Bill McKibben told an audience at Sterling College last week that “people all over the world are paying an enormous price for our energy use,” and that our exorbitant use of energy is the source of the climate change problem. But rather than urging us to drastically reduce that energy use to make radical changes to our growth-at-any-cost economic system and give up some of the luxuries and convenience we have become accustomed to, he, instead, argues that the “sacrifices” we should be willing to make should continue to come from nature in the form of more energy development, that of industrial “renewables.”
One of McKibben’s faulty assumptions is that industrial renewables meaningfully address climate change. Production tax credits, the sale of renewable energy credits and the requirements of state renewable energy portfolios have made the buildout of industrial “renewables” very profitable for big corporations, even if the climate benefits are marginal or non-existent. In fact, utility law professor Kevin Jones of the Vermont Law School calls this buildout a “shell game” that has actually led to an increase in Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. The benefits of industrial renewables may be debatable but the costs are not, as many in northern Vermont know firsthand. Wildlife habitat destruction, bird and bat deaths, pollution of headwaters, filling of wetlands, community conflict and the desecration of our mountains are only a few of the consequences. Further impacts happen on the other side of the world, where the mining of rare earth metals – a key component in high-tech wind turbines – leaves another trail of destruction.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel extraction continues to increase, despite the massive buildout of industrial renewables.
McKibben blames the climate crisis on “big energy interests,” but he fails to mention that many of the energy corporations involved in fossil fuels are also behind industrial renewables. For example, Iberdrola, the Spanish-based multinational that pushed for a huge industrial wind development in Grafton and Windham, also operates coal-fired and nuclear power plants in Europe. Enbridge, a Canadian corporation heavily involved in tar sands oil, as well as the pipeline at Standing Rock, is part owner of Green Mountain Power, which clear-cut and blasted several miles of ridgeline in the Lowell Mountains for its industrial wind project. These corporations don’t care about saving the planet. They care only about profit.
Industrial renewables are business-asusual disguised as concern for the planet.
McKibben says we have to do “everything we can” to address climate change. But, if we don’t make the necessary changes to our economic system and our lives, then we’re omitting the most important things we can do. “Doing everything we can” encourages corporations to paint themselves ‘green’ by claiming to save us from the climate crisis with no accountability, but lots of consequences. It’s delusional to believe we can continue our fully distracted way of life – shopping, driving, vacationing at water parks – while denying that we’re contributing to the destruction of the natural world.
We don’t need to do everything we can. We need to do what is effective.
Unfortunately, McKibben’s “environmentalism” is no longer about protecting the landbase from the ever-expanding empire of humans. It is about sustaining the comfort levels that Americans feel entitled to, without totally exhausting the resources required. It is entirely human-centered and hollow, and it serves corporate capitalism well. This version of environmentalism has been successfully mainstreamed, but at the cost of its soul.
Sacrifice is needed, but those sacrifices should no longer come from the natural world. They should come from us, from our materialistic way of life, from the bloated economy and those who profit from it.
The most responsible thing we can do is drastically reduce our energy use and shift towards a radically different economic system that isn’t based on exploitation and profit, but on healthy reciprocity with each other and the landbase. Doing so would make it possible to meet our energy needs from small-scale, decentralized, locally-controlled renewable energy projects that really do have minimal impact on the environment. I am not saying this is easy. But this is what is necessary.
Suzanna Jones is a resident of Walden.