Putting the Toothpaste Back into the Tube

Back in World War II, the Dam Busters were British RAF pilots who combined derring-do, acrobatic flying, and stiff upper lips to attack the Nazi hydroelectric dams on the Ruhr, with the hopes of crippling Axis manufacturing efforts in the region. A decade after the allies won the war, the exploits of the Dam Busters were made into a movie with some of the best acting and cheesiest special effects ever put into postwar British cinema:

These days though, the Damn Busters have plenty of company, and they're not attacking America's enemies, but America itself, turning William James' "Moral Equivalence of War" ethos from the dawn of the 20th century on its head. Whereas progressives and those to their left in the first half of the 20th century, in Europe, the former Soviet Union and America believed in the importance of dams for both hydroelectric power and creating water reservoirs, the increasingly ironically named progressives of the 21st century believe in destroying them. This gentleman says "I'm a dam buster," working to destroy the Matilija Dam in southern California -- in an ad for American Express that's aired recently on primetime network TV:

As Shikha Dalmia wrote in 2007 in the Wall Street Journal:

Once regarded as the symbol of national greatness, hydroelectric dams have now fallen into disrepute for many legitimate reasons. They are enormously expensive undertakings that would never have taken off but for hefty government subsidies. Worse, they typically involve changing the natural course of rivers, causing painful disruptions for towns and tribes.

But tearing down the Klamath dams, the last of which was completed in 1962, will do more harm than good at this stage. These dams provide cheap, renewable energy to 70,000 homes in Oregon and California. Replacing this energy with natural gas -- the cleanest fossil-fuel source -- would still pump 473,000 tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This is roughly equal to the annual emissions of 102,000 cars.

Given this alternative, one would think that environmentalists would form a human shield around the dams to protect them. Instead, they have been fighting tooth-and-nail to tear them down because the dams stand in the way of migrating salmon. Environmentalists don't even let many states, including California, count hydro as renewable.

They have rejected all attempts by PacifiCorp, the company that owns the dams, to take mitigation steps such as installing $350 million fish ladders to create a salmon pathway. Klamath Riverkeeper, a group that is part of an environmental alliance headed by Robert Kennedy Jr., has sued a fish hatchery that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife runs -- and PacifiCorp is required to fund -- on grounds that it releases too many algae and toxic discharges. The hatchery produces at least 25% of the chinook salmon catch every year. Closing it will cause fish populations to drop further, making the demolition of the dams even more likely.

But the end of the Klamath won't mean the end of the dam saga -- it is the big prize that environmentalists are coveting to take their antidam crusade to the next level. "This would represent the largest and most ambitious dam removal project in the country, if not the world," exults Steve Rothert of American Rivers. The other dams on the hit list include the O'Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley that services San Francisco, Elwha River dam in Washington and the Matilija Dam in Southern California.

Large hydro dams supply about 20% of California's power (and 10% of America's). If they are destroyed, California won't just have to find some other way to fulfill its energy needs. It will have to do so while reducing its carbon footprint to meet the ambitious CO2 emission-reduction targets that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set. Mr. Schwarzenegger has committed the Golden State to cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 -- a more stringent requirement than even in the Kyoto Protocol.

The effect this might have on California's erratic and overpriced energy supply has businesses running scared. Mike Naumes, owner of Naumes Inc., a fruit packing and processing business, last year moved his juice concentrate plant from Marysville, Calif., to Washington state and cut his energy bill in half. With hydropower under attack, he is considering shrinking his farming operations in the Golden State as well. "We can't pay exorbitant energy prices and stay competitive with overseas businesses," he says.

Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club's deputy executive director and a longtime proponent of such a mandate, refuses to even acknowledge that there is any conflict in closing hydro dams while fighting global warming. All California needs to do to square these twin objectives, he maintains, is become more energy efficient while embracing alternative fuels. "We don't need to accept a Faustian bargain with hydropower to cut emissions," he says.

This is easier done in the fantasy world of greens than in the real world. If cost-effective technologies to boost energy efficiency actually existed, industry would adopt them automatically, global warming or not.

