Green Illusions: Climate Change Makes More Demands Than We Thought

Truthout Interview (by Steve Horn) with Ozzie Zehner

The interview originally appeared at
Following the interview find a presentation of some of the reactions to Zehner’s ideas.

Every day, the news about climate change and the harms that are sure to accompany it gets worse and worse. To many environmentalists, the answer is simple: power shift. That is, shift from fossil fuels to clean, green, renewable, alternative energy. Well-meaning concerned citizens and activists have jumped on the bandwagon.

The problem with this simple solution: Things aren’t as simple as they seem, and “there’s actually no such thing as a free lunch” when it comes to energy consumption and production. Further, what we’re often sold as “green” and “clean” is actually neither. In the spirit of these inconvenient truths came a timely and provocative book, perhaps missed by many, titled, “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” by Ozzie Zehner.

As Zehner writes in the book’s opening pages, “…this certainly isn’t a book for alternative energy. Neither is it a book against it. In fact, we won’t be talking in simplistic terms of for or against, left and right, good and evil … Ultimately, this is a book of shades.” The book does show some of the “shady” sides of the clean energy hype and in so doing, dampens the hype around it.

Having recently read the book myself, I decided to contact Ozzie and ask him follow-up questions. Below is a transcript of our email conversation, which unfolded over the past few months.

Steve Horn for Truthout: If you had to give an elevator pitch to someone about what’s wrong with the current US environmental movement, what would you say and why?

Ozzie Zehner: I would say that the environmental movement has relegated itself to cheerleading and mindless chants and that it’s time for us to step away from the pom-poms. I encounter a boundless enthusiasm for creating positive change when holding dialogues with environmental groups. Unfortunately, the mainstream environmental movement is channeling that energy into an increasingly corporatist, and what I call a “productivist,” set of priorities.

Now I admit, it’s difficult to say we’ve ever had a truly transformational environmental movement, but if you go back 50 years, activists were at least on a far better path. Prominent environmentalists were living modestly, challenging dominant economic assumptions, and imagining durable strategies for human prosperity that were more in tune with the non-human planet. That humility has largely eroded.

The modern environmental movement has rolled over to become an outlet for loggers, energy firms and car companies to plug into. It is now primarily a social media platform for consumerism, growth and energy production – an institutionalized philanderer of green illusions. If you need evidence, just go to any climate rally and you’ll see a strip mall of stands for green products, green jobs and green energy. These will do nothing to solve the crisis we face, which is not an energy crisis but rather a crisis of consumption.

Can wind/solar ever actually replace the fossils or is that the wrong way to think about the energy/climate conversation to begin with? If so, what are some of the right ways to start thinking about this conversation and what can be done to salvage what looks to be increasingly horrific runaway climate change?

There is an impression that we have a choice between fossil fuels and clean energy technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines. That choice is an illusion. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels for mining operations, fabrication plants, installation, ongoing maintenance and decommissioning. Also, due to the irregular output of wind and solar, these technologies require fossil fuel plants to be running alongside them at all times. Most significantly, alternative energy financing relies on the kind of growth that fossil fuels drive.

Take, for instance, President Obama’s new Energy Security Trust. It aims to expand offshore oil-drilling operations in order to provide a tax base for alternative energy technologies, which will in turn lead to economic growth. The irony in the President’s proposal is that it exposes how alternative technologies rely on economic arrangements that are themselves reliant on fossil fuels. And, if they work as advertised, these energy technologies will spur the kind of growth that will increase pressure to extract and burn fossil fuels well into the future.

There’s a misconception that once alternative energy technologies get off the ground, they can fly on their own. But alternative energy technologies are better understood as a product of fossil fuels. It’s notably more expensive to build a wind turbine today than it was a decade ago. Biofuels rely on petrochemical fertilizers and energy-intensive agriculture. And even though subsidies are driving a perceived rapid drop in solar technology costs, the larger expense of an installed solar system lies in installation, cleaning, repair, insurance and other low-tech costs, according to the largest database of field data from California.

The high cost of wind and solar technologies brings to light the fossil fuels behind the curtain. If we want to address climate change and the many other consequences of energy production, there’s no evidence that lower energy costs and growth are a step in the right direction. The answer is straightforward, really. We’ll need to greatly reduce both consumption and the number of people consuming over time.

You mention “productivist” and “corporatist” both here and in your book. By that do you mean neoliberal? Is the problem that the current green movement, if you want to call it that, has little understanding of the fundamentals of the current socio-economic order?

Neoliberalism, the idea that unfettered markets of privatized resources leads to prosperity, is just one human arrangement that falls under the larger umbrella of productivism. It’s tempting to simply focus on critiquing markets and wealth accumulation.

There are many injustices in that realm, to be sure. But we might also talk about human procreation, the work ethic, alternative energy production, or numerous other productivist pursuits. Within these narratives runs a common theme – that which is produced is good, and those who produce it should be rewarded. This creates problems on a finite planet, to put it mildly.

Our planet has bounded resources and limited ability to absorb the impacts of human activities. Challenging the dominant neoliberal model can help to justly share those resources and risks. However, the precarious stories around growth and productivism are larger than just neoliberalism or capitalism.

Libertarians and Tea Partiers subscribe to the free-growth mindset, but so do Democrats and Republicans. Even Greens and Socialists are not immune to the seductive language of productivism. I know of one political candidate in the US who has run on a platform of slowing down the machine in order to preserve long-term prosperity only: Dave Gardner, who ran for mayor of Colorado Springs and directed a movie about it called Growthbusters.

We’ve seen material growth and prosperity walking hand-in-hand for so long that we don’t know what they look like separately. That will have to change. Perhaps we’d better reorient, or at least recognize, our productivist inclinations now. Otherwise, Mother Nature may force us to reckon with our unsustainable belief systems in a less agreeable fashion.

Guy McPhersen uses the term “fossil fuel derivatives,” which fits into your assessment. Is that a better way of framing the debate: fossil fuels vs. fossil fuel derivatives? There is no “clean energy” then, right? Any “silver bullet” fuel source, or is the “silver bullet” creating a different world?

The silver bullet is to envision a prosperous, yet smaller and less-consuming populous. In the modern energy system, alternative energy ends up