schwarzeneggerIn October of 2010, at the groundbreaking of Brightsource’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stated, “Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness

[…] I see miles and miles of gold mine.” Schwarzenegger’s statement was but the apogee of an on-going debate about the development of centralized desert solar facilities, particularly after Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 fast-tracked approval for nine utility-scale solar developments to be located in regions of the Mojave Desert, exposing over 50,000 acres of public lands to intensive development.

Criticisms of Schwarzenegger’s statement were swift and brought a diverse group of people into conversation. Community members, environmental activists, scientists, poets, journalists, and others, began to develop a critical discussion along two general lines:

  1. A shared belief in the necessity for alternative forms of energy: the focus remained on solar power but criticized its centralization on ecologically sensitive, public desert lands in favor of developing on already disturbed lands and creating the infrastructure for distributed energy generation (e.g. rooftop solar and the like).[1]
  2. A collective affirmation of the need to both (a) critique what were seen as 19th century attitudes toward public land while (b) providing the theoretical and imaginative tools to challenge the reduction of complex desert ecologies to a metric of capitalist productivity.

From these two trajectories, an interesting question arose: what makes an ecological network matter and what might sustainable ecological relationships look like once we reject or at least question what Maristella Svampa calls the “productivist vision of development”?[2]

cleared_solarDespite the significance of these discussions, however, they remained rather localized. As more and more scientific research was presented, or sometimes even re-presented, on the important role of desert plants and organisms in carbon sequestration, the migratory pathways of various bird species, and so on, corporate solar invested significant amounts of capital to insure that the general public would not need to grapple with the contradiction of how “green” technology might actually be environmentally detrimental.

In a 2011 article in The Atlantic titled “Think Globally, Destroy Locally: Environmentalism for the 21st Century,” Alexis Madrigal defended centralized solar in general and the Ivanpah site in particular while also attempting to articulate an environmentalism that is “concerned, first and foremost, with humans.” Situating his “human environmentalism” among the “suburban housewives and baseball dads” of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Madrigal suggests that this environmentalism is less concerned with the “natural” but embraces the progress that technological intervention offers in our on-going relationships to non-human environmental worlds. He concludes, “Green technology gives environmentalism the material means to build a better civilization as well as the political potency and clarity of purpose that comes with the need to make new things work.”

Missing from Madrigal’s argument are those alternatives for distributed energy generation that were being discussed prior to and during the publication of his article and his subsequent book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Also missing is a nuanced and updated presentation of environmental thought and practice, particularly in those variations that reject the nature-culture opposition and conservative forms of technophobia. What the article does make clear, albeit implicitly, is how strongly public discourses about “eco-friendliness,” environmental politics, and what kind of ecological systems matter, are determined by the color Green and how that color scheme itself is tied to particular fantasies about the nation-state, progress, nature and culture, ties to by-gone eras, suburban moms and baseball dads, etc.[3]

While Team Water’s research focuses on Borrego Springs and the surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as an interface between global climate change and regional drought mitigation,[4] the controversies in Ivanpah Valley I’ve been discussing illuminate important questions for any sort of social, political and economic engagement with the American southwest deserts: what are the cultural, scientific, and imaginative coordinates we use when thinking about deserts? What sort of conceptual and practical tools might we need to develop or even revisit in order to live in and with deserts in more sustainable ways? What does sustainability look like in a cultural, political, and economic context that tends to privilege the productivist vision of development, of turning supposedly inert landscapes into economically productive sites, into green zones?

A mentor of mine has a phrase that has become something of a refrain for me: “On your way to the political, never forget the ontological.”[5] In the context of my discussion here, I take this to mean that our ecological politics will be guided by our collective affirmation to dwell within these questions and the difficulties they raise. And as a transdisciplinary research team of graduate students collaborating with water researchers at UCI, community leaders in Borrego Springs, and environmental scientists in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, I think Team Water is in a unique position to do just that.


[1] One of the results of this discussion was the emergence of a group called Solar Done Right — a coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts, biologists, and so on — that issued a report in April of 2011 titled “US Public Lands Solar Policy: Wrong from the Start.” Criticizing the 2010 Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft PEIS) jointly issued by the Departments of Interior and Energy, Solar Done Right wrote, “The need to move to a renewable-based energy economy, and quickly, is urgent…But the Draft PEIS is fundamentally flawed. The current document follows an exploitive, outmoded approach, mired in 19th century attitudes toward public land, coupled with financially and environmentally-subsidized, outmoded technology that will fail to achieve a responsible energy future.”

[2] Maristella Svampa, “Commodities Consensus: Neoextractivism and Enclosure of the Commons in Latin America,” South Atlantic Quarterly (2015): 65-82. Though writing in the context of Latin American eco-political struggles, Svampa’s analysis of the “productivist vision” is helpful as she argues that this vision tends to privilege the conflict between capital and labor, creating a theoretical and practical blind spot around questions that would bring social and environmental problems into conversation with one another. As she writes, “This discourse, whose real reach must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, seeks to oppose social issues (redistribution) to environmental issues in a reductionist way, leaving out complex and essential discussions that would strategically link the problematics of development, the environment, and democracy” (71).

 [3] In her blog post, “A Prehistory of Drought,” Anna Kryczka details part of this imaginary in relation to the desert ranch house and correctly suggests that “Getting a handle of the rhetorical, ecological, and cultural context of the emergence of the ranch house is a critical task in moving towards an understanding of present day uncertainty. It is not just an architectural form, but a vessel for a certain kind of American identity.

[4] In her blog post, “Notes from the Field: Water from the Ground, Water from Space,” Emily Brooks effectively and efficiently details the crises facing the Borrego Springs community at present – a crisis that, in fact, concerns all of California even if in locally specific ways.

[5] Professor Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan is an infinite well of the pithy and profound.