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Letter from the Editor

Technology and Ecology

On the afternoon of August 14, we were 24 hours away from sending our fall issue to press. I was editing a story at my computer when suddenly there was a disconcerting, though muted, click, as if someone had flipped a switch, and my computer screen went dark. That little click had a strange resonance to it -- a collective swish, as though current everywhere were getting sucked back to its original source. I then noticed the lights were out. I looked across the street and saw people flinging open their windows, staring up and down the block with puzzled, worried looks. It was dawning on each of us that we had experienced something more than a simple computer crash. We had experienced a grid crash. The blackout of 2003 had just engulfed Manhattan.

The incident triggered much consternation and discussion about the grid -- what went wrong, who was to blame, what needed to get fixed. Industry leaders and politicians chanted a familiar refrain: We need more power lines, more power, more energy, more oil, more oil wells... But as you'll learn in this issue's cover story, "More Sky and Trees, Less Steel and Wire," by Craig Canine, the grid doesn't need more steel and wire; it needs more smarts. There are some forward-thinking transmission engineers in the Pacific Northwest who understand this: They're trying to build a smarter grid, not a bigger one. Vickie VanZandt, the chief grid engineer of the Bonneville Power Administration in Vancouver, Washington, is one of them. VanZandt, who oversees a huge network of power lines in the western United States, has adopted an array of technologically innovative "non-wires" solutions that are meant to limit the environmental damage -- plowed forests and scarred landscapes -- and the economic costs of building towers and stringing new cable. Others in the industry have begun to take note.

A more controversial technology will soon come on line in the Southeast: desalination. Because of massive overdevelopment there are a growing number of places in the United States running out of fresh drinking water. Some of these areas happen to be surrounded by water -- just the wrong kind. Desalination has been utilized in the Middle East since the 1950s, and numerous plants are now on the drawing boards here. The biggest plant in operation -- the subject of Ted Levin's story "Turning Oceans Into Tap Water" -- is located in Apollo Beach, Florida. But does desalination simply encourage our worst habits: building densely populated, badly planned communities in water-poor areas where people have no sensible right to build?

Happily, there are still places in the world that require no intervention, no artifice or human fix. Rick Bass describes one such area, a roadless patch in the northwest corner of Montana, in his essay "An American Eden." Here, you can still wander into a 10,000-acre garden perfectly in balance, precisely because it has never been meddled with. That kind of wilderness provides essential spiritual nourishment. Should this be lost, no amount of human ingenuity will ever restore it.

Douglas S. Barasch

More Sky and Trees, Less Steel and Wire
Bush Science
The Salamander Man
Saline Solutions

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council