They’re Deserts, but They’re Not Deserted

Iman Hamid shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

A friend of mine recently shared a 2014 Onion article titled “Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology Ready To Go Whenever.” It was funny, if a bit over-simplified. This jibe at the world’s slow embrace of renewable energy sparked a debate on my friend’s post. Someone noted that renewable energy technology is inefficient and still has negative environmental impacts. Two others immediately jumped on the offensive, stating that there are no negative impacts to building solar panels in deserts because they are empty. These comments gave me pause—though the desert may not seem livable from a human perspective, to call them “empty” in an attempt to prove that building solar panels in the desert will have no negative effects is as irresponsible as purporting that human dependence on fossil fuels does not impact climate change.

This online exchange (that quickly got heated—as online arguments typically do), sparked an internal debate of my own. A transition to primarily renewable sources will likely result in long-term benefits by providing economically sustainable energy to the human population. Utilization of renewable energy will also assist in the mitigation of anthropogenic impacts (climate change, habitat exploitation, etc.) which continue to cause drastic habitat and biodiversity loss. However, there are ethical concerns to consider when planning the development of renewable energy infrastructure. Ethical concerns usually dissolve to one deceptively simple question: what is the best for the greater good? I decided to address these considerations from an anthropocentric point of view, as well as three ethical extensionisms: zoocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism. I employed the construction of solar panels in the Mojave Desert as a specific case study to gain a realistic application of my ethical musings.

Recently, there have been plans to build solar energy facilities in the southwestern US (mostly desert habitat) which has a particularly high potential for solar energy. It is important to note that solar panel development, like all infrastructure, does have lasting environmental impacts. Additionally, desert habitats are particularly fragile, easily scarred, and heal slowly; therefore, small disturbances have large and long-lasting impacts in the desert. Moreover, desert habitats—contrary to their name—are not deserted. Deserts are biomes, and they boast plenty of biodiversity, just like other biomes. In the Mojave, there are over two thousand plant species—including the prominent endemic species, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). The Mojave is also home to many reptiles, small and large mammals, arthropods, and even a few amphibian species. Included in these flora and fauna are multiple of state and federal concern (e.g. Gopherus agassizii, Uma inornata, Phrynosoma mcallii, to name a few). Establishing solar energy facilities in previously undisturbed desert habitats will have adverse effects on local species. There is not much peer-reviewed research on the environmental impacts of solar development in the US desert habitat and examining these impacts is vital to our evaluation of development proposals.

First, I considered the ethical question of developing solar power plants in the Mojave through an anthropocentric point of view. Anthropocentrism is the human-centered philosophy that places humans as the sole recipients of moral protection. From this point of view, it is our obligation to develop renewable energy resources for the sake of providing sustainable energy for the persistence of human progress. Therefore, because the desert has high potential for solar power, building solar plants in the Mojave would be the ethical choice. My cousin recently traveled to Lone Pine, CA (a desert locale), and the locals told her that they fought heartily for implementation of solar panels in their community. Lone Pine has higher than average electricity costs, and embracing solar energy would effectively lower long-term costs for that area. Here, the human benefits of solar energy are clear. From an anthropocentric point of view, building solar panels in desert communities is ethical.

That said, anthropocentrism caused the energy, climate, and environmental crisis in the first place. Exploitation of nature for its instrumental value is part of our checkered history as inhabitants of this planet. Anthropocentrism is a shallow viewpoint and is unsustainable; we cannot continue to make choices solely for the benefit of human advancement while ignoring the fact that we are outsiders parachuting into the habitats of other organisms. The “responsibility to protect” is a philosophy which holds that we, as creatures with intelligence, have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us. Usually, this philosophy is applied to our behavior towards fellow humans; however, we can extend this “responsibility to protect” to non-human entities. Then, it would be incumbent on humans towards the environment to protect the most vulnerable organisms to the best of our ability.

