Monthly Archives: April 2012


Out of the mouths of babes, desert solar edition

We’re going to win on the broader desert solar issue. Today was the day I realized it.

Annette and I went out to catch the tail end of a picnic organized by the local Stonewall Democrats organization. We got there as people were starting to think about packing up the sign-up sheets and petitions, but a volunteer welcomed us, after we stood looking around for a few moments, and invited us to help ourselves to some of the food sitting out on a picnic table.I walked over and grabbed a burger.

A man straightening some things on the table turned to me and held out his hand, introducing himself to us. He was Mark Orozco, who’s running for the local seat in the California State Assembly: he’ll be facing the GOP’s Brian Nestande in the general election. (Nestande is your basic California Republican and thus opposed to all that is good and pure and wholesome.)

I’d known Orozco was going to be there, and reached for one of my Desert Biodiversity business cards. “I’d love to set up a meeting with you and your staff,” I told him. “I’ve been working on an issue that’s very important to me, preserving our irreplaceable local desert habitat against ill-considered industrial solar.” Or something along those lines, and that was as far as I got. Orozco started nodding. “Yeah,” he said. “I have somebody keeping me up to speed on that!” A young girl, grade school-aged, was idling nearby: he called her over. “This is my daughter, Isabella,” he said. “Isabella, tell this man about solar panels in the desert.”

She looked at me, sized me up in that honest way kids have. “We shouldn’t put them there,” she said. “They hurt the tortoises.”

I gave her a business card too.


Vote Solar to Tortoises: Drop Dead

Update: Partly in response to this post, Vote Solar has removed the sentence to which I objected most from their large-scale solar page. Vote Solar’s Adam Browning tells me that it was an older phrasing that no longer reflected Vote Solar’s position but which had remained online due to work overload. That’s certainly an explanation I can relate to. There’s still much I disagree with on the page, but I appreciate that change. As suggested by Adam in comments here, he and I will be talking sometime soon. I’ll keep you posted.

I got a piece of bulk email today from Vote Solar, an organization among other things is pushing for greater incentives for solar in California. And that email just about turned my stomach.

This is a long blog post, so I’ll give you my tl;dr right up front: We need to move to a solar economy and off carbon fuels as soon as possible, but Vote Solar is working to make it easier to destroy the desert habitats readers of this site care about, and even their support of urban, rooftop solar is weak-willed and ineffective.

Right now Vote Solar is pushing “net metering,” a weak-sauce version of the Feed-In Tariffs that have made Germany the solar capital of the world. In a Feed-In Tariff the local utility buys whatever power your solar cells produce at a premium rate. In Net Metering you only get “paid” for as much energy as you consume from the utility. The best you can do with Net metering in California is zero out your electric bill. Meanwhile people in Germany are making thousands of Euro a year. Support for Net Metering is better than opposing it, which the utilities often do. Overall, though, it’s the kind of policy that people push for if they really can’t face the thought of restructuring the badly designed parts of the world. It’s like driving a hybrid Hummer or changing the Twinkies recipe to include some whole wheat flour: a change that you can push without ever actually changing anything.

That’s not what made me vomit in my email inbox, though. Net Metering is a superficial benefit at best, and pushing for it is a sure sign that you’re letting the electrical power industry status quo do your thinking for you. But it’s not necessarily evil.

This second paragraph of the Vote Solar email isn’t so innocuous:

A huge thank you to our Equinox 2012 sponsors for their support: Recurrent Energy, Borrego Solar, BrightSource Energy, CalCEF, Dow Solar, enXco, First Solar, Intersolar, Keyes & Fox, Perkins Coie, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Q-Cells, SolarCity, SolarFrontier, Solaria, SolarReserve, SPG Solar, SunEdison, SunPower, Suntech, Winston & Strawn, and Yingli.

BrightSource and SolarReserve and First Solar are some of the worst actors in the rush to destroy the desert for solar energy installations.

Not all the firms on the list are bad actors necessarily. Some of those firms just build PV cells. Some are service providers of various kinds: accountants, trade associations, law firms and such that serve the big solar industry. On first glance that last is distasteful, I agree. But in the United States, we’ve long held that even the most scurrilous people — confidence men, Nazi synagogue vandals, pedophiles and serial cannibal murderers — have a right to legal consultation, and thus it’s only a little bit of a stretch to decide that desert solar contractors probably ought to have that right as well.

