,” the company said.
Meanwhile, gas station owners should probably start preparing now for an EV future, Rebecca Heilwell recommends. “Boston Consulting Group analysts estimate that if EVs do take off, as much as 80 percent of the fuel retail market could be unprofitable by 2035.”
+Putting carbon capture equipment on existing fossil-fired power plants is an incredibly stupid waste of money, as is being demonstrated in the coal state of Wyoming, where a new study detailed at WyoFile.com suggests that such a plan could cost ratepayers a cool hundred dollars a month apiece, pretty much forever. That’s a lot to pay for the pleasure of owning the libs by not taking advantage of the sun and wind.
The retrofit costs alone could range from $400 million to $1 billion for each coal unit, according to PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming. Adding carbon capture utilization and storage technologies would also significantly reduce electrical generation efficiency at the coal plants, further ramping up the expense for ratepayers. Generation efficiency could be reduced 14%-35% at Wygen II and Neil Simpson II near Gillette, according to Black Hills Corp.
+Putting corn in gas tanks is at least as big a boondoggle, as Michael Grunwald demonstrates with a masterful deployment of relevant stats, especially at moment when the Ukraine war is driving down world food stocks
The amount of corn it takes to fill an SUV with ethanol could feed a person for a year, and the U.S. and Europe could immediately replace the lost grain exports from Ukraine’s breadbasket by cutting their biofuel production in half. So it’s pretty obvious why this food crisis is a dumb time to accelerate biofuel production. In fact, a bunch of studies have confirmed that biofuel mandates were a leading driver of the 2008 food crisis, driving up prices by driving up demand for grain and vegetable oil.
But the power of the midwest corn lobby means that we’ll keep doing this very stupid thing—just as, close to home in Vermont (and in the rest of rural America) we’ll keep planting corn seeds coated in neonicotinoid pesticide, even though, as Seven Days reporter Kevin McCallum makes clear, the evidence is pretty clear they’re killing honeybees in large numbers. As the president of the Vermont Beekeepers Associaton told the legislature, "You can bet that if the dairy farmers were losing 50 percent of their cows every winter, you guys would have done something about it!" One small happy trend has begun in Appleton, Wisconsin and is spreading across the nation: No Mow May, where homeowners are encouraged not to cut their lawns in May. “Unmowed lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the number of bee species than nearby parks that had been mowed.”
Meanwhile, as the Guardian makes clear in an utterly fascinating new report, climate breakdown is attacking our food system at its roots. “Last year prices for durum (pasta) wheat soared by 90% after widespread drought and unprecedented heatwaves in Canada, one of the world’s biggest grain producers, followed a few months later by record rainfall.” And because we depend on just a few varieties, we’re always skirting the edge of some blight or rust.
+If for some reason you need to clear your lawn of leaves, and if some disability prevents you from raking, then at least get an electric leaf blower, as Jessica Stolzberg recommends in the Times. “What does a street, a community and a country made up of property owners who say no to gas blowers look like? It looks the same. But it smells better, it sounds better, and it’s a safer, kinder place to all who call it home.”
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We’re starting the third and final year of our epic nonviolent saga, this time in the beautiful Bay Area. If you want to catch up on chapters 1-63 of The Other Cheek, the archive is here.
“So, basically, this is the easiest spying job on earth,” Allie said. She was sprawled out on the oversized sofa at MK and Perry’s Oakland flat, with a half-sleeping Gloria twined across her legs. “He talks about himself nonstop—you don’t even need to get him going. He gets himself going.”
When Allie had replied to Matti’s invitation, letting him fly her from Colorado to San Francisco for a date, she’d made it clear she’d be staying with friends in the city and not at his place in Palo Alto. “I almost was sorry when I met him,” she said. “He really is beautiful,” she’d said, staring at MK, who was nodding. “Even if his clothes were like expensive versions of something my brothers would wear back home. He must have seen me staring because that’s what he started talking about, like the first thing. His hoodie is Gucci. And his sneakers are from something called Atom, which is a startup from something called Y Combinator incubator, which apparently is a very big deal. They have a half billion dollars in angel financing, whatever that is. They come in quarter sizes. You can order like ten at a time, so you never have to think about shoes again, unless someone makes something better someday. I know a lot about his shoes.”
