Three days ago, there was a house standing next door to ours. It was nearly a century old, a tidy little bungalow typical of the sort built out here on the Canadian prairie circa 1913. It’d stood as two wars came and went, maybe even welcoming returning soldiers to its porch or mourning their loss in the parlor inside. It’d stood sentry as the street in front of it went from dirt to asphalt, as cars came to line the curb out front, as the fledgling town of low buildings in wood and brick gave way to the steel and glass of a vertical city, as electrical and telephone and cable and digital wires tethered it to the lines out back and to the vast world beyond.
In its final act, as I explained here a little while ago, we had the house turned into a vibrant, delightful little art gallery, a celebratory exclamation point at the end of 100 years of providing reliable shelter and comfort. On Monday, they parked a big Hitachi EX200 excavator in the backyard, and on Tuesday it went to work, bashing at roofs and walls, its jaws wide like dinosaur teeth or closed in an iron fist. The work progressed remarkably quickly, as drywall and glass and great Douglas fir crossbeams all fell in and were crunched up to fit inside the mouth of the excavator, loaded mittful by mittful into a waiting truck.
Three days ago, there was a house there, a permanent fixture on the landscape. Today, there’s a shallow rectangular pit of dirt.
Here’s the thing: it wasn’t mournful, watching out the window as the excavator did its demolition work. It didn’t feel tragic or elegiac. It was exhilarating. Almost magical in its way. Supernatural. At one point my 6-year-old daughter, who was running from window to window with her camera, shouted out, “This is awesome!” She was speaking for all of us.
I bring this up because it put me in mind of two lessons that I think are important to recall from time to time on the green innovation beat. The first is a lesson about human nature, and the second is about the idea of creative destruction.
1. Regarding human nature:
We like to think, especially in green-minded circles, that there is an inherent logic to stewardship, preservation, reuse, taking care. That as interdependent animals on this fragile planet, we have an innate sense of the natural balance of things. I’d argue there is, and that we do. But this is not the only logic at work inside us, not the sole aspect of human nature, probably not even the strongest one.
The truth is this: We love destruction. Demolition. Violence. It’s gleeful in its way. You watch a big Hitachi excavator swing its huge steel arm around, see its fanged iron jaws bash down a 100-year-old wall like you’d knock down a stack of your kid’s Duplo, and it’s thrilling. To be able to create such change on the landscape, just like that. Awesome indeed.
This is how we are as human beings: if we can do it, someone will. If we can design a machine of such destructive force that one guy can sit at a couple of levers and knock apart a 100-year-old house without working up so much as a single bead of sweat on his brow, you better believe we’ll do it. We’ll do it for practical reasons — the house too small and old and inefficient and multiply renovated to be repurposed — but also because yippie-kai-yay, it’s a fun ride to tear down and leave nothing but a pit of dirt and then build anew.
Bear this in mind the next time you find yourself aghast at our collective capacity for destruction, the next time oil slicks fill the Gulf to the horizon or the top of an Appalachian mountain goes tumbling as rubble into the valley below. We destroy because we see a need, and also because it is part of our nature to do so.
2. On creative destruction:
Many reporters, commentators and advocates working on the climate and energy crises — myself very much included — are moving toward focusing less on the scale of the potential calamity and much more on the enormous opportunity for progress and renewal presented by renewable energy and the global cleantech industry. There’s good reason for this: a decade or so into cleantech’s first big boom, it’s proven to be a fantastic engine for industrial growth and job creation as well as greenhouse gas reduction.
In the midst of ongoing European economic chaos, for example, Germany’s federally owned bank KfW recently announced a $100 billion loan fund for new renewable energy projects, doubling down on previous investments, both public and private, that have created more than 300,000 jobs in Germany since 2000. In the Canadian province of Ontario, meanwhile, one of the most prominent voices defending its Green Energy Act — a direct copy of Germany’s renewable energy policy — before the recent election was the Canadian Auto Workers union, which pointed out that 2,400 of its members now worked in assembly plants not for cars and trucks but for wind turbines and solar panels.
Amidst all this creation, though, we should remember there is also destruction. “Creative destruction” is the term economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized to describe the process by which technological innovations wreak excavator-like havoc on outmoded sectors of the economy, and cleantech is very much an engine of creative destruction.
Broadly beneficial as cleantech innovation, renewable power and decentralized energy grids are for society at large, they bash like iron jaws against the old foundations of the status quo. As German renewable energy pioneer Hermann Scheer liked to say, the “techno-logic” of renewables is fundamentally different from that of conventional power, replacing the entire fuel supply chain — which is where you’ll find most of the profit in the fossil fuel game — with free fuel and new technology. (Here’s a great Dayton Daily News cartoon that sums up the difference the two competing techno-logics.)
When conventional energy companies make token investments in renewables, it should be understood as an attempt to steal the keys from the excavator operator, to slow down the process of creative destruction until every last coal plant and shale oil “play” has paid out its full profit. When expert commentators and senior energy bureaucrats pop up in the mainstream press to talk about the impracticalities of unaffordable renewable power, we should listen in their arguments for the sound of the excavator’s iron shovel bashing at their backdoors — their claims to expertise, after all, are as dependent as coal company executives are on the continued reign of conventional energy.
The energy game, like any high-stakes trillion-dollar business competition, is not a friendly one. The players with the most to lose will not play nice or stick to the facts, or accept defeat in the face of superior technology with a more climate-friendly bottom line. If you’re working on the transformation to real sustainability, you’re engaged on some level in the practice of creative destruction. You’re knocking down tired old edifices. Which, as I said, is actually kind of a thrill.
To track sustainability's campaign of creative destruction 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.