Friday, October 8, 2010

What do Bush, Obama and Hippies in Tulum Have in Common? Politics vs. Solar Panels

Other than the fact that they probably all speak English to some extent, it would be hard to find much else.  But here's on nice little similarity: they're all putting (or have put) solar panels on their homes.

While I don't think too many people associated President Bush (Jr.) with environmental efforts, according to an article in Yahoo news (, he was the second president to install solar panels on the White House, powering "a maintenance building and some of the mansion, and heated water for the pool."  President Obama is going to expand on this, installing solar panels to power the residential section.

I wish that big efforts, like this little one, could cross ideological political lines; it would bring more results and positive change, regardless of which side of the political fence (or fences) people are on.

What does this have to do with living in Mexico?  Very near to where I live, in Tulum, currently a little tourist town which was born from visitors to a beautiful pyramid site overlooking the ocean, many residents are beginning to do things like this - solar panels, wind turbines, rain water capture - to minimize non-renewable resource use.  I'm not sure about crossing political lines, but it's definitely crossing lifestyle lines.  The trend is ranging from people buying natural lots in eco-communities to upscale developments where there's no visual difference.

As is often the case, however, some of the most important issues get less attention.  Because of the underground caves and waterways (click here for a Google image search of "cenotes," the entrances to these waterways) which are a really amazing phenomenon and one of the area's main tourist attractions, and because of porous rock, otherwise properly treated waste water is still harmful; these waterways allow deep injected treated waste water to enter the sea, making contact with the coral reef.  The potassium and other nutrients left in the water cause algae to grow, which in large quantities damages the coral, the small visible animal which lives on the reef, and creates the beautiful, colorful structures through calcium deposits.  This means the slowed growth of the reef, and diminishing of the living part of it.

To help address this issue, several organizations are promoting the creation of "artificial wetland" structures to treat household waste water.  Grey water and treated black water is drained into a concrete bed full of rocks.  In this rock bed, fast-growing plants absorb the potassium and other nutrients before it is re-introduced into the ecosystem. They are small, odorless, very low maintenance, and fruits like bananas and papayas can be safely grown in the bed, (and safely eaten - plant roots don't absorb bacteria) and they make for very beautiful gardens.  The idea is slow to catch on because the prospect of having a rock bed full of waste-water in your back yard sounds unappealing.

A number of people in the eco-communities are trying it out, and I have even seen one small, upscale development include this.  The political roadblock here is that the deep injection is "officially" the clean solution, so special water treatment to protect the reef is not being considered.  The good news is that the idea is catching on, and hopefully soon politicians catch on.  Hopefully some day, politicians on one side of the fence will put aside their opposition to environmental measures, and on the other side will stop talking so much about it and actually do something.

On a personal basis, the common ground is a focus on the "bottom line."  Both Bush and Obama were heavily motivated to install their solar panels because of the large amounts of money it would save; the cost of installation in the case of the White House, is expected to be saved back in five years.  The people in the Tulum area are also seeing, and being motivated by this benefit.

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