In which I respond to a memo sent to Sierra Club activists telling them that the Club leadership doesn't want them wasting their efforts by trying to block a poorly-vetted and damaging solar power plant. (Via faultline.org)
This, alas, is not a new story for the Sierra Club. The leadership seems peculiarly vulnerable to accepting the spurious logic that if a given resource is deemed vital to the development of the West then it is okay to sacrifice Western environments to obtain it. First water, then water and power, and now power.
In each instance, subsequent generations came to deeply regret such decisions. No one, that I am aware of, looks back at such compromises and thinks, "That worked out well. Let's do it again."
And yet they do.
Whatever the reason, it is Western environments that consistently get the shit end of the stick - which is ironic given the name of the organization and the role those environments played in its creation.
I'm also tired of the idea that solar energy (and wind, and hydroelectric) are to be uncritically celebrated as "alternatives" to fossil fuel-based energy production. First, they are themselves technologies dependent on fossil fuels - for their production and for their operation. Second, the idea that we must sacrifice our wildlands in order to produce energy is not alternative in the least. It's the current status quo. Third, they reinforce the idea that energy consumption is not really on the table; constructing additional plants without addressing consumption first is like bringing icebergs down from the Arctic to water lawns in the desert.
What solar power really offers is the opportunity to look like one's doing something different while in reality continuing on with business as usual.
I think it is not coincidence that these "compromises" are occurring where defenders of Western wildlands face the challenge of undoing over a century of cultural propaganda that casts rich and unique ecosystems as barren wastelands. Deserts have been treated as American dumping grounds for a long time - they are where we store toxic waste, test nuclear weapons, cage prisoners, erect massive border systems, ride ATVs, dump trash, hide dead bodies, and so on.
Nor do I think it's coincidence that solar and wind have become the poster children of the "alternative" energy movement. Unlike hydroelectric, which carries the weight of Glenn Canyon and which in its dams wreaks immediate and obvious changes in the environment, the costs of solar and wind power are hidden and out-sourced. The mining needed to obtain the minerals for both technologies is not part of the calculus, nor is the destruction they require for their construction (as currently conceived - rooftop solar avoids this at least), nor the damage they cause during their operation - such as the havoc wind generator blades wreak on bat populations and migrating birds, or the demand for water in areas where it is scarce to cool the solar generators. They are "clean" in that they don't produce gasses or other airborne pollutants while generating energy, but that's about the only difference from "conventional" energy production, when they are considered as parts of larger operating systems, and the costs and pollution of their production and operation are factored in.
Rather than taking the time to educate people about either the value of arid wildlands, or about the hidden costs of "alternative" energy, the Sierra Club leadership has decided to punt. They've decided to save their energy for more marketable battles, where they can tug the heartstrings with easily understood stories of out-of-work fishermen, poisoned children, and oil-soaked birds.
It is not that those issues are unimportant. But they, at root, stem from the same assumptions that lead the Sierra Club and others to sacrifice Western wildlands in order to feed our demand for energy - don't ask us to sacrifice anything, and don't let us see the costs of that selfishness - hide it away in places we don't care about, and don't ask us to care. Let the "useless" and "unphotogenic" deserts bear the brunt of the burden, let the mining take place out of sight in foreign countries and on Indian reservations, let the quiet gleam of smokeless solar plants blind us to the coal-burning factories and petroleum-fueled machinery necessary to create and construct them. Let us make minor cosmetic changes, screw in a few fluorescent bulbs, and pat ourselves on the back for our virtue.
As a life member of the Sierra Club, I am angry, and deeply ashamed to be associated with that kind of short-sighted and lazy thinking. It was Western environments and my admiration of the organization's founder that brought me to the Club... it is galling to admit that I thought its leaders had learned from past mistakes.
I was wrong. And the deserts are paying for it.