Changemaker Profile: Going Beyond Green

This article was first published in issue 8 of SHIFT magazine

Radical activism and mainstream politics may seem an unlikely flirtation at first blush, but a courtship is under way, and commitment is on the cards.

A new initiative has sprung up to bridge the chasm that separates activism and the necessary transition to a sustainable economy from the sphere of mainstream politics. Seeking to embolden Green policy and politics in Australia, Beyond Green is developing an online platform and physical networks aimed at strengthening and deepening the connections between activism, economic transition, and policy, and democratizing the discourse around our environmental crisis.

Beyond Green grew out of Generation Alpha’s Brisbane-based collective in Australia after members agreed on the need to extend beyond activism into policy and economic transition, in order to adequately address the complexity of our environmental predicament. Citing the economic policy orientation of measures suggested by writers such as Ozzie Zehner and Naomi Klein, Beyond Green is venturing beyond the traditional parameters of environmental activism.

Activism with an unashamedly political flavour

Launching with a bang in early 2015, Beyond Green is responsible for the boldest challenge yet to the planned exploitation of Queensland’s Galilee Basin by corporate coal mining giants. The Galilee Blockade is a warning to Big Coal that we, the people, demand to be heard and taken seriously when our land, water and livelihoods are threatened by land-clearing, pollution and fossil fuel emissions.

More light-hearted campaigns so far launched by the collective apply a fun, creative approach to tackling tough issues that are difficult to garner public interest in. Change The Day Triple J, for example, is a controversial low-ball challenge to the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th, a day that for many First Nations Peoples marks invasion and the beginning of an occupation to which they have never ceded sovereignty. A call to change Australia Day to an alternative day that can be fully inclusive and celebratory is a step toward truth and reconciliation. Such initiatives can most effectively be taken by media platforms such as Triple J radio, which has both institutional power and a moral responsibility to shift perceptions.

Data retention in Australia has also emerged as a controversial topic of late, and surveillance overreach looks set to spin out of control. In response, Beyond Green launched a successful campaign to both raise public awareness of the dangers of such overreach and send a clear message to the government that the breach of Australians’ privacy is unacceptable. So far the campaign has been a cheeky hit, according to Beyond Green spearhead Ben Pennings.

“Thousands of people around the country cc’ed Attorney-General George Brandis onto all their emails… This ironically led to a tightening in Federal Parliament’s and Apple’s IT protocols after activists managed to get the emails direct to Brandis’ phone – while he was being censured in the Senate!”

Australians are not known for being overtly political, but when it comes to threats to Australian values and the rights Australians hold dear, a creative and fun campaign can have the effect of transforming public discourse.

Radical steps to tackle the roots of our crisis

Candid about the narrow window of time we have to take actions that will avert far-reaching environmental catastrophe, Beyond Green are aiming for an injection of deep green realism into the veins of policy. We don’t have time to waste on telling electorates what they want to hear for the sake of scoring votes; we need informed leadership and the willingness to act fast, and to apply pressure from the grass roots.

When asked why Beyond Green is a necessary step, Pennings comments on the environment movement’s inadequate response to our environmental crisis. In spite of the many successes the movement has had, the crisis shows no signs of abating.

“50 years of a modern-day environment movement has seen many wonderful battles won, ecosystems and species saved, destructive developments stopped. But these 50 years have been the most destructive, with the movement not even getting close to stopping the raging torrent of violently extractive growth economics. Worse, much of the movement now is not even trying.”

It is not that the environment movement isn’t acting; a great deal is being done, but it is not getting to the crux of the problem. Without addressing the root cause of environmental destruction – the economic growth imperative – little can be done to halt destruction, and the mainstream environment movement simply does not recognize economic growth as the driver of ecological harm.

“Economic growth is seen as OK, even desirable, so long as it is powered by a slightly greener fuel source… The movement needs to explicitly recognize ecological and economic limits – that we can’t just tinker at the edges of an abusive system of living and just hope that things will somehow work out.”

It shouldn’t need pointing out that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, or that there is only so much we can extract from the earth, only so much toxic waste we can generate, before we breach critical boundaries. In fact, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting humanity has already far exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet—we are now living as if we have a second Earth up our sleeve! To attempt to continue growing the economy despite this reality is tantamount to a kamikaze mission of global proportions.

But there is at present no politician or party in Australia campaigning on a platform of degrowth or a steady state economy. Brave policy is needed, and it will require a courageous and informed electorate to demand it. But Pennings is optimistic about the potential for change.

“Beyond Green recognizes that the insanity of economic growth must and can be stopped – voluntarily, justly, and through increasing the wellbeing of human communities.”

Justice is central to both how and why an economic transition needs to take place. Beyond Green makes clear that there can be no economic justice without transition to an economy that sustains life, moving away from our current model of transforming nature into commodities in a perversion of the concept of wealth creation.

Political shock therapy

It’s almost as though our political system needs a form of shock therapy, a shock to the system that issues a timely wake-up call. But is this realistic? Can change really be expected to come from the top-down political system? Even one that is shocked and awed?

Pennings flags a profound lack of faith in the current model of electoral politics as a means for achieving meaningful change, but he believes that a groundswell of pressure from communities can shock politicians into changing tack.

