Why Does the Environmental Movement Ignore Carbon-Intensive Indoor Marijuana Cultivation?
As noted at the end of the previous post, many anti-environmentalists no doubt view hypocrisy over carbon-intensive indoor marijuana cultivation as evidence that environmental politics is not really what it claims to be, as it is apparently more concerned about advancing a broad political agenda than it is about greenhouse-gas emissions per se. This view is widely encountered in a variety of eco-skeptical blogs and other media outlets. One common refrain runs as follows: “I’ll take global warming seriously when the people who say it’s a problem begin acting as if they believe it.”
Evidence that prominent environmentalists often act as if they are not very concerned about carbon dioxide emissions comes from a variety of sources. Most often mentioned are the personal lifestyles of noted eco-activists, with critics pillorying Al Gore for the gargantuan energy demand of his Nashville mansion and Bill McKibben for the prodigious air millage that he racks up. Some of these criticisms seem somewhat unfair to me, such as those leveled at McKibben, whose political activities require frequent flying. Others, however, hit closer to their targets, such as those focused on the head of the Sea Change Foundation, Nathaniel Simons, who commutes from Berkeley to San Francisco on a gas-guzzling, 1,550-horsepower, 54-foot luxury yacht.
But such personal matters are not really central to the allegation that the environmental movement does not in practice prioritize greenhouse-gas emissions. More important is the fact that most green activists steadfastly oppose many carbon-free technologies, including nuclear power and hydroelectricity. Indeed, the most fervent environmentalists typically regard these power sources as anathema, and thus hope to dismantle existing dams and reactors. Yet as Germany’s energy transition demonstrates, denuclearization has been associated with rising CO2 emissions, the increased mining and burning of coal, and surging residential electricity costs; even deforestation has been heightened by rapidly expanding biomass combustion. Likewise, the environmental movement as a whole loathes natural gas derived from fracking, which many experts think has significantly reduced carbon emissions by replacing coal; according to a detailed recent report by the Breakthrough Institute, “the growth of natural gas generation, along with reduced electricity demand, is responsible for the vast majority of reduced emissions in the US power sector since 2007.” Even many of the carbon-sparing transformations that environmentalists celebrate in theory are more often than not opposed in practice. While urban intensification may be lauded in recent environmental writings, try getting new high-density housing developments approved by the municipal authorities of such eco-friendly cities as Berkeley, San Francisco, or Palo Alto. The same goes for wind power, which tends to be supported only when it is installed in others peoples’ backyards, and even then the appalling bird and bat mortality as well as the rural industrial sprawl entailed by windfarms give many activists second thoughts, and for good reason.
Instead, almost all environmental faith is placed in solar power, which is currently unable to provide anything near the level of electricity required by modern societies. Solar power’s biggest problem is its failure to flow when the sun is not shining, which occurs significantly more than 50 percent of the time in most places. When this impediment is pointed out, the typical green response is to emphasize energy-storage technologies, which often entails abruptly switching to a mode of technological optimism and extolling new storage devices that are supposedly just around the corner. Here again it is difficult to deny the charge of hypocrisy. To begin with, all forms of energy storage cause their own environmental problems, which are often severe but are almost always overlooked. Lead-acid batteries, the typical choice in off-grid solar systems, are especially problematic. As noted in EC&M:
During normal operations, SLABS [stationary lead-acid battery storage systems] have their own Pandora’s box of environmental compliance, enforcement, and liability concerns. Batteries (whether sealed or flooded) present a potentially large remediation and liability expense in terms of sulfuric acid and lead. Since sulfuric acid and lead are extremely hazardous, the potential of a hazardous material spill exists anywhere you have SLABS.
But ignoring the eco-hazards of energy storage is only the beginning, as mainstream environmentalists tend more generally to regard technological optimism as the height of naiveté. Green activists often revile as cornucopian fools those who think that a wide array of existing and forthcoming technologies will allow continuing economic growth without destroying the planet in the process, while lauding as planetary saviors those who see solar salvation in some yet-unrealized energy-storage technology. Here again, the paradoxes run deep indeed.
Given these inconsistent attitudes, it is perhaps understandable that many anti-environmentalists would conclude that anthropogenic global warming is more a smokescreen than an actual focus of concern in and of itself. But the reality is more complicated than that. Most environmentalists, I am convinced, are genuinely concerned about climate change, and for good reason. Their attitudes and actions are hypocritical not because they partake in a grand conspiracy to mislead the public, but rather for much more mundane reasons stemming from basic human mental proclivities and assorted shortcomings.
