Destroy Wildlife, Save the Climate?
It doesn't have to be this way.
WHY IS IT that virtually no one insists that society cut energy consumption to soften its blows to wildlife and nature? To protect ourselves from climate change, the goal now is to replace fossil fuel power with renewable energy — but we are fine with wildlife paying the price.
You’ve heard about ways to reduce the number of birds and bats killed by wind turbines but probably nothing about limiting the amount of land covered by those energy machines. That idea is off the table. Even environmentalists concede that wildlife must be sacrificed to address our climate predicament.
I just read a sad story about a wind energy company that killed at least 150 eagles across eight states. It failed to get a government permit with agreements on minimizing the deaths. So the company pled guilty to the crime and paid a fine. Under law, there’s legal “collateral damage” to wildlife from economic development — the U.S. government routinely issues allowances to “take” federally protected wildlife. Expect to see more exemptions (and violations) as society pushes hard for more renewable energy.
Also emblematic of the worsening conflict between “clean” energy and wildlife is the Dixie Valley Toad in Nevada. Its only home is a mere 760 acres of hot springs and wetlands, habitat that is now threatened by geothermal energy development.
The little guys have at least been granted temporary protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to forestall their potential extinction. Indigenous people are also not thrilled with the development. “Our Creator made the springs with the toad, as a connected whole,” said Cathy Tuni, Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribal chairwoman.
A Grim Legacy
Anyone able to see beyond one’s anthropocentric nose is aware of the extraordinary ecological changes that have occurred on Earth over the past 100 years or so. These have been caused by explosive population growth, energy consumption, and exploitation of natural resources, and by radical transformations of land-, freshwater- and seascapes.
The results — devastation of much life on Earth — would shock the pants off everyone had we not been culturally conditioned to view this grotesque irruption of our species as something “normal.” .
Since 1970, human activity has decimated global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish on average by 68%. Over three-quarters of the world’s land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the oceans have been modified by direct effects of human activities. People and livestock now account for 96% of all mammal biomass on Earth. We don’t even know how many other life forms are being extinguished, but estimates put the number at 24-150 species a day.
Habitat destruction, direct killing, spread of invasive species, pollution, poisons, and now anthropogenic climate change threaten what’s left of the natural world.
Another Industrial Tsunami
Humans could never have created a global nature-destroying civilization without super abundant energy. Fossil fuels generously provided that while forcing rapid global heating.
Now, to save ourselves and protect our interests, we seek to replace most fossil fuel energy with alternative, non-carbon emitting sources, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear. With ever abundant energy alternatives, we’re pretty confident about accelerating economic growth, sustaining our exploitation of nature, and accommodating billions of more people in mega-cities and suburbs, and across remaining natural landscapes. Whoa! Don’t buy it! We promise heaven even as we create ecological hell.
More Slaughter of Wildlife
Wind turbines, power towers of solar installations, hydroelectric dams, increased mining, new energy transmission lines, habitat annihilation for site preparations, and a host of other impacts ensure that countless wild animals and plants will perish as a result of our “green” energy ambitions. Some impacts will be offset by diminished production of fossil fuels and related oil/gas drilling and pipelines, coal mining, oil spills, and air pollutants. But the substantial overlap between fossil fuels and renewable energy use is going to be really hard on wildlife and biodiversity.
I’ve heard people argue that climate change is a bigger threat to wildlife than an industrialized world juiced up by renewable energy. At this point, it is impossible to say. What seems certain is that human activities demanding vast amounts of energy (from whatever source) — like agriculture, livestock production, and overexploitation of plants and animal species — are significantly greater threats to biodiversity than climate change. Sure, global heating is a serious threat, but it’s part of a complex of threats caused by human excesses.
Choose green-washed industrialization or risk greater climate change. Why in the world must we force ourselves to decide between such evils?
In short, damage to wildlife from renewable energy development will be added to that caused by continued use of fossil fuels for some time to come. Worse still, renewable energy will drive further overgrowth of the human enterprise at the expense of nature. (Barring a global economic collapse, which some of our Scale Down members on Facebook feel is imminent).
If you doubt the massive scale of the industrial tidal wave that’s coming, consider these points:
For the U.S. alone, up to 50 million acres of new land will be needed in 15 years just for energy production, the majority for renewables.
Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050…to get there the U.S. solar industry needs a land area twice the size of Massachusetts.
Mining “potentially influences 50 million km2 of Earth’s land surface, with 8% coinciding with Protected Areas, 7% with Key Biodiversity Areas, and 16% with Remaining Wilderness. Most mining areas (82%) target materials needed for renewable energy production, and areas that overlap with Protected Areas and Remaining Wilderness contain a greater density of mines (our indicator of threat severity) compared to the overlapping mining areas that target other materials. Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production and, without strategic planning, these new threats to biodiversity may surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.”
The patient (Mother Earth) is in poor and declining health. She develops a bad circulatory disorder (rapid climate change) as a result. Ignoring the causes of her poor health (out-of-control humanity), the doctors (technocrats) inject her with drugs (renewable energy) that prove harmful to her (wildlife and natural landscapes) and worsen her deteriorating condition.
Our current way of thinking about climate change is simply wrong-headed and immoral. Instead of cutting energy use for the sake of Mother Earth, we’re looking to alternative ways to ramp it up. Energy is what drives our destruction of nature.
There is no way to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half in less than ten years (as believed needed to avoid the worst of climate change) through renewable energy industrialization without destroying more wildlife and nature. Only responsible down scaling of energy production can avert that.
Reducing energy consumption will automatically cut our greenhouse gas emissions. If we did so by even a modest 25% that would drop emissions by about 20% (because fossil fuels currently provide 80%, not all of the world’s energy). The other 30% reduction could come from energy saving efficiencies and yes, renewable energy projects, like putting solar equipment in existing industrial sites, in cities, on rooftops, on landfills, and on other disturbed lands. (Rooftop solar has the potential to provide at least 39% of U.S. electricity given the current locations of available rooftops; and does not require massive new transmission lines or generation infrastructure.)
Let’s deal with the systemic planetary health problem we’ve caused, and stop destroying wildlife and nature in order to get our next energy fix. Get governments to stop pushing endless growth. Insist on steady-state economics. Demand population stabilization. Vote for politicians who prioritize preservation of wildlife and nature. And personally, buy less, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, and have fewer kids. Embrace living Earth policies!
Oh, one more thing — engage mainstream media on these matters. We’re starting to see an uptick in articles on the need to scale down. Send writers and publishers a word of thanks!
Humanity’s greatest environmental challenge isn’t about renewable energy versus fossil fuels. Or even climate climate. It’s about finally facing our limits to growth in deference to other life on Earth.