“Those sound like good shoes,” said Perry, who started looking them up on his phone. MK rolled her eyes.
“I thought he was chattering about his clothes because of, you know, me,” said Allie. “Like, this is unarguably a good-looking dress. Cass and Gloria and I went shopping for it, and I even tried it on for Maria. We were even a little worried it might scare him away.”
“Definitely hot,” said MK.
“Right?” said Allie. “But what he said was, ‘People don’t really wear much pink here in Silicon Valley.’ He was embarrassed. He offered to let me borrow a spare gray hoodie he had in the Tesla.
“Then he took me to a sushi place, which—not a lot of sushi in west Texas. But this is my job, right? And actually, the chef was so nice—he was an old guy, and he put each piece of fish on its own plate, one at a time. He’d hold it out to you, and bow. So, I had my first Hokkaido scallop, and my first cod sperm sac. My last, also. And my first bottle of sake. I didn’t even know what it was, except I knew it was alcohol because the menu said 40-proof. So I said they’re going to card me, and Matti said ‘this dinner is $220 each, they’re not going to card you,’ which was a good way of letting me know how much it cost. And he was right, they didn’t card me, and sake is good—I don’t know why there’s not more warm alcohol. It goes down easy. Anyway, there were so many courses we were late for our date, which was at an evening of lectures. He was very clear these were not TEDTalks, because those are old. These were—something else. I’m not sure, because we missed the first two, but we got there for one called ‘Sleep is Your Superpower,’ which basically I knew because I had a mother. And the last one was about how you could change your life by getting rid of all your unread emails. ‘Inbox zero is the new nirvana, the new heaven,’ the man said. He had a lot of charts to show the close correlation between unread emails and celiac disease. ‘It’s like digital gluten,’ he said.
“That sounds . . . deadly,” said MK.
“It did not sound like a date,” said Allie. “Not a real date. But then he took me back to his office, just to ‘show it to me.’ I figured it would be deserted because by now it was like 9:30, but there were plenty of guys there, mostly just looking at computers. He had to take me into the meditation room to try anything.”
“They have a meditation room?” said MK.
“They all have meditation rooms,” said Perry, looking up from his phone. “It’s part of it, like the foosball, and the smoothie bar, and the guy who gives you backrubs on Friday afternoon while you work. These shoes really are nice.”
“Well, he didn’t want to meditate,” said Allie. “But I just gave him a peck on the cheek, and said I’d had a nice evening, and could he call me an Uber. And so he called me a Curb, which he said was much newer than Uber, and I actually think he was a little relieved I was going home, because mostly I think he just likes to talk about himself.”
“So, what are they up to?”
“It’s a little hard to tell, because I’m not ever sure when he’s just making himself look big. But I wrote down everything I could remember in the cab ride on the way home. Should we put Gloria in a bed first? I did kind of promise her Mom we’d take care of her. And Cass. And Maria. She’s never actually been away before.”
“Perry, sweetie, is the air mattress made up?”
Perry looked up from his phone, blushing slightly. “You want me to carry her in?” He picked up the seven-year-old carefully and lugged her into their bedroom, emerging a few seconds later. “Sleep is definitely her superpower,” he said.
“So,” said Allie, pulling a notebook out of her smallish pink backpack. “Here’s what I can tell. First thing is, BTI is definitely a player. The Better Tomorrows Institute began four years ago, because the industry felt like they were under attack. For a long time everyone had just loved on the tech guys—I mean, apparently there was a time when people thought Facebook was cool. But then people—Matti calls them the ‘forces of the past’— started fighting them. They’d fine the big tech companies a few billion dollars, which is apparently not a big deal, but then they started talking about ‘breaking them up.’ I’m not even sure what that means, but it was enough to convince all these guys that they needed to do a better job convincing people that they were ‘building a brighter tomorrow,’ which he said about sixty-three times. Anyway, it’s not just in America. That’s why those guys were there at 9:30 at night—they were the Asia team.”
