It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when Governor Jerry Brown appeared at the opening of the opening of the Suncrest Powerstation near Alpine July 27 and said “you have to crush the opposition” to giant wind and solar development projects. After all, a year and two days before that the Sacramento Bee reported that Brown had addressed a “renewable energy conference” in Los Angeles and used almost similar language to express his determination to get these mega-projects through no matter what the people who live nearby think of them. “In Oakland, I learned that some kind of opposition you just have to crush,” Brown said in July 2011. “Talk a little bit, but at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy.”
One has to wonder how Brown can blithely talk about “crushing” opponents of energy projects that are a lot less “renewable” than their corporate sponsors acknowledge. After all, when he spoke this year he was standing on the site of a mountain whose top had to be blasted off to make room for the substation he was officially opening — the sort of thing environmentalists and liberals in general decry when it’s done by coal companies in West Virginia. That mountain isn’t going to be “renewed” any time soon. Neither are the lives of the people who settled in remote areas like Alpine, the Mojave Desert and other locations targeted for these mega-projects to get away from huge transmission lines and the other detritus of modernity. Nor are the Native Americans whose spiritual traditions tie them to the land and bid them to replenish the earth, but not, as Genesis instructs, to subdue it.
What was most strange about Jerry Brown turning up at the Suncrest Powerstation and using the kind of bellicose rhetoric more commonly associated with his immediate predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also present, was how it represented a 180-degree turn from the ideas he presented when he first got elected governor in 1974. Back then he was proclaiming his devotion to the ideas of a British economist named E. F. Schumacher, who in 1973 published a collection of essays called Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. “Production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life,” Schumacher wrote, arguing that Western cultures needed to learn from the East and its more locally, spiritually centered ways of life. What that meant in economic terms was what’s now called “appropriate technology”: small, locally scaled projects as alternatives to giant developments.
If there’s any form of economic progress that lends itself to Schumacher’s ideas — using local resources for local needs, and treading as lightly on the environment as possible — renewable energy is it. And if there’s any place in the world that seems to have been destined by nature for the conversion from large-scale power plants based on fossil fuels to small-scale renewable sources, including the proverbial solar panel on every rooftop, San Diego County, with its warm, sunny weather, is that place. The mainstream media frame the “battles” over projects like Sunrise, the Genesis solar project in the Mojave and the giant wind farms being pushed for East County as a few Native Americans with their quaint concerns about their ancestors’ remains versus an urgent need to combat global warming by developing renewable energy on the same industrial scale with which we now use fossil fuels.
But that’s nonsense. The right path is to use solar and other renewable sources to decentralize energy production: to allow each individual household to generate as much of the electricity they use as is technically possible — which, through much of San Diego County, may be all of it. So why isn’t Jerry Brown pursuing that path? Because, like all politicians in the modern-day U.S., his most important constituency isn’t ordinary people. It’s the artificially created “persons” known as corporations, giant Frankenstein monsters like San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) who want to make sure they can remain in existence even though renewable energy technologies have the potential to make them unnecessary.
The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” to express what he thought was the essence of capitalism’s vitality. He said that as technologies changed, the companies that had built their fortunes and economic models on older ways of doing things would die out, and new ones would take their place. But he also warned that as industries matured, they would become less entrepreneurial and more bureaucratic, and they would hold on for dear life even as they began dragging the economy down instead of boosting it. That’s what’s happened to the energy industry: desperate to hold on to the profits they make from standing between us and the energy we need for our daily lives, they’re trying to fit renewable energy into their existing business model. The result is insane mega-projects like Sunrise and Genesis that betray the promise of renewable energy and keep us locked into an increasingly wasteful relationship with Big Power.
Liberals ought to like the idea that individuals can produce their own renewable energy because it reduces people’s dependence on large corporations. Conservatives ought to like it, too; after all, isn’t the idea of individual self-reliance one of the cornerstones of modern conservative thought? Indeed, enough conservatives do like it that companies that do home solar installations advertise heavily on conservative talk shows like Rush Limbaugh’s and Roger Hedgecock’s. But big businesses like SDG&E and SCE decidedly don’t like it, and as long as politicians have to go to giant corporations and the wealthy individuals that own them to finance their campaigns, and to the corporate-owned media to be accepted as “credible,” those companies will pretty much be able to do whatever they want, and if ordinary people stand in their way, we can expect them to try to “crush” us.