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

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

The impulse would eventually underpin Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs as well as Nixon's environmental program. The strength and ductility of the environmental movement came through little environmental injustices, encountered in the new, treeless suburbs and the streets of the cities. Different subsets of Americans -- often led by women like iconoclastic economist Hazel Henderson--began to coalesce around the idea that clean air and water were worth paying for.

Note that this environmentalism is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused: It is concerned, first and foremost, with humans. Clean and safe were more important than "natural." The suburban housewives and baseball dads who supported the passage of the nation's landmark environmental legislation were not interested in biomes, per se: They cared about the places that humans co-created, or, as ecologist Erle Ellis calls them, anthromes.

Big-thinking climate scientists say that solutions to global warming need to meet a key criterion: They must be able to scale up to the size of the problem. This simple dictate will require major changes in the way environmentalists shaped by this era think.

"Think Globally, Act Locally," became a mantra for '70s-trained environmentalists. Stopping your local power plant was a way of protecting the earth. When environmentalism was perceived as a way of reconnecting with the land, then it made sense to work locally, where one could go out and smell the fresh air one was protecting. Large-scale problems like "the military-industrial complex" could be attacked at the grassroots level through many different organizations. Besides, privileging the local ecosystem over the globalized world economy was easy. But what if responding to climate change with renewable energy deployments means sacrificing local landscapes?

That's the very situation that BrightSource's Ivanpah plant presents to nature preservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife. On the one hand, if no mirrors were installed in their territory, this would obviously be better for the desert tortoises. On the other hand, the plant is a key test case for an entire field of technology that could provide large amounts of low-carbon electricity. If Ivanpah works, it could pave the way for dozens of similar projects across the world.

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Fledgling energy companies want -- and need -- to get big if they want to compete with oil, coal, and gas. Scale has a very important meaning for technologists, too. Getting big and making a lot of something are how companies drive down the unit cost of a product. It's a lesson as old as Henry Ford and as broad as Walmart. As solar investor Bill Gross likes to say, the only way to get the price of something down near its material cost is to make a million of that something. It's true for cars and it's true for the mirrors that power these fields. Yet it's exactly that scenario that is most frightening to wildlife environmentalists.

"I'm very concerned about the whole scale of this. I think you really need to take a strong comprehensive look at what's going on here," one desert tortoise biologist testified before the Commission. "It's a very complex situation, and there's a lot of actors involved, and it really needs a wide sweeping programmatic look."

The hundreds of pages worth of ecological testimony by the environmental intervenors arguing over methodological differences in counting desert tortoises seem to lack perspective. The solar plant's human components were put on trial by groups and institutions that developed in order to stop the building of plants, not support them. The lives of a few dozen desert tortoises may very well improve as a result of the process, but the opposition to Ivanpah raises questions about how unsympathetic some environmental groups are willing to be about the realities of running a solar firm that can compete with fossil fuels.

Despite the continuing opposition, in March of 2010 the California Energy Commission recommended that the Ivanpah plant move forward. "The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) project is iconic of the coming transformation of the electric generation system in California, and perhaps the country as a whole," the CEC's staff explained.

Although BrightSource had to make considerable concessions, they will be able to build their plant. That is a good thing. Brightsource broke ground in October 2010 at a star-studded event featuring California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness," Schwarzenegger said. "I see miles and miles of gold mine."

There is no turning back on the enormity of human civilization's impact on the globe. Now is the time to recognize that even the wildest Amazonian and Mayan jungles are feral landscapes that have been permanently and massively altered. "We've got to stop trying to save the planet," Ellis wrote in a WIRED Science article. "For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it."

Viewed as an anthrome, as a human space, the Mojave already has seen massive alterations. For one, there are already nine solar electric generating stations built by BrightSource's predecessor Luz International. A couple of them cover 250 acres of land near Kramer Junction.

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Most traditional accounts of the solar plants emphasize how massive the plants are. "The rays captured on the huge, rain-gutter-shaped mirrors fire sleek tubes of synthetic oil, which in turn generate enough turbine-driving steam to power more than 100,000 homes," wrote Paul Pringle for the Dallas Morning News in 1989.

One expects them to dominate the desert landscape, but in context, there was little dissonance between the plants and their surroundings. They were not out of scale.

Maybe it's because just down the road, one of the world's largest boron mines has made a hole in the earth that's bigger than the mirror field and five hundred feet deep. Maybe it's because on the way to Kramer Junction we drive past the giant logistics companies near Victorville, with their million-square-foot warehouses connected to the entire world by plane and train, the road-facing flanks of the buildings perforated with hundreds of semi-bays for trucking plastic toys and lawn furniture the last mile of the journey. Maybe it's because on the drive back to the coast, we pass through the haze-filled San Joaquin Valley, in which a few mechanically enhanced hired hands create food on a truly impressive scale: miles and miles of fields feed just a tiny slice of our hunger for almonds. The whole enterprise is tawdry and sublime at the same time.

Out there, in the Mojave's industrial context, where lots of things are happening on the scale of the global economy, having 250 or 2,500 acres of mirrors making steam to turn a turbine is not that weird. Nature-loving city people don't go to the human areas of the Mojave for a reason: That country is big, mechanical, and fast. It is the opposite of what people wander into the wilderness for. But that's where these solar plants are going, out where the land is cheap, where energy and stuff are made and moved. The Ivanpah solar power plants may seem huge, but they will eventually take up only 0.025 percent of the Mojave. In the geography of infrastructure and on the scale of the global climate, a million square meters of mirrors may be defined as small and beautiful.

People conceive of the American wilderness, Bill Cronon argued, as "the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are--or ought to be." But this is a problem because "the dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living."

The only way that cities and wilderness exist as they are is because of all those other things we stick out in the Mojave. Energy, industrial, and commercial facilities are the lifestyle-support system of our country. It is in the infrastructural landscapes we've scratched into far-flung natures where we can see actual human society reflected.

What better symbol could there be of who we really are--or ought to be--than a field of mirrors harnessing the sun to make huge amounts of electricity in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a fence to keep out desert tortoises who have had their homes moved to a carefully constructed new location as if they were very high-paid executives switching jobs? That's living with our world--and it's what a naturalized, if not natural, energy system looks like, the kind humans could live with for a very long time.

Coming up with ways of reconciling the need for low-carbon energy with the desire to protect endangered species and wild habitat has to be the dominant intellectual challenge for greens of the next generation. This is because the battles in Sacramento aren't just about California. The tension on display in the hearing rooms of the California Energy Commission runs straight back to the heart of environmentalism and its complex relationship with technology. Sociologist William Gamson argued that Americans have long believed in "progress through technology," but wrapping around and cutting through this dominant framework is a countertheme that humans should live in "harmony with nature." The Jetsons epitomize the first idea whereas commune-living hippies embody the second. If there's a big, definable arc to the American relationship with technology, this is it.

What's important about green technology is that it may resolve a tension that's threaded through history from John Etzler and Henry David Thoreau, through the meatpacking plants of Chicago, past the oil fields of Texas, beyond the solar homes of New Mexico, to the suburbs of Los Angeles, and up to the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. For environmental groups, the answer won't be coal power or no power plant at all. There will be real alternatives that can be promoted and supported.

Green technology gives environmentalism the material means to build a better civilization as well as the political potency and clarity of purpose that comes with the need to make new things work.

Images: BrightSource.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/think-globally-destroy-locally-environmentalism-for-the-21st-century/73145/