Moving to a Post Carbon Age

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By Tom Osborne

There seems to be no shortage of environmental challenges confronting our species at this moment in history.  Climate warming, air pollution, undrinkable water, ocean contamination and depletion of fish stocks, rising sea levels, escalating fuel and utility costs—nearly all of these growing concerns related to our dependence, no addiction is more like it, to oil.

Today’s environmental realities have been a long time in the making; their emergence can be traced back at least as far as the mid-19th century when the United States entered what economist W.W. Rostow called the “take off” phase of economic development.

Accordingly, when a nation for the first time invests five percent or more of its gross national product in capital growth, it has entered its industrial “take off” stage.  The growth that made this possible in America derived from railroad building, iron mongering, mining (mainly coal), and petroleum extraction.  These were highly carbon-related undertakings.  From the 1850s on, our major cities on the eastern seaboard became increasingly soot-covered as relatively inexpensive carbon fueled America’s rapidly growing industrial economy.

Fast-forward to today, some 160 years later.  A 13-fold increase in population has occurred; we now have 310 million of us, all living in a consumer-based society. For the vast majority, our standard of living has improved tremendously during the heyday of the carbon age.  Life expectancy increased as medical care made great strides, literacy became more widespread, travel times greatly shortened, and more.

The seldom-discussed, inconvenient truth regarding such astonishing progress is that our carbon-based way of life is unsustainable. Population growth places more demands on scarce resources and on a pollution-overloaded environment. Even if we could secure more petroleum, think of the risks brought home to us in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  “Drill baby drill,” is not a recipe for a sustainable future; instead it’s a recipe for a short-term fix and long-term ecological disaster as oil companies turn increasingly to deep-sea drilling.  The smart money and smart people recognize that the carbon age is fast outliving its usefulness.

Where is this smart money?  Where are these smart people who are moving society toward sustainability?  The answers to both questions are found largely in the West.  The brainiacs in the Silicon Valley—at Tesla Motors, Better Place, and Nanosolar—are creative techies at work on electric vehicles and home construction materials.  Some are producing inexpensive solar panels, that “easily stick to laptop bags, cars, and roofs, turning urban areas from passive energy consumers into energy producers,” says Sunset magazine in its March 2010 edition. The smart money and people are in 20 progressive cities profiled in that issue.  For example, Eugene, Ore., is getting 85% of its energy from renewable resources.  Its goal is to cut fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2030.  Nearby Portland has reduced its carbon emissions by 20% below 1990 levels; 15,000 of its citizens pedal to work. These are just a few examples of  new thinking and green innovations moving America toward a sustainable future.  Change, it seems, is coming mainly from our cities.

Laguna Beach, too, has its practical idealists who are working to make our city more sustainable, greener, and pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. My next column will profile some of the individuals and groups moving our city toward a post carbon age.

Tom Osborne, author of two books, is a retired Santa Ana College history professor and a recent recipient of the city’s Environmental Award.

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