They stopped the sky from falling.
Hundreds of feet underground, I looked up into the shaft, wide enough for a subway train, blasted and grooved from a shield of rock millions of years old, that would join the waters of a reservoir above to power turbines below. Shining upward, a strong flashlight beam diffused into a seemingly infinite blackness. Around a corner behind me sat the nearly completed turbine intake, an arrangement of descending curvilinear shapes similar in appearance to a conch. Thousands of hours of computer simulation had gone into the design of the angles in the receiver. Once the frigid waters poised above were released by the two-foot-thick steel doors that restrained them, they would tumble through generators making about as much power as one of the units at Three Mile Island. I asked my guide if there were any chance some technician would throw the door-open switch by accident. He laughed in an edgy way, then almost immediately suggested it might be a good idea to leave. When we emerged into the daylight above it was ten o'clock on a fine sunny morning, and minus-28 degrees Fahrenheit.
The LaGrande Two station is part of the vast James Bay hydropower project under construction in subarctic Quebec. The James Bay project, which has hewn dozens of dams into a region rich with glacial rivers, already generates about as much power as five Three Mile Island stations. Soon the number will rise to about nine Three Mile Islands. If all the region's hydraulic gradients are tapped, the output of about 25 Three Mile Islands would be realized.
Like other hydropower enterprises, the project burns no fossil fuel and emits no greenhouse gases, smog, or toxic or solid wastes. Older-generation hydropower projects were planned with output and low cost as their goals, with ecology an afterthought. The LaGrande portion of the James Bay complex is among the first hydropower projects to have environmental protection as a formal design criterion ranked with output and cost. LaGrande Two is the first major hydroplant whose power-house--where the generators are--lies entirely underground. This means the station is a phantom on the landscape, little more than a small ridgeline with two tall red doors that appear portals into solid rock.
Other environmental precautions were taken. Before each sequence of blasting to form the waterfall shafts, engineers pumped high-pressure bubbles into the surrounding waters to frighten away fish. Transformers in the powerhouse use mineral oil insulation rather than poisonous polychlorinated biphenyls; the transformers sit on sloped gravel basins as a built-in containment device against spills. Though many subarctic rivers have been diverted to fill the project's reservoirs, plans to tamper with one large river, the Nastapoca, were abandoned when it was suggested a species of freshwater seal that feeds at the mouth of the Nastapoca might be harmed by a reduction in water volume.
Caribou were expected to be devastated by reservoir flooding at James Bay. Instead, since the project began, local caribou populations have increased from about 200,000 to about 800,000. No one knows exactly why. Perhaps the roads built for construction access favor caribou migration; perhaps the population growth would have happened regardless. Transmission lines from the project across the Saint Lawrence River are among the world's first underwater power cables, so no towers spoil vistas of the Saint Lawrence. When the underwater lines were completed, piers that held towers for temporary lines were removed so as to pose no obstacle to migratory cod. In sum, it is difficult to conceptualize a large power project having less impact on the ecology.
What do environmentalists think of the James Bay project? Most despise it. The National Audubon Society has called the dams as bad as the burning of the Amazon rainforest, and has lobbied for laws to prohibit U.S. utilities from buying James Bay power. Greenpeace has called the project genocide and mounted a boycott of tourism to Quebec. Institutional environmentalism is correct about the need to propel society beyond its fixation on fossil fuels. When the Oil Age ultimately ends--and that may not be far off--environmentalists will be richly praised for their far-sighted understanding of renewable energy's central importance. Yet environmental sentiment has been unable to come to terms with the need for basic energy production.
No matter how successful conservation initiatives may be, on the whole the globe needs a major push for new power production systems. In the Western world, new generation systems are required to replace dirty, inefficient older plants with plants having clean, lower-input designs. In the Third World, hundreds of new power facilities are needed to satisfy the basic requirements of the globe's vast underclass, only a small percentage of which today enjoys the electrification taken for granted in developed nations. Unless the world's downtrodden are to remain down and trodden, global energy must go up.
