Looking backward to find the route toward a cooler future

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald September 04, 2009 03:30 pm

Quite a lot of people insist that the cure for certain afflictions which plague our planet, chief among them its increasingly fevered brow, is technology.

I happen to agree.

Yet implicit in this attitude, it seems to me, is the belief that this technology will inevitably be of the “new” variety.

At which point I wade out of the mainstream and into rougher water.

I acknowledge, of course, that most of the milestones that mark society’s progression from the dirt-floored cave to the Tudor-style mansion with Brazilian mahogany underfoot, involve a noteworthy leap in our technological prowess.

Edison’s genius, for instance, not only illuminated our lives, it pretty much eliminated the accidental household kerosene fire.

But the notion that we can solve significant problems only if we first invent some fantastic device is, I think, a fallacy.

There is ample evidence that advances in our knowledge and abilities have spawned vexing new troubles in addition to fixing our old familiar difficulties — some of which, in retrospect, seem of a trifling nature, almost quaintly so.

Technology allows us to travel all day at 65 mph while our muscles are kneaded by a mechanical masseuse and our skin cooled by chemicals which defy the most torrid heat wave.

But technology also allows the driver in the next lane to hurtle along while watching “American Idol” on a three-inch screen, glancing up occasionally to make sure a collision with a school bus is not imminent.

Technology has roused our soils to levels of fecundity inconceivable just a century ago, yet along the way we had to lace the dirt with strontium 90 to prevent somebody else’s bombers from fertilizing our fields not with phosphorus and lime but with the ashes of the very farmers who tend the rows.

Our troubles these days, of course, are not limited to what’s happening on the ground, or below it.

It’s our very air that threatens us — it’s getting too warm, to be specific.

One of the culprits is what we burn — the gas and diesel we pump into our vehicles, the coal we combust to generate the electricity which heats and cools the buildings where we live and work, and the food we eat.

The solution, then — a partial one, anyway — is to scrap the internal-combustion engine in favor of the electric motor.

This conversion must clear a couple of hurdles, though.

The first requires one of those technological breakthroughs — building batteries that can store enough energy, and be recharged rapidly enough, to make electric vehicles as convenient and capable as their fossil-fueled counterparts.

(These batteries must be affordable, too; cars with the price tag of a Lexus and the utility of a golf cart might help the environment, but no company can long survive building them.)

The second obstacle, though, might prove to be the real stumper.

Propelling ourselves, and all our stuff, with electricity probably won’t help cool the planet to any meaningful degree if we continue burning coal to produce a substantial amount of the power that we pour into our cars and trucks.

Which brings me round to the inspirations for this column: the Fremont Powerhouse and the Desolation Butte fire lookout.

I visited both on Saturday.

They represent the epitome of technology — at a time when radio was newfangled and TV beyond the realm of fantasy.

Yet the long history of these two places, it seems to me, might well reveal a glimpse of our future.

That glimpse is clearest at the Fremont Powerhouse.

It was built in 1908 along Congo Gulch, a small stream in the lodgepole-and-tamarack woods about five miles west of Granite.

The Fremont harnesses the same force that humans have been putting to work for millennia: running water.

Or, distilled to its essence, gravity.

Which is nothing if not reliable.

Water flowed to the Powerhouse from Olive Lake, which is several miles to the west and about 1,100 feet higher, through a wooden pipeline that resembles a long line of beer kegs hooked together.

At the Fremont the water spun impellers to produce electricity.

The identical principle is employed, on a vastly larger scale, at Grand Coulee, Bonneville, Brownlee and the other dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers that generate much of the West’s power supply.

I don’t mean to suggest that reviving the Fremont, which spat out its last kilowatt-hour in October 1967, can assist our transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Still and all, I wonder whether we, across the country and the globe, are tapping the full potential of hydropower.

Perhaps there is a greater role yet for this ancient technology if only we can fortify it with a dollop of modern expertise that nullifies, or at least mitigates, the harmful effects on fish for which dams are maligned.

Later on Saturday I hiked to the summit of Desolation Butte.

The connection here to a lower-carbon future is, I admit, rather more tenuous than at the Fremont.

But I’ll give it a go.

The 67-foot-tall fire lookout tower that stands atop Desolation today was built in 1961. It replaced the original tower, a 50-footer that went up in 1923.

In a reversal of what you’d expect, the current tower is made of wood — hardly a high-tech material — whereas the first lookout was constructed of steel girders.

But here’s the part of the story that particularly piqued my interest:

Desolation Butte was not the first home for that steel tower.

In its initial iteration, the tower was topped not by a cabin but by a windmill.

The forerunner, as it were, of those massive, three-bladed turbines that enliven the landscape between North Powder and The Dalles.

Their purposes were different, of course — that old windmill tower on Desolation was built to pump water from a well rather than, like today’s wind farms, to cultivate electricity.

The same elegant notion, though, applies in both cases: That the wild but usually benign wind can be broken, and made to do a task which benefits people.

While I pondered this link between the past and the future, one other matter occurred to me.

Desolation Butte is among a few dozen fire lookouts still used in Oregon. In the decade before World War II there were several hundred.

Lookouts, say the historians, were supplanted by airplanes, which can scan the forests and rangelands for fires much more efficiently than a network of smoke-watchers stationed on isolated summits spread across millions of acres.

This is true, of course.

Yet despite our omnipresent surveillance the fires grow larger these days, a trend spurred, in part, by the warming climate.

Perhaps we would be wise to rebuild the network of lookouts, and ground the planes.

Lookouts work cheaper than pilots, after all.

And people, even breathing heavy while climbing a tower, produce considerably less carbon dioxide than a Cessna.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.