Although this essay is international in scope, it being written about a river in Britain, it gets at the heart of a tension among environmental issues coming to a head in so many localities all over the West – all over the world.  Paul Kingsnorth hits the point in a way that many activists have been hoping to hit it for some time :

A Line in the Green SandThe Guardian

When I climb a mountain, then, and find that the detritus of civilisation has followed me, in the form of giant wind turbines, my reaction is not to jump for joy because it is zero-carbon detritus. My reaction is to wonder how anyone could miss the point so spectacularly. And when I hear other environmentalists responding to my concerns with aggressive dismissal – particularly if they have never visited the mountain in question – I get really quite depressed

Fifteen or so years ago, as an excitable young road protester, I tried to prevent the destruction of beautiful places. To me, building a motorway through ancient downland, or a bypass through a watermeadow, was a desecration. To me today, a windfarm on a mountain is a similar desecration. A tidal barrage that turns a great river into a glorified mill stream is a desecration. Carpeting the Sahara with giant solar panels would be a desecration. The motivation may be different, but the destruction of the wild and the wonderful is the same.

It is de rigueur among greens to respond to such heresy by explaining that we have less than 100 months to get to grips with global warming; a few turbines on the odd hillside is a small price for preventing the apocalypse that would result from our failure.

Well, maybe. But while renewable energy is a good thing in principle, if schemes end up, like their conventional forbears, as centralised mega-projects that override local feeling and destroy wild landscapes, then they become precisely the kind of projects that people like me cut their teeth trying to stop.

 
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Brian Ertz

14 Responses to A Line in the Green Sand

  1. avatar April Clauson says:

    Well it seems like nothing we want to do is acceptable to make our America less energy Dependant. Some one will always have a reason why gas, oil, wind turbines, ethanol etc..won’t work. so I say, let us all go back to the old days, light a fire for warmth and cooking. Ride a horse, use a buggy with a horse to do your shopping. tear down all electrical lines, go back to the pony express to get our mail….we all need to compromise more on this issue. Is the mountain they will put these on of any use, sorta like Palm Springs, where they have the wind turbines is on desert land that is pretty much useless unless you want to put a Indian casino or homes on it. and I think they are very nice to see when I drive into town!

  2. avatar David says:

    I agree, whole heartedly, with the sentiments in this article.

    My own version of the heresy goes like this: This is my biggest complaint about “Global Warming”. The laundry list of things being blamed on 0.6 degrees C is ridiculous. Now, it’s not that I don’t believe we could be causing this warming… It’s that cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions alone will not save us. And if we don’t fully understand the system we are reacting to, our shoot-from-the-hip with urgency will 9 times out of 10 produce BAD decisions.

    There are so many clever options NOT being explored with any momentum which show promise: First: STOP BEING WASTEFUL OF WHAT WE USE… DUH, but nobody talks about it…. Second: Maximize the use of the land we have already destroyed! Parking lot solar technology should be explored. Roof top energy should be maximized. Why aren’t we doing these? IMO… Because it’s cheaper to go put up a windmill from scratch.

  3. avatar jdubya says:

    This was one of the better responses to the essay:

    “”Given your desire to preserve as much of the local environment as possible from assault (either from construction or from global warming), and the fact that the world as a whole will consume more energy in the future (and the UK perhaps a little less, but not a lot), do you support the construction of new nuclear power stations? These can be built on rather modest brown-field sites, thereby destroying no new wilderness, and the waste can be disposed of deep underground (thereby sparing any attractive mountains or rivers). Uranium mining is still less environmentally damaging than alternatives (and in any case does not take place in Britain, which you seem to have a particular desire to protect), a conclusion which will remain when we start to run out of 235U and have to go to some breeding technology (which will not require any environmentally meaningful increase in the volume of fuel). Nuclear power is by far the most environmentally friendly way to provide future energy, in fact (as far as I can see), the only workable option given current knowledge. Do you therefore support nuclear power, and what actions are you taking to try to bring it about?”””

    I agree.

  4. avatar Brian Ertz says:

    April,

    no one is suggesting de-development – that argument is a popular straw-man built by those who find it easier to avoid thoughtful conversation by marginalizing the concerned, then it’s torn down with ease.

