The New Green Energy Economy . . . Déjà vu or Even Worse?

[Note to Readers: This is a longer essay thats best read on something other than a cell phone. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

As a society (and in many ways a global one), we’re currently defaulting to a prescribed path for our collective future. As a result, we regularly face the need to make individual decisions regarding the kind of vehicle we drive as well as how much we drive, the devices we use and whether we update them, the energy source we pay for through our utility company or their renewables partners and how much of that energy we use daily, how much we travel and by what mode of transportation, and so on. This essay takes a critical look at that prescribed path and what we should be considering carefully relative to our individual decisions. Should we stay in lockstep with what we’re being told (sold?) or are there other options that might fit more with our values and priorities for the future? How do we stay conscious and questioning as we search for the truth of what underpins some of the future-based “solutions” already being chosen for us?

When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.

Meir Berliner, A Polish Jew Who Died Resisting His Nazi Captors at Treblinka

It’s becoming more and more clear that the new “green energy” economy is a movement away from the fossil fuel economy but it’s bringing the problems of the old paradigm with it. This mainstream approach to the climate crisis has all the earmarks of what came before, including the requisite sales pitches that hit hard on the benefits without being forthcoming about the many dark sides. As the downsides of the green energy economy are more and more carefully explored by those who have been able to see through the hard-sell and cultural conditioning, it’s even looking conceivable that we, and everything else on the planet, could end up being worse off than what we knew we were headed for in the fossil fuel economy.

Don’t get me wrong. We can’t keep going on the way we have since the Industrial Revolution and do so on a livable planet. We have to drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere in order to maintain a sustainable environment. But are we really embarking on a path that’s going to get us there and do so in time? Will the new green energy economy lead us to living within the bounds of nature and its limited resources?

First there’s the manufacturing (and also the disposal). When we talk about EVs, we’re talking about a car that UCLA researchers found to be three to four times more energy-intensive to produce than its equivalent combustion engine vehicle. When we talk about replacing all gas stoves with induction stoves, all of those induction stoves must be manufactured and where will all the gas stoves go? The urgency of the climate crisis implies a rush to make the transition away from each of these traditional objects feel like an immediate need. And of course so does the sales pitch for the new ones. This is not unlike the push every time a new iPhone or iPad or Macbook or other digital device comes out. All the new ones must be manufactured and all the old ones must be disposed of. Manufacturing is intensely fossil fuel-based (as are many of the components for the new products) and the emissions created in manufacturing are no different for these new “green” products than they were for the traditional ones. But we also don’t fully understand yet how to recycle many of the old things, especially ones that already contain certain critical minerals (and it becomes especially complex when a number of those minerals were combined to create alloys with greater strength and now must be “dealloyed” for recycling). Even when it can be done, recycling is expensive and often destructive to the environment. Further, we don’t have a good place in which to put all the disposed of items. So we ship much of it illegally to Africa or Asia.

Of course we don’t just have to manufacture all the new vehicles and the new stoves and the new heat pumps and the ever-new digital devices. We also have to manufacture all the solar panels and wind turbines. In his book The Rare Metals War, French journalist Guillaume Pitron reports a calculation by Canadian Bernard Tourillon, director of a company that makes equipment for the solar industry. He found that the production of a single photovoltaic panel emits as much as 70 kilograms of CO2. Based on a projected 23% annual increase in panels needed over the next few years, the expected growth in power-generation capacity will be an additional 10 gigawatts every year. But this will also mean putting 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere for panel manufacture alone– the annual equivalent of 600,000 conventional vehicles on the road. (Thermal solar panels are even more detrimental.) In a 2015 study by the French National Center for Scientific Research, it’s projected that by 2050 the market for wind turbines will require 3200 million tonnes of steel, 310 million tonnes of aluminum, and 40 million tonnes of copper. All of this raw material must be mined, refined, shipped, and stored before manufacture has even begun.

