How refreshing to be finally moving into the era of green-green conflicts — ecological controversies in which both sides claim to be defending what we used to call “nature” (or “the ecology”) and both actually make a good case for it. The Cape Wind energy project presages the kind of ecological conflict we will hopefully see much more of in the future.

By “hopefully” I mean to suggest that if things go better rather than worse, we will one day be telling stories about how it was in the pre-ecological era, when the typical environmental conflict pitted ‘greens’ against dinosaur industrialists, property-rights libertarians, economic-growth statists, and retrograde rednecks. The difference with Cape Wind is that, as this Boston Phoenix story makes clear, there are not only Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue, but environmentalists, labor groups, and civic activists are also split along not-very-traditional lines. (For instance, Greenpeace, the National Resource Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society are all for it; the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the Animal Welfare Institute, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Industrial Wind Action Group, among others, are against it).

This is the point, then, where the “environmentalist” designation starts to break down (or self-differentiate, to put a Deleuzian spin on it), and where the slogan “we are all environmentalists now” — attributed, ironically, to George Bush the Elder — begins to take on a truthfulness it has never really had.

What accounts for the strange mix of alliances on both sides? At first blush, politicians seem to fall almost randomly this way or that (the late Ted Kennedy and his Republican successor Scott Brown against it, Massachusetts Democratic governor Deval Patrick for it). But I think there’s some pattern to the chaos, with eco-pragmatists, including the “realos” in the Obama administration, such as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, being for it because it will help the U.S. start catching up with Europe’s and China’s progress on wind power (emphasis on the “start”). Pragmatism on a national scale, however, can butt heads with pragmatism on a local scale, especially in a place like Nantucket Sound, where tourism is a leading industry.

Eco-idealists, or “fundis” (to follow the German Greens’ term), are split on the issue between what we might call the “nature” faction, whose focus tends toward a traditional aesthetic-idealist understanding of nature — as harmony, heritage, sense of place, scenery, Native American sacred space (such as the Wampanoag tribes), and so on — and the “ecology” faction, for whom the issue is really about the energetic-materialist systems vision of a post-carbon sustainable energy future. Philosophically, I tend to favor the ecology faction. But I also recognize that there’s an art to political pluralism that makes sharp oppositions (like the one that characterized the opposition to Cape Wind as nothing but a selfish “nimbyism”) too simplistic.

I suspect, also, that energetic-systemic ecology can get pretty easily entangled into the economism that rules things already, where it’s about quantitative calculations of how much energy we can get out of something, how much economic punch a policy will deliver, and ultimately — the dystopian scenario — how to marry (emergent) ecological economics with (existing, hegemonic) casino capitalism. When sacrifices are to be made, whether it’s of Native American land claims or about bird and whale spaces, they will simply be justified, as always, as good for the economy. It’s difficult to keep a decision like this from degenerating into the calculus of utilitarianism (what’s best for most is good for all) versus localism (not in my backyard), and neither of those particularly appeals to me…

But I’m persuaded that the balance here, as Ken Salazar has concluded, seems to fall on the side of the good. (For instance, on wildlife issues, see here.) And even though balance isn’t the only criterion — there is, for me, no “only” criterion — it helps. Process helps, too, and the Cape Wind decision has gone through a long and rigorous one, which I find pretty salutary.

Interesting times these are, and they are just beginning…


Sunset for old nature, new dawn for new nature?

A detailed history of the Cape Wind debate can be found on Sean Corcoran’s Cape Wind blog.

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