    Because no one has mentioned which coal-fired power plants will be decommissioned upon construction of renewables, and because investors are fleeing future coal-fired power plants like the plague – capital for such has been and will likely continue to dry up, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that giant wind or solar farms are really doing that much to address climate change at all. These “renewable” power plants are made to keep energy cheap – that’s what they do – NOT mitigate climate change because the coal plants are still, and will continue to be hard at work. The biggest lie being told, the greatest marketing strategy ever invented right now is that utility-scale “renewables” are a part of the solution to global warming. not unless they replace or reduce existing emissions of global warming gases and nobody is putting that condition on these developments as of yet. The same is true of nuclear energy.

    keeping energy artificially cheap is not a good strategy to provide adequate incentives to reduce demand. That is – the market will produce products that use less energy, that conserve energy, when there is economic incentive to do so – i.e. when energy costs more and it becomes adequately competitive to manufacture products that will noticeably cost less to operate. that doesn’t happen when we incessantly chase our tail trying to catch demand.

    this may not be a really popular point to make given our economy – but let’s be honest when we talk about “renewables” and what they respond to – it’s not global warming – it’s the ever increasing demand for cheap energy – and they’re able to claim to respond to this demand for cheap energy not because it’s really more cheap – but because you (or our kids) will be paying that premium – not seen directly in the purchase price -in the tax-dollars that go to subsidize these developments, in the landscapes & species lost, and in other values lost.

    how many wind turbines or solar power plants will be enough to decrease the demand for more in the future ? When will the demand for more energy stop ? Do we really believe that there is enough wind and land to fuel an unsustainable, ever-increasing demand if we are so selfish as to kick the can of the real questions that get at the root of the problems onto our kids & grandkids ?

    If we can’t answer that, or even think about it without being labeled fringe environmentalists or told that it’s time to give half – and then half again – of the half (of the half) of the wildlife and landscapes that we have left, then what does that say about the legitimacy of this premise of compromise that so many hold almost above what it will mean for wildlife and wildlands.

    Pushing a problem onto our kids is no way to solve a problem at all.

  5. avatar matt bullard says:

    “These ‘renewable’ power plants are made to keep energy cheap – that’s what they do – NOT mitigate climate change because the coal plants are still, and will continue to be hard at work.” How do you know that? Who’s to say that all these coal plants will continue to be viable in 5-10 years if the cost of producing carbon-based energy goes up as it should (you talk often about moving toward the true cost of energy production).

    Just because utility-scale wind and solar are not replacing carbon based generation now does not mean they won’t be needed to do that at some point in the near future. Would a future that does not involve carbon-based energy generation but that does involve both utility- and neighborhood-scale energy generation be acceptable? It would to me.

  6. avatar Brian Ertz says:

    matt,

    i thought we needed to do something right away — real fast . right ? that’s the argument against those critical of these projects —- so which is it ? do we need to reduce emissions really fast – or just build the utility-scale renewables on beautiful landscapes right away — and it’s ok to wait/speculate that some day in the future we’ll decommission the real sources of the problem.

    that’s my point – the very reason for urgency cited by these ‘renewable’ utility proponents as reason to expedite these projects – and “compromise” away or be apathetic to their consequences – is not being remedied by the prescribed developments… what would reduce emission, i.e. decommissioning coal-fired plants – doesn’t even have to be a part of the conversation, let alone a condition of renewable development – for us to feel like we’re doing something. that’s good marketing.

    But let me ask – if it’s too much to decommission those plants now, given a fundamental lack of willingness to deal with the increase in energy cost given a constriction in supply — then what makes anyone believe that we’ll be more willing or able later ? especially when we’ve encouraged more growth in demand by enabling artificially cheap energy –> wasteful use.

    why will it be easier to swallow that pill later ? why would it be more responsible to punt that hardship onto future generations ?

  7. avatar matt bullard says:

    Because the reality of the situation is there *is* more growth in demand, from *everywhere*, not just in Idaho, the west, or the US, but in developing nations that urgently want to improve their standards of living. I believe we should be trying to discourage growth and to encourage conservation, but I also don’t believe that will be enough, the magnitude of the problem is too great. Thus my advocacy for wind and solar, or “renewables” as you so derisively call them. I simply don’t agree that doing nothing is the answer.

