Tag Archives: taxes

Electrify by Saul Griffith – a Review

I think at this point just about everyone knows someone who thinks climate change is a problem, but that it will be too expensive to fix, or that the solutions just aren’t viable. I think Saul Griffith’s new book, Electrify, is the perfect book for this audience.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but the blue foil shimmering on the white background of this cover certainly conjures images of the future. While tech bros promise techno-utopian carbon capture machines more efficient than trees, this book excels in rampant pragmatism. Griffith lays out a pathway to decarbonizing the United States transportation and power sectors with only currently existing technologies.

I don’t think I’m the target audience for this book, but I do think the plan to #ElectrifyEverything is a necessary, but not sufficient part of a solarpunk future. The catchphrase usually comes with some caveats, like probably not all industrial processes, and I do feel that solar thermal needs more love since a large percentage of energy use in the home is used for heating, but it’s a decent simplification for the bulk of our current fossil fuel applications.

Electrify can be criticized for not addressing climate justice beside a passing mention. We can’t afford to reinforce the racist and otherwise imbalanced power structures that originally lead to climate change during the energy transition. That said, this book isn’t designed to message an entire Green New Deal in one fell swoop. As someone who grew up listening to talk radio as a red state Republican (more on that later this year), I think Griffith does an excellent job of doing what we engineers do best – sticking to the facts.

He lays out a clear, but concise, explanation of how daunting climate change is, but then paints a solution by the numbers to how we can overcome it and be more prosperous by doing so. I’m not usually a big fan of all the militaristic language used to describe climate work, but the comparisons in this book to World War II mobilization are useful to put the scope of the issue into perspective. In short, reducing most of our emissions will cost a little less than it cost the US to fight WWII in terms of national GDP.

I think part of the reason climate inaction has been such an easy sell is because it feels too big for any one person to have any agency in the fight. Griffith points the way for how families, especially when bolstered with government-backed loans, can replace the pieces of equipment that generate the bulk of their carbon emissions – their car(s) and their appliances. This gets people in the door for the climate conversation.

A snowy field full of solar panels with a large wind turbine reaching toward the sky in the background. There are two buildings in the background, and one appears to be a silo or astronomy tower based on the hemispherical top.

I know centrism is a dirty word in solarpunk circles, but I don’t think we’re going to succeed in overcoming climate change or climate injustice if we decide that we can’t work with people who are coming from a different political background. Red states already generate the majority of the renewable power in the country, so that’s a starting point. The Republicans I know believe in fairness and justice, but the party and conservative talk show hosts have had decades to distort what those words mean in a political context. We aren’t going to overcome that conditioning overnight, but this book is a step in the right direction, even if it does just seem like neoliberal techno-utopianism at first blush. I feel there’s more going on here than that, but maybe I’m naive.

I am sending this book and my copy of Repair Revolution to my dad. He’s retired and does solar installs on the side since he has his certification as well as experience from wiring up his old and new houses for solar. He’s also a Trump supporter which led to some… strain in our relationship over the last few years. I’m hoping that this book will at least show how we have viable path forward to overcoming the worst effects of climate change without some massive government takeover of every industry, which is what many Republicans fear. Is it going to make him gung-ho about climate equity? No, but at least maybe he’ll be interested in talking about climate solutions instead of automatically shutting down the conversation. It’s not going to be an easy process to get to a solarpunk future, but we’ll get there, step by excruciating step. Electrify shows how the energy transition can at least be a relatively painless part of the process.

Is saving money and increasing our resiliency a way to bridge the political gap, or is storytelling the answer? I think it’s probably a mix, but let me know what you think below!


Disclaimer: If you order the book using the Indie Bound affiliate link above, I may receive a small commission.

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

The Green New Deal and Solarpunk

If you’ve been following US Politics, you may have heard rumblings of a Green New Deal. My first encounter with the term was during the 2012 Presidential Election when Jill Stein noted the necessity of mobilizing the nation to combat climate change and improve the economy at the same time. Seven years later, the US has made little progress at the federal level in addressing climate change. The few exceptions to this are being contested by the Trump administration including CAFE standard improvements and the Clean Power Plan. With the IPCC’s October 2018 report saying we have 12 years to get our act together, it’s time to declare war on climate change.

For a very in-depth look at the Green New Deal, check out David Roberts’ piece at Vox. There are three main criteria for the GND as outlined by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and reiterated by Sunrise Movement on Twitter:

As a solarpunk, it’s hard to argue with the goals of the Green New Deal. As a pragmatist, it’s hard to see much happening in the current political climate in regards to real climate action at the scale of the Green New Deal. It isn’t all gloom and doom though, as there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the two biggest policy changes that I think will bring us closer to a solarpunk future: a price on carbon, and term limits for Congress.

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Pricing Carbon

As Sara E. Murphy points out in her piece at Green Biz, while the Green New Deal is the attention-getting piece of legislation, we’re likely to see significant push-back from the Republicans in Congress. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is starting to see some traction on both sides of the aisle, however, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 with it’s mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors. Putting a price on carbon is the most straightforward way to get the private sector reducing emissions of carbon dioxide here in the US. Even many Libertarians see the logic in accounting for externalities, particularly when they impact people’s rights to the commons of the atmosphere.

While the federal government in the US has fallen behind in climate leadership, California has already enacted a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many state and local initiatives working to stay on track with emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. One that is particularly exciting is the United States Climate Alliance, which will be adding even more members following the 2018 midterm elections.

