Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way
and What We Can Do About It
By Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert
Book webpage: https://www.monkfishpublishing.com/products-page-2/environmentalism/bright-green-lies/
Reviewed by George Price
June 26, 2021
This book, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, will probably be the most important book published anywhere in 2021, on the most important issue facing all Life on Earth—why we must end the prevailing human economic and industrial practices and the anthropocentric cultural worldviews. It will probably also be the most reviled, attacked, suppressed, censored, dismissed, misrepresented, and slandered book published this year, as well, for some of the same reasons that many people virulently attacked and censored the documentary film, “Planet of the Humans,” last year. Why?
The authors answer the question of why these facts are so difficult to hear, and why they are also so difficult for many of us reluctant messengers to tell, at many points throughout their book, including this passage from the chapter on green energy storage:
“We are being sold a story, and we are buying it because we like it. We want it to be true. We want to believe that our lives can go on with all the ease and comfort we accept as our due. How painless to believe that a simple switch of wind for oil and solar for coal and we can go on with our air conditioning and cell phones and suburbs. Every time we hit a trip wire of unsettling facts or basic math, we soothe ourselves with our faith in technology. If all that stands between us and the end of the world is a battery that can store 46 MJ/kg, surely someone is working on it.”
Most modern humans have been taught all of their lives, by most of the voices of their culture, that their own comfort, pleasure, purpose, social standing, legacy, avoidance of pain, and continued survival depend upon the perpetuation of, and their conformity to, western industrial technological capitalist civilization. That teaching has been reinforced within their psyches by a long series of painful and pleasurable personal experiences. Therefore, they do not want to hear convincing, factual arguments which clearly demonstrate that nearly everything that they have been taught to value and have devoted their lives to is intertwined within a path toward the imminent destruction, collapse, and extinction of not only their so-called “way of life,” but also the real, natural world upon which all biological life on Earth depends. Besides that, most humans of this culture and era do not want to hear that there is no viable and actually existing technological “fix” for this predicament—which the authors of Bright Green Lies make painfully clear—and many do not want anybody else to hear or declare that either. In addition to all of that, most modern, capitalist, technophile humans are not (yet) prepared to engage with the solutions offered in this book: ending most industrial technological activities and allowing Nature and the few humans who still have such knowledge to teach us how to live without those destructive entities, by her truly sustainable laws and systems, (like we did for 97% of the time of our species’ existence), thus enabling all that remains of natural Life to heal and continue. Bright Green Lies also asks its readers—especially those who identify themselves as “environmentalists” or “environmental activists”—to face up to the fact that they must choose whether they value and seek to protect what the authors refer to as the “real world” (the natural, life-giving, life-sustaining world), or, instead, protect the human-made civilizations that order and constrain their lives, because, with what the world has now come to, we cannot save both. Is such a potentially life-shattering choice more than most people can deal with, even when presented with an overwhelming preponderance of factual evidence persuading them that the choice is unavoidable?
Putting aside (for now) the human tendencies toward acting on faith, auto-conformity, or the herd mentality, and assuming that when making the most serious, life or death, joy-or-perpetual-misery types of decisions, most people will still place some value in actual facts and bother to do a little research, we should expect such people to proceed with such appropriate caution when determining how to answer the challenges presented in this book. Knowing that, and being acutely familiar with the reactions of many politically moderate/liberal, save-civilization-first (before the natural world) people to their previous publications and to similar publications by others, such as Ozzie Zehner’s Green Illusions, back in 2012, and to Jeff Gibbs’ Planet of the Humans documentary, the authors of Bright Green Lies obviously “did their homework,” while drawing also from their decades of expertise on these topics. Nearly every one of the 478 pages in this illuminating volume contain several footnotes citing a variety of relevant and reliable sources for the multitude of little-known, seldom-mentioned facts about the extent of toxic destruction and ecocide that are routine impacts from our commonly-engaged industrial technologies, as well as from the production of solar panels, wind turbines, lithium batteries and other products that are alleged to be “green” and even “100% renewable!” Beginning with solar power, and moving on from there to wind turbines, “green energy” storage (especially lithium), “efficiency,” recycling, “green” cities, “green” electric grids, hydropower, carbon capture, geoengineering, and several other false and misrepresented “solutions,” Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert repeatedly and clearly assist us in the difficult process of discerning and untangling truth from lies.
