On Contact: Mainstream environmental movement lies
On the show today, Chris Hedges discusses the lies and fantasies told by the mainstream environmental movement about how to solve the climate crisis with authors and activists Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith.
A new book shows how technology will not solve our environmental crisis. We will not extract ourselves from the death march toward extinction by recycling, building wind turbines, relying on solar panels or driving electric cars. This is a fantasy sold to us by an environmental movement that promises we can continue to indulge in orgies of consumption and maintain the levels of waste and perpetual growth that define the industrial age. The fact is our time is up. The forests are dying. Water is polluted, and in many places poisoned. Industrial farming is depleting the soil. The coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. Species are going extinct. Temperatures are soaring. Each of the last four decades have been hotter than the last. Soaring temperature rises – we are already at 1.2 °C (2.16 ° F) above pre-industrial levels – are already baked into the system, meaning that even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, we still face catastrophe. Anything above a temperature rise of 1.5 ° C will render the Earth uninhabitable. The Arctic ice along with the Greenland ice sheet are now expected to melt regardless of how much we reduce carbon emissions. A seven-meter (23-foot) rise in sea level, which is what will happen once the ice is gone, means every town and city on a coast at sea level will have to be evacuated. We must radically reconfigure how we live, and this means largely dismantling industrial society, or the human species, and most other species, will vanish, joining the long list of species that once roamed the Earth and are no more.
Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert’s new book is ‘Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost its Way and What We Can Do About It’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the lies told by the mainstream environmental movement with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith.
Lierre Keith: But to talk about lithium one--in one more way the reason that they want us to all be using lithium batteries is because to date these are the best batteries that have ever been created for these projects. They still don’t even begin to touch the scale of what fossil fuel can provide. So if you talk about, you know, megajoules per kilogram that’s, you know, sort of the unit and diesel fuel provides 46, so just remember 46. What the old-fashioned lead acid batteries is 0.17. So you can see, like, this order of magnitude less energy that’s stored and lithium is about one. So your, you know, your lithium battery you still need 46 times as many to even begin to approach what diesel fuel can give you. And this is why diesel is functionally irreplaceable. If you think about trucks and you think about shipping containers, and you think about, you know, moving vast amounts of stuff across continents and oceans you cannot do it without the inner density of diesel.
CH: Technology will not solve our environmental crisis. We will not extract ourselves from the death march towards extinction by recycling, building wind turbines, relying on solar panels or driving electric cars. This is a fantasy sold to us by an environmental movement that promises we can continue to indulge in orgies of consumption and maintain the levels of waste and perpetual growth that define the industrial age. The fact is our time is up, the forests are dying, water is polluted, and in many places poisoned. Industrial farming is depleting the soil, the coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. Species are going extinct, temperatures are soaring each of the last four decades have been hotter than the last before it. Soaring temperature rises are already at 1.2 degree Celsius, that’s 2.16 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels and are already baked into the system, meaning that even if we stopped all carbon emissions today we still face catastrophe. Anything above a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius will render the Earth uninhabitable. The Arctic ice along with the Greenland ice sheets are now expected to melt regardless of how much we reduce carbon emissions. A seven meter that’s a twenty three-foot rise in sea level which is what will take place once the ice is gone, means that every town and city on a coast and sea level will have to be evacuated. We must radically reconfigure how we live and this means largely dismantling industrial society or the human species and most other species will perish, joining the long list of species that once roamed the Earth and are now no more. Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith along with Max Wilbert warned of this catastrophe in their new book Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost its Way and What We Can do About It. Joining me to discuss the book is Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith. So both of you, all three of you do a tremendous job of imploding all of the “solutions”, wind turbines all this stuff that I mentioned. And it’s interesting to me that you go back to this, I think, amazing, I would call him prophetic voice Lewis Mumford and you open the book with a short quote from him and I’m going to read it and we’re going to start from there, “Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers, and sedatives, and aphrodisiacs could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd. Life itself will not survive except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.” What he’s writing about is what he calls the mega machine. And I do want to use the short time we have to go through all of the proposed solutions that are laid out which you implode one after the other, but just as an overview maybe, Derrick, you can begin by talking about what Mumford is saying here.
