Green energy plants are displacing the desert tortoise. What sacrifices are acceptable side effects of technologies that might save the Earth overall?

Keith Ramos, Desert Tortoise, USFWS in public domain

Robert Chianese, published in slightly different form, in American Scientist magazine, Vol. 106, 2018 January-February. :

Our human-defined era on Earth is only around 200,000 years old. But in the past few centuries alone, we have re­shaped the planet by wars, mass migra­tions, population pressures for develop­ment, and the burning of fossil fuels so rapidly and extensively that flora and fauna extinction rates are soaring, to the point that some recommend adopting extreme measures. Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, in his 2016 book Half-Earth, proposes such a radical solution.

To curb our destruction of Earth’s remaining plants and animals, Wilson would set aside half the planet from human intrusion to protect the greatest number of life-forms. Rather than divvy­ing up the globe into actual hemispheres, he lists some 35 “Best Places in the Bio­sphere”: biodiversity “reservoirs” worth keeping ourselves out of because of their relatively unspoiled plant and animal life. Otherwise, Wilson fears we will continue acting as an arrogant apex spe­cies, judging other life-forms to be sub­ordinate and expendable—for him, our key misguided concept. Half-Earth thus may express his most sweeping wisdom about the planet—hands off half of it.

But one begins to worry that Wilson is eco-dreaming about these massive bio-preserves without figuring out how we might actually make treaties, pay for, and protect them—which in­clude, for example, whole islands such as immense New Guinea, and Cali­fornia’s vast redwood forests, stacked with 66 million dead trees ready to ignite. Because Wilson doesn’t address such questions, the book feels more like a utopian vision than a detailed implementation strategy for ringing the globe with semi-Edens.

Nonetheless, Wilson is convinced humans will make the required leap of awareness and adapt to greener ways despite the odds, and puts his full faith in future techno-fixes. Advances in bi­ology, nanotechnology, and robotics— “bnr” as he labels them—will help us change our dominance script. How so? As he claims, “We are thinking or­ganisms trying to understand how the world works. We will come awake.”

But what nasty consequences could emerge from his summa ecologica? One obvious one is the constant need for ef­forts to keep out super-wealthy devel­opers, corporations, resort companies, celebrities, and rogue countries with militias, as well as kings, potentates, and oligarchs with endless financial resources and takeover ambitions. If these numerous bio-preserves are the last pristine areas on the planet, flush with rare and native species, imagine the need to protect them, a perfect recipe for new international conflict, with legal, diplomatic, and military repercussions. Where will the “Keep Out” signs—and sentries—be posted?

If Wilson’s half-earth plan could be realized—negotiated, paid for, pro­tected, and sustained—what goes on in the unpreserved other half? This area is where most of us would live, presumably not too concerned about harming already compromised nature, and some of us developing the sav­ing “bnr” technologies to support both halves, the specifics of which Wilson does not elaborate. But we must also consider what problems might arise from separating high-tech civilization from healthy untouched nature.

Forced Removal

We have something of a model to con­template. In California’s Mojave Desert, desert tortoises have been moved and resettled, or “translocated,” to make way for two kinds of projects—military ones and less polluting energy sources from wind, solar, and sun-mirror projects. These green energy solar fields in the Mojave reconfigure parts of the desert with a new kind of dividing of the land. This division is not on the scale that Wil­son proposes nor is it fully analogous. The Mojave version is more relocation and preservation than separation in half, but the revamped sections of Mojave for alternative energy along with their pro­tected preserves are something of Wil­sonian half-earths—nature “reservoirs” split off from high-tech regions.

Desert Tortoise Species Distribution Model in Mojave Desert (Conservation Biology Institute)

The vast Mojave spreads throughout southeastern California and southern Nevada for 48,000 square miles. On the west side of the Colorado River, one spe­cies of desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizi, is the Mojave’s most famous native in­habitant. It lives more than 50 years, can grow more than a foot long, withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees Celsius, and spends most of its time in various underground burrows. It needs any­where from 10 to 100 acres for its home range, to which it is very dedicated and on which it depends. In 1990 it was list­ed as threatened

In addition to their natural enemies— coyotes, ravens, badgers, and gila monsters—the tortoises have to contend with diseases, floods, drought and ever-higher temperatures, as well as develop­ment, habitat destruction, soil compac­tion, traffic roadkills, capture by humans, and vandalism. This has resulted in a 90-percent loss of their numbers in cer­tain areas, with perhaps 100,000 remain­ing overall in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and their population density has decreased from 200 adults per square mile in 1950 to 5 to 60 per square mile today. As their numbers continue to di­minish, preservationists try to conserve desert habitat itself, plus translocate hun­dreds of individuals, as well as reconnect habitats fragmented by energy projects.

