“Factories that work for Old Uncle Sam /
Run on the power of the Grand Coulee Dam”
-Woody Guthrie, “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”
Seventy-five years ago, folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a contract to write songs for the federal government. The recently created Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) needed to generate enthusiasm and support for massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River most notably for the Grand Coulee Dam. The Roosevelt administration envisioned the dams providing cheap electricity and irrigating farm land—creating “green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground” as Guthrie would put it.
To complete this assignment, Guthrie traveled through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and wrote 26 songs in a month’s time. Some of the songs were destined to be amongst his most well known such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Roll On, Columbia”; these are songs that would enter the folk music canon and the American psyche.
With the benefit of hindsight, Guthrie’s zealous support for the Grand Coulee Dam project has been the subject of some debate and much scrutiny: defended by some and condemned by others. In his recently released book 26 Songs in 30 Days, Greg Vandy writes:
“By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by Guthrie at the time.” (74)
But the explanation for Guthrie’s support is quite simple. The project aligned incredibly well with his leftist politics. As Vandy explains, from Guthrie’s perspective “the dams were the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people” (76). In short, “the dam project was [Guthrie’s] idea of democratic socialism realized” (89). It was capital-p Progress.
We never arrived at Guthrie’s intended destination. Indeed, in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia River, Blaine Harden writes:
“The river was killed…and was reborn as plumbing. The place where this fateful murder and curious resurrection took place was up the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam.” (75)
Flash forward to the present.
Last August, a private company, Deepwater Wind (not to be confused with Deepwater Horizon), completed construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm—the Block Island Wind Farm—off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s scheduled to begin operating before the end of the year. The news was received with great enthusiasm amongst many environmentalists, liberals, and leftists.
Like the Grand Coulee Dam, it’s a massive project. The surface area of each individual blade is roughly equivalent to the surface area of a football field and the turbines themselves penetrate 200 feet into the sea floor. The turbines are nearly four miles offshore and stand 260 feet tall. There are only five turbines but this is widely considered a test run for much bigger operations.
Writing about wind power generally 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said: “We need a new aesthetic for the 21st century—one that looks at a turbine blade spinning as a sign that we’re finally getting our act together. I can’t think of anything lovelier than the breeze made visible.”
Regarding Block Island Wind Farm specifically, the Sierra Club enthusiastically explained: “Block Island isn’t just an offshore wind farm, it’s also a starting gun…the success at Block Island proves that investment in offshore wind is viable.”
A column in Grist states: “The potential for offshore wind power is enormous. The Department of Energy thinks offshore wind could one day deliver twice as much electricity as Americans used to keep the grid stable last year.”
The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds”
Unlimited power! To listen to the hype, it seems offshore wind could be the biggest thing man has ever done.
While not as lyrical as Guthrie, the Department of Energy explains that “offshore wind technologies…can capture wind resources”. The technology is introduced and sold as a way to combat global climate change and quickly becomes about “unlimited power” and capturing resources. It’s the very same process that transformed the Columbia River from a wild, living river into mere plumbing. Instead of commanding humanity’s respect it now takes humanity’s commands. It became something to be harnessed just as there is now talk of harnessing the wind.
Guthrie’s song “Grand Coulee Dam” makes the point explicit:
“Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea /
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”