Harvey Wasserman is an activist sage, a social change visionary and prolific author. A journalist and historian, he has for over three decades fought for a renewable green future and an America that lives up to its professed ideals. His new book SOLARTOPIA! Our Green Powered Earth, A.D. 2030 is a report from the future, from a world that has successfully made the transition from the age of coal, oil, and nuclear energy to a fully sustainable civilization built on renewable energy.

What is most striking about Wasserman's vision, as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. notes in his foreword to SOLARTOPIA! is that all of the technology needed to midwife this transition already exists. All that is needed is the will to make the change.

In 1968, Wasserman helped found the Liberation News Service and Massachusetts' communal/organic Montague Farm, now home to the Zen Peacemaker Community, International. In 1973 he helped pioneer the global grassroots movement against atomic reactors, and coined the phrase "No Nukes" in 1974. He was a media spokesperson for the Clamshell Alliance and helped organize mass demonstrations at Seabrook, New Hampshire against reactors being built there.

Wasserman has appeared on National Public Radio, Today, Nightline, Lou Dobbs Tonight and other major media. He has been a senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an investigative reporter, and senior editor of The Columbus Free Press and

SOLARTOPIA! is available at

REDWOOD: At a time when great environmental destruction is occurring and a worldwide scientific consensus predicts much, much more, your book SOLARTOPIA! comes as a surprise. It looks back from the vantage point of the year 2030, when the world has transitioned to a sustainable economy and culture. Are you as optimistic as your book is?

WASSERMAN: I am. I'm genuinely optimistic because I see we have the technology to make the transition to a world based on renewable energy, and I've always been a believer in the ability of human social movements to make political and cultural change. I believe that our species has a built-in survival mechanism and that we will not allow ourselves to be extincted on this planet. I see getting to Solartopia more as a question of ecological and economic survival and less as a utopian fantasy. The year 2030 is chosen because I don't think the planet can sustain our ecocidal rampage much past that. So I think our survival mechanisms will kick in and we will do what we must to survive, which is transition to Solartopia.

In his introduction to SOLARTOPIA!, Robert Kennedy, Jr. mentions the 1953 Paley Commission report, commissioned by President Truman and delivered in 1952. It recommended that the United States lead the world by building an economy based on renewables. Why didn't this happen?

Because in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower opted for the so-called 'peaceful atom,' which is the ultimate oxymoron. He took us down the wrong path. It was a trillion dollar error and really has cost us many trillions of dollars when you figure in the true costs of the wars we have fought for energy since 1953. We could have embarked on a path of renewables 54 years ago that would have gotten us to a place where we would now be energy self-sufficient. All of the things that I predict in SOLARTOPIA! could have been real today had it not been for the essentially military decision to build nuclear power plants.

There are many examples in SOLARTOPIA! of practical applications of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources, where your narrator-historian looks back from 2030 and cites examples of projects started somewhere between 1980 and 2006, mostly in Europe, that eventually fully replaced the petroleum economy. Could you tell us about some of these things that are happening now, that you see as the first steps?

Germany is actually saturated on its land-based wind sites. They have built so many windmills that they're pretty much out of space for building more. Spain is approaching a similar situation. You're going to see -- certainly by 2030, and way before that - all of Europe covered with wind power wherever it's available. One of the important things about Solartopia is that none of it is magical. It's all based on currently available technology. One of the messages is that you can project out, based on what we have now, a totally sustainable economy in 2030. We don't have to have any magical new inventions to get us over some hump. No perpetual motion machine, no multiplying the energy of solar. Everything we need to get to a 100 percent green economy, we have today. It's reasonable to project improvements but it's also reasonable to understand that this is not some pie-in-the-sky, deus ex machina scenario. We have what we need right now.

One of the things I talk about a lot is offshore wind power, which was first envisioned by William Heronemus, from the University of Massachusetts, who did sketches of large wind arrays which would be set up offshore. I just came across some sketches of his that were sent to me by a cohort of his at the University of Massachusetts, and he does not have windmills inside what we call the Golden Triangle between Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.


That's where they're fighting over it. All the big windmills are five miles offshore. So what I envision in SOLARTOPIA! is very large platforms in the ocean, as Heronemus did. Multiple windmills on them and solar collectors, tidal and ocean thermal generators, and also artificial reefs, so that we can start to revive our oceans.

What are the artificial reefs made of?

