Imagine if you will an alternative world in which the leaders of one of our most reviled industries – say tobacco – had just figured out a new way to marginally enhance the quality of their product while significantly boosting their profits, but at a gargantuan cost to the environment. In this hypothetical universe, tobacco researchers discovered that they could produce slightly more refined smoking material in high-tech growing factories than they could in outdoor fields buffeted by unpredictable weather events. This new production system proved additionally profitable by abolishing the traditional cropping cycle in favor of monthly harvests, eliminating the headaches associated with long-term storage and annual planning. But the key issue was that of leaf quality and aesthetics, as in this universe the social stigma against tobacco use was rapidly declining, and well-heeled, trendy smokers and tobacco retailers had become obsessed with excellence, wanting to deal only with the most premium grades. As it turned out, the tobacco harvested in the new antiseptic grow-ops was slightly smoother, slightly more potent, slightly less contaminated by organic impurities, and significantly more uniform than that grown under the sun. In this parallel world, even the finest Dominican cigars were now occasionally reviled as dirt-grown trash, scorned by the most posh smoke shops.
Imagine as well that a number of U.S. state governments were encouraging this development, in part to bolster their own coffers. Indoor tobacco could be grown in states that were climatically marginal or inappropriate for outdoor cultivation, and it could be overseen and taxed at every stage of the operation, from the cloning of tobacco plants, to the processing of cigarettes and other nicotine products, to the final retail sale in a limited number of closely regulated, state-sanctioned shops. And to protect their revenue streams, such states were even able to ban the importation of outdoor tobacco from both other parts of the country and foreign lands.
In this alternative world, as in ours, the environmental consequences of such a tobacco transformation would be huge. The growing facilities would have to replace sunlight with high-intensity artificial illumination, sucking energy with abandon and generating in the process a mammoth carbon footprint. And lighting would be only one of several energy demands in this brave new world of high tech farming. Extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems would be needed as well, as would air conditioning in the summer months. Many tobacco growers would even artificially ramp-up carbon dioxide concentrations to enhance plant growth, with much of the added gas leaking into the atmosphere. These agro-factories would be as far removed from organic faming as possible, with virtually all plant nutrients supplied through chemical means. And although clean-room status would be the goal, insects and other pests would sometimes get through the defenses and would then multiply geometrically, given the absence of predators. As a result, heavy applications of biocides would be periodically necessary.
The resulting production system would of course produce expensive tobacco, unaffordable by the financially disadvantaged. As result, a market for a lower-grade product would persist. But recall that in this imagined scenario, a number of states had essentially outlawed cheaper tobacco grades through regulations, prohibitions, and rigorous taxation regimes. Illegal production would therefore spring up to meet the low-end demand. Mexican drug cartels, noted for their brutality and environmental disregard, would step into the resulting gap. Some low-quality tobacco would be smuggled across the southern border of the U.S., in operations that went hand-in-hand with heroin and cocaine trafficking as well as with extortion, kidnapping, and mass-murder. The same cartels would also establish clandestine tobacco farms in the U.S., tucked away in national forests, private timberlands, and other remote locales. Here they would be joined by a number of local, renegade mass-producers. Worked in part by exploited, undocumented immigrants, these outdoor tobacco “grows” would pollute streams with agricultural chemicals and human waste, and litter the landscape with plastic tubing, growing containers, and the basic garbage of human existence. As a result of these growers’ paranoia and vigilance, merely hiking through these areas would become a dangerous and potentially deadly activity. More troubling still, these farms would use copious amounts of rodenticide to extirpate tobacco-gnawing wood rats, which would in turn devastate the populations of small carnivores, pushing some, such as the fisher (Martes pennanti), to the brink of local extinction.
The environmental consequences of this tobacco transformation would be fairly obvious, but not to their full extent. Imagine, however, investigative journalists from publications such as Mother Jones running damning exposés (see here and here as well) that outlined in some detail the damage imparted by both indoor and large-scale, illicit, outdoor tobacco growing. One report demonstrated that in California alone, the factory-farming of tobacco accounted for nine percent of the state’s household electricity consumption in early 2014, and that nationwide the industry used the output equivalent to that of seven large coal-burning or nuclear power plants. Imagine as well that this industry was steadily expanding not just in California but in other states as well, many of which were climatically unsuitable for outdoor tobacco cultivation. As a result, state energy planners were beginning to wonder where all of the extra electricity would come from, and were therefore contemplating the construction of new power facilities.
In such a world, one could well image the resulting outrage of not just the environmental community, but also that of all advocates of responsible government and rational public policy. 4,600 pounds of carbon dioxide released for every pound of tobacco produced, and for what end? So that tobacco connoisseurs could enjoy a slightly more refined smoking experience? So that tobacco companies could avoid the need for annual planning? For this we would be willing to devote the entire output of seven—and counting—major power plants?
