Hydro power highlights green quandary

Sam Chapman

When you’re as fanatical a populist rabble-rouser as I pretend to be, it’s easy to see everything in terms of good and evil. It is true that some aspects of the fight to preserve the planet have fewer shades of gray than others: The only good coal is coal we leave in the ground. But there are conservation scenarios that are not so clear-cut, and often environmentalists must sacrifice one ideal for another.

Nothing exemplifies this dilemma so much as hydroelectric power. Here’s the difficulty with dams: If I look at them with a one-dimensional criterion, it’s obvious I should support them. Hydroelectric power does not emit a wisp of carbon dioxide. It’s a renewable resource, and technically alternative energy, so why am I even writing this column?

Dams come up a lot for an environmental student in Walla Walla––we’re less than an hour’s drive from the Lower Snake River hydroelectric complex, and the Columbia’s Grand Coulee is within reach as well. The concrete hulks are used to generate electricity and to irrigate farmland; some exist to regulate flooding from dams farther up the river. Yet dams have a dark side. Dams are monstrosities that flood wild areas, wreak havoc on salmon runs, disenfranchise locals and provide an unreliable power supply. So, again, why the debate?

The hydroelectric controversy echoes the largest and deepest split in the environmental movement today. The green movement is divided between sustainability-focused environmentalists and conservation-focused environmentalists, i.e., those who would be more likely to support a dam because it means local coal plants can be shut down, and those who would oppose it for the sake of the river ecosystem.

Of course, it’s not as simple as this binary. Plenty of our allies straddle the line, to varying degrees. A John Muir vs. Al Gore dichotomy is less external than internal––a battle each environmentalist must wage in the center of the mind. I myself have yet to conclude it, and I don’t anticipate I will anytime soon.

The planet Earth is greater than the sum of its parts; therefore, if damming the Colorado or Columbia will reduce the strain on the climate in exchange only for certain localized suffering, the rivers ought to be dammed. On the other hand, if we continually sacrifice parts of the world to save the whole, we will wake up one morning with nothing left to defend.

I can’t even reconcile the two halves using my normal doctrine of balance in all things: There’s no such thing as a balanced dam. One has as many problems as four.

In the end, there is a value to having competing factions in the environmental movement, and it’s not expressed through an answer. The fact that conservation and sustainability so often butt heads is something we must constantly keep in mind as we consider each new problem. My ecological viewpoint has been shaped by the constant evaluation of trade-offs. I am against hydroelectric power because it sacrifices too much; I am in favor of wind power despite the danger it poses to migratory birds.

Environmentalism is neither passive nor homogenous, and thank God for that. It’s the thing that sets us apart from the greed we oppose.