Then there’s the fact that the new green energy economy is based on mining the critical and rare-earth elements essential for electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbine engines, and the electrical grids upon which they all depend. After extraction (under conditions most of us would find completely counter to basic human values), these minerals must be processed using highly toxic chemical agents like sulphuric, hydrochloric, and nitric acids which are later released into rivers, and saturate soil and groundwater. The chemicals are also released into the air where the evaporation drifts back onto the homes in the villages and the land where food is grown. Following shipment and manufacturing, all of the applications in which the minerals are used (wind turbines and solar panels in renewables farms as well as on roof tops, EV chargers, and the electrical grid components) must be connected through long-range transmission lines that are currently either non-existent where we need them to be or they’re insufficient for our new and future needs. The new lines for connectivity are projected to require more copper (which must be mined) than has been extracted and used in human history up to this point and, because of the extensiveness of this need for connectivity, are most likely coming to a backyard near you. The vast amounts of deforestation required, water siphoned, chemicals used and dumped, emissions released, and biodiversity destroyed are all part of the devastating impact on the environment.

To support the electrical grid and all this connectivity, the United States added 4 gigawatts of battery capacity in 2022. That’s almost as much battery capacity as it had in all previous years combined (4.7 gigawatts). Ninety percent of this was in California and Texas where huge lithium-ion batteries fill storage centers that are necessary to move the energy generated by solar and wind farms. The lithium-ion batteries used to support electrical grids are the same as those used in electric vehicles, just bigger versions. By 2026, developers are planning to increase battery capacity another 22 gigawatts. Sixteen of those gigawatts will go to California and Texas. (Don’t forget that extraction and refinement of critical minerals are essential for all these gigawatts of battery capacity.)

Fossil fuel infrastructure foreshadowed some of this but most of us weren’t around to remember much of that. Also, those of us living in wealthy countries managed to get much of the requisite dirty work done elsewhere, just as we’re doing for the new green energy economy. And don’t forget, our fossil fuel need isn’t going away. We’re just presuming we’re reducing it. (Unfortunately, indications to date are that with every improvement in energy efficiency or source, our levels of consumption rise to meet that improvement so that presumptions about reduction in energy usage rarely pan out.) In addition to the inability to produce and store enough renewable energy to fully replace fossil fuels, we still need to drill, pump, and process oil for use in the long list of mundane products that are petroleum-based, e.g., asphalt for our roads, aspirin, candles, cosmetics, crayons, house paint, ink, plastics, soft contact lenses, solar panels, and tires (yes, EVs still need tires). Additionally, for some time to come, the dangerous and dirty mining necessary to meet our coal needs must continue as 30% of the electric grids that all of the EVs and renewables must connect to are still fueled by coal.

Landfill in Thailand, Leonid Danilov on Pexels

Already consequences are being experienced with elements of the new green energy economy. In the western United States, large solar arrays are disturbing established wildlife corridors, while all over the world wind turbines intentionally placed along the bird migration paths (it’s where the wind is, after all) are killing millions of birds including eagles and cranes. The towering wind turbines making up the offshore wind farms are causing harm to marine life due to their sonic disruptions. And then there are the mines — those in existence and those being proposed. The United States has proposed its largest lithium mine be constructed in Nevada where concerns include pollution of the air, nearby aquifers, wildlife habitats, and sacred Indigenous sites. As we arrive at the point of replacement for the earliest solar panels and turbine blades and nacelles (the control center of the wind turbine which contain large amounts of copper and rare-earth elements), the question of what to do with the old ones is unresolved. The landfills will soon be filled with panels leaking toxic materials that are too hazardous to easily recycle. And the massive turbine blades are so far left lying around like colossal whale bones. Minerals in any discarded nacelles central to rotating these these blades present the same recycling problem as do the solar panels.

While we silently careen down the road in our new EV, feeling virtuous about both the vehicle and the solar power with which we charged it, it’s easy to remain ignorant of the damage to the environment and its inhabitants, the exploitation and even death dealt to the mine workers, the geopolitical machinations leaders are either exulting in or struggling under based on who possesses the critical mineral rights, and as much or more CO2 than ever being sent skyward.

Backing Up A Bit: What Are Critical Minerals and Rare-Earth Elements, and Why Do They Matter?

