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Building That Wall

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

What a colossal opportunity for both parties and both nations. On the one hand, Trump wants to build a contentious wall along the U.S.–Mexican border, diverting federal money by declaring a national security emergency as a way to fund his antagonistic barrier. On the other, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, along with dozens of co-sponsors, want to fight inequity and tackle climate change instead, diverting federal money by declaring a national climate emergency as a way to fund an ambitious stimulus program.

Republicans want border security. Democrats want a Green New Deal. They are diametrically opposed. What if they could both have what they want?

A consortium of twenty-eight engineers and scientists has proposed that the USA and Mexico work together on an enormous infrastructure project along their border. Instead of an inert wall almost two thousand miles long, build a contiguous series of solar energy panels, wind turbines, natural gas pipelines and desalination plants. The technology already exists and does not have to be invented. This chain of facilities from coast to coast would create an energy industry corridor along the border on a scale unlike anything else in the world. In the words of Luciano Castillo, head of the consortium, "Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the Interstate system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century."

The corridor would provide the desired border security because the utility facilities and infrastructure would need to be protected. The USA and Mexico would be co-investors in the border energy and water corridor, as well as co-beneficiaries, and would work together to guard it. The model for such collaboration already works on the northern U.S. border where USA and Canada have built and continue to protect important national infrastructure, such as hydroelectric plants that produce power on both sides of Niagara Falls.

Unused land of little value along the dry southern border would be transformed into valuable land that generates renewable power. The sun is so intense in some places along this border region, such as in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, that they have some of the highest solar radiation potentials in the world. In other places such as the Texas Gulf Coast and the Baja California regions, the winds are particularly strong and ideal for wind farms.

The proposal would increase precious water resources too. Nearly half of the available water is used on the U.S. side by fossil fuel and nuclear power plants for cooling. Increasing the amount of wind and solar production of electricity would make billions of gallons of water available for other resources. The proposed plan also includes wind-powered desalination plants at each coast, which would pump fresh water into the interior region. Once you have water, you can have more local agriculture, industry, jobs and communities.

Not least, the collaborative effort needed would reinforce the cultural ties that have existed for hundreds of years. Communities along the U.S.-Mexican border have long faced similar ecological, energy, water and security challenges. A one-sided effort is no solution, as environmental impacts do not respect political borders.

The idea of combining the border security wall with solar energy panels is not original, although this level of transnational co-operation and integration of renewable energy and water supplies is new. History is full of ideas that have initially sounded crazy yet ended up changing society. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, the one thing we have learned from the history of invention is that in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring visions seem laughably conservative. Similarly ambitious infrastructure projects to supply local renewable energy on a large scale, with their dividend of saving scarce water locally from fossil fuel plants, are colossal opportunities elsewhere too. Indeed, such projects may be needed to halt waves of internal migration from drought-prone regions that are becoming drier.

The Great Wall of China is a staggering thirteen thousand miles long. Its primary purpose was always national security and the protection of the Chinese Empire from northern invaders. We must do better than simply building more walls as our collective security today has more to do with ecology, energy and water. We do not need physical barriers to keep people out. We need more willingness to collaborate and regenerate our scarce resources, to keep people together.

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