BrightSource, however, is busy destroying more than six square miles of the last best tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert so that they can sell electricity to San Francisco, thus keeping Vote Solar’s decorative party lights lit. Solar Reserve is in the Concentrating Solar with Molten Salt Thermal Storage business. They’re building a plant near Tonopah Nevada on intact dune grassland, with others planned near Joshua Tree National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument and a fourth not far from Quartzsite, AZ. These projects all involve very tall towers which will have blindingly bright boilers atop them, not exactly what most people visiting National Park holdings have in mind for their vacation viewing. First Solar, for its part, builds giant solar facilities with the same photovoltaic panels that could easily be put on rooftops. As it turns out, First Solar’s PV panels work better on rooftops than they do in the desert: the heat’s too much for them and they degrade, lose production efficiency, and eventually break. Another way of putting it is that a First Solar PV panel will produce more electricity over its lifespan on a rooftop in Seattle than it will on a rack in the desert. First Solar is taking this new information about their product’s weaknesses and amending their future plans to account for those weaknesses. They’re not shifting their focus to urban use. They’re expanding the amount of desert they want to destroy to make up for the loss in efficiency.

Vote Solar takes money from these people.

And that relationship would seem to be reflected in Vote Solar’s public statements about large scale solar. Their formal position on industrial scale solar in the desert, or in the Carrizo Plain, or for all I know on what will once have been ancient giant sequoia forests once First Solar gets through cutting them down to put PV panels on the stumps, boils down to this:

Unlock Land-Use Issues: Large-scale solar energy project development will require the use of large tracks [sic] of land. The key will be to ensure that this development is done in a way that minimizes impact and maximizes our conservation values. It is absolutely imperative however that conservation does not stand in the way of smart renewable energy development on public and private lands.

Some pretty nice weasel words there: “minimizing impact” and “maximizing conservation values.” Vote Solar’s funder BrightSource has used a lot of language like that, talking about how they are going to minimize their impact and maximize conservation values, by among other things “trimming” any vegetation that has the temerity to exist where they want to put their mirrors at Ivanpah. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, here’s a video of BrightSource “trimming” a Mojave yucca that’s at least 500 years old:

Right now someone at Louisiana Pacific wishes they’d thought to claim they were only “trimming” the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Of course the nut of that paragraph, the really ugly threatening language in that paragraph, is “conservation can’t stand in the way.” If I was an optimist, I would imagine that whoever wrote that did so at some metaphorical equivalent of gunpoint, and that their soul died ever so slightly as they hit “publish.” I’m not an optimist. I fully expect that some person thinking of him-or-herself as an “environmentalist” wrote that line about conservation getting out of the way of our development projects utterly convinced of the line’s justification and validity.

When people use “conservation” as a noun like that, what they’re really saying is “non-human living things.” “Renewable energy development” is for the benefit of human beings alone, unless you can point to an example of an endangered Coachella fringe-toed lizard using an electric toothbrush.  That’s what this issue comes down to: valuing people’s comfort and ability to maintain their bad habits more than the survival of whole ecosystems.

Never mind the fact that “pave the deserts or lose the climate change war” is a false choice, one that’s completely obsolete at this point, as we get more carbon reduction for the buck more quickly from rooftop solar than we ever will from the ecocidal monstrosities promoted by the likes of BrightSource and First Solar. Never mind that every dollar, every hour spent promoting desert solar makes any eventual solution to the carbon crisis that much further away. Never mind that Germany, with approximately the same amount of sunlight as Juneau, Alaska, installed more than 7.5 gigawatts of rooftop PV just in 2011, which is three times the output of all the fast-tracked public land desert projects assigned “priority status” by the BLM in 2011, and that those German panels are producing electricity right now while our “priority” plants might start getting us some power in 2013, if everything goes right for the developers, which it will not.

Never mind all that. Assume for the sake of argument that giant industrial solar in the desert actually makes sense from a strictly utilitarian perspective. We’re still left with “conservation” in opposition to “renewable energy development.” We’re still left with human comfort versus the continued existence of whole ecosystems. We’re still left with obliterating habitat with century-old animals and millennia-old plants because conserving that 30 percent of our energy use that the DOE says we waste completely would be too much trouble.  People in the US use the energy equivalent of about 7,800 barrels of oil per capita per year.  Germany’s per capita figure is 4,200. The UK’s: 3,900. Japan’s: 4,000. In Switzerland, a rich and luxurious country with plenty of winter cold to heat houses against, per capita annual energy use is less than half of that in the United States.

