Last week, The Guardian reported that Europe is looking to Africa to serve part of its energy needs by basically turning the continent into one giant solar power plant.
Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East.
More than a hundred of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to European Union member nations, including Britain.
Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.
Of course, one is compelled to wonder here what would happen if Africa provided Europe with all of its electricity?
Most likely that won't happen; no European country would want to subject their whole energy security to regional volatility. However, one could imagine a fairly optimistic scenario wherein this energy cooperation would provide a stabilizing force to unstable states, help cure both continents' post-colonial hangover, counteract China's growing geopolitical influence in the region — and all the while reducing carbon emissions to zero.
But, as always, what we are immediately most interested in is this: in what ways would this energy pact be physically manifested in Africa?
As but one illustration of how energy consumption is spatialized, there is the so-called mountaintop mining, whereby whole mountains are leveled off, literally grounded down, to get at coal deposits instead of using tunnels. The erased geology would then be dumped nearby, chocking streams and old growth forests.
In one of the best (and certainly longest) articles on the subject that we have ever come across, Eric Reece, in Harpers Magazine, writes:
Where once there were jagged forested ridgelines, now there is only a series of plateaus, staggered grey shelves where grass struggles to grow in crushed rock and shale. When visitors to eastern Kentucky first see the effects of this kind of mining, they often say the landscape looks like the Southwest - a harsh tableland interrupted by steep mesas.
In other words, heating up your ex-urbian McMansion is right now turning Appalachia into Arizona and New Mexico.
One can easily picture Julie Bargmann and her D.I.R.T. Studio, like ambulance chasers circling a scene of devastation, salivating over photos of negative mountains, scheming away at plans to reclaim them from destruction, waiting for that commission.
Unless, of course, Alan Berger and his Project for Reclamation Excellence (P-REX) don't beat them to the job.
But returning back to our question: what will Google Earth tourists see when they point their vigilant eyes towards an electrified North Africa? Will they come upon vast plantations of coronal fields, perfect geometries arrayed in similarly perfect arrangement, irrespective of terrain but nevertheless finely attuned to the sky? Pure form, pure function coexisting without contradiction.
And what about the people on the ground? Where once was desert, might they now enjoy newly sprouted oases fed with water from solar-powered desalination plants?
An Emerald Necklace of Olmstedian design inscribed in the Saharan landscape.
Will foreigners descend en mass to undertake a Bowlesian journey, trekking from one incomprehensible terrain to another equally unfathomable recess of the desert, utterly unprepared for the otherness of it all but obviously so seduced that they travel on, even while in the grips of dysentery, losing themselves psychologically and literally to the sands? All bearings and comfort are lost.
And then just as things couldn't get any stranger, they will come upon a stand of solar updraft towers; there are hundreds of them, possibly thousands, forming a kind of arid rainforest mechanically evapotranspirating.
But in their parched and hallucinatory conditions these adventurers will mistake them for Persian tower tombs, divining the surrounding air into a vortex, the whirring blades resonating ghostly howls.