Think Globally, Destroy Locally: Environmentalism for the 21st Century

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The battle over massive solar farms in the Mojave desert shows how green technology can resolve some of the deepest tensions in America's relationship with progress, recentering environmentalism around people and work.

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There are 25 or so desert tortoises crawling around a four thousand-acre patch of the Mojave Desert known as the Ivanpah Valley. A minor biological marvel, these reptiles are able to survive in temperatures of up to 140 degrees and go for a year without access to water. About a foot long, and maybe a dozen pounds, they don't look like much. But this tiny little band of creatures, and others like it, may be the key lever that environmental groups use to prevent large-scale solar installations from blossoming in the vastness of California's arid lands.

newbug.jpgIf ever there is going to be a place where solar energy works, the Mojave Desert is it. It is, as venture capitalist and solar enthusiast Bill Gross likes to say, the Saudi Arabia of solar. Even better, it's close to the large electricity markets in southern California and Las Vegas. Looking at a map of America that's rainbow color-coded for the most photons of sunlight available to be turned into electrons, the Mojave glows like a big red button that says to green-tech entrepreneurs, "Push here!" But it so happens that of the 16 million acres of the Mojave Desert, 4.6 million of them are considered to be "critical habitat" for the tortoise. Putting a solar plant anywhere in -- or near -- that habitat requires extensive off-setting measures, if the plant can even be built despite preservationist opposition.

To make matters worse, the desert tortoise and solar developers have the same good taste in Mojave terrain. Both like "nice, broad valleys" that are relatively flat and receive huge amounts of solar energy.

It's more than a theoretical issue. The presence of the handful of desert tortoises per square mile of land has been a huge issue for BrightSource, the descendent of Luz International, as they attempt to build a solar plant in the Ivanpah. The solar thermal power plant uses fields of mirrors to redirect the heat of the sun onto a boiler, which generates steam that drives a turbine. It's a fairly well-established technology that can be deployed at the same size as fossil-fuel plants. At 400 megawatts of capacity, the plant would be like 100,000 or more average home solar-PV installations: That's 40 percent more arrays than all of the solar panel installations ever put in by Americans.

Ivanpah alone would nearly double the solar capacity in California, a state that's told itself that it must receive 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It's nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which California is able to do that without large-scale solar power plants in the desert. Dozens of solar thermal companies are lining up to make sure that the state doesn't have to.

Societies' deployments of technology have surprised before, but it seems very likely that if California is going to put in thirty gigawatts of renewable energy, some big chunk of it is likely to be in the desert. Under the biggest deployment scenarios, something like forty thousand acres of Mojave may be developed for solar power in coming decades. The desert tortoise could quickly become the spotted owl of the solar energy industry. It is the creature that has both symbolic power for environmentalists who have been dedicated to its preservation for decades and statuary protections under the Endangered Species Act. The tortoises can act as a legal lever to protect whole swaths of the Mojave Desert from green-tech development, serving "as vulnerable symbols of biological diversity while at the same time standing as surrogates for wilderness itself," in the words of historian Bill Cronon. The form of the laws has forced environmental groups to use single species in this way, "thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use."

And that is the situation shaping up in the Mojave. Except in this case, it's a bit unusual. Both sides can legitimately claim the mantle of protecting the environment. One side protects this patch of wilderness, whereas the other protects a dispersed patch of atmosphere from carbon dioxide emissions, an invisible substance present in tiny concentrations. It's telling that no power plant ever inspired more organized groups to comment on a plant than Ivanpah, not even the Sundesert nuclear plant, the symbolic end of nuclear power in California.

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Ivanpah is a bellweather, then, and environmental groups in California, battle-hardened by years of fighting power plants, were quick to organize to critique the project and position themselves for a protracted public and legal struggle. The arena for this intra-green battle is the California Energy Commission's power plant siting process.

In press releases and the pages of the country's major newspapers, environmental groups jockeyed for position. Some, like the Sierra Club, tried to chart a middle path. "It's not enough to say no to things anymore," said one of the group's experts on renewable energy. "We have to say yes to the right thing."

But it's clearly an uncomfortable position. When BrightSource altered its plan to reduce its output and change its design in response to criticisms, the Sierra Club responded with a mixed statement. "Looking at this new proposal, it will not do anything to protect the desert tortoise and they won't be able to generate as many megawatts," said the group's senior attorney in San Francisco, Gloria D. Smith. Despite that, she said, "We still support this project but just want it to have a more beneficial footprint."

The National Resources Defense Council has taken much the same pragmatic stance, with its longtime lawyer Johanna Wald pointing out what is the great irony of the parable of the tortoise and the sun. "We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen," Wald said.

Other groups, particularly the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife staked out more hardline stances. Kim Delfino wrote a warning in the group's magazine that "California is starting to see a new kind of 'gold rush', but this time, it's going to be our wind, sunlight and public lands that are up for grabs."

One can almost imagine the fossil-fuel industry laughing all the way to the slag pile. Would-be nuclear plant builders, too, must be enjoying watching the solar boys getting the same workout that has kept California from building large coal and nuclear plants.

For fledgling green-tech companies, the lack of support from those who would seem to be their natural allies could prove to be their Achilles' heel. After decades of fighting power plants and pollution, trying to impose limits on society's activities, mainline conservation groups do not find supporting the destruction of desert by a private power plant developer easy. Like a longtime opposition political party suddenly handed the keys to the kingdom, the environmental movement is discovering that governing is a lot harder than it looks; the cracks in the coalition are easier to see in the realm of action.

Human Environmentalism

"Even though we use the phrase 'the environmental movement,' it's bullshit," said Adam Rome, a Penn State professor who is probably the world's scholarly authority on the genesis and origins of environmentalism in America.23 It's simply not an accurate depiction of the incredible variety of people who wanted to reconfigure our relationship with the nonhuman world. Not all of them were primarily interested in protecting biodiversity, and many of them were just fine with modifying the natural environment for human ends. Historian Andrew Kirk wrote,

One of the popular misconceptions about environmental advocacy in American history stems from the desire to celebrate the few individuals who advocated the preservation of nature where humans weren't, while often ignoring those who worked to use their technological enthusiasm to benefit nature. Historical actors in the drama of twentieth-century environmental advocacy are often rated on a sliding scale according to the purity of their wilderness vision.

There is an alternate vision, though, that this book has tried to highlight and that historians like Rome and Kirk have begun to excavate. From the late 1950s onward, traditional Democratic liberals -- the FDR type, not the eco type -- had a pretty coherent program for making the country better: Boost public spending on the social goods that private enterprise seemed to neglect, including environmental protection to provide "qualitatively" better lives for a large middle class that had it all.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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