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Bright Green Lies: debunking the myth of industrial ‘green’ energy

Is ‘green’ technology really green? Renée Gerlich relays the analysis offered in Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What You Can Do About It (2021). She also summarizes the key information given about solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, biomass and biofuels in the book, so that this review also functions as a resource.

In the New Testament, the Greek word that gets translated into compassion is splagchnizomai (pronounced splag-nits-omai). It doesn’t imply a wholesome sentiment, but a sensation in the bowels or guts. Gospel writers used the word sparingly, only to portray a person so viscerally affected by another’s suffering they were spurred to act immediately.[1]

This highlights the cheapening of language today. Politicians preach love and kindness, advertisers promise joy and fulfillment, and activists have such high expectations about ‘inclusivity’ that my friend was once banished from a meeting with the exclamation: “This is an inclusive event! You are not welcome here!” They had decided, prior to his arrival, that he wasn’t inclusive enough to be included.

Civilization does the same thing with language it does with everything: mine it to depletion. Compassion is no longer a living impulse spurring action, but something more abstract: a saintly virtue, moral imperative, rhetorical device, even a standard to judge people with. 

Our most heartfelt words can be milked to meaninglessness. The same has happened to the word green, as the authors of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What You Can Do About It (2021) explain. Being ‘green’ used to imply prioritizing forests, sea, sky and soil – but at some point that changed. ‘Green’ began to mean solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower dams and biofuels produced at the expense of sea, sky and soil. The environmental cost of these technologies is higher than most people realize, and Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert wrote Bright Green Lies to put us straight.[2] If you have ever wondered – how is a solar panel constructed, or a wind turbine? What is biomass and how efficient is it as an energy source? Can battery production, industrial recycling, and even whole cities, ever really be environmentally friendly? This book answers those questions, providing a useful reference text as well as a compelling read. 

At the same time, Bright Green Lies restores meaning to what ‘green’ means. “We wrote this book because something has happened to our movement,” they explain. “The beings and biomes who were once at the center of our concern have been disappeared. In their place now stands the very system that is destroying them.”

That industrial system is desperately trying to save itself, aided by our wishful thinking. A growing renewable energy industry promises that we can eat our cake and have it too – we can keep industrial civilization going and save the planet, by transitioning from fossil fuels to ‘green’ technology. Today’s climate change movement has swallowed this idea. Being hugely popular, intergenerational, and well-funded, with buy-in from school children to hardcore activists to corporate executives and politicians, it seems like this movement could help the earth. On closer inspection, it seems energy industrialists have captured our collective conscience – they have succeeded in turning our alarm and despair “into means that serve the ends of capital; through causing people to use these very real feelings to lobby for specific sectors of the industrial economy.”

The result is a nominal environmentalism driven by wishful thinking in the guise of deep concern. “I’m increasingly convinced,” writes Derrick Jensen, “that in this culture the primary use of human intelligence is to try to rationalize whatever behavior we already wanted to do.” We are afraid of the apocalypse. We also want our familiar way of life to continue. We have come up with a compromise between the two: the belief there is such a thing as a sustainable industrial civilization made possible with the mass production of wind turbines and solar panels. “We are being sold a story, and we are buying it because we like it. We want it to be true. We want to believe that our lives can go on with all the ease and comfort we accept as our due.” These motivations have produced an imitation environmental movement.

Bright Green Lies aims to restore integrity – to the health of the planet, the language of environmentalism, and the meaning of compassion. “We’re going to suggest what is for this culture a radical redefinition of what it means for an action to be ‘green’ or ‘environmental’,” the authors write, “which is that the action must tangibly benefit the natural world on the natural world’s own terms.” Acting on the interests of the natural world means being mobilized by true compassion, splagchnizomai, not by a mix of denial, fear and fantasy.

The technology

To dismantle denial, Bright Green Lies rigorously outlines exactly what so-called ‘renewable energy’ entails. Three important truths are pertinent to the whole investigation: one is that our way of life, which is “functionally and systemically converting the world into products” to supply growing demand, requires industrial levels of energy. The second is that so-called renewables cannot supply that energy. The fact is that “Nothing compares to the energy density of fossil fuel … [which] made industrial civilization possible.”

Third, from the mass production of solar panels and wind turbines to battery disposal, not only is ‘green energy’ not green because of the mining, deforestation, and toxic processes it involves, it does not reduce fossil fuel emissions. Get this: “the amount of emissions reductions you get per dollar invested in ‘renewable’ energy is essentially zero. In fact, the emissions actually increase, because [of] the production, installation, maintenance, and disposal of these ‘renewable’ energy forms.” Moreover, “One reason that efficiency gains are regularly wiped out by growth is capitalism’s constant creation of new markets.” 

