From: James Quigley, Center for Sustainable Energy
Published January 18, 2007 12:00 AM

One Word: Solar -- A Guest Commentary

“Plastics,” advised the old family friend to the young protagonist unsure about his future in the 1967 Hollywood classic, “The Graduate.” The word may have also summed up the disposition of an entire generation toward society at the time, bent out of shape by racism, excessive materialism, a nuclear arms race and a war in Vietnam.

In a world where the gravest threats to the future are no longer characterized as merely an ethos, but as a planetary physical transformation, global climate change now trumps the comparatively mild worries faced by the baby boomers of the sixties. New circumstances and a new generation now may be more favorably disposed to a different word: solar.

The ominous melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the corresponding rise of sea level, increasingly aberrant weather patterns, and the inexorable disruption of delicate ecosystems everywhere are all traced to an imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere and its connection to fossil fuel combustion. Solar energy-- sun or wind to electricity-- presents the alternative to burning coal or oil. It is also an alternative to the false promise of nuclear power that will inevitably bring an everlasting legacy of radioactive waste. There is enough solar energy falling on only 10% on Arizona to power the entire country.

This generation is only now beginning to grasp the gravity of the situation. Perhaps its greatest challenge now is whether enough time remains to stave off the consequences of inaction. NASA climatologist James Hansen says the world has 10 years to take action against global warming or face widespread climate disaster. Prime Minister Tony Blair says we have seven years. Al Gore tells us we are almost out of time.

Those who pursue the elusive dream of replacing the fossil fuel economy with a renewable energy economy have a long way to go. China's adaptation to coal is monumental. Its contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere may surpass all others. In the U.S., power producers as of this year had approximately 150 new coal-fired plants on the drawing board, representing a $137 billion investment. To keep up with growing demand, oil is being pumped out of the ground as fast as possible the world over. Ambitions for rapid growth of solar technologies are stymied by a world wide shortage of poly-crystalline silicon. Tax incentives for wind energy languish in political debate while fair-weather environmental advocates like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. resist wind farm development as an unsightly intrusion on his privileged view from Martha’s Vineyard.

Leadership is desperately needed. A towering figure of that earlier generation had some prophetic words that we would do well to heed today. Speaking in Los Angeles on the matter of the war in Vietnam the same year that “The Graduate” played in movie theaters around the country, Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ”˜tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at flood: it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ”˜Too late.’”

Let's hope this cannot be said of present civilization.

James Quigley, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College, City University of New York.

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