Monday, October 29, 2012

The Challenge of Confronting Visionary Futures

By Gary Berg-Cross

When Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson penned the Humanist Manifesto II in the middle of the Viet Nam war (1973) they noted opportunities for the rapidly approaching 21st century based on “dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness.”  They went on to talk about virtually human domination of the planet, moon exploration, and dramatic travel and communication advances. It all suggested  that  we stand at the dawn of a new age. It was one they characterized as “ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets.” Well the movie 2001 certainly was in that spirit, but in 2012 we remain far short of that vision.

And it is not just space exploration.  The promise of technology suited to wise control of our environment hasn’t been promoted and we face a changed planet that could bring hurricane level flooded coasts on a permanent basis.
To be sure we have done a good job enhancing communication technology, but that gets used to let us shout alarms of problems rather than systematically solve really big systemic problems like putting poverty on the run or achieving what the Manifesto signaled as “an abundant and meaningful life.”  At times technological advances seem to go sideways towards profit as opposed to investing in the solution of large problems. “Shale boom derails U.S. investments in clean coal technology” reads a recent headline in the vein.

Why haven’t we done a better job of providing for the common good?  One problem is that large scale efforts (poverty, climate, renewable energy, space exploration) require long term commitments to visions. We simply lack policy frameworks (economic and otherwise), social organization and agreements needed to advance such large-scale projects to bring about visions.  On some issue, such as energy we are maintaining the status quo, rather than going with the new. This  makes narrow plutocratic sense based on old economic models.  Fractured policies and entrenched interests with political connections make change difficult and expensive. 

Take the issue and promise of residential,rooftop solar. According to the Department of Energy the US has more than 18,000 jurisdictions at state & local levels that have a say in how rooftop solar is rolled out. In Germany, at a latitude equal to Maine’s, they have addressed the problem as a whole society and reached a working consensus on solar's importance.  In Germany the price of installed rooftop solar has fallen to $2.24 per watt and on a sunny day in May, rooftop solar provided all of Germany's power needs for two hours. In the US it was $9 a watt in 2006 and is now closer to $5 and if commercial industrial installations are included the national installed price plummets to $3.45 a watt (Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington trade group).

This point on the organizational rather than technical nature of problems is made in Solar energy is ready, the U.S. isn't which notes:

The trouble is, many of the big, investor-owned utilities that provide about 85 percent of America's electricity see solar as both a technical challenge and a long-term threat to their 100-year-old profit models. And the lack of a national energy policy means regulation of solar is up to states, public service commissions, and a wealth of local governments and bureaucracies - many of whom have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The rule of thumb had been that once rooftop installations made up 15 percent of the power on a given circuit, utilities could stay new connections until residents undertook an engineering study - costing as much as $50,000 - that showed their addition wouldn't destabilize the power grid. The hidden costs of obtaining permits and regulators' approval to install rooftop panels is a big reason the United States lags behind Germany, which leads the world in rooftop installations, with more than 1 million.

On big problems is that we need to formulate new plans of action and response and get some agreement. Such agreements may even cross national boundaries and so hint of some global governance based on common values. Follow ups to Humanist Manifesto II have taken modest steps in proposing things in that direction. It’s a long haul and vision starts with discussion and understanding of the issues. 

Some of each of this will be afforded at the discussion of an Agenda for a Democratized Economy So it is the People’s Economy Saturday, Nov 3rd, from (2-4 p.m.) when the MDC chapter of WASH hosts  Margaret Flowers & Kevin Zeese (co-directors of Its Our Economy).  This will be at the Wheaton regional library 11701 Georgia Avenue  Wheaton, MD 20902.


  1. Dawn of Man from 2001:
  2. 2001 Logo:
  3. The promise of Solar panels:
  4. Plutocrats and Poverty:


Don Wharton said...

As usual you have a superb post. This one is exceptionally so. If we focused on the cultural and institutional elements of solar power we would be like Germany at a point where we would have be near full grid parity. At that point fossil fuel plants will have to accept their role as legacy plants required to fill in baseload requirements for an interim period. The utilities obviously don't want that role. If we had an informed democracy they would have no choice in the matter. As it is they have the full rights of "people" and the funding to push back against sane shared action.

Edd.Doerr said...

Excellent posting. What comes through it that we humanists need to get more political, on as non-partisan basis as possible. We need to work with like-minded people pf all religious persuasions on solar and wind energy, conservation, recycling, fuel efficiency, overpopulation, resource conservation, and related issues. We can't get bogged down in endless debates over deities.