It’s time for a new environmentalism that’s willing to accept energy industry
By David Ludlam
Dr. Peter Kareiva, of the Nature Conservancy, often notes that by its own measures the conservation movement is failing, and in order to survive, it has to work with development, not stop it.
Kareiva’s formula for reforming environmentalism is an opportunity for Western Colorado’s natural gas industry to expand.
Henry David Thoreau, a founder of modern environmentalism, must be unsettled in his grave to hear Kareiva-like reformers speak. After all, they’re pointing out that traditional green doctrines are ill-equipped to tackle the complex environmental challenges of a new generation.
In his writings and lectures, Kareiva proposes that technology and industrial progress are not necessarily enemies of the environment. He also implies that, in order to be effective, environmentalists must accept the reality of increasing global energy use and its direct effect of elevating millions of people from poverty — a good thing for the environment.
Local environmental intellects are challenging traditional thinking, as well. Sarah Gilman of High Country News points out that most Americans, no matter their environmental values, depend on fossil fuels. Anyone opposed to oil and gas development should also scrutinize their own energy use, she writes. After all, drill rigs and compressor stations are “the machinery of our vast collective energy appetite. If we can’t look directly at (them), and can’t accept what (they do) to our water and air, then it’s time to do more than just fight drilling. It’s time to go on an energy diet.”
Modern radiocarbon dating places some current environmentalist thinking somewhere in the pre-Cretaceous period of Walt Whitman. This antiquated thinking lingers in western Colorado, where everyone believes his or her community is unique and more special than anywhere else. As a result, residents of nearly every community believe no natural gas wells should be placed anywhere near them.
Such thinking is not intellectually sound. People like Kareiva and Gilman understand this paradox and are bravely articulating new realities to their constituents. For new environmentalists, however, reforms will be difficult.
Many “greens” have separated themselves from realities of material production. They tend to live in homogenous, mountain enclaves with like-minded people. This lifestyle further exacerbates disconnection from the realities of the mining, milling and manufacturing that underlies modern mountain life.
And the disconnection culminates in pious environmentalist values not in alignment with reality when the true material costs of year-round mountain living are calculated. Or, as a friend of mine glibly asserts, “Behind every chateau in Aspen is a mine in Malaysia.”
For some, avoiding direct exposure to energy production alleviates environmental guilt. Eat the chicken in your house, but cut off its head in your neighbor’s kitchen. Such avoidance shifts the environmental burden of production onto those in poverty.
Data from the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office reveal average home sizes near Aspen fall just short of 5,000 square feet. There is nothing wrong with prosperity, but the fact remains: A large amount of natural gas is required to support this affluence.
Ironically, Aspenites typically don’t want to see, touch, smell or hear any of the equipment, materials or people who make mountain lifestyles possible. So naturally, some environmental leaders are starting to wonder if environmentalism is really doing much to help the environment.
That’s where the local natural gas industry has opportunity to forge a new brand of environmentalism. Natural gas companies can operate with higher standards in return for greater public tolerance of energy production. This, in turn, will allow for more local drilling in more places. More local drilling in more places means the energy we consume in homes, neighborhoods and schools would be produced here, where the natural resources are found.
From the propane tanks of Paonia to the natural-gas-hungry homes of Telluride, local tolerance for drilling will improve if we each truly account for our own individual energy needs and better understand where the energy comes from. Greater tolerance for the equipment, machines and people required to deliver energy might just be the healthy reconnection to the realities of production that we all need in order to create a new, effective environmental ethos.
Environmental thought leaders like Kareiva and Gilman seem to be putting Victorian era environmentalism out to pasture. In doing so, they will form a modern environmentaliism that requires higher standards for drilling but also demands taking more personal responsibility for developing the energy we use. Forget the pasture. Send the old environmentalism to the slaughterhouse.
David Ludlam is executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.