Friday, February 27, 2015

BrightFields Opposition

From what I have heard, most of the opposition to the BrightFields solar array is not due to opposition to solar power in general but opposition to doing anything with that particular parcel of contaminated property at all. I gather  that, once the EPA approved the property as finally cleaned up, they just want to leave it sit for fear that more contamination might take place.

From what I understand, the property will be cleaned up (sometime), meaning that, although I would not want to put a house on it, use of the property for an industrial application such as a solar array should be a perfectly feasible use of the land, rather than just leaving it sit. If someone can explain why the property should just remain empty, rather than put to productive use, I certainly hope you would post in the comments.


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  2. You're right to point out that opposition to the Brightfields project does not come from opposition to solar energy. In order to understand what is going on, there needs to be an understanding of how this is not merely an environmental issue, but one related to a legacy of "environmental racism."
    Environmental racism, put simply, is the fact that toxic industries and dumps tend to be cited in areas where people of color live. This is because those areas tend to have less sway politically, so municipal governments and corporations have an easier time putting those industries in such areas and ignoring the concerns of local residents. The Koppers plant is a good example of this. Among residents on the Northeast side, there are many stories of diseases and contamination experienced by locals. These stories have been more or less dismissed or ignored by the city and the EPA, who claims that since all this happened in the past, there is no way they can verify the claims (as if it were impossible to do historical research into such a question).
    Brightfields needs to be seen in this context: the city wants to once again impose an industrial project onto the people of the northeast side. They say it will be safe and the process won't disturb the contaminated areas -- but there is good reason, born from a long history, why people on the northeast would be skeptical of such claims.
    Moreover, think about Brightfields business model for a second. What they do is go around and find such contaminated areas, build large solar arrays on them, and sell that electricity to the grid (in this case, Ameren's grid). In other words, they are going around the country and profiting from the legacy of environmental racism -- and Koppers (now "Beezer" or something) no doubt stands to profit from the deal too. So these corporations get to make millions off of the land they contaminated, without any acknowledgment of historical injustice, and the local residents who have had to live with the consequences of their actions (and will continue to) get nothing. They don't stand to benefit from a solar array at all, except in the most abstract sense of there being more solar-produced energy in the grid (which, by the way, will not do anything to slow our headlong plummeting into environmental catastrophe, because the economy demands ever-more electricity -- its not like this project will replace coal or natural gas within our current economy). To top it off, their claims about health hazards and their (historically justified) worries they are being taken advantage of are simply being dismissed as not serious, "emotional," or whatever.

  3. Ultimately, it might be framed like this: who should get to make decisions about how a plot of land in a given neighborhood should be used? The folks on the northeast side are saying that they should, and that they don't want the city or Brightfields to make those decisions for them. The question of how that land should be "developed," if at all, should be theirs to answer -- not only because they are the ones who will have to deal most directly with the consequences of that development, but also because that site is one that has injured and possibly killed their friends and relatives. Brightfields' business model is a perverse attempt to profit off a site that has been made toxic by environmental racism, and the residents of the northeast are putting their foot down.
    What is so important about this, I think, is that it highlights the difference between a simplistic "environmentalism" and an "environmental justice" perspective (that includes an awareness of "environmental racism"). Environmentalists tend to see the ecological crisis as something that "humans" have done, and are looking for any solutions at all to try to stop it. Environmental justice recognizes that it is not "humans" who have caused the ecological crisis, but a very specific kind of human society. Indeed, many human communities were not ecocidal. It is colonial/capitalist societies, who have pillaged the land and attempted to "grow" at all costs, imposing a certain vision of "development" on the whole world. In other words, the ecological crisis is a result, not merely of our being human, but of the power of some to impose a certain kind of economic life on others. An environmental justice perspective leads to the conclusion that, yes, we should change where our energy comes from, but we should not reproduce the same power relations in the process. The environmental crisis is also a crisis of democracy, and we aren't going to really solve it unless we change the way we make decisions. Those resisting the Koppers plant, whether they frame it this way or not, are demonstrating that they won't be bullied into accepting more undemocratic governance just because it is in the name of solar energy.
    One final point: this dynamic is going to increase. As the ecological crisis moves into full swing (which it is), the very corporate structures that have caused the problems are going to tell us that they're the only ones big enough to fix them. This needs to be resisted. The only way to create a sustainable future -- one that is both just and ecological-- is to create energy in a way that is as decentralized as possible, where decisions are made by the people who are affected by them. Capitalism's imperative is to grow at all costs, and the disasters it causes are just one more business opportunity (see Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything for a detailed account of this). We can't let them sell us on the illusion of a "green capitalism." Its nonsense, and the Brightfields project is a perfect place to, first, put our foot down, and second, articulate a vision for a different kind of ecological development.

  4. Thanks for your responses. I am nowise an expert on the topic so want to hear from people who know more than I.