“But what do they do?” asked MK.
“That’s one of the hard things to explain,” said Allie. “As far as I can tell, they don’t really do anything. They just—twitter, and like that. They hold a lot of conferences, and issue reports, and ‘manage perceptions.’ Matti is apparently rising fast, which he thinks is because he has his ‘finger on the pulse of Gen Z+,’ which is apparently us. My guess is it helps that he’s cute. He showed me a couple of magazine stories about him—he carries them around. One said he was part of a new species, a ‘younguru.’”
“Did he show them to you like ‘this is funny, can you believe it?’”
“More like, ‘this is who I am.’ He was just a little self-conscious about one thing—he kept saying, ‘don’t tell the people at SGI. Don’t tell Cass what I’m doing. They aren’t realistic. They’d just think I was doing it for money or something.’”
“Is he just doing it for the money?” asked Perry. “I mean, these sneakers are $179.”
“Yeah, and dinner was like $600, which would feed my family for three weeks. So he likes that, but I think he’s doing it because—well, it’s weird, but when he started talking about stuff he sounded . . . he sounded a little bit like the people at SGI. Idealistic?”
“What kind of stuff?” asked MK.
“Okay,” said Allie, leafing through her notebook. “There’s tons of little stuff, but the stuff that they work hardest on are “B and E—Beginnings and Endings. And it was when he started talking about those things that I suddenly got why Professor Vukovic was worried. I mean, this stuff is seriously weird. Have you heard of CRISP-R?”
“Advanced gene editing? Like a word processor for genes?” said Perry.
“You could work at BTI,” said Allie. “That’s just how he put it. Anyway, Beginnings. With CRISP-R you can essentially take an embryo and . . . improve it. Put in some new genes so that when it’s born it will be different. They’ve already done it with, like, pigs—he showed me a picture of a pig with muscles like some pro wrestler dude. It was gross. And they can make you smarter—well, not you, it only works before you’re born. And just a couple of IQ points for now. But it’s progressing very fast, that’s what he kept saying. Your moods, too: you wouldn’t ever need to be unhappy, because they know what genes will make your body produce more—serotonin? Happy chemicals.”
Perry was suddenly sitting straight up. “Maybe make people not so . . . weird?” he said.
MK looked at him. “You mean ‘weird,’ like you?” she said.
Perry looked down at his phone, though it was off.
“You are not ‘weird,’” said MK. “You’re a little bit spectrumish, but that’s who you are. You realize there are two girls sitting in this room who like you just fine, one of them who likes you a lot. Three girls, if you count Gloria. Because of who you are. You’re smart and funny, and you worry about clothes too much now, but that’s my fault. Most of all you’re kind, which is actually all that counts.”
“Can they make you handsome, like Matti,” said Perry.
“Actually, he talked about that some,” said Allie. “He kept quoting someone named Watson.” She looked down at her notes. “James Watson, the ‘father of modern genetics.’ He said ‘no more ugly babies.’”
“Good God,” said MK. “First of all, you’re cute enough, so don’t worry about it. Once you lost the dreadlocks. But are you guys actually listening to this? Make better-looking people? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that half the people in this country think that I have the wrong skin color, but all of this seems . . . It seems disgusting.”
“Matti said ‘people call it unnatural—that’s what we’re fighting against on social media everyday. But what’s more natural than wanting a better life for your children? Who doesn’t want their kids to be smart and happy and beautiful? Who wouldn’t pay a fortune for that.’ Then he said, ‘not that we’re in it for the fortune. But still.’”
“If you think about it for a minute, it doesn’t work,” said Perry. “I mean, right? You design your first baby, and give her some extra IQ. But then you want another baby in a couple of years, and now the technology is better and you can get a better upgrade. So what’s your first kid? iPhone 6, more or less, right? That’s maybe not good.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Allie. “What I thought of was the part about the happy chemicals, because—well, because there were times when I would have liked a whole lot of them. Because I was sad. But if you think about it for a minute, if you’re designed to be happy, how would you ever know if you really were? I mean, what if you were falling in, like, love? Like, how would you know if it was just your chemicals kicking in.”