Strong filaments which will collect algae and barnacles and serve as feeding stations. I believe that, at least in the interim, we're going to have to put nutrients into the ocean to revive the fish populations, and that's do-able based on new algae that we're finding already, and renewable-based growth of sustainable crops that can help rebuild fish populations and other key pieces of the marine ecology. The oceans are now in very bad shape. They're being over-fished. And the answer is not fish farming. We may have to juice up the ocean with nutrients to revive fish populations, but fish farming is not going to work.

It seems to be just factory farming under water.

That's right. That's a good phrase, actually.

In Solartopia in 2030, our current use of vast tracts of land to raise animals for meat, and to raise the grain to feed them, has changed drastically. There are both environmental and moral aspects to this issue. How did you deal with it in your book?

In Solartopia, much less meat will be eaten, for health, financial and ecological reasons. Factory farming has already been proven unsustainable. But Solartopia is a feisty, argumentative place. Not everyone will be a "Vegetopian," nor will meat, fish or dairy consumption disappear. Likewise, there will be no magical unanimity on issues of population and reproduction. But with the empowerment of women, we can envision a natural balance.

Why are renewables considered by some to be less economically viable today than petroleum?

They're not doing the math. You have a lot of people with vested interests in petroleum. But if you do the math and calculate in the ecological costs of petroleum, the health costs of petroleum and the military costs of petroleum, it's not even close. There's no real price competition between solar and other forms of renewables, when compared to petroleum. Petroleum has been priced out of the market. And the scenario of getting to Solartopia is based in part on a rational assessment of the true costs of petroleum. Once you do that, petroleum is out of the ballpark.

So absent the need for petroleum, you don't think the United States would be engaging in wars in the Middle East.

No, absolutely not. This war in Iraq is about Bush proving himself to his father, it's about Republican scare tactics to hold onto the government, it's about military profiteering by Halliburton. But ultimately, it's about oil. There's simply no mistaking the fact that Iraq is a country that happens to have huge oil reserves, that the United States is addicted to oil, and that's why the military is there. It's no different than a junkie breaking into someone's house to take their dope stash. That's what this war is, really.

Corn and soy based ethanol and often touted (particularly when presidential candidates campaign in Iowa) as model renewables. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? Are people still burning corn in Solartopia in the year 2030?

Absolutely not. There is no corn-based ethanol in the future and no soy-based diesel. Maybe for the next few years. But in Solartopia and, you will see, very soon in the real world, there will be no using annual food crops for fuel. It's not sustainable. I do believe there is an energy gain from using corn for ethanol. People argue about that one. There's very definitely an energy gain using soy for diesel. That is clearly a more efficient use of a food crop than corn-based ethanol. Ethanol is a very good idea, and there's a huge place for ethanol in the future, but it's not going to come from corn or any other food crop.

What will it come from?

It will come from hemp, from miscanthus, from switchgrass, from poplar trees. There will be other crops very soon that we'll get our ethanol from.

Why are these sustainable?

First of all, they're perennials. The major problem with corn is that you have to plant it every year. It makes no sense. It's a tremendously energy-intensive process to plant crops. You want crops that will come back year after year, like hemp. Anybody who's grown hemp (and I'll bet many of your readers have) understands that it reseeds itself. You can plant a crop like hemp for many years without having to rotate your crops plant that does not wreck the soil in the short term; it puts nutrients back into the soil, unlike corn, which really ruins the soil if you plant it too often. Soy is also an annual crop. That means you have to expend the energy to replant it year after year. But rapeseed (canola), hemp, and other good-for-oil crops are perennials. They will displace soy very quickly. Biodiesel and bioethanol are both very useful and important fuels, but we're not using the right crops right now.

How important are photovoltaics in the Solartopian future?

Photovoltaics (PV) constitute one of the three basic fuels of Solartopia. They are what I call the Solartopian Trinity, which is wind, solar (most importantly PV) and biofuels. Photovoltaics are at the core of the Solartopian model because they allow the generation of electricity on every building in the world. There's this myth that King CONG (the Coal, Oil, Nukes, and Gas industries) puts out, that in order to have photovoltaics you have to cover a land mass the size of Arizona. That might be true, but the land mass is not going to be Arizona, but the rooftops of every building in the world. That's the beauty of photovoltaics. You put them on the rooftop or on the south side of the buildings and you have no transmission costs. This is a huge deal; we lose a tremendous percentage of our generated electricity by putting it over wires. Whereas if you put it on your rooftop there's no such problem, no loss of capacity. So photovoltaics are right at the heart of the Solartopian model of energy self-sufficiency.

Is the idea here that buildings will produce more energy than they will consume?