Most all of us, I am convinced, are inclined to see the world in somewhat Manichaean terms, dividing opposing groups into the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. We are predisposed to overlook the sins and omissions of members of our own side, and particularly by ourselves, just as we tend to magnify those of our opponents. Double standards, in other words, are omnipresent across both the political spectrum and the globe. Such a predisposition was no doubt adaptive in earlier times, when small groups of humans competed with others in existential struggles. As such, the tendency is difficult to overcome, and attempting to do so can be quite disconcerting. It can also be politically costly. Coalitions are not enhanced when one looks with an unjaundiced eye on one’s own friends and allies, calling them out when they betray supposedly shared ideals. Expedience thus calls for willful ignorance in this regard. Such are the unfortunate facts of human nature.
We should thus not be surprised that the Humboldt chapter of Earth First! is untroubled by the local industrial-scale cannabis operations that are extirpating the fisher and more generally wreaking havoc on nature. Many members of the chapter probably derive some of their income from these same operations, which hire trimmers and other workers by the score during the autumn harvest. By focusing their environmental outrage instead on logging companies and other suitable targets of the opposition, they spare themselves both troubling political infighting and cognitive dissonance. Such a dynamic is not quite so clear in the case of large environmental organizations and indoor cannabis cultivation, but the basic pattern still holds. For the Sierra Club and 350.org, energy companies make fine enemies, but indoor marijuana growers fit uncomfortably within this category. Even the largest growers are not multinational corporations but are rather individual operators—although corporatization does seem to be the wave of the future. More to the point, most pot growers no doubt embrace the same overarching political position as the environmental movement, and would thus be counted as allies in the most general sense. Support for marijuana legalization and normalization is likewise mostly* associated with the political left, and as such drawing attention to the problems associated with it could help the political right. As an entirely inconvenient truth, the carbon-spewing reality of indoor cannabis cultivation is all too easy to ignore.
But the psychic underpinnings of such inconsistent behavior probably goes a good deal deeper than simple self-interest and political benefit. Perhaps I am naive, but I think that most people generally want do good—as they conceptualize what “good” is—but they often imagine that doing so is a fairly straightforward thing. As a result, most of us seem to balk at the notion of intrinsic trade-offs and positively recoil when faced with utilitarian calculations. Nuclear power, hydropower, and fracking all cause considerable environmental damage; as a result, one should not be surprised that they provoke forthright opposition from the green community. By the same token, photovoltaic power seems wholly benign on first glance, and is thus unsurprisingly embraced without reservation (the waste-streams of Chinese PV plants, however, might elicit second thoughts). It would be marvelous indeed if rooftop solar panels could supply all the power that we need, and as a result many would leave it at that, preferring not to grapple with the limitations of the technology. Wishful thinking, in other words, can be too comfortable to deny.
I encountered this kind of blinkered utopianism in a particularly stark form many decades ago at a family dinner, an event that permanently changed my thinking. A close relative beloved for her kindness and compassion opined that she was completely against all new development, opposing housing construction, road building, and everything else. Such activities, she went on, displace wildlife habitat and are therefore simply unacceptable. A few minutes later, she announced that she was opposed to all immigration restrictions; anyone ought to be able to immediately move to the United States and settle anywhere. To exclude would-be immigrants, she explained, was morally abhorrent, as all people, and especially the poor and needy, must be accommodated. When I ventured that there might be a contradiction between her two statements, she looked at me with blank incomprehension, stating simply that “Immigrants don’t need much room; they don’t live in big new houses.”
This conversation made a particularly deep impression on my teenage mind because at the time I shared my relative’s basic beliefs about both development and immigration. But I could not go all the way with her, as the trade-offs were just too glaringly obvious. Ever since then, I have determined to take a questioning, skeptical, and hard-headed approach to all political issues, leaving me with a surfeit of doubt and uncertainty. The ethical highroad, I have concluded, is seldom obvious and is almost never a straight path. At some level, cold utilitarian calculations are necessary, and as a result one must be willing to countenance a certain degree—and often a significant degree—of harm in order to achieve what one hopes will be a greater good.
