Review Comments on “Bright Green Lies” by Gordon Kight
Review by Gordon Kubanek, P.Eng., CACOR Board member, Third Order Franciscan
An inner struggle of mine that I have put to sleep was awoken recently during the recent CACOR presentation by Alan Jones entitled “The perfect storm: Canada’s future in peril”. In it he made the case that the current supply of metals cannot meet the demand required to create a “sustainable & renewable green economy/energy system”. For example he said: “All easy-to-find mineral deposits have been found, and global demand is fast outstripping supply for all essential metals, despite all recycling scenarios. As one example, this year the demand for lithium will be greater than the supply, causing a throttling of the explosive growth of uptake of lithium batteries used in all sorts of applications.” For many years now I have found myself caught between by pragmatic but cynical friends who see green living and green technologies as so much fantasy and my Franciscan, Green party idealists who ardently work and believe in all their hearts so that just need to change how we live and we treat each other [this includes animals/plants] and will be well in the world. Well, it seems that the book Bright Green Lies [and movie by the same title https://vimeo.com/346171480 ] has resolved this tension that I have felt. It basically goes like this:
“We want to have our cake and eat it, but we know we can’t. Yet we try to anyway.”
In other words, my pragmatic friends are right in that a simple switch to sustainable energy and sustainable living is not enough to solve our ills, AND, my idealist friends are also right in that we need to make fundamental changes or else we are “up the creek without a paddle”. The problem is, according to Bright Green Lies, that no “side” has realized how profound our challenge is and how deep the changes are that we need to make to allow life of Earth to thrive. The following comments explain the details of how the deeper problem is the very nature of our very industrial based civilization: its values, socio-economic-political structures – all of which mandate growth at all costs – otherwise it collapses. Thus, our real challenges are not merely technical, or even “going back to the land”, but trying to figure out how humanity can coexist with all the other species of life on Earth in this complex symbiotic relationship called Gaia by some, the web of life by others. The fact is we are only one species on the planet, and trying to solve “our” problem without considering all the other species upon which, like it or not, we are dependent upon, is not going to work. So, now that I have got you in a happy mood – take a read and watch the movie trailer if you so desire!
Review originated at https://www.resilience.
All technologies come laden with costs that are never factored in, including damage to the environment in producing the workings of machines and commodities. “No technology is neutral,” write the authors. From that inarguable first tenet, they go on the attack. Even so-called environmentalists, they argue, are human-centered, and building things such as solar energy cells and wind towers are ineffective stopgaps meant to maintain wealthy lifestyles with minimum inconvenience. The real object of saving the world should be…saving the world—the spotted owls, the fish, the “last scrap of forest,” etc. As long as the emphasis is on humankind and trying to salvage what remains of civilization, the environmental movement will be thwarted in its stated task of healing the planet of the wounds industrial civilization has inflicted. Many of the authors’ points are cogent and well taken: Renewable energy sources have yet to do much to power the world, and producing solar cells and wind towers requires numerous rare metals—lithium, cerium, neodymium, yttrium, and the like—that are environmentally destructive to secure and do not easily lend themselves to recycling. The authors dismiss the longing of futurists and engineers for “technologies that haven’t been invented yet”—though by other accounts, there is hope that such things as capturing the energy from tidal flows and deep-sea thermal vents may bear sustainable fruit. Unfortunately, the hectoring tone will likely repel more readers than draw them in. The authors are knowledgeable on many of the most significant issues we face, and there’s useful information here, especially for diligent activists. However, the authors’ tendency to yell at the choir and curtly dismiss any arguments advanced by “mainstream environmentalism” may dampen the appeal to general readers. A dour assessment of the current state of green technology.
Barnes: “People rarely question the solutions they are taught to embrace, but with all the world at stake we must start asking the right questions. There is a push for a 100% renewable world, and after the research I’ve done for this documentary, I want no part of it. I did not become an environmentalist to protect my way of life, or the civilisation in which I live. I did it because I am in love with life on this planet, and because the world I love is under assault. This film is for those whose allegiance is with the living world. Those who would do whatever it takes to defend it.”
Jensen: “You will have hundred of thousands of people marching in the streets of Washington, or New York, or Paris; and, if you ask those individuals ‘why are you marching?’, they will say, ‘we wanna save the planet’. And if you ask them for their demands they will say, ‘we want subsidies for the wind and solar industry’. That’s extraordinary. I can’t think of any time in history when any mass movement has been so completely captured, and turned into lobbyists for an industry.”