Derrick Jensen: Well, he talks about how technologies can actually end up in charge and we can become servants of them instead of them servants of us. And I know that sounds crazy when you just say it like that but if you think about it for a moment, are cities designed for human beings or are they designed for cars? And they’re clearly designed for cars or I used to have this sort of hobby, or habit, or something of asking people at talks, do you believe the governments take better care of human beings or corporations? And out of tens of thousands of people I ask that question no one ever said they take better care of human beings much less the natural world. And so the question is who’s in charge? If you ask normal people on the street who’s in charge, let’s say our corporations, everybody knows that, we accept that. And so the machines are in charge and one of the things this leads us to is that what do all of the so-called solutions to global warming take in common? And what they all have in common is they all accept industrial capitalism as a given, and they accept the corporate state as a given, and the natural world is having to conform to that. And that is literally insane in terms of being out of touch with physical reality because without a physical world you don’t have any social system whatsoever. So the natural world has to actually be primary. As we say in the book we’re solving for the wrong variable. And you can accept--you can expect that people who work for corporations, people who lobby for corporations, people who serve corporations to have corporations as their main interest. But one of the problems why we say environmentalism has lost the way is that, at one point, environmentalism was about protecting wild places and wild beings, and that has changed such that now environmentalists are themselves trying to sustain this destructive way of life instead of trying to protect wild nature and wild beings.
LK: Yeah, it’s like our movement got ripped out from under us at some point. The entire point of it was to protect, like Derrick says, wild beings and wild places. And now instead of trying to stop that destruction we are some of the people at the forefront saying “Well, how do we continue that destruction?” We just need to find a new way to fuel it but that’s the goal. So the goal has been completely perverted from what it once was. I mean, Rachel Carson did not save the birds from DDT so that her legatees could offer them up to wind turbines, but that’s where we are.
CH: Let’s talk about all of the “solutions” that the mainstream environmental movement proposes. Very early on in the book you talk about Germany, now Germany is often cited by Bill McKibben and others as a kind of model for what we can achieve, it’s held up as a kind of hope. And yet when you go through the data, which you do in the book, it’s a myth that somehow renewable energy is going to sweep across the German landscape, I mean, in fact you talk about how half of Germany’s timber production is cutting down trees, pulping them, drying them into pellets and burning them to produce a megawatt of hour of electricity produces 15% to 20% more climate changing carbon dioxide pollution than burning coal. But that’s not it. So a lot of the statistics that are thrown out by the mainstream movement I think you do a good job of obliterating, maybe Lierre, you can just lay out briefly the lies that are told and the reality.
LK: The biggest lie and I’m not sure whether they’re confused about this or whether they’re doing it on purpose, like I can’t honestly say, I don’t know. But these are people who have been working on this issue for a few decades and they honestly should know the difference. So what the claim is, they’ll say, oh, you know, they made seventy percent, eighty percent, a hundred percent of their energy comes from renewables. And what they mean is electricity, and in any given country electricity is about 20% of the overall energy, so that’s a huge swap. If you’re saying energy, you mean everything that this country uses. If you say electricity you’re talking about 20%. So right away, and they do this all the time, you will see headline after headline, it’s like Los Angeles promises to go 100%, you know, renewable energy by the year whatever and it’s like you read the article, no they’re talking about electricity. That other 80% is fossil fuel that cannot be replaced, it’s functionally irreplaceable and especially we’re talking about diesel. There’s no way you’re going to get that from anything but diesel. And that’s the part that they’re just, and again, I don’t know whether it’s on purpose but they’re papering it over by confusing on purpose or not energy and electricity because electricity is only a fraction, it’s about one-fifth. What are you going to say?