Critical minerals are a category of mineral resources that, at a particular point in time, are essential to the current economy and whose supply may be unstable or cutoff. Thus, how critical a mineral is may change with time depending upon availability and need. (Critical minerals are sometimes also referred to as critical, strategic, or rare metals.) Most of the current critical minerals are metals essential to high-tech sectors. Some are well known, such as copper, nickel, cobalt, graphite, lithium, indium, tungsten, platinum, etc., while others are known primarily to the industries involved with them, e.g., rare earths, vanadium, germanium, tellurium, antimony, gallium, beryllium, fluorine, rhenium, tantalum, niobium, etc. Often these minerals are found in very small amounts. For example, eight and a half tonnes of rock must be extracted and processed in order to obtain one kilogram of vanadium, a key component in the making of alloyed steel. Even the energy spent to secure copper was brought home to me through Pitron’s quote from Italian researcher Ugo Bardi:

“Imagine that you were asked to take care of the mining waste created by the copper contained inside your new car. An average car contains about 50 kilograms of copper, mainly in the form of wiring. So on your way home from the dealer, you would be followed by a truck that would then proceed to dump about one tonne of rocks in front of your door.”

Bardi further explains that more and more energy is required to extract the minerals critical to the green energy economy. In Chile between 2001 and 2010, it took 50 percent more energy to extract just 13% more copper than was previously mined. The same is happening in the United States.

Rare-earth elements (REE) are a special category of critical minerals that are essential for high-tech consumer products like cell phones, computer hard drives, EVs and hybrid vehicles, flat screen monitors and TVs, as well as significant defense applications including guidance systems, lasers, and radar and sonar systems. REEs are used in smaller quantities than other critical minerals but the product is usually dependent on the REEs in order for functionality to be possible. The rare-earth elements are a set of seventeen metallic elements whose names will be unfamiliar to most of us. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium.

Share of top producing countries in extraction of selected minerals and fossil fuels, 2019:


United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia

United States, Iran, Russia

Chile, China, Peru

Indonesia, Russia, Philippines

Democratic Republic of Congo*, Australia, Russia


United States, China, Myanmar

Chile, China (inc. in Bolivia), Australia

Source: IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

* Most of the cobalt mines in the DRC are run by Chinese companies.

The future in a green energy economy will be determined in large part by who is in control of the critical resources that make a world of green energy technology possible. Pitron suggests that those 195 nations committing to the Paris agreement in 2015 neglected to ask themselves and each other several crucial questions.

  • “Where and how are we going to procure the rare metals without which this treaty will fail?
  • Will there be winners and losers on the new chessboard of rare metals, as there were for coal and oil?
  • And what will be the economic, social, and environmental cost of securing their supply?”

In pursuit of an environmentally clean growth model, we’ve chosen a path that requires such intensive mining of the Earth’s crust that it’s likely to result in a more damaging environmental impact than the extraction of oil. Additionally, with booming technological innovation coupled with continued world-wide population growth as well as monopolized control, our dependence on these limited critical resources is projected to quickly bump up against shortages and political conflict.

Cleaner Air and a Better Future for Some, Even Dirtier Air, Land, and Water with an Ever-Worsening Future for Others — Guess Who Gets Which One.

In a recent essay, New York Times climate columnist David Wallace-Wells celebrated the success achieved in Europe this past year as a dreaded fuel crisis was turned into a notable advancement along the green energy path that Europe has been forging ahead on. Near the end of Wallace-Wells’ lauding of Europe’s “astonishing success story” (which, by measures of the green economy and the luck of a warm winter not to mention imports of US liquid natural gas, it was), he does briefly acknowledge that much of the rest of the world is having an entirely different experience.