Keith: “The environmental movement used to be a very impassioned group of people who cared very deeply about the places we loved and the creatures we loved. What happened, though, in my lifetime, was that this movement which was so honourable and impassioned, it turned into something completely different. And now its about protecting a destructive way of life, while it destroys the creatures and the places we love. It’s all become, ‘how to we continue to fuel this destruction?’, as if the only problem was that we were using oil and gas.”
Wilbert: “The natural world isn’t really part of the conversation any more. Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Greenpeace, I was watching him being interviewed the other day. He was saying, ‘The planet’s going to survive, the oceans are going to survive, the forests are going to survive, it’s really about can we save ourselves or not’. And I just saw that and I’m thinking, what the hell are you saying?… This is someone who’s considered to be one of the top environmentalists in the world and he’s saying we don’t have to worry about the forests or the oceans? I mean, that just betrays a complete lack of empathy and connection to the natural world. I don’t know how you could possibly say that when we’re in the midst of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction, and it’s being caused by industrial culture. It’s being caused by the same institutions, the same economies, the same systems, the same raw materials, the same extractive mindset, that is being used for these renewable energy technologies.”
Environmentalism is a ‘class’ issue
My introduction to ‘environmentalism’ started before I’d seriously heard the word; growing up in a semi-rural working class family who grew their own food, kept chickens, and foraged. Likewise, coming into contact with ‘mainstream’ environmentalism in the mid-1980s introduced me to the concept of ‘bright green’9 before I’d heard that term either.
If there’s one general criticism I have (in part because the book, too, glosses over it), it is the failure to explore the class bias of environmentalism10. It is dominated by the middle class (and in UK, led by the upper-middle class); and so the economically ‘aspirational’ middle class values suffuse its agenda. That’s overlooked in the film.
That this movement should innately favour individualist materialist values11, over communal or spiritual ones, should therefore be of no surprise. That does not condemn these groups, or render them incapable12 of change. What it makes them do is reflect a narrow focus of both concerns and solutions13. More importantly, in a mass political society, it makes it difficult for them to have empathy with14 a large majority of the public – and that hampers their ability to make change.
That bias towards affluence15 informs their ideological values, which in turn have come to dominate contemporary environmentalism. As said in the film:
“Bright Green Environmentalism is founded on the notion that technology will solve environmental problems; and that you can, through 100% recycling, through wind and solar power, have an industrial economy that does not harm the planet. Deep ecology is the belief that we need to radically change the way society functions in order to be sustainable.”
The spectre of this early ideological differentiation has haunted the movement. Just as Keith outlines, for me it became evident around 1988 to 1990. Figures such as Jonathon Porritt16 and Sara Parkin17 sought to divest the movement of its ‘hairshirt’ image18, and put it on a ‘professional’ footing. As a self-acknowledged ‘fundo’ (the pejorative term used for deep green ‘fundamentalists’ in the Green Party at that time) that didn’t enthuse me one bit.
That ‘professionalised’ approach (for which, read compromise with neoliberal values) would slowly percolate through the movement over the next decade. And with it, the compromise that has stalled more radical responses to ecological issues ever since. That failure has, in part, only escalated these historic internal tensions – tensions that this film, almost certainly, will inflame.
First ‘green consumerism’, and then ‘sustainability’, foundered on the reality that the movement’s role as a ‘stakeholder’ in government and industry programmes produced little change. Today, the issue at the heart of this internecine contention is renewable energy – and whether it is a realistic response to the Climate Emergency, or just another distracting ruse.
I think this film is a good contribution to that contemporary debate. If only to make many people aware that this debate exists19, and so cause people to look at the academic research in more detail.
As Barnes succinctly put it: “We are told that we can have our cake and eat it too.” And yes, this really is all about cutting the ‘cake’ of affluence. But the film’s criticism of consumerism was couched in a generic “we”, and therein lies its failing.
When it comes to consumption it is not an issue of ‘we’. It is about how an extremely narrow social and economic elite exploit the majority by giving them the ‘illusion of affluence’20. Albeit one that is today precariously founded upon deepening debt and doubtful economics (a ‘deep’ issue21 in-and-of itself).
Oxfam, ‘Extreme Carbon inequality’, 2015
- The most affluent 10% of the global population24 (OK, that’s mostly us!) cause half the pollution;
- But even within these most affluent states, national inequality means wealthy households emit far more pollution25 than the poorest;
- Hence pollution is absolutely associated with economic inequality and consumption26; and,
- That this skew means the most affluent states must reduce consumption by perhaps 90%!27
In a situation where – both globally but also in the most polluting states – it is a minority which is causing these problems, that redefines its political ‘reality’ in different terms. To be fair, Barnes strays into this issue at points:
“The ocean is the foundation of life on this planet. The fact that we’re losing it at the rate we are is alarming. I think part of the reason we’re failing is that we ask what is politically possible more often than we ask what is necessary.”
