If you know anything about the desert at all, you won’t get very far into Alexis Madrigal’s recent Atlantic Monthly piece on solar in the Mojave before things start to feel not quite right.
It took me one sentence.
The first one.
There are 25 or so desert tortoises crawling around a four thousand-acre patch of the Mojave Desert known as the Ivanpah Valley.
The Ivanpah Valley is a trifle bigger than 4,000 acres. It’s actually a hair under 200,000 acres. Just the critical habitat within the Ivanpah Valley for the desert tortoise — of which there are a lot more than 25, by the way — runs at 80,000 acres.
So he misstated the size of the valley by a factor of fifty. Mistakes happen. And, I say to myself, I bet I know how this mistake was made: the 4,000-acre figure refers to the approximate size of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which project Madrigal is discussing. I can understand an error like that. I’ve written for an inexpert editor or two in my time, and had sentences simplified to the point where they were completely wrong. This error might very well, I thought, be the fault of The Atlantic Monthly’s editors rather than Madrigal, who likely submitted a more accurate sentence to have it chopped down by the blue pencils.
And then I found out that Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. There went that theory.
In any event, even if the beginning sentence had specified a 4,000-acre patch of the Mojave in — rather than “known as” — the Ivanpah Valley, Madrigal would still be wrong. Even BrightSource, the developers of the Ivanpah solar project, projected there would be more than 25 torts found on the site, and they were surprised at how many were actually found in the first weeks of construction. There were 36 tortoises expected on the whole site, and workers came close to finding that many just putting up a fence around the first third of it. Biologists started speculating there might be fifty to a hundred tortoises on the whole 4,000 acres. Here Madrigal wasn’t off by two orders of magnitude the way he was on the size of the Ivanpah Valley, but it’s a significant mistake nonetheless, and easily avoided.
We’re one 22-word sentence into Madrigal’s piece, and I’ve spent almost four hundred words explaining what’s wrong with it. Given that the full piece runs to more than 3,300 words — and is at that only an excerpt of an upcoming book — the prospect of trying to tease some sense out of Madrigal’s writing is daunting.
And there are indeed a lot of similar weird statements of non-fact. Madrigal says, in a discussion of opposition to Ivanpah:
Ivanpah is a bellweather [sic], then, and environmental groups in California, battle-hardened by years of ﬁghting power plants, were quick to organize to critique the project and position themselves for a protracted public and legal struggle. The arena for this intra-green battle is the California Energy Commission’s power plant siting process.
This is flat out wrong. The major groups’ approach to Ivanpah’s developers was one of conciliation and negotiation. The only people “quick to organize to critique” Ivanpah and “position themselves for a protracted public and legal struggle” were a very few people — Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham at Basin and Range Watch and Sid Silliman with the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club being essentially the entire opposition for about the first eighteen months. The three of them deserve our gratitude for that. In the months before the bulldozers came on site there were several other grassroots Sierra Club activists involved, some Bay Area people from Desert Survivors, a burgeoning network of Native activists, and yours truly as well as a few others. “Battle hardened?” I suppose. We battled like hell to get the major groups to take any kind of a stand. Western Watersheds filed suit, as did the Native group La Cuna de Aztlan, and they did so when it was clear that all the big groups merely intended to get what deals they could.
The fact is that Ivanpah was supposed to be the plant that went down easy, that the big groups allowed to happen so that they could claim to be supportive of big desert solar when they decided at some unknown future date to oppose some project that would possibly be worse than Ivanpah. None of the big groups expected Ivanpah to become a cause. So when Madrigal says:
It’s telling that no power plant ever inspired more organized groups to comment on a plant than Ivanpah, not even the Sundesert nuclear plant, the symbolic end of nuclear power in California.
…he makes yet another error.
Full disclosure: I happen to have a dog in this fight, as do you readers of this blog: it was in large part due to a campaign right here that Ivanpah got as many comments as it did. That campaign was hatched precisely because the mainstream groups were letting Ivanpah slide, asking that a boundary here, a roadway there be moved. The campaign here doubled the number of comments submitted to the CEC. Madrigal’s “organized groups” thus had less to do with that record than he claims.
That “Sundesert nuclear plant” mention, by the way, is just weird. Sundesert was a large two-reactor Westinghouse nuclear plant San Diego Gas & Electric wanted to build along the Colorado River fifteen miles south of Blythe. There was opposition to the plant, to be sure, but the plant was by no means a cause celebre the way its fellow nuclear plants at Diablo Canyon or Rancho Seco were. Sundesert died an ignominious death at the hands of the State of California, which had grown increasingly concerned about the issue of nuclear waste storage. Opposition to Sundesert helped kill it, of course, but to hold that plant up as a benchmark for opposition and comment when there were others that inspired mass movements and wholescale civil disobedience? That is strikingly off-kilter, the kind of mistake generally made by people who think Wikipedia is a primary source. Generally, those people tend to write articles for SEO link farms, not for the Atlantic Monthly.
That off-kilter quality continues weaving its way through Madrigal’s piece. Ivanpah is variously described as a wilderness — which says to me that Madrigal hasn’t set foot there, as not even its most fervent defenders would go that far – and as an example of wholly human-created landscape where “nature-loving people” won’t go:
That country is big, mechanical, and fast. It is the opposite of what people wander into the wilderness for.
A long passage illustrates the flexible selectivity of Madrigal’s vision:
One expects [the desert solar plants at Kramer Junction] to dominate the desert landscape, but in context, there was little dissonance between the plants and their surroundings. They were not out of scale.