In order to consider the ethics of solar panel production in the Mojave as it pertains to non-human entities, we would need to broaden the scope of our moral obligations. One of these ethical extensionisms is zoocentrism, which is an ethical philosophy that extends moral protection to animals. This point of view focuses mainly on animals which are perceived as being conscious—so within the Mojave desert, a zoocentric point of view would argue for the environmental protection of the Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), for example, but not the Badwater snail (Assiminea infima). Using zoocentrism, solar panel infrastructure in the Mojave would be ethically acceptable so long as it doesn’t disturb higher vertebrates. Mitigating solutions would include leaving migration corridors and relocating those vertebrates. However, in addition to ignoring “lower vertebrates,” a zoocentric point of view also ignores other organisms, including plant species of state and federal concern within the Mojave.

In order to extend moral consideration to all life, one would take a biocentric point of view. Biocentrism is a life-centered ethical philosophy, holding all life sacred—not just conscious life. Let’s consider the Joshua tree—it is endemic to and widespread in the Mojave, but its range is predicted to be heavily impacted by climate change. Therefore, switching to renewable resources like solar energy should theoretically be beneficial for the protection of the Joshua tree as it will help abate human-caused climate change and its impacts on the Joshua tree. However, building solar panel infrastructure in the Joshua tree’s only natural habitat will invariably affect the health of this species through habitat destruction, shifting sands, and potentially the blockage of sunlight available to the plant. There are other ways to implement solar energy without building solar panels in the desert, but we must consider what is best for the greater good; that is, we must do what is best for all life on this planet, not just the Joshua tree.

A final ethical extensionism is ecocentrism which values ecosystems as an integrated whole rather than a sum of individual parts; therefore an entire ecosystem deserves moral protection. From this perspective, disrupting any part of the fragile and easily-scarred desert ecosystem is an ethical transgression and must be considered carefully. Simply relocating endangered animals or building small migration corridors would not be enough to protect the integrity of the Mojave Desert ecosystems. This, however, raises the question: do we protect the ecosystems of the Mojave Desert because they each have value as wholes, or do we protect the Earth by any means possible because it has value as a whole?

Last year, I traveled to the Mojave Desert for a field herpetology project. One of the comments my professor made in passing was about recent proposals to build a solar power farm in the Mojave, right in the middle of prime reptile habitat. He pointed out that that in addition to the obvious negative impacts of solar development in reptile habitat (destruction, pollution, accidental fatalities, etc), there are also genetic impacts that result from habitat modification and fragmentation. Building the solar farm in these reptiles’ habitat disrupts migration and gene flow, leading to decreases in population health and long-term impacts on the evolution of those species, including extirpation or extinction. My professor then made an interesting point: building solar panels in the Mojave is a trade-off; you choose to lose a few species for the potential to save millions of species sometime down the line.

Biocentrism and ecocentrism present a similar ethical quandary: building solar panels in the Mojave desert can ultimately save millions of species and the integrity of many ecosystems but risks the relatively immediate loss of a few. Climate change and biodiversity loss are largely human-caused. Therefore, it is our responsibility to slow the effects with mitigating solutions. Is it more ethically sound to sacrifice a few species in the Mojave or entire Mojave ecosystems, for the ultimate protection of many more species and the Earth as a whole? Addressing this from the normative ethical theory of consequentialism (wherein we make ethical decisions based solely on the consequences), it is worse to not do enough to save those many species than it is to actively choose to risk a few.

This is not an easy question to answer, and there is no 100% correct solution. The potential benefits of renewable energy is unquestionable for human advancement as well as for the conservation of a large percentage of animals, all organisms, and entire ecosystems. However, traipsing around and implementing technological advancements without deep thought about the ethical issues is what led us to an environmental crisis, so thinking carefully and addressing the ethical considerations that apply to the development of solar panels in the Mojave desert (and extending this thought to all renewable energy facilities) is important so that we may plan the protection and preservation of our planet’s integrity while also avoiding a repeat of the anthropocentric mistakes of our past. At the very least, simply acknowledging the environmental impacts of whichever choice we make is better than stating irresponsibly that renewable energy technology has no negative effects on the environment and vulnerable species.