“What creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit–the cosmos? … They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals.” – John Muir, born 1838.
It is devastatingly ironic to me that the organization that John Muir created is transforming itself into a surrogate of the industrial menace that ravages what he loved. I’ve written on this before, and I ask for your patience once more.
If the Sierra Club continues with its approach of supporting industry as the solution to the problem that is destroying nature, its credibility as an environmental organization will be severely eroded, and Sierra Club leadership may not notice the decline. The Sierra Club will have failed at its founding purpose – the appreciation of nature and the protection of what John Muir called “God’s cathedrals”, referring to beautiful natural landscapes consisting of miracles big and small.
The Sierra Club today wants to stand for something “good” – a noble purpose that has found the wrong path. The Sierra Club, rightfully, wants the world to reduce carbon emissions at a track meet pace to head off human-induced climate change that, by the way, resulted from our love affair with technology and convenience. We diagnosed a problem – climate change – which stems from human ignorance of our dependencies and impacts on the ecosystems that we not only depend on for clean air, water and food, but for escape from the materialistic fascination with goods that detain and hold us from the environment that has influenced centuries of human evolution before the advent of the television and Xbox. What was the Sierra Club’s solution? Coal bad, wind industry good. That sums up most of the Sierra Club’s mass communications over the past year. You can find images of wind turbines emblazoned on the Sierra Club’s Facebook, Twitter and web pages. The wind industry is our savior. How did an organization founded to protect our natural landscapes become one of the most well-funded and organized pawns of an industry that requires the destruction of those landscapes to remain profitable?
The Club’s leadership has grown enamored with its “seat at the table” and industrial partners that sustain that seat and give it relevance in a political environment that requires wealth and powerful, broad alliances to get anything done. The Sierra Club capitulated to the same corrupt dynamics in our society that reduce complex problems to binary and polarized perspectives. If you oppose one thing, you have to be for something else. Good vs. Evil. That’s all we talk about in the media.
So why does the Sierra Club have to choose another industry as its “good” to defeat “evil” coal? Why can’t the love of nature be our solution, and let that guide our decisions? How did Nature’s lobbyists become the surrogates of another destructive industry?
I think that the Sierra Club’s leadership lost faith in the power of Nature. Maybe after years or decades of losing battles, topped by the revelation that the planet is on life support as a result of runaway greenhouse gas emissions, they have given up hope that they can save landscapes from human greed. Ironically, they have become the “dark greens” in denial. The planet can still be saved, we just have to destroy it first. Put up hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, each over 400 feet tall (The wind industry says that the bigger wind turbines are more “green”. Isn’t that convenient?). These turbines will require that we industrialize tens of thousands of square miles of open space. We will need to pour millions of tons of cement, and make millions of tons of steel. We will have to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines, requiring more copper mining and processing. These turbines produce power at off-peak times, and only intermittently, requiring new natural gas power plants, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. That means more gas drilling and fracking.
And because rooftop solar is “too slow,” we will have to support massive solar power plants that require the destruction of hundreds of square miles of ecologically intact desert. We are dark greens in denial. The desert will suffer under climate change and go extinct because of warming temperatures, so we have to give away the desert to solar facilities that fragment habitat, cut off genetic connectivity, and contribute to the decline of biodiversity.
What is worse is that all of this twisted reasoning instills an insidious ethos that industry replacing nature is “beautiful.” The Sierra Club is selling this false dichotomy – that we have to destroy nature to save it. The Sierra Club’s Paul Rauber, one of the architects of its communications strategy responsible for the Facebook, Twitter and Blog posts on behalf of the Club, laid out this in a January 2011 article preparing Club members for the inevitable solution he decided was necessary:
“Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from
wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the
size of New Hampshire.” – Paul Rauber, Senior Editor at the Sierra Club.
The Department of Energy shows that generating enough energy to meet 20% of our energy demand will require the industrialization of an area covering 20,000 square miles. Extrapolating from that, meeting 100% of our energy demand from wind energy will require us to industrialize an area nearly the size of Nevada. So the Sierra Club’s Senior Editor is now telling us that we have to accept natural destruction on a scale that would make it a threat at least second to the impacts of climate change. And he made that argument flippantly in a Sierra Club blog post. Wow. (If you’re a Sierra Club member, you pay for this destructive reason)
So it was extremely frustrating, but not surprising, when the Sierra Club supported two solar projects destroying pristine desert and grasslands in California (Desert Sunlight and Topaz solar power projects), and remained relatively silent on several others, declining to oppose them. In Washington D.C., declining to oppose a project means you support the project. (You can find a copy of Sierra Club’s memo to the Department of Interior declining to oppose the Blythe Solar power project here.) The Desert Sunlight project is destroying nearly 7 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat, and the Topaz solar project will industrialize nearly six square miles of an area described as California’s “Serengeti.” Long-time environmental advocate and former California Coastal Commissioner Peter Douglas decried environmental groups’ capitulation to the Topaz project. You can read his rebuttal here.
The Sierra Club began to recognize the unsustainable path of utility-scale solar power projects on desert habitat by 2012, and started the wise “My Generation” rooftop solar campaign. The campaign is still in its nascent stages, but is encouraging Sierra Club members to explore rooftop solar options and lobbying for regulations supporting rooftop solar incentives. The logic behind rooftop solar is simple. Solar panels on rooftops cut greenhouse gas emissions during peak energy demand hours, do not require expensive transmission lines, and do not require the destruction of our wildlands. Rooftop solar is, by far, the most efficient energy model modern humans have ever developed.
Within months, however, the Sierra Club launched its “Wind Works” campaign, lobbying on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association to extend subsidies for an industry that has testified before Congress to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act. The Sierra Club has expressed nearly unwavering support for an industry that still refuses to respect wildlife.
This is the organization that John Muir created to protect the most beautiful creations he stumbled across in his life outdoors. John Muir probably never imagined a problem as horrible as climate change, but he never would have supported an industry that robbed him of his love.
I sense in pockets of our political, economic and civic world of
leaders, a need to be seen as progressive facilitators and not as
obstructionists in the way of new centralized industrial development of
renewable energy. This is an alarming and, in the long view, a
self-destructive, tragic trend because it is unnecessary and erosive of
community wellbeing. Cities and Counties are entirely capable of
reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating clean, renewable,
affordable energy for their regions with existing technologies without
destroying vast swaths of critical habitat and celebrated public lands.
All that is needed is political will, courage and progressive vision. – Peter Douglas
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