On a bat-streaked evening in April, I found myself on a bridge over the Colorado River, just outside Moab, holding a bright sign, contemplating the twilight of the fossil fuel age and the darkness of celebrity environmentalism.
I was tired and sunburned, having arrived there after an eight-day float trip through Desolation Canyon with the activist John Weisheit. For the better part of the last 10 years, Weisheit has led the fight against tar sands mining and gas development on the plateaus above Desolation. In the sublime silence of the mile-deep canyon we had discussed, in no particular order, the Colorado River Basin's water crisis, the legacy of David Brower, the end of industrial civilization, the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam, and the mendacity of big environmental groups. Rowing through a riffle in one of Desolation’s deep amphitheaters, the irascible Weisheit – one of a dwindling class of environmentalists who leads from the wilderness – said many D.C. groups had lost sight of the fundamentals, namely the lands they were enlisted to protect. “It’s all about the Democratic party line and fundraising these days. It’s all about the ‘scene,’ ” he said.
When we got back to Moab, where Weisheit lives, the town had been transformed into a parade of automobiles – classic muscle cars, low-rider sedans accented with neon lights, rusty rat rods. The belching procession of the annual Moab Car Show cruised the main drag before onlookers seated in plastic lawn chairs.
We retreated to Weisheit’s small house (and headquarters of his grassroots advocacy group, Living Rivers) on the outskirts of town, safely removed from the orgy of combustion. We unloaded gear from the raft hitched to Weisheit’s rust-eaten late-70s Land Cruiser, and were hosing down the boat when Laurel Hagen, Weisheit’s colleague and executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, who had also rafted with us, received a call from a member of a local environmental group who was organizing a rally later that evening against tar sands mining on the Tavaputs Plateau. It was to take place on a pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River. The caller wondered if Hagen knew anyone interested in attending, and offered a sweetener: The event was the brainchild of folk-rocker Neil Young and actress Daryl Hannah.
The two were driving cross-country shooting a documentary about the nation’s transition to clean energy. This “protest” would be a scene meant to show the ire rising over the domestic rush on fossil fuels sweeping the U.S. landscape. Unlike the V8s and V12s jostling for supremacy along Main Street, Young and Hannah’s mode of transport was the “LincVolt,” a 1959 Lincoln Continental powered by a four-cylinder hybrid engine that combusts cellulosic ethanol, a fuel derived from non-digestible material found in wood, leaves and stems of green plants. (A gallon of cellulosic ethanol emits 86 percent less greenhouse gasses than conventional gasoline and 69 percent less than corn-based ethanol.) In addition to the climate benefits, a wide scale conversion to cellulosic ethanol-burning hybrid engines, Young believes, could jumpstart U.S. manufacturing and “Repower the American Dream.”
Though the whole thing seemed little more than a PR stunt, Hagen agreed to round up a few participants. She turned politely (and slightly apologetically) to me and my fellow raft trippers – photographer and mountaineer Jonathan Byers, and ecologist Joseph Leyda – and asked if we were interested. We laughed giddily. A wry smile came across Byers’s face. “Hell yes,” he replied. I secretly hoped that, in spite of its modifications, LincVolt still had enough trunk space to house Old Black.
I had a journalistic motivation, too. After listening to Weisheit decry public apathy, ignorance and limited funding – conditions that bedevil many a small grassroots environmental group – I thought the rally might provide a telling contrast, a glimpse of how celebrity environmentalists wield their fame. We asked Weisheit to join us. He laughed. "You guys have fun," he said. "I'll stay here and clean the groover."
When we arrived at the bridge later that evening, we met the event’s organizer, a short, intense woman with dark, curly hair and piercing blue eyes named Celia Alario. The plan, she explained, was to hoist an illuminated sign reading NO TAR SANDS and give the camera crew an outburst of eco-ire befitting an actual rally and not, you know, whatever this was.
Young would then get out of the car, stride out to the protestors, and discuss the evils of big oil and the dangers of tar sands mining. (Never mind that he’d be lecturing to members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Peaceful Uprising, two groups leading the battle against Utah tar sands mining. It was his documentary after all.) Alario explained that she knew “Daryl” personally, having worked with her on a biodiesel campaign in Los Angeles a few years earlier. She she did not know “Neil,” but insisted he was a tireless promoter of clean energy.
Tar sands mining, like fracking, has become a hot button issue. The issue has intensified with protests over the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if completed, would send a surge of tar sands crude from the boreal forests of Canada to refineries in the Midwest and Texas. But what’s going on in Alberta is not a perfect analogy for what’s poised to happen in Utah. I asked Alario if she thought Young understood the key differences between bitumen mining in Canada and here in Utah, namely the aridity of the Tavaputs and the stubborn nature of Utah’s “oil wet” tar sands, which makes the tar much more difficult to extract from the sand particles to which they’re attached. I asked if Young would also talk about the major gas drilling underway on the Tavaputs, or possible exploration of the much larger oil shale deposits among which these relatively small tar sands deposits are scattered. “Oh yes,” she said. “He’s very knowledgeable. You’ll see.”
