A Hundred Years of Attitude: Bachmann, soap and the hazards of clever

I can’t help thinking about Michelle Bachmann when I travel by air. More specifically, when I go into an airport bathroom.  Since I’ve been traveling, I have had plenty of opportunity to think about her these last couple of weeks. It’s not because of  her widely reported 2005 flight from a public restroom in what she claimed was a foiled lesbian abduction attempt and which her “assailants” (and the county attorney) described as an attempt (using their indoor voices) to discuss same sex marriage. No, this is about washing my hands.

It is universal now in airports that washing hands is dependent on functioning sensors that trigger the release carefully measured increments of soap, water and (when offered) paper towels. Any readers who use these modern conveniences will know without my telling them, that they often do not work properly, requiring you to wave your hands around under the specified appliance in varying flight patterns and sometimes move to the next station. The Bradley Corporation – “The Public Washroom Experts” – boasts on the “Future Airport” web site that their technologies promote water and energy savings as well as saving precious seconds for the traveler.

It seems to be working. It is reported that around 30% of airport travelers (the statistic varies some by airport) don’t wash their hands after using the facilities. If these technologies are contributing to that outcome then the program is a stunning success, producing savings in all of the promised metrics. While waving-your-hand technologies are establishing themselves in truck stops, restaurants and convention halls, there is also hope for the home consumer.  The Moen Corporation poses it this way:

“If you’ve often found yourself hand washing in an airport bathroom, thinking ‘Why doesn’t my kitchen faucet work like this?’ then Moen has a new faucet for you.”

Now I grew up in a place where the water was collected from the rain and power outages were an expected feature of the fall hurricane season (notice I called them “power outages,” not “power failures,” which would suggest something unexpected or outside of the norm). My way of planning – such as it is – revolves around the question of how I will get things done if something goes wrong. To me the nineteenth century plumbing systems that bring us piped water without need of electric eyes and computer chips is reassuring. So is the little soap pump and the ancient but reliable technology of the hand towel.

The fine people at the Bradley and Moen companies do not think in such negative terms. It’s not about what might go wrong; it’s about what might go right. The entire hand-waving revolution is based on a different set of questions from mine. The first of them is “How can I utilize the tricks I have to get people to buy lots and lots of stuff.”  The second question is… … … hmmmmm, I thought for sure I’d think of one right about now. OK, I guess it’s based on only one question.

I think it all comes down to the distinction between wisdom and cleverness (wise people will be more likely to catch the difference than clever ones). Let me set the stage. We live in a time of environmental damage too massive to inventory and climatic instability too spooky to admit. We are depending on an increasingly expensive and dirty reserve of fossil fuels and the folks who control them have prevented cleaner and freer energy alternatives from threatening their monopoly. That makes the prospects for an unending and reliable supply of electricity questionable at best. Now a wise person might wonder how to leverage what capacity we have (human, financial and material) to choreograph a smooth transition to a sustainable future. Clever people, not constrained by such anti-business concepts as “future generations,” take a more visionary approach: “We only have a limited amount of time in which to create and sell a billion new unnecessary electricity-dependent gadgets!” In fact this would be a good time to convert all of the world’s cultural and scientific literature into ones and zeros and downsize libraries to the size of an iphone! While we’re at it, let’s see how many daily activities we can make dependent on electric outlets and remote controls!

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cleverness. In fact, with a little wisdom thrown in, our clever ideas could be delighting our descendants for generations. Without it, it’s a bit like selling all the latest gaming consoles to the passengers on the Titanic. Which brings me around (as promised) to Michelle Bachmann.

Some time back (I don’t have the specific citation but I have the feeling it was some time back), I heard sister Bachmann declare that evil environmentalists were pulling the wool over the people’s eyes with their assertions about running out of energy. If we fully employ fracking and tars sands extraction we will easily have enough power for a hundred years! That’s the cleverness speaking. I suspect she would be confused if I were to ask her, “then what?”

To give it perspective, we have burned through a four billion year fossil fuel savings account in just two hundred and fifty years (the majority of it in my lifetime). In the meantime we have been marinated in solar energy waves which already power all the life of the oceans, land and air. We are massaged (and sometimes buffeted upside the head) by winds, triggered by solar heat; by geothermal energy generated by nuclear reactions deep in the Earth; and by lunar power in the form of the tides. And instead of tapping that free income, we burn through our savings to fuel massively inefficient agricultural and transportation systems, vast military capacity and a continent of plastic junk in the Pacific Ocean. Ms Bachmann promises (without any apparent evidence) that we could keep up orgy of waste for another ten decades!

On part of my recent trip I was able to travel between cities by the sensible means of rail. If our country were guided by wisdom rather than superficial (but profitable) cleverness, we might have a high speed rail system connecting our geography. We might heat and cool our homes out of income, not saving. We might grow food by nurturing soil, not pouring imported fertilizer. And I might be able to wash my hands without thinking of Michelle Bachmann.

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