Monday, March 16, 2015

When the Roots Aren't Made of Grass, the Solutions Save the System, and the Only Thing Hotter than the Planet is the Bacon

About two thirds of the way into Josh Fox' Solutions Grassroots Tour performance at Clarke Chapel, Lycoming College, Pennsylvania, I and my partner, Kevin Heatley, got up and walked out. We weren't noisy--but we were definitive. 

I could say that Fox' gig just wasn't very well put together (it wasn't), or that it seemed pretty cheesy on the side of a pitch for his new installment in the Gasland documentary series (it was). I could say that the "theater" promised in the trailer was wholly MIA, and that it wasn't much of a concert--but the surprise musical guests were really really great.

Nope, I got up and walked out because the Progessive Democrat brand of politics being sold to an audience mostly made up of all the usual anti-fracking movement suspects--and no one really new--is a recipe for reinforcing the very system of commodification and exchange that generates endemic social and economic injustice and--through both willful blindness and the demand that the solutions be easy--contributes to climate change.

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
We walked out because it's just not true that we Westerners can keep consuming practically everything at the massive level we do, and that--just by the easy-peasy switch from centralized fossil fuel production to centralized solar and wind--we're actually making a substantial difference.

Here's just a few reasons why:

1. Corporatized solar/wind is as much a privatizing of a public utility as were fossil fuels, and therefore every bit as much the province of the profit motive as are their predecessors. For anyone committed to the view that a system--in this case globalized corporatism--capable of converting public utilities into private profit ventures is intrinsically inconsistent with basic human rights of access to necessities like water, the prospect of any privatized and corporatized control of a centralized power grid ought to be troubling. It doesn't matter, moreover, what the resource is--if people and nonhuman animal lives depend on it, it ought not ever be a source of profit-generation. What goes for water goes for education goes for medicine goes for heat. We have precisely no more reason to think poor folks will benefit from this systemic reinforcement of a national--and global--system of economic class than we did under the fossil fuel barons--and every reason to believe otherwise. By making solar and wind power just another high stakes commodity for big corporate players, we will do damage to our communities--and we will maintain a class structure that was mirrored in that chapel: white, relatively affluent, Western.

2. In addition to reinforcing a system--centralized corporatized utilities--that re-produces an economic and class system within which some benefit while others are likely to continue to struggle to pay their utility bills, still others--out of sight and apparently out of mind--remain vulnerable to labor exploitation and to exposure to harmful toxins in the manufacture of these panels. As reported by National Geographic, although solar panels are certainly an improvement over coal-fired power plants because they produce renewable energy:

[f]abricating the panels requires caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and the process uses water as well as electricity, the production of which emits greenhouse gases. It also creates waste. These problems could undercut solar's ability to fight climate change and reduce environmental toxics. (How Green Are Those Solar Panels, Really?)
Among these chemicals is cadmium: "OSHA estimates that 300,000 workers are exposed to cadmium in the United States. Worker exposure to cadmium can occur in all industry sectors but mostly in manufacturing and construction. Workers may be exposed during smelting and refining of metals, and manufacturing batteries, plastics, coatings, and solar panels." (Safety and Health Topics | Cadmium).

To be clear, considerable improvements are and will likely continue to be made in the manufacture of solar panels (see: Solar Energy Isn’t Always as Green as You Think - IEEE Spectrum). There is much to recommend them. 

But to blithely entrust the manufacture and marketing of solar technology to the same economic and political system that generated the conditions of deforestation, desertification, species extinction, pollution, and climate change is folly in the extreme--and that is precisely what the Solutions Grassroots Tour is doing. Indeed, just because a corporation has the word "ethical" in its name is no guarantee that they actually care about how their product is manufactured.

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

For example, Ethical Electric--one of the companies for which Fox stumps on the tour--includes nothing whatever on their website about their commitment to insuring that their solar or wind energy suppliers from the "wholesale market" are themselves committed to fair labor practices or safe working conditions--and there is nothing on their "activism" page that speaks to these central issues. Although they claim on their "mission" page to be committed as a B-Corps corporation to "having a positive impact on the world and benefitting society," they provide no information about how they do that other than by being a renewable energy supplier company. Indeed, Ethical Electric propagandizes the idea that just by signing up with them and their 56,000 customers, you're part of a "movement," a tidily cathartic claim for the activist who wants an easy way to feel good about themselves--all the while being given a pass to wholly ignore how solar panels are actually made--and by whom (Ethical Electric). To be fair, CEO Tom Matzzie could rightly respond that the 588,471 pounds of Co2 not emitted into the atmosphere since 2012 is a contribution to mitigating climate change, and that is also a contribution to an improved global environment. But this is cold comfort to the developing world laborer whose potential for toxic exposure is very likely to rise as the competition for alternative sources of energy heats up (no pun intended).

