The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet
- By Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis
- Simon & Schuster
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- November 25, 2022
An overwhelming subject is broken into doable, daunting components.
Cracker Barrel might’ve caused a ruckus this summer when it introduced a plant-based sausage to its menu, but I’m guessing the authors of The Big Fix gave a little cheer. Finding ways to cut back on meat is just one item on the list of actions Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis assign to us in the existential battle to save the planet and, hopefully, ourselves.
As advertised, The Big Fix breaks its massive subject into seven large-scale sectors of daily life that impact climate, including manufacturing, agriculture, construction, population density, and — the through-line for all other topics — energy production and use. Their target is net-zero emissions by 2050, and the book is their call for all hands on deck. No matter how they slice up the problem, though, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.
The authors start by explaining the economic concept of the learning curve, which, contrary to its popular usage, is one that starts high and drops over time. That drop represents the cost of production as sales increase, production expands, and the workforce learns how to manufacture the product more efficiently. Along the curve, additional innovation often crops up.
The concept is important to their argument about the need to invest in innovations that will bring us cleaner ways of producing and using energy, even though the innovations are initially more expensive than their older, dirtier counterparts. Government is almost always required to invest in early investigation and production, and to serve as an initial buyer in order to hit the downslope on the learning curve and make the innovation cost-competitive.
One wonders how much faster solar-panel technology would’ve hit the curve if the panels Jimmy Carter installed at the White House in the late 1970s hadn’t been ripped out by his successor. Now, at least, both solar and wind-turbine technology are far along on the learning curve; Harvey and Gillis cite them to illustrate the progression of innovation in clean-energy technology.
(It’s worth noting that Republicans have been major supporters of wind power in the middle section of the country, not because they believe in or care about climate change, but because it’s a big boost to rural economic development. Make it profitable, and they will come.)
The Big Fix is targeted to the general public, describing ways we can think globally and act locally, and encouraging us to consider specific causes to engage with on a local or state level, where individual involvement can have the biggest impact. The authors posit that, far more than being green consumers, “we all need to become green citizens. We need to focus, together, on a relatively small number of public policies that can, over time, bring about sweeping change.” Helpfully, they mention several organizations to get involved with, including American Forests, the League of Conservation Voters, and Vote Solar.
The mantra here is “electrify everything,” underscored with the authors’ bedrock position that the electricity must be generated via clean technology. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it’s still a polluter, so it’s on the chopping block. The jury is still out on whether nuclear plants will be utilized in the future, but the old ones will have to keep working long enough to usher us into an era of clean, safe energy production regardless.
Along with clean energy production is the need for efficient energy use — the authors would like us to embrace modern heat pumps — cleaner ways of manufacturing critical materials, and better use of land, both for housing people and for raising food. Thus, beef = bad, pork = better, chicken = best, which is what the Chick-fil-A cow has been telling us for years.
Harvey and Gillis do a good job of explaining the ins and outs of each sector they address and then discussing how those things might be improved. Their real-world examples and anecdotes help ground these ideas — such as establishing Bus Rapid Transit or wiring electricity users into a “smart grid” — in the realm of the feasible. If it’s been done successfully somewhere, it can be done just as successfully elsewhere.
They suggest a similar model for establishing nationwide government standards in any number of industries. For example, “The government can look at the best-performing existing cement or steel plants for proof of what is possible, and make that the new minimum for all plants — then repeat the exercise every four or five years.”
There are, however, some eager projections that made me wonder about the law of unintended consequences. What could possibly go wrong with offshore wind turbines large enough that “two Airbus A-380s, the largest passenger plane in the sky, could fly through the circle [traced by its blades] side-by-side — with room left between them for a half-dozen American fighter jets”? And continuing to consider building “clean” coal plants that pump CO2 into the earth ignores that fact that burning coal also produces coal ash, a major polluter of groundwater.
As I write this, President Biden has just addressed COP27, a major international climate conference, during which he pledged that America will pull its weight “to avert…climate hell” and apologized for the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, adding that he rejoined it as soon as he could.
This highlights an issue that takes us back to where we started: Cracker Barrel. The fact that its modest menu update was decried as “woke” by a certain portion of the populace underscores one of the major challenges to prioritizing the climate: the biennial whipsawing of political forces that comes from only half the electorate believing climate change is a valid concern.
But now that Gen-Z — beginning to hit voting age and steeped in global-warming anguish — has shown us what can happen with enthusiastic and widespread political engagement, we’re in a much more hopeful climate for The Big Fix to hit its mark.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.