Monday, April 30, 2018

One Nation Under Smog: or, how I became disillusioned with the Taiwanese left

Today was disgusting. So was yesterday. I don't mean I had a bad day. I mean the air was literally disgusting - it made my throat scratchy, my nose inflamed, my eyes sting and my stomach a little upset.

I felt annoyed, ill - literally sick, disgusted and nauseated - but something else too. I felt a deep-seated, wide-ranging anger. 

Years ago, I was hanging out with my (adult) students and nuclear power came up. I said that while I agreed nuclear power was a bad idea in Taiwan for a number of reasons, I didn't actually support phasing it out immediately, while Taiwan's energy policies in other areas were so short-sighted. Of course I was aware of the problems with nuclear power: nowhere to store spent fuel rods, "dirty plants" where safety standards were alleged to not be met, especially around cooling/recirculation tanks (despite assurances that they conformed to a high standard of safety), and of course the fears that Taiwan's vulnerability to natural disasters. These include earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis - could result in a Fukushima-style disaster in Taiwan, where such an event would be even more disastrous given the country's size.

But, what was the alternative? Fossil fuels? That would not only be bad for the environment as a whole, but for Taiwan's air quality in particular. Alternative energy would be best, and we probably have the technology to make that a reality for most of our energy needs, but nobody seemed interested in actually developing it. There has been some investment into wind power, but not enough. Besides, even though I don't think wind is the answer, the same activists who campaigned to shut down the nuclear plants also campaigned against wind farms (sometimes for good reasons, I should add.)

Solar comes with its own set of government cock-ups that are only now being rectified: the government is only now tackling harmful and outdated regulations regarding energy generated through home solar panels (in the past, you had to sell the power you generated to Taipower first at a crummy rate, and have it sold back to you. Hence, nobody bothered to explore solar power for their homes.)

The push to explore solar and geothermal generally was limited and insufficient (given how geothermically active Taiwan is, geothermal is probably our best bet - but not a lot of money being poured into it). Taiwan's buildings would need to be restructured in a huge way, or at least, any new buildings would have to take the country's climate into account, building in cross-breezes, overhangs and using the right materials to reduce how much air conditioning was necessary in the summer. No more stifling concrete boxes.

And I just could not support gunking up Taiwan's air by going back to fossil fuels.

Even when trying to clean up fossil fuel-powered plants, it's a hash. As my friend and Central Taiwan news guru Donovan Smith noted:

In fact, Taipower recently announced they are adding two new gas-fired units to the Taichung Power Plant, bringing the total units up to 12. Many or most people had thought they were going to use those two to replace two of the coal-fired units, but nope. A general rule of thumb is gas-fired units are about half as polluting as coal. That means cumulatively that is effectively adding one more coal-fired unit.

Fast-forward to today. And yesterday. And so many days before.

The left won: the nuclear plants are shutting down. The chances that the fourth plant at Gongliao will be finished and activated are essentially zero - and frankly, bringing it online is a bad idea anyway.

And now the air is filthy. In much of Taiwan it has been for awhile - Taipei folks just didn't notice it because it rarely impacted us. All of those power plants and other industrial waste-producing hellscapes were far enough from us that our air was still relatively clean. Now we're getting a taste of what the rest of the country has been saying for awhile.

The Taiwanese left was unforgivably myopic: they yelled and screamed to shut down nuclear power, but didn't present any sort of push for consistent renewable energy policy. "I guess pushing for renewables isn't as sexy as pushing against nuclear," people who understood my point said. "They're just not going to win the zeitgeist talking about that."

Okay, but if you don't, and you only shout about what is "sexy" enough to get attention, then your push to change society can have unintended consequences. You're nothing but gadflies, not serious policymakers searching for real solutions.

If all you do is push to shut one thing down without thinking ahead to how things will be handled in the future, frankly, that's no more visionary than the KMT building a bunch of crap-ass buildings in the 20th century that are all now falling apart and are so energy-inefficient it's a joke because they couldn't be bothered to spend real money creating sustainable architecture for a subtropical climate, and building most cities in Taiwan without viable public transit which creates vehicular pollution. All you're doing is creating another problem.

Real change means tackling the unsexy things. It means actually writing and pushing policy proposals that solve issues and take future consequences into account. It means thinking through your own freakin' beliefs to see what the outcomes might be, and addressing them. I don't see that that has been done by anti-nuclear activists or the people they've put in power.

Yet, even now, I see few from the anti-nuclear activist camp going to bat over renewable energy. Some of them are protesting air pollution: great - but ultimately ineffective. I'm sick of protests that don't offer solutions.

So what we will have is a ghost island: not just in terms of talent leaving, but also the ghostly pallor of the grey air. The ghosts of good intentions, the ghost of what Taiwan could have been if the right people just thought through what really needs to change and pushed for it in the right ways.

So we have the activists/Third Force/Taiwanese left putting on a great show of wanting to change Taiwan - and I do believe they are sincere. But they're just not thinking their ideas through and it's infuriating.

Then there is the KMT. In the words of New Bloom:

In truth, if there is any one to blame for issues regarding nuclear energy or air pollution in Taiwan, it is the KMT, which ruled over Taiwan’s developmentalist state unchallenged for decades during the authoritarian period and built up both the coal-fired power plants that contribute to Taiwanese air pollution and the nuclear power plants which many see as dangerous to Taiwan in the event of environmental catastrophes. There is no political party in Taiwan more beholden to the nuclear lobby than the KMT. Yet the KMT leverages on these issues anyway against the DPP, illustrating not only hypocrisy, but how the KMT truly stands for little else besides rote opposition to the DPP at this point.

However, I disagree with the overly-tidy (and easy) conclusion that we can brush our hands, blame the KMT and move on. As the party who has historically held power, they do deserve most of the blame. However, the left's lack of initiative in finding real energy solutions to make their anti-nuclear rhetoric sustainable also deserves criticism.

Then there's the DPP, who are mostly concerned with staying in power and don't seem to be interested in addressing any of the real issues. Caving to the anti-nuclear activists, leaning more heavily on fossil fuels, and just not doing what needs to be done to make renewable energy a reality.

Amidst this circus, the electorate acknowledges it's a problem but only ever blame the party in charge, or the party they don't like. I'm sure many do look more deeply at the bigger problem of nobody in charge having the faintest idea what they are doing or when they do,  using it for their own gain, but I don't see it. I have to hope their are better people working behind the scenes, but I don't see that, either.

I don't know what else to say. I'm mad and disappointed, and I can't breathe. Those in power don't seem interested or able to really fix the problem. The opposition is, if anything, worse. The Third Force activists don't think through what they fight for nearly as often as they should. Taiwan has smarter people than this. We can do better.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still a leftie liberal bleeding heart bastard. But, I support doing the difficult, unsexy work that I feel the Taiwanese left is not doing - the stuff that's not always so wonderfully idealistic. I'm still pro-independence and pro-Taiwan. I still think this country is worth fighting for. I just can't support half-baked activism anymore. We can't trust the KMT or DPP to get us out of this mess, which means we have to look to the left, but the left needs to be smarter. It needs to start tackling unsexy issues.