Yes, because you are also going to have ultra-efficiency. You know, we're putting in these compact fluorescent bulbs. They're very good and very important, but they will very quickly be transcended by LED (light-emitting diodes) which use a fraction of the electricity used by compact fluorescents. We have a huge surplus of production that is wasted and that can be recaptured with increased efficiency. So the path to Solartopia is already partly greased with all this excess energy we can very simply and cheaply reclaim and re-direct. The presumption that we need huge new levels of consumption in the future is thus false, because we waste so much of what we have now, and what we will be building will be so much more efficient, especially as we transition to mass transit.]

In the Solartopian future, do the countries that we now call the Third World manage to leap-frog past the Age of Oil?

Yes, you'll see a lot of Third World countries that are never going to get addicted to coal, oil, or even natural gas for their energy sources. They won't have to build a grid either. Some of the countries in Africa don't have a grid, don't have central generating stations and never will because they can go straight to photovoltaics. It's just the same as with cellular phones; countries that are industrializing, those few that are left that don't have telephone systems, will never build a telephone grid. They'll all be using cellular phones. You have a lot of houses built in the United States today that don't have telephone wiring. You don't need it. What's the point? That's a big plus for the future of Solartopia, a huge avoided cost.

You write that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the end of the Age of Oil. This obviously hasn't quite played out yet. The Bush Administration seems to be the quintessential Age of Oil administration. Looking back from 2030, how did we get past this?

I made a decision not to mention Bush in the book. He will be so insignificant. He's done a tremendous amount of damage but he's a dinosaur. Everything they're doing is the flailing of the tail of a dying dinosaur. So, they have done their best to hold back the necessary technological revolution, but ultimately the steps they're not taking will be rapidly taken by other people and by future leaders. And actually, they will be driven by money. That's the other thing that's important to understand about the future of renewables. There are political decisions to be made. The primary political decision is to force fossil fuels and nuclear power to pay their true costs, which they're avoiding currently.

The people with the money, the big money, are going to abandon fossil and nuclear power very rapidly. They're in the process now. There is unlimited capital right now for wind power. If you have a viable wind site and you can get a buyer for your wind-driven electricity and the necessary permits, there will be people lining up at your door to fund your project. John Deere, Warren Buffet, Edison Capital, Goldman Sachs, all the big players have seen that the investments in wind power are hugely profitable. Next will be photovoltaics and biofuels.

Do you see a massive number of wind farms blooming across the prairies and other parts of the United States?

West of the Mississippi, we will be saturated, although I think we'll run out of demand before we run out of supply from wind power west of the Mississippi. The windmills in Minnesota now are incredibly profitable. The return on the dollar is enormous and getting higher. I won't say there's infinite wind out there, but we know that with current technology, there's enough wind in North Dakota, Texas and Kansas alone to provide 100 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States, even as inefficient as we are.

I doubt that many people are aware of that.

Between the Mississippi and the Rockies, there is 300 percent. In other words, you could take currently available wind turbines, plant them in the states between the Mississippi and the Rockies, and harvest 300 percent of the electricity that we now use. Now, it's not going to happen quite that way, because we will also break into the world of efficiency. Also, it's not the best place to have all of the electricity coming from, because there are large transmission costs. That's why photovoltaics are so important. And biofuels will complement them, especially in the transportation sector.

The other major transition, of course, is away from the automobile and back to mass transit. One of the things people have to understand is that this country had a magnificent mass transit system prior to the 1950s, and it was deliberately dismantled. This is not one of those off-the-wall conspiracy theories. It's a conspiracy, but it happened, it's been documented, there was a federal court case on it, and there's no disputing that the public transportation systems in 80 cities in the United States were purposely destroyed by General Motors, Standard Oil and the glass and rubber companies.

How did they do that?

Through financial and political power. They went city by city, and either bought up -- or had municipal governments destroy -- the light rail systems, the trolley systems. I'm old enough to remember a trolley system in Columbus, Ohio. This is an indisputable fact. I would like to make a movie called The Murder of the Red Line, which I mentioned in the book as having been made. Part of that is actually a film proposal for a documentary film.

It's an amazing story. The Red Line in Los Angeles went from Santa Monica on the ocean all the way to the valleys. There were hundreds of miles of trolley line in Los Angeles. People had no idea about automobiles, didn't want automobiles. This alleged love affair with the automobile was a shotgun wedding, because they killed the first spouse, and that was the mass transit system. Interestingly, there is a very accurate portrayal in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the mixed cartoon-human comedy film. They talk about the Red Line and how great it was and then they have the evil Christopher Lloyd come in and talk about how beautiful the freeway system will be.

