Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Seduced by glamour...

Virginia Postrel nails the source of my discomfort with wind power, and my attraction to high-speed rail.
In those glamour shots, wind power seems clean, free and infinitely abundant. Turbines spin silently and sometimes appear barely taller than a child. The wind blows constantly and in exactly the right amount—never so much that it piles up unwanted power and never so little that it requires backup supply. The sky is unfailingly photogenic, a backdrop of either puffy clouds or a brilliant sunset; the landscape is both empty and beautiful; and there are no transmission lines anywhere.
The image of a speeding train, meanwhile, invites you to imagine taking it when and where you want, with no waiting, no crowds and no expensive tickets. Like the turbines, high-speed trains exemplify autonomy and grace, sliding along effortlessly, with no visible source of fuel. To a stressed-out public, they promise an escape from traffic jams—and, at least until the first terrorism scare, from the hassles, intrusion and delays of airport security.
For all its deceptiveness and mystery, glamour reveals emotional truths. What today's green techno-glamour demonstrates, first and foremost, is that its audience has no inclination to give up the benefits of modernity and return to the pre-industrial state idealized by radical greens. Neither the Unabomber nor Henry David Thoreau would go for wind farms and high-speed rail. To the contrary, these iconic new machines cater to what Al Gore denounced in "Earth in the Balance" as "the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." They promise that a green future will be just as pleasant as today, only cleaner and more elegant.
For at least some technophiles, in fact, the trains and windmills are goods in and of themselves, with climate change providing a reason to force the development and adoption of cool new machines that wouldn't otherwise catch on. These technologies also restore the idea of progress as big, visible engineering projects—an alternative to the decentralized, hidden ingenuity of computer code. They evoke the old World's Fair sense of hope and wonder, a feeling President Barack Obama draws on when he endorses high-speed rail subsidies as "building for the future." They are the latest incarnation of flying cars and electricity too cheap to meter.
The problems come, of course, in the things glamour omits, including all those annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating. Neither trains nor wind farms are as effortlessly liberating as their photos suggest. Neither really offers an escape from the world of compromises and constraints. The same is true, of course, of evening gowns, dream kitchens and tropical vacations. But at least the people who enjoy that sort of glamour pay their own way. [More and apologies for the huge excerpt]
We hard-bitten, grizzled men of the dirt would never succumb to an instinctive longing for the perfect, of course. But it does explain our infatuation with idealistic solutions in the face of inconvenient fact. And our lingering hope that sometime in the future the economics and engineering will make sense. (See also: ethanol, corn)

Well, that and our abiding love of subsidies.

1 comment:

Brian in Central IL said...


Curious to hear an expanison of your attraction to high speed rail. My two major beefs with it:
1. Trains don't go everywhere I want to go like cars or perhaps planes (although anymore planes don't seem to make travel any better)
2. As a producer how do you cope with the closing of rail crossings limiting access to the other side of the rail line