Monthly Archives: May 2011

What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

This post was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2011.

Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk last month at TED on climate change. His overall point was dead on—we need big solutions for a big problem. And he’s a man who is willing to back what he speaks about financially. But, it was interesting to see him dismiss the small steps in a somewhat cynical fashion, characterizing home installations of solar panels as an ineffectual fad for the rich. Gates said:

The solutions that work in the rich world don’t even come close to solving the [energy] problem. If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.

There are numerous problems with this characterization of home solar customers and the impact they have on the climate. First, solar panels have dropped in costdramatically, to the point where middle-class families can lease them and, under the right conditions (roof design and placement) pay less per month for the lease and tiny energy bill than they would for their former electricity costs alone. We’ve hit a point where the economics are compelling, even if you aren’t on board with the carbon reduction goal. And, hey, my solar lease even came with a free iPad 2. There are plenty of incentives.

Secondly, the “cuteness” dig is pretty ironic, as the former president of IBM was rumored to have said of early graphical operating systems:

“Executives don’t want to click a ‘mouse,’ they want to issue commands!”

PC’s won out over the mainframes the same way that solar might ultimately win out over coal and nuclear: they were trendy at home, and the home users brought them to their businesses. Why wouldn’t the Microsoft model work for solar?

Of course, the climate crisis won’t be solved by homeowners alone. Businesses need to be on board and the energy providers have to transition from the legacy power sources. But that doesn’t mean that individual actions are worthless—far from it.

It’s not just that every little bit counts. It’s that winning the battle to embrace alternate power sources, like every battle, is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. And nobody should know that better than the man that took down the mainframes with his personal computers one house at a time.

After the Rapture

Well, the end of the world has come and gone and I’m pleased to report that the dead aren’t risen and Game of Thrones is on HBO tonight. But, after all of the jokey links and comments I’ve seen and shared on Twitter and Facebook this week, I got to thinking about why this was such a press-stopper, given that 99.999 percent of the world did not fall for it, nor would we. This was the publicity-grabbing show of a religious freakazoid and we were all happy to oblige him. Why is that?

I think it’s a combination of things. We’re big on disaster lately. Movies like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow rake it in; shows like The Walking Dead are huge hits. Maybe it’s because disaster is easy to imagine in a world where scientists are all warning us about global warming and the magnitude of natural disasters does seem to be up with all of the recent flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

But I think there’s another element to this: The rapture isn’t just about the pious getting their eternal reward. It’s just as much about the sinners getting their earthly torment. How mean-spirited is that? “I’m joining my lord in heaven while that awful next door neighbor dies in an earthquake, hah!”

These are people who can’t just rest assured that Christ will save them — they find the idea of salvation oh so much more delicious if they know that the unsaved will be left with fiery deaths and a zombie apocalypse to contend with while they wait in queue to be assigned their harps. So, maybe a lot of the snarky response to the rapture was spawned by an urge to respond to the insulting premise.

I’ve never taken Jesus in as my lord and savior, and it’s not going to happen, not even on my death bed. I believe that he likely existed, and said lots of good things. like “Judge not, lest ye be judged” and that golden rule of “Do unto others…”. I just stop short of the miracle birth and resurrection stuff — I’m far too good a Unitarian for that. So that makes me all the more dismissive of these people who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus while they snicker at the idea of their fellow humans writhing in a fiery hell. I think that anyone who would condone the mass suffering of others as a fitting counterpoint to their eternal reward as pretty undeserving of that reward in the first place.

So here’s my take: the rapture is a hoot, and those who wish to be raptured are morons who deserve every bit of the ridicule that they received this week. If Christ is their teacher, they’ve never passed the first grade. Here’s my real question for those who would welcome an apocalypse as their reward: