Bill McKibben is Wrong on Green Energy

Bill McKibben is Wrong on Green Energy

Grassroots activist Suzanna Jones observes how even long-time environmentalists can become misled.

Faulty: Bill McKibben’s Crisis Logic

By Suzanna Jones

Vermont has a reputation for producing sturdy New England farm folk – hardscrabble people who lived full lives in challenging conditions.  Our neighbors, Frank and Virginia, were prime examples.  Living well into their eighties, they never owned a car or a phone, and never went on a vacation; they saved and reused everything, and grew their own food.  Despite – or probably because of – the simplicity of their lives, they were happy.

Now there is a different kind of folk in the Green Mountain landscape.  You’ll find them rushing to the airport in their hybrid car, smartphone glued to their hands, trying to catch a plane for their vacation abroad.  Often well-meaning and ‘progressive’, they tend to look down on people like Frank and Virginia for not being ‘green’ enough.  The reality, of course, is that these self-described environmentalists have a far greater impact on the Earth than those older Vermonters did.

Mainstream notions of  monetary and career ‘success’ lead us to dismiss simpler ways of life.  Unfortunately, this leaves us utterly wedded to the economic system that lies behind all our environmental problems, including climate change.

Crisis Logic

Bill McKibben‘s recent appearance in Hardwick to promote his new book, Falter, got me thinking about this. Back in 2008 McKibben correctly identified our growth-obsessed economy as the source of the ecological collapse we face today, explaining that when the economy grows larger than necessary to meet our basic needs, its social and environmental costs outweigh any benefits.

He pointed out that our consumerist way of life – in which we  strive for more no matter how much we already have – is one of the ways corporations keep our bloated economy growing.  The irony, he added, is that perennial accumulation does not even make us happy. But now, sadly, McKibben studiously avoids criticizing the very economy he once fingered as the source of our environmental crisis.

During his talk he referred to Exxon’s ‘big lie’: the company knew about climate change long ago