For those unfamiliar with McKibben, he is the author of "The End of
Nature," a book about global warming, and a pretty well-known environmental
Environmentalists should be careful what they wish for.
Orion Online - July-August 2003
IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND how difficult it will be for our society to make
the transition away from fossil fuel addiction, consider one small report
that slipped out of the Department of Energy in early December of last
year. It found that, despite melting poles and rising sea levels, the
overall consumption of renewable energy in America fell twelve percent in
2001. Granted, this was partly due to a drought that lowered the reservoirs
behind hydro dams, but the drop was also due to the fact that more solar
panels were coming off houses than were going up. Equipment from the "boom
years" -- when Jimmy Carter was subsidizing renewable energy -- is wearing
out, being retired faster than it can be replaced. Solar energy use, which
never accounted for even close to one percent of our energy generation, is
growing smaller still. And it's not because of George Bush, not really.
It's because we environmentalists never forced the political world to take
renewable energy seriously.
But how seriously do we take it ourselves? If you want to understand how
difficult it will be for our society to make the transition away from
fossil fuel addiction, you might also want to visit a website:
www.saveoursound.org. It's the home of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket
Sound, and on it you will find an environmental cri de coeur that at first
glance could be coming from any of a million citizen groups, watershed
councils, river protectors, or wilderness watchdogs. Shady developers, the
alliance warns, are planning a "massive power plant" that will line their
pockets but endanger local fishermen, wreck property values, threaten
wildlife, and "destroy the main reason people love Cape Cod: the ungoverned
natural beauty, solitude, and wildness of its coasts."
Before you sign up, though, you need to know that the villains in this case
plan to build windmills: 130 of them, sited well out to sea, which would
provide thousands of megawatts of power annually. This is precisely the
kind of renewable energy that pretty much every Earth Day speech since 1970
has demanded that we develop. Now that it's finally here, though -- now
that we're talking about particular windmills in particular places, not
abstract and squeaky-clean "wind power" -- people aren't so sure.
Opponents of the Cape Wind development protest that these windmills will be
visible from shore -- and they're right. How visible is a matter of debate,
but on a clear day you would see their blades turning on the horizon. They
point out, again correctly, that the developers are private interests,
rushing to develop a resource that, in fact, they do not own, and without
waiting for the government to come up with a set of rules and processes for
siting such installations. The critics also insist that there's a "better"
site somewhere -- and again they're probably right. There's almost always a
better site for anything. The whole business is messy, imperfect.
But those criticisms, however valid, are small truths. The big truths are
these: Each breath of wind that blows across Nantucket Sound contains 370
parts per million of carbon dioxide, up from 275 parts per million before
the Industrial Revolution, before we started burning coal and gas and oil.
That CO2 traps the sun's heat -- about two watts per square meter of the
planet's surface. Right now the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is
higher than it's been for four hundred thousand years. If we keep burning
coal and gas and oil, the scientific consensus is that by the latter part
of the century the planet's temperature will have risen five degrees
Fahrenheit, to a level higher than we've seen for fifty million years.
And what does that mean for Cape Cod? Well, the middle-of-the-road
prediction is that sea levels will rise a couple of feet this century. On a
standard eastern beach sloping seaward at about one degree, a one-foot rise
in sea level should bring the ocean in ninety feet. Go stand on the beach
at Truro and make your own calculation.
Big truths have to trump small ones. It becomes a caricature of
environmentalism to object that windmills kill birds or fish -- in fact,
new windmills kill very few birds compared with the original models. In
fact, says Greenpeace, offshore windmill platforms in Europe have often
turned into artificial reefs providing prime spawning ground for fish. But
even if windmills did kill some birds, that's a small truth -- the big
truth is that rising temperatures seem likely to trigger an extinction
spasm comparable to the one that occurred when the last big asteroids
struck the planet. Already polar bears are dying as their ice empire
shrinks; already coral reefs are disappearing as rising sea temperatures
bleach them, and by some accounts, they may be gone altogether before the
The choice, in other words, is not between windmills and untouched nature.
It's between windmills and the destruction of the planet's biology on a
scale we can barely begin to imagine. Charles Komanoff, an independent
energy consultant in New York, calculates that Cape Wind's windmills could
produce as much as 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours annually. Or, looked at
another way, if they aren't built, twenty thousand tons of carbon will be
emitted each week as coal and oil and gas are burned to produce the same
amount of energy. The windmills won't provide all the power for the Cape,
but they might provide something like half, which is a lot.
In the real world, the one where the molecular structure of CO2
inconveniently traps solar radiation, you don't get to argue for
perfection. You can say, as opponents of the Cape Wind project have said,
that we'd do more to fight global warming by improving gas mileage in our
cars. You can say that we should insulate our homes and build better
refrigerators. You can say that we should plant more trees and have fewer
kids. And you would be right, just as every Earth Day speech is "right."
But I've given my share of Earth Day speeches, and seen the effect they
had. Sooner or later you've got to do something. And if we're to have any
chance of heading off catastrophic temperature increase, we have to do
everything we can imagine. Hybrid cars and planting trees and a new
president with the foresight of Jimmy Carter. And windmills, all the hell
over the place. Right now renewable energy in America is at six percent and
Which is not to say it's going to be easy. The plans to build big turbines
provoke mixed feelings in me too. I live in the mountains above Lake
Champlain, where the wind blows strong along the ridgelines. I'll battle to
keep windmills out of designated wilderness if that ever comes up, but
right now I'm joining those who are battling to get them built on the
ridgeline nearest our home. And battling to see them not as industrial
eyesores, but as part of a new aesthetic. The wind made visible. The slow,
steady turning that blows us into a future less hopeless than the future
we're steaming toward now.
BILL McKIBBEN's first book, The End of Nature, has now appeared in twenty
foreign editions. His new book, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,
has just been published by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and
Company. He lives with his wife, writer Sue Halpern, and daughter in
Vermont. His Orion column, Small Change, appears three times a year.
Photo courtesy of The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound
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Photographs by Lynn Johnson
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A Woman's World
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Everywhere But Here
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