Beyond this there is no fundamental conflict between the production of energy and the protection of the Earth. Twenty years ago, energy was universally considered a guaranteed sure-thing, no-way-out doomsday. Today Americans steadily use less energy, spend less on energy and pollute less with energy. The clipped pace of progress in converting energy from a brute-force to a cleantech pursuit ought to provide a model for guarded optimism in other industrial arenas.
Yet many environmentalists think that in order to be pro-conservation, they must be anti-production. Orthodoxy has grown so conflicted on the subject of energy production that a few greens have pronounced that, even if an entirely benign energy source is invented, it should be withheld, since people would use that energy to commit the primal sin of altering the ecology. During the period when it briefly seemed "cold fusion" might offer zero-pollution energy from seawater, activist Jeremy Rifkin declared that clean, unlimited energy would be "the worst thing that could happen to our planet."
The notion of energy production as antithetical to nature evinces a myopic view of natural history. In a sense, the 3.8-billion-year span of the development of life has been about finding ways to employ energy as a tool to build living complexity out of the undifferentiated blur that was the initial condition of the planet. Without controlled use of energy, complexity cannot happen. For genus Homo to pursue the production of energy is not an affront to nature; it is the continuation of an eons-long effort to vest life with the means of sustaining itself and perhaps ultimately of expanding into areas where spontaneous forces alone are not sufficient.
Here it is appropriate to introduce an important premise for a new movement that could be properly called ecorealism: making it through the transition. In many areas of environmental protection, trends point in the direction of progress. The worry is the next few decades--the period of transition from brute-force human relations with nature to the cautious and respectful relationship that is emerging. On energy, so long as society can get through the next few decades without greenhouse emissions running wild, a clean and renewable future should unfold. For this reason, ideas like a pollution-free hydropower project in Quebec ought to seem wonderful, even if, like all human endeavors, they create their share of problems.
Some ecological objections to the James Bay project are valid but some are deceptive. Hydropower requires flooding lands from reservoirs, a practice environmentalists speak of in tones of deep horror, as though it wipes out life. Plants and animals do die when the reservoir water rises, and some wild-river ecology is lost. But what then exists? A lake ecology, brimming with living things. "People think a reservoir is a liquid desert," says Gaetan Hayeur, a James Bay environmental official. "Nobody ever says that about a lake. If you propose draining a lake, environmentalists will say that would cause a shocking loss of valuable habitat. But if you propose making a reservoir, which is a lake, they say the reverse."
So, in a sense, when Hydro Quebec floods the frigid James Bay land, the old ecology is not wiped out. But the new ecology differs from what is already there. That is the real environmental complaint about hydropower: It causes change. Even should the entire 50,000-megawatt potential of James Bay be tapped, most of the region would remain what it was when Europeans first saw it, an ecology of wild rivers mixed with subarctic tundra. But there would be change. Rather than exhibit annual cycles of flood and drought, some of the rivers would flow consistently. (Consistent river volume is unnatural in the James Bay region; it favors some subarctic species.) And some of James Bay would not be wild rivers but placid lakes brought about through action by design.
Why such change should dismay humans would be difficult for nature to fathom. Nature has rearranged the hydraulics of the James Bay region dozens of times and is certain to rearrange them again. Through glacial advances and retreats, nature has made and unmade uncountable rivers, lakes, and dams in what people now call Quebec. Why is it strange for women and men to do the same, especially if they can learn to do it in ways calculated to minimize harm? And the change brought to James is reversible. Suppose someday the power from James Bay is no longer required. The project's dams can then be removed, just as nature has often removed its own dams in the region. The tundra and wild-river ecology will reassert itself.
In several parts of North America, conservationists now propose to perform this very trick. United States law requires that some 200 inefficient small hydrodams dating from the turn of the century be relicensed in the nineties. American Rivers, a thoughtful environmental organization, advocates that many such dams be taken out. The wild rivers these dams block, American Rivers says, will rapidly reassert themselves and live again as they did before engineers eyed them. What's the difference between that and what might happen at James Bay?
