Ted Nordhaus, The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse, Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer 2019.
But as a new generation of progressives and climate advocates have come to question the shift toward market-oriented neoliberal policy, the fealty among progressives to Lovins’s decentralized, market-based soft energy vision is due for some reconsideration. All the more so given that the realities of renewable energy at scale look nothing like the distributed and decentralized utopia that Lovins and his environmental followers promised.
Most renewable energy today comes not from homes clad in solar panels but from enormous, industrial-scale wind, solar, and biomass facilities. Moreover, scaling renewable energy such that it might contribute much to the fight against climate change will require exactly the sort of large, centralized, and technocratic institutions that Lovins railed against in the 1970s: to permit huge new renewable generation facilities over the objections of local communities; to build an enormous new transcontinental transmission network to bring electricity from places that are ideal to generate it with wind and solar technology to the urban and industrial centers where it will be utilized; to co-locate renewable generation capacity with infrastructure and industry that can use the large surpluses of energy that massive renewable energy generation will produce during times of low grid demand; and to coordinate the deployment and operations of intermittent sources of energy with demand management and energy storage needs across vast geographic regions.
And therein lies the rub. Progressive environmental advocates have long framed the failure to make headway on the climate issue in egalitarian terms—that the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests are thwarting the will of the people—to which the solution is more egalitarianism: more protest, more community organizing, more bottom-up democracy, and more decentralized technology. But whether hydro and nuclear or wind and solar energy, the only remotely plausible path to the sorts of changes that many environmentalists now demand, such as zero net emissions by 2030, or stabilizing global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Centigrade above preindustrial levels, would require top-down, centralized, technocratic measures that most environmentalists are unwilling to seriously embrace.
The exigencies of large-scale technocratic action to rapidly build the infrastructure of a low carbon economy cannot be easily reconciled with the communitarian, small-is-beautiful, localism that has defined the culture and politics of contemporary environmental thought and action since the rise of the movement in the 1960s. That is why the rhetoric of climate emergency in recent years has not been matched by explicit and specific proposals to do the sorts of things that a climate emergency would seem to demand.
Where's the beef?
Apocalyptic environmentalism has, since its origins in the years after World War II, regularly made these sorts of sweeping and inchoate demands. But there has never been any actionable agenda that green radicalism will actually embrace. It is a politics of protest and negation, of divestment, of “keeping it in the ground,” and of degrowth. It is postmodern nihilism dressed up with the trappings of moral seriousness.
The result is a radicalism that attacks the technofix while simultaneously demanding 100% renewable energy and rejects technocracy while demanding technocratic solutions of unprecedented speed and scale. It insists that capitalism and technology are the problem, not the solution to our present predicament when practically, after the sloganeering and rhetorical flourishes are done, what most environmentalists, including radical greens, are basically demanding is capitalism with carbon regulations and lots of windmills.