Green Scene: On second thought…

On the heels of a visit by acclaimed environmental author Bill McKibben, Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center will host a free public lecture by Lester Brown, whom The Washington Post has called "one of the world's most influential thinkers” (see box, “Bursting the Bubble”).

Several decades earlier, the Library of Congress noted that his writings "have already strongly affected thinking about problems of world population and resources."

In 2001, Brown founded the D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute, charged with providing a road map for transitioning to an environmentally sustainable economy. That same year, he published Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, which Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson hailed as "an instant classic." Brown’s most recent book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, is the fourth in a series outlining his vision for a sustainable future.

Current environmental trends, Brown contends, are beginning to affect our “bubble economy,” in which economic outputs are artificially inflated owing to over-consumption of the earth’s natural capital. If Plan A is the status quo — consuming shrinking fossil-fuel supplies and dwindling aquifers while a burgeoning population floods the atmosphere with combustion products — Plan B will involve “a major shift of our priorities toward environmental security, and fast,” he says. “We’re looking at a much more urgent need than most people realize.”

“Cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 is going to require a substantial effort, but it’s entirely possible,” Brown asserted in a 2008 talk. “We have not yet realized the potential of wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, tidal power — there’s enormous potential there. In the Plan B 2020 energy economy, we see 40 percent of the world’s electricity coming from wind. We’re talking about producing 1.5 million wind turbines in the next dozen years.”

If that sounds daunting (there are only about 100,000 wind turbines in place in the world today), Brown counters: “We produce 65 million cars each year; we have a lot of auto plants closed. The skilled work force is already in place — we just have to retool a bit, so we’re assembling wind turbines.”

The real challenge, he maintains, “is political leadership,” since this solution requires industrial reconfiguration on a scale not seen since President Roosevelt’s War Production Board halted U.S. auto production as America entered World War II, forcing factories to produce tanks and related armaments instead.

But the little things matter too, says Brown, arguing that the simple act of switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs, if achieved worldwide, would cut global energy consumption by 12 percent, enabling the closure of 705 of the world’s 2,400 coal-fired power plants.

EPA coal-ash dustup

In a recent report on the debate concerning coal ash (produced when coal is burned to generate electricity), we noted that it’s been used as an ingredient in everything from wallboard to soil enhancements. That debate figured prominently in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearing on coal-ash regulation in Charlotte last month (see “Green Scene: When the Dust Settles,” Sept. 29 Xpress).

Now, an Oct. 13 report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General says an agency website “presented an incomplete picture regarding actual damage and potential risks that can result from large-scale placement of unencapsulated [coal-combustion residuals].”

According to the EPA’s recently proposed rule for regulating coal ash, such unencapsulated use can result in environmental contamination, such as heavy metals leaching into drinking-water sources. The proposed rule identified seven cases in which, “under the guise of beneficial use … damage to human health or the environment had been demonstrated.” The rule also stated that the EPA does not consider large-scale placement of such wastes “beneficial use.”

But although the agency’s Coal Combustion Products Partnership website contained general risk information, it did not disclose this EPA decision and did not make the seven damage cases readily accessible to the public. The report recommended taking down the contested website, and the agency has agreed.

The report also concluded that this website “contained material that gave the appearance that EPA endorses commercial products,” which is prohibited by the agency’s ethics policies and communication guidelines.

The inspector general’s statement can be viewed at bit.ly/a2Ycll.

— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or sandrew@mountainx.com.

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