Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)
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14. The Green Revolution Is Neither

Megan McArdle
Senior Editor,
The Atlantic

Forty years after Kermit the Frog first sang his blues, is it finally easy bein’ green? Hybrid vehicles like the Prius offer better gas mileage without sacrificing size or comfort, while electric vehicles promise to transport us with no gas at all. Every type of company is jockeying to get the most-stringent green certification for their plants. Windmills are no longer the stuff of quaint Dutch paintings or environmentalist fantasies; they’re sprouting on farms, on mountain ridges, even on the ocean. President Obama seems to launch a new energy initiative every week, always promising more green jobs to offset any temporary pain in the pocketbook. To hear him tell it, pretty soon we’ll all be so darn green that Kermit will blend right in.

But while these green alternatives may now appear ubiquitous, they’re not actually as common as we think. Take electricity. In 2010, one-tenth of our electricity came from renewable sources. But most of that was hydroelectric power, not wind or solar—and hydroelectric output has actually dropped by almost a third since 1997. That fall has more than offset the rise of wind power, meaning we now generate less electricity from renewables than we did in 1997.

Nuclear generation has risen, making our electricity output slightly less carbon-intensive than back then. But whether it will continue to rise in the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster remains to be seen.

Green technology, especially in automobiles, may get a big boost from higher fossil-fuel prices. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those higher prices result from higher demand in the developing world. When we consume less oil, we may not be slowing the rate of fossil-fuel consumption; we may simply be transferring that consumption somewhere else.

Unless we somehow stop burning fossil fuels, all the carbon currently under the Earth’s surface will end up in the atmosphere in the next few hundred years. And as the physicist Robert B. Laughlin recently pointed out in The American Scholar, from the Earth’s point of view, a few hundred years is less than the blink of an eye. Even if we burn fossil fuels at a slower pace, temperatures will still rise, the oceans will still acidify, human lives will be much altered.

Unfortunately, although we have better and better technologies that enable us to use less fossil fuel, we have no scalable way to use none, or anything close to none. Even rapidly maturing technologies like wind power require carbon-intensive backup-generation capacity, for those times when the wind doesn’t blow. And no one has yet designed a hybrid commercial airplane. Being really green, we’re finding out, is even harder than it sounds.

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