Here is a summary outline of some of the more potent revelations (for the not-yet-informed) brought forth in this book:
- Promoters of solar, wind and other allegedly “green” technologies have repeatedly and misleadingly conflated the words “energy” and “electricity” when making their claims. The reason that is significant is that electric grid production, which is what solar, wind, hydropower and biofuels are primarily used for, makes up only about 20% (in Germany, the “green” energy technology advocates’ favorite showcase, 15% in the U.S., and ranging between 12 and 35 % elsewhere) of the actual total energy used to power the machinery of modern industrial society. So when they give a figure for how much of Germany’s “energy” is provided by “green renewables,” that figure has to be reduced by 80%–and that still might be too high, due to other falsehoods.
- Of the 20% of energy use that goes to electricity (in Germany), only about 14.8% comes from “green renewables,” with wind accounting for 3.5 % and 1.6 % for solar, for a total of 5.1 % between them. (These are 2019 statistics, the most recent available when the book went to press.) Biomass (including logged forests) provides 7.6 % of Germany’s electricity; waste products incinerated along with the biomass provide another 1%; 0.5% comes from geothermal heat pumps; and 0.6% comes from hydro power. In addition to those “renewables,” Germany gets 6.4 % of its electricity from nuclear power. Those are the actual figures for the “green showcase” nation, and the renewable electricity figures are generally lower for the rest of the world. Solar and wind enthusiasts have sometimes claimed that Germany gets as much as 75% of its “energy” from renewables.
- Elon Musk, multi-billionaire producer of the Tesla electric car, admitted to a broadcast journalist in July of 2020 that he supported the coup that overthrew Bolivian President Evo Morales in November of 2019. The Tesla car runs on rechargeable lithium batteries and Bolivia has one of the largest lithium deposits on the planet, which many industrialists, including Musk, hope to mine under terms favorable to their interests. Morales is a socialist whose interest is in what is best for his people and their homeland, and who led an international conference in 2010 that produced the Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth. Musk told the journalist, “We’ll coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (TeleSUR English, July 25, 2020 https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/elon-musk-confesses-to-lithium-coup-in-bolivia-20200725-0010.html )
- Lithium mining is just one of scores of very toxic industrial activities described in gory detail in this book, along with the names of the chemicals involved in these processes and the various harms and damages that they inflict upon many species of life, human and non-human. The processes involved in producing so-called “green energy” devices, including mining the raw materials, transporting them to factories, refining and forming the materials into more machines and consumable products, transporting it all over the world, clearing the land of the living beings who already live where the devices are to be installed, operation, maintenance, removal after expiration, and replacement, are all just as destructive to Life on Earth as most other modern industrial activities. None of that activity is truly “green” or beneficial to natural ecosystems or living organisms.
- Biofuel, a renewable energy source that is much more widely in use than wind turbines or solar panels, depends mostly on deforestation and the creation of vast monoculture tree farms that replace biodiverse natural habitat, causing death, misery and extinction for many species of life, just to grow trees that will be burned for fuel. And what are they fueling? Very often it is energy for industrial factories that will produce more machines to make more toxic and unnecessary consumer products. All “green” energy devices will continue to contribute energy to the rest of the industrial infrastructure, by the dictates and customs of the current economic system and culture.
- In their chapter questioning the value to life on Earth of “efficiency,” the authors clearly demonstrate how and why efficiency is no incentive for the reduction of CO2 and other harmful by-products of modern industrialism, when carried out within an economic system devoted to unlimited growth and competition (capitalism) and a culture devoted to maximizing convenience and consumption. Using examples based on Jevon’s paradox (basically that efficiency in manufacture and/or use tends to increase the production and consumption of that thing, rather than providing us more time to do other things besides producing and consuming) and on the facts regarding what has actually occurred with the gradual increases in renewable energy devices—not replacing, but, instead, accompanying continued increases in fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions—their point is made clear, as seen in the following chart:
(If you look for charts like this on the internet, you will have a hard time finding ones that end at 2019. Instead, you will see many charts that project beyond, usually up to 2050, showing that somehow the dismal reality portrayed above will magically explode into a dramatic increase in the use of solar and wind technology, even with industrial capitalism remaining intact. They do concede, though, that fossil fuel use—and, of course, CO2 emissions—will still be a considerable part of the picture by then, because of the energy “needs” of industrial capitalism that renewables just cannot provide. That is a difficult fact to admit, but the main reason that it must be faced is found in a combination of basic physics and the capitalist imperative for the maximization of profit. The physics can be summed up in the fact that the average energy density for fossil fuels is 46 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg) and “the best lithium battery can only store 1 MJ/kg.” The authors also report that “a diesel semi-tractor can haul 60,000 pounds of freight 600 miles before refueling. To get a similar range [with an imaginary, not-yet-invented electric semi-truck], that tractor would have to have about 55,000 pounds of batteries.” So, which truck would any capitalist distributor of products who wants to maximize efficiency and profit prefer to use? In addition to all that, many climate scientists now say that still using fossil fuels past 2030 means unstoppable bio-system collapse. But people have to have something they can believe in, right? And they cannot be allowed to believe in an end to capitalism or replacing that system with many local, truly democratic, community economic systems that are based in cooperation with Earth ecosystems and Nature’s laws.)
