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Energy Literacy, Part I: Green Power's Dark Side and Eco Ruin Porn

GW_windfarmDown on the wind farm. Photo: George Wuerthner

Every therm and watt of energy we consume comes from somewhere, and those sources are finite, even if they're generally well removed from our daily lives. Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth is a new coffee table book by the Post Carbon Institute and the Foundation for Deep Ecology that shows and tells us, in graphic detail, the backstories that make up our current energy economy.

Adventure Ethics spoke with the book's co-editor, Tom Butler, about the value of beauty, the potential of energy ruin porn, the population problem, and the importance of energy literacy. In Part II of this series, we'll offer an excerpt from the book.


How did this large format art book come about?
The germination was in an earlier project that the Foundation for Deep Ecology's publishing group had produced and that was about mountaintop removal coal mining, called Plundering Appalachia, which George [Wuerthner] and I co-edited. We had immersed ourselves in that particular and specific part of energy economy, this horrific act of blowing up mountaintops to get at coal in the most ancient mountains and biologically rich forest type in North America. So that book we produced with a coalition of environmental groups that are fighting that practice. After that, we started talking about a similar project about tar sands.

George was up there in the tar sands, taking aerial photos and researching that problem, and when we started talking about it we realized it's just another very small part of an energy economy that is fundamentally toxic to nature and to people. It diminishes biological diversity, it diminishes beauty. Pulling out a single narrow slice of the bigger subject, by just talking about tar sands, didn't make sense to us. So we decided to open it up and try to do a project that makes the invisible visible to people—and that is, the systemic impacts of the current energy economy. Let's explore what is behind the light switch when you flip it on, what's behind the gas pump when you fuel up, and make it visible to people in an art book—a large photo format book.

If people are going to be engaged in reorienting our currently toxic energy economy and transferring to an energy economy that is more friendly to nature, to people, to beauty, to human health, biodiversity and all these things we care about ... [that] is only going to be possible if people are thinking about it and understand these key principals of energy. So energy literacy is really the focus of the project. The introductory section on energy literacy we spent quite a bit of time on. We want it to be very accessible and very easily understood because we think it's so important for people to understand net energy, and embodied energy, and how energy props up the entire scaffolding of civilization and in the converse how the entire scaffolding of civilization is required to produce the energy that supports it, so it's sort of a feedback loop.

In the book, industrial solar arrays and wind farms are called out for their visual pollution and impact on public lands. You write: "Beauty matters greatly to human health and happiness but is frequently discounted." But isn't the other side of that argument that scalability is key to renewable energy? And do you think distributed and small scale energy generation can satisfy our energy demands?
You've hit on a couple of good points. On the former, our energy policy should matter greatly to anybody who is an outdoor recreationalist—particularly anyone who loves the American landscape and cares about its beauty and wildlife. How we extract, generate, and transmit power has a huge impact on public lands and conservation, and not just on Western public lands. It's not just aesthetics, but beauty that matters, and beauty is too little discussed in conversations about energy policy.

Your interpretation is correct: We want to show that every form of energy has impacts. Industrial wind and solar do not get a pass. Our goal was to show the current energy terrain, then we have to look forthrightly at all the things in the energy mix and what are the impacts and the tradeoffs. There is a tendency among green-oriented NGOs to not talk about the impacts of large-scale renewables. Mega-hydropower is tremendously damaging—one of the most beautiful wild landscapes left on earth, Patagonia, is threatened by a series of mega-hydro dams. If those dams and that transmission corridor are built, they'll run through more than a dozen national parks and reserves. That's renewable power; it's horrifically damaging but also unnecessary. It’s centralized, profit-oriented, and assumes perpetual growth and fundamentally not thinking about the future.

We want an energy economy that is appropriate scaled and resilient—we just saw how brittle the current energy economy is [after Hurricane Sandy]. So decentralized, appropriate, regional networks are going to be almost certainly better for the natural values that we seek to promote. There is no panacea, and the regulation issues and institutional barriers are a nightmare. But just like the local food movement, we're on the cusp of a local power movement.
The book broaches the subject of population control as a tool for addressing environmental destruction. That's a touchy subject. Did you feel like you had to approach it with kid gloves?
It is scary territory. That's why no major American environmental group has a vibrant population program, whereas in the 1970s they all did. Back then, to talk about the environment was to talk about the need for population stabilization—they were thoroughly integrated values. Over the last generation that has been lost. I think only the Center for Biological Diversity, which is not one of the largest American conservation groups, has an emphasis on stabilizing the U.S. population and links that overtly to endangered species work.

It is scary terrain, but you simply can't talk about the current state of the energy economy without thinking about this. We are 150 years into exploiting a fossil energy windfall, and the exponential economic and population growth today is based on that windfall. If you believe the earth is finite and there is only a certain amount of oil, coal, and natural gas—which seems to be a reasonable thing to believe—then the kind of population and economic growth, those numbers and behaviors, cannot continue on that same trajectory.
Photos of urban decay and blight are often referred to as "ruin porn." Looking through your book, one could reasonably refer to the many terrifying and awesome images as "energy ruin porn." It has impact and gets reactions from people, and that's the point. But do you think we can we become desensitized to these photos of ecological destruction?
I think you're right. We can become desensitized to images of great ugliness, but we can also become desensitized to images of great beauty. There's also what's called "eco porn." We are awash in it—from every Sierra Club calendar and gift card, from every nature-oriented documentary, like Ken Burns on the national parks, to the ads that sell us Jeeps. We become desensitized to those images of natural spectacle as well. There is probably the potential for the same to happen with images of environmental destruction.

What we were trying to do is traditional photojournalism: let's show the reader something they might not have seen. The reality is, if you are heating your house with cheap natural gas, you should look at the Jonah oil field in western Wyoming and knows that's the consequence of having this glut on inexpensive natural gas. If you are turning on the light switch in D.C., you should see the images of those sheared-off mountaintops in West Virginia, which produce the coal that your utility is burning so the lights come on and your bill stays low. The real costs—to the future, and to human health, and to climate—are not counted in your bill.

So what are the key terms? What should someone understand in order to be energy literate?
First of all, I think the concept of energy literacy is fundamental. Every responsible citizen should have a basic grounding of where the energy that supports their society comes from—and what are the characteristics of that system? What are the values and the things that it promotes? Anyone who wants a meaningful opinion on energy policy needs to be energy literate. I think embodied energy, energy density, and energy sprawl are all important concepts, but net energy is perhaps the most fundamental.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we'll provide an excerpt from Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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