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Passionate ambivalence and conspicuous indifference: The case against (but also for) renewable energy

I’m finding myself on a strange side of the renewable energy debate these days.

A successful Transition Town will of course have to find a way to switch to solar and wind, with perhaps a bucket or two of biofuels, even some homemade methane. Because of the lack of public funding for wind and solar (last year the number of new U.S. wind-farm installations actually went down!), this is another project that Transition Initiatives may be tempted to help amp up. For even if we are headed towards a radically powered-down future, wind and solar appear to be just about the best ways to help ease the transition, while also cutting CO2 emissions in the mean time.

I am a little surprised, then, to find myself feeling passionately opposed to a new experimental wind project being proposed in Milwaukee and will at some point need to sit on my hands to stop some unadvised posts from flying from my computer out into the world of public mis-conception. Using federal funds, the city of Milwaukee is proposing a 20 to 100 megawatt system on the lakeshore, in a prominent, yet unobtrusive location. Many of the claims that the city sustainability office is making about the miniature wind-farm are not entirely incorrect yet its main rational, the one that I hear most frequently, is that this will demonstrate “our cities commitment to renewable energy.”

Recently the city sustainability office appealed to Transition Milwaukee for support of this project, encouraging us to attend a public meeting. It is likely that the wind turbines will be opposed for aesthetic reasons, for concerns about the noise, or perhaps about their danger to birds. There are plenty of people who may just want to remind everyone of their right to burn as much coal as they want. The response from our Transition members toward this project was, not surprisingly, generally positive. We are a large enthusiastic group, always ready for action and the promotion of this project would seem to be a good fit with our energy-descent vision.

But not me. In fact the greater the enthusiasm, the more severe my reaction, which gained enough steam to power a rant I posted on our listserv. In that rant I argued that this show-project would provide an insubstantial amount of electricity and therefore was merely symbolic, nothing more than a collective pat on the back. Who, after all, I wondered, is Milwaukee trying to impress with this “commitment”? It was a near empty gesture, I fumed, that was meant to convince ourselves that Milwaukee is a good, forward looking city; a sleek and shiny wind turbine would look dazzling against the blue of the lake and would make many a sustainability activist feel good about our progress; the buzz of the ribbon cutting ceremony and the first slow rotations of the blades would confirm to us all that those letters and petitions, even the constant facebook grumbling, were worth it after all.

So it might be a somewhat empty gesture, but what is the harm in it? Well, there is another sort of symbolism at work here that most raises my indignation--a far more dangerous symbolism. When the average American, at least those who are somewhat conscious of global warming and the finite nature of oil, closes his or her eyes and imagines the future, this future is one that looks pretty much like the present, except for the omnipresent solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. It seems likely that the futuristic design of the turbines we see today is not only a matter of the engineering needs. At any rate, the emergence of a city-owned wind garden (we might call it) gives the impression that we are finally on our way to this clean, green, and entirely prosperous, new world order. It gives the impression that we are finally making the switch from our coal-fired power plants to something clean and renewable. It gives the impression that our leaders are on top of things. Thus a project like this not only risks being an empty symbolic gesture; it has the potential to be down right hazardous to the important project of creating a realistic view of the future.

These views are of course premised on the belief that it is all but impossible that renewable energy will ever have the capacity to power an industrialized, growth-based luxury economy—the view that the future won’t look much like today. What sort of installation, I therefore asked, would instead symbolize the absolute futility of replacing fossil fuels with wind power—that’s the sort of lake-side installation I could get behind. Perhaps the model of a defunct wind turbine fashioned from cob. My level-headed colleagues in Transition Milwaukee responded with a mixture of cautious agreement (“there, there Erik”?) and disagreement, though perhaps more of the latter. Their reasoning is sound: it is a start and wind is necessary for a smoother ride down Hubbert’s peak; the presence of wind turbines might get people thinking about energy and the problems created by fossil fuels; it might, some suggested, even help precipitate a conversation about the necessity of powering-down. Protesting it would put us on the side of coal and natural gas activists, would be a de facto endorsement of mountain-top removal. What would it look like if Transition Milwaukee made it a practice of protesting renewable energy? And, most of all, we really do need wind turbines and solar panels in our community.

While these arguments will and should more or less hold the day and if we were to have an “official” Transition Milwaukee position on this sort of renewable energy project, it would probably look something like that. But I remain unsatisfied and passionate about my argument (though perhaps in part because I have planted my little ego-flag in it and therefore must now protect it). But I also think that sustainability activists, whether in the name of their Transition Towns or not, sometimes need to consider their words and actions more as a part of a dialectical process. If I were king, I would of course put up lots of wind-turbines. But as one small voice, I need to consider what position isn’t being spoken. My sense is that there are plenty of people out there who support wind power and that they don’t need my help, nor even the help of the Transition Movement. Because when it comes to a realistic view on energy, whether on peak oil or the limits of renewables, Transition Milwaukee is the only game in town. If we don’t speak the truth about energy, no one else will.

Nevertheless, I am not going to go to the public meeting to protest or to squeeze in a 10 second sound bite about the irreplaceability of fossil fuels, or about how we can’t run an industrialized society on photovoltaics. This is true dilemma. I am unable to imagine a responsible way of being publically anti-renewable energy, of discouraging projects like this for the right reasons. To make things even more complicated yet, I’m not exactly anti-renewable energy nor am I sure I really want to discourage this project. But celebrating it would also feel morally awkward.

Unfortunately there are not many models for passionate ambivalence, and certainly not in today’s polarized political debate. But ambivalence is, for me, the only suitable response to this issue about which I can’t help but feel strongly. For the time being, at this stage in the dialectic, that is, I resolve to remain profoundly and vigorously unexcited about renewable energy projects, steadfastly unimpressed, conspicuously indifferent. And if any one asks me why I’m not on the wind and solar bandwagon, I will then have my opportunity to speak.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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