Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging
Lou Swift was strong, even thought she was slender. Living in the tiny seaside town of Bolinas on the northern California coast meant spending a lot of time outdoors. Lou moved with an appealing springiness, as if her energy flowed from the tips of her toes right up through her large grey eyes. Brown tousled hair curled around her delicate face. She had a bubbly laugh and a voice that was low and throaty, especially for someone only 17? it tended to draw attention to her, sometimes to her embarrassment. Partly for that reason she usually dressed casually and kept some rein on her natural playfulness. In fact her high school classmates mostly thought of her as rather mysteriously engrossed in her scientific studies. On occasions when she started talking enthusiastically of how important it was to crack the photovoltaic problem, Lou noticed their attention wandered. So she didn't talk much at school about the research lab she had set up at Bolinas, where she had been doing solar cell work since her sophomore year.
Humphrey the Wayward Whale!
Much of the time Lou lived in Bolinas with her father, Roger, his second wife Carol, and her step-brother Mike, who was now 13. The swift house was a sprawling hand-made place that Roger and Lou's mother Jan had built together when Lou was still a baby. In a tiny house at the back of the lot lived Demetrios, nicknamed Dimmy, an old friend of Carol and Roger's, and his four-year-old son Theo. They were really part of the family, and shared use of the kitchen and main living spaces, and most of the time they all ate together.
Lou enjoyed the isolation of Bolinas. The Bolinesians (as they had begun calling themselves) seemed to her lively and individualistic?they had a pioneering spirit. People somehow became more independent when they lived a 20-minute drive?along perilous rocky cliffs?from the nearest real town. But Lou also had the option of staying with Jan, who was a painter and now lived in the nearby town of Mill Valley, in a warehouse she and some friends had turned into studios and living space. Lou's high school was in Mill Valley too, so she could go to the warehouse after classes, laze around with Jan and her friends, and maybe stay overnight. Or she could go back to Bolinas on the school bus and do some studying until Carol returned from the store where she worked most days. Lou usually got more done in Bolinas, despite some distractions from Mike.
On this particular late autumn Friday, Lou wanted to get back to Bolinas in a hurry because she had been putting together a new experiment. She hadn't yet told Roger about it. He taught science in a San Francisco high school, and they often talked about her work; but Lou had found some years back that she usually came up with better scientific ideas than Roger did. That had been a real shock at the time. Now she rather enjoyed it?she could always ask him for advice and background information, but he usually preferred just to supply the background information, but he usually preferred just to supply the information and let her generate most of the ideas. They made a good team. Lou often had a faint smile on her face when she imagined showing Roger some new development. He was, she knew, terribly proud of her. When she had won her first statewide school science prize (it was for a solution to a mathematics puzzle, and the awards committee had called her work ?most ingenious?), Roger had insisted on framing the certificate. And he had strongly encouraged her work in photovoltaics.
Whoever developed the first cheap, efficient, reliable solar cell would be contributing something extremely important for the future. Lou didn't think of herself as particularly arrogant/ she just felt in her bones that there was some small yet tantalizing chance she could bring it off, when hundreds of highly paid scientists working in big laboratories couldn't. One of her mother's best paintings was called ?A Cat Can Look at a King,? and when Lou at age six asked what that meant (the picture showed a cat with huge, piercing eyes sitting in a tree) Jan said it was an old proverb to remind you never to stand in awe of anybody?no matter how rich or powerful.
Lou was certainly not in awe of the big laboratories. She followed closely the developments they reported in the open scientific literature and picked up what gossip she could. Their published papers were careful and skillful, but they ran to pretty good little ideas. What was needed was one good big idea. But the firms that had first opened up the field had been bought by large corporations?mostly oil companies?who didn't seem terribly eager to make things happen fast. Perhaps Roger was right in thinking they wanted to protect as long as possible their dwindling markets for oil and uranium to fuel power plants. But even if that wasn't their basic game, she agreed with Roger that the companies wanted to develop a solar cell that was patentable and protectable, so that it could generate the same enormous profits that oil production had. Then they could pursue a strategy of pricing cells just slightly below the point at which they were competitive with power-company electricity, because that way the maximum profits could be milked from the two technologies over the longest possible period.
Lou knew this was the kind of thinking that was now taught in business schools. But she had never been near a business school, and considerations that bore purely on money as a criterion of human action struck her as immoral and irresponsible. She had a vision of people being able to capture the energy of the sun directly, wherever they lived, without hooking up to a utility's ugly overhead wires. If she could produce a really good solar cell, then household electricity in modest amounts could be generated without pollution, without huge centralized power plants, and especially without nuclear ones?existing generating plants would have plenty of capacity for industrial uses for man decades. And during that breathing period, electricity at competitive costs would become available from wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, and mini-hydro sources. The bitter debate about nuclear energy would be ended; people could stop worrying about its intolerable threats to the future, and get on with the transition to an altogether renewable-source energy system.
