Carelessness in Our Garden of Eden

Today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Elyssa Kaplan.

Four Flashbacks:

Fifth grade Earth Science group assignment, to be followed with a class debate, following a small, imaginary island nation of a name long forgotten and its national debate over a new energy policy.  This small island nation was amazingly a natural source for all energy sources, dirty and clean; natural gas, thermal energy, coal, and offshore oil underground and lots of water with high amounts of wind surrounding it above ground. Each group was given an energy source to represent and then present its merits to try and win the bid from the “government” of the school’s science teachers.

I was on the wind energy team. Luckily for our group of three eleven-year-old girls, this island nation did not have pre-existing energy grids, lobbying firms, massive health care debates, or oil tax incentives and the democratically elected government officials were looking for the best energy policy that their constituents would blindly accept. Also, luckily for our group, tourism was one of the major economies of the island. It was easy. We chose to build wind turbines resembling the Dutch countryside with tulips all around and wooden shoes in the gift shops. It was to be a Dutch version of Helen, Georgia, a town only two hours north of our school. At the debate amongst all the other energy groups we won easily. Our energy was nonpolluting, fed into and even expanded the local economy, had the ability to pay for itself over time, and I debated more fiercely than anyone else.

A high school memory montage starts in a counselor’s office during the worst part of the Georgia drought, war with Tennessee is being debated and the Governor is praying on the steps of the capitol for rain. “So, Elyssa, are you one of those green people who are using the extra bath water to flush the toilet?” My guidance counselor asked with a snicker. Spanish class, sophomore year we are practicing verbs while the two guys behind me discuss how big their trucks are. The one with the F-150 was deemed a sissy-man compared to other with the F-350. Lunch table with peers, “My sister is at UGA in a Geology class and her professor told her that global warming is a hoax,” another chimes in, “Of course, it’s a government conspiracy,” And yet another, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because Jesus is coming before the world falls apart. If you believe in Jesus, you know this.”

Senior year of high school, Western Humanities lecture on Northern European Renaissance art. Mr. Rosch flips to the next PowerPoint slide featuring a painting on three joined panels, The Garden of Earthly Delights. “Ahh… this one,” he said. “is a college dorm room staple.” We made fun of him, “Really, Mr. Rosch? A poster of a 500 year old painting by a Flemish Renaissance guy, a dorm room staple? You are such a nerd.” But he insisted no. “Look closely,” he said. It was then that we noticed the overt sexuality of the middle panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece.

A quiet morning in my Jerusalem apartment, November 5, 2008 after an all night election party of all my American friends living in Israel. They have left and it is now, just me, sitting on my little porch trying to keep a wireless signal, trying to not scream in excitement, trying not to cry from feeling so separated from the excitement, trying not to fall asleep on my laptop and reading a NY Times Op-Ed piece by a favorite author. Entitled Finishing Our Work, it boldly states that on the previous night the Civil War had ended. Thomas Friedman, because of statements like these followed by clear, mostly objective, and intelligent support is along with Leonard Pitts, my favorite Op-Ed columnist to read. I am inspired to post on my blog because I realize for the first time how homesick for my country I truly am and how empowered I feel to improve it.

I do not have any cutting-edge, creative ways to change the energy grid or convince people to try to live a “greener” lifestyle.  But I want to start thinking of some. Before reading Hot, Flat and Crowded, I found the green movement unwieldy in the fact that it was scientific evidence marred by classic ideological political divides mixed with trends and fads. After reading the book, I still see the movement as science tarnished by inane political games with inconsequential fads riding its coattails, but also as one of if not the most important and most interesting challenges of my lifetime.

With terrible fact after horrifying fact, I read the first half of the book and was nearly turned-off by the feelings of helplessness when reading, “About half of the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90 percent of large predator fish are gone… twenty percent of corals are gone…” (Friedman, 2008, 46) or that “through our energy purchases we are funding both sides of the war on terror.”  (Friedman, 2008, 80) Luckily, I realized that this was not a time to be overwhelmed and powerless, but to take what Mr. Friedman had found and written to become more involved, more creative, and more aware of this issue surrounding the world and specifically the United States.

I have always had an interest in the world and am planning on becoming an International Affairs major, however, I also have always been fundamentally against fixing other people’s problems or more precisely having the gall to tell them how to fix their problems when I am not fixing my own. So, despite the fact that I found chapter seven on energy poverty in the third world one of the most interesting and hope-inspiring chapters as we work toward an “age of humanization”, I did not dwell on it. Even though it is an important issue, it is not my country’s issue. Just as I enjoyed and found chapter thirteen about Indonesia’s move toward saving their forests and villages together heartening, I did not dwell on it as I do not understand their politics, society, economics, or anything else except what I learned from the book itself. Instead, for me, this book inspired me to focus on America’s problem and America’s future just as Thomas Friedman had encouraged me on November 5, 2008 in my apartment in Jerusalem.

