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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking advantage

Advantage has two meanings, benign and malign. The first happens on a day like today, when the combination of hot sun and cool ocean breeze makes me spend almost the whole day on the deck. There's no competition involved, no striving. I'm not trying to beat out the gulls. Clean fresh air comes at no price.

People thought the same about coal, oil, gas, cod, rain forests. They were free and endless and the miners and drillers and entrepreneurs weren't taking advantage, they were fulfilling a destiny. Not so anymore. Every one of earth's resources has been monetized.

Including the wind, the tides, the nitrogen of the ocean. Yesterday Matthew Simmons, energy entrepreneur, of fossil fuels in Texas, of renewables in Maine, died. The news stories praise him as a visionary, and his good deeds and big thoughts were legendary. But I couldn't help but groan when I read that he died in his house on North Haven, just a few miles across the bay from his huge estate in Rockport, both of which are complemented for the winter months, I'm sure, by properties in Houston and other warm places. Why does one man need so much? How easy is it to champion renewable energy when you've made your pile on oil? Why does John Kerry need a $7 million yacht?

No doubt I'm being a churl and a hypocrite. Producing electricity from a wind turbine is much better than burning coal. I haven't turned in my car in protest of imported oil. But there's a way to take advantage of nature, and for all the promise of alternative energy, the hype misses the point. I can't help but think that the same old profit motive drives it. I can't help but wonder if the wind and the sea will run out, not in the same way as oil, but as a temporary way station in the relentless thirst for energy, and the machines will have covered the earth in vain. I can't help but predict that turbines and ammonia plants and solar arrays will one day be discarded, just as expendable and ugly as Three Mile Island. I can't help but worry that our refusal to conserve will force us into more nightmares of fission and fusion.

A true visionary works with the earth, not against it. It should be easy for us to give up our advantages, those of us who have had enough.

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