Lou hopped off the school bus and headed up the lane to the house. Seagulls glided by on the strong southeast wind, and the sky was covered with low, thick clouds. It looked like the first really big storm of the year. Damn, Lou thought, no sun worth anything for days! Still, she dropped her books and went out to her lab. Once it had been a two-car garage. Now it was full of equipment?metal frames, electronic gear, old cell rigs, machine tools. The little pickup truck that Roger and Carol shared with some neighbors had to be parked outside, next to Lou's furnace. Once Jan had gone through a ceramics period, before she started painting; this had been her kiln, and Lou had increased its heat capacity to deal with the silicon melting that her solar-cell work required. Out of it came the thing sheets of molten pure silicon that she had poured a few days before over two tightly stretched squares of carefully cleaned copper window screen.
Today she was working on a new doping combination which might enhance certain electron transfer mechanisms through the presence of minute quantities of various metal compounds. These were added by a doping gun, a device which operated in a vacuum chamber. Then she assembled the silicon squares into their mounting frames, soldered the connections, attached the pickup network of thin wires, and fitted over the whole assembly the glass cover that protected it from the weather. For a moment she debated whether to run a strip of sealer around the cracks. But the joints looked tight enough and it was beginning to get dark; she wanted to mount the units on the rack in the yard before she had to quit for the day.
On the edge of the sea cliff, facing south along the coat toward San Francisco, she had built a wooden frame of salvaged two-by-fours. On it she could clamp her experimental cells. Wires ran to meters protected in a little hut under the rack; when these were hooked up to the cells, she could get precise measurements of their output. A small device called a solarimeter registered the intensity of the sunlight and enabled her to calculate the efficiency of the different cells. The whole affair looked pretty weird and Roger sometimes called it ?Lou's chicken roost.? But it did what she wanted it to do. She clamped the new cells into place and plugged in their connecting wires.
Off to the west the sun was going down, and for a few moments its light broke out from under the clouds. Lou stared at it: a great fuchsia-colored ball of fire, our life-giving star, source of the energy that powered every biological process on earth. As always, the sun's movement seemed surprisingly fast as it dropped behind the ocean horizon. It shrank to a thin, luminous strip, orange-gold, and then disappeared. Lou felt a twinge of loneliness when it had gone, and pulled her jacket tighter. It would begin to rain soon. She went into the house to wait for Carol and Roger to come home.
For four billon years the earth has moved in its steady course around the sun. The known history of human beings is little more than an eye-blink in that planetary lifetime. Yet, in their brief years upon the planet, humans evolved such astonishing capacities in hand and brain that they became a species which altered its own environment. Chimpanzees might build rude nests of greenery in the jungle and occupy them for days, but humans learned to pile shaped stones into protective walls and buildings. Antelopes might range for miles seeking lusher grass; humans learned to dig ditches and divert streams to their gardens.
Thus, little by little, this unique species discovered ways to overcome the ravages of predators and famine and disease. And once humans found ways to live together in towns and cities, their collective powers greatly increased; their populations multiplied. In Asia and the Middle East they built canals and aqueducts to irrigate vast realms and support elegant imperial courts. The Romans flung their roads, their laws and their armies over an empire stretching for thousands of miles. Many such great centers of civilization arose and flourished and then collapsed?in a majestic cycle almost as imposing as the earth's own seasonal rhythms.
Through these slow pre-industrial centuries the cultivation of new land gradually produced more food, and the impact of starvation and malnutrition lessened; nonetheless, humans continued to live in a rough balance with their fellow species. Only with the development of technological society, which ambitiously harnessed the energy in coal and oil, did human population soar. Then huge factory cities spread over whole counties and the scale of human activities, in engineering and in social organization, became overwhelming. By the time that European peoples designate in their calendars as the end of the twentieth century, the planet was home to over five billion humans. Like a plague of locusts, they seemed to have escaped all natural checks and were devouring everything in their path. Unlike any creatures ever seen on the earth, humans exterminated other species by the tens of thousands?either directly with guns, or indirectly by destroying habitats in forest and river and grassland.
But the population explosion of the industrial epoch also subjected humans themselves to new and unprecedented perils. Human activities?even the detonation of nuclear bombs?remained puny in comparison to the huge transfers of solar energy by winds and storms. Nonetheless, in certain critical respects humans had acquired the power to diminish the earth's capacity to support life. Deserts were spreading because exploitative land ownership patterns drove desperate people to overgraze and defoliate the land. Cancer and degeneration of the gene pool through mutations were rising, consequences of human cleverness in producing new chemical compounds for agricultural, industrial or military use. The burning of immense quantities of coal and oil was steadily increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere; if this continued, a ?greenhouse effect? would raise temperatures enough to melt the polar ice caps, in inundate parts of many coastal cities, and make deserts of now fertile temperate agricultural areas. Nor was there any certainty that the process could be reversed; it might turn much of the earth's surface into a Mars-like wasteland.
One peril was still more threatening. Under the industrial mode of life, humans were subjugated in vast quarrelsome patriarchal nation-states. The rulers of these states were now armed with nuclear weapons so fearsome and so numerous that if they were used even in small part they would end modern civilization, at least in the northern hemisphere. Even more ominously, a nuclear war would affect the outer atmosphere in unpredictable ways; its protective layers might lose the critical ability to shield the earth from the lethal blaze of the sun's radiation.
Thus, paradoxically, the technological ingenuity which had enabled humans to proliferate into every habitable niche on the earth's surface had also begun to threaten the survival upon the planet of all plant and animal life?including the human species itself.