Like many of you, I began my day in a state of shock at the news that has now stunned the globe. For me, that state of shock is finally starting to wear off as I try to get this out before bed. Against all odds, the American people (actually only about a quarter of us) elected a man who has no public service experience, no sense of shame, and apparently no significant relationship with reality to be our commander in chief, the global spokesman of our people, and the leader of the most powerful nation human civilization has ever seen. Not only that, but we allowed a political party, which almost categorically denies that the greatest crisis facing humanity either exists or has anything to do with our actions, to gain even greater control over the highest legislative body in the land. These two things happened while a vacant seat remains on the highest court in the land, which has become almost as ideologically polarized as the heretofore-gridlocked Congress.
The situation in which we now find ourselves had not entered my mind as a legitimate possibility until early this morning when the last of the swing states were being tallied. The entire day, I walked through a fog, lost in contemplative disbelief, with the unshakeable feeling that I had been through some disastrous and irrevocable loss. Up until today, I had been assuring everyone that we would “dodge the bullet”, that things would continue as normal, and that even in the unlikely event that we elected a loose cannon to the White House, the system would burden him too much for any real harm to be done. In the current situation, that is not so clear, but now that several hours have passed, it has finally become clear that this is real. Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States in cooperation with the Republican-controlled 115th Congress.
One of the primary reasons that I continually downplayed the outcome of this election was that national politics tends to have so little influence on the ins and outs of most people’s daily lives. Especially now that I’m on the far side of the world, I couldn’t imagine how this would directly affect me. Yet, seeing it for real, I immediately knew that this would have a real and immediate impact on my life.
To understand this, you must understand that I have only recently found real direction in my life. After an all-too-cliche epiphany last summer, I realized that the most productive and fulfilling way for me to utilize my short life was to pursue with all my effort the development of a global sustainable energy system. Its full logical development is beyond this post, but my personal ethic demands that I do all I can to perpetuate human society, and the effects of climate change have the potential to destroy, or at least significantly destabilize, human civilization as we know it. If we wish to continue our progress toward a healthier, happier, and more peaceful world, we will need a sustainable energy system to do it.
A debate I’ve had with myself frequently during my past three months abroad is where I ought to end up when this program finishes next summer. I have fully enjoyed my time here in Sweden. Although I have largely been insulated from it because of the international profile of our class, I find that I fit well into the Swedish culture. Though I haven’t yet experienced a full winter this far north, the climate here has been quite agreeable to me up to this point. Despite the long nights and cold that keeps getting colder, the hope of catching a glimpse of the aurora (which I did in Uppsala, not here in Visby) is a strong force pulling me as far north as I can manage. While Swedish cities are certainly pretty (I’ve repeatedly described Visby as “lovely”), the Swedish countryside has little more charm for me than the American midwest. I miss the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains I once so foolishly took for granted. Yet, there is a place up north where the Scandinavian culture is still comfortable, the language manageable, and climate comfortable (for me) that does host some of the most incredible scenery in the world. Just across the border, there are many opportunities for a recent graduate of wind power project management. Indeed, I have made two contacts in just the past few weeks who, combined with my knowledge and skills, could definitely lead to employment opportunities in Norway. After meeting the second of these contacts on Sunday, the outlook for my intermediate future was very bright.
But the other side of my internal debate had just been handed some new evidence, and suddenly it held a trump card. (pun intended)
Part of pursuing “with all my effort the development of a global sustainable energy system,” is doing so in a way that will best amplify my efforts. Even if I am the best project developer in the world, if I only work to squeeze more wind power into saturated energy systems like Scotland’s, my impact is hardly more than local. Even potentially working as an engineer with a software company in Norway that produces a popular wind simulation software, my impact would likely be niche, aiding the global effort to get turbines on the grid indirectly by improving a useful but not indispensable tool.
In order to maximize my impact, I ought to be directly contributing to wind development in a market that has loads of untapped resources and ready transmission. I ought to work directly in bringing power online in massive projects and being present for the impending development of improved transmission and integration plans. Even more importantly, though, I ought to be somewhere that I can influence the regulatory environment to more accurately reflect the urgency of our transition from fossil fuels.
Norway has the potential to produce more than its electricity demand from renewables and hosts the largest market penetration of electric vehicles. Its government was one of the first in the world to implement a carbon tax, and its state oil company, StatOil, is a world leader in offshore wind energy technology.
Norway has its act together; they don’t need me. There is a country that does.
One of the biggest takeaways for me from Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film Before the Flood, is the fact that the United States could make or break the global effort to end fossil fuel use. If the US does not get its energy consumption under control, significantly and rapidly transition its energy profile to renewables, and use its global influence to help developing nations to do the same, the world may never get there. With the results of yesterday’s election, those goals just became infinitely more difficult.
The legislation of a country determines the “rules of the sandbox.” A government can pick an economy’s winners and losers by taxing some industries while subsidizing others. Right now, the cost of fossil fuels is artificially low both because of government handouts to the industry and because of a lack of monetization of the damage done by burning fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry operates like a local business that gets paid to throw its waste in the community swimming pool. When on January 20th, Washington, D.C. welcomes in a legislature that won’t discuss climate change and an executive who has called it a hoax, this legislation is unlikely to change for the better.
And this is exactly what I’ve been contemplating today: the fact that renewable energy in the United States is going to need all the help it can get. Not only will I be able to bring back the project management and technical knowledge I have gained here, but I will come back to a political environment in which I had just started to become active when I left. The United States is a country that needs me, a country needed by the world, and a country in which I can make an impact.
Presented in this way, the choice is obvious, but I still don’t like it. I love it here in Scandinavia. I don’t want to leave. I’ve found myself more comfortable here than I had been the last time I was in the US, and that was in a United States of a popular Democratic president and an extended production tax credit (a subsidy for wind power). The United States I will return to may look very different, and I fear that I will struggle to fit in, as I have for years. Yet, I may not be able to justify my efforts if I remain here. If I cannot work to my fullest potential toward this goal, I will live with that weight over my head. It is a feeling that I’m not doing my best, a feeling that I have given up, a feeling that I have reneged on a commitment. again.
America, it was almost two years ago now that I penned my vitriolic manifesto of why I was leaving, never to return. Yet on my second attempt to extricate myself from your bonds, my arguments for remaining at a distance feel ever more like pitiful excuses to run from problems that demand solutions. So, hello, America. Unless I can find a damn good reason why you don’t need me in order to be the leader the world needs you to be, I’ll see you next summer.