Dec 122011

I first met Joel Bellenson in my Commercial Drive neighborhood when I was working at a café where he was a regular. I overheard him on more than one occasion talking about hydroponics and I knew that he was a scientist and geneticist. So when it came time for me to write about food systems and the Occupy Movement I knew Bellenson would have some interesting insights for me.
Originally from a very conservative suburb of LA, Bellenson was a computer programmer as a child. He went to Stanford University and studied both biology and International Relations, soon moving on to become a genetic engineer. Or as he calls it, “a gene jockey”. He is also a political activist as well as a scientist, opposing the war in Central America in the 80’s and doing research in Africa on tropical infectious diseases affecting third world populations, which was of little appeal to most investors. In May 2000 he appeared in The New York Times when his company, which had developed the software that assembled and annotated the human genome decided to give their technological discovery away for free and prevent its patenting.
Currently, Bellenson is working on his new book titled Equal Watts: The Rise and the Rhythm of Revolutionary Solar Democracy. He believes that solar is the energy resource that will equalize the planet, allowing for, as he says, “the emancipation of the global south”. Most of the environmental degradation taking place in the world, Bellenson explains, is in underdeveloped countries that, due to energy poverty and also the imperialism of the first world, exploit their environments to the point of devastation. They also suffer the most as a result. Bellenson tells me that 2 million people die every year in the global south from choking on the smoke from the fires in their homes, which is their only means for heating, cooking, and sanitizing, all these things that we do with gas. Bellenson is passionate that the only way out of the environmental crises is through the power of the sun. And solar energy is the great equalizer, seeing as the people who need it the most are also the ones who can utilize it the best. And, he says, they would be meeting us North Americans at the top of this energy chain, instead of us abstaining, conserving and giving up our resources for the majority who live at the bottom of the pyramid.
Being so used to the environmental movement’s accusation of pleonexia and promotion of self-restraint, I was skeptical to this idea that we are living in a world of potential abundance where only our current technology is limiting our living standards. Bellenson explains how he sees it, “We are constantly unlocking nature’s abundance and it only appears limited based on our technology and social structure”. Nuclear power, he says, is tremendously powerful. It’s so powerful, in fact, that controlling it is still an issue. But it was completely unimaginable in the past. “But a tremendous amount of energy is in a tablespoon of matter” he remarks and the things about the future is that no one knows what’s coming next.
He patiently paints a picture for me, as I try to come to terms with these ideas. He makes me calculate the exponential increase in solar power over the next few years, which he says today accounts for just under 1% of the energy used on the planet. If you round it up for convenience sake (I was never very good at math), then in 2012 energy from the sun will be 2% of that used on the planet. In 2013 it will be 4%, in 2014 8%, then 16%, then 32, 64, 128, 256… And this is where his idea comes from, that not only can we replace our dirty and limited energy resources with solar power, but we can unlock even more power than we have today, allowing the global south to easily rise to our current North American and European standards and usage of energy. This is without the damaging effects that this equalization would have had because of our current detrimental methods, with our use of tar sands and the danger of Gulf oil spills.
On top of that, Bellenson explains, our current food system contains so many unclosed loops of resources and waste that if we were to change it, we could save so much and feed so many more. For example, “70% of the fresh water consumed on the planet is not going towards long showers and leaks in faucets – it’s going into agriculture” asserts Bellenson. Contained agriculture, meaning hydroponics, not only saves space so we aren’t limiting ourselves to horizontal factors, but it also makes our use of water infinitely more efficient as well as solving problems like harmful farming run-off and the controversy over contamination of GMO crops. Bellenson says, “When you think about the planet as an ecosystem, it’s important to think about closing some of these loops”. With such a clean energy source as the sun, wastes could be recycled and brought back into the system. Cleaning up the environment would then following.
Bellenson is a true scientist, believing in things that most of us would have trouble imagining. He sees Star Trek as inspiration, not fantasy. And his book, begging us to think globally and act globally will no doubt cause a stir among many of the environmentalists.
Even with my limited experience of Ecological Anthropology, I’ve learned to question more and question deeper. This blog helps to grasp just how inter-connected all the components of our world are, just how much culture, religion, social structure, politics and economics are do deeply intertwined in crises. What this scientific future that Bellenson speaks of has in store for the diversity of cultures around the world, I don’t know, but I can’t help but wonder if we might end up sacrificing that diversity for an equalization based upon the Euro-American model. Equalization of the classes and an end to poverty, starvation, environmental degradation; suffering that is taking place now and will in the future, is, undoubtedly the most important goal. I hope, however, that it is done with an anthropological sensibility. One that questions what our global standards are and could be. One that listens to the parts of the world which is, now, too poor to have their voices heard, but could, in the future, with the help of solar energy, contribute to our global dialogue and our wisdom about the planet which we share.