I meet two young traveling Frenchmen at the coffee shop. I like the new French more than I liked the old. For one thing, they tend to know English fairly well. This helps them shed the monumental French parochialism (“provincialisme,” in French). Perhaps as a consequence, they are generally more friendly than the previous generations of French people I have known. And, by the way, I wish I had the power to end a tenacious legend once for all: It is not the case that the French “hate Americans.” They just don’t like anyone very much; they are not cordial to any strangers. I feel a glacial wind blow all over me whenever I land in France, that’s although my French is perfect, by the way.
OK, that was a digression. I was also well disposed toward these two young French men because they reminded me of me: It’s true that I itched-hiked across the country and back, at their age. One of them is helping his mother with two restaurants, one on the Riviera, one in Strasbourg; the latter is called, “le globe-trotter.” I like that. The other French guy, age 22, is studying engineering, engineering of “sustainable energy,” he specifies.
I am a weak man, I have trouble with temptation; I can’t resist this one, of course.
Why sustainable, I ask. Isn’t it true that we have more proven reserves of petroleum than ever before?
He readily assents but, he asserts, petroleum is very bad for the environment.
Interestingly, that young man is not especially eager to tell me about climate change. Instead, he affirms that the burning of fossil fuels causes holes in the ozone layer with deadly consequences for humans. This sounds like deja vu (as we say in English), something from ten years ago, but what do I know? It’s possible that the problem has come back and that I am not aware of it. I make a note to check into it.
What kind of alternative power producing methods do you favor? I ask him further. I am eager to avoid discussions of solar power because I live in Santa Cruz where I get more info about the topic than I can begin to digest, including a solid dose of mendaciousness.
Let me sum up my non-dogmatic position about solar power. First, I recently disconnected my old passive solar water pre-heating system because it did more harm than good. Perhaps, a better person, a more virtuous person (I was going to say a more pious person) would have obtained better results from it than I did. Me, I don’t have the time or the patience; I have many unimportant things to do. Second, every time I ask for estimates about installing a modern solar heating or electricity producing system in my house, I am forced to realize that amortizing it would take thirty years. It’s not worth the bother. Perhaps, if I were a twenty year-old home owner. Perhaps if I put a little religious zeal behind the project. Third, I think solar power is wonderful doing what it’s currently doing all over America. I mean providing power for emergency telephones on highways and keeping boat batteries charged during long lulls in boat use.
Incidentally, reliance on solar power in poor countries such as India is another topic altogether. I said nothing about it this time
More incidentally, my skepticism is not of the same nature as the faith of many solar advocates. It’s no symmetrical to it. I don’t “believe” that solar power is worthless. All it would take would be a single good technical innovation in solar energy production to erase my skepticism. It would not take a profound experience of the kind St Paul experienced on the way to Damascus, for example. If I became converted, I would still be the same person, with all the same few virtues and, I hope, the same vices.
What sustainable technologies do you favor? I ask the young man pretend-innocently.
Tide-activated power plants, he answers simply.
It turns out I have some familiarity with the topic. I lived near the first one ever built anywhere. It was in France, inaugurated in the early sixties. I skin dived and speared fished and collected shellfish both upstream and downstream of it. I have no objection to this technology. Forty years later, we know it does not do any serious damage to anything. Even sailors have become used to it. There is even a certain elegant simplicity in its design: Tide comes up, turbines activate, water comes back down, turbines activate again. That first tidal dam doubles as a bridge that was needed at that spot anyway. No problem, as far as I am concerned. I am pretty sure the tidal power technology must have improved in fifty years; it should have, yet….
I ask the engineering student: Why are there only four in the whole world? Does this indicate something wrong, impractical, uneconomical, or something with this technology?
No, he states with perfect self-assurance but with courtesy, you must be wrong; there are thousands of them worldwide.
So, if I looked, I reply, I would easily find hundreds of tide-powered plants?
Absolutely, he affirms.
I go home and I do the obvious, the easiest thing: I look it up in Wikipedia. I was wrong, it turns out; there aren’t only four tidal plants in the world in actual operation, there are eight (8). I was wrong by fifty percent or one hundred per cent depending how you count.
Then I turn to the Wikipedia entry on “ozone hole.”
It has an unfinished look. It seems much like a work in progress or perhaps, a work abandoned in mid-course . The only citation in anything resembling a scholarly journal dates back to 1985. It’s side by side with references to the Huffington Post and even to Mother Jones. There is also in the entry interesting and reasonable speculation about nefarious indirect effects of ozone depletion on melanoma (skin cancer). There is no real health study, not even a crude one.
My young French interlocutor seems wrong here too.
Is it possible that the a deeper search would shore up more sturdily the case for ozone depletion and human health? It’s possible. I think it’s frankly unlikely. There are enough English speakers on the globe interested in such issues for the Wiki entry to be reasonably well updated.
How about the tidal plants? Could there be many more? My answer is a resounding “No.” Power plants are easy to count and hard to miss. Perhaps Wikipedia is much out of date, perhaps there are twice more than it indicates. That would be sixteen (16). That is still a tiny number. My original question remains intact: What’s wrong with this superficially appealing technology?
Why did I find out in my conversation with this young hands-on environmental activist and through its follow-up?
1 The French educational system (or his particular engineering school) is very bad;
2 He does not care about facts. He does not care enough to check with ten keystrokes something important to him. Sounds familiar?