Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Post-Environmental Dilemma

Environmentalists are often treated as one coherent group speaking with one voice. This is not true, of course, as an article in today's New York Times, the Not-so-Green Mountains, demonstrates. In Vermont, a company wants to erect 21 wind turbines along a mountain ridgeline. The author, a former commissioner of the Vermont  Fish and Wildlife Department, calls this a "desecration, in the name of green energy". It's green versus green: nature conservation versus climate protection. Its worth having  a closer look at this case to better understand the environmental dilemma.

The author states that the erection of wind turbines on ridgelines will have no effect on Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions. And, even worse, they will destroy Vermont's patrimony:
 But it is those same Green Mountain ridgelines that attracted nearly 14 million visitors to Vermont in 2009, generating $1.4 billion in tourism spending. The mountains are integral to our identity as the Green Mountain State, and provide us with clean air and water and healthy wildlife populations.
Vermont has a history of "leadership in developing innovative, effective environmental protection", which is now "tossed aside". And what do the author's environmentalist friends actually do?
Ironically, most of the state’s environmental groups have not taken a stand on this ecologically disastrous project. Apparently, they are unwilling to stand in the way of “green” energy development, no matter how much destruction it wreaks upon Vermont’s core asset: the landscape that has made us who we are. 
The author compares this case to similar ones in Cape Cod and in Maine, "the allure of wind power threatens to destroy environmentally sensitive landscapes".  For him, these are the conflict lines:
The pursuit of large-scale, ridgeline wind power in Vermont represents a terrible error of vision and planning and a misunderstanding of what a responsible society must do to slow the warming of our planet. It also represents a profound failure to understand the value of our landscape to our souls and our economic future in Vermont.
Before we discuss whether there should be wind turbines on the Vermont mountain ridges or not, I would like to direct your attention to the basic dilemma I see in environmentalism. As we have often discussed here, it is easy to detect a certain determinism in climate change discussion: because climate changes, we have to erect wind turbines or whatever. Political decisions are legitimized by the fact of climate change; political opitions are negated.
This kind of determinism has a long tradition, of course. In nature conservation, it was nature or specific species which served as an argument and legitimization for political action. An argument that the author picks up here: it is the "one of the largest tracts of private wild land" that is threatened; wild land which has "made us who we are"; which has value for the soul and the economic future of Vermont. Thus, it is untouched nature from which derives culture.
But is Vermont's wild nature really pure nature? Or do these forests maybe have a history? Were they inhabited by American Indians? I don't know; it would be interesting to learn more about. When were these forests privatized? When did tourism start in Vermont, and when did the Indian summer become one of the unique selling points in Vermont's tourism?
Thus, Vermont's nature is constructed. It is not just there, it has a (human) history. Nature doesn't serve well as an argument. "In the name of sacred nature" we have to prevent wind turbines meets "in the name of climate" we have to erect wind turbines. Here it is, the environmentalist's dilemma.

To find a solution for those conflicts, we have to turn to an understanding of political ecology which is sensitive to essentialisms, to the "naturalization" of forests, landscapes or climate. Vermont is a post-environmental landscape; neither nature conversation nor climate protection can argue anymore in the name of nature or climate. Instead, political decisions have to be taken.  Landscapes are as dynamic as is history; cultural identity does not derive from a static landscape or a climate that produces Indian summers. Instead, Vermont, its landscapes and people's identity are permanently "under construction". Why shouldn't Vermont become proud of the wind turbines as it is proud of its colorful trees? Instead of staring at nature, I would recommend to have a look at the social history, at previous ownership conflicts, at those networks of people and things (Indian summer, for example), of environmentalism and politics, which make up the political landscape of Vermont. There are no easy solutions for conflicts like these in post-environmental landscapes!


Freddy Schenk said...

I would add sth. very simple to this dilemma: It is allways easy to be against sth...

David44 said...

'Instead, Vermont, its landscapes and people's identity are permanently "under construction". Why shouldn't Vermont become proud of the wind turbines as it is proud of its colorful trees?'

I agree that there is an environmental solutions dilemma; however, the above is like arguing that because there have been two centuries of coal mines in West Virginia, we should be proud of mountain top removal.

Werner Krauss said...

Great example, David. But please note that I did not argue for wind turbines; I just wanted to point to the problem of legitimization. It is possible to be proud of wind or coal cultures; it is also possible to reject it. Neither "nature", "the market", "progress" or "culture" (our identity) are final arguments. Instead, landscape and identity are indeed under permanent construction, under negotiation.

Anonymous said...

Some problems have to be solved right now and some problems have to be solved in 10, 50, 100, 1000 years.

Some problems affect us right now and some are only felt when it's to late to prevent them.

The environmentalist movement and the green movement have become protest movements. Like Greenpeace you have to make as much noise as possible to be heard. You don't need to take decisions or responsibilities.

From the very moment that you have to act as a good father for the society, you have to take responsibilities and everything becomes very tricky (cf. Joschka Fischer).

Today many Greens etc., even very old ones, still act as if they were protesters. But we have a multiplicity of current problems to solve and not every counter-protest is evil.

I think that many scientists drastically overestimate their ability to understand the global situation and generally their intelligence.

Above all activist scientists tend to express their opinion loudely and arrogantly about every topic, even those that they ignore dramatically.

Every criticism is fought in a very agressive and arrogant way and you can wait for an apology until the end of times.

This is the dilemma imo. Stop this agressivity, stop this lack of responsibility, stop this arrogance and we can talk from intelligent human being to intelligent human being.

As long as some of you feel (secretely) superior and act like the only wisdom is yours, as long as all these slogans from Greenpeace and Co have the same credibility than the Pope's we have this ridiculous situation.

Best regards


David44 said...

So noted. Another way of stating the dilemma is: What (and how much of "what") are we willing to destroy to prevent a rise in global temperature and a decrease in ocean alkalinity which we assume (not necessarily correctly) will be harmful to what we value about the natural world? At some point, it becomes analogous to the infamous Viet Nam war justification for methods of pacifying the local population: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

In this specific case, how much local habitat and how many raptors are we willing to sacrifice to save a polar bear? Difficult choices, but I think we can do better than ridge line wind turbines (and dessert solar farms) as solutions. These are the preferred solutions of the anti-nuclear folks, but they are no more natural nor less technological than fission reactors.

Arguments can be made about relative risk to human populations, but these arguments, to be intellectually honest, must take into account that current reactors are 1950s technology. Personally, I would rather we invest in the research and engineering necessary to develop commercially viable advanced designs such as the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR). Whatever we value about nature, we owe it to ourselves and our progeny to make the attempt.

AnonyMoose said...

"one of the largest tracts of private wild land"

It's private land. So it's none of the whiners' business. If they want to control what can be done to the land, make an offer to buy it.

Werner Krauss said...

@anonyMoose #6
very clever, very American answer. In Germany, we (sometimes) rank the common good higher than private property.

Werner Krauss said...

@David #44
"In this specific case, how much local habitat and how many raptors are we willing to sacrifice to save a polar bear?" - that's too polemical, of course.
It's the legitimation, which makes decisions difficult and the cae interesting. Both climate (polar bear) or nature (Indian Summer) are pretty unreliable candidates. Of xourse, third solutions are fine. But once the case is already in full process, we need another approach to come to a decision. Negotiations, politics, deals.