I am not a desert person. I love water above all things — be it on a pelagic, or along a river, or tromping through the much in a brackish swamp. That said, I have always been aware of, and fascinated by, the vast desert regions of the American Southwest. Almost certainly it was book that tipped me off, or a show in PBS perhaps. At any rate, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that the desert was a rich and fascinating place.

Most people, it seems, don’t know that. The use desert as a synonym for empty or impoverished: “food desert”, “desertification”. This is not at all dissimilar to the way that the word wilderness itself was used by early European invaders on this continent – the phrase ‘howling wilderness’, now rarely heard, denoted the same sort of space that could only be improved by the most drastic interference. Since then, we have learned better when it comes to wilderness. Not so much when it comes to desert.

Via Chris Clarke, I have been following with some trepidation the controversy over solar energy in the Mojave desert. In this place, the word desert has been overlaid on reality and used to make a bad decision: namely, the wrecking of pristine, rather than degraded, habitat for development. That the development in question is the construction of solar panels rather than malls and condos is but small consolation for the species to be displaced.

It is easy to forget what energy is. It is never free. It is always accompanied by the destruction of matter, or by the loss of energy transition from one form to another. Solar is a vast improvement over what we have now, but is not a panacea, because there is no panacea. At the very least, we surely have a responsibility to know what we are compromising, what we are choosing. Defining our words poorly does not help with that.

ETA: As I write this, I see another example of solar development with the potential to destroy habitat that birders may well be interested in.