“Beyond Green has an interest in electoral politics, but not because that’s where systemic change will happen. Systemic change will come from grassroots movements, not Green politicians or Green NGOs funded by corporate foundations.”

Beyond Green recognizes that, although meaningful change emerges through the cracks in the existing system, there is clearly a need for more popular involvement in deciding on the direction of this change. Asked whether they are involved with any particular political party, Pennings responds that:

“We’re not linked with the Australian Greens but we definitely want to influence them – we want them to take on braver policies that recognise ecological and economic limits, that we need radical changes to the way we live. We also want Green politicians that recognise their main job is to explicitly support grassroots ecological and economic transition and social justice movements that represent our only chance for systemic change.”

Working with a political party that more closely represents the grassroots movement—which constitutes the majority of its voters—makes sense as a starting point. But joining the dots is no mean feat: a strategy is required to connect grassroots environmentalism and the degrowth movement to a political party in order to facilitate a confluence of these ideas, and establish a channel for developing policies that reflect the crises we collectively face.

“We are encouraging people involved in grassroots activism and economic transition to join the Greens so the party can be better integrated with movements for economic, ecological and social justice. We plan for this to lead to policy that better represents the economic and ecological realities we face, that recognizes we haven’t got the time for incremental multi-generational change.”

While connection with The Greens represents the path of least resistance, Beyond Green does not rule out engagement with other parties, as pressure from multiple directions is more effective than pushing The Greens further to the margins.

Democratising the development of policy

The nuts and bolts of Beyond Green’s policy platform are in the works as we speak, with a basic framework being established to guide the development of brave – and detailed – policies to introduce into Australian political culture. But first cab off the rank will be direct engagement with The Australian Greens, a bit of a stir-up that will keep the party on its toes and accountable to its supporter base, Pennings reports, somewhat cheekily.

“The internal policy processes of The Australian Greens will be the first port of call, something bound to cause ruckus within the party.”

The actual policies to be proposed by Beyond Green are being kept under the collective’s hat for now, as the process of policy development is at least as important as the eventual content. Once the framework is in place, these policy proposals will be developed by volunteer working groups in accordance with the principles of deliberative democracy. The process will be transparent, with an online platform for public comment, suggestion, and critique—all essential elements of a functional democracy. Background material will be provided to users of the site to contextualise the group’s work and objectives, as an informed electorate is best positioned to deliberate effectively over the direction of policy.

For those concerned that the deliberative process runs the risk of descending into a talk-fest that breeds non-participation, Pennings lays these fears to rest with the assurance that hard work and higher levels of engagement in action will be rewarded with a larger stake in decision-making. This will not be a free-for-all which can be hijacked by those who make demands and then expect others to roll out the policies that will meet them.

“There will definitely be a form of do-ocracy where the folk more involved get more say than those less involved.”

The deliberative process of policy development enables envelope-pushing beyond the boundaries of what is politically appealing to the mainstream, Pennings points out.

“There is license to explore and promote policy that some would currently see as politically too unpopular.”

That license comes not a moment too soon, and to be sure, sincere activists and transitioners have earned it. Connecting activism, transition and policy provides a potential pathway toward a sustainable future that bypasses the time and energy wastage of disconnected work in isolation by groups competing for the public’s time, attention and trust.

Beyond Green is beating a track from which many inroads can be made, and we would be wise to join them on their journey.


The fence separates Bimblebox Nature Refuge on the left from  a property on the right that has been cleared for grazing cattle. Bimblebox may also be cleared to make way for Waratah Coal's Galilee Coal Project. Source: Kari McGregor.

The elephant in the courtroom: mining magnate money in political party pockets

Indian mining company Adani stands in the dock this week over a legal challenge to its proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

Adani is up against the Coast and Country Alliance of Queensland (CCAQ), a community organization represented in Land Court by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).

The EDO is seeking “a clear recommendation the Adani mine should not proceed due to climate, ecological and economic impacts.”

If the $16.5 billion dollar mega-mine were to go ahead it would cause extensive environmental damage and significantly increase Australia’s contribution to climate change, according to experts testifying in the case.

CCAQ spokesperson Derec Davies said the risks were unacceptable. “Our case is that this mine should not be allowed to go ahead,” said Davies.

The fence separates Bimblebox Nature Refuge on the left from  a property on the right that has been cleared for grazing cattle. Bimblebox may also be cleared to make way for Waratah Coal's Galilee Coal Project. Source: Kari McGregor.

Galilee Basin properties under threat from coal mining: The fence separates Bimblebox Nature Refuge on the left from a property on the right that has been cleared for grazing cattle. Bimblebox may also be cleared to make way for Waratah Coal’s Galilee Coal Project. Source: Kari McGregor.

Ben Pennings, convener of community group Beyond Green, said successful development of the Galilee would make it “the largest coal complex on the globe with the annual emissions from burning it higher than the national emissions of all but 6 countries.”

Adani’s Carmichael mine alone would rank as the world’s 36th largest emitter, just below the oil economy of the United Arab Emirates.

It is not clear whether the matter of Adani’s political donations will be raised during the five weeks of proceedings.