Simple logic demands that this minority urgently change their lifestyle, lest the majority, threatened by ecological breakdown, seek to rest it from them. It is how they do this which is another live issue. Frankly, that’s not going too well right now:
Currently Western states are seeking to repress protests28 against the climate emergency, to forestall calls for more radical change;
While at the same time, billionaires create bunkers29 in remote locations to survive any future backlash from the dispossessed majority.
This creates a powerful incentive for the ‘impoverished majority’ to rest control away from the economic elite driving ecological breakdown.
The reality is, though, neither Greenpeace, WWF, nor even Extinction Rebellion, are likely to pick up that banner any time soon. Their failure to recognise affluence as a driver for ecological destruction negates their ability to act to stop it. Instead tokenistic measures, like renewable energy, supplant calls for meaningful systemic change.
Economics versus ecological limits
About half-way through, Max Wilbert elucidates a truth that doesn’t get nearly enough exposure:
“When people talk about 100% renewable energy transition to save the planet, to save civilisation, what they’re actually talking about is sustaining modern high-energy ways of life, at the expense of the natural world.”
I’m sure a number will recognize that from many of my previous workshops. In fact, I’ve just had a Facebook post blocked for, ‘violating community standards’. The offence? It linked to a summary of the research30 making this same point; and it’s not the first time that’s happened. It’s a touchy subject!
In 2005, my own book, ‘Energy Beyond Oil’31, visited many of the issues explored in the film/book. In far less detail though, as there was nowhere near the quantity of research evidence available back then. What that also highlights, though, is how over the interim: ‘Bright green’ environmentalism has been unable to comprehend32 the message from this new research; while at the same time deliberately deflecting people’s attention towards points of view which have a questionable basis33 for support.
On that point, I think Max Wilbert gives a most eloquent view for how mainstream environmentalism sold itself on the altar of green consumerism:
“They want us to believe that consumer choices are the only way we can change things. But if we accept that then it means that they’ve won, because we’re defining ourselves as consumers…
I have to buy things within this culture to survive, and that is not something that defines me or my power as an actor in this world. I would say much more fundamentally I am an animal. I have hands. I have feet. And I can walk places. And I can do things. And I have a voice. And I have the ability to speak with people and build a relationship with people. And I have the ability to organise. And I have the ability to fight if need be. These are all much more important than my ability to buy or not buy something.”
Since ‘Planet of the Humans’, many on the ‘bright green’ side of the aisle have learned a lesson. Their hysterical condemnation of the film, to the point of calling for it to be banned, only served to feed it greater publicity, ensuring more would see it.
Their lack of response this time is perhaps also due to how well the film exposes the fragility of their arguments. One of the bright points in the film was the way in which ‘deep green’ criticisms were dovetailed alongside interviews with those they criticized – amplifying the substance of the disagreement between each side.
I think my favourite was the segment on Richard York’s research34, showing that growing renewable energy actually displaces a very minimal level of fossil fuels. When York’s point was put to David Suzuki, his reply, which I too have often received, was, ”So what is the conclusion form an analysis like that, we shouldn’t do anything?”
The film brilliantly explodes this false dilemma. When pushed, about needing to tackle things systemically rather than just trying to influence behaviour, Suzuki’s response was,
“yeah, there’s no question our major impact on the planet now, not just in terms of energy, is consumption. And that was a deliberate programme…”
When it comes to the ‘liberal’ solutions to the climate crisis generally, I think Lierre Keith gives the most perceptive criticism of the simplistic, ‘bright green’ arguments for change:
“[Capitalism] takes living communities, it converts those into dead commodities35, and then those dead commodities are turned into private wealth. And a lot of people think, well, if we just make that into public wealth, we all could get an equal piece of the pie, that’s the solution. The problem is that’s not going to be a solution because you’ve still got the first two parts of that equation. Why are we taking the living planet and turning it into dead commodities? That’s the problem…
It’s the fact that rivers, and grasslands, and forests, and fish, have been turned into those dead commodities, that’s the problem.”
Jensen then bookends Keith’s point with another, straightforward invalidation of the basic premise of the bright green approach:
“What do all the so called, ‘solutions’, to global warming have in common? They all take industrial capitalism as a given, and so conform to industrial capitalism. They’ve switched the dependent and the independent variables. The world has to be primary, and the health of the world has to be primary36, because without a world you don’t have any economy whatsoever. And the bright greens are very explicit about this. What they’re trying to save is industrial capitalism, industrial civilisation. And that’s my fundamental beef, because what I’m trying to save is the real world.”