We can tell a similar story about the manufacture of industrial scale wind turbines which requires a substantial commitment to mining rare earth metals--itself a serious environmental and toxic exposure problem:

[E]very wind farm has a few turbines standing idle because their fragile gearboxes have broken down. They can be fixed, of course, but that takes time – and meanwhile wind power isn’t being gathered. Now you can make a more reliable wind turbine that doesn’t need a gearbox at all, King points out, but you need truckload of so-called "rare earth" metals to do it, and there simply isn't the supply. (A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies by Nicola Jones: Yale Environment 360).

The moral of both wind and solar technology production is the same: if the winners of centralized utility scale renewables benefit at the cost of others--especially all of the same others both at home trying to make their heating bills and in the global economies of extraction--as labor and resources--then we're just lying to ourselves that what we have are really "renewables," are a "solution" to climate change--and most of all are in any way socially or economically just. If it ain't accessible as well as renewable for my neighbor here and everywhere, it ain't really renewable for me. And to whatever extent I am participating in the reproduction of exploitive labor conditions in addition to ecologically damaging ones--even if CO2 emissions are reduced--I am still responsible for harm. 

3. The number of times the word "easy" appears on the Solutions Grassroots website is designed to give us the impression that just switching over to, say, Sungevity (where you can get $750.00 and Solutions Grassroots gets $750.00 for finding the company through the tour), is a real and meaningful contribution to mitigating climate change. This is deceptive. Fact is, the word "conservation" didn't appear once in the hour I spent at the Clarke Chapel--but the notion that we in the West can continue to live the way we live, consume what we consume, and ignore what we ignore is crazy. Fact is, we haven't gotten even close to confronting one of the most significant contributions to climate change--one that all the solar panels and wind turbines in the world aren't going to affect one bit: animal agriculture.

4. There's a tremendous lots more to be said here, but suffice it for now that it's a sure sign that we don't really expect any real change in the activist audience--let alone the sort of systemic change that's clearly demanded if we're to mitigate climate change--that no one even whispers "factory farm" in the equation. But the facts here are as plain as the day for any animal unfortunate enough to be born into a factory farm is horrific. From Cowspiracy (COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret)

The moral here is obvious: stop eating bacon. In fact, stop eating beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Stop now. "A plant based diet cuts your carbon footprint by 50%" (COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret).

Here's at least two implications that follow directly from the facts above--neither of which rated any mention at Solutions Grassroots:

1. If we put an end to animal agriculture in all of its forms--including sea and ocean--we could keep on driving our Hummers and still significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
 2. Conversely, we could convert every fossil fuel consuming industry, car--whatever--into a solar and/or wind-driven dream--and it isn't going to make any but the most teeny of differences to climate change if we don't end animal agriculture.
Obviously, if we really gave a tinker's damn, we'd do both--we'd stop eating, wearing, using animal products altogether--now that's easy!--and we'd head for decentralized, truly community based solar and wind solutions--with a clear eye to the conditions under which everything we use and consume is produced.

So why wasn't animal agriculture prominently featured in Mr Fox' Solutions Grassroots tour?

Because there's nothing whatever grassroots about Solutions Grassroots.

I actually have no clue what Mr. Fox means by "grassroots." But what I do know is that he doesn't mean:

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
1. Solutions to energy consumption. Fox' program plays like an infomercial for Big Alternative Still-Centralized Energy like Ethical Energy, Solar City, etc. And we've got no really good reason to think that these companies are any more interested in you or your community going solo than Big Gas does. Their first objective is to make a profit, and they're not going to make it off you or your neighbors if you've got it figured out for yourselves--along perhaps with a nifty community rights bill that keeps out the Big Players. Hells Bells, even if the Big Players are renewables, that by itself is no justification for sanctioning the labor abuses and environmental destruction you're buying into when you sign up with them.

2. Looking to the grassroots anti-carbon extraction community for sponsorship of his message: that the Responsible Drilling Alliance sponsored the Clarke Chapel gig suggests that (a) Mr. Fox or his people have no idea what grassroots organizing in Pennsylvania looks like, (b) Mr. Fox simply called up friends he happened to know in PA, and/or (c) Mr. Fox doesn't really care much where the sponsorship money comes from. All are troubling since RDA is in no way anti-drilling. Indeed, the meme "responsible drilling" has been publicly and enthusiastically appropriated by Department of Environmental Protection's new leader John Quigley who--following the governor's lead to "have our cake and eat it too"--is now spouting the meme as the rallying cry for thousands of new wells, compressors, and pipeline.  Mr. Fox mentioned that he understood the Williamsport region as the "belly of the beast." Indeed, it is--and among those he should be thanking for their contribution to the gas industry's despoiling of Lycoming County is RDA. Not only is RDA in no way "grassroots"--arguing for the protection of "special places" that are manifestly not your back yard or your working class neighbor's--they're not even anti-fracking.