People in the 1920s were not interested in private automobiles until the mass transit system was destroyed. There was a conscious effort by Albert Sloan of General Motors, who realized that his true competition was not Ford or Chrysler, but rather the trolley car system. They consciously destroyed those systems and they need to be rebuilt. We cannot stand the automobile. Much as people claim to love their automobiles, they also have always loved trains in this country. We have to restore city-to-city passenger rail service and we also have to restore the intra-urban trolley system.

Among the most striking changes you report on from the year 2030 is the dismantling of the dams that now control the flow of great rivers. Why did this turn out to be a good idea? What's wrong with dams?

It's not merely a good idea, it's a necessity for survival. The biggest crisis we face in the future, bar none, is not oil or gas or coal or nuclear power -- it's water. These dams have completely screwed up our arteries and veins, which are our river systems. You have, throughout the world now, dead inland seas like Lake Mono in California and dying rivers like the Yellow River in China, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, rivers that don't reach the ocean any more, that have dried up. We can't live without water and the dams have screwed up our natural life support systems. In Solartopia, they are no longer necessary for electricity, they're obsolete. There are also ways to use hydropower without building dams, free-floating turbines and wave bobbers that don't require the damming up of an entire river. We can't sustain rivers being dammed up anymore. One of the things that happens when you dam a river is that you lose a tremendous amount of water from evaporation from the lakes that are behind the dams. We will not be able to sustain that. We need to restore the riverine ecosystems and the fish they support. These dams will come down. There's no alternative to that in terms of our survival.

What happens to the nuclear industry in your future scenario?

It completely disappears except for its waste, which we'll be dealing with forever. There's absolutely no place for nuclear power in the present or future. It is the worst technological failure in human history. We can only thank our lucky stars that on September 11, those guys didn't drop down and hit Indian Point, [a nuclear plant] 75 miles north of Manhattan. Every single nuclear plant we have now is a terrorist target, a weapon of mass destruction. They cannot be defended militarily and economically they are a disaster. You are going to see this alleged revival of nuclear power is not going to materialize. These plants cannot compete with renewables. There is not a single nuclear power plant in the world that can compete with wind power right now. If you properly account for the true costs, they certainly cannot compete with photovoltaic cells or with biofuels.

You are not hearing any great enthusiasm for nuclear plants from Wall Street. We've wasted a trillion dollars on nuclear power, and it is getting less safe and less economical. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, Edward McGaffigan, has basically said that Yucca Mountain, the first alleged nuclear waste storage facility, can't come online for at least 15 years and probably more like 20. By that time, you are going to have more than twice as many spent fuel rods to be stored as Yucca Mountain can handle. In SOLARTOPIA! as we fly over Yucca Mountain, the narrator comments that it has now been turned into a casino and a health spa in the middle of the desert. I will tell you flat-out that it will never house nuclear waste. We have got to stop producing the stuff. In SOLARTOPIA! we look back at the March of the Meltdowns. This industry is the biggest albatross around our necks of any in human history. It actually makes the oil industry look good.

The Tom Hanks-Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 is required watching for all students in Solartopia. Why?

Apollo 13, as you will recall, barely made it back to Earth, and they did it by preserving every electron of energy that they could muster on that stricken spaceship. In my scenario, it became the model for energy conservation. Because we on this Earth, like Apollo 13, are in a spaceship hanging onto survival by our fingernails, and what we have to do is preserve every ounce, every joule that we can muster. You know, there is an Apollo Project of labor unions and others that are pushing renewables. In Solartopia, they're still around and still very much involved in making sure that the solar industry is unionized. There is a dimension of social justice in SOLARTOPIA! We presume that in Solartopia, nobody starves. We still have rich people and moderately poor people, but everybody gets food, clothing, housing, transportation and education. Women control the reproductive process; that's how the population problem is solved. But ultimately, everything has to be accounted for and there is no waste. The number one rule in Solartopia is that nothing is produced that can't be 100 percent recycled.

In SOLARTOPIA! you allude to a very difficult period of time, especially in the United States, during the transition from where we are now to where we will be in 2030. It sounds like you think that it will be a very bumpy ride, perhaps more so here than elsewhere, Europe in particular. And you didn't go into too much detail on the bumps and the process. Anything you'd like to add?

