Is it heroic to challenge the power and influence of corporate giants like Enviva and Drax? Or simply naïve?
Seeing the catchy phrase “Drax the Destroyer” printed on biomass protest signs across the world, I instantly envisioned the famous fictional character by the same name, a six-foot-four colossus from Marvel whose powers include enhanced strength, energy blasts, and a proclivity for battle.
But the protests really refer to the UK company Drax. Under the guise of “carbon neutrality,” it produces biomass, or wood pellets, to burn for energy. Woody biomass is often harvested from forests in the Southeastern United States, then shipped overseas to the UK, Europe and Asia to be burned, emitting more carbon dioxide than coal. Although it’s a bit complicated why such an industry that is neither climate neutral nor sustainable can be thriving, I wrote a short intro to the perils of woody biomass earlier. And the Rachel Carson Council, in its widely-praised reports Clear Cut and Bad Business, has written extensively about the harm and illogicality of burning biomass, which has to be propped up by subsidies and tax breaks.
In perpetuating the burning of biomass, Drax is indeed a Destroyer—of forests, of scientific accuracy in carbon accounting, and of public faith in legitimate renewable energy targets.
Community and nonprofit environmental groups work tirelessly to expose the industry’s falsehoods. But much like the colossal Drax himself, the wood pellet industry fights back. Though Drax promises to avoid deforestation in its sourcing, satellite imagery confirms otherwise. The company receives more than £2 million (about $2.5 million in U.S. dollars) in government subsidies daily. Its fellow industrial giant, the U.S.-based Enviva company, has received over $7 million in state incentives alone since 2014 as it plans to expand further into environmental justice communities in North Carolina (other expansion plans include turning North Carolina’s “extensive forests” into airline fuel. This is where, as a young environmentalist, my stomach turns.
The U.S. EPA’s response has been lacking, and in September, the European Parliament voted to keep biomass designated as a “renewable energy,” despite public opposition.
Environmental activists often reach a cynical point when we start asking the questions we’ve long avoided. Why am I doing this? What’s the point? When enough nay-sayers and opponents (who don’t understand collective action) tell you that petitions, comments, and signs aren’t going to do anything, it starts to feel that way. For every action, there is an equal and opposite disheartening headline. There are quiet nights spent in front of a computer mulling over the dark thoughts of activism: There’s too much money on the other side. They’ll do anything to win. Am I shouting into the void?
Overcoming these doubts requires grounding the mind in resistance itself. “Despite public opposition.” Victory or not, those words are a stronghold. As odd as it sounds to reduce the work of frontline environmental community activists into “public opposition,” that opposition is often the last line of defense between polluters and poor communities.
Imagine a world without public opposition to biomass. We’d be tricked into thinking we’re “going green” every day by clear-cutting 49 million acres of Southern woods. Anytime I’m mocked for raising hell over such an issue, I respond with this simple statement: You might think it’s easy to dismiss angry, sign-waving protests in the street with a simple shrug…until it’s your community at stake.
Anti-biomass organizations have been victorious in recent years. October 21st marked the International Day of Action on Big Biomass, when organizations from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and across the world called on their governments to curb the rapid expansion of the biomass industry. This sort of public action inspires nations—the Netherlands, for example— to stop subsidizing companies like Enviva altogether. Government officials like Britain’s business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng have questioned the sustainability and logic of biomass, after which Drax’s share price fell 10% and investors were urged to sell (also citing “pressure from environmental groups.”
On the local scale of the eastern U.S., victories from frontline communities resound ever louder. State officials revoked the permit for a controversial biomass plant in Springfield, Massachusetts, noting the “strong opposition” from Springfield communities. In 2014, communities in Northampton, North Carolina, indefinitely postponed the rezoning of an Enviva area to ‘heavy’ industrial status by organizing over 300 residents to send a petition protesting such a “sacrifice zone.” Recently, Drax has faced $5.7 million in penalties for violating air permits at Louisiana and Mississippi sites—violations that were flagged by advocacy coalitions like the Southern Forests Climate Coalition.
As we continue to square up against Drax the Destroyer, the “David and Goliath” metaphor comes to mind. In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell reinvents that metaphor. “Giants are not what we think they are,” he writes. “The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
The biomass industry’s profit-hunger is making them monolithic. Their “green” homilies are growing staler every year. We see that, from singlehanded defenses of endangered species to the testimonies of Black and Brown activists defending human health, local communities will always possess strengths and talents that industry spokespeople simply won’t. Paid spokespeople are finding that they cannot nullify the life experience of frontline activists. And, unlike David, activists do not face Goliath alone.
Environmentalists act on the foundational legacy of every environmentalist before us, making as much noise as possible calling forth the spirits of Lois Gibbs, Wangari Maathai, and Rachel Carson. I doubt any of them hesitated to challenge Goliath.
In Gladwell’s words, “Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of (these) one-sided conflicts. Because the act of facing overwhelming odds, produces greatness and beauty.”
Impossible, even foolish, as it may seem to face the biomass industry—let alone win—it is a beautiful thing to defend the truth.
Ready to take on the impossible? You won’t be alone.
— Joy Reeves
RCC Presidential Fellow – Joy Reeves
RCC Presidential Fellow Joy Reeves is a Duke University student from Frederick, Maryland, pursuing a Master of Environmental Management degree. Reeve’s environmental comic series features superwoman Heliora. She is the author of Growing Up in the Grass Roots (New Degree Press 2020).
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