In financial year 2013-2014 Adani donated $49,500 to the LNP and $11,000 to the ALP respectively, according to disclosures from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Galilee Basin Carbon Account

AEC disclosures show Adani are not the only mining company donors with stakes in the Galilee coal basin. Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Coal donated $55,000 to the ALP and $44,880 to the National party in the 2012–2013 financial year, and Hancock Prospecting donated $55,000 to the National Party. Clive Palmer also donated $43,300 to the Queensland branch of the LNP in the same year.

It is hard to track all the mining donations to the federal and state governments, said Pennings.

“We tried to track all the donations”, but “gave up when it passed $3 million, also realising much more is hidden through loopholes in electoral law.”

“Legally these companies cannot donate unless they believe they are getting something for their donations,” said Pennings, adding that both major parties offer returns with “pro-mining policies and subsidies, at the expense of longer-term industries like tourism, agriculture and greener electricity production.”

“Government approvals for mining in the Galilee are a scandal. There is broad evidence of major ecological harm, and harm to other industries that aren’t as destructive to communities and ecosystems.”

Prior to the Queensland state election, the LNP state government had slated $450 million of taxpayer money to subsidise the construction of a railway to transport coal from mine to port, as well as royalty discounts.

After winning the January state election the ALP have taken the subsidy and royalty discounts offer off the table.

Adani plan to continue without it, raising the question of whether it was ever needed and whether government subsidies are helping create jobs.

When contacted for a response, Adani Director of Communications Andrew Porter declined to comment, stating: “Adani does not propose to comment on a matter before the Court.”

Further information on the Galilee Basin mining projects and their impact can be found here.
Agriculture accounts for 33% of Australia's emissions when landclearing is accounted for. Most landclearing is done for the livestock industry, with beef the biggest single source of agricultural emissions.

‘Climatarians’ cooking for a low-carbon diet

Last week thousands of Australians took up the challenge to go without meat for a week. Reasons ranged from health or animal welfare to environmental concerns – particularly climate change.

Not everyone found the challenge easy, said Meat Free Week co-founder Melissa Hobbs, but the debate has been thrown wide open.

“Some said they found it really hard, some didn’t make it through the week, but most of the feedback was really positive,” said Hobbs, who aims to reach people who may have “never considered the impact their food choices are having.”

“Our campaign has a really single-minded purpose, and that is to try and get people to reduce their meat consumption,” said Hobbs.

“If we got everyone who participated to commit to a meat-free Monday, or, better still, to actually halve their meat consumption … then that’s positive.”

Hot on the heels of Meat Free Week a new climate initiative goes live online this week. Less Meat Less Heat uses the term ‘climatarian’ for people who choose to eat a low-carbon diet.

Agriculture accounts for 33% of Australia's emissions when landclearing is accounted for. Most landclearing is done for the livestock industry, with beef the biggest single source of agricultural emissions.

Agriculture accounts for 33% of Australia’s emissions when landclearing is accounted for. Most landclearing is done for the livestock industry, with beef the biggest single source of agricultural emissions.

Less Meat Less Heat draws on scientific reports including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (UNFAO) Livestock’s Long Shadow, Worldwatch Institute’s Livestock and Climate Change, and Beyond Zero Emissions’ (BZE) Land Use Report.

CEO of BZE Stephen Bygrave said agriculture contributes significantly to Australia’s emissions, with landclearing – largely for the livestock industry – the largest source of agricultural emissions.

“When you include landclearing emissions, agriculture actually makes up about 33% of Australia’s emissions profile,” said Bygrave.

Less Meat Less Heat

Asked about the shift to a less carbon-intensive diet Bygrave said “the reality is that if we are to have a habitable planet and a world that is only limited to 2 degrees warming by the end of the century, we need to be considering the role that all sectors can play in reducing emissions, and that includes the agricultural sector.”

“Reducing meat consumption is a decision that every individual can make on their own terms”, said Bygrave, adding that reducing meat consumption is a simple step “for individuals who are wondering what actions they can take to reduce emissions in the absence of any government response to climate change.”

Less Meat Less Heat founder Mark Pershin agrees with Bygrave that it is necessary to address emissions from all sectors.

“If we only focus on the renewable energy transition then we’ll still hit climate catastrophe,” said Pershin.

“Addressing livestock emissions buys us time to transition to a low-carbon economy, and time is not on our side. The good news is that we can have more time if we cut livestock emissions.”

Less Meat Less Heat will help Australians track the climate footprint of their food choices with web apps that keep it simple, fun and engaging.

“Most carbon calculators exclude the food footprint, which dwarfs the impact of other measures like riding your bike instead of driving your car,” said Pershin.

“Less Meat Less Heat’s initial goal is to achieve widespread awareness of the total climate footprint of each meal so we can make informed choices about how we eat.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Less Meat Less Heat, check out their brand new website.   

The Personal is Political

This article was first published in issue 8 of SHIFT magazine

Safely isolated from our public political personas, our personal lives are sacred territory. We strive to convince ourselves that our personal choices are not politically relevant; that if we talk the right talk it’s as good as walking it, that our unconscious habits don’t snitch on our real values. But actions speak louder than words, and the personal is political.

A familiar slogan coined during the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that the personal is political is a deep challenge to our sense of separation.

Where first wave feminism was mainly concerned with achieving the right for women to vote, second wave feminism took note of the social and systemic causes of gender inequity. Personal experience came to be viewed not as restricted to the individual, an isolated experience, but as reflective of structures and systems of power and control. In recognizing their personal experiences as reflective of the political status quo, second wave feminists began to overcome self-blame for women’s issues and confront the structures that upheld inequalities.