As I said, Dalmia's article was written in 2007, when more abstract assaults on the American economy by the left hadn't fully succeeded yet. But as Northern California blogger "Bookworm Room" recently noted, that region of the state has seen similar dam busting efforts by the far left, which continue even as the economy is in turmoil, especially in California. (Not surprisingly, Avatar director James Cameron is a fan of this activity -- even though the city he makes his rather substantial living in was itself created in the early 20th by reshaping the region's water supply.)

But even beyond dam busting, there really does seem to no shortage of areas where self-styled "progressives" wish to eliminate the progress their grandfathers fought for -- and the benefits that Americans derive from them daily. Or as a blog post from 2005 at Gates of Vienna put it succinctly in their headline, after spotting a booth with this name on it at a vegetarian-themed festival, "Visualize Industrial Collapse." (Presumably they'd consider what seems at times to be the president's continuing efforts in that department to not go anywhere near far enough!)

At Ricochet, James Lileks spots one enviro-religious group wanting to have "A Weekend Without Oil" on the weekend of August 21. Naturally, James has more than a little sport with their efforts to run the clock backwards:

An ad on a website alerted me to an upcoming non-event in which people will not do things in order to save energy. It's a "Weekend Without Oil." Such a thing is impossible, unless you want to stand naked in the back yard without consuming a single thing except grass - provided you haven't used any petrochemical fertilizers or mowed it with a powered machine, of course. Oil is everywhere. It was once thought to be a boon to civilization until it became Gaia's version of original sin, but it is still quite useful. You could even say invaluable, if you wanted to start a fight.

Says the site:


On August 21st and 22nd, commit to these 11 actions!

To the barricades, comrades. Let us strive to smash the driving-dog petro-lackeys and their revanchist designs! Mind you, I have no problem with conservation; waste not, want not, and all that. I just don’t want to adopt a pre-industrial lifestyle. Here are the ACTIONS to which we must COMMIT.

Walk or ride your bike: Avoid using cars and if you must, always try to carpool.

Sorry, no. Saturday I go grocery shopping. I will not walk for six miles lugging gallon-bladders of milk.

Enjoy the outdoors: Avoid buying new sporting equipment, since oil makes up nearly 25% of rubber. Footballs or basketballs, for example, can last for many years and used equipment is often just as good and will reduce demand for oil needed to make new rubber.

Not planning on buying a new football, so I'm good there. In fact my rubber needs are mostly met for the foreseeable future.

Use reusable bags: Avoid disposable plastic. Plastic bags are a huge waste for very little benefit. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption, approximately 2 million barrels a day, is used to make plastic products alone.

That's a bit disingenuous. "Plastic" comprises a wide variety of objects with innumerable purposes. Question for the activists: how much do you want to see the plastic-manufacturing work-force reduced? Ten percent? Twenty?

My store also collects old plastic bags, and I was under the impression they were made from corn. Everything is made out of corn these days. GM's next car will be made out of corn and also run on corn, so if you run out of gas you can rip off a piece of the bumper and shove it in the tank.

Be conscious about what you eat that weekend: You can reduce oil demand by changing your diet to eat less meat, more local foods that require less transportation and organic food, which doesn't use petro-based fertilizers.

You know which restaurant is the most popular with neighborhood foodies, to use a term I hate? A sushi joint. Shouldn't sustainable-food people start picketing sushi bars? I'm pretty sure we don't raise a lot of kelp and crab in the city.

And so on. But didn't we just get through "Earth Hour" a few months ago? This group's big beef is with another breakthrough technology of the late 19th century, the electric light. And as with the "modern" dam busters and American Express, they've had at least one corporate endorsement as well:

And of course, in 2007, NBC, owned by General Electric, which makes, you know, electric lightbulbs -- urged its viewers to turn them off. They dimmed the lights on the set of their Sunday Night Football halftime show -- except of course for the sign behind the set from Toyota, the show's sponsor -- and the five billion watts of lighting at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles were playing the Cowboys that night.  (Video here.)