Solar Energy. An example of how what matters most is Whose Side Are You On, not what makes the most sense.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Clean energy. GREEN energy. Energy that can solve global warming. Environmentalists are all for it. And as a direct result, no matter what the benefits, conservatives are absolutely against it. Not because of the merits of the matter, but because we live in a zero sum us-against-them Value Wars world that blinds us to thinking about things objectively…which leaves us all at much greater risk, no matter what side of the battle lines we’re on.
Not long ago word got out that ALEC – the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council reportedly heavily funded by the right wing Koch Brothers – was trying to kill renewable energy programs by getting state governments to slap a fee on any homeowner who installed solar panels. The New York Times editorial board declared The Koch Attack on Solar Energy, The Los Angeles Times reported Koch brothers, big utilities attack solar, green energy policies, and The Guardian said ALEC calls for penalties on ‘freerider’ homeowners in assault on clean energy.
There is no question that this was just one part of a comprehensive right wing attack on renewable energy. But nowhere in all the reporting and editorializing was it mentioned that, in concept, the solar fee makes sense. Appropriately set based on market costs for power, it’s fair. In fact, it even helps shift the energy system toward renewables.
I just put solar panels on my roof, encouraged by local, state and federal incentives that mean I’ll have paid off the system in five years, after which I’ll be paying practically nothing for electricity. But I’ll still need the grid when the sun isn’t shining -- like, say, at night. So I’m happy to pay the modest $10 monthly “distribution charge” that, according to my bill;
ensures that the costs of maintaining the local electrical distribution system and running Concord Light are shared fairly among all of Concord Light’s customers, including those who have reduced their financial contribution towards maintaining these services by replacing some of the electricity they had purchased from Concord Light with electricity generated by their solar PV system.
This solar surcharge -- the same one liberals claim is part of a conspiracy by the right to kill solar power -- is being charged in liberal Concord, Mass., where nearly 200 of my liberal neighbors (and my liberal Unitarian Universalist church) have recently installed solar energy systems. We are willingly paying the fee as a reasonable step in reducing fossil fuel emissions that include not only greenhouse gasses but fine particle pollution, which kills or sickens tens of thousands of people in the U.S. annually, tens of millions of people worldwide. Cleaner power means cleaner air for all of us, regardless of what side we’re on.
(Energy geeks note that there will have to be bigger and more complex shifts in how we pay for electricity if and when the system moves toward cleaner renewables, but this essay isn’t about those issues. In fact, it’s about how those important issues can't be discussed objectively in the poisoned us-against-them atmopshere of our polarized society.)
The solar surcharge is essentially the same as the fees some states are imposing on the purchase of electric or hybrid cars that use the same roads and bridges all vehicles do, but which pay less in gasoline tax, the primary funding source for maintaining those roads and bridges. Those fees are not right wing attacks on clean cars, as some on the left have charged. Like the solar distribution charge, they just make sense.
But in polarized times, anything one side says or does is automatically nefarious to the other side -- something to be attacked and rejected. The solar fee is just one example of what happens to a lot of important issues these days; gun control, climate change, immigration, universal health care coverage. The issue gets framed by one side or the other -- the left calls for big government to support clean energy, the far right calls gun ownership a matter of individual liberty -- and from then on the debate is sucked into the vortex of the Value Wars, and no matter what anyone says or does, we can only see it in that ‘whose side are you on’ context. That’s dangerous, because such myopia blinds us from considering the full merits of the issue and what might do us all the most good.
Sadly, this is a manifestation of the innate human instinct to protect ourselves by banding together into tribes when we feel troubled, and to adopt views that align with our friends and allies. That instinct helps us feel safe, but it closes our minds, overwhelms our ability to reason, and robs of us of the ability to make choices that would do us the most good: choices like cleaner energy to improve the quality of the air we all breathe, or reasonable gun control to make it harder for bad guys to get firearms and thus improve the safety of the streets we all share, choices like getting everyone insured to control health care costs we all pay, or facilitating a smarter immigration system to supply workers for the economy on which we all rely. These solutions don’t favor one side or another. They benefit everyone.
But we can’t achieve any of this unless we can rise above our instinct to see issues, like this solar surcharge, only through the narrow us-against-them lenses of our tribal affiliations. That instinct may help us feel safe, but it breeds a divisive combat that makes it harder to agree on the things that will actually protect us the most.
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The stories we tell define history. So who gets the mic in America?
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- In order to understand American history, we need to look at the events of the past as more prismatic than the narrative given to us in high school textbooks.
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