However, tortoises do not relocate well; hundreds have been transplant­ed with marginal success, 40 percent of them having died in the process. Just picking them up causes them to urinate water stored for the hottest months, and they soon languish and die. And there are only so many re­located tortoises able to survive with their tortoise neighbors in a place such as the 38-square-mile (25,000-acre) Mo­jave Desert Tortoise Preserve.

Spring poppy bloom under vast acreage of solar panels, near Mojave area.

The total predicted area for Mojave solar projects in Nevada and California is 30,180 acres, home to an estimated 1,621 tortoises. (Earlier, the development of Las Vegas caused 9,000 translocations. The military, since 2008, has moved more than 1,300 tortoises.) A reasonable esti­mate of translocations for the new ener­gy systems in multiple Mojave locations would be about 1,000 to 2,000 tortoises, with a survival rate of 50 percent or less. In 2013 the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center reported 2,700 tortoises potential­ly ready for “repatriation” back into the desert, which suggests even larger num­bers had been moved there. Compiling totals for tortoises translocated for alter­native energy projects and calculating their survival rates requires reference to reports on permits granted, updated tor­toise status reports, and health reports.

Biologists who facilitate and carry out these translocations later find them­selves having second thoughts. Kristin Berry, a key researcher of translocated tortoises, first argued in a 2013 paper that returning them to the wild was not as helpful to their survival as peo­ple keeping them as pets, but then she later criticized the translocation process itself in news articles, stating: “In gen­eral, moving organisms from one area to another…is not a successful conser­vation action and may do more harm than good to conserved populations by spreading diseases,…increasing mor­tality, and decreasing reproduction and genetic diversity.” Another scientist re­ported that a study of hundreds of trans­located animals saw 50 percent of them dead five years after they were moved. Julie Cart, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, framed the multiple ironies for environmentalists helping to build solar projects in the title of her article from 2012: “Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth.” Environmental organizations is­sued no legal challenges to the trashing of parts of this fragile ecosystem. In ad­dition, energy rates increased for this “green” source, huge federal and state subsidies added to the public’s costs, and permits were bought speculatively and will likely never be used—all in the noble effort to combat climate change.

The desert might seem the perfect place for these projects, except that it is anything but devoid of life. The Mo­jave may harbor a total of 2,450 plant species and about 266 vertebrates, with the desert tortoise judged the “focal species”—that is, the one most sensitive to the threat of a changing environment. Wilson doesn’t list a desert as one of his “Best Places” worth preserving, a nature “reservoir,” and it is certainly not as bio­logically rich and diverse as a rainforest. But his and our prejudices about “best places” may be showing here. We have applied our apex species’ assumption to it, judged it a bit spare and incommodi­ous to man and beast, a brown blank slate, and we have made economic deci­sions about what’s worth sacrificing.

However, the mirror-based solar power plant, called Ivanpah Bright- Star, covers 3,500 acres, whereas other solar plants have covered hundreds. But compared with the millions of acres lost to producing fossil fuels, and the thousands of tons of pollu­tion these plants save while generating electricity for hundreds of thousands of households, such solar plants seem like a very worthwhile trade-off.

But we need at least to own up to our new eco-economic calculus—we will disturb and potentially damage a small few for the large many: Ex Unibus Pluram (“From One, Many”). Have we seen this model before? It may be our favored strategy. We need your land, your space, your resources, so we will remove you to a preserve—dare we call it a “reservation”?—for a greater good. This pattern defines nature itself as “other,” as if we and our technologies are extreme contraries to tortoises and deserts. Will this precedent let the next claim for expropriating desert land and its focal creature for beneficial technol­ogy be easier to make?

It may have already happened, in a proposal filled with new “green” iro­nies. Eagle Crest Energy plans to turn a vast abandoned iron mine on top of a mountain in the Mojave’s Joshua Tree National Monument into a source of even more alternative energy. (This plant would depend on the Trump ad­ministration’s plan to open national monuments for energy development.) It would pump water from deep desert aquifers and fill the 191-acre open-pit mine with water and then run the water downhill through a large pipe under­ground over a turbine, generating elec­tricity. The water would fill a newly con­structed 163-acre reservoir below, and then be pumped back up into the reser­voir 1,400 feet above, to start the process over again. The pumps would use the excess alternative energy already being generated by the solar installations—we always seem to need even more excess power. However, the net energy pro­duced after all the pumping would be negative. It would waste energy, deplete rare and valuable water, degrade desert landscape, and require more tortoise re­locations. Presumably this result is better than having to pay both Nevada and Arizona to take excess energy off our hands, which is what California must do now. Do these desert solar and hydro al­ternative energy strategies suggest care­ful planning and sustainable solutions to our global warming crisis? Was it worth moving the tortoises in the first place?