Learning from social movement history

Sustainability and degrowth advocates have much to learn from the second wave of feminism. Our sadness, frustration and maladjustment to the perpetual growth-based system that undermines sustainability are symptomatic of a social structure in which the environment and many of our fellow humans are systematically dominated, subdued and exploited. Jiddu Krishnamurti put it well when he said that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Rather than striving to align ourselves with the status quo, we ought to instead take the time to reflect on the connections between our personal experiences and the sociopolitical structures that frame our world. Only then can we become empowered to transcend the binary of lifestyle or consumer-based activism versus political campaigning. The women’s movement has not achieved its piecemeal victories by burning bras and rejecting makeup any more than it has through carefully crafted messaging. Change has been made possible through deep personal introspection and comprehension of the structures of political domination. Lasting and meaningful change therefore isn’t top-down or bottom-up – it grows from within to manifest without.

We reflect and serve

Feminist and sociologist Paula Rust offers up six different interpretations of the connection between the two overlapping domains—the personal and the political—forming the foundation for deeper analysis:

  1. The personal reflects the political status quo, so examining the personal helps provide insight into the political.
  2. The personal serves the political status quo.
  3. Personal choices can be made either in response to, or in protest against, the political status quo.
  4. Our personal choices reflect our personal politics.
  5. We should make personal choices that are consistent with our personal politics.
  6. Personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable.

Bound as we are by sets of norms and values, rules and laws, taboos and unquestioned rituals, we have internalized the system to the extent that it does not exist as separate from us. The distinction between our own thoughts, dreams and desires, and those of our society is not always clear cut. In fact, if we pause to examine ourselves, our choices, our biases and prejudices, the things we take for granted, it becomes clear that these are largely reflections of the political status quo.

If we are surprised or put off by male nurses and female plumbers, for example, then we are reflecting a political consensus that reinforces gender roles, making it difficult for any of our sons and daughters to break new ground.

And if we catch ourselves listening more intently upon learning the letters that follow a person’s name – symbols of their educational attainment – then we are reflecting a bias that values society’s prescribed knowledge pathways more than the accumulation of wisdom.

Far from being detached observers of the systems in which we live and breathe, an examination of our own personal lives – our behaviours, attitudes and decisions – inevitably brings us face-to-face with the parameters of politics. Whenever we act in accordance with society’s norms and values we are (often unconsciously) supporting the status quo. When we eschew these accepted rules and customs, we pose a challenge to their supremacy.

There can therefore be no such thing as a ‘neutral’ position when it comes to the political.

The power of choice

Without the mindfulness to challenge what we take for granted, or to question those everyday actions that seem so unremarkably ‘normal’, any bid to opt out of our participation in the system is illusory. The decisions we make remain neatly within acceptable parameters. But once we begin to look a little deeper, to interrogate these parameters, and gently unravel some of our cultural stories, a whole world of possibilities begins to emerge. This is the power of choice.

Of course, enjoying the power of choice is but an ideal, and something of a luxury for the majority. Most of us only begin to reflect on the alternatives when we become sufficiently dissatisfied – or angry – with the way things currently stand. And only then, where alternatives are available to us, can we demonstrate our dissent through different choices.

Those of us with the financial clout may choose to make a (clichéd, but valid) vote with our wallet for a more sustainable, or less destructive option. For many, though, such a choice remains a pipedream; and for others still, relying on economic incentives alone is simply ignoring the forest for the trees.

Often our circumstances leave us with a single critical choice to make: to acquiesce, or to stand our ground and protest for what is right.

Impoverished families facing eviction from social housing, for example, are confronted with the stark choice between homelessness and battling as David against the Goliath of the political powers that be. The very fact that this choice exists reflects the fundamentally personal nature of the political. This is no less true for the indignant Indigenous communities and minority groups fighting for the preservation of their cultural heritages against colonization and their landbases against ecocide.

These individuals know all too well that yearning for change is not enough. Neither is simply demanding it, or even lobbying for it. For them, personal action is the only way forward.

At some point we, too, must face up to our own choices between supporting the status quo and seeking meaningful change. If the decision is for change, we cannot succeed without aligning our actions with our values, our personal choices with our personal politics.

And because political change is an eternal and incremental process of crossing the line and pushing it ever further—not a reward for staying safely within the lines—the personal must inevitably evolve with the political. If we want equality, then we might have to accept a smaller share of the pie; if we want sustainability, then we might have to shrink our material aspirations; if we want justice, then we might have to relinquish some of our privilege.

Everything is political

Of course it’s a weighty claim, that everything is political. But when we acknowledge that in every action and every decision we have a choice—a choice to either remain within the parameters of the status quo, or to instead push the envelope, cross the picket line, or breach the boundary—it soon becomes clear that politics is a fundamental element in everything we do.

Silence, apathy or habitual adherence to the rules of the game may not adversely affect us, but these decisions undoubtedly affect someone. In the game of politics, even our personal ‘non-participation’ is political.

As we look to the future, the path we must tread may seem unclear. And for many there is no obvious end point, no image of political perfection to strive toward. Even with a vision of the model citizen or the utopian civilization in tow, we must be prepared that the reality may turn out radically different. But it is only through the conscious choice to unpack our baggage and attempt the deeply personal journey that our next steps towards a more sustainable and just society become possible. We at least have that power. Let’s use it.