“Europe doesn’t exactly offer a universal model — it’s rich, by global standards, and energy-conscious to begin with, and, thanks in part to some binding climate targets, there was an energy transition already underway that could be nudged usefully along. More than 800 billion euros were spent to manage the crisis and limit the effects of price spikes, and there was also an intense mobilization to import liquid natural gas, of course, much of it from the United States — overall more than doubling the amount of L.N.G. unloaded at European terminals. And the bull market in L.N.G. also squeezed many of its erstwhile customers, with European markets sucking up as much available inventory as they could and leaving the rest of the world thirsty for power. Which means that the consequences of that successful scramble look much bleaker in poorer countries, where price spikes have gone unaccompanied by government subsidies but have coincided with rolling national blackouts. (In Pakistan, because of the prices, they’ve recently suspended plans to expand natural gas capacity and instead to build out coal power as much as fourfold.)”

The New York Times

And The Atlantic featured a piece by Emma Marris, writer for their climate newsletter, The Weekly Planet. In a 14 paragraph ode to electric vehicles, only one paragraph lightly touched on downsides with no allusion at all to the cost to others around the planet.

“There are caveats, of course. EVs have an environmental footprint. Their batteries, in particular, rely on minerals such as lithium and cobalt, which have to be mined out of the ground. So there’s still a good argument for reducing the number of cars on the planet, electric or otherwise. And any car will still be expensive, bulky, and a pain to maintain. The true auto-topia will be the day when driving a car is 100 percent optional for those who would prefer not to own one—and 100 percent guilt-free for those who love them.”

The Atlantic

How can these vehicles ever be 100 percent guilt-free for anyone?

Many of the critical minerals and rare-earth elements needed for the new green energy economy exist in the earth in small quantities and are much more difficult and time-consuming to extract and refine. And the processes for doing so are far from clean. Western countries abandoned our own mining operations because they were environmentally damaging, unhealthy for the workers and nearby populations, and therefore unpopular. The costliness of doing so is only now becoming clear.

One of the dark secrets of “clean” energy is how dirty and highly polluting it is. We keep this a secret by having the work done where we don’t have to see or talk about it. On the surface, key components of this green energy economy that connect to electrical grids — solar panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries for EVs and digital devices — look clean, efficient, and technologically innovative. Below the surface, the “new oil” is dug from the earth in antiquated and barbaric methods that do as much damage to people and the environment as fossil fuels. As Henry Sanderson maintains in his book Volt Rush, “Without scrutiny, abuses will remain hidden behind a veil of corporate ‘greenwash’ from companies further down the supply chain.”

The big high-tech corporations are, of course, complicit in the procurement of critical minerals at the expense of humans and the environment in places far removed from their consumers. And they’ve done their part to keep us from being aware of the reality behind their clean green products. In Apple’s 2018 annual report, completely absent are the words ‘minerals’, ‘metals’, or ‘rare earths’. And in Tesla’s 2019 environmental report, nothing is mentioned about the environmental impact of the artisanal mining of cobalt in the Dominican Republic of the Congo (DRC). Instead, consumers are assured, through mission and values statements and empty certifications, that the extraction of critical minerals used in their products have been diligently separated from the mines and/or processes in which child labor, forced or indentured debt labor, unsafe workplaces and practices, and damaged environments are occurring. Siddharth Kara spent several lengthy periods in 2018, 2019, and 2021 visiting the artisanal cobalt mines and depots in the DRC to determine with absolute certainty that the claims by Apple, Tesla, and like companies of the segregation of “clean” products from the others at this level of the supply chain are just not possible. He documents the processes, along with the horrific abuses, in his stunning book Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, which I’ll draw heavily from in the section on the Congo below.

In The Rare Metals War, Pitron describes the benefit and the curse of our ignorance, whether we intentionally looked away or were naively trusting.

“The genius of logistics has stripped us of a fear that obsessed our ancestors for 70,000 years: that of scarcity. But everything comes at a cost: the globalization of supply chains gives us consumer goods while taking away knowledge of their origin. We have gained in buying power what we have lost in buying knowledge.”