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

3. The big donors listed on the Solutions Grassroots homepage like the Rockfellers who--behind the green-washing magical words "divestment" have (a) not actually divested from natural gas and transport--at least yet, and (b) were clearly more interested in making sure their companies are viable into the future than they are the future of the planet:

The Rockefeller family is attracting adulatory press coverage for its decision to divest their $860 million charity, the Rockefeller's Brother's Fund, of its investment in fossil fuels. There are at least two significant catches, however. As the statement from the Rockefeller's Brother's Fund puts it: 
 Given the structure of some commingled investment funds and investments in highly diversified energy companies, we recognize that there may continue to be minimal investments in out portfolio in those energy sectors, but we are committed to reducing our exposure to coal and tar sands to less than 1% of the total portfolio by the end of 2014...we are also undertaking a comprehensive analysis of out exposure to any remaining fossil fuel investments and will work with the RBF investment committee and board of trustees to determine an appropriate strategy for further divestment over the next few years.
Second, there's no word at all indicating that Rockefeller and Co., the family investment and wealth management firm, that says it has $44 billion of Rockefeller and outside money undermanagement, will follow suit. As recently as November of 2012, Rockefeller and Co. was touting North American shale oil and natural gas as a "once or twice in every generation" investment opportunity...It's as if the Rockfeller family decided that vegetarianism  is such a fine idea that by year end all of its household staff are going to stop eating meat. Divest the charity from fossil fuels, but not the family's own personal wealth and not the wealth of the clients that the family earns money for managing. (Rockefeller Energy Divestment :: The Future of Capitalism)

This is a lot of hypocrisy for Mr. Fox to sleep with at night.

But here's the far more important upshot: Mr. Fox' Solutions Grassroots Tour is really just one more example of "in the box," "in the system," "in the Democratic Party's Political Tank" thinking. By making an infomercial for Big Solar and Big Wind, by wholly ignoring the more uncomfortable issues of conservation and animal agriculture, by making an advertisement for the "easy activism" of switching from one centralized industry to another, he effectively just creates one more apology for the same-old neo-liberalism that got us the global disparities of North and South, the 1%, the conditions of contemporary war and terrorism, and climate change in the first place. 

Why on earth would we think that the same centralized structures of power and wealth that got us this list of woe could get us to a desirable future--even a survivable one?

It won't.  Mr. Fox doesn't have much excuse for not knowing better.

But this isn't really about him since neither do any of the adoring fans in his audience have that excuse. I think we have a right to expect a lot better from our leaders and heros. 

But "leader" and "hero" are not necessarily, I have learned, the same thing as "frack-a-lebrity," and Mr. Fox is clearly more interested in avoiding offense than mitigating climate change.

Thing is, we absolutely positively could do the right thing by our families and our communities. We have the roof tops. We have the science. We have the capacity for a conscience. We can say no to a system that systematically reinforces global economic disparity, social injustice, animal cruelty,   and ecological destruction. 

It won't be easy

But when was the worthwhile ever easy? It wasn't easy to get up and walk out of the Clarke Chapel--but to stay knowing that by doing so Kevin and I had signed on to the next fawning endorsement of the same old status quo...nah.

Better to be able to sleep at night.

Wendy Lynne Lee


Marcellus Madman said...

As a former board member, and current apostate, of the RDA I concur with Wendy Lee’s observations. The “Grassroots Solutions Tour” may have started out strong and green but by the time it got to Williamsport it looked as though it had been sprayed with a 2% Round-up solution. Ten minutes of spectacular cello playing was buried within an amateurish infomercial for the centralized generation of renewable energy. The late Billy Mays (of OxyClean fame) must have been spinning in his grave over this latest unfortunate decline into a new low of hucksterism. Twenty five years as an environmental scientist and the solution was so clear all along – just get people to buy more of the right kind of stuff!
No change in gross consumption, no redistribution of wealth and power, no moral extension to other species – saving the planet is as easy as switching your corporate electric provider while you order yet another bacon burger (with extra cheese!). Decentralized power with in-situ solar, wind, and geothermal? Now that be crazy talk! We need to cover up that desert with miles of panels and rip up that ridgetop forest with bat-grinding wind farms! How else we gonna keep the bread and circuses flowing?
The cult of Frack-a-lebrity that was evident at the Williamsport show could have easily been mistaken for Beatle-mania if not for the gray hair and prominent paunches. Hopefully a defibrillator was on stand-by in case the hero worship became too overwhelming for cardiovascular systems weakened by decades of eating bacon.
At least Josh got one thing right – he did say there was no such thing as “safe fracking”. This statement however is clearly at odds with the phrase “responsible drilling” and it was entertaining to see Josh verbally stumble as he tried to substitute “RDA” for the organization’s official name – “The Responsible Drilling Alliance”. I tried to get the RDA to lose that oxymoronic albatross of a moniker years ago but, strange as it may seem, there are many people who cannot imagine a world without fossil fuels and lots of bacon bits on their blue plate special.