The crowd was small, no more than 20 protestors. People talked quietly as the bats began to flit overhead, and I wondered if this listless assemblage was worthy of the lyricist who gave us Powderfinger. The crowd's energy rose a little when a man climbed on one of the bridge’s high rails, performing a tightrope act 30 or 40 feet above the Colorado as a tour boat glided below, its occupants looking up in rapt confusion.
I thought back to last October, when at the annual Oil Shale Symposium held at the Colorado School of Mines, I listened as Samantha Julian, a spokesperson for Republican Utah governor Gary Hebert’s Office of Energy Development, dismissed with a single rhetorical swipe a series of protests against tar sands mining that had taken place in previous months at the Utah state capitol. “All the activists are being flown in from California,” she said, reassuring her audience of oil shale and tar sands engineers, marketers and CEOs that Utah was indeed “open for business.”
The word “California,” as Julian used it, was less of a geographical reference than political code denoting “liberal,” “elitist,” and, most potently, “Hollywood.” In spite of the falsehood of Julian’s statement, standing in the middle of the bridge waiting for the cue to “protest,” I felt like little more than a groupie, and saw sad confirmation of a favorite Conservative talking point: Environmentalists are out-of-touch, rich liberal Hollywood elites who want to tell you how to live your life.
Celebrity does not automatically disqualify one from smart advocacy. Actor and upstate New York resident Mark Ruffalo has proven a sincere and sophisticated critic of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale. Robert Redford has emerged as an able commentator on climate change. Young has given time and money numerous worthwhile causes, notably to organizations working on cerebral palsy, which his sons Zeke and Ben both suffer from, giving him a unique vantage on the ravages of the disease.
But Young’s activism around fossil fuels and climate change is superficial at best, seemingly built around a selfish desire to continue driving aircraft carrier-sized classic cars, guilt-free, into the sunset. Does he really believe a mass shift to cellulosic ethanol is the solution to America’s ailing manufacturing industry, and the foil to tar sands mining and global warming? No technology yet exists to produce cellulosic ethanol in mass quantities. Even if it did, a large-scale transition would require planting vast swaths of switchgrass or other high-cellulose crops for raw material. And while all this is being sorted out, development of a fleet of LincVolt-style hybrids would surely spur demand for corn-based ethanol, a fuel with a carbon footprint comparable to gasoline and a distorting effect on global food markets. And as we’re learning with natural gas, so-called “bridge fuels” like these produce new political constituencies that often oppose the transition to still cleaner technologies such as wind and solar.
At a more basic level, cellulosic ethanol still involves combustion. Perhaps it emits fewer GHGs per gallon than conventional gas. But we’ve entered unprecedented terrain in terms of atmospheric concentrations of carbon. A serious solution to the climate crisis would involve building engines that eliminate carbon emissions altogether. Why not get behind the electric motor, a technology that exists within the LincVolt itself – albeit subordinated to the sparkplug and piston?
When word came that the LincVolt was near, the protestors were each given a piece of white pegboard covered in purple LED lights made into the shape of an individual letter. Alario told us to get in position and we did a practice run, holding our signs between the bridge’s girders. At first, I found it strange that we faced up canyon, away from the traffic on US 191, Moab’s main thoroughfare. But public visibility wasn’t the point. It was the on-camera “scene” that was important, the tableau of resistance, the purple message of defiance against the backdrop of red sandstone.
There were some kinks. The message, for instance, was backwards. We reversed our positions to make the letters make sense. "NO TAR SANDS," they beamed. Then we saw the vessel, its occupants tucked together like lovers. Neil and Daryl had arrived with an entourage consisting of a cameraman and gear-wielding assistants. We assumed our positions as the Lincoln performed a slow U-turn. There were half-hearted chants of, “No more tar sands,” and, “Save our desert,” and frenzied requests for "more volume” and “more energy" from a Cockney-accented cameraman.
The vehicle rolled to a stop with barely a sound. A scarecrow-like figure under a wide-brimmed hat rose from the driver’s seat and faced the congregation, jutting his fists in the air. In that familiar reedy voice he exclaimed, "You're beautiful!" A blond woman swaddled in sheer white scarves sat beside him, mummy-like, unmoving.
And that was it. No speech. No guitar. With those two words, the stars escaped into the night. We sat silent, our flashy signs hung low at our sides. The car turned right and charged up canyon, vaguely in the direction of Park City.
Photos by Jonathan Byers.
Jeremy Miller is a High Country News contributing editor.