In part for simplicity of messaging and general understanding, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has become the primary measure of our present and future relative to the climate crises. But it clearly isn’t the only indicator of the health of the environment. Historically, mines have been an extreme hazard to humans and the environment that is not fully captured and communicated when primarily using CO2 in the atmosphere as our measure. And yet, the green economy is dependent on massive extraction of critical minerals around the world, generally in places where the people who will be buying the products containing what was mined do not live. In their book Bright Green Lies, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert maintain that all extraction, without exception, is done in the name of profit, never honestly in the name of saving the environment. All green technology begins with a wound to the Earth’s crust.

Consider the Congo . . . Please Consider the Congo

Humans have cut into the Earth to extract minerals and metals since the dawn of civilization. Without our endless hacking into the crust, the world we know wouldn’t exist. Today the destruction done by the mining and refining of critical minerals is readily apparent in Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Chile, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Peru. How could it be otherwise with what the Blacksmith Institute has identified as the second worst polluting industry globally?

Most, if not all, of the many challenges and vulnerabilities associated with the extraction and refining of critical minerals apply when we look at the DRC (the Congo), the world’s largest producer of cobalt. Cobalt is the stabilizing factor that allows for energy density in a lithium-ion battery without the risk of fire. Thanks to cobalt we get longer operation between charges of our devices and electric vehicles plus greater safety during that time. In an EV with an average driving range, the battery requires as much as 10 kilograms or 22 pounds of refined cobalt. This is 1000 times the amount of cobalt used in a smart phone. And the projected increase for cobalt demand in the next decade is as much as 600 percent. As critical as this mineral is to the new green energy economy, the human rights and environmental travesties at these mines amply demonstrate exactly how unclean clean energy actually is.

Coltan Mine in Congo, Source:

Siddharth Kara opens his book Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by describing a scene that concludes with this statement: “That is the lasting image I take from the Congo — the heart of Africa reduced to the bloodstained corpse of a child, who died solely because he was digging for cobalt.” This is the brutal reality that Kara endeavors to make real and lasting for us, that the peasants and children of the Congo are living slave-like existences and dying so that people in wealthier countries can charge their phones or cruise in their new EVs. If you really want to understand the truth of what is underpinning the new green energy economy, please read this book.

What Kara calls the “extreme predation for profit” at the bottom of cobalt supply chains results in trillions of dollars for those above the “artisanal” miners who spend their days digging out the cobalt with picks and pieces of rebar, living in immense poverty and intense suffering, laboring from dawn to dusk (or longer) for an average of $1.10 per day. He tells us, “They exist at the edge of human life in an environment that is treated like a toxic dumping ground by foreign mining companies. Millions of trees have been clear-cut, dozens of villages razed, rivers and air polluted, and arable land destroyed. Our daily lives are powered by a human and environmental catastrophe in the Congo.”

The term “artisanal” refers to something done in a traditional or non-mechanical way. Technically, that fits the work the cobalt miners in the Congo do though to western ears it seems to align more appropriately with the making of artisanal cheeses or chocolates. Far from making cheeses or chocolates, the artisanal miners use crude tools and work in often life-threatening conditions. And they do so in at least eighty countries in the global south. They don’t have contracts or formal agreements, no protective clothing or equipment, not even supports for their tunnels or pit walls. Their injuries and deaths are uncompensated and their piece-rate pay is so difficult to live on even in the poorest circumstances that they must also have their children working with them. Education is a rarely realized dream for these children.

There are approximately 45 million artisanal miners. That’s 90% of the total mining workforce around the world. Their effort is essentially irreplaceable because so many of the minerals being extracted occur in such small quantities that the heavy equipment is not effective. Picking and gouging with rebar, shovels, and picks is the more surgical approach to efficiently (and cheaply, given the pay) extract the minerals. It can yield up to 10 to 15 times the grade of cobalt per ton than industrial mining is capable of. This is why it isn’t halted. (Do we honestly imagine Apple and Tesla don’t purchase this higher-grade for their products?)

