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How Language Is Shaping the Solar Energy Debate

Why are certain words weaponized in a passionate public argument like the one playing out over Shepherd’s Run in Copake?

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The roads of my hometown of Copake these days feel like a gauntlet of shouting voices. Lawn signs exclaim: “500 acres of solar is too big for Copake” and exhort you to “Tell the Governor NO to industrial solar on rural farmland.” I’m co-chair of Friends of Columbia Solar, a group that supports the proposed solar farm—Shepherd’s Run—and my sign declares it “Great for Copake/Great for Climate.”

Credit: Susan Arterian

People give myriad reasons for opposing or supporting the project, from the urgency of climate action to the impact on birds. Leave that noisy debate aside for a moment. Instead, let’s ask why certain words get weaponized in a passionate public argument like this one, and how language and stories shape the debate.

“Industrial.” Industry processes raw materials and produces goods for sale. A solar farm processes sunlight and produces electricity, so the textbook definition seems apt. But dictionaries don’t capture the all-important connotations of a word: the pictures they create at the side of your mind. I close my eyes, imagine “industry,” and of course see belching smokestacks, assembly lines, chemicals gushing from pipes. Asked to tell a story about industry, many would talk of big corporations descending on small communities, making easy money, leaving the town to cope with the waste left behind. This story lives, in the substratum of our thoughts, because in many places and times it’s been true. One of the ironies of all these signs bemoaning industry is that Copake exists in part because of iron, a classic extractive industry. Pay a visit to the Church of St. John in the Wilderness and you can see a painting of Copake Falls in the 19th century: night has fallen, but a blast furnace blazes in the darkness, and sparks spout from grinding locomotive wheels. That was unmistakably industry, but it’s gone, leaving relic buildings and slag scattered through streams.

But the purpose of a solar array is to curtail pollution. It creates very little waste. To attach the word “industry” creates overtones that make no sense. Opponents stress that an “out of town corporation” is behind the project—true—but why does that matter? It matters as smart public relations, because it awakens that narrative about rapacious outsiders that we’ve all seen and heard so many times.

“Rural farmland.” I close my eyes and see cows, tall corn, and green fields. That’s the story I’ve been told, and an image that’s not hard to find in Copake. What I don’t see is the factory-produced chemical fertilizers that spur the growth of that corn, the pesticides and weed-killers that leak into groundwater, the heavy grazing that removes shade from streamsides, the wearing-out of the soil from over-production. Solar farms versus cow and corn farms: which is really more “industrial?”

The most land-intensive form of farming in Copake is an outfit that grows pines, maples, you name it, for sale to nurseries. Near-identical trees, lined up behind fences: could you call that industry? No, of course not, because the goods produced are plants, which process sunlight, which…wait a minute.

Nearly every object we use, from a toddler’s stuffed bear to an old man’s cane, is produced by some form of industry. Industry is not by its nature destructive or benign; it’s a process. Why not think our way behind the connotations of words, and ask: is this solar farm, on balance, harmful or helpful? What are the tradeoffs? Is building this one a wise choice, given the perils faced by planet Earth in 2021?

To attack a solar farm for being “industrial” is to use words not as precision tools but as sirens to trigger fear. It’s a style of argument dismayingly similar to the tactics used almost daily in Washington. President Biden’s infrastructure plan, for example, gets attacked not because it increases deficit spending or because it’s poorly targeted, but because it’s “socialism” or too “liberal.” Do those words still have any genuine meaning? Wielding them is not arguing but a parody of argument, not much different from the way I used to attack my little sister for being a “brat” or a “meanie.”

Suppose a group of people wanted to set controlled fires across hundreds of acres of Copake in order to encourage certain types of underbrush and clear ground. What kind of lawn signs would that provoke? But these planned burns are part of the deep history of the town, set not by outsiders, but by the ultimate insiders: the Mohican Indians. Indians! What images and stories does that word provoke? Stewards of the land? Protectors of the natural order? Sure, but…walls of flame, pillars of smoke? Sounds a bit “industrial,” no? Yet evidence shows their burning was a careful and sustainable manipulation of the landscape.

We live today in an environment partially shaped by those fires. So if their torching was industry in the very broad sense of “managing and shaping nature,” then perhaps the Mohicans are an example to follow now, an example of  steady and wise use of resources. Call it what it is.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.