  8. avatar kt says:

    That is a very good essay, Brian.

    This is all about keeping the same big greedy corporate Actors controlling energy – while the public pays through the gills, and Energy availability and costs are manipulated by the same old cartel.

    Oil shock ($5 a gallon summer 2008 ) was designed to help jolt us into accepting anything, anything, anything if it was termed renewable. No matter how destructive the end result.

    Face it. The industrial wind farms of Shell, RES et al. and their corporate mentality is brutal, ruthless, and rapacious. AND these wind farms are just unwilling to acknowledge the destruction to wildlife, landscapes and often communities that they cause.

    And the knee jerk reaction – without thinking of the consequences: That worked splendidly in Iraq, didn’t it?

    We know enough to know that wind farms should not be built in critical wildlife habitats just because Harry Reid’s big business friends want them there – that’s what ecological science shows. Or that the Mojave tortoise habitat bulldozed off over dozes of square miles for solar panels. Yet the wind and solar companies want free rein to rape and pillage lands – the same unfettered access to the wind “resource” as they call it – as oil companies got to Wyoming oil in the Bush years.

    And more and more, I believe the clamor for industrial wind in remote areas – which of course means massive new infrastructure transmission lines ripping in straight lines everywhere in the West – is in part a front for the Oil companies getting Canadian tar sands and Wyoming petro energy to the coasts (including for eventual export in one form or the other) and the big cities of the SW … Wind farms to “harvest” that renewable energy are being used as cover to get straight-line corridors for delivery of oil/gas (and eventually water???) punched through. Green “cover” , and gullible green group accolades – for dirty energy for the same old dirty actors.

  9. avatar outsider says:

    I don’t know about all of you but I’ll take a wind farm in my back yard any day. I really don’t care if we have to move a few rocks and displace a few lizards, thats called progress. I don’t believe that these mega wind and solar farms are going to destroy the west. Yes some animals might leave the area during and after construction but I would bet most either come right back or don’t leave at all. But hey I’m not an expert its just my opinion. So I guess i’m saying yes to renewables, I really don’t want more coal and nucular plants going up across the country, even if their not in my back yard.

  10. Brian,
    Thanks for posting that thoughtful essay and also, thanks for your thoughtful responses.

    “And when I hear other environmentalists responding to my concerns with aggressive dismissal – particularly if they have never visited the mountain in question – I get really quite depressed.”

    No kidding. Reading some of the comments here has the same effect.

  11. avatar matt bullard says:

    I didn’t read any aggressive dismissal in the responses. Sorry you’re depressed, though.

  12. avatar todd says:

    Brian,

    It took us 50 to 100 years to work ourselves into this problem. It will likely take about that long to work ourselves out of the problem (assuming that we can).

    Since my primary concern is for the world’s environment (and not just my backyard), my thinking is the following: 1) stop building coal power plants in the US, 2) supply new demand in the following order: conservation, renewables, 3) decommission coal power plants as their lifespan ends and 4) provide our solutions to developing nations so that can limit their carbon emissions as they aspire to our standard of living. It is not clear that this is an entirely viable plan, but it points in the right direction.

    So while renewables are not displacing coal generation today, the intent is that they will ramp up and as coal (eventually) ramps down. To say that we will not build renewable generation until we decommission a coal plant is untenable from both a technological and financial perspective.

    The life span of wind turbines is 20-25 years. If we get this mess sorted out then we can remove the turbines and, thus, remove the visual “detritus.”

    Cheers,
    Todd

  13. avatar Mike says:

    Personally, I feel we have to do something. While windmills are intrusive and unsightly, they don’t kill trout and whitebark pine like climate change does.

    Harnessing the energy of the earth with minimal long lasting effects is what gets us from a type zero civilization to a type 2.

    Clearly, our primary source of energy right now (fossil fuels) is going to cause far greater harm to species of this planet than too manyt windmills.

    While it would bother me to hike up a mountain and see windmills off in the distance, it would bother me considerably more to hike up that mountain and know that the native wildlife has been displaced by climate change.

  14. avatar kt says:

    Here is a really interesting Post at Daily Kos

    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/2/11/85148/9688/738/695901.

    Very germane to our discussions here about industrial Renwables HYPE.

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Quote

‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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