Solar and wind energy need to be constantly backed up by natural gas or fossil fuel power plants because of intermittency: they are only effective when the sun is shining or wind blows. This means solar facilities often retire coal plants, only to build natural gas plants in their place (another fossil fuel). A wind farm requires a “fossil fuel power plant backing it up and idling 100% of the time.”

While the dream of ‘renewables’ is to go ‘off-grid’, away from the perils of civilisation, these energy forms are more reliant on the power grid than coal, oil and gas, because the power has to be taken from where it’s generated to where it’s not – from places where wind and sunlight are abundant to where they’re not. Making electric grids compatible with these varied, unreliable, and inefficient renewables is “one of the greatest technological challenges industrial societies have ever undertaken.” And, oil, coal and gas are essential to the manufacture, transportation, assembly, maintenance, and decommissioning, dismantling, and disposal of transmission lines and towers.

Solar panels not connected to the grid require energy storage in the form of batteries. There are two main types of ‘green’ battery: lead acid and lithium-ion. Lead is extremely toxic even in small doses, and lead-acid battery recycling is ranked one of the top 10 global pollution problems. Lithium, too scarce to meet demand, is extracted from high desert basins, for instance in Nevada, where Max Wilbert has been protesting lithium extraction for several years. Lithium-ion batteries also require cobalt, about half of which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of young children are enslaved in mines. Recycling lithium-ion batteries is theoretically possible but hardly done, since it is too complex and hazardous to make economic sense. In short, battery production and recycling is highly toxic from mining to disposal.

Solar panels and wind turbines are also entirely dependent on mining. The panels require quartz and coal – and mining, smelting, processing, shipping, and fabricating panels and their associated hardware costs so much in Co2 that, in the words of environmentalist author and scholar Ozzie Zehner, “you use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend.” Production largely takes place in China – the ‘world’s factory’. It is highly toxic, results in more waste than product, and releases potent greenhouse gases.

Wind turbines rely mainly on steel, which is made of iron alloyed with another element. Five of the ten largest iron ore mines are in Brazil, where they have caused toxic contamination and displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon basin. A turbine’s generator also comprises about 35 percent copper, which, “like most minerals, is strip mined in vast open-pit mines.” Mining sites also become ‘man camps’ that bring prostitution (see this report for more on the realities of mining for ‘green’ tech).

Turbines need to be large, because the energy harvested by a turbine is proportional to the area swept. The word harvested is important – the energy is harvested, not generated: “if you generate something, it wasn’t there before. If you harvest something, that thing … is no longer available.” And: “removing energy from wind changes climate.” Yes: wind turbines affect ecosystems by harvesting wind from them and so changing their climate. And that’s after installation, which already involved clearing trees, or destroying aquatic or grassland habitat.

Once operating, wind farms are a major threat to bird and bat populations, because of pressure currents so strong they can pulp eardrums and cardiovascular systems at a distance if they don’t pull the animals toward the blades. Since bats are long-lived, slow reproducers, whose populations rely on high adult survival rates, biologists predict that wind energy will cause a crash in global bat populations.

All this for technologies that don’t last. Solar panels and wind turbines have a lifespan of maybe 25 years before they leave the cleared land and solar dead zones behind. Solar panels are too toxic to be sent to landfills, and recycling them, like producing them, “requires factories, globalized supply chains, rare and toxic materials, and massive energy inputs.”

Then there’s hydropower. Worldwide, about 3,700 large hydropower dams are being planned or constructed. Dams kill rivers from source to sea, by blocking the flow of fish and other aquatic life forms, and disrupting and killing insect populations that fish rely on. This causes cascading harms to riparian zones, forest creatures that rely on aquatic food sources like salmon, and the whole surrounding ecosystem.

What’s more, reservoirs – stagnant bodies of water, warmed by the sun, that dams create – become too warm for fish to survive. They release more methane than any other manmade source, and are responsible for up to 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Dams also encourage logging, mining and man camps. At least 40-80 million people have been displaced by dams globally, and 124 Honduran activists killed resisting them.

Two other forms of ostensible ‘green energy’ are biomass and biofuels. Biomass just means woodchips, which means burning trees, which means “cutting down forests to stop global warming and cutting down forests to save the planet.” Biomass is said to be carbon neutral because trees grow back, and the carbon will be recaptured – but they grow back over a period of decades to centuries; cutting every tree in the US would only power the country for a year, and “There is no forest in the world that has survived more than three rotations of being cut.”

Biofuels, meaning ethanol taken from corn, soy and palm, also require deforestation around the world. Over half the world’s tropical rainforests have been wiped out in the last 50 years because of agriculture and logging; 81,000 hectares are burned daily for agriculture. Demand for biofuels, which many think is the solution to the world’s environmental problems, is driving that number upward, particularly in the Amazon. 

