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Robert C. Koehler: Green Beacon

Green Beacon

by Robert C. Koehler
April 26, 2007

Harvey Wasserman’s newly published “Solartopia!” is a breath of fresh air, blowing — well, whipping, at Great Plains velocity — across the thinking person’s vision of the future. What a gift this book is: an informed, science-savvy vision of tomorrow that isn’t an eco-nightmare.

Rather, it’s an enthusiastically optimistic look at a rational, very green near future. (To order, go to The setting is 2030; the premise is a flight in a hydrogen-fueled airship from Hamburg to Honolulu, with Wasserman serving as tour guide and eco-historian as we watch the world unfold beneath us and gradually learn about the death of King CONG, the joyous global proliferation of rooftop gardens and how all those giant wind turbines wound up off the coast of Holland, among much else.

King CONG, an acronym of Wasserman’s coinage — Coal, Oil, Nukes, Gas — is the fossil-fuel addicted junkie-beast we think of today simply as reality, but to the relaxed narrator of “Solartopia!,” this beast, which in 2007 seemingly runs the world and holds it hostage to its appetites, is nothing more than a historical curiosity.

Listen up, boys and girls: We make it! We survive as a species. King CONG collapses of its own irrationality. Mind you, it ain’t pretty, but by 2030 its death throes, its meltdowns and final mad wars of resource acquisition (though not, of course, its radioactive waste and eco-dead zones) are behind us, and renewable-resource technology — wind, solar and biomass, along with extreme techno-efficiency — powers the human race to a sustainable, prosperous and democratic future, in which healing can begin.

This isn’t sci-fi. Wasserman, prolific author and long-time environmental activist, describes a world that has rethought and rebuilt itself on the basis of what we know right this moment. “All the technology that was ever needed for a post-pollution world was available in 2007,” he writes. He also makes the point that this technology, once the foot of King CONG is off its chest, is hugely profitable. That’s the clincher.

“Solartopia!” powers along, as we silently cross Europe in the hydro-jet, then glide across the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, with nonstop ironic wonder that the world below us was once run by self-destructive fools.

“Nuke weapons were once tested here,” our guide, for instance, informs us as we cross Nevada. “Then King CONG tried to stuff the place with radioactive waste. The dormant volcano at Yucca Mountain was once drilled with a $10 billion tunnel-and-train gizmo meant to accept huge quantities of spent reactor rods. Now it’s just another offbeat tourist attraction, with slot machines in the caverns and a spa in one of the would-have-been waste chambers.”

The pervading good sense that prevails in Wasserman’s 2030 is predicated on the existence of a human survival instinct that, while responsive to fear, is not centered in the reptilian (fight or flight) brain. Oh my, I hope he’s right.

When “people began keeling over dead from China’s brown, filthy air,” the guide notes, and “the wrath of climate chaos drowned millions and starved more,” what happened wasn’t the worst of human nature coming to the fore but — my God, finally — the emergence of our capacity to take the long view.

A sustainable world “became less an impossible dream than a fervent prayer for deliverance,” he writes. “And it demanded, first and foremost, that we ‘face the waste.’ To avoid extinction, ultra-efficiency became a vital necessity. . . . Nothing — NOTHING — on ‘Spaceship Earth’ is manufactured that cannot be . . . recycled or composted.”

Wasserman even cites a late-20th-century cultural reference point for inspiration: the 1995 Ron Howard/Tom Hanks movie “Apollo 13,” about the ill-fated 1969 moon expedition that, following a shipboard explosion on the return trip, “could only limp back to Earth by preserving every electron their damaged craft could muster.” This heroic flight becomes the metaphor for the plight of the whole planet.

In the twilight of the era of King CONG, Wasserman writes, “the West wasted fully half the juice it produced” and the emerging economies of Asia were even worse. Turning this around was not simply a matter of “super-compact fluorescents, ultra-light composites, mega-efficient manufacturing, totally tight solar building designs,” but also, ahem, the rational recycling of waste, human and otherwise.

“Sewage systems everywhere,” he writes, “double as energy-generating compost operations” and have morphed into “the trillion- dollar business of converting waste to power. Few today can comprehend it . . . but this country once actually dumped human waste onto the lands and into the oceans!”

The only downside to this book is that it ends, and we’re left treading the polluted water and grappling with the flaky politics of 2007. The book returns us to a world that believes far more in guns than recycling; and our survival — our willingness to make peace with the planet — is still very much in doubt. But with “Solartopia!” Wasserman has planted a beacon two decades into the future to guide us past the rough spots.


Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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