Out of Balance
Damophobia reflects the fallacy of Stop-in-Place. If only society would keep its hands off the land, this fallacy holds, then nothing would change. Dark Safari, a 1991 book by John Bierman, quotes the eighteenth-century Kiowa chief White Bear as telling a group of European settlers attempting to persuade him of the benefits of their version of life, "I don't want any of those medicine homes [schools] built in the country. I want the papooses brought up exactly as I am." This is a perfect expression of the human desire to Stop in Place. Yet this desire, which environmentalists promote as honoring nature, is among the most artificial notions genus Homo has introduced on Earth.
That many environmentalists now oppose ecologically attractive ideas like hydropower suggests that the green movement needs to reexamine which part of its agenda is justified, what part is bluster. To be sure, environmentalism is among the most welcome social developments of the twentieth century. This phenomenal organizing success speaks both to the power of ecological concerns and to the hard labors of the people of the movement. Environmentalists began their quest for the public ear with a pittance compared to the financial reserves of the lobbies that opposed them. Through the early eighties, though outgunned in legal talent, lobbying access, and the funds necessary to make political donations, they won victory after victory. This progression from pauperhood to riches culminated in the 1990 Clean Air Act. On that bill environmentalists put to rout the auto lobby, the steel lobby, the utility lobby, the coal lobby, and other entrenched groups commanding trillions of dollars in economic might. Because of the success of political environmentalism, Americans and Europeans today live in a world where effective environmental influence is assured at nearly every level of government and business. This is a wonderful development for society. History will admire the environmentalists of our era for how much they accomplished and how fast.
But in the last decade environmentalists have heard more hosannas than is good for them. Commentators meet the claims of industrialists and government officials with skepticism, properly discounting for self-interests in the outcome. In contrast, the pronouncements of green figures have been treated as beyond reproach, though like everyone else they have personal and financial self-interests, too. Surely environmentalists enjoyed having their claims embraced uncritically by the opinion-making apparatus of society. But this luxury has become counterproductive, allowing the movement to avoid facing the flaws of its arguments. If you love environmentalists, as you should, today the greatest favor you can do them is to toss cold water over their heads.
In recent years it has become something of a pastime to make sport of failed environmental predictions from the past. There are many to choose from. In 1970, for instance, Life magazine said that by 1980 Americans in major cities would wear gas masks. In 1980, a commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter issued a report, Global 2000, projecting general ecological collapse by about now. The list of null doomsday prophecies from the recent past could march onward for pages.
Such way-off forecasts should not be disturbing. They came when little was known about the natural resilience of the environment, researchers having only begun to uncover the evidence. They came when gross pollution was widespread--bear in mind, for example, that until 1972 it was essentially legal for U.S. factories to discharge unprocessed toxics and slag directly into lakes and rivers. And the old doomsday pronouncements came when government was tucked snugly in bed with industry. In the sixties, I never would have guessed how rapidly environmental regulations would take force or how quickly nature would recover, and probably neither would you. So, yes, the enviros made some overwrought predictions in the past. That no longer matters.
What does matter is that overwrought assessments continue to be generated in the present. "During the seventies we had a lot of really good environmental laws passed but most of those have been systematically subverted or undermined," the late novelist and environmental activist Wallace Stegner said in 1992. From the White House, Al Gore in 1993 declared, "human activities are needlessly causing grave and perhaps irreparable damage to the global environment." In 1994 he said, in apparent defiance of all evidence, that "the environmental crisis has grown worse" in the United States in recent decades.
Contemporary doomsaying is hard to excuse, given that it comes at a time when most trends in developed countries are positive and most scientific findings suggest the biosphere is extremely robust. Yet the above quotations and many more not cited show that environmentalism remains mired in instant-doomsaying thinking. Some of this fixation stems from a willful denial of progress made, an almost aching desire that news stay bad.
