In Adam Hochschild’s book The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, Hochschild describes a conversation with Alexander Vologodsky, a Russian physicist. Vologodsky had noticed an abandoned settlement as a youth in the extreme north of Siberia, and found that the settlement was the remains of a prison labor construction project. Stalin had been looking at a map, noticed a blank spot on the Arctic coast between the mouths of the Yenisei and Ob rivers, and decided he wanted a railroad built connecting the two rivers — across 800 miles of tundra. As Hochschild relates:
“As far as [Vologodsky] can figure out, there was no logical reason to build this long and expensive railroad — particularly in the famine-ridden, ravaged, exhausted USSR of 1948… The Soviet Union is famous for grand public works projects that turn out not to work; but this Arctic railway, said Vologodsky, was ‘the acme of the absurd.’
“In the frantic haste to satisfy Stalin’s orders, Vologodsky said, when construction began in 1948, ‘they were laying the tracks at the same time as they were surveying.’ The terrain was a builder’s nightmare: below ground was rock-hard permafrost; on top of this lay six feet of snow in winter, and, in the summer, vast bogs that swallowed up ties, tracks, and equipment. Although the work force of prisoners reached as high as one hundred thousand, in five years they succeeded in laying tracks over little more than half the route.
“Today, thinking of this waste of resources and human life, it seems easy to condemn the folly of this railroad. But listening to Vologodsky talk, it occurred to me that in other parts of the world, when such projects reach their aim, we often honor them as great feats of engineering or symbols of national grandeur. The Pyramids, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal. Between these efforts and something like Stalin’s Arctic railway, where do you draw the moral dividing line? It is not always easy.”
The passage has stayed with me since I read it a decade ago. The Arctic Railway, which ended construction on Stalin’s death, is a useful absurdum to which one can reductio a whole lot of development proposals. The tragic story emphasizes the importance of the practice described by the jargony phrase “ground-truthing,” almost always an effective counter to grand development plans decreed by fiat, whether that fiat comes from a dictator or a bureaucracy or — even — a well-meaning environmentalist.
David Brower learned this lesson in the early 1960s when he bargained away the irreplaceable Glen Canyon in a meeting room somewhere, then actually went out and belatedly ground-truthed his act by visiting the place. He had the best of intentions: saving Dinosaur National Monument from a dam. It worked. The Yampa is still free-flowing and beautiful. It was a victory Brower regretted for the rest of his life.
Brower’s lesson seems to have been lost on at least one person charged with preserving his legacy. Last year, the current editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, charged dismissively that opposition to opening up desert wilderness to renewable energy project development is NIMBYism, and “fueling climate change.”
“…it’s hard not to think that some local activists have their priorities misplaced. One conservationist told Lewis, ‘No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever. Absolutely not.’
“According to Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity: ‘It’s hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this.’
“Well, how about a constituency that recognizes that climate change is already dangerously altering Western ecosystems, contributing to droughts, wildfires, and shrinking and shifting habitats?”
We have to destroy the wilderness to save it, Mark would seem to be saying.
Or take renewable energy activist Gar Lipow’s odd rant in comments on a post in the online magazine Grist, responding to desert protection activists concerned about careless “renewable” development:
“Yeah, let’s stay pure.
“Lets burn more coal -cause we can’t put up one acre of mirrors in the desert.
“Let’s drill oil off the coasts of California and Florida because we are too pure to put wind generators offshore where a couple of Senators have to look at them.
“Let 1 in 4 children in Harlem continue to suffer asthma caused by fossil fuels so that we don’t have besmirch the purity of Wolverine and Stopgreenpath. I hope those snowy white garments you wear don’t get stained by splatters from all the people you will trample if you win what you are asking for.”
Lipow’s comment really has it all: the straw-children, the conflation of habitat preservation with scenery, the Cheneyan accusation that the opponents’ environmental concern is a matter of “personal purity,” and a literal “bloody shirt” threat besides. (An explanation of just what effect transmission lines in the desert would have on the diesel exhaust that chokes kids in Harlem? That Lipow does not provide.)
Here’s the thing. The Glen Canyon Dam provides renewable energy too, and yet I don’t see too many “big picture” enviros like Mark and Lipow self-righteously demanding new dams be put up on free-flowing rivers. Big hydro is a cost-effective source of huge amounts of electricity, and new large dams could conceivably replace a significant amount of fossil-fuel-generated power. Why aren’t enviros demanding new dams, and spattering fishermen and river rafters with the figurative blood of their straw victims? Hochschild’s question about drawing lines would seem relevant here. Where, exactly, is the line between a new Glen Canyon Dam on the wild river of your choice, on the one hand, and paving 689,910 times as much desert as Lipow sneers about on the other?
The line, I suggest, is entirely in the minds of people who talk the way the above-quoted environmentalists do. The fact is, reactions like those offered by Mark and Lipow are fueled by a combination of ignorance of, and apathy toward, the actual groundtruthable reality in the desert. As Hochschild put it later in “Unquiet Ghost”:
“We are back again at the issue raised by the finger on the map. I want a railroad, there. Because it’s good for humanity. Or, perhaps, because I want it there.”
Those who would save the planet at the cost of the desert look at maps like this
and put their fingers on the map right on that sunny blank spot. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would seem that the functional difference between the Mojave Desert and Glen Canyon is not in the value of the habitat to its wildlife, nor in the efficiency of power generation in each locale, but simply in the fact that most environmentalists don’t give a shit about the Mojave Desert.
The thing is, even if enviros don’t ground-truth their decisions about the Mojave Desert, the developers do, lest they sink their own metaphorical railroad ties in bogs. As a result, there are other, more useful maps of the areas proposed for solar development. Here’s a fragment of one, obtained from this site (hat tip to Larry Hogue):
That’s 1.3 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, about a third of the planned Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The developers hired someone to walk every square foot of their project site to note what would be displaced. Those little colored dots, which turn out to be numbers if you look closely, are tortoise-related sites. The brown and black numbers mark burrows or other sign. The green numbers are places where live tortoises were found by the surveyors. The red numbers mark the location of found carcasses. Four times as many carcasses as live torts seen, in part because dead tortoises aren’t as good at hiding as live ones, and in part because tortoises are dying off from a contagious respiratory infection and heightened predation and general habitat disruption.
By law, all live tortoises on a site to be developed must be relocated to intact habitat. The two dozen live tortoises found on the Ivanpah SEGS site will need to be moved uphill, toward Clark Mountain. There they’d rub elbows with a whole lot more tortoises relocated from the immediately adjacent Ivanpah Airport. One problem with tortoise relocation is that it spreads that respiratory disease. Another is that disoriented tortoises, relocated away from a territory they may have known for decades, are easy prey for coyotes, a fact that shut down the US Army’s relocation program at Fort Irwin last year. (The proposal for Ivanpah SEGS tortoise relocation uses the same target tortoise density as Fort Irwin’s plan.)
That’s just one of several threatened species on the site, and we’re only discussing one big solar thermal site in dozens proposed in the American desert. And yet any hesitation desert habitat advocates express to scraping away the soil, denuding habitat, and building massive industrial facilities to generate solar thermal power is criticized as obstructionist. Meanwhile, big hydroelectric, which also offers a theoretically carbon-neutral source of electrical power, is opposed by those same critics simply because it destroys habitat, with neither hemming nor hawing about regrettable sacrifice and cost-benefit and dire emergencies and wheezing fourth-graders.
Which raises the question: why is a fish more valuable than a tortoise? Before we put our fingers on the map and say “there,” I’d like to hear an answer to that.