In other words, we could live better than we do now and reduce our carbon footprint enough to make any contribution from industrial solar in the desert completely irrelevant. And none of this is a secret. None of this is news. The only reason people still think paving deserts with mirrors makes any sense at all is because:

  1. Despite the ongoing collapse of the Big Solar industry, some rich people think they have a chance to get even richer by taking your land, industrializing it using government subsidies, and cashing out as quickly as they can when the project’s half-built, and;
  2. Those rich people give money to putatively environmental groups which then do their PR for them.

And the non-human world had better not stand in their way.

Vote Solar works to “unlock land use issues” to promote big desert solar. Translated from the stale Wise Use Movement jargon, that means rolling back environmental protection laws. Reducing public input on projects. Streamlining environmental review. Making it easier to get “take” permits for endangered species. Making it harder to sue developers or the BLM or the California Energy Commission for approving predictably destructive plants like Ivanpah or Genesis. Removing your rights to enjoy, protect and monitor the public land you own. Because if you do seek to make sure habitat isn’t unduly threatened, then you become part of “conservation,” and you are standing in the way.

That’s what that paragraph means.

We absolutely have to encourage rooftop PV and energy conservation, and we need to do it now. It pains me to interfere with the work of any group working to increase urban solar, even if they’re doing so ineptly. But if Vote Solar gets its program enacted, we will be losing our deserts for no reason.  I urge you to withhold your support from Vote Solar and to consider any analysis they offer with a jaundiced eye.


Earth Day Redux

It’s been quiet here, I know. I’ve been alternately busy and lazy. I write more frequently over at KCET and this will likely be the case for the near future, as they pay me. But I wanted to get something else up on the top of the pile here, so it’s time for the old Clip Show trick.

I wrote this five years ago. I wouldn’t change much here were I writing it again, except to make it less about my concerns of the moment back then, and to add 5 to some of the numbers and change the President’s last name.

Earth Day

I am reminded that yesterday was Earth Day. I should have thought of it: Earth Day coincides, roughly, with Muir’s birthday. I’d hoped to hike on Mount Wanda to celebrate John Muir’s birthday on Saturday, and didn’t. The last five days, today included, I have woken each morning after — literally — having dreams about Zeke’s last few breaths. April has been worse than February so far. It was only by a serious act of willpower that I got out this weekend at all. But I might not have remembered Earth Day even without the distraction. Seven years ago I landed a job with an environmental news dotcom, and when one of the Vice Presidents told me their target reader was someone who knew what April 21 was, I nodded blankly. I didn’t figure out what he was talking about until the next day.

Here’s a little secret: most employees of environmental organizations with which I am familiar don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Earth Day, excepting those who work in development departments. The general reaction of environmental organizations to the first of the modern crop of Earth Days, in 1990, was a mixed bag of appreciation for the excuse to do public outreach and fear that the likes of Chevron and Monsanto were buying their way into the celebrations. By Earth Day 1991, that leveraged buyout had been completed. The day now exists as a national holiday of greenwashing, a day of festivals at which homeowners can pick up biodegradable garbage bags — or to drop their non-biodegradable plastic bags into a bin for recycling, and never mind that the plastic is actually “recycled” into unregulated landfills in China and Thailand. (Jackets made of old soda bottles are a wonderful thing! All you need to do to make that work is to buy exactly as many jackets as your soda habit makes possible.) I spent my share of days in the early 1990s working at Earth Days, having earnest conversations with people who would collect a copy of every piece of literature on every table and then drive off in their 4Runner with the “Random acts of kindness” sticker on the back bumper. I suppose a few of them read the material, and a few of them were moved enough to do something.

We take opportunities for promotion where they exist, and if we set up a table next to the EPA’s Earth Day timeline, so much the better. When no one’s looking we can take up Sharpies to correct their posterboard displays where they laud Bush’s Clear Skies and Clean Air Mercury laws.

My problem is more fundamental: I object to the compartmentalization. What are we, if we are not Earth?