Consider Stegner's notion that the environmental laws of the seventies were good but since have been "systematically undermined or subverted." The reverse is true. Laws of the seventies were shot full of loopholes allowing acid rain, toxic air pollution, ocean dumping of sludge, and many other abuses. During the eighties, the New Right attempted to undermine environmental strictures but enjoyed little success. In that decade U.S. regulations controlling toxics, recycling, sludge, pesticide registration, waste exports, landfill safety, smog prevention, acid rain, incinerators, energy conservation, nuclear wastes, and a dozen other subjects were made more strict. Current ecological law is hardly perfect, but by any reasoned judgment it is far stronger than in the seventies.
No one can blame Stegner or environmentalists generally for wanting to sustain the essentially youthful vision of a glorious crusade to thwart villainy. It's fun to view yourself as a pure-hearted paladin surrounded by bad guys you can outwit. It is less fun, and dishearteningly grown-up, to view yourself as one of many actors in a complex world where the moral dimensions of human actions are not always what they seem. But the satisfying visions from the youth of the ecological movement have progressively less to do with current events. Add to this an inner fear of all movements: Reformers privately dread the moment when the reforms they espouse come to pass and they are no longer needed. Such factors combine to make some environmentalists long for the bad old days, rather than celebrate the improving new ones.
As environmentalism has become entrenched, a contrapositive has sprung up, which may be called unvironmentalism. Rush Limbaugh is the leading unviro, imagining "ecofeminazis" who conspire with the EPA to control his life. William Dannemeyer, a former congressman, is another prominent unviro; in 1990 he gave a demented speech on the House floor saying the trouble with environmentalists is that they don't believe in an afterlife. (Apparently pollution is fine down below so long as skies are clear high above.) What has evolved is a strange contest between the doomsayers and the naysayers--one side asserting that life as we know it is about to end, the other that everything is peachy keen. Common sense dictates neither philosophy takes you anywhere you really want to go.
Fortunately unviro naysaying is a short-term phenomenon that will expire on its own, as it defies the consensus political values behind conservation. Environmental doomsaying may be with us for years to come, since it plays off those same values. This is distressing because the decibel level of doomsaying drowns out ecological messages with lasting power.
Consider Al Gore's Earth in the Balance. Seemingly on every page something is being destroyed or about to end. Gore's initial mention that environmental progress has been made in the United States does not come until page 82; the mention is perfunctory. The second half of Gore's book speculates on how modern detachment from the rhythms of Earth may help explain the dissatisfaction experienced by so many people in affluent nations, who would seem by material comfort the winners of history's lottery. This portion of Earth in the Balance is measured, thoughtful, and possessed of enduring significance. Yet, the quietly persuasive second half of Gore's work received no attention while the doomsday first half was widely promoted.
The underappreciated portion of Gore's book hints at an ecological issue that will become increasingly important in the twenty-first century, as problems like pollution control are resolved. That issue is antimaterialist sentiment. To the extent the ecology movement is a proxy for nogrowth, it sometimes has a pull-up-the-ladders aspect. That is: I've made my pile of dough, now don't you dare spoil the view from my vacation home. Yet the countercultural aspect of environmentalism also sometimes cuts across class lines to engage those who feel screwed by the direction of society, or who have an uneasy sense that the materialist life-focus is elementally flawed.
Environmentalists are well ahead of the historical curve in sensing that materialist culture has lost its way. History will look back on the green drives against pollution and resource waste as secondary issues, since by historical standards these problems will be resolved in remarkably little time. But the problem of the soul-draining aspect of the materialist lifestyle will continue and may even worsen as clean, sustainable production extends the cycle of consumption indefinitely. Down the road, the effort to free women and men from lives of materialistic work-and-spend represents the most important contribution environmentalism will make to society. For the moment, the trouble is that hardly any environmentalist who thinks in an anti-materialist way is willing to act in an anti-materialist way.