SHIFT-magazine #0007 thumbnail -_Changemaker profile Ozzie Zehner-green illusions, sustainability, renewables

Changemaker Profile: Ozzie Zehner’s Green Illusions

This article was first published in issue 7 of SHIFT magazine

An academic who doesn’t stake his career on pleasing the establishment, Ozzie Zehner dares to put forth a down to earth and rigorously scientific response to our culture’s obsession with technological fixes.

Among other roles, he is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US, and a reviewer for the IPCC. His scholarly research subjects include the social, cultural, political and economic conditions influencing energy policy priorities and project outcomes, as well as investigation into the symbolic roles that energy technologies play within political and environmental movements.

Ozzie is perhaps best known, however, for his award-winning book, Green Illusions, in which he shatters the illusion of the techno-fix. Lifting the veil on the law of unintended consequences, Zehner has achieved a degree of notoriety among techno-optimists for exploring the grey areas of green technology, delving into the dirty secrets of clean energy, and questioning what the future of the – at present, techno-optimistic – environmental movement holds. In his own words, Green Illusions “…certainly isn’t a book for alternative energy. Neither is it a book against it. In fact, we won’t be talking in simplistic terms of for or against, left and right, good and evil … Ultimately, this is a book of shades.” 

The conversation we need to have with regard to how to live lightly – sustainably – on this planet is also one of shades. Very little of the good-bad, right-wrong, sustainable-unsustainable binary discourse we engage in is really as simple as it may seem at face value. If we are to achieve a sustainable existence on this planet then we have to see the world as it is, and not as we would wish for it to be. This is undoubtedly a challenge, but Zehner is not deterred; if we correctly understand the limitations of technology, and the potential of more systemic change, then we can begin to chart our course.

The taming of the environmental movement

It is an understatement to say that the environmental movement has not succeeded in stemming the tide of ecological destruction. For all the marches, petitions and publicity stunts, and for all the slogans, hashtags and Twitterstorms the youthful, social media-savvy movement has thrust into public consciousness, carbon emissions continue to rise, and the globe continues to warm. Forests are razed, and mountaintops blasted off. Species are lost, and water, soil and air are poisoned. What is it, precisely, that isn’t working?

Critical of the present-day mainstream of the environmental movement, Zehner sheds some light on the current default activism that flirts with co-optation by neoliberal interests and ideology:

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

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Zehner contrasts the environmental movement today with the much more holistic and self-reflective approach of the old-school movement of half a century ago:

“Prominent environmentalists were living modestly, challenging dominant economic assumptions, and imagining durable strategies for human prosperity that were more in tune with the non-human planet. That humility has largely eroded.”

In explaining this transformation of a movement that was once committed to small-footprint lifestyles, re-imagining the good life, and questioning economic growth, Zehner cites what amounts to a corporate takeover of the ‘green’ agenda, visible to the naked eye of any mindful observer:

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

Zehner, an engineer whose fascination with green technology was what led him to build a wind turbine in his backyard as a kid, and an electric car in his high school years, is passionate about technology. But he is realistic about its potential, and its limitations.

Who killed the electric car?

One of the most celebrated superstars of the renewables ‘revolution’ is the electric car, and conspiracy theories abound as to why our roads are not full of sleek, soundless vehicles powered by abundant, clean electricity, but still congested with dirty gas-guzzlers. It is a pervasive myth, however, that it would be a simple task to convert an entire fleet of vehicles to electrical power, or that it would be sensible to replace all current vehicles – regardless their state of repair – with an entirely new fleet, fresh off the production line. Zehner brings the conversation down to earth with a bump:

“Building a heavy box with wheels and then shoving it thousands of miles down a road requires a lot of energy. There’s no physical way around that. Electric car companies haven’t found a way around the physics. But they’ve created an illusion that they have.

“Electric cars can seem clean if you’re wearing some pretty substantial blinders. And if you read reports by industry, political groups, and academic departments at UC-Davis, MIT, Stanford, or Indiana University, who have partnered with industry, that’s what you’ll get – narrow questions that measure easily obtainable data that can be quantified within a semester. On their own, they might be a curiosity, but electric car proponents leverage these fractional studies into the spotlight to paint the whole industry green.”

He goes on to reference a study conducted with no industry strings attached – one that reveals a rather different picture.

“Researchers at The National Academy of Sciences took a step back. They investigated the entire life cycle of an electric car and painstakingly compared its impact to epidemiological data from every county across the United States. They determined that electric cars merely create a different set of side effects. It’s just that those side effects don’t come out of a tailpipe, where we are accustomed to looking for them.

“Overall, the researchers found no benefit to an electric car once you account for the broader array of harms – most notably those arising through manufacturing. The National Academies report is showing its age, but it’s the best we’ve got so far because it’s comprehensive and independent. It was commissioned by Congress – we paid for it – and it’s co-authored by 100 of the nation’s top scientific advisers. A more recent Congressional Budget Office report came to similar conclusions.” 

Inconvenient truths

Clearly Zehner doesn’t beat about the bush when it comes to inconvenient truths. A particularly inconvenient truth, it seems, for the largely techno-optimistic climate movement, is that so-called clean energy is reliant on fossil fuels for its very viability.

