Running Local

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Painted Painted Painted, Painted… White?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 16, 2009

The Rolling Stones saw a red door and wanted to paint it black. Steven Chu, US Energy Secretary and Nobel prize winner, saw a black roof and he wants to paint it white.

Either way it’s no colour anymore.

While Jagger’s nihilistic anthem grew to become one of the theme songs of the Vietnam War, Chu’s hopeful musing may grow to become a touchstone of the greening of America. You see, Steven Chu is smarter than you, me… well, pretty much everyone this side of Steven Hawking, and sometimes it takes genius to perceive and promote the obvious. We all know that dark colors absorb heat– it’s why we wear white in the summer– yet we seem to have forgotten that when we made our rooftops and roads black or other dark colors.


In a speech a couple of weeks ago, Chu pointed out that if (admittedly unrealistically) we all painted our roofs and roads white the carbon impact would be the same as removing all the world’s cars for eleven years. No cap and trade gyrations, no 17,000 page House Bills alleging to set a roadmap to saving the environment whole similarly saving ExxonMobil’s shareholders any undue pain, no laws enforcing the use of hu-manure in our landscaping to limit nitrogen fertilizer production. Just white paint, leading to a 10-20% reduction in electricity bills in a standard building while also killing off the “heat island” effect that those of us who live in large cities know all too well and reflecting solar radiation back into space, leading to an overall atmospheric cooling.

It seems so easy that it can’t really work, right? Yet there exists a large and ever growing body of research that Chu drew on in his comments that shows that not only do white roofs work, but they work better than initial estimates ever dreamed they could.

This dichotomy, the exquisitely simple answer for the dauntingly complex problem, is something that Americans are loathe to accept. We all complain about the complexity of life, the unneeded red tape of bureaucracy, the burying of common sense under layer upon layer of sophistry, yet when a simple idea comes along that can make a real impact we are conditioned to laugh it off or at the very best give it a shrugged, “Huh, that’s interesting… but what’s the catch?”. That, to me, is one of the most interesting challenges we Americans face as a society, this reverence for simplicity and common sense but our out of hand rejection of it when it appears.

It emerges so many times, just in the energy debate and in forms from the everyday to the grandiose. We are falling over ourselves to buy impractical and unsafe miniaturized cars in an effort to reduce carbon footprint… yet we won’t take a train or bus to get to work. We want vehicles that use less fuel, but instead of insisting upon real research into petroleum-free cars and trucks we have stalled out on this hybrid vehicle temporization which allows us to feel good about the direction we’re going in while actually stalling the progress towards the destination. A friend of this blog has for years been saying that what we need is an energy “Manhattan Project”, bringing together the best minds in a crash program to actually make an impact on energy problems… yet we spend even more money than that would take in uncoordinated fits and starts in a million directions that aren’t mutually supporting.

I won’t bother you with yet another call for a return to common sense– we’ve heard it a million times from some of the the least sensible people out there and we ignore it every time, perhaps because we have heard it a million times from some of the least sensible people out there. What I will do, though, is ask you to share with someone else (or with the comments section of this entry… hint hint) at least one of those dumb ideas you’ve had, the one that you say, “Nah, that couldn’t be right” but that keeps popping into your head. Forget how geekish it sounds, that it could be (hell, probably is) fundamentally flawed in some way, whatever. A Nobel Laureate is pimping the wonderfully non-complex idea of painting our rooftops white and using light colored cement for roads because it would make a huge difference in energy usage; can your ideas be much simpler or more obvious than that?

We laugh off so many ideas that seem unworkable because they aren’t nearly complex enough to mesh with our incredibly complex society; perhaps it is time to stop laughing and paint it white.


Posted in American Politics, Environment, Obama Cabinet | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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