DJ: And we don’t expect your neighbor, or a cricket player, or a neurosurgeon to understand that electricity is only 20% of the total energy usage. But the head of the Sierra Club should not be saying that Los Angeles is going a hundred percent renewable energy, it’s--okay, so there’s two breakdowns here, one of them is that only twenty percent of the energy use is electricity with the rest of it being transportation, heating, various other means that--for--which electricity will never work or for which electricity does not--is not used.
LK: It doesn’t substitute. You can’t do it.
DJ: And the second thing that they don’t talk about is that, well, there’s many things they don’t talk about, another thing they don’t talk about is that the electricity, the renewable electricity even is primarily--the cat is saying hi. The renewable electricity is primarily not wind and solar as they say but it’s primarily biomass. So I think it’s 40% about of the German energy miracle is simply cutting down trees and burning them or burning--growing turnips to burn turning into biodiesel, biofuels of various sorts. And then another thing that they don’t talk about is they say all the time that you’ll see headlines saying, you know, Germany’s great energy miracle has produced solar panels that are much cheaper than they ever were before but what they don’t talk about is that’s because they moved from making them in Germany to making them in China where they use slave labor and there are extremely lax environmental regulations. So they keep saying solar is so cheap, yeah, it’s so cheap because it’s outsourced to Asia where there are abysmal working conditions.
LK: Well, one of the things that’s needed for solar panels is this stuff called polysilicon which we don’t need to get into, but it involves like just incredibly toxic industrial processes, some of the worst toxic materials that have ever been produced. And when they do it in Germany it costs $84,000 to make, you know, whatever the unit is of it a ton, I guess, $84,000 a ton. When they make it in China they do it for $20,000. So you can see it’s $60,000 cheaper. But the reason they do that is because they’re not doing any kind of mitigation on these highly toxic substances, they literally just dump it on the landscape in rural China. So peasants, poor people, never mind, you know, the natural world now is stuck dealing with these highly toxic substances. And yet in the West we say, “Oh, look solar panels get cheaper and cheaper.” And you can find article after article that extols how wonderful it is that this has gotten so cheap. It’s only because they moved it from Germany to China, and now people are dying of pancreatic cancer. This stuff is so toxic, it’s like a tree will never grow there in anything but geological time scale, and yet we’re supposed to believe this is some kind of a, you know, a green miracle.
CH: Well, you in the book--you in the book point out, number one, the energy that goes into making things like solar panels. If I remember from the book also solar panels have a shelf life of about a decade, is that correct? They’re not--they don’t last forever.
LK: Some of them might last 20 years but honestly it doesn’t matter, it’s--they don’t last is the problem, right? And then recycling them is an utter nightmare because it’s nothing but one toxic substance laid on top of another. And the silicon that’s needed that they mine to make these panels, it’s a very specific kind of silicon, and it’s just, you know, ton after ton. There are entire beaches that have been destroyed, there are in fact over a dozen islands in Indonesia that no longer exist because they’ve been mined to death, there’s nothing left literally of the islands. So when we talk about like industrial civilization, devouring the Earth, we mean that quite literally, they’re eating these islands to make the sand. And then they also need a very specific kind of coal to do the industrial conversion, it’s called Blue Green. It’s from Kentucky it’s a pretty rare form of coal. But, of course, this releases just vast amounts of greenhouse gases. It’s coal and we know where it’s coming from, they’re blowing up mountains to get it. So again the Earth is being consumed for these industrial processes. And at any prior point in the environmental movement we would’ve been the people saying “Absolutely not, you do not pass, like, this is what we’re here to stop, you can’t do this to our planet.” And instead we’re supposed to be the people up front saying “Oh, this is the way forward.”
DJ: So two things one is Aussie center.
CH: Hey, Derrick, Derrick, I’m just going to--I’m going to stop there and take a break and come right back.
CH: When we come back we’ll continue our conversation about the need for a radical reconfiguration of the environmental movement and global capitalism with the authors Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the need for a radical reconfiguration of the environmental movement and global capitalism with the authors Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith. So in just this last 12 minutes I want to go through as briefly, but you do--the books quite long and quite detailed. But all of these solutions, we just touched on solar panels. Let’s talk about, I mean, you write quite extensively about dams, the environmental damage caused by dams. But wind turbines, let’s start there, wind turbines are often held up as again another solution to the environmental crisis, renewable energy, going green. And just maybe, Lierre, you can begin by going through, you know, the data that you have in the book about wind turbines.
