Being an environmentalist is a lot of hoping in the dark, against the dark, feeling as if the dark is clubbing you over the head and stealing your skin. Maybe we like baby seals so much because their plight feel terribly familiar.
But, last week, news came out that the Brayton Point Power Station will close in 2017.
Such success is rare. The outpouring of relief, of congratulations, of celebration regarding the foreseeable shuttering of a coal burning power plant that burns up the beauty of one landscape to spew pollution onto another, all the while heating the planet up and hurting us all in pursuit of cheap energy is cathartic and wonderful. We need to hold these good things as tight as we can, squirrel them away into our hearts as proof that all we work towards can become real.
It is a greatness that there will be one less coal burning power plant, almost soon enough to say that it is soon. Three and a half years, though, that’s not tomorrow. And, further, this power plant was an easy obvious target, a synecdoche for the larger issue of cultural reliance on unsustainable fuel sources supporting a ridiculously consumptive lifestyle. I hope, that with our relief at the end of Brayton Point’s coal, we don’t lose sight of the larger fight. As Winston Churchill allegedly said when a woman noticed he was drunk, “yes, madam, but in the morning, I’ll be sober and you’ll still be ugly.” Our celebratory euphoria will end, but the power industry will still be ugly. Capitalism never sleeps.
And yet, this is somewhat the dawning of another era, Churchill’s "end of the beginning, rather than beginning of the end." The time of coal is dying out. And a lot of people poured a lot of passion and human-energy into working towards the closure of Brayton Point. Think of all the wonderful ways that energy and that focus can now be re-purposed into the world! This is what I am excited to see, what I am excited to be part of, where I see the true success of this outcome.
With all due respect to those who put their lives in service to the human and environmental angle of the closure, it is fairly obvious that the decision was an economic one, although the environmental push for regulations that contribute to the expense of running a power plant are pretty awesome unsung heroes here. And, it was never the coal itself that was stupid. It is the corporate forces behind the coal industry that were (are) willfully, dangerously cruel and stupid. They endanger human health and ecological well-being and exacerbate climate change and hide these costs under the blanket of cheap energy, while making a profit. There are now cheaper ways to make power, cheaper ways for power companies to make power, and to make their profits, which is what they care about in the first and last place. And, any time a company finds a way to do something cheaper, I am highly suspicious. It means they’re screwing someone over, abusing power somewhere, making a profit off of someone’s loss. Bastards.
Regardless of the element at stake, we’re always fighting against the nebulous, shape-shifting, powerful power industries of the world. And, if we’re fighting against coal and against, say, fracking and natural gas, then we’ve divided ourselves, halved our energy and voices of righteous dissent. The more coal recedes into the grime of history the more we can unite against an enemy that grows ever clearer.
It is a cathartic illusion that the cumulative weight of the environmentalist’s actions shut down the plant, but it is cathartic and good nonetheless. “Once upon a time, passionate people spoke out against the evil in their community, and then the evil left.” This is the narrative echo of every good fairy tale, these are the stories written into our DNA. Even knowing the less poetic economic truth, there is a certain amount of useful inspiration in the story we tell ourselves. Because it reminds us that things can change, allows for Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers to fly in, encourages us to think what we would do, what we can do against the darkness and the ogres. What we will do.
I know this is exhausting. I wish we could save the world by tomorrow and get on with the business of living good lives, baking bread in stoves that run on compressed cow manure and riding bikes to train stations and reading great books in bed at midnight by an electric light connected to solar panels. I'm just sick, some days, of making the world better always feeling Sisyphean.
On the other hand, what better way to show our hope in the world than by working towards those goals? I watch Amy Poehler’s show “Parks and Recreation” sometimes. In one episode, her character has a totally minor win—another character has removed some opposition to her proposed city park. Rather than do anything that looks like a traditional celebration or take a full minute to appreciate her success, Poehler jumps right back into work mode. To her, continuing work for what she loves is the celebration.
Let’s get to work!
(Churchill's mugshot comes from the Nobel Prize website; Amy Poehler, preening as Leslie Knope, from salon.com.)