“A lot of it is probably chemicals anyhow,” said MK. “But it’s different if it’s just who you are. And you’re supposed to be sad sometimes—that’s why there are friends.”
“Yeah,” said Allie. “I think you’re right. And I want kids someday, and I want them to surprise me. But it’s hard being sad.”
“And weird,” said Perry.
“It’s hard being human,” said MK. “But the answer to that is not to turn us into happy robots. It’s to make the world work better.”
“Do you have any sake?” said Allie. “Because I think I need some happy chemicals. Also, we haven’t even gotten to Endings yet, and that’s way freakier.”
“No sake” said Perry. “But you know that plum brandy that Professor Vukovic liked, slivovitz? There’s a guy here in Oakland that makes it. With organic plums? A solar still.”
“Good morning,” said MK, peering down into a tablet. “It’s just Allie and me. The other half of the Center for a Fully Human Future has taken the youth out sightseeing.”
“We know,” said Cass. “They already sent back a picture from the cable cars.” “It’s better anyway, because just us girls can talk freely—Cass, he really is gorgeous.”
“Yep,” said Cass.
“And he really is in over his head,” said Maria. “We read the stuff you sent back last night. The part about the engineered babies was crazy but I understood it. The stuff about never dying—that was truly insane. He’s 22.”
“Twenty two, and he takes 94 pills a day—vitamins, supervitamins, you name it,” said Allie. “It kind of takes the edge off the yellowtail tuna when he’s explaining that this pill cuts your cancer risk to zero. His hero is the director of engineering at Google, some guy named Kurzweil, who takes even more. If he can keep himself alive a couple of decades he’s convinced we’ll have perfected the technology that will let him live forever.”
“And if he gets run over by a scooter or something in the meantime, that’s the thing with the anklet?” said Cass.
“Right. If he dies, the bracelet has the number of the place in Arizona where they’re going to freeze him till the day when medicine can bring him back to life. Well, not all of him—just his head. Even that’s actually too expensive for him to afford, so he’s trading, like, tweets and Instagrams for the freezer space.”
“It is a pretty head,” said Cass.
“Yeah,” said MK. “Some lucky girl in 2463 is going to be in for a treat when they thaw him out. Maybe by then they’ll have special technology to make him not a dick.”
“The not-dying thing is kind of sad,” said Maria. “Actually, a lot sad. But I got the sense from your notes that the designer baby thing is more . . . imminent?”
“I think so,” said Allie. “He was trying to not tell me too much, and he was trying to show off at the same time, and that’s hard. When he started in on the babies with the extra IQ, I said something like ‘that could never really happen.’ And he said something like it was going to happen soon— that BTI’s partners in China were right on the edge—but then he caught himself and shut up. It was time for more pills anyway.”
“I’ll see if Professor Lee can figure out who his contacts in China might be,” said Maria.
“But maybe you’re going to have to see if you can figure out any more from him,” said MK. “Another date, I think.”
“I can try,” said Allie. “And now that I know not to wear pink maybe he’ll relax. But I have a feeling he’s still thinking about Cass. He asked me like three times what I thought she would think of the dinner.”
“If it’s anything like the lunch we had, I would have loved the food,” said Cass. “But not enough to eat it with him.”
At that point the door to the apartment opened, and in came Gloria on Perry’s shoulders, ducking to make it through.
“I rode the television cars,” she announced.
“The cable cars,” said Perry.
“That’s what I said,” said Gloria.
“Hi Gloria,” said Cass, from the tablet.
“Hi,” said Gloria. “You know how much Coke I had on the airplane? So much. There’s a little button you push and the lady comes right over and asks you what you want, and you say Coke and they give you some. I love airplanes.”
“Hi Gloria,” said Maria. “I talked to your mother this morning, and she’s missing you very much. You should give her a call.”
“Next on the agenda,” said MK. “Bye y’all.”
“Bye,” said Cass. “And remember to be careful. None of you have an ankle bracelet.”