- One of the grandest forms of deception, exposed repeatedly in several parts of Bright Green Lies, especially the chapter titled, “The Green City Lie,” revolves around a practice called “pollution outsourcing” or “carbon footprint outsourcing.” When measuring a country or city’s pollution or CO2 output, it is common practice to only count what is emitted locally, within the city or nation’s boundaries, omitting completely the emissions made in other countries around the world (typically in relatively poor countries outside of Europe and the U.S.) by citizens and corporations residing in the nation or city being measured. Examples include the facts that the U.S. “annually imports about $500 billion worth of products from China,” and Seattle (considered by many to be possibly the “greenest” city in the U.S.) imports “more than 60% of its food” from countries outside the U.S. After describing the horrific amount of pollution and CO2 emissions created by shipping, trucking and train transport, the authors report that when we do “account for imported products and services, cities are responsible for 60 percent higher carbon emissions than previously thought.” The failure to measure the impacts to other ecosystems of this kind of outsourcing, “allows a city to exist without its occupants coming into contact with the land they depend on, building, in essence, a ‘phantom carrying capacity’ based on the consumption of soil, forests, grasslands, water, and so on from other locations.”
- The last example of “bright green lying” given in this book that I will mention here (although there are so many more!) involves the horrific potential impacts to life on Earth from attempting to implement green energy technologies at the scale required to run this ever-expanding, long-ago-overshot, capitalist industrial economic system, replacing the use of fossil fuels. The necessary infrastructure creation for that alone is not only mind-boggling and physically impossible, but also clearly ecocidal. For example, “12 percent of the continental United States would have to be covered in windfarms to meet current electricity demands. But electricity is only one-sixth of the nation’s energy consumption. To provide for the U.S.A.’s total energy consumption, fully 72 percent of the continent would have to be devoted to wind farms.” A slightly more conservative estimate is given in a recent report by a pro-green-energy team of researchers, stating that, if we combined wind farms and solar panel installations to replace all fossil fuel electricity production, we would only have to cover 10 % of the surface of the U.S. (The Race to Zero: can America reach net-zero emissions by 2050?, by Oliver Milman, Alvin Chang and Rashida Kamal, The Guardian, March 15, 2021) That figure does not take into account the amount of additional land surface (and habitat destruction) required for all of the necessary increase in transmission lines, which the authors of the Race to Zero… report estimate would be “enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times.” (and that’s just for the U.S.!) To put that amount of Earth surface destruction into some familiar perspective, currently about 2% of the surface of the U.S. is covered with asphalt and concrete pavement. We all have some sense of what that much pavement (on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, freeways, etc.) looks like. Imagine then, 10 to 70 times that much ground covered with wind turbines and solar panels, and much more land than that converted to accommodate new power transmission lines. Do you need any more material than that for new nightmares to keep you awake at night? And I didn’t mention all of the resulting dead birds, tortoises, trees and other wildlife, which Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert also describe in painful detail. Who needs horror movies when we have these kinds of visions springing up all around us? Would such a repulsive scenario be worth submitting ourselves to just to preserve a so-called “way of life” for just a little while longer? It would not last long with most of the natural ecosystems and species of life that keep us all alive destroyed or extinct.