“There is an impression that we have a choice between fossil fuels and clean energy technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines. That choice is an illusion. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels for mining operations, fabrication plants, installation, ongoing maintenance and decommissioning.”

In reality, alternative energy technologies are better understood as a product of the fossil fuel industry. Getting the raw materials out of the ground to build the alternative energy infrastructure requires diesel-powered machinery, and we’re yet to come up with an alternative means of powering the kind of massive machinery that’s required for shifting massive amounts of earth and rock to get at the valued substances beneath. And biofuels, the much-touted replacement for petroleum energy, turn out to be a net energy sink, so reliant are they on petrochemical fertilizers and energy-intensive agriculture for their production.

One of the most glaring misconceptions around alternative energy is that it is essentially ‘free’ because the sun doesn’t charge us when it shines, and the wind doesn’t charge us when it blows.

“Since wind and sunlight are free, why are wind and solar power so expensive? Solar and wind energy technologies should be very cheap – much cheaper than fossil fuels.

“But they are not cheap at all. Even with massive subsidies, we see firms going bankrupt trying to sell them. And then we still have to figure in the cost of building batteries, redundant power plants or other infrastructure that arises from their low quality intermittent energy.”

But perhaps the greatest misconception of all is that alternative energy sources are clean and safe. They are, inconveniently, nothing of the sort, as Zehner points out:  

“…we have to consider the mining, health, pollution and waste problems of renewable technologies. For example, we are now learning that the solar cell industry is one of the fastest growing emitters of virulent greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has a global warming potential 23,000 times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

The most inconvenient truth of all, it appears, is that we cannot have our cake and eat it. Energy will not come for free, and it cannot be entirely clean and safe, due to the production requirements of mining, infrastructure, and waste disposal. As the law of unintended consequences would have it, although the carbon emissions level of alternative energy systems is lower, the overall destruction caused is far from negligible, thus the technology itself is far from sustainable.

“There’s no such thing as clean energy, but there is such a thing as less energy. Every energy generation technique has side effects and limitations. The best way to avoid these negative consequences is to use less energy overall.”

It seems we’re simply going to have to swallow our sci-fi ambitions, and power down. There’s a snag with that solution, though, and it’s this: low energy consumption doesn’t fit within the parameters of our paradigm; most of us don’t want to use less energy, and we’ve been convinced (generally by crafty salespeople and politicians) that we don’t have to compromise.

The ‘productivist’ paradigm

Zehner’s major critique with our current approach to problem-solving is that it fits squarely within the paradigm of ‘productivism’, the notion that the production of more of any given thing – be it technology, consumer goods, or GDP – has the power to change the status quo significantly. This pervasive productivist attitude is clearly of benefit to industry and big business, while incompatible with the goal of sustainability. Although it is convenient to focus on the evils of market capitalism and the accumulation of wealth, Zehner warns that these are not the only drivers of environmental destruction.

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

It’s almost too simple to warrant a mention, but it remains largely unacknowledged by the majority of people – environmentalists included: we live on a finite planet; therefore we simply cannot go on ‘producing stuff’ forever without consequence.

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

Zehner points out that the neoliberal mindset is not only the domain of Libertarians and Tea-Partiers, but also of conservatives and progressives; all subscribe to solutions that fit within the parameters of productivism. Political outliers who run on a platform of degrowth are few and far between:

“I know of one political candidate in the US who has run on a platform of slowing down the machine in order to preserve long-term prosperity only: Dave Gardner, who ran for mayor of Colorado Springs and directed a movie about it called Growthbusters.” 

That’s our very own Dave Gardner, author of SHIFT’s regular Growthbusting column. Dave didn’t win the race for mayor of Colorado Springs, but then who stands a chance against competitors who tell us we can have our cake and eat it?

Powering down

Although a soft-spoken and seemingly introverted guy, Ozzie doesn’t shy away from hard truths that need telling. If we are to have a sustainable future on this planet, we are going to have to accept the limitations of its finiteness, and this itself poses a conundrum.

“Our future success will rest upon our ability to bring the population down over time as we also reduce per-capita consumption. How do we do that while maintaining life satisfaction?

“That’s the question that Richard Heinberg, Curtis White, Albert Bartlett, Paul and Anne Erhlich, Jeff Gibbs and I are asking along with theorists in the French de-growth movement and others. We certainly don’t have all of the answers – far from it. There’s not even much room to discuss these topics within the existing progressive movement, but I invite everyone to come join us in creating that space. The first steps are to shed our green energy illusions and to start thinking more critically about perpetual growth. Afterward, I suspect we’ll be able to ask clearer questions and maybe even imagine what a truly advanced civilization might look like.”

The difficulty with powering down is less a technical issue and more a cultural one, and the environmental movement needs to join with the degrowth movement in pioneering the path toward a cultural shift that will enable society to shift down a gear or two in terms of consumption.

A culture shift within a movement

The environmental movement, however, comes up against its own internal set of pitfalls that have thus far prevented a return to the old-school days of energy conservation, envelope-pushing, and challenges to the economic paradigm. Funding is the first of these pitfalls that Zehner mentions, with the compromises required to secure it resulting in a shifting of the goalposts.

