By Allan Gerson* & Amal Benaissa**
If one drives through Southern Spain, one can see miles of windmills like fresh morning poppies gracefully moving air to create electricity. It is, literally, a dance between man and nature: rhythmic, mesmerizing, and in this case productive. In a less dramatic way, solar panels reflecting and absorbing sunlight in myriad ways can be seen sprouting across landscapes from Abu Dhabi through Northern Europe.
After a tortuous two centuries, the imbalance between man and nature in his desperate search for energy is beginning to be redressed and balanced.
This redressing was the subject of a groundbreaking conference held in Assilah, a town in the north-western tip of Morocco, where leading thinkers in renewable energy met for the 32nd annual Assilah International Cultural Festival. Under the sponsorship of the United Arab Emirates and the Assilah Forum Foundation, the conference, held from July 10 to 12, had as its apt title: "Renewable Energy - A Leap Towards Human Development."
Ironically, the UAE, which made its fortunes from the very fossil fuels that pollute the environment, has become in the forefront of nations looking for new paths to renewable energy. And, it is no coincidence that at this very same conference, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) mounted a stunning exhibit on the exploitation of earth, as used in antiquity, to create contemporary sustainable dwellings. In the countries of the north as well as the south, replacing concrete structures with earthen ones, that create natural heating and ventilation systems can dramatically reduce the need for energy. Concrete, glass and steel may well in time give way to the poor man's tool: the earth.
In the most dramatic way, the conference at the once sleepy town of Assilah delivered a ringing message: man and nature need not be at war. In the search for sustainable energy, they need not be like two awkward dancers warily embracing each other, hopelessly unconnected, as each dances to a rhythm and tune of its own, dominating the other rather than moving in harmony. The windmills of today point to a different future.
Ever since the large-scale exploitation of oil at the beginning of the 20th Century, the search for energy has been a cause of war and conflict as well as comfort to millions of people. The balance sheet of history may well show that the costs outlived the benefits. In no small part, the quest for oil had its part in Hitler's drive into the Soviet Union, in Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States squeezed its supply of oil, and more recently in Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuwait.
Dependency on oil also affects the ability of the West to adjust its foreign policy at will. The good news is that today the emergence of a human dimension in the quest for a more humble and sustainable lifestyle is leading to a readjustment of energy dependency on the macro-scale.
The stage is set for a more graceful, less dominating dance between man and nature. All it takes is the courage to cut the habit of dependency and embrace a more natural approach. As the 2010 Assilah conference pointed out, if man makes that fateful decision the scientific and engineering know-how is there to enable him to make the leap.
*Allan Gerson is the Chairman of AG International Law, a Washington-based firm specializing in the inter-play of law and politics and the solution of complex international problems.
**Amal Benaissa is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics specializing in the interaction between communication and foreign policy. She was a participant at the recent Assilah forum.