Jose Bumba, left, pulled a 220-pound bag of cobalt from a 26-foot-deep hole in the makeshift Kasulo mine. Working conditions on such sites can be extremely dangerous. Source: The New York Times

In a world far removed from the one in which the end products containing the cobalt are purchased and used, the air, the land, and the water are toxic and unhealthy for the people and the environment. Nothing is done to make it better because the people that might object on behalf of those living there and on behalf of the environment itself are mostly blissfully unaware that any of the dire circumstances at the artisanal cobalt mines even exist. It truly is out of sight and out of mind (with the exception of an occasional western news expose that’s quickly forgotten). And within the supply chain itself, the many layers serve to protect everyone involved from accountability. As Kara described it, “By the time one traces the chain from the child slogging in the cobalt mine to the rechargeable gadgets and cars sold to consumers around the world, the links have been misdirected beyond recognition, like a con man running a shell game.”

Many of the accidents in the artisanal cobalt mines involve collapse of the pit walls and the tunnels, neither of which are braced or supported in any way. Those not left with permanently mangled and useless limbs are all too often buried alive and the bodies never recovered so that their loved ones are forced to walk over their tombs day in and day out. As Kara put it about one mine, it “was not just a copper-cobalt mine, it was a killing field.” The indifference regarding these children and their parents can be tied directly to a global economy that relies upon poverty and vulnerability of those struggling so desperately at the very bottom of the supply chain. We can’t allow ourselves to fall for proclamations to the contrary put out so cynically by the multinational corporations. Kara’s translator for his interviews earnestly implored him, “Please tell the people in your country, a child in the Congo dies every day so that they can plug in their phones.”

Children as Young as Eight Working in Congo Copper Mines, Source: The Toronto Star

“The Kipushi artisanal mining area was located in an open swath of earth just south of the abandoned Gecamines pit. It was a vast lunar wasteland spanning several square kilometers — a bizarre juxtaposition to the advanced KICO mining compound sitting right next to it. KICO had first-world mining equipment, excavation techniques, and safety measures. The artisanal site seemed to be time-warped from centuries before, populated by peasants using rudimentary tools to hack at the earth. More than three thousand women, children, and men shoveled, scraped, and scrounged across the artisanal mining zone under a ferocious sun and a haze of dust. With each hack at the earth, a puff of dirt floated up like a specter into the lungs of the diggers. . . . Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe, but that is not the biggest worry that the artisanal miners have. The ore often contains traces of radioactive uranium.”

Siddharth Kara, Cobalt Red

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) acknowledges that as much as 70% of cobalt coming from the Congo “has some touch with child labor.” But if 70% of 72% of the global cobalt supply is “touched” with child labor, then half of the world’s cobalt is “touched” with child labor. And how much of the world’s cobalt is “touched” by hundreds of thousands of people in the Congo suffering from toxic exposure to cobalt, uranium, lead, nickel, mercury, and other heavy metals in the artisanal cobalt mines? How much was touched by the babies inhaling the toxic mine dust while strapped to their mothers as they worked in the mines every day? And how much was “touched” by the untold number injured or killed in mining accidents? At a certain point there is no question that statements like Samsung’s — “Samsung has a zero-tolerance policy against child labor as prohibited by international standards and relevant national laws and regulations in all stages of its global operations” — are utterly meaningless. After all, no one is going behind the fenced mines in the Congo to check and see. It’s not in their interest to do so.

How Do We Move Forward Given the Realities of the New Green Energy Economy?

Guillaume Pitron’s answer to the dire environmental impact of so much mining required by the green energy economy is to bring mining back to the Western countries that abandoned it. His idea is that in bringing this dirty work back to where we must see, smell, taste, and live with it, the true environmental costs of our consumptive lifestyles will be unavoidable. “We would instantly realize — to our horror — the true cost of our self-declared modern, connected, and green world.” Our indifference and denial would, he believes, come to an end. We would pressure our government to ban the smallest quantities of toxins, boycott companies who didn’t strictly adhere to environmental protections, protest against the planned obsolescence of our devices which means more and more critical minerals must continue to be mined, and demand that sufficient profits go back into research for safe recycling of these minerals once their product has been discarded. Maybe, Pitron hopes, we would even decrease our own consumption of products containing critical minerals. Only direct experience of mining in our own backyards could bring about these kinds of changes.