Yes. We are on the brink of a major depression economically, because of our dependence on foreign oil, and the enormous debt that has been incurred with this war in Iraq and the total irresponsibility of the current administration. Our currency is very much on the brink and we are not self-sufficient. We are still dependent on imported energy for our future. The bumps we are going to hit, which Europe is not going to hit because they're going very quickly to renewables, have to do with our continued addiction to imported fuels. This administration has turned the United States into a junkie strung out on debt. That's a bad combination and we are not going to escape paying for it. I think that basically we will suffer the fate of Greece and Rome and other countries that overextended themselves militarily. I think our saving grace will be our democracy and our diversity.

Aside from SOLARTOPIA! what other books would you recommend to people who want to transcend despair and cynicism and help build a world that lives up to our highest ideals?

I haven't read a whole lot of optimism lately and that's one of the reasons I enjoyed writing SOLARTOPIA! I'll tell you the genesis of this book. I got a grant from The International Forum on Globalization to write a report on the future of hydrogen, because Jeremy Rifkin had just come out with his excellent book, The Hydrogen Economy, and they wanted to investigate the technical underpinnings. So I started reading technical papers about hydrogen and it was excruciatingly dull. I didn't see how I could ever write anything that would really be interesting. Also, I realized that hydrogen is vastly overhyped. The issue in the future is not hydrogen. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a fuel. You have to produce hydrogen. Even George Bush is in favor of hydrogen, as long as it is produced through means by which his cronies in the oil and nuclear industries can make a lot of money.

Hydrogen is no more of a fuel than electricity. You have to produce electricity, you have to produce hydrogen. What I realized very quickly is that the key to the future is production, and that means solar. I did discover that there is a bus company in Southern California, SunLine, that has stations where photovoltaic cells are used to create hydrogen. That's the future. It occurred to me that all the technology we need is available now. It's just a question of mass producing it.

So then I wanted to write something I thought would be interesting and this was it. I thought it would be most important for people to have a visual image of what the world really could look like. Because, you know, on a piecemeal basis, people are saying wind is good, biofuels are good, this is good, that is good. But the crucial thing is to see the whole picture as we did from the space satellite that went around the moon, when we suddenly saw the Earth as this unified, blue-green organism.

So, to me, the important thing became to realize, visually and intellectually, that this is a real future that we not only can have, but that we have to have. And that's the real emphasis here. It's not just that we can have this green powered future, and it's not just that it will be more prosperous (which it will be), but also that we have no alternative. This is not the "alternative energy," this is the energy future that has to happen or we're not going to survive on this planet. The real limits to consuming fossil fuels are not the supply of fossil fuels. The real limits are the ability of our ecosystem to sustain burning those fossil fuels. We're going to run out of carrying capacity for burning coal and oil long before we run out of coal and oil.

By carrying capacity, you mean the point at which the polluting effects on the ecosystem become unsustainable?

Because of global warming and other forms of pollution and their by-products, our ability to survive on this planet while burning coal and oil will run out before we run out of coal and oil. And that's ten times as true of nuclear power.

So the "End of Oil" is not mainly a question of supply, it's a question of oil's effects.

Yes, of ecological sustainability. That's the real End of Oil. Not that we'll run out of oil, but that we'll choke to death before we burn it all.

Is there anything else you'd like to say before we close?

I want to emphasize that this is a tangible reality. Solartopia is an achievable goal and a necessary goal. There are great economic rewards to creating Solartopia. Renewables are where we are going to make our money and where we're going to create our jobs. The transition from King CONG [Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Gas] to green power, even if there were no ecological necessity, still would be the best thing we could do for the global economy.

That's what is excruciating about this debate over global warming. It's being posited that we are being forced to go to renewables because of global warming. And that is true, but short of that, we should go to renewables because it makes economic sense. The only thing that's stopping renewables is the protection by King CONG of their invested capital in obsolete fuels. And essentially, this has been going on for about a century. They've protected their investments in coal, oil, gas, and more recently nukes, at the expense of our economic well-being as a whole. You've had a narrow group of vested interests depriving the larger population of the economic benefits of a green revolution. The pollution and the global warming is an additional cost, but even if it weren't there, we would do better economically to go to renewables. That's ultimately why I'm optimistic about Solartopia, because it makes economic sense. And ultimately, the argument can be made that it was the big money that ended the war in Vietnam, and it may be the big money that finally clamps down on the war in Iraq, and it will be the big money that will tip the balance toward renewables, because they are profitable and SOLARTOPIA! is a vision of a world that is not only sustainable and green, but also very prosperous.

© 2007 by Daniel Redwood

Dr. Daniel Redwood, the interviewer can be reached at A collection of his writing is available at His new CD of original songs is available at A version of this article originally appeared in Pathways Magazine.