April 14, 2011

(++++) ECO-TIME

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. By Alexis Madrigal. Da Capo. $27.50.

Teenie Greenies: Eco People on the Go!; The Little Composter. By Jan Gerardi. Random House. $6.99 each.

Chalk the Block. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $12.99.

     Ever since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, spring has been bringing forth not only flowers but also books keyed to environmental matters (and printed on paper from trees that, hopefully, are harvested in a sustainable manner). One of the most interesting of this year’s crop is Powering the Dream, because Alexia Madrigal, a senior editor of The Atlantic, looks largely into the past rather than into some imagined cold-fusion-powered future in exploring what possibilities exist and have existed for some time in terms of green technology and energy – and therefore what we could learn from the past if we would only study it instead of attempting continuous reinvention as we move ahead. Madrigal’s book is partly depressing, so full is it of missed opportunities and failed experiments; but it is largely uplifting, because Madrigal seems to understand better than most writers on this topic that capitalism itself can be the great growth engine producing better and greener technology – rather than considering capitalist society the root of all evil and believing that the hyper-inefficiencies of government (which has never even embraced something as simple as telecommuting, because so many government managers want to see and physically be in control of workers) can somehow be harnessed to develop greener technology. Government money can, of course, be useful – and it is really money taken from people and companies anyway, as taxes, so plowing it back into innovation makes sense. But as Madrigal points out, historical efforts in green tech have generally bubbled up from the private sector rather than trickling down from the public one. Homemade windmills, geothermal pipelines (of which the oldest – in Boise, Idaho – dates to 1892 and remains in use), and especially solar cells come in for discussions that are pointed and often fascinating. Not everything is included, of course – it would have been interesting to hear Madrigal’s take on the external combustion engine, which powered cars built by Stanley (“Stanley Steamers”) from 1902 to 1924 before internal combustion eclipsed it. And not all barriers to widespread adoption of green technology are mentioned – the greatest, and the one least often discussed, being the worldwide population explosion and the huge increased energy demand that results because of more people being born, and because more countries are starting to develop middle-class lifestyles. Still, Madrigal’s willingness to consider the many green-tech attempts of the past, most of them failed but so many of them fascinating, is a refreshing change from the doomsday scenarios so common in alternative-energy writing. So is his understanding of the fact that we cannot simply wean the world from oil dependence – oil and its products are extremely efficient energy deliverers. What is needed is “environmentalism [that] is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused [but] is concerned, first and foremost, with humans” – and this too has existed in the past, Madrigal shows, but has fallen by the wayside today. He has no real solutions (as soon as companies turn to clean-energy projects, some interest group shows up to demand that the projects not be built where they would be practical – keeping solar projects out of deserts, for example); but his belief that solutions can be found, and that the past may hold the key to coming up with a better future, is salutary and most welcome.

     And if environmentalism begins at home, environmental awareness should also begin with children – the idea behind the Teenie Greenies series of board books. Teachy but not preachy, Eco People on the Go! and The Little Composter show children up to age four some ways in which they and their families can behave in an Earth-friendly manner. There is nothing political or dogmatic in either book, and the simple text and illustrations are just right for this age group. Eco People on the Go! simply shows a number of non-fossil-fuel methods of getting around: jogging, hiking, skating, etc. And for its two motor-vehicle examples, it shows people on a bus and sharing a car ride – both responsible ways of reducing fuel use. Every few pages, there is a flap for little hands to open; opening each one reveals the words of the book’s title and an additional illustration. The Little Composter is even cleverer. Here, Jan Gerardi (author and illustrator of both books) demonstrates in words and pictures just what compost is and how it works – at the very simplest, most basic level. The top of a flap shows a banana, for instance; lift the flap and there is the word “peel,” with a picture of the peel. Or lift the flap labeled “melon” and find the word and picture “rind.” One picture – with the flap cleverly opening downward, so it looks like a chute – shows a little boy tossing grass and leaves into the compost. Then smiling worms “do their thing,” and a couple of pages of simple instructions result in a very happy boy celebrating the growth of tomato plants. This is ecological awareness at its most basic and most attractive – a fine foundation for greater complexities to come.

     Chalk the Block isn’t exactly an eco-awareness book, except indirectly: it provides an alternative to the painted graffiti that mar so many areas, while still giving kids ages six and up a way to express themselves artistically outdoors. It also offers a level of fun that is too often missing from super-serious environmental tomes. Urging young people to “add humor to the neighborhood,” the book is packaged with four big colored chalk pieces (blue, orange, green and white) and a whole host of ideas of what to do with them. The really creative thing here is the suggestion to use any imperfections in everyday sidewalks as portions of works of art – a crack in the sidewalk becomes a crack in a hatching egg, for example, or a tightrope on which stick figures are balancing precariously. “Found objects” also work well with chalk drawings – a rock for the body of a spider with chalk-drawn legs and web strand, or two rocks as the eyes in a chalk-drawn face. Then there are ideas that are just out-and-out clever, such as coloring several bricks with yellow chalk and writing, in a contrasting color, “Yellow Brick Road – Coming Soon!” Puddles, planters, water pipes – all can be incorporated into chalk art, and the many illustrations here will likely inspire young artists to come up with many others of their own (and Klutz helpfully points out that any chalk can be used, not only the pieces provided with the book). As an ecologically aware amusement that does not permanently deface anything and will bring smiles to friends and passersby, Chalk the Block is all about fun – of which we should not lose sight as we celebrate Earth Day or any other day, no matter how serious the underlying issues.

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