My Irish Up: Collapse of a colony

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan

By Mike Corrigan

BN Columnist

When they grow too dense and numerous, ant colonies can collapse. Man’s colonies can too.

The Keystone XL Pipeline question, like the nuclear waste issue of 30 years ago, has brought the world to the Lake Region and to Maine, to our not-so-dense colony in the woods. The real issue here is modern man’s voracious need for energy. And now, because we haven’t solved the problem of the world’s finite fossil fuel reserves, as a species, our outlying little colony has the problem dumped on us.

But, we are such little ants in such a big hive! What to do? So, we make our little town meeting votes against the powers that be. We search for all the reasons why this particular pipeline is bad, citing the nature of tar sands oil itself, environmental spill risks, local impacts, on and on. We become NIMBYs. We are just puny people saying “No!” But even if we win this one — and what are the chances of that, long term? — it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Nothing is really solved. The hive always gets what it wants, eventually. We need to offer an alternative, or: vox clamantis in deserto. A small voice. A big desert.

We need a broader purpose. We need to convince the hive it doesn’t need tar sands oil in the first place.

But, doesn’t it? If we don’t get the continuous supply of oil, that means — gasp! — we must all change our lifestyles, right? This may or may not be a bad thing, actually, but it’s not going to happen — even if the alternative is global suicide. We are simply not giving up our automatic door openers and refrigerators and cars and Space Age phones. Mankind, as a hive animal, is not particularly rational. So, if we won’t limit our thirst for energy, our energy sources must change. The evidence is quite clear: our gigantic fossil fuel-based world society is poisoning the ecosphere and making open sewers of the oceans. Pretty soon, the only Dead Sea won’t be the one in the Holy Land. How do we halt the environmental Armageddon?

America, always a world leader in pollution, can be a world leader in stopping pollution too. Conservation would help, but that’s just a digit in the dike. We can use the advantages of capitalism and democracy by making the right choices, freeing up the potential energy in those systems.

1. Get the federal government out of energy. Let the socialist-democrats of Europe sponsor government wind projects and enforce conservation measures. That is working fairly well — for them. But, it won’t work here. We have a capitalist-democracy. As a system, ours has enormous energy for creativity, the best yet devised. So, stop bottling up creativity! Free the markets. Let competition and innovation solve the technical difficulties brought by moving away from fossil fuels. Get the federal government out of the energy business! Remove the federal and state subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industries, which give them an unfair advantage over the developers of alternative energy systems. Exxon-Mobil could be a world leader in wind power, if only we’d let them! Stop chaining Big Oil to their dying technologies. They aren’t too big to change, if they have to; they could become diversified too. Allow them to explore alternatives, along with a hundred thousand new entrepreneurial companies — and may the best ideas win. That’s the American Way.

2. Allow more local energy solutions. American towns should be allowed and encouraged to get off the grid. The state PUCs could allow electricity prices to rise toward their real costs. This is America, the land of the free individual. Let private innovation and local initiative flourish. We could have subdivisions powered by geothermal plants. We could have solar-powered retirement communities. We could have more Mars Hills-type wind projects. (Maybe a Stephen King-type dome could be made to work for Bridgton!)

On a larger scale, we could have wind farms in the oceans, like the one off Nantucket and the one proposed for the Gulf of Maine. It is ironic that “environmental” groups fight some small-scale local projects, when the only real alternative is the large-scale current reality — a current reality that, unchanged, will completely wreck all local environments within a few decades! What sort of an ecological choice is that? We should make it easier for homeowners to power their own homes. We should empower individual choice and initiative.

That’s it. It’s simple, really. Free the people. Innovate. Invest. Force capitalism to be nimble. Think!

Yes, paying the real costs for fossil fuels would put a natural break on consumption. But it would transfer economic power back to the states and towns, and away from Wall Street boardrooms and international economic summits. (Allowing such local innovation and initiative would be really good for Maine.) And yes, it would put a further brake on an already painfully slow recovery. But, I have news for you: the economy is already a Dead Man Walking. It needs a lightning strike. Such strategies would also release ideas and money to develop a better energy mousetrap. America has always been good at this sort of thing. Let democracy and capitalism loose on the problem. The economy would make a fundamental, natural, free market change toward sustainability. The fossil fuel industry could make a transition. The Portland Pipe Line, a longtime good neighbor (heck, my father used to work for the company!), could go right on doing what it has been doing. We’ll still need lots of oil for the foreseeable future.

We need real change, though, and we need it now. We need millions of new jobs, as modern versions of the Wright Brothers tinker in local garages to develop better technologies. Instead of expending America’s technical genius on developing a device that can select our favorite songs via thought control, or whatever the latest iPhone23 is supposed to do, why don’t we create something useful for once, and release this country’s power to innovate in the only arena that makes any difference at all, in the long run.

America must stop fiddling. The world is burning.

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