The New York Times is running a story today about the difficulty of getting alternative energy (in this case wind energy) to market. Mr. Wald locates the problem here:

The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.

This sounds a lot like the classic modernist narrative Le Corbusier gives in The City of Tomorrow:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.

It is also the capitalist, freemarketeer’s main argument against preservation — and, by the way, environmentalism. Speed and economies of scale are assumed by the capitalist to be fundamental to survival. In high school debate this is the “Growth Is Good” argument.

The problem is that people act like pack-donkeys when they perceive their interests are being steamrollered for the “common good”. Environmentalists are all for using government mandates to make people recycle, but against using government mandates to drill in the ANWR. How will environmentalists fall on this issue? Is it better to preserve personal freedom by trying to create green energies that operate on a human scale, or is it better to nip global warming in the bud by shutting down coal plants in favor of massive, corporate wind farms?

Moreover, the narratives people use to reason through this issue are emotional. In fact, there is no answer to the problem that doesn’t include an aesthetic or sentimental component. No one way to solve the problem of growth is going to be empirically better than another. You either see resistance as “criminal sentimentality” or the drive to modernize as the hubris of the captains of industry. Everything in the middle is practical politics: debate, half-measures, and compromises.

Advertisements