Is Steven Chu too much of a techno-geek?

Rolling Stone accuses the Energy Secretary of having "excessive faith" in technology. But why not?

Published June 18, 2009 10:09PM (EDT)

A week ago, StatOilHydro, Norway's majority state-owned energy company, debuted the world's first floating offshore wind turbine. The advantage of a floating turbine -- as opposed to one firmly anchored in the seabed -- is that it can be located in much deeper waters than standard offshore windmills. Further offshore, the winds tend to not only be stronger but the machinery is also conveniently invisible to NIMBY beachfront property owners. If the deployment proves to be a cost-efficient generator of electricity, the high seas may one day be home to huge offshore wind farms, out-of-sight and out-of-mind to power consumers across the world.

My first reaction when I read about StatOilHydro's accomplishment was to reflect on how, once again, sci-fi progress was marching on. I'm old enough to remember when the wind turbines dotting California's Altamont Pass were a strange and exotic sight, instead of a cliched standby in television commercials for GE, General Motors, and politicians of every political stripe. And so I wondered: Is this another example of Star Trek utopian economics, a glimpse from the future at the promises that relentless technological innovation has yet to offer?

But one experimental windmill does not make for a paradigm shift, and I moved on, thinking about other things, until encountering Jeff Goodell's terrific profile of Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the June 25th issue of Rolling Stone. (You can read an ungainly PDF of the story here.)

Goodell's story is the best feature written on Chu I've seen so far, and worth reading for that reason alone. But the most thought-provoking section comes near the end.

If there is a shadow over Chu's vision of America's energy future, it's his excessive faith in technology as the solution to all our woes. It's not that he runs around mindlessly touting the miracles of biofuels made from genetically engineered termite guts. Unlike many techno-fantasists, Chu is an ardent believer in the importance of "soft" solutions like energy efficiency. He understands that alternative energy will stand no chance against fossil fuels that are heavily subsidized by the government unless we place meaningful limits on CO2 emissions and fund massive research into renewable alternatives. But Chu's vision of the world includes few references to the market distortions and regulatory bullshit that slows the commercialization of renewable technology we already have. He rarely mentions the inconvenient ways that we will have to change our lives to curb the threat of global warming: driving less, growing food closer to home, lowering our expectations about how many goods it is our God-given right to consume.

Myself, I find it a little hard to fault a Nobel-prize winning physicist with a resume that includes the legendary AT&T Bell Labs for "excessive faith in technology." When you've worked in the lab that invented the transistor and laser, for starters, you get a free pass for techno-exuberance. The changes wrought by technology on the nature of human existence, just since the beginning of the Industrial Revolutio,n are the stuff of magic and fairy tales. The prospect that technological innovation might cease radically transforming our lives would almost be more amazing than some new revolutionary breakthrough emerging in the next decade or two. A techno-optimist might be exactly who we want at DoE, doling out money to research labs and alternative startups.

But there's no doubt that the question of whether technology can save us from ourselves, whether the challenge is climate change, or depleted fossil fuel reserves, or simply providing enough food and water for the world's burgeoning human population, is at this moment, very, very open. Just because we've managed it this far is no guarantee that we are going to pull it off ad infinitum. I also take the point made by Bradford Plumer in a closely related essay in The New Republic that the accelerating pressures of climate change mean we just don't have enough time to wait for the game-changing breakthroughs necessary to sustain our current energy-consuming lifestyles.

We're probably going to have to do everything at once. Drive less, consume less, become more energy efficient and strike it rich on some new technological magic trick that reimagines the possibilities for humanity just as much as did the wheel, or the writing system, or the steam engine, or the computer. We wouldn't be who we are without one technological miracle after another. If we're going to put excessive faith in anything, at least science and technology have an established track record.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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