LK: Well, I’ll give one example. So in Scotland there’s a creature called the Scottish wildcat. And this is the last wildcat essentially in Europe. And there’s a population of 35. And when I say 35, I’m not missing a zero, like, there’s not 350, there’s not 3,500, there’s literally 35 of these creatures left. And where they live is this one little scrap of forest that’s left in Scotland and it’s slated for destruction for wind turbines. So what they’re doing is they’re taking the very last scraps of wild places and turning them into another site of industrial manufacture and in this case what they’re manufacturing is electricity and that’s the end of those cats. And everywhere you go you will see the same story that this is the last place where these creatures live. So in the southwest, in the United States, it’s the desert tortoises, and all the creatures that depend on them because that’s what nature is, right? It’s a series of independent relationships. You can’t take out one and not take out a whole bunch more and they’re all just one-by-one falling to these grotesque scale of these projects is--I mean, you can see them from outer space, that’s how big they are. And that’s what it takes because we’re not facing the facts right? Fossil fuel is so dense because it had millions of years to get there, right? You’re not going to get that kind of energy from just 12 hours of sunshine. It took millions of years to make oil, and gas, and coal and you can’t do that. So that’s why they have to cover just miles and miles of what was once pristine desert with solar panels to try to get something that could even approach that level of energy density. It still can’t be done, but that is what it would require.
DJ: And there are--
CH: Let’s talk--I want to move--Derrick, I want to ask you about lithium batteries. Because again the whole premise of going green is that somehow we’re all going to be operating off of lithium batteries. And one of the points you make in the book is there just isn’t even enough lithium. But talk about lithium batteries.
DJ: Well, I’ll get to lithium in a moment. The thing that’s interesting is that we talk about lithium batteries all the time but 99%--or 97% of current grid scale storage is actually worse which is called--something called pumped hydro storage. Which is simply two dams. One high and one low, and you pump the water up when you have an excess of energy and you let the water run back down when you don’t. And I don’t--I hope that at this point in the environmental movement, we don’t have to talk about what nightmares dams are. So there’s--that’s actually the workhorse that people don’t talk about. But now having got that out of the way is mined in various deserts for the most part around the world, and it’s a--like any other form of mining, it’s incredibly toxic, incredibly destructive. And there are many discussions of the new lithium rush which is the equivalent of the gold rush and we all know what disasters gold rushes have been for the natural world. There’s just increased mining. I believe it’s the--excuse me the demand for lithium I think has gone up by 3,000%. I’m--I might be off on the numbers, but when you get that high it’s--so it’s going up everywhere and we’re all at this point familiar with the coup in Bolivia where afterwards Elon Musk was accused of having his fingers in it and his response was, “We can coup whoever we want.” And that insofar as that coup took place for natural resource extraction it was lithium. So are we going to be in a position where lefties in the United States, liberals in the United States, are going to be arguing not for blood for oil, but instead is going to be blood for lithium to run this shiny green economy. And another thing we need to talk about is that we actually ran the math. And for them to follow some of the engineering plans that have been put forward to run the nation’s electricity with--or run the nation’s energy system with wind it would take one and a half times the world output of iron. All the iron that’s mined in the world would take one and a half years of that just for that project. It would take the equivalent of 12 Hoover Dams being built every single day. And environmentalists are pushing for 12 Hoover Dams a day?