On Sunday I walked up into the hills, scant-dressed given the weather, hoping that the silt-laden wind would abrade me and scrape away all I no longer wanted, longing for that roadrash of the soul. I came upon a corpse, a skunk oddly odorless, vertebrae articulated and intact, the only flesh left a bloated bladder, beautiful striped tail still near-pristine. Skunk, dog, man, we all rot in turn, our hoards of nitrogen and calcium returned to the soil. There is no better antidote for ghosts: the pale tawn smiling shadow in my peripheral vision vanished, went back to its home beneath the oregano and Cynoglossum. None of it matters. We have our heads inverted. One day to take from our important lives to spend in consideration of the Earth? We spend all our lives on Earth, and it suffuses us. We are a transitory flicker on the Earth, a moment in a fever dream, and we will melt. The wingnuts are right, though not as they expect. A million species go extinct, one of them bearing iPods, and none of it matters. The Earth revolves and revolves again, around the sun, around the galactic core, and that messy cascade of dissipative effects we call “life” will continue until Sol goes Nova.

Earth Day? The Earth should pick one day in a million years to consider us sidelong.

I am not so dispassionate as I make myself out to be. I would mourn the loss of memory, of Beethoven, of frybread and chiles. I would leave words against the insane unlikelihood that sentience would again, one day, evolve, sometime before the serifs crumble with the stones. (A futile gesture, but what isn’t?) We are not built for the long view, really. We are best suited to the moment, the shiny object and the fleeting feel of strawberries on the tongue. It is an impossibly long time until the next April 22, and today the anise swallowtails drink from the thistles on the sunlit south face of Crescent Ridge.


My name is Chris and I’m aneurotypical

There was a really inspiring spate of stories a couple weeks ago, mainly on Twitter, by people coming out into the open about suffering from depression. Here’s one thread of a number of them.

I understand that my coming out to my regular readers as someone who continues to fight depression is a bit like Harvey Fierstein coming out as gay. I mean, it’s not a secret. But in the interests of solidarity, I’m going to anyway.

I have suffered from depression my whole life. It is not always crippling; sometimes it’s manageable, even comfortable and mildly amusing. But it’s always there.

I was thinking about this even before the recent spate of stories, what with the recent death of my friend Thistle. I am not ashamed to admit that in the few days of serious warning I had that he was going to die soon, I was terrified. Not for him: I knew I was going to do right by him, to spare him as much pain as I could and to bring him as much joy as I could. I was afraid of the aftermath. Losing Zeke five years ago was hard, and I am only lately emerged from the pit I dig for myself in my grief for him. I did not want to go back there. Quite honestly, in the moments where I wasn’t focused on the immediate demands of tending to a dying pet, I was really frightened.

As it happened, Thistle’s death didn’t disable me. I was and am sad; I miss him, and I’m not yet used to not having him around as we come up on a month since he died. I still rage against the unjustness of pet lifespans as compared to ours. But I was also relieved that I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, content that I did what I could for him and that that was enough, and grateful for my friends who made generous contributions to Thistle’s veterinary fund.

I came to an odd realization: it was actually a relief to feel normal grief for once. It wasn’t tied up in anguish over the failure of a decades-old marriage, as Zeke’s death was. It didn’t have the surpassing finality of the loss of the places I grieve in the desert. It was just the normal end of a normal life, a life that I know I made better than it would have been.

All the while my depression chugged on unaffected. How interesting to realize that depression and grief can be so decoupled, even happening in the same skull at the same time.

In the last month I have:

  • grieved the loss of a pet;
  • become more downcast over the likelihood of survival of the deserts;
  • been reminded that I would have help for this depression if I had more money;
  • felt depressed for no obvious and compelling reason.

Each one of those states is different. Each is a different emotional cocktail, with varying proportions of sadness, anger, self-loathing, motivation, anhedonia and fatigue.

Depression qua depression is not sadness. It is the scar tissue that too many attacks of sadness leave behind. It is a complex disease with marked physical, neurochemical and psychological causes. If you want to get a glimpse of the science behind depression, you could do worse than to set aside an hour and have Robert Sapolsky explain it to you.

People who haven’t experienced real, full-blown, persistent depression are often under the impression that it’s something you can just “walk off.” That assumption is unrealistic, unfair, and infuriatingly, often works. Getting out and walking around in the world does often help for a lot of us. That has more to do with distraction and neurochemistry and the possibility of seeing something beautiful than it does with mental discipline. For those of us whose depression is co-morbid with ADD, and who feel worse when the ADD flares up, walking it off can be an amazing help.

But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t mean that depressed people are just moping for lack of an interesting outing.

