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Governor Brian Schweitzer in New York

May 18, 2006

Last week, I went to an event for Brian Schweitzer, the very green governor of Montana, in an Upper East Side townhouse in Manhattan.

Where Schweitzer is most exciting is, not surprisingly, where he is most expert: on the environment. Before his talk, I was in a circle with Schweitzer and another very expert person discussing things that quickly made me tune out: gasification versus liquification of… was it coal? Huh? Where’s the wine and cheese tray?

I wondered how this persona would differ from the persona speaking to the group–mostly investment bankers from Wall Street. And when he spoke to the general audience Schweitzer was exciting. He had that thing that Bush Sr famously confessed to lacking, the vision thing.

He discussed some astronomical amount of oil we import in all our glorious energy-dependence. In the late seventies or early eighties, during the last energy crisis, a lot of Americans began studying the problem, including Schweitzer. He is an expert in agro-industry technologies who went to Saudi Arabia around this time. They had oil but no food. He taught them irrigation and modern farming techniques and now they’re self-sustaining in both food and energy.

We have the reverse problem but have never dealt with it. We’re in crisis mode now, and if someone bombed a tanker in the narrow strait that most of our oil passes through, the price per barrel would double or triple.

Schweitzer proposes three ways to compensate for the –was it 6 billion barrels of–oil we import. (Sorry, wasn’t taking notes.) He proposed three fixes, which together add up to whatever the amount was.

1. Conservation–he thinks we can do a lot more to “make conservation cool.” Those of you living in big cities can imagine how much we could save if we sacrificed the aesthetics of skyline. (This is me, not the governor.)

2. Biofuels–ethanol and biodiesel, of course, would come from the products already grown in the heartland. If you saw 60 Minutes on ethanol and E85 a few weeks back, you’re as convinced as I am that this is a no-brainer, and imperative.

3. “The last way I’m gonna suggest is a four-letter word, most of you are not gonna wanna hear: coal.” Then Schweitzer was kind enough to explain those terms he was using that had bewildered me earlier. Gasification and liquification are cleaner ways to use coal. If I understood correctly, it somehow involves creating CO2 by pressurizing and heating the coal but not burning it–then storing the CO2 underground instead of sending it into the atmosphere, which, ironically, turns up more oil. So oil companies would be eager to invest in this too. And it’s clean and profitable. The U.S. has more coal than the rest of the planet combined.

He talked about how only I think less than one percent of the Chinese drive. When that goes up to 2 or 3 or 4 percent, the Chinese will be capable of putting more pollution into the atmosphere in a short time than the West has put out in 150 years. He had met with the Chinese recently and had been touting these new clean technologies to them.

With regard to ’06 and Dems in elections going forward, he mentioned telling the leadership that there are a few simple ways to win. (Wasn’t it Clinton who made the monumental seem so simple by reducing it to a three- or five-point plan?)

1. Dems need to be more likeable. (No argument here.) I think he said that Dems often come off as the smart kid in the class, while most Americans don’t feel like the smart kid in the class.

2. I think values was his second point: ho hom

3. “I’m not saying Democrats should wear their religion on their sleeves”… but mentioning God or prayer or going to church wouldn’t hurt, he said.

This last point was the first thing that irked me. If the Republicans stole the last election, as many reasonable Americans now believe (unless they watch only Fox), then giving away too much ground on the separation of church and state would be undemocratic, and un-Democratic. And unnecessary.

He also criticized Bush for losing Latin America. It may be effective politically but would be wrong factually to characterize the new left in Latin America as somehow anti-democracy or against our interests–for the main reason that all of these leaders in South America (da Silva, Morales, Chavez) were elected by huge majorities responding quite reasonably to decades of U.S.-sponsored coups, World Bank malfeasance and ineptitude, and corporate shenanigans in their regions. Not to mention foreign ownership of their resources. These things were never in the interest of ordinary Americans as they made us all less safe and were wrong.

To see Latin America’s resistance to Bushonomics as somehow distinct from U.S. Democrats’ seems to miss a real opportunity to define this moment in a positive, global and truly populist (democratic) light.

JW

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