LK: But to talk about lithium one--in one more way the reason that they want us to all be using lithium batteries is because to date these are the best batteries that have ever been created for these projects. They still don’t even begin to touch the scale of what fossil fuel can provide. So if you talk about, you know, megajoules per kilogram that’s, you know, sort of the unit and diesel fuel provides 46, so just remember 46. What the old-fashioned lead acid batteries is 0.17. So you can see, like, this order of magnitude less energy that’s stored and lithium is about one. So your, you know, your lithium battery you still need 46 times as many to even begin to approach what diesel fuel can give you. And this is why diesel is functionally irreplaceable. If you think about trucks, and you think about shipping containers, and you think about, you know, moving vast amounts of stuff across continents and oceans you cannot do it without the inner density of diesel. And all of these projects depend on you know this grotesque scale of mining that also cannot be done without diesel fuel. There’s no way that you’re going to blow up mountains without using diesel. So it--
DJ: This is--this is one reason that Ozzie Zehner brilliantly describes these alternative energy sources as really alternative fossil fuel energy sources.
LK: They all rest on the same industrial platform and it can’t be done without diesel.
CH: I just--before I go on, I just--I just want to, I mean, you write quite extensively about dams, we don’t have--but just this one passage from your book, “Dams have been called methane bombs and methane factories because they emit so much methane and extremely potent greenhouse gas they are in fact the largest single anthropogenic source, accounting for 23% of all methane emitted because of humans. Dams can release up to three and a half times as much greenhouse gases per unit of energy as is released by burning oil primarily--” Well, we’ll stop there. I mean, so the last kind of four minutes we have, I want to talk about what we have to confront. I think you argue quite, you know, persuasively throughout the book, that the stories that are being told about alternative energy are ones that are told because they’re the stories we want to hear, not because they’re true. What is the reality that we have to face and what do we have to do to confront the climate emergency that is already upon us? I’ll begin with you Derrick, and then have you talk, Lierrre.
DJ: I think, I really like the medical model of the first step toward the diagnosis--correct diagnosis is the first step toward proper treatment. And the first thing we have to do is to confront reality and to not do accounting shenanigans like counting hydro as carbon neutral when it’s not. There are countries that declare themselves carbon neutral, but it’s all accounting tricks. And it’s--there’s too much at stake to allow us--to allow anyone to do that. So the first thing we have to do is to confront reality. The second thing we have to do is to make our loyalty--to take our loyalty away from this system to go back to Mumford to no longer serve the megamachine, but to serve life on the planet, to serve the thing, the processes that created you, that allowed you to be sitting there right now, that allowed me to be sitting here, that feed us, that sing us awake when we’re born, and sing us to sleep when we die. That’s--we need to fall in love with the planet and take our--take our loyalty put it back to the planet and not to the dominant culture. That’s the sort of spiritual level.
LK: James Howard Kunstler has this great line where he says “We need to be reality-based adults.” And I feel like the whole point of this book was just to explain to grown-ups where babies come from. Only in this case it’s solar panels, like, you don’t go out in September and harvest them from the solar tree, they have to be manufactured, and what is--what is involved in that manufacture? And it’s horrifying how these things are made, and it’s horrifying the human rights abuses that go on along with them, that people in china who have tried to protest this have literally been tortured by their government and we’re supposed to call it a miracle. So this is what’s happened to our movement and this was once a movement that was so impassioned and so brave in defense of the wild. And instead we are now the people at the forefront of trying to destroy it more. So we have to take a good hard look at this. What is the point of this movement or are we just another arm of industrial capitalism or did we actually intend to be a resistance? Because I know where my loyalty lies. But we’re going to need more than just the three of us to get this done. So the hard truth is that industrial civilization was a one-time blowout. This is true for every civilization. I think there have been 34 every last one of them ends in collapse because it’s based on overshoot and drawdown. And those are concepts that are well understood or used to be in the environmental movement. But we need to understand them all over again because this is an absolutely global scale and we’re not going to get out of this alive if we don’t bring it into it now. But it was going to end anyway and that’s really the point. It’s we’ve used all the metals, we’ve used all the fossil fuels, we’ve blown through all the topsoil what’s left. And are we going to stand and defend it or not?
DJ: And if I were to summarize all of my work into one sentence, it would be this way of life will not last and when it’s over I would prefer that there is more of the world left rather than less.
CH: Great. Thank you. That was authors Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith on their new book Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It.