Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Domain of Hippies

The Los Angeles Times marvels at the current popularity of solar power:

Once the domain of hippies, whose off-the-grid escape doubled as an anti-establishment rebuke, renewable energy is now a pillar of California politics.
Back in the good old days, you see, the United States had a safe, sensible, cost-effective, farsighted energy policy. Then, the hippies came along and started trying to "stick it to the Man" with outlandish ideas like solar collectors and wind power. But now, solar power has become fashionable, and all sorts of pathetic dropouts are cashing in!

[Cue the Byrds playing "Turn, Turn, Turn," so that we can more wistfully contemplate Life's Little Ironies.]

Today's solar power advocates may not dress in varicolored rags, or stink from fifteen feet away, or prattle about astrology while they scratch earnestly at the pubic lice they caught from "balling" Janis Joplin, but don't let that fool you: they're still part of the freak scene:
Curly-haired and soft-spoken, Gerber today looks the part of a steady engineer in his pressed khakis and checkered button-down shirt, four pens aligned in his front pocket. But he remains at heart a zealot, committed to renewable energy down to the solar watch on his wrist.
See, that's what troubles me. I like the idea of renewable power...but why can't its advocates be more measured and sensible, like Charles and David Koch?

The author notes that the first solar water heater was patented in 1891, and that 30 percent of the homes in Pasadena, CA had solar water heating by 1897. He doesn't mention that the first solar-heated office was built in Albuquerque in 1956, by Frank Bridgers, and remains in operation today.

So far as I know, the influence of marijuana, free love, and "acid rock" on these technological milestones was minimal. It may even be that the counterculture's desire to "rebuke" the establishment with solar power was less important, on the whole, than the establishment's desire to marginalize solar power by linking it irrevocably in the public mind with dirty fucking hippies. As Frank Bridgers' daughter says:
If a fairly average or middle income homeowner...if they don't have the feeling inside their gut that "people like me" install solar systems, it will never become widespread.
That feeling was precisely what the past few decades of hippie-baiting helped to forestall, thanks in large part to the deep pockets of oil and gas companies who'd grown fat off taxpayer subsidies.

But these minor details can't be allowed to spoil the clean, elegant lines of the LAT story. We're not to consider the influence of petrodollars on the public portrayal of solar power, any more than we're to question the seriousness of our journalists' witless obsession with what Thers calls "infantile identity politics." The important thing is that solar power and hippies go together like BBQ and beer. While it may be worthwhile to talk about how public perceptions are changing - even as you're reinforcing them - it's profitless to examine how and why they formed.

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