“Mainstream environmental groups are exchanging their principles for power at a suspect rate of exchange. It’s not just the alternative energy technologies that rely on fossil fuels. The environmental groups do, too. They rely on funding from the excess wealth accumulated as froth on the top of the fossil fuel economy.”

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the mainstream environmental movement has ‘made do’ with the position they are in with regards to funding, and focused their energy on promoting the techno-fix solutions of the industries that provide them with the funding required to do their work. The unintended consequence, of course, is a tacit – and sometimes overt – endorsement of fetishized gadgetry over the seemingly boring alternative of ‘less is more’.

“Mainstream environmental groups seem transfixed by technological gadgetry and have succumbed to magical thinking surrounding their pet fetishes. The last thing you want to give to a growing population of high consumers is more “green” energy. Even if it did work as advertised, who knows what we would do with it, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be good for other species on the planet or, for that matter, long-term human prosperity.”

The mainstream of the environmental movement seems, therefore, to be riding a wave of self-perpetuating fantasy, rather than confronting reality. If the net result is not environmental protection and regeneration, then new questions need to be asked, and new strategies drawn up.

“We’ve built up stories around green technologies and we make comparisons that are bound to satisfy those preconceptions. As a result, we have an environmental movement that is asking the wrong questions about growth, economy, equity and global risks.

“Take, for instance, the practice by mainstream environmental groups of vilifying petroleum cars in order to promote electric cars. No doubt, gas cars are expensive and dirty. They kill tens of thousands of people annually. But using them as a benchmark to judge a technology as green is a remarkably low bar. Even if researchers at the National Academies are wrong – even if electric cars someday pass over that low bar – there’s another problem. How will electric cars stack up against the broader array of transportation options at hand, such as transit, cycling and walking?”

Zehner clearly has a point: surely the raison d’etre of a movement is to shift the centre of gravity, to shift the discourse to the conversations that are hard to have, yet necessary if we are to bring about the vital changes that will secure our long-term survival. Ultimately, we cannot expect alternative energy technologies, or any flashy consumer gadgets, to solve problems whose causes are social, political, and economic in nature. 

If we are to really make a difference, the environmental movement is going to have to trek the path less-travelled; the movement’s own centre of gravity will have to shift. We need to not only seek different solutions, but also ask different questions, such as what the ‘good life’ really looks like, and how it can be achieved without ecological compromise. The last word on this I’ll leave to Ozzie:

“We are so far from finding solutions. We first have to change our questions. We have to stop touting green growth, green jobs, green buildings, green business, and start to interrogate assumptions that undergird the belief that material growth will lead to long-term prosperity.”

If you’d like to keep up with Ozzie Zehner’s work, check out his website, and consider grabbing a copy of Green Illusions.
Zehner’s comments for this article, unless otherwise referenced, were sourced from his interview with TruthOut at Zehner’s own recommendation. All points made in this article are Zehner’s own, and have been edited for brevity and clarity by the article’s author.
with us or against us

#CharlieHebdo Fallout – Part 2: “Je suis Charlie” – aka “You’re either with us, or you’re against us”

Yesterday marked one month since the appalling waste of life at Charlie Hebdo HQ in Paris. Judging by its total absence from the media over the past couple of weeks, it might as well have been years. The intended interpretation of events is already etched in stone.

The story continues, of course, for those who are keen to follow up and gain further insight, as with any complex story; but for those whose minds are easily made up, the mainstream media spectacle of the first week was more than sufficient. And as with many other complex stories, what one learns during the mainstream media feeding frenzy are the lines to a narrative you are not meant to question. The few who follow stories to the next level may be rewarded with deeper insight, but not with the attention of those whose impressions were carved out by the cookie-cutter mould of the Murdoch press.

#freespeech enthusiasm dims

The #freespeech enthusiasts mostly seem to have retreated to the closet – they certainly didn’t pop out en masse to make an appearance on behalf of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for his words. You’d think at least the Islamo-skeptics would be out in full force, being that Badawi’s charge was apostasy. But alas, too few pointed out the hypocrisy of the Saudi royals turning out to rally for free speech on the very day that Badawi received his first 50 lashes, and very few pointed out that the Saudi royals would most certainly have condemned the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to the same fate as Badawi, had they attempted to publish their cartoons on Saudi turf.  To be fair, the #JeSuisRaif hashtag did a little twirl on Twitter, but the fate of this Middle-Eastern man who dared to challenge authority, and who is still living, and can still be saved from his appalling fate, doesn’t seem to be of as much interest at the dead Europeans.

And the #freespeech enthusiasts are certainly not clamouring for the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi to be uncensored. Slahi has been languishing in Guantanamo since 4th August 2002, when he was taken to be ‘guilty of terrorism, by association’. He has written extensively about the torture he endured at the hands of the US military in order to coerce a false confession from him – including a mock execution at sea. His memoir, Guantanamo Diary, written in 2005, and officially declassified in 2013 after litigation and negotiation, appeared on the shelves of bookstores in January in heavily redacted form. Slahi remains at Guantanamo, despite having never been charged with an offence or placed on trial. His release, still pending, was ordered on March 22nd, 2010; #JeSuisMohamedou is most definitely not trending.