However, this time, Mr. Friedman did not give the answer I wanted and left me searching for more. He introduced me to the American energy grid and the need for a whole new system for the way we think about, use, and transport energy. I am sold on our need for a new system. But I am not sold on Mr. Friedman’s way of getting us there. Maybe it is because he could not dwell on it to finish and get all the ideas into his book, but I feel like the part on how we as Americans create this new system is lacking. Maybe it is because he feels, like I do, that the only way to quickly get the top-down political power to get a new system is by either 1. Another moon race implying that we have already lost in the race to China or 2. a 9/11 do-over, a tragedy too horrible to consider.

Mr. Friedman’s last sub-section is entitled, “Why Leadership Matters.” And I think he ends on this note for a reason. No system is ever going to be overhauled without strong political leaders. The energy system especially will never change if our leaders stick to the status quo because none of the “five big problems- energy supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss,” (Friedman, 2008, 37) affect Americans apparently or uncomfortably in every day life. Daily brown outs or any form of energy loss is not a large problem, Americans seem to not realize that buying large amounts of gasoline funds terror organizations, and climate change is still debated as a political topic- not as science, everyone has energy, and we do not see species going extinct in the suburbs. Furthermore, Americans do not see China, India, or Europe out competing the United States in innovation of clean or net-zero technology. Friedman states, “It [an American Green revolution] is now a core national security and economic interest,” (Friedman, 2008) but the “average Joe” if you will, does not see it, does not live it, and does not believe it in his daily life. Therefore, to believe the average American will lobby their Congressperson or Senator to change the system tomorrow is not realistic or to think that the men and women in Congress or the Senate are going to push the issue without further incentive is, in my opinion, nonviable.

Friedman identifies innovation as the saving grace for the Energy Climate Era stating, “We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems of the Energy-Climate Era. We can only innovate our way out,” (Friedman, 2008, 243) Steven Chu, the current secretary of energy, adds that students are engaged in this issue and scientists want to research it, “They want to work on this problem,” he tells Friedman, however, “with the almost flat funding in basic energy research…the recruiting stations [of energy research] remain closed.” (Friedman, 2008, 384) I agree. However, This is where the need for regulations and investments enter as the solution for creating the capital to fund the innovation. Again however, Investors do not want to invest until they have certainty in their investment.  Only the government has the extensive size and power needed to create that certainty. Without Congressional support, the money will not be given. And Congressional support does not look promising or imminent as the political atmosphere is currently not one for raising any form of tax let alone a carbon tax, cap and trades appear socialist in a time of extreme fear in many Americans for Socialism, and when many major public universities are enforcing furloughs asking for more money for energy innovation again seems juvenile.

Thomas Friedman points out all of this. Where he is lacking still, in my opinion, is the next step. I think that next step has to be a new way to lobby Congress. The global warming and climate change debate is not and will not work fast enough because global warming and climate change is as Friedman correctly points out still considered a political issue (Friedman, 2008, 115) not an American issue. Coal is still too strong a force in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia- four strong swing states- for any presidential candidate to be against or to expect those Congress people and Senators to fight against. (Friedman, 2008, 376) In the Midwest there is the incentive to protect the biofuels market (Friedman, 2008, 376), the oil companies still have enormous clout, and doing any form of wide sweeping, national regulation appears Socialist especially now with the current Healthcare Debate and “scare.” Otherwise we end up with insignificant and failing attempts to change like California’s Proposition 87 where whole lobbies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to stop it (Friedman, 2008, 378) or innovation money becomes Congressional pork projects as it did in 2008. (Friedman, 2008, 381). Energy efficiency and responsibility have to become the norm for citizens first  before I can spread to our political leaders.

Like I said earlier, I do not currently have any new, creative ideas to lobby Congress, but I can see various grassroots projects Friedman points out throughout the book and put them together in an attempt to create change from the underbelly of America, a grassroots campaign. Instead what we need is some of Van Jones plan on a national scale. Where “green” starts beating poverty and the lower-socio-economic groups start the trend moving it up to mainstream America. Then hope for more Noah Horowitz’s to figure out ways to cut other energy costs in their daily lives and at their work place. And maybe start utilizing the “green war hawks” and the soldiers who return from war after seeing the benefits of a greener way of doing things. If smart appliances became more accessible, energy conscious consumers could buy them creating a new national consumer trend. With the Detroit car industry going bankrupt is the time right for higher efficiency standards in cars without worrying about the two, four, and six-year cycles of this country? (Friedman, 2008, 406) I do not know, but if I can just in reading a book think of this, what can a whole freshman class think of, create, and enact in a year? I look forward to seeing it.

I wondered about the cover art for this book when I purchased it. I wondered why the Garden of Earthly Delights and the overt sexuality on the cover. It is about a green revolution, nothing that exciting. But, I think it makes sense to choose this middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece. For too long we have been living in a world where the more you took, the more successful you were. We ate from the oversized fruits and carried on as if our lifestyle had no end and no consequences. We have been careless with our Garden of Eden, forgetting that it is what has supported us and our lifestyle for so long. Luckily, it was this panel that was featured and not the third one. We are not yet in Bosch’s Hell, but we are close. “I don’t know when we will hit the wall,” (Friedman, 2008, 68) but I know we do not have to because just as my Humanities teacher saw this piece of artwork is a dorm room staple, I see Thomas Friedman’s book and the ideas within it to be a life staple and a jumping off point for every American if we are to survive in this Energy-Climate Era.


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