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Green speakers neglect politics

At Wednesday's "Green -- Colloquium for the Planet," Ted Flanigan and Bill McKibben discussed issues concerning our global environmental crisis, and what can be done to minimize the destruction our planet faces. Flanigan, the first speaker, spoke of energy efficiency. Through various technologies -- fluorescent light bulbs and super-efficient automobile engines were two examples -- we can make energy consumption three times more efficient. He also spoke of changing our lifestyles -- from materialistic to more spiritualistic. McKibben spoke of ways we can be less wasteful and more personally environmentally conscious: We can use bicycles; we can take trips to the woods to explore the wilderness.

But what was disturbing about both of the speakers was that they hailed technology and personal initiative as solutions to our global problems. "Science and scientists are our heroes," McKibben announced. Flanigan spent most of his 20 minutes discussing various technologies, and how they can be used to help the environment. But both speakers barely mentioned what is most critical in dealing with the global crisis: the political and economic factors which determine why these great technologies are not in use today.

Flanigan mentioned that the United States in recent years has spent $50 billion annually subsidizing the oil industry through Persian Gulf tanker protection (thereby creating oil prices artificially low by a factor of 10). The United States also subsidizes nuclear energy with $10 billion a year, while it gives only $300 million to conservation programs. Flanigan repeatedly emphasized that dollar for dollar, conservation is a much better investment than nuclear energy. (If it were his choice, he said, he would shut down every nuclear power plant overnight.) So why is the US government subsidizing grossly inefficient energy programs, while ignoring conservation, and what can be done to reverse the trend? These are the questions that must be asked, not questions of what new technologies can we invent to save our environment -- if they were implemented.

The short answer as to why the US government provides subsidies to inefficient energy industries is because the industries buy government officials -- through millions of dollars in campaign contributions every year. What can be done to reverse the trend is a much more difficult question to answer, but one that must be addressed.

The same applies to other areas besides energy: Our diet and population control were two other areas the speakers mentioned. McKibben, when asked whether cloth diapers are better to use than disposable ones, tells people instead to consider how many children they wish to have. While individual initiative is all fine, it will not solve our crises. What we need is global population control, and our government right now is not willing to help the process.

Think globally, act locally is an especially appropriate slogan for dealing with the environment. I am afraid, however, that too many people are not thinking globally.

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David Stern is a junior in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.