Saving the planet from major climate disruption, reducing pollution, and even being better prepared for disasters are all in a day’s work for cleantech. Sounds like a superhero already, doesn’t it? But what if I told you that cleantech could also be helping us protect democracy and human rights? It turns out that this, too, is true.
Before I go further, I want to point out that I’m fully aware of the potential problems clean technology has in this area. I’ve discussed the way supply chains can be full of human rights problems. I’ve repeatedly harped on the way totalitarian governments (especially Mainland China) are using clean technology to enrich themselves and gain more global power, and that there are amoral businessmen willing to collaborate with these governments if they can make a quick buck doing it. And this is all before we get to attempts at plutrocracy and neo-feudalism that try to masquerade as environmentalism, human rights activism, and progressivism.
These are all risks that we need to consider during the cleantech revolution so that we don’t save humanity by losing our humanity or willfully throwing it away.
Clean technology itself doesn’t cause the risk to democratic systems and human rights, obviously. I’m going to borrow and adapt a quote from Jeff Cooper: Clean technologies have no moral stature, since they have no will of their own. Naturally, they can be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil. While the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good people using clean technologies against them.
Given how we outnumber the bad folk, there’s good cause to be optimistic. Clean technology not only has the capability to help us build a more democratic world, but protect human rights from aggressive regimes that want to destroy freedom. Even better, it could do all this while making free markets even more free in many cases, so there’s little reason for our Republican and libertarian friends to oppose what I’m going to discuss here.
In this series, I’m going to explain how clean technology keeps monopolies weak, keeps money away from authoritarians, and can even keep freedom of speech and information somewhat alive when it’s in its greatest danger.
Clean Energy Can Dismantle “Natural” Monopolies By Democratizing Electricity Generation
Utilities are often the first example given when discussion of natural monopolies comes up. Because there just isn’t room in utility easements for multiple sets of utilities, and the cost of doing that would be astronomical anyway, monopolies have emerged. There’s one power grid in any given area. There’s one set of gas, water, and sewer pipes. The alternative has always been to just do without modern technology in our homes and businesses.
Attempts have been made to partially break these monopolies by allowing property owners to purchase power through the grid from different sellers. There have also been attempts to increase telecommunication provider access to power poles, but getting permission to string a new wire or fiberoptic cable from pole to pole is a complex process that can take years or get stuck in hell forever. Even cities that have tried “one touch make ready” ordinances have had problems, including lawsuits and federal law issues.
To get around the issue and to serve rural customers, many new internet service providers in the United States started skipping the phone poles altogether with wireless broadband. While there are rules to follow, you’ve only got to put up equipment in a few high spots in a populated area and then put up equipment on customers’ homes and businesses. Even amateur radio operators eventually got into the technology, creating extensive mesh networks using wireless broadband equipment reprogrammed to operate under Part 97 of the FCC rules. These sorts of networks don’t even need a large central tower to operate.
But electricity isn’t nearly as easy. The poles don’t have room for multiple sets of big electrical wires, and the cost of doing that is prohibitive even when it’s possible. And wireless power transmission from a mountaintop to homes and businesses? Not possible at all.
So, we’re largely left with a monopoly that can’t be competed with. Instead of free markets and choice for consumers, we have an awful situation where the government is forced to join forces with corporations and grant one a monopoly. Some call the fusion of government and corporations fascism, but whatever you call it, we’re all forced to give money and power to one corporation in an area that nobody gets to vote for and nobody can boycott. They’ve got us all by the shorts, too. The end result is something that neither free-market Republicans nor democratic Democrats really like, and something that makes it harder for society to protect democracy and human rights.
But what if I told you that there was a fusion power plant in space that constantly sends us free wireless energy, and that anybody can collect it to generate electricity? Oh, it’s also not possible to look at it without hurting your eyes. Sounds like something a crazy person would say, right? Not if you’re talking about the sun, at least.
By reintroducing consumer choice and putting control back in the hands of property owners, solar power keeps big unelected quasi-governmental corporate monopolies from getting us all by the shorts and collecting up political power in the community. There are still equity concerns, especially for people who rent their homes. Access to it still depends on credit-worthiness, too. But, we’re still moving away from an absolute monopoly and that makes freedom a little bit safer in the 21st century.
Who doesn’t like that?
But Wait, There’s More!
Keeping totalitarianism a little further away from us is great, but having solar panels on your roof isn’t going to end dictatorships or keep the militaries they command from rolling into small democracies (the original “tankie” dream) and subjecting them to totalitarianism, is it?
Keep reading on to Part 2, and I’ll explain how clean transportation plays a role in protecting and expanding democracy. I’ll also cover a very important freedom problem that it can help us solve and protect democracy and human rights.
Featured image by US Energy Information Agency, public domain.