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Technical Vision

06/26/08 5:55PM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) Technology can change the world, but commentator Bill Shutkin thinks that when it comes to climate change, what's most important is vision.

(SHUTKIN) Something there is that doesn't love a wind turbine. I can hear Robert Frost turning in his grave. But there it was, a 10-kilowatt wind turbine hovering above the Mt. Holly school on Route 103, to me a thing of grace and beauty.

When I first spotted it, I was driving in my car listening to a talk show about the travails of the tiny Alaskan village of Kivalena. Owing to climate change, Kivalena's losing its coastline and the livelihoods that depend on it. In response, the village is suing a bunch of big energy companies who, they argue, are responsible for about 15 percent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions and, as a result, for at least some of the damage global warming has caused Kivalena.

They're seeking compensation to relocate to higher ground.

It's precisely because of this kind of story that more of us are installing wind turbines, driving hybrid cars and riding our bikes to work. Sure, the price of gasoline has a lot to do with it, too. But either way, we're finally beginning to heed the signals we're getting from both nature and the economy.

And, if the Kivalena lawyers are successful, soon we may have to heed signals from the courts as well.

But for me, the power of the Mt. Holly school turbine is not about the kilowatts it generates. It's about the kind of human will it represents, about our ability to make decisions based not only on the feedback reality sends us but, equally important, our vision of a better world.

"Man," Benjamin Franklin remarked with pride, "is a toolmaking animal." But unfortunately, for much of human history, we've tended to value tools over vision. Machines became the end in themselves, the purpose.

Technologies from the steam engine to the Internet have often led us, their makers, by the nose, as if we were no more than lowly beasts of burden. But even crows can make tools, not just us primates.

And only recently have we started to ask, "To what end did we build these tools?" As far as I can tell, no crow has ever done this.

A handful of Vermont schools have wind turbines. I think every school should because they're great teachers. They command curiosity and inspire critical thinking. Which got me thinking - after every school, why not every town green? We're already used to seeing flag poles in the middle of most greens. And it wouldn't be such a big stretch to think of a wind turbine as a flag and a pole - just 80 feet taller with a rotor on top. As with the flag, you'd see more than just a physical object - you'd see a symbol, an ideal.

And after all, it's about the vision, not the tool.
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