Term limits for US Congress

Why am I including a possible Amendment to the US Constitution as something to help us reach a solarpunk future? This video from Term Limits for US Congress is a more detailed answer, but the long and short of it is that Congress no longer represents the people. With some recent polls showing that even the majority of Republicans support environmental protection and climate action, it’s increasingly clear that the old guard on Capitol Hill is out of touch with the majority of Americans. The newest members of Congress are a closer match to the actual demographics of the country, but we still have a long way to go to having true representation in DC.

architecture bright building capitol

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There are two mechanisms for passing a Constitutional Amendment in the United States. The first requires both the House and the Senate to approve the Amendment by a supermajority, at which point the Amendment must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Senator Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit Senators to two terms and Representatives to three terms, but getting career politicians on The Hill to fire themselves seems like a tough sell.

The second way to pass an Amendment, as laid out in Article 5 of the US Constitution, is for 34 states to call for a convention regarding a specific topic where they hammer out the proposed Amendment. Once ratified by 38 of the 50 states, it becomes part of the Constitution just like any of the other Amendments that have been enacted.

My wish list for 2019 would be that we get a price on carbon and term limits for Congress. It might be a tall order, but solarpunks are an optimistic lot, so there is still hope in the face of the strong institutional opposition to climate action.

Do you have any thoughts on what legislative pressure points might be best for affecting climate action in your area? Sound off below!

 

Designing money for a solarpunk society

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Money is a social construct, but it is a very useful means of exchange between parties without the need of troublesome conversion rates like how many chickens a smartphone costs. One of the best things about social constructs is that they are mutable. Despite the fact that the government would like you to believe that the money they issue is the only way to exchange goods and services, the rise of cryptocurrencies has shown that the true power of money rests with the people. In fact, trust of the public is the #1 reason government-issued currencies work at all. While a government can debase it’s money through overprinting and other abuses, the fact is that money doesn’t work unless everyone believes in its value.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

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Hypothetical cryptocurrency

Let’s say I’m in charge of a small municipality. While I think people should be able to earn more money if they make awesome contributions to society through some sort of market, I don’t think they should do that at the expense of people dying in the streets or because they can’t pay for medicine. How do I design my money to have the appropriate incentives to make sure everyone is taken care of?

One option is Universal Basic Income (UBI), so let’s bake that in from the beginning. We’ll need to generate the money for the UBI somehow, and the land value tax or the Fair Tax are the top two candidates for simple and fair taxation. Since I also want to disincentive sprawl, we’ll go with the land value tax in this example. In short, the land value tax charges someone a tax based on the amount of land they own. I’ve seen this likened to a rent paid to The People if one assumes all land belongs to the citizens of a given region and that private use is a lease of that land from the true owners.

When someone pays their land tax it goes in a big piggy bank along with all the other landholders. Then, every month each citizen gets a UBI check deposited into their personal account to pay bills, get food, and buy whatever other things they need.

Globle

I’m not affiliated with Globle, but they have an interesting approach to the incentives issue of the current corporate capitalism system we have. Their approach combines UBI, venture capital, and Kickstarter into a sort of corporations by the people model. As a holder of Globle cryptocurrency, people can vote on what companies and/or products they want to see in the market. Then, based on how those companies perform, part of the company’s profits go to the investors and part goes back into a UBI fund for everyone. It’s hard to say how it will play out, but I do think it’s a novel approach to funding UBI that would also help companies and people work together better since their well-beings are more intrinsically intertwined.

What sort of incentives do you think would bring us closer to a solarpunk society? Let us know in the comments below.

Solarpunk, taxation, and universal basic income

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Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the big ideas I’ve seen floating around the solarpunk community. To learn more, I read some of the more scintillating chapters of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economyand apparently there haven’t been any studies big enough to see what the true impact of a basic income would be on society. The authors suggested that a good starting place would be a baby step toward UBI where everyone got a small stipend.

The Adam Smith Institute recently published a paper on the market case for UBI and outlined the reasons why people should be supporting a move toward UBI. One of the main reasons is mounting concerns over technological unemployment with the rapid rise of automation and AI-driven production. For instance, truck and taxi operators are expected to be displaced by autonomous vehicles in coming years. Many other jobs will be at risk as well as computer systems get better at taking over tasks once performed by humans.

One proposal that I’ve been following that was mentioned in the book was the Fair Tax (HR 25) which eliminates the Federal Income Tax and replaces it with a Federal Sales tax. Where this gets interesting is that as a function of switching to a Federal Sales Tax, everyone in the country is given a “prebate” to account for income disparity at the lower end. This could be considered a sort of light UBI as everyone in the country will get the same “prebate” regardless of their income.

Another bonus of the Fair Tax is that it is only implemented once on an item. Used items are not taxed meaning that we can incentivize conserving resources while giving us a nationwide test of how to implement a full-scale UBI.

Perhaps the best part is that the Fair Tax eliminates the IRS and the current loophole-ridden Federal Income Tax system. I think we all know that the current system has more than its fair share of problems. Every time a new tax “reform” bill is brought up in Congress, we see how much of a losing game the income tax system is.

The Fair Tax is not perfect, but it seems like a workable solution with widespread existing support in the US Congress. More information is available about the Fair Tax at http://fairtax.org/faq.

Sound off in the comments if you think UBI is the way of the future or if you have any thoughts on the Fair Tax. Thanks for stopping by!


Some of the text for this article is recycled from my Tumblr post on the subject: https://solarpunk-gnome.tumblr.com/post/163921938517/taxation-and-solarpunk-a-few-thoughts

Image is “Taxes” by 401kcalculator.org via a Creative Commons license.