“Any Compromise in Defense of Civilization”?
Wind, Solar and the Great Climate Sellout
by Root Force
published in the Brigid (January-February) 2009 issue of the Earth First! Journal
Over the past couple of years, it’s been great to see climate change finally enter the general consciousness, as well as the resulting spike in direct action against fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Whether climate change is just the sexy issue of the moment or we’ve finally found an issue that strikes a deep enough nerve, it seems that radicals and the mainstream have finally come to agree that climate action is needed—now.
However, much of the otherwise great work happening these days suffers from one major flaw: the articles, communiqués, banners and messages from these climate-related actions either throw their support behind “clean energy” (usually meaning wind and solar power) or remain silent on the subject.
This is the kind of thing we might expect from mainstream environmental nonprofits—but from radicals? Have we gone from “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth” to “Any Compromise in Defense of Civilization”?
Nothing Clean About It
One fundamental problem with wind, solar and the rest is that they aren’t “clean” by any sane definition. All require massive amounts of industrial materials for their construction, including plastics, copper and steel. However, metal comes out of mines, just like coal does. Ripping open the Earth for copper-heavy solar panels or steel wind turbines isn’t any more eco-friendly than ripping it open for coal. Mines are devastating to local ecologies and communities, poisoning the water as thoroughly as they strip the land. More often than not, these mines are forced on poor and indigenous communities at the barrel of a gun.
Some people have suggested that we could get around this problem by taking old cars and remaking them into wind turbines without mining any new iron, but this wouldn’t be any cleaner. The steel would still have to be extracted through intensive industrial processes—including transporting the cars, melting them down, reforming them and transporting the turbines to the site of the wind “farm.” Which brings up another point: once the metals, plastics, semiconductors and other pieces of solar panels or wind turbines are made, it still takes a heavily intensive (and yes, fossil-fuel intensive) process to make them into these supposedly clean energy generators.
It’s called embedded pollution, and it’s the same problem that gives the lie to “clean” cars and nuke plants. No matter how low their emissions might be during use, the emissions during manufacture, transport and eventual disposal are still through the roof. So, next time you hear someone talking about how clean windmills and solar panels are, challenge them to visit their local steel smelting plant or an open pit copper mine (in the Southwest, Latin America or elsewhere) before they say that again.
Propping Up the System
As if all that weren’t bad enough, both wind and solar “farms” require huge amounts of land—mostly indigenous lands and wild areas. In short, this is land that those in power have written off as useless.
We’re not just talking about land for the “farms” themselves. We also need to include the massive swaths needed for the construction of new electrical transmission grids across the country. A recent New York Times article notes that the US electric grid is not capable of handling a large influx of wind and solar energy: “The dirty secret of clean energy is that, while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.” That’s because the current grid is constructed primarily for local power generation, while wind and solar energy need to be generated in very specific areas. So, while half of the country’s electricity could be generated from wind in North and South Dakota, half of the population would have to move there in order to use it.
That’s why government and industry are gearing up to build an “interstate transmission superhighway system,” a “high-voltage backbone spanning the country.” This means extracting more “resources” to make more electric lines and destroying more communities to put these lines in.
Even if none of this were true, wind and solar power would still be unjustifiable for one important reason: the last thing we should be doing is adding more power to the US electric grid.
Set aside for a moment the fact that there are no plans to actually take coal and nuke plants offline when wind and solar plants get built. Assume for the sake of argument that the people who run the economy miraculously agree that we’re going to keep the power grid at its current size and just shift it over to wind and solar sources. Who benefits from this setup?
Let’s put it another way: Will it be a better world when the government drags us off to solar-powered jails and launches its nuclear bombs with wind turbines? If we finally build enough wind farms, will all of the dead zones in the oceans magically spring back to life? Will all of the species that have been driven extinct return?
Will the 100 species-per-day extinction rate slow down?
Of course not. Electricity serves the system of industrial production that is killing the planet—the system that the rich and powerful have always committed theft, murder and genocide to maintain.
Hijacking Our Message
So what’s the harm, you might ask? Wind and solar are still better, right? So, can’t we just talk about them now, to get people on board in the fight against coal, then address the other problems later?
That’s certainly what the energy industry is hoping we’ll do. They’ve read the changing winds of opinion better than we have, and are already rolling out aggressive measures to preserve the system while still appealing to the green liberal conscience.
Within days of Barack Obama’s election, Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection called on him to prioritize the construction of an “electric [transmission] interstate” for wind, solar and geothermal power. Obama and the Democrats are calling for massive investments in new infrastructure to “rebuild” the economy and “create jobs.” The efforts to save the system in the age of declining oil are well underway.
When radicals call for new electric infrastructure, all we do is legitimize the greenwashing efforts of industries that will ultimately stab us in the back. Does anyone really think that Shell and BP have become better companies now, just because they make solar panels? We’re letting a genie out of its bottle—whipping up public support for new technology is far easier than turning sentiment against it later.
Throwing our support behind the capitalists and their wind and sun “farms” is selling out the next generation; it ensures that, just as we spend our days fighting the fossil fuel industry, our kids will spend theirs fighting the wind and solar industries. This is just another version of the mentality that we’ve all complained about: “I’ll be dead when [insert ecological calamity] happens, so I don’t care.” Sure, replacing coal with wind will still kill the planet—but at least I won’t have to adapt to a radically new world in my lifetime.
It’s easy to say that wind and solar power will save the world—it’s politically fashionable, after all, and it’s a nice safe answer for when you inevitably get asked “what else?”—but it’s still a lie. It’s much more difficult to talk about how we have to stop consuming so much, to scale back, to live locally and to build sustainable communities—but at least it’s truthful.
When we offer up wind and solar power as positive alternatives, we’re discouraging people from taking the radical action that we so desperately need. We’re asking them to put their energy into the continued killing of the planet. We’re encouraging them to waste their time trying to make a fundamentally genocidal, Earth-killing system somehow just and sustainable.
When the oceans are one big dead zone, when the last forest falls, when all the water is poisoned and undrinkable, when the last wild and free creature dies, when the last spot of Earth is covered with concrete—well, then we’ll all be dead. Wind and solar power will do nothing to change our breakneck trajectory toward that fate.
So, by all means, fight fossil fuels and nukes—there’s no question that those industries need to be shut down. However, please stop saying that “clean” energy can replace them—that we can have the modern way of life and a living planet, too. The truth is, we simply can’t—and the sooner we admit that, the better.
Root Force works to take down the system by facilitating action against the expansion of global trade infrastructure. For more information, visit www.rootforce.org.