This entire scenario is, of course, ludicrous beyond all measure. As a result, indoor tobacco cultivation would be a non-starter, and even if it were somehow able to gain traction, it would arouse the immediate and overwhelming opposition of every green organization in existence, as well as that of a great many other powerful pressure groups. The alternative reality that I have sketched out above, in short, makes no sense, and thus would thus seem to be unimaginable.
Or is it? As my title indicates, all that one has to do is substitute “marijuana” for “tobacco,” and the bulk of this post describes the actual situation currently existing in California, Washington, and several other U.S. states that have partially or fully legalized the consumption and sale of cannabis. There are, of course, limits to this comparison. The legal environments of tobacco and marijuana remain distinctive across the country, and I do not intend to imply that the two products are in any way equivalent. The existing evidence, for example, indicates that cannabis does indeed have a variety of legitimate medical uses, whereas the idea of “medical tobacco” is hard to take seriously. (To be sure, tobacco can have therapeutic and perhaps even prophylactic effects for such diseases as Parkinson’s, but almost all medical authorities insist that the product’s harm greatly outweighs any of its potential benefits.) I could have constructed my hypothetical alternative around any other highly valued crop, particularly those that have a major snob-appeal factor. I picked tobacco largely for its shock value; where I live, there is a significantly greater social stigma attached to tobacco smoking than there is to cannabis consumption, and as result the absurdity of my little thought experiment is duly intensified.
The widespread antipathy to tobacco in U.S. environmental circles and among the political left more generally would ensure that any major expansion of its carbon footprint would generate massive opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, the situation could hardly be more different. Over the past several years, I have noticed no evidence of any concerted resistance among major environmental groups to the burgeoning indoor marijuana industry, and very little to environmentally destructive, large-scale cultivation carried out on remote lands.
To see if such seeming lack of concern is indeed the case, I examined the websites of a number of well-known environmental groups, searching under such terms as “indoor marijuana,” and “cannabis.” Some of my findings are available in the screenshot images posted here. As can be seen, no results were returned from the Audubon or the Greenpeace sites. The Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted an article about eco-friendly hemp clothing, as well as several warning about the dangers of indoor pollution stemming from marijuana smoking at home. 350.org, an organization wholly devoted to fighting greenhouse gas emissions, would almost appear to advocate indoor cannabis cultivation; although its website contains no articles on the subject, it does run a number of search-linked advertisements for “grow lights” and “professional grow rooms.” The Sierra Club website, on the other hand, does bring up a significant number of articles. But as can be seen from the screenshot posted here, most of them concern weeds and pots rather than weed or pot, and indoor toilets rather than indoor grow-ops. The one result that does appear pertinent on first glance, marked with a red arrow on the image, turns out to be a red herring, as the article in question is actually about Massey Energy in West Virginia, a much more conventional Sierra Club target. When it comes to the massive energy consumption and colossal carbon footprint of indoor marijuana growing, an article in the Seattle Times sums up the situation nicely: “Leaders at other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Conservation Northwest say they have other priorities.”
The one prominent environmental organization that does appear to be concerned about the negative effects of certain forms of cannabis cultivation is the Center for Biological Diversity, as can be seen in another screenshot posted here. It appears that the Center worries only about those problems associated with outdoor cultivation, but that focus seems appropriate, given its mandate. Some local branches of the Sierra Club have also taken up this issue, with the Redwood Chapter describing large-scale illegal cultivation as “an Environmental Plague on the North Coast.” The Humboldt branch of Earth First!, on the other hand, appears to be completely unconcerned, despite the fact that it is situated at the epicenter of environmentally destructive, large-scale, outdoor grows, and despite the fact that the organization as a whole claims to brook “no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.”
None of this, it is essential to note, should be taken as an indictment of marijuana growing per se. Cannabis is a hardy plant that thrives in a wide array of climatic conditions, although the most premium grades do require relatively low humidity levels during the crucial September-October maturation period. Most importantly, almost all the power that is needed for marijuana growing flows naturally from the sun. The small-scale growers whom I have interviewed never use insecticides, rodenticides, or any other toxic chemicals, and they strive to keep their footprints, carbon and otherwise, as small as possible (more on that in a later post). But they get no credit whatsoever for any of these efforts, either from the marijuana market itself or from the environmental community and its political allies. Here the paradoxes run deep indeed.
The burning question, of course, is that of why: why would green organizations turn a blind eye to this huge, rapidly expanding, and entirely unnecessary source of environmental degradation? Anti-environmentalists would likely respond by claiming that this is yet more evidence that the environmental movement is not what it claims to be, as its true goal is the dismantling of global capitalism rather than the protection of the atmosphere or of nature more generally. I do not, however, think that this is the case, as will be explained in the next GeoCurrents post.
Notes: In Washington, one of the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana, legal growing can be done outdoors, but all sources that I have found maintain that the vast bulk of the legal crop is cultivated indoors. For the source of the garbage photo posted above, see this LA Times article. Note also that the statistics cited by Mother Jones and other sources are debated, but whatever the actual numbers are, it is clear that they are far from trivial.