Alan Septoff said...

Circular firing squad, commence!

Tom Frost said...

You remind me of myself a decade or two ago, before I decided that any heckling worth walking out of for the purpose (obviously in your case here!) of going home so you can do it from hiding behind a typewriter like a coward, is worth staying and doing in person.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Thanks Mr. Frost for this enlightening post.

Here's what you've said: Wendy is stinky! Stinky Wendy! Stinky! Stinky!

I'm sure my readers feel much better now.

Lindsay Groves said...

Drilling does permanent harm to the land and water. It's a toxic. You can't clean up after it. You can't grow plants to eat safely, with those substances in ground water. Discussing CO2 and Methane emissions is important, but fracking is forever.
Putting arguments into print is the only way not to be misquoted, Frost. I would hate to be trapped in a room with you.

Slagghorn, Mitch said...

I truly do love to read the thoughts and
even the curses of a one Wendy Lee.
Speaking Out, is indeed one of the greatest
forms of ammo that we share. Wendy's ammo
is not only large caliber, but tuned pretty good,
It's always a pleasure to watch her light up
a target downrange.
I like to use analogies sometimes to
get a point across, and it can sometimes be useful
in relation/association in a more generalized state.
I've mentioned it before, I can't really understand
Josh's strategy exactly without talking to him.
From a strategy perspective, I can see Wendy's point
however I would not eliminate a possibility of a
method to Josh's "madness" per se.
To use another analogy, Imagine the fracking industry
as a 80 ft. tall, 590 ton, wild grazing and very destructive
prehistoric dinosaur that in it's mindless wandering,
destroys pretty much everything wherever it goes.
From the treetops, we can see this thing, annihilate
our rainforest where we live and survive.
Like a psychopathic bulldozer, this thing threatens our life,
and we can't stop it, it's too big.
After coming to grips with this, and exhausted all
other efforts, a plan is devised to steer the beast.
By waving a money plant upon the breeze, the titan
can be persuaded. In doing so, the course is altered
to use the simpleton mega-dino, to carve a canal.
Although still destructive, we're using it to create an
irrigation ditch, to hopefully one day, bring waters back
to the barren scape of it's previous wake,
to facilitate new re-generation, of perhaps a
better, stronger rainforest. and in leading the monster off,
we can bring it right into an ravine from which it can not
turn around, or back-up. So in essence, If you can't kill
the beast, maybe you can lead it off.
I do not know if this is what Josh thinks,
but I myself have had this very thought.
If I had the means, I would try it. As much as I would
like to just slay the frack giant in it's tracks,
much like Wendy "GAU-Avenger"-style" Lee,
I would use the dino against itself, to save the rainforest
and lead into a new generation of solutions.
I really have no idea if this is the plan,
or if this is Josh's strategy..
but I wouldn't discount the possibility.
Do I think Wendy is a little trigger-happy?
You betcha, and it's a good thing for our team.
Light'em up Wendy! let 'em know where're here.
I'd watch Josh though, he might, be up to a plan,

we'll have to see.. ;)

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

HI Mitch,

Thank you for this very thoughtful post. I appreciate the analogies you draw here with the dinosaur, and I see what you're saying about Fox's potential plan.

Perhaps. We'll see.

But if he's trying to steer the beast, he's taking a huge risk--and he should at least let some of us in on it. After all, Fox is also asking us to spend our own money to convert to another really BIG Corporate Green. And of course, Ethical Electric stands to make money off this gambit--so the risk is pretty much all on us--not on them.

I have seen many attempts at this strategy--but they seem to me to nearly always fail--or succeed, but not for very long.

I also don't much like the idea of casualties along the way--even if its folks and their kids who I don't know.

And I think I am perhaps a teeny bit more optimistic--just insofar as I think the beast could be brought down.

I just think it takes a revolution.

w :)

Vera said...

Wendy, great article and agree whole-heartedly; we need to conserve probably on a massive scale and invent and create truly green, safe, energies and not again abuse workers and toxify their environments and the Big Ag Farms need to go; such inhumane treatment of animals is beyond my tolerance and comprehension and we probably have to cease meat and fish eating; unless we can grown something on our own lands for our own use and humanely; thanks, for bringing all this to light and clearly. We need a radical shift and revolution to save this planet and cease the harms inflicted hourly in all these industries ....