We could take the time to actually assess our need for lighting, for energy for all kinds of things we never question. In The Story of More, author Hope Jahren suggests that we rethink our idea of what we collectively believe that energy is for. Once we’ve honestly assessed this idea and redesigned our future solutions, we can transform how we use energy. The logic behind our ready willingness to poison ourselves and our planet even more than we already do makes no sense to most people who pause long enough to think critically about what we’re embracing. As Pitron asks,” What is the point of ‘progress’ if it does not help humanity progress?”

According to NOAA, global atmospheric CO2 has increased 23.8 parts per million (ppm) in the past ten years. That’s 68.4 ppm above the “safe” level. We passed 68.4 ppm in 1990. By the end of 2022, there were nearly 27 million electric vehicles in operation and approximately 30% of the world’s electricity currently comes from renewables (though fossil fuels still account for over 80% of global energy production). Renewables and electric vehicles are not reducing our global atmospheric CO2 at all. This is not how we will save our world. We will save it by drastically reducing energy and materials consumption and conservation of the Earth’s resources.

Lierre Keith expresses it this way: “The goal has been transformed: We’re supposed to save our way of life, not fight for the living planet” but, she says, “they are solving for the wrong variable. Our way of life doesn’t need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life.” A lifestyle cannot sustain us; only a living, breathing, healthy planet can sustain life. The new green energy economy is continuing the undoing of the planet so that it cannot sustain us. Just changing the source of energy does not change what our way of life is doing to the planet or, therefore, to us.

Derrick Jensen argues that we must be honest with ourselves and each other. We have to recognize that in order to have an electrical system, we must also have a mining infrastructure for the copper and other metals for wiring. We have to be clear on the most fundamental facts. And they exist together within a context. Every system and every object relies upon the extraction of resources from the Earth. We also have to acknowledge that it’s a myth that we can have it all–an industrial culture and also wild nature, a healthy planet. It doesn’t matter what we’re told through mainstream approaches to the climate crises. We have to search for and understand the actual truth as it corresponds to physical reality. It’s simply not true that we don’t have to change our lifestyle at all to have a healthy planet. We do have to change our lifestyle. Radically and starting yesterday. We need to stop lying to ourselves and to each other. We need to tell the truth.

By this point I hope to have built a case to support what Lierre Keith believes are three hard truths.

  1. “Our current way of life requires industrial levels of energy.
  2. Fossil fuel — especially oil — is functionally irreplaceable. The proposed alternatives — like solar, wind, hydro, and biomass — will never scale up to power an industrial economy.
  3. Those technologies are in their own right assaults against the living world. From beginning to end, they require industrial-scale devastation: open-pit mining, deforestation, soil toxification that’s permanent on anything but a geological timescale, the extirpation and extinction of species. and, oh yes, fossil fuels. These technologies will not save the earth. They will only hasten its demise.”

Do the technologies in the new green energy economy exist to help the Earth or do they exist to maintain our way of life despite the cost to the planet? Keeping this question in mind will help us make the decisions that best align with what we each value and prioritize most. When the answer to saving the Earth involves destroying the desert or scraping off the ocean floor, blasting off mountain tops or converting meadows to large arrays, we may have lost sight of what we most care about and, in fact, most need in order to sustain ourselves.

No one really wants to give up our current luxuries and conveniences. But they are not as important as being able to continue to live and to do so on a planet that is thriving versus a planet doing all it can to barely keep up with the climate and other changes happening today. And the things we give up are not as important as stopping the suffering we bring upon others around the world so that we can have those luxuries and conveniences. Once we acknowledge the realities that we can’t have it all, that technology won’t save us (in fact it makes things worse and harms others while doing so), we can begin helping the Earth recover, even rewild. On that path, there’s lots we can do.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic

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One thought on “The New Green Energy Economy . . . Déjà vu or Even Worse?

  1. This is probably the most important article you’ve ever written. Excellent research and distillation of an extremely depressing but revelatory message on greenwashing. It should be submitted for publication EVERYWHERE! So much to digest and think about. The Congo section is appalling and needs to be fed to a very wide audience. Let’s talk about this!!

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