Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dark Side of Solar Power

[Note: A version of this essay first appeared in the “How do we approach Sustainability?” discussion in the Ecological Society of America group on LinkedIn.com.]

I recently learned of a plea by an ecologist to oppose plans for large scale development of solar power in the deserts of the U.S. which could do great harm to the species that occupy those areas, including many that are already threatened or endangered.

There are two primary drivers for this development: the need to maintain an energy supply, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change. Focusing only on this small set of variables may enable fast action, but it short-circuits consideration of potential feedback loops that can negate the contributions of the action to what appears to be the ultimate goal: stopping biodiversity loss (including loss of our own species). We also don't get to ask the question that is at the heart of the issue: How much energy is enough, and why? Our discussions, at least from an economic point of view, are instead all about how we can meet demand (what we want, which is almost always more than we need) by changing the amount and nature of the supply.

Instead of re-learning how to view ourselves as part of a healthy ecosystem, we're constantly trying to create one of our own, which we can dominate to the exclusion of anything (or anyone) else. This quest has resulted in a shadow ecosystem (“economy”) that by design will tend to treat other species as “resources” rather than entities with their own rights.

So perhaps we are looking at the immediate issue all wrong. The goal of preventing (or reducing) climate change through cutting carbon emissions isn't really about stopping biodiversity loss, but rather maintaining a biological resource base and reducing the more direct risks to our own survival. This serves the even larger goal of perpetually increasing the scope (size and complexity) of our economy, which can accommodate a perpetually increasing number of people.

If you value all life, instead of just ours, then the ENTIRE enterprise must look pretty repulsive. To those who don't, pleas for the fate of animals and others impacted by it, unless they are perceived as valuable resources, will fall on deaf ears.

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