There is a painful rift among self-described environmentalists in Vermont, a divide that is particularly evident in the debate on siting industrial wind turbines on the state's iconic ridgelines. In the past, battle lines were usually drawn between business interests seeking to profit by 'developing' the land, and environmentalists seeking to protect it. Today, however, the most ardent advocates of developing Vermont's fragile ridgeline ecosystems are environmental organizations. So what is happening?
Wind protest, Montpelier Vermont by Steve Wright
The simple answer is that those supporting ridgeline wind believe that the costs of climate change to the entire biosphere outweigh the impacts to any particular ecosystem. But I believe there is something deeper going on. According to former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, this change is symptomatic of a broader shift that has taken shape over many years. In his book Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges looks at the failure of the left to defend the values it espouses -- a fundamental disconnect between belief and action that has been corrupting to the left and disastrous as a whole. Among other things, he argues, it has turned liberal establishments into mouthpieces for the power elite.
Historically, the liberal class has acted as watchdog against the abuses of capitalism and its elites. But over the last century, Hedges claims, it has traded that role for a comfortable 'seat at the table' and inclusion in 'the club'. This Faustian bargain has created a power vacuum -- one that has historically been filled by right-wing totalitarian elements that rise to prominence by ridiculing and betraying the values that liberals claim to champion.
Caving in to the seduction of careerism, prestige and comforts, the liberal class curtailed its critique of unfettered capitalism, globalization and educational institutions, and silenced the radicals and iconoclasts that gave it moral guidance -- "the roots of creative and bold thought that would keep it from being subsumed completely by the power elite." In other words, "the liberal class sold its soul".
From education to labor to agriculture and environmentalism, this moral vacuum continues to grow because the public sphere has been abandoned by those who fear becoming pariahs. Among the consequences, Hedges says, is an inability to take effective action on climate change. This is because few environmentalists are willing to step out of the mainstream to challenge its root causes -- economic growth, the profit system, and the market-driven treadmill of consumption.
Hedges' perspective clarifies a lot. It explains why so many environmental organizations push for 'renewable' additions to the nation's energy supply, rather than a systematic reduction of energy use. It explains why they rant and rail against fossil-fuel companies, while studiously averting their eyes from the corporate growth machine as a whole. In their thrall to wealthy donors and 'green' developers (some of whom sit on their boards), they've traded their concern about the natural world for the goal of 'sustainability' -- which means keeping the current exploitive system going.
It also makes clear why Vermont's mainstream environmental organizations as well as the state's political leadership have lobbied so aggressively to prevent residents from having a say regarding energy development in their towns. By denying citizens the ability to defend the ecosystems in which they live, these groups are betraying not only the public, but the natural world they claim to represent. Meanwhile, these purported champions of social justice turn their backs as foreign corporations bully Vermonters out of their homes in the name of 'green' energy.
Similarly, Hedges' perspective explains why environmental celebrity (and Vermont resident) Bill McKibben advocates the build-out of industrial wind in our last natural spaces -- energy development that would feed the very economy he once exposed as the source of our environmental problems. Behind the green curtain are what McKibben calls his "friends on Wall Street", whom he consults for advice on largely empty PR stunts designed to convince the public that something is being accomplished, while leaving the engines of economic 'progress' intact. Lauded as the world's "Most Important Environmental Writer" by Time magazine, McKibben's seat at the table of the elites is secured.
Aerial view of turbine pad, Lowell Mountain, Vermont by Steve Wright
In this way the "watchdogs" have been inexorably transformed into "guardians of the faith". Now they actually help the powerful maintain control, by blocking the possibility for genuine solutions to emerge.
Environmentalism has suffered dearly at the hand of this disabled left. It is no longer about the protection of our wild places from the voracious appetite of industrial capitalism: it is instead about maintaining the comfort levels that Americans feel entitled to without completely devouring the resources needed (at least for now). Based more on image than action, it supports the profit system while allowing those in power to appear 'green'. This myopic, empty endeavor may be profitable for a few, but its consequences for the planet as a whole are fatal.
Despite the platitudes of its corporate and government backers, industrial wind has not reduced Vermont's carbon emissions. Its intermittent nature makes it dependent on gas-fired power plants that inefficiently ramp up and down with the vicissitudes of the wind. Worse, it has been exposed as a Renewable Energy Credit shell game that disguises and enables the burning of fossil fuels elsewhere. It also destroys the healthy natural places we need as carbon 'sinks', degrades wildlife habitat, kills bats and eagles, pollutes headwaters, fills valuable wetlands, polarizes communities, and makes people sick -- all so we can continue the meaningless acts of consumption that feed our destructive economic system.
Advocates for industrial wind say we need to make sacrifices. True enough. But where those sacrifices come from is at the heart of our dilemma. The sacrifices need to come from the bloated human economy and those that profit from it, not from the landbase.
We are often told that we must be "realistic". In other words, we should accept that the artificial construct of industrial capitalism -- with its cars, gadgets, mobility, and financial imperatives -- is reality. But this, too, is a Faustian bargain: in exchange we lose our ability to experience the sacred in the natural world, and put ourselves on the path to extinction.