Ironies Abound

The seemingly efficient solar mirror installations actually need natural gas to start up in the morning after the cooldown at night, and they also need large quantities of water to operate— requirements that almost contravene their claim to efficient and sustainable energy production. We know that the Ivanpah BrightSource Solar Electric project incinerates many birds—called “streamers”—in its mirrored beams of light, perhaps as many as 1,500 to 3,500 per year or maybe even tens of thousands more, from preliminary esti­mates.

Wind turbines overlook Mojave’s solar panel arrays. They destroy hundreds of thousands of birds per year, but are less destructive than solar panels and mirror farms for power generation.

Wind turbine farms, such as the vast one in the low hills and mountains west of the Mojave desert floor, may kill 300,000 birds per year—but again, in a grim calculus, not as many as the more than 500 million that collide with radio and cell towers and with glass in low- rise buildings. Although these tallies of “externalities” are somewhat contested, few biologists or environmental groups protest strongly—the obvious reason is the hoped-for global environmental benefit of these “green” installations.

Both the mirror systems and the solar panels need two other crucial components—towers and transmission lines. With new towers, ravens, also threatened, have new perches and can now better spy baby tortoises on the ground, so that their carcasses litter the bases of the towers. Ravens are also na­tive to this area and are protected from population control measures, but they are thriving at the expense of another native animal because of our interven­tions. Some have suggested the intro­duction of falcons to keep the ravens in check, but then we invoke the unfore­seen Gordian knot-tangles of our tech­no-intrusions, well-intentioned or not. Redesigning the desert for our energy needs provokes a gaggle of new, hard- to-mitigate consequences.

(See an very informative USGS video, “Ravens and Tortoises,” on Youtube)

And then we learn that the U.S. Ma­rine Corps has bought up a very large area of private desert land, and follow­ing the lead of the power companies, is also removing tortoises, but to make way for a bombing range. The justifications for such use obviously lie in increased security from pilots gaining better bomb­ing skills. But we must consider that droughts from climate change likely con­tributed to the collapse of millions of Syr­ian farms—a collapse that can be con­nected to military conflicts in the Middle East. Although this connection would be a rationale for producing lots of alter­native energy, to forestall social disinte­gration anywhere around the globe, the fighting of wars generates vast amounts of carbon dioxide, through air, land, and sea maneuvering and combat itself. The military practice operations in the Mo­jave might generate more carbon dioxide than nearby alternative energy projects can offset. Cutting back on both total fos­sil fuel and alternative energy use, and leaving alone the inconveniently-in-the- way tortoises, might ultimately save na­tions, lives, farms, and tortoises to boot.

So are we sanguine about these uses of the desert and further disruptions of its crucial species? How might we cal­culate that? At what point do the biolo­gists hired to locate and extirpate the tortoises from their burrows begin to balk? At what point does the public be­gin to see the desert as a necessary—and beautiful—part of Earth’s ecosystems, its own kind of nature “reservoir,” and its tortoises as not expendable?

The obvious “moral” here is that any technology designed to save the Earth as a whole might seriously damage an individual species or habitat. Our new­ly reconfigured global ark, possibly seg­regated into our domain and nature’s, cannot take all aboard; indeed we tac­itly concur that some may have to be thrown overboard or left to languish in resettlement zones, while others luxu­riate in verdant preserves. Trade-offs abound. Are we willing to admit and tolerate them? Even if they might have been unnecessary to begin with?

There may be better ways that are not too far-fetched or distant. There are proposals to outfit every rooftop in America not with solar panels and their sprawling infrastructures, but with solar shingles that generate electricity to each individual house.

The desert might seem the perfect place for these projects, except that it is anything but devoid of life.

Elon Musk, CEO and chairman of Tesla, Inc., claims he has a prototype. And yet, I ask, What new disturbances will these visionary strategies invoke? What new creatures will suffer from our eagerness to save the planet from our old technology through the new? Why do we always rush to a new technological solution to our environmental woe, when the previous, once-new technology kick- started the problem? These questions are difficult to answer in our rush to stave off ecological crisis.

Perhaps more to the point, what are we willing to sacrifice in our own lives to save the planet from ruin? If we are, as Wilson claims, rational creatures with the will and capacity for techno­logical solutions to our environmental crisis, I hope we can also employ our ethical and imaginative intelligences to make those solutions compatible with terrains and creatures we have unfor­tunately viewed as expendable. Can we consume less, live on a smaller scale with less development, and not think first about what biome or creature has to make way for our seemingly ben­eficial technological innovations? Might we actually implement true sustainable ways of living—use only renewable re­sources, nothing toxic, with no loss of biodiversity? That advance might take more wisdom than we—Homo sapiens sapiens, though still something of an apex species—currently seem to have.

photos©rlchianese unless otherwise noted.


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