I cannot end this book review without mentioning the love for all inter-connected natural Life that is a continual thread throughout its pages and is clearly the supreme motivating force behind the book’s creation. Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert are what I would call “old school” environmentalists—people who put Earth and all of her interconnected Life first, and have no fondness for any human system or culture that must continually harm and even destroy our living world in order to exist. I also appreciate the authors’ acknowledgement, in their “Real Solutions” chapter, that traditional Indigenous peoples have known the answers to our predicament all along. By following the first ways and the guidance of our natural Earth relatives (of all species), we can help the living world to heal all of our interrelated beings. I will close here with a few top quotes from the book:
“So many indigenous people have said that the first and most important thing we must do is decolonize our hearts and minds. We must grow, they’ve told me, to see the dominant culture for what it is: not as the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to human beings, but instead as a way of life that provides conveniences—luxuries—to one set of humans at the expense of everyone else—human and non-human.”
“Because the earth is the source of all life, the health of the earth must be the primary consideration in our decision-making processes.”
“Often people are so shocked by the idea of their lifestyle disappearing completely that they honestly can’t imagine what could come next. They care deeply about the planet, but what they want to know is: ‘Can’t we find a solution that leaves our way of life intact?’”
“’How can we continue to harvest industrial quantities of energy without causing harm?’ is the wrong question. The correct question is: What can we do to help the earth repair the damage caused by this culture?”
“The truth is that we can debunk each and every piece of bright green technology, and ultimately it won’t make a bit of difference to bright greens or anyone else whose loyalty is not to the earth but to the economic and social system that is dismantling the earth.”
“The best way to prepare for this [systemic collapse] is also the best way to prepare to bring about just human societies after collapse: not by leaning even more into industry, but by building communities based on self-sufficiency, biological integrity, and human rights. This is work anyone can support.”
Just finished the book George, and your review does a great job of expressing the heart-felt anguish and love that motivates the authors. I have followed Jensen’s work for some time and appreciate his passion, but that said, passion and four dollars will get you a cup of coffee- beautiful but not a plan. As a radical I have been admonished endlessly for “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good”, so there is plenty of irony in me raising this objection, but convincing people we need to live without electricity is a non-starter. And in my opinion, waiting for a better culture to rise from the ashes of collapse is romantic dreaming, or disavowal, or both.
Of course the Deep Greens are factually correct- the current “way of life” cannot be sustained, renewables or not. And yes, pre-modern cultures thrived for millennia and certainly all activities have impacts. But I don’t believe a cosmology developed through a certain period of history can simply be grafted onto a much different period of history or that technology can be erased by wishing it to be so.
The Deep Greens reject technology in the abstract, but as David Noble points out; “technology as such does not exist. Technology exists only in the particular, as particular pieces of equipment in particular settings”. Or as Ivam Illich puts it: we need specific kinds of tools that “foster cinviviality..” In this sense, their use of terms like “industrial technologies” or “industrial civilization” are empty signifiers; stand-ins for modernity or progress(?) Printing presses use ore, as do shovels. medicine. musical instruments.
No doubt there are Bright Greens who wish to believe they can “caress the sharks teeth”, but I stop short of calling them liars. And I really had trouble deciphering their take on agroecology; a necessary evil? Something to be jettisoned along with cities and renewable energy systems? They are correct we can’t have it all, but I couldn’t figure out what we CAN have?
Working on my own review, I’ll pass it along,
Thanks, Troutsky, for sharing your thoughts on the book. I look forward to reading your review, as soon as you get it done. Thanks also for again being one of the very few people who are willing to take the time and effort to comment on, question, or discuss any of my blog posts. If you have any idea why most people do not choose to do that, please let me know sometime.
I can see how the “Real Solutions” chapter of BGL can leave people wanting more–more specifics, more of a plan, or maybe just a little opening for keeping some piece or pieces of industrial civilization. That chapter might not be as strong as the rest of the book, but one thing I can say for it is that, as a conclusion to all that preceded it, the chapter was logical and honest. Perhaps the authors could have made more suggestions about how we can actually proceed in the direction that they insist we must go, especially if we lack agreement, consent and cooperation for pursuing that path from about 98% of our species. The question of whether or not we need most or even many of our fellow citizens to “get on board” before we can successfully create a movement (any kind of movement) is another topic worthy of further discussion.