Everyone is susceptible to depression. Depression is a stress response to emotional and physical pain, and as a general rule the more bad things happen to you the more likely you are to experience chronic depression. Some people are more susceptible to depression than others. Childhood trauma can predispose you to depression. So can possession of a certain genetic makeup. So can medications taken to control seemingly unrelated conditions. So can things like ADD, possibly through some neurochemical relation and possibly just through the stress of being an aneurotypical person in a world full of Normals.

I kind of won the trifecta. I don’t know about my genetic makeup, though there’s a lot of depression in my family. But I’ve got the early childhood weirdness, the ADD, and a string of seriously unpleasant life events.

And yet I don’t have it nearly as bad as I could have. One of the main symptoms of deep depression is anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure. I almost never have that. Perhaps the ADD protects me against that by providing a need for novelty.

The biggest saving grace for me: I am needed. The absolute requirement that I be around to take care of Thistle helped me endure the worst of the loss of Zeke. My love needs me, and so does our cat, and the deserts need me. I can endure a lot when I’m needed that way. And I probably will.



The Oblivion Bridge

We got Thistle’s ashes back today. Included in the little package the vets handed me were a cedar box containing his cremains, a plaster of Paris medallion with his footprint, and a certificate avowing that the crematory had handled him gently and given me the right ashes and not those of some stray possum or something.

They also included a little piece of paper with some italic text superimposed over a rainbow. I didn’t have to read that to know what it said.

I’ve written about this before. The bunny funeral director was trying to be nice by including some reassuring poetry in the package. I expect they would be horrified to know that doing so reliably upsets a certain percentage of their customers. But it does. My ex-wife and I got the same poem in a card from Zeke’s vet, and it was one of just a few things that made my phenomenally stoic ex-wife cry. I just teared up reading it now, though about Zeke more than about Thistle. This is largely because of the wording. If I died and found there was an afterlife and I was on a grassy field and I saw Thistle running toward me at high speed, I would be pretty sure he didn’t intend to kiss me.

Still, it stung a bit. I grow increasingly impatient with the assumption that we all really believe in an afterlife even if we say we don’t. I am as certain there is no afterlife as I am of anything. This isn’t a defiant belief I indulge in as a way of rebelling against God. It’s an end result of learning about how the world works.

The thing is, the realization that death is death is immensely comforting. Were there an off-world heaven to which the dead, non-corporeal me was consigned, I’d do my best to obtain conscientious objector status. I love this planet: why would I want to spend a conscious eternity looking at it through a veil of gauzy clouds? Far better to ooze, insensate, into the world, to become part of the tree’s flesh and the coyote’s fur and the bighorn’s helmet.

And as Zeke was never the kind of person who liked to stay in a kennel, no matter how capacious, the effect of the Rainbow Bridge image on the portion of me that finds it compelling is, more or less, to make me feel guilty that I’m delaying picking him up as long as possible.

So I griped about it a bit on Facebook. My dear friend Sara replied that we atheists don’t need the Rainbow Bridge, because we have the Oblivion Bridge. Sara is wise, and has herself looked death in the eye and chucked it under the chin on a couple of occasions. So I pretty much had to flesh out her inspiration.

The Oblivion Bridge

On the other side of sleep is a completely metaphorical place called Oblivion Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to a human or other animal, that animal goes to Oblivion Bridge.

The molecules that made up their beautiful bodies are redistributed into meadows and hills, forests, deserts and oceans, where they will provide sustenance for all still-living things.

The departed have no need for food, water or sunshine, not must they worry about being warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are no longer. Those who had been hurt or maimed have stopped suffering. All their component parts now gently mix into a thriving ecosystem that supports other beautiful animals as they live their own lives, just as we remember our loved ones doing in our dreams of days and times gone by.

All is well and as it should be, except for one small thing; though our dead animal friends are at peace, they leave a hole in the lives of those they leave behind.

The day will come when you stop and look into the distance, your bright eyes intent, your eager heart quivering. Suddenly that heart will stop.

You have died, and when your atoms dissolve into the living earth they will, statistically speaking, mingle with those of your long-lost animal companion. What’s left of you will cling together in unconscious reunion, never to be parted again. Your grief over your loss will be wiped away, as will all your memories of your pet, whether they’re happy or sad.

Thus you cross Oblivion Bridge together. Metaphorically speaking.


“This far and no farther”

“At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “this far and no farther.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior.”

~ Edward Abbey