Editor note: In this three part series, Jon Boone traces the history of the Sierra Club from its inception in 1892 to today and comments on its evolution as an environmental body. Given this organization’s prominence in environmental thinking today, this is an important and informative essay on the merits, possible motivations and effects of such movements. Part II will focus on the realities of today’s “Gush for wind” initiatives and its influence on Sierra Club beliefs. Part III concludes with a discussion on the science being used to promote its policies and the unintended consequences that may result.
“A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he’s talking about.”
~ Miguel de Unamuno
In the Beginning
By the dawn of the twentieth century, European sensibilities and burgeoning technologies, filtered through the American experience, had brought a close to the vast North American frontier. A centuries-long march to the beat of seemingly inexhaustible abundance was replaced by a dawning recognition of limitation, of natural resources ravaged and lost. Passenger pigeons, once the most common bird in colonial America with numbers in the billions, had become extinct, along with several other species. Many more were on the edge of extinction. The bodies of millions of native songbirds dangled around fashionable ladies’ millinery. Miners even used birds to assess air quality in coal shafts.
Habitat for much of our native flora and fauna had also been transformed or eliminated. Most of the Eastern hardwood forests had been timbered while millions of acres of wetlands had been built over, such as the sweeping Klamath marshes in Oregon. Industrial development, including incipient factory farming practices, had already altered much of the natural agricultural landscape. Coal, steel and railroads combined to forge giant cities like Chicago out of virtual wilderness in only a few decades. Electricity, refrigeration technology, and the internal combustion engine would soon conspire to bring new settlement in places so environmentally sensitive that most wildlife could not survive the intrusion.
John Muir’s new Sierra Club, founded in 1892 “to make the mountains glad,” was, from its beginning, caught between the growing power and expansive ambitions of the United States and its ongoing paradoxical relationship with nature, torn as it continues to be between celebrating the natural world and ruthlessly subduing it. Muir, the Club’s first president, understood the concern that drives much of contemporary environmentalism: Wherever human beings are, there’s much less of everything else. And he vowed to protect the remaining wilderness.
An articulate, physical Scotsman, Muir had previously helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and the Sequoias, along with many other wilderness areas. His ideas sparked the creation of the national park system. His writings were widely read and discussed at the highest levels of government, giving readers pause to reflect on what a proper concord between culture and wild nature should be. Muir believed the wilderness was sacred, and what remained of it should not be exploited or rudely intruded upon.
His environmental foil and archrival, Gifford Pinchot, whom Muir’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt appointed as first director of the US Forest Service in 1905, felt differently. In contrast to Muir’s preservationist bent, Pinchot argued for what he called “conservation,” the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people, working “harmoniously” with nature. A proposal to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley for the welfare of the earthquake-ravaged city of San Francisco, a prospect that Pinchot dubbed “the highest and best use that could be made [of the land],” brought the two men on a collision course. Muir responded, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man,” and committed the fledgling Sierra Club to a decades long opposition, which ended for him in heartbreaking failure, although he died before the huge dam was constructed in 1923.
Renewables Lost and Found
Nearly one hundred years later, the Sierra Club continues to urge that the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir be decommissioned, at taxpayer expense, and opposes all large-scale hydro projects, arguing that, even though they provide renewable energy and don’t emit carbon, they nonetheless harm sensitive wetland ecosystems vital for sustainable environmental health. This builds on Muir’s original opposition to the project, which was primarily motivated by his desire to protect the beauty of the valley. He helped promote the idea that natural vistas, in themselves, nourish the human spirit.
Throughout its existence, the Sierra Club has worked, often controversially, to preserve sensitive habitats, protect threatened and endangered species, enlarge public understanding about the myriad interconnections that form the web of life on the planet, and reduce the size and scope of the human enterprise over land and water. These efforts helped produce laws that, among many other things, brought the national bird back from the brink and proscribed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and offshore in order to protect the wilderness, keeping faith with its founder’s vision. Policies consistent with these ideas form the basis of contemporary environmental sensibility and appeal to a broad spectrum of people.
Such high ground as applied to energy production, however, has situated the Club atop the steepest slopes. But none steeper than its militant commitment to the perceived threat of Climate Change. Today, it not only embraces the proposition that a surfeit of carbon dioxide, mostly from human activity, is precipitously and dangerously warming the earth’s climate. It also helped stoke the idea. The organization’s leadership maintains that Global Warming is the greatest environmental crisis facing the earth, and demands an immediate and forceful political response to reduce CO2 emissions by eliminating fossil fuel use. Since coal-fired units produce about half of the nation’s electricity and about 40% of all CO2 emitted, while the coal industry itself practices such environmentally damaging extraction techniques as mountaintop removal, the Sierra Club now seeks to shut the entire industry down.
In the 1970s, however, as part of the call for energy independence in response to the Arab oil embargo, the organization worked hand-in-glove with President Jimmy Carter to replace oil generation with coal, in the process ironically increasing coal generation. In the same era, the Sierra Club began to disown nuclear power generation, which also doesn’t burn carbon, in the wake of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Hollywood films, although for a large part of its history, it was a staunch supporter of nuclear, since it was the only “clean” energy source that could replace hydro.
Consequently, the organization today actively opposes the firm capacity responsible for providing 78% of the nation’s electricity, and it is equivocal about the use of natural gas, which supplies virtually all of the rest. Even though natural gas burns about 40% cleaner than coal, it still is a fossil fuel, which will eventually be depleted.
So how to make electricity in the Sierra Club’s world of the future? The answer: RENEWABLES! Lots of wind and solar—but not impounded hydro. And a move away from central grid dependency by making wind especially part of a distributed generation micro-grid system located near demand centers. All this would be supported by the so-called smart grid, requiring substantial new transmission lines in an effort to improve efficiency and reliability, thereby saving fossil fuel and avoiding carbon emissions while conserving demand by moving it to off-peak hours. The image, but hardly the reality, is one of downsizing and intimacy, and a transition away from centralized control.
As evidence in support of these ideas, the Club promotes the thought experiments posed by Stanford’s Mark Jacobsen, who recently co-authored a cover story for Scientific American, A Plan for a Sustainable Future: How to Get All Energy from Wind, Water, an Solar Power by 2030, which argued that four million, 5MW wind turbines, could replace a large wedge of coal. (For a good response, see William Tucker’s commentary in the American Spectator. It also harkens to the “science” promoted by the National Renewable Energy Lab, which recently claimed “wind could displace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024”—but only with a major transmission build-out. See my comments on this here. Last week, the NREL released yet another report showing the wind potential in the western US and offshore alone could provide for the electricity needs of the nation many times over.
Wind technology does nostalgically embody Muir’s doctrine of using nature’s own resources to put the quietus on nature’s evil avatar, human technological hubris. It’s the stuff Muir’s dreams were made of. Energy religionists have run the Sierra Club for some time, and they practice a high church kind of back-to-nature faith in wind as an effective weapon in the war against carbon that is akin to dogma (and as such is not susceptible to right reason). In this, virtually every mainline environmental group has common cause with the Sierra Club in its desire to bring King Coal to his knees, and is similarly inclined about decommissioning coal, nuclear, and hydro power plants.