Dick Cheney was right

Back in 2001, when California was reeling from electricity shortages (later found to be artificially created by Enron), Dick Cheney (the vice-president of USA) made a comment:

"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for sound, comprehensive energy policy"

Many people, including me, were aghast that at a time of severe electricity crunch, the VP would not encourage people to reduce their consumption! The single largest economy within USA was being damaged by the electricity shortages and something had to be done and Dick Cheney, rather than leading the charge, was saying that conservation was not good enough. Well, when Californians dropped their electricity consumption by 12%, I felt vindicated. We had shown the oil-oriented bad guys that we could conserve!

7 years later, I would like to, in public, change my mind. Yes, you read it right. I am going to reparse the phrase above and come up with a whole new interpretation of what Dick Cheney was saying (or at least trying to).

Dick Cheney is a capitalist at heart. While he sees a small segment of society changing its habits solely to save the environment (my view: 10 - 20%), he doesn't see the larger society doing more to conserve unless there is something in it for them. Why do people switch from incandescent bulbs (the Thomas Edison kind) to the compact fluorescent ones that are the rage today? To save X tons of carbon dioxide? No! To prevent global warming? No! To save money on the monthly electricity bill.

This behavior can be seen all over the place. When people decide to use more energy efficient lights, carpool to work or replace single-pane windows with double-pane windows, they might be thinking about the environment but what propels them to actually take action is money. We are, after all, a capitalist society. Doing good for others is a good motivator but doing good for oneself is even better.

So, how should our society behave when it comes to energy consumption and environmental protection? While Dick Cheney may not admit it (due to political realities), I think that he feels that most efficient and effective way to reduce energy consumption without damaging the economy is to place an explicit tax on energy and channel the generated revenue towards rewarding energy-efficient behavior.

Why? Why not simply ban poor mileage cars and force people to install double-pane windows and turn down the thermostat in winter? Well, for one thing, such heavy-handed approaches do not work. Even when they do, the efficacy is not as good as a market-based approach would.

Take the case of sulfur oxide emissions. For years, the federal government tried to force coal-fired plants to install scrubbers (essentially giant gas cleaners) to reduce sulfur oxide emissions that was causing acid rain. All the plant owners balked at the requirement and applied immense pressure on the US government from implementing such a requirement. Finally, a cap-and-trade setup was created and guess what? All of a sudden, an entire industry sprung up around reducing sulfur oxide emissions cheaply.

Similarly, it is politically impossible to push for higher fuel efficiencies for cars. But look at the market. As gasoline has gone from $1/gallon to $3/gallon, the demand for higher efficiency cars has shot up. Imagine if the federal government instituted a $1/gallon tax that was funneled into better and cheaper public transportation. All of a sudden, taking the bus or train or tram would become that much more attractive to the general public. People would seek out carpool matching services. Traffic on the roads would ease and with it local pollution. Our economy would reward energy-efficiency more than it does now and so innovations in the field of improving energy-efficiency (be it for cars, homes, manufacturing processes etc.) would get an economic jump-start.

I am not saying that such a tax can (or should) be imposed overnight but imagine a 20 cent increase every year for 5 years. Dick Cheney would like that...


Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Omnivore's Dilemma has been on my radar for quite some time. I am a foodie and therefore, the moment I heard about it, it landed on my (perpetually unread) to-read list of books. But even after I read (and enjoyed) articles and columns by Michael Pollan, I was hesitant to read it. For one, I am (mostly) an omnivore and I feel that far too many books on food involve giving meat eaters a guilt trip. I don't need that. And twice I have realized that someone who is really good at writing columns and articles doesn't always end up writing good books.

Well, chance plays such an important role in our lives. My book club picked this book and so I was propelled to read it. And oh, what a joy! Michael Pollan has such a fluid style of writing that before I knew it, the book was finished. And the descriptions! I felt that I was walking in Pollan's shoes as he toured the corn farm in Iowa and the Polyface Farms in Virginia and when he went mushroom hunting in the Sierras. Wow!

But what was he talking about? Well, Pollan he has an indirect manner of getting his point across. Rather than put a list of points that he wants to convey, he takes a subliminal approach. He wants you to not just read the book as an "interesting" tome, he wants you to change your life. Rather than making you think while reading the book, he plants seeds in your head - a whole garden's worth from technology, law, history, anthropology, economics, politics, environment... - which germinate after you are done reading.

My personal take on what is the at the very core of the book is the exploration of the difference between Industrial Food and Artisanal Food. While labels such as organic, farm-raised, all-natural, free-range etc. are useful, the author wants you to go beyond labels and really think about what and how you are eating. He wants you to realize that not all food is alike - food raised or grown in a factory setting is very different from those from a traditional farm. They are different in nutritional aspects, food-borne illnesses, food safety and yes, impact on our environment.

Reading this book has made me think about food a lot more than ever before. I think I can easily blame Michael for my cooking spree these days. So, go ahead and read the book. And then post the results of your cooking experiments here...


Immigration, assimilation and identification

Background: I am of Asian Indian origin and if you looked at me, you would place my genetics from the plains area stretching from Tehran to Dhaka.

So, I am on the BART, when a man of similar origin (i.e. similar skin tone, facial features and hair) as me approaches me and asks: "Where are you coming from?"

I figured he was trying to figure out where the train was coming from and said "Oakland".

"Oh, where did you move from?"

(In exasperated tone) "No, are you Indian or Pakistani?"

That question triggered a memory from more than a decade back. I was at a gas station in New Jersey and an older man (maybe in his 50s) of similar origin as me came up to me and asked the same question "Are you Indian or Pakistani?" Without hesitation, I said "I am an American." His reaction surprised me to the core. His eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store, his lips swelled into a smile and he grabbed my hand, shook it and said "Finally! You know, I have been waiting for this answer for 20 years!" Then he added, somewhat cryptically "You can't love one girl while married to another."

So, back in the present, I said "I am an American." I was not trying to be facetious or overly smart. I am an American. I live here in the USA, pay my taxes here, have an American passport, vote in the elections, own a house (well, at least a fraction of it) and I feel that I am a part of the American experience. When I think of the American public, I use the pronoun "We," not "Them".

Somehow, my answer was not the one my fellow BART rider was looking for. He moved away, shaking his head and muttering something to the effect of how idiots don't know their heritage.

I think I answered the question very honestly. The question comes down to who I am. My parents are Indian (well, my father is no more), they live in India and feel a part of the Indian society. My sister and her husband are Indians and they live and work and pay taxes in India. I, on the other hand, am not an Indian. I feel emotionally close to my extended family no matter where in the world they live. But for me to say that I am an Indian is false advertising, not only towards others but towards myself.

I am not in USA temporarily, working on a project or visiting on vacation. I am here, as an integral part of this society. Why should I say otherwise???