Rejecting western civilization and many of our modern technologies is an enormous ask, and it certainly is understandable when people completely dismiss the idea, even if they read and become familiar with the facts presented in this book. Accurate, relevant information does not usually have the power to move an addict to give up their addiction, especially when the addiction is to an entire way of life or the only way that the addict has ever known. Will most people not be ready to even consider the possibility of doing so until the modern world has hit absolute “rock bottom,” and there is nowhere else to go? Life without electricity alone is a concept that maybe 90% of humanity cannot even conceive of as possible. (I went about six months without it on the first commune I lived in, back in 1970. We used candles and oil lamps for light, but occasionally a newcomer would bring a battery-powered flashlight. We had no rule against that, but most of the commune members chose not to even use anything that was battery-powered. Once I saw a guy there listening to the Beatles on a transistor radio.) One of my students recommended a book to me called, “Better Off,” about a young couple who spent a year living in an old order Amish community without any electricity. I bought the book a couple of years ago, but have not yet read it. We need to have discussions soon about what technologies we might be able to give up, and what we really can’t live without. Better to be proactively prepared when disastrous circumstances force us to go without.
As for calling “Bright Greens” liars, well that should be a tough call and not done with reckless, broad strokes. Before making such an accusation, one must know whether the lie was made intentionally or said in ignorance. If people know the difference between energy and electricity, then use the word “energy” when they are really talking about electricity, just to sell their cause, or to actually sell a commercial product, or support an industry, those people are indeed “lying liars.” I guess we could call people who ignorantly echo and spread false information something else.
Keep in touch and please let me know when you have your review done. Keep cool and happy fishing to you.
If you don’t include; plastics incineration, WiFi/5G and particle beam research (et.al), you are (imho); “part of the problem” too. Heads out of a**eholes people! Lifestyle change = paradigm change and visa versa, the exploitation of the atom is simply a continuance of the resource exploitation of the Industrial Revolution and as such represents an “end game”. I’m still keen on seeing what can be done with ocean based bio-fuels, never forget we’d be able to do much of the extra research if old-paradigm science wasn’t virtually monopolising funding! How long will the claim; “HADRON colliders will solve the problem of viable fusion reactors” continue to greenwash I wonder?
Thank you for your comment, gkfh1. Unless we are living completely outside of industrial technological capitalist civilization, we are all part of the problem. I continually grieve over the fact that I was born and raised in such a society, and after over 50 years of rebellion and pursuit of alternatives, I am still addicted to some of its productions. Let’s get to work on creating accessible alternative eco-communities and helping each other to exit from the society we were born into. Peace and creativity.
I have been thinking about this a lot and am re-considering my position George. It is because I have been so focused on building a broad based movement and hoping for mass direct action that I found the impossible demands of Jensen and co. unhelpful. But at some point I have to admit no such movement is on the horizon. I have had the same reaction to “Abolish the Police” and “Land Back”, as further alienating the masses. But I just read the intro to the Red New Deal and am realizing those masses are already alienated past the point of having any real agency. So why not demand the impossible? We should return everything that was stolen, though without a revolution, we know it won’t happen.
In his new novel Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a future heat-wave that kills 20 million Southeast Asians, an event so horrific it finally forces elites to act decisively. This is all too plausible- and I had hoped “the movement” I might help organize could avoid this holocaust (not just for poor humans) and that my children and grandchildren might not have to experience this horror. But hope and four dollars….
Anyway, our ecosocialist working group is still involved with the Missoula 100% clean electricity plan, if only to be the flies in the ointment by calling for less growth and development and a careful consideration of all impacts to the biosphere.
Thanks again, Troutsky, for remaining engaged with this very difficult discussion. Some of our allies say, in consideration of all that we don’t yet know and whatever might still be possible, that a multi-pronged approach is still a viable strategy–organizing for mass direct actions and public protests, while simultaneously continuing to build alternative, eco-socialist sustainable local communities, as visible alternative models and for future survival. But my aversion towards engaging in likely futile or even counter-productive activities has persuaded me toward focusing mainly (or exclusively?) on alternative community-building, while learning how to live without modern technology. Even so, I still appreciate and personally validate the work of allies using those other approaches. The one approach that I feel now is just too futile to continue supporting is petitioning and appealing to the capitalist/colonialist government political structures to make the necessary changes. They just are not going to do that, and they will continue to lie and deceive people into thinking that they might, while they also continue to silence (or “disappear”) any of us whom they feel might be too influential of a threat to the status quo.
I still feel that the strategies that I outlined in my “End of Money” essay can possibly be the best path forward, and I wish more people were willing to consider and discuss those ideas. I also hope to start networking with some of these young people who are actually forming eco-communities of resistance. I’ve talked to some such-minded young folks and mostly all I could tell them was what went wrong with our similar experiments back in the early `70s.
Hang in there. I know this is tough, especially with some of our streams getting too warm for trout fishing. Drop by when you get a chance.
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