Solidarity, at least, with those we can relate to…

It seems we have more difficulty expressing solidarity with those who are suffering the consequences of their attempts to yank the veil from abusive power structures than we do with those who sneer and jeer at marginalized minorities. Perhaps this says something about us; after all, most of us have never stuck our necks out as far as the likes of Raif Badawi or Mohamedou Ould Slahi, but most of us have probably sneered and jeered at marginalized minorities at some point, even if we later feel the appropriate measure of shame for having done so.

Perhaps we’re more taken aback by the ferocity of the punishment meted out to Charlie Hebdo than we are by the punishment and censorship of Badawi and Slahi, and perhaps this has more to do with accepted norms than it does with moral clarity. We’re quite used to getting away with ridiculing already oppressed minorities who have very little means with which to fight back. But when it comes to exposing corrupt power structures we’re well aware of the potential consequences, which is precisely why most of us haven’t gone much against the grain ourselves.

Celebration of our new heroes – who most of us had never heard of until they were martyred – offers us reprieve from the pressures of self-reflection. We shun the spotlight cast by those whose work exposes abuse and corruption, perhaps because it forces reflection on our own tacit compliance with the system of abuse from our positions of relative privilege.

It is easy to see how #JeSuisCharlie amounts to a sense of solidarity in the face of adversity, much like the sense of solidarity felt in the wake of 9/11, when New Yorkers and sympathizers worldwide celebrated the heroic empire and its pending triumph over the savages. We in the wealthy west, so used to our relative safety and comfort, identify far more with the slain cartoonists and office workers than we ever could with the political activists and freedom fighters living under oppressive regimes, and the victims of our own ‘war on terror’.

You’re either with us, or you’re against us

“You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”, George Bush asserted – bastardizing the cliched ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ trope – after the Twin Towers went down on 9/11 and it was determined that Iraqis would pay for the damage in blood and oil. ‘With us’ meant that you supported the warmongering imperialists; ‘against us’ meant that you supported the terrorists. There was no middle ground whereby you could condemn the atrocity, yet not support the pending invasion. In similar fashion, either you are Charlie Hebdo, or you are not. If you are, then you stand for free speech (specifically of the irreverent sort trotted out by Charlie’s cartoon crew) and against tyranny, and if you are not, then you are an apologist for terrorism and care little for freedom. You cannot claim the neutral ground of condemning the murders while keeping your distance from the content – and attitude – of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. You’re with Charlie, or you’re against Charlie.

One problem with the ‘you’re either with us, or you’re against us’ polarisation is that not too many people want to fall on the wrong side of the dichotomy – conformity in the face of reinforced cultural identity is the more appealing option, particularly when the other side of the dichotomy is steeped in the blood of innocents. Perhaps a more serious problem with polarizing public opinion in this way, however, is that the public generally do not know what they are getting into when they declare that they are ‘with us’. They do not necessarily understand that ‘with us’ means an escalation in violence against the ‘Muslim world’, that nebulous, fictitious construct that allows us to dehumanize those we hold to be guilty by association. It’ll be less horrid to bomb them now, knowing that they are so backward and barbaric, and oddly hypersensitive – which, of course, they clearly must be if their faith commands them to kill those who do not share it (of course, cognitive dissonance demands that we ignore the 99.99% of Muslims who don’t fall neatly in line with this bloodlusting stereotype).

Team America was for bombs, and Team Charlie is for pencils – according to many a naïve Tweet. Except those pencils are backed up by bombs, and Team Charlie are edging public opinion in the direction of further decimation of non-US-allied regions of the Middle East. Because that’s the logical place to bomb when a couple of French Algerians have shot some French cartoonists, just as it was when a crew of loony Saudis hijacked a couple of planes and rammed them into the Twin Pillars of Capitalism. As with 9/11, someone other than the perpetrators will pay, in blood, and in oil.

The string-pullers on the geopolitical stage don’t need logic; they just need your kneejerk reactions. They don’t need you to understand the intentions of the terrorists – in fact, it’s better for them if you don’t. They just need you to get angry and bay for blood – that way you’ll accept the ‘collateral damage’ that will undoubtedly ensue when all hellfire breaks loose on innocent Muslim civilians yet again. Whatever you do, don’t develop sympathies with Muslims – that would mean you’re ‘against us’.

The war on ‘terror’

Terrorism is a crime that’s difficult to define, as its very definition is largely dependent on our reactions to those acts we slap with the label. It is a political tool used to coerce desired outcomes by instilling fear of consequences in its intended audience. If we are not rendered terrified by the event, and fear for our safety, then the objective has not been met. It is arguable the extent to which French people, or cartoonists, or anyone else for that matter, feared for their own safety in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Many have certainly made a great show of strength and fearlessness – a united front against fear, behind an imaginary line in the sand drawn with pencils. People go about their business, and the Islamophobic dogmatism of secular western democracies stands stoic.

In one sense, therefore, the so-called terrorists have not achieved their objectives – we are not cowed into submission, nor have we made any compromises. We have not given up any freedoms – at least not to the terrorists, although it remains to be seen whether we’ll give up more of our cherished freedom of speech and rights to privacy in the face of further surveillance state crackdowns. Life goes on much as before, with a somewhat sharpened divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

And we are drawn a notch deeper into the perpetual war on ‘terror’.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series. 
Part 1 can be viewed here.

Thinking it all over…