How Environmentalists Get in the Way of Renewable Energy

Ending dependence on fossil fuels will require the movement to get better at one thing: compromise

Dec 7, 2015
Outside
Outside Magazine
How Environmentalists Get in the Way of Renewable Energy

Many environmentalists protest solar and wind projects because of the land and wildlife they'd displace.    Photo: Sinn Féin/Flickr

With almost constant talk about climate change, one could argue that the environmental movement has rarely been stronger. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The problem? Many of those same environmentalists protest solar and wind projects because of the land they’d require and the wildlife they’d displace. Recall, for example, the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, languishing in litigation for more than 15 years and still at risk of falling apart. Or the outcry over the Ivanpah solar project in California, which fried 3,500 birds in its first year of operation. (Not to mention the $56 million spent to relocate desert tortoises to accommodate the project—with mixed results.) In fact, nearly half of all blocked energy projects would provide renewable or clean energy, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Environmentalism has become NIMBYism,” says Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, which asserts that technological innovation—not relentless protection of nature—is the only way to confront our carbon crisis. “Renewables often have massive land footprints, and people don’t want that kind of development near where they live.” That’s not to mention that nearly 70 percent of renewable electricity in the U.S. comes from conventional biomass, the energy that comes from plant-derived materials, and hydroelectric dams, two methods many traditional environmental groups still oppose. In short, this is not the environmentalism of the Rachel Carson era, where a call to awareness was hailed as heroic. Nowadays, says Shellenberger, the movement is in a funk, grappling with fractious infighting while exhausting the public’s patience for its gloom-and-doom scenarios without offering pragmatic solutions. 

But the more significant indictment of the movement comes from within its own ranks. “Environmentalism is fixated on fighting symbolic, short-term battles,” says Peter Kareiva, director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and chair of the Science Cabinet at the Nature Conservancy. “Nobody actually wants to end up with a dystopian, Bladerunner world,” he says. In the battle of purity versus pragmatism, the desired outcome is the same: clean, sustainable energy for all. “We’re at this critical moment—can the environmental movement’s vision evolve into being for things, instead of against them?” asks Kareiva. “It’s time we all move on from blockades to solutions.” 

Filed To: Nature, Politics

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