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Liberalism as a Fashion Statement, Pt. 2

— September 9, 2016

In Part 1, I discussed how everyday choices in fashion and shopping, while well-intentioned, lead to suboptimal results if the goal is to make the world a better place.  These are far from the only examples, though, and liberalism as a fashion statement also extends to some of the bigger actions we can take, such as building and powering our homes.  These practices look really eco-friendly on the outside while sweeping other considerations under the homespun, free range wool rug.

Plenty of people who do put a lot of walk into their talk do so by using Earth-friendly building materials.  These back-to-the-land hippie folks looked to innovative designs, like Earthships, that re-use waste materials and take advantage of passive solar energy in order to create homes with smaller carbon footprints.  These structures often turn out to be more difficult and expensive to build and inhabit than ordinary houses, though, making them more likely to be toys for the rich than real alternatives for people of average (or below average) means.  It’s more expensive than people may expect to go off-grid (more on that in a moment), leading to odd outcomes like Earthships that are connected to municipal utilities, in complete opposition to pretty much everything the Earthship was intended to be.  In other words, often the fairly well-heeled are the only folks who can afford to live between walls made from used-up worn-out tires and empty beer cans, perhaps with barn wood accents. Unless the cost involved in building ecological homes can be brought down to the point where everyday people can afford to live in them, they will remain an economically (if not technologically) unrealistic solution.  Better regulation is also needed in terms of housing codes that perceive a difference between commercial builders out to cut corners, and ecologically-minded builder/owners who intend to live in the homes they create.

For urban and suburban dwellers who don’t have time or money to go chasing Earthship dreams, though, perhaps the most public example of liberalism as a fashion statement is the rooftop solar panel.  Nothing screams “I’m So Eco!” to passers-by than sticking a few of these on the roof while saving up for a wall of Tesla batteries in the basement.  Elon Musk’s “end-to-end clean energy system” severely misplaces where the “ends” are, leaving out the ruination and immiseration caused by producing the panels and batteries.

The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation in Clayton Valley, a dry lake bed in Esmeralda County, Nevada. Photo by Doc Searls, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation in Clayton Valley, a dry lake bed in Esmeralda County, Nevada. Photo by Doc Searls, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Solar panels have come down in price mainly because production has moved to China, where labor and environmental regulations are more relaxed than would be permitted in the United States or Europe.  For example, if a solar panel is produced in Germany, the manufacturer would need to process the waste from the production of silicon tetrachloride in order to render it safe for disposal.  In China, they can (and, apparently, do) render this cost moot by externalizing it onto rural farmers by dumping the waste in their fields in the dark of night.  Sure, Chinese farmers won’t be able to grow crops there, and the farmers and their families get sick from coming into contact with the waste, but it makes the panels cheaper for sale in the United States, and it has made Shi Zhengrong, founder of Suntech, one of the richest people in China.  If wearing one of these solar panel accessories on your roof isn’t flaunting (the appearance of) liberalism as a fashion statement, I don’t know what is.  Meanwhile, those batteries themselves aren’t much friendlier.  Cheap yet toxic PVC is used to evaporate brine to access lithium in South America, while extracting lithium in Chile in particular uses two-thirds of the region’s available fresh water.

Instead of helping us confine our ecological footprint to a more localized, reasonable level, we’re still pillaging the rest of the world’s resources in order to provide a green illusion for well-off people in the wealthiest parts of the world.  When we are shielded from the worst aspects of “green” technology while feeling like we’re making a positive difference, we’re wearing our liberalism as a fashion statement while not doing much of anything to further the important goals we claim to support.


Earthship Hype and Earthship Reality
Why Tesla’s Powerwall Is Just Another Toy For Rich Green People
Tesla-SolarCity Success Depends on Battery Technology That Doesn’t Yet Exist
Revolution or Collapse
Lithium Mining and Environmental Impact

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