Is there even one Western environmentalist who lives without electricity and heat, eats only from his or her own garden, would if ill refuse genetically engineered pharmaceuticals, never travels in any fossil-powered car, taxi, bus, train, or plane, and who declines to attend environmental conferences because it would take too long to ride there on a new bike? Paul Ehrlich has written that things are so bad the only hope is to "reduce the scale of human activities." By way of setting an example does he decline to speak at environmental conferences because to do so would oblige him to fly in petroleum-guzzling jetliners and stay in resource-intensive hotels? Gore has written of watching a glade of trees removed from a housing development near his Virginia home: "As the woods fell to make way for more concrete, more buildings, more parking lots, the wild things that lived there were forced to flee." Doesn't Gore live in a house? Park his car on concrete? Why are jets and homes and driveways only objectionable when SOMEBODY ELSE desires them?
The idea that SOMEBODY ELSE should go without the conveniences of modern life must be eradicated if environmental thought is to proceed to the next level of usefulness to society. As Anna Bramwell noted in Ecology in the Twentieth Century, far from advancing a decentralized small-is-beautiful philosophy, the orthodox enviro prescription "involves mass planning and coercion." No degree of ecological exhortation will persuade the typical citizen of America or Western Europe to abandon a heated home, low-cost food, advanced medical care, or any similar reasonable material gain. Nor should these be abandoned. Rather they should be redesigned to operate in conjunction with nature.
Enviros won the last 20 years of political battles by a notable margin, but you'd never know it from their public statements. That their cause has become mainstream makes many environmentalists nervous. All movements that graduate to insider status undergo a number of such stresses: Among those now affecting the green movement are its relations to science, lobbying, and fundraising.
The notion of formal insider influence is a tempestuous one to enviros. Should environmental groups ever lend support to candidates other than liberal Democrats? Greenpeace theatrically refuses any negotiation with public officials, contending all insider contacts to be corrupting. Yet the organization supplicates in Hollywood, where during the eighties it was a charity of choice: Greenpeace solicited endorsements from celebrities whose lives are devoted to immodest consumption. Greenpeace has run save-the-whales TV ads featuring the model Christie Brinkley, whose lifestyle could support whole Third World villages.
As environmentalists have become effective lobbyists they have learned the negative tools of the trade: bluster, veiled threats, and misrepresentation. Distortion of the scientific case regarding the pesticide Alar is a common charge against environmental lobbyists. Here is a more typical, workaday example. During Clean Air Act lobbying in 1990, one issue was how many grams of unburned hydrocarbons new cars could emit. Existing regulations set the limit at 4.1 grams per mile; EPA administrator William Reilly proposed to lower the standards to 2.5 grams per mile. Enviro lobbyists called the deal a sellout because 1990 cars already averaged only 2.6 grams. Their complaints about the proposal led to denunciations of Reilly on Capitol Hill.
Automakers design tailpipe controls to emit less than law allows, creating a "compliance cushion" that forestalls recalls. This is why an existing standard of 4.1 grams led to cars emitting 2.6 grams. Reilly knew that if the limit were lowered to 2.5 grams, the new compliance cushion would drop actual emissions to around 1.5 grams. Automakers would be anxious for an extra reduction since the new Clean Air Act requires them to warrant emissions systems for 75,000 miles. Enviro lobbyists understood about compliance cushions. They simply declined to mention this factor in congressional testimony and media interviews, sensing a chance to create a jolt of bad news. "The advocacy campaign against the provision was illogical unless the motive was to take a positive development and make it seem depressing," says Reilly, himself once an environmental lobbyist as head of the World Wildlife Fund.
Once environmental lobbyists engage in tactics such as willful distortions of the other side's positions, they place themselves on a slope that can lead downward toward being simply another pressure group that will say or do whatever is expedient to maintain its interests. If anything will push the enviros into that descent it is fund-raising.