Maybe it’s because just down the road, one of the world’s largest boron mines has made a hole in the earth that’s bigger than the mirror ﬁeld and ﬁve hundred feet deep. Maybe it’s because on the way to Kramer Junction we drive past the giant logistics companies near Victorville, with their million-square-foot warehouses connected to the entire world by plane and train, the road-facing ﬂanks of the buildings perforated with hundreds of semi-bays for trucking plastic toys and lawn furniture the last mile of the journey. Maybe it’s because on the drive back to the coast, we pass through the haze-ﬁlled San Joaquin Valley, in which a few mechanically enhanced hired hands create food on a truly impressive scale: miles and miles of fields feed just a tiny slice of our hunger for almonds. The whole enterprise is tawdry and sublime at the same time.
Having done the drive Madrigal describes more times than I can count (he’s talking about US 395 north from Victorville to Kramer Junction, and then west on Route 58 through the Western Mojave and over the Tehachapis) I can tell you – and I’m happy to show anyone who wants to make the drive with me – that the industrially altered land along that route is a very low percentage of the whole. If Madrigal actually made that drive, he somehow failed to notice about 150 miles of open desert, southern Sierra Nevada foothills, rolling interior oak woodland and alpine meadow separating the patches of industrial landscape he describes, which make up perhaps about 15 miles total.
I want to say I don’t believe he made that drive, that I don’t believe he visited the desert at all, but the sad fact is that even people who claim environmental concern can drive through hundreds of miles of open, intact, healthy desert and see nothing at all. Perhaps Madrigal is one of those people, dark tinted windows on his car to keep out the glare of desert sun, and windows just as dark in his heart to keep out inconvenient facts. In any event, after a long enough time picking through the factual wreckage of the piece, it begins to seem that Madrigal’s inattention to both detail and consistency serves a greater purpose. That he can refer, with no apparent ironic intent, to
desert tortoises who have had their homes moved to a carefully constructed new location as if they were very high-paid executives switching jobs
when a perfunctory search will show you that’s very charitably described as a flight of fancy, or that he can approvingly quote former California Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement at the Ivanpah groundbreaking that
“Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of gold mine.”
becomes less bumbling and more blithe.
The key is Madrigal’s misleading quote of ecologist Erle Ellis in a 2009 Wired Op-Ed. Ellis’ point was to attack the persistent view of nature and humanity, wilderness and society as somehow mutually exclusive. Ellis’ Op-Ed was deliberately provocative, hyperbolic even; there is much in it with which one could disagree. But it is in no way a call to pave wildlands for human convenience.
That doesn’t stop Madrigal. He quotes:
There is no turning back on the enormity of human civilization’s impact on the globe. Now is the time to recognize that even the wildest Amazonian and Mayan jungles are feral landscapes that have been permanently and massively altered. “We’ve got to stop trying to save the planet,” Ellis wrote in a WIRED Science article.[sic] “For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.”
His truncated retelling of Ellis’ Op-Ed is as good a summation as any of Madrigal’s vision of what environmentalism should become.
From the late 1950s onward, traditional Democratic liberals – the FDR type, not the eco type – had a pretty coherent program for making the country better: Boost public spending on the social goods that private enterprise seemed to neglect, including environmental protection to provide “qualitatively” better lives for a large middle class that had it all.
The impulse would eventually underpin Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs as well as Nixon’s environmental program. The strength and ductility of the environmental movement came through little environmental injustices, encountered in the new, treeless suburbs and the streets of the cities. Different subsets of Americans – often led by women like iconoclastic economist Hazel Henderson – began to coalesce around the idea that clean air and water were worth paying for.
Note that this environmentalism is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused: It is concerned, first and foremost, with humans. Clean and safe were more important than “natural.” The suburban housewives and baseball dads who supported the passage of the nation’s landmark environmental legislation were not interested in biomes, per se: They cared about the places that humans co-created, or, as ecologist Erle Ellis calls them, anthromes.
This is, of course, an oversimplification so extreme as to constitute misrepresentation. Let’s set aside for now the distortion of the “anthromes” concept into something Ellis might not recognize as his own. That deserves its own post and this is getting long. Let’s just look at the history. It was under Nixon, for instance, that the Endangered Species Act was passed into law, and that law is nothing if not a defense of biodiversity against human activity. Oddly, it nonetheless had wide support among Madrigal’s “suburban housewives and baseball dads.” Likewise with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, passed in the last months of LBJ’s administration. Or the Wilderness Act of 1964. The divide Madrigal postulates between human-centered and wilderness environmentalists doesn’t exist. The very concept of wilderness is, after all, human centered, the notion that (in Wallace Stegner’s words) something will go out of us if the last undeveloped places fall to the chainsaw and the bulldozer.
Instead, Madrigal harkens back to an environmentalism that never existed, an environmentalism in which bulldozing thousands of acres of habitat for human industrial use is seen as a boon, an environmentalism to which Floyd Dominy and James Watt could unhesitatingly pledge allegiance, an environmentalism in which the environment is of only secondary importance, if in fact it rates that high. In Madrigal’s environmentalism, we get to decide what we want the planet to do for us and then we get to make the planet do it, a relationship in which we are eternally Mother Earth’s demanding three year olds.
We can use and alter the non-human parts of the landscape if they serve our purposes, and ignore them or shove them out of the way if they don’t.
Which, oddly, is the same relationship Madrigal the Writer seems to have with facts.