My thinking about such issues has more recently been influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s path-breaking work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. As Haidt demonstrates, moral judgments flow more from intuition than from rational reflection, and stem largely from six basic six moral foundations. Perhaps the most important of these is sanctity, coupled with its inverse, degradation. Haidt contends that this ethical pillar is more pronounced on the political right than on the left, but here I part company. The bestowal of sanctity seems to me to be one of our most deeply embedded traits, and as such it cannot simply be deleted by abandoning traditional religious beliefs. For the most ardent environmentalists, who tend to be either secular or unconventionally spiritual, the Earth itself is the ultimate font of sanctity. As such, it can seem essentially blasphemous to examine key environmental issues under the heartless lens of utilitarianism. Fracking, for example, entails the injection of toxic chemicals deep into the veins of Mother Earth, and is thus not a suitable issue for compromise regardless of what environmental audits might uncover. Much the same could be argued in regard to both genetic engineering and geo-engineering proposals designed to forestall global warming
But if we take this line of reasoning, we encounter yet another a paradox. Indoor marijuana farming is the kind of activity that would seemingly generate a degree of moral repugnance on the part of those who sanctify nature. One would expect organic marijuana cultivation to be celebrated and high-tech cultivation to be reviled. And indeed, that is precisely what I find when I interview small-scale, outdoor marijuana growers. Some of them are particularly repulsed by the increasingly popular butane-extracted cannabis products such as “shatter” and “earwax,” the production of which they liken to meth-cooking. Yet when it comes to the broader environmental community, we oddly find no similar concerns, as demonstrated by the previous post.
Considering such issues, I still find the environmental movement’s nonchalance toward indoor marijuana cultivation perplexing. One possible additional explanation is the fact that growing under artificial light is hidden away from public view. Concealment is indeed crucial to the entire endeavor, as marijuana is still illicit in most U.S. states and remains highly illegal as far as the federal government is concerned. Carbon-intensive cannabis cultivation is easy to ignore, in other worlds, because it is difficult to see. More important, different moral modules—in Haidt’s sense—come into play, such as that of liberty (versus oppression). When those on the left think about marijuana, they often focus on its very illegality, which many view as a basic assault on personal freedom**. As a result, how the drug is actually produced becomes insignificant. Marijuana moved indoors in the first place because of police surveillance, which is seen by many as a deep threat to civil society. Those with a more anarchic bent, moreover, tend to valorize a degree of subversion, and thus support all methods of marijuana growing as a way to tweak the noses of authority-oriented conservatives. (“Authority/subversion” is another one of Haidt’s moral foundations, and he regards respect for authority as being more pronounced on the political right than the left; again, I am not convinced about this political distinction, as it seems to depend mostly on whether the authority in question is viewed as legitimate.)
As a result of such complex human predilections, I would not expect rank-and-file environmentalists to grapple deeply with such contradictions as those inherent in indoor marijuana cultivation. I would expect much more, however, from the movement’s intellectual leaders. Unfortunately, I don’t find it there either. When I read the most celebrated climate warriors, writers such as Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Naomi Oreskes, I see few inklings of critical self-reflection. Instead, I find almost pure Manichean politics based on a world-view in which the “good guys”—those selfless greens devoted to saving Mother Earth—are all but incapable of doing anything bad, while the “bad guys”—those evil energy companies and their paid-off minions—are all but incapable of doing anything good.
Does the environmental movement as a whole have the capacity to honestly address such issues and engage in the self-reflection necessary to break free from rampant hypocrisy? Perhaps. Here’s one small way to put it to the test. In a few years, California, one of the most environmentally oriented states in the union, will almost certainly fully legalize marijuana. When it does so, will it take into account the environmental damage generated by indoor production? Or will it follow the lead of Washington state and focus instead on taxation maximization and regulatory oversight while ignoring environmental consequences? If California takes the former route, my faith in the environmental movement will be partially restored. But I will not be holding my breath.
Most environmentalists want to institute an over-arching carbon tax in order to internalizes negative atmospheric externalities. Such a proposal is of course highly controversial, as environmental skeptics claim that it would unduly damage the economy. Regardless of such dissenting voices, I would suggest that a steep carbon tax on soon-to-be-legal cannabis cultivation in California would be a fitting place to start. Such a tax would certainly benefit the small-scale, environmentally responsible marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle. The final post on this series will examine what they are doing to minimize both their carbon footprints and their environmental impacts more generally.
*Libertarians, who generally lean somewhat more to the right than the left as far as the conventional (if exhausted) political spectrum is concerned, tend to more strongly support cannabis legalization.
**Ironically, many of these same people would like to ban tobacco. Here a different moral module, that of “care vs. harm,” comes into play, which of course was invoked as well when marijuana was initially outlawed.
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