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As Goes Japan...

Local author looks at responses to climate change — from the Pacific Rim to the Green Mountains


Published January 11, 2012 at 11:22 a.m.


In a recent New Yorker piece about a boutique coffee grower in El Salvador, the writer cites a single source for his recap of the global history of coffee: a book written by Mark Pendergrast of Colchester.

Pendergrast specializes in thoroughly researched histories of public-health topics with international reach — from Coca-Cola to, in his 2010 book, the globe-trotting Epidemic Intelligence Service.

His newest work is about Japan and what he calls “the most important public-health issue we’re facing in the next hundred years”: climate change. Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World is a small but amazingly comprehensive look at what the world’s third largest economy is doing to alleviate climate change. The author won an Abe Fellowship for Journalists to spend six weeks in Japan, and self-published his findings after his literary agent of 20 years deemed climate change an “old” and “unsaleable” topic.

Vermonters who have no particular interest in Japan would still do well to read Pendergrast’s sobering assessment of the energy scene there — and not just because his research is so consistently well regarded. The author argues, “As Japan tips, so may the world.” The island country is facing the same issues of peak oil and aging nuclear reactors that everyone is, he notes, “only sooner and more urgently.” This is the case not only because of “3/11” — as the Japanese call the March 2011 tsunami and resulting meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor — but because Japan imports all its fossil fuels, which account for nearly 80 percent of its energy consumption.

Pendergrast reports that efforts to bring renewable energy sources online are hampered by Japan’s electrical utilities, which are powerful monopolies with a revolving door to the government. And the Japanese tend to favor technology-heavy proposals, such as hydrogen-powered cars, while ignoring simpler, proven solutions, such as solar hot water. Natural-energy resources, including large tracts of planted cedar groves and geothermal, are underused. Instead, government money has spawned wood-pellet factories, though few Japanese use the expensive stoves or even insulate their mostly inefficient homes. The country has no equivalent of Efficiency Vermont.

Vermonters might feel a bit smug reading Japan’s Tipping Point, but Pendergrast, who has another book proposal in the wings about the state’s renewable-energy efforts, says there’s room for improvement in the Green Mountains, too.

Like the Japanese, he points out in an interview, we’re behind in the use of geothermal heat — a closed-loop system accessing constant, mild, below-ground temperatures available everywhere in the world.

“I don’t know why they don’t do it for new buildings in Vermont,” Pendergrast says. “I think it’s a matter of expense. And I think there aren’t many businesses here that know how to do it,” he adds. Pendergrast uses the same blunt manner in his book to assess Japan’s Eco-Model Cities program, a well-intentioned but often misguided collection of sustainability efforts.

Like Japan, Vermont may also be facing a future without nuclear, which currently provides a third of the state’s energy. If Vermont’s legislature is successful in shutting down Vermont Yankee — a federal judge’s decision is likely to come soon, though it’s sure to be appealed — the state will have to fill the gap for a time with fossil fuel purchased elsewhere, Pendergrast predicts.

In part that’s because the cards are stacked against renewables, he notes. “In this country, we’ve been subsidizing oil and nuclear for decades, so it’s not really an even playing field to start with for renewable energy,” Pendergrast says. One countermeasure is the feed-in tariff for renewables that Vermont adopted in 2009, becoming the first state to do so. Japan’s FIT will take effect this year — one of the few positives reported in Japan’s Tipping Point.

Pendergrast is grateful that Vermont utilities are helping to bring renewable energy sources online rather than hindering the process, as in Japan. “On the other hand,” he adds, “we have people here arguing that wind turbines are terrible for your health. I’m the epidemiology person [he explored that field in his book on the Epidemic Intelligence Service], so I look at things based on the studies. There just aren’t the studies to indicate that.”

Pendergrast applauds the many Vermonters who grow some of their own food, a practice that’s fallen out of favor among the Japanese. But, he adds, “one thing they can’t face up to in Japan and Vermont is that we have to substantially change our way of life. We’re eating fresh fruit in January when we should be eating root vegetables.”

Japan does have amazingly fast, on-time trains, Pendergrast notes. By contrast, “I think in Vermont, the big elephant in the room is transportation. We all need cars, and we have terrible public transportation,” he declares, and adds that he “can’t even take a bus” from Colchester to Burlington. Praising the coming adoption of a statewide smart grid, Pendergrast suggests that one solution is widespread use of electric cars that would be charged during off-peak hours.

Japan has one small climate-change-busting practice that Vermonters — not to mention other Americans — have yet to adopt: fermenting human waste to create compost. Japanese farmers have valued so-called “night soil” for centuries. Pendergrast found one plant in Yusuhara with a collection system that recycled 40 percent of the town’s human excrement, saving measurably on sewage-treatment costs. Something to aspire to, Vermonters.

"Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World" by Mark Pendergrast, Nature’s Face Publications, 122 pages. $10 paperback, $2.99 e-book.