"I found the enclosed internal report so frightening, so shocking, that I immediately decided to rush a copy off to you," begins an appeal by then Sierra Club director Michael Fischer, massmailed in 1992. "It explores the insidious yet vastly organized plot by the so-called Wise Use Movement to DESTROY THE ENTIRE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT" (capitals and italics original). Attached to the letter was an ersatz document bearing the simulated hand-stamp INTERNAL USE ONLY purporting to show "irrefutable evidence" that "exploiters and polluters" had staged a tippy-top-secret meeting to "plot the total and final destruction of the American environmental movement."
Anyone familiar with the sorts of fund-raising letters employed to frighten the elderly about Social Security will recognize familiar themes here: claims of plots and secret meetings; official-looking "documents"; preposterous assertions, such as that the well-entrenched environmental movement will suffer "total and final destruction" if you don't send that check today. Modern life knows three basic types of shakedowns: blackmail, greenmail, and direct mail.
Unscrupulous fund-raisers such as Richard Viguerie showed that bogus documents, wild distortions, and the use of "devil figures" are what shake money loose by mail. Through the eighties many enviro groups adopted these techniques as former Interior Secretary James Watt, a raving unviro, made the ideal devil figure for direct mail. By the end of the decade Greenpeace was among the leading direct-mailers in the U.S., often dropshipping phony-document mailings of one million pieces. National Audubon Society mailings were emblazoned with such banners as TEN SECONDS A MONTH CAN HELP SAVE THE PLANET! Even the normally staid Nature Conservancy unleashed direct mail appeals containing imaginary land deeds computer-printed with the mark's name.
If it is dangerous to believe your own press releases, it is deadly to believe your own direct mail. Reasoning backward from direct mail puts environmentalism in jeopardy of behaving like just another interest group: The last thing you'd want from a movement that has long been rightly seen as among society's bright lights. And direct mail dynamics compel institutional environmentalism away from the sort of ecorealism that should be the next wave of thinking.
Ecorealism would abandon both the conventional doomsday views of the Left, and the conventional anti-regulatory views of the Right: creating, a new, ideologically neutral, middle-path philosophy for understanding environmental issues. The ecorealist would accept that society must have very strict conservation rules, but also accept that nature is resilient and around for the long haul. Ecorealism would cancel the doomsday alarm, and yet assume that further progress against pollution--including an ultimate goal of a zero-emission economy--is a desirable, sensible goal for society.
Consider that if an ecorealist point of view were common today, there is no way the Newt Gingrich faction in the House of Representatives, nor Bob Dole in the Senate, could be attempting to turn back the clock by undoing much of conservation law. If it were widely understood that most environmental trends in the Western world are positive, and that most American environmental programs have generated excellent results at affordable costs, there would be public outcry--even from typical middle-class voters--against the Gingrich-Dole anti-environmental assault.
But since the public has in recent years heard little more than doomsaying about the ecology, it is now conventionally assumed that most environmental programs aren't working. And if they're not working, why not undo them? Thus, in a sense, environmental exaggerations of the Left have made possible the current anti-environmental exaggerations of the Right. This is especially true since it is now widely believed that antipollution initiatives impose a burdensome drag on the economy. With a few exceptions, this is not the case: Most environmental rules are cost-effective and good for the economy. Yet Gingrich, Dole, and other anti-environmentalists are able to get away with depicting environmental rules as expensive burdens, since pessimistic environmental thinking from the Left has created a milieu in which conservation rules are spoken of only in terms of woe. Rarely do institutional environmentalists have kind words for the EPA programs of either Republican or Democratic presidents. This creates the impression, useful to the Gingrich faction, that the programs don't work.
Among the worst aspects of Washington interest groups is that at some point they begin to like negativism, as it endlessly justifies their position and funding. This descent to the lowest common denominator is often seen on the part of industrial trade associations. It would be a sad day, and a profound loss to society, if environmentalism became merely the industrial trade association of the Left.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||environmentalists and energy production|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Move over, Charles Keating.|
|Next Article:||History as it should be taught.|