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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sustainability. . . In (From!) the Desert

A wing of the Rockefeller clan—founding family of the Standard Oil Dynasty that became Esso, that became Exxon, that merged with Mobil—have been agitating to have ExxonMobil focus more attention on renewable energy and a sustainable future. They also recently sponsored a resolution to split the positions of Chairman and CEO, currently held by Rex W. Tillerson who has been stubbornly resisting any move to acknowledge the possibility of a post-fossil fuel economy—that resolution is detailed by its author, Robert A.G. Monks, in the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance Blog.

They failed. And Tillerson has reiterated his commitment to ride hydrocarbons into the rising tides of a warmer future—a fine example of American Can’t Do cantankerousness.

Damn the melting ice sheets, full speed ahead!

Meanwhile, what country has been working on one of the more radical attempts to build a sustainable, post-carbon city, from the ground up?


One of the oil and cash soaked United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with MIT, has recently laid the cornerstone to Masdar City, which they expect to be “the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city” housing nearly 50,000 people by 2016. See David Roberts blog post on the subject.

I think it unlikely that The Emirates are on the cusp of becoming the hub of sustainable energy research. Neighboring Dubai is famous, among other things, for building one of the world’s largest, indoor, year-round skiing facilities in the desert and for building archipelagos of artificial islands—one in the shape of a map of the world and one in the shape of a palm tree—in the Persian Gulf.

Part of the Masdar Plan appears to be just as grandiose, a demonstration of economic and technological muscle. They will do this to show that they can do it, that they can do pretty much anything they want—and not merely in the realm of the previously possible but in the realm of watch us do what no one has ever done before.

That said, this is a pretty good direction in which to focus ego and self-promotion. It’s not a bad advertisement for the benefits of well-funded autocracies either. I am in favor of environmental impact studies, of careful planning and full consultation. But imagine if we tried to build our own Masdar in the Mojave Desert.

We want and need energy; more and more of us favor sustainable energy projects; but the ethic that prevails isn’t just NIMBY—Not in My Backyard!—anymore, it’s BANANA—Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone. Treehugger has covered the topic of “how much desert it would take,” basically to fulfill the electricity needs of the entire planet; I don’t think the hurdles are technical as much as they are matters of regulation and. . . imagination.

Texas (and Texans like Tillerson) remains committed to oil; at least some Arabs in the Gulf are beginning to look toward, and plan for, the future.

Good for them; sad for us.

Ironic if they ended up forming OSEC—the Organization of Solar technology Exporting Countries—and we remained beholden to foreign energy sources.

Tillerson and the other fossil fuel fool execs seem to wake every morning and “smell the crude,” an intoxicating and bewitching scent.

They would do better to look up and see the sun.

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