By Mark Hughes / SanDiego350
So, here is a question: what’s about as likely as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly jointly admitting they’ve been wrong and dedicating their lives and fortunes to fighting sexism, racism, white supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny?
Answer: that a guy like me would end up volunteering for a grassroots, climate action group.
I grew up in Kansas, famous for Dorothy, sunflowers, and reliably voting against your best interest. I remember my father vehemently wishing he could vote against Ted Kennedy. My mother railing against the Equal Rights Amendment, saying she liked having men open doors for her. Umm, I guess chivalry was banned in the bill’s text somewhere? Both of them mourning angrily after Carter was elected that the country was ruined. Ruined!
But let’s not spare me: I also recall a Charles Kuralt interview in which he said: “What did conservatism ever bring us?” I clearly remember that I turned to Dad and said—without a trace of irony—the money for everyone to live on. I was maybe eighteen at the time. Astringent Republican waters coursed strong through my veins.
An engineering degree led to a job going around the country starting up utility scale power plants. They burned coal. Mucho coal. Thousands of tons a day. The bigger these plants were, the more exciting it was—I was working on the most powerful machines in the world. After a few years, I thought seriously about building my own little power plant. It would be natural gas fired (coal only makes sense on a grand scale) and I’d have a dedicated, closely-knit team that reveled in creating power, that lived for the smell of the steam, the roar of the fire, the generator’s whine. What fun it would be. But then I discovered that the economics of small scale power were something south of profitable. The dream was discarded but the passion remained. To me, those of us in the power industry were like priests of old, tending the sacred fires about which their civilizations turned.
Ah, such romance. Such grandiosity. Point is, the water flowing through my veins was now not just conservative, it was laced with shimmering coal dust; I questioned nothing about the work, the fuels burned, or their effects on the environment. What we did was essential.
I moved to California and joined a different company in the power industry, a competitor to my first employer. The new company also designed and built large boilers, but they were advanced, more environmentally friendly (lower SO2 and NOx emissions). Yes, there was still that little matter of CO2 emissions, because the boilers we built still burned coal, mostly. But who (besides a few climate scientists and Exxon executives) knew that was a problem?
I traveled around starting up these power plants, eventually visiting all but two states and a few overseas installations. But something below the placid surface of my conscience was evolving, mysteriously and silently shifting. I can’t pinpoint the beginning of the course correction, the emergence of a new view from my subconscious into awareness, but it was happening. My company moved to New Jersey and I let them go (full disclosure: leave San Diego for New Jersey? Not for me. I’d found my home.) I joined a gas turbine manufacturer. Their turbines still burned fossil fuels, but it was mostly natural gas with some #2 diesel thrown in now and then. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t facilitating the burning of coal. With this recognition, an astonishingly powerful sense of relief shot through me. Where had that come from? How could these feelings repudiate my past, my former livelihood like that? Who was I?
How do we change the fundamental assumptions that we build our lives upon? What I know is that by the time the movie An Inconvenient Truth came out I fully got the science underpinning the climate crisis. Few of my friends from the power industry could accept it, most rejected it out of hand with arguments that held no water for me. When I hung the poster from Al Gore’s movie in my office, my associates assumed it was meant to be ironic. I took (too much) pleasure correcting that assumption. As to how I kept my job, I’m not sure. Most assuredly, good looks and aligned politics were not among the reasons.
It’s been eleven years since that movie came out and more of my power industry friends now get it. Not all, by any means, and I often wonder why. Most of us are retired, so it’s not a matter of—as Al said in the movie—making them see the science when their job depends on not seeing it. How can engineers, whose methods, knowledge, and practice are firmly based on the findings of science, accept that universe of scientific findings—except those stemming from climate science? Strange creatures indeed are we.
All I can say is that other waters flow through my veins now. Last year my wife and I put solar panels on our roof, enough to power the house, our fully-electric car (a Nissan Leaf, a.k.a. the Tesla starter kit), our plug-in hybrid (Ford C-Max), and some left over to sell to the grid. And there’s more: because I think our power over animals is one of the last power imbalance hurdles society has to leap in its evolution, I’m a vegetarian. My wife and I conserve water and forgo air conditioning. We understand that the only oracle Man has at his disposal, erratic as it invariably is, is the scientific method and its clarifying sister, the peer review process. We trust no other, and that has changed our lives in ways I could never have believed back those many years ago on the sunflowered plains of my youth.
So that’s the journey’s story, though it’s not over. As I mentioned at the beginning, we are volunteers, having thrown our lot in with SanDiego350. In my youth I despised activists and now I am one. My parents, I suppose, are a little less than thrilled …
Oh, and did you notice? My long ago dream came to life—I finally have my own little power plant, silently churning out a torrent of electrons on our roof, day after sunny day. This time, perhaps that little fire we tend truly does approach the sacred. Who would have thought?
Bill O’Reilly maybe?
Mark Hughes has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kansas State and spent over 30 years in the power industry. Now retired, he has devoted a portion of his life to raising awareness about climate change, which he sees as the #1 threat to not just Mankind, but all life on Earth.