That is because industrial agricultural production of corn was enabled by the ‘green revolution’ of the mid-twentieth century. By that time, the world’s arable soil was almost out of fertility – but then came synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers made from fossil fuels. They created an explosion in grain production, which also enabled the factory farming of animals and ultimately led to an expansion in human population. So here is a painful irony, noted by Vandana Shiva in Soil Not Oil (2009): “it takes more fossil fuel energy input to produce biofuels than the resultant biofuels can generate. It takes 1.5 gallons of gasoline to produce 1 gallon of ethanol.”

It should now be self-evident that the idea of green cities is a myth, for all the above reasons, and because of the nature of cities and roads. A city’s population density requires routine importation of resources. Cities plunder resources from the surrounding environment without seeing it destroyed, so there is “no negative feedback loop for importing too much.” Some consumer cities without industrial sectors appear to have reduced emissions, but only if you don’t count the emissions represented by the goods and services sold. With consumerism factored in, these cities’ emissions have grown.

Bright Green Lies also looks at geoengineering proposals too dystopian to believe. Shiva has summarized the problem with them: these “proposals treat the sun, rather than industrial activity, as the problem.” Shiva also included nuclear energy in her own investigations of climate politics and proposals, saying it is offered as ‘clean’ because the process does not directly release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, each reactor emits 20 million tons of carbon dioxide in its construction. Nuclear energy means uranium mining, nuclear waste, the increased potential of nuclear war – and “nuclear winter is not an alternative to global warming.”

Bright Green Lies also tackles the myth that industrial recycling will save the day. While the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – are regularly promoted, since there is no particular push to reduce consumption, the emphasis is on the final R. We are fed the idea that industrial recycling dismantles products before sending them back into the system as reusable parts, making said system sustainable. In fact, about half the items in our recycling bins (collected by diesel trucks) end up in landfills. The rest, from e-waste and batteries to plastic and steel, are sorted and compacted using toxic processes and working conditions before likely export to China.

The authors call this a ‘toxic mimic’ of a natural system in which all life gets eventually broken down into food for something, or someone, else. From a biophilic perspective: “The only way to get to zero waste is to produce waste that is food for someone else, in quantities useful to the landbase. That’s how nature works. That’s how nature is. That’s what nature is.” Most of the products we produce are not food, very hard to dismantle and break down, and simply can’t be efficiently recycled.

Then there’s the use of disincentives like carbon tax, a system compelling polluters to pay for what they emit, with the money used for ‘climate-related’ spending (read: subsidies for ‘green’ tech). The problems with this solution are pollution outsourcing, carbon laundering, a “market flooded with allowances”, and the fact that “Climate change today is global in cause and global in effect.” The same problem applies to the cap-and-trade system in which carbon emissions are capped, but countries can buy and sell pollution credits earned by reducing emissions. The problem: “Although superficially it should be easy to figure out which countries emit which emissions, it can get complicated pretty quickly because the global economy is, well, global.” Plus, as Shiva has said: “Creating a market in pollution is ethically perverse. Some things should not be tradeable – water and biodiversity are too valuable to be reduced to market commodities.”

So what do we do? 

Here is what Bright Green Lies asks of us, individually and collectively:

Relinquish wishful thinking and face hard truths, like that industrial civilisation and the bottomless consumerism it supports are unsustainable by definition, and green energy isn’t really green.

Choose a side. Ask yourself if your primary allegiance is to said civilization or to the living earth. Consider that “Our way of life doesn’t need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life.

Then, “start by rejecting false solutions.”

Instead, oppose destruction. “Again, the most important, and simplest, solution to the destruction of the planet is to stop the destruction of the planet.”

Live within limits. “To save the planet, humans must live within the limits of the natural world.”

Let the planet heal. “We don’t need a technology that breaks the world while it continues to break us from the world. We need to let our planet repair while we repair our place within it.” Life wants to live, and if we allow it to, it will return.

Build vitality. Zero waste or carbon neutral are not the most visionary goals. Human beings can do more than reduce impact, we can contribute to the richness and diversity of life. We can live in a way that builds topsoil and encourages biodiversity. Bright Green Lies also includes specific suggestions for ecological building and effective activism and lobbying – you’ll need to buy the book for that. In essence: “No matter how weary, your heart is still beating. Listen to it. Whatever work it is calling you to do – for democracy, for human rights, for animals and the earth, for the girls and the grasses – it is sacred work.” Do it, the authors implore. “Whatever you love, it is under assault. But love is a verb. May that love call us to action.”

Buy the book here, or wherever you purchase books.

[1] I learned about splagchnizomai from Deborah Adele’s excellent 2009 book, The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.

[2] Full disclosure: I count these writers as friends!

Renée Gerlich is the author of Out of the Fog: On Politics, Feminism and Coming Alive (2022), published by Spinifex Press. In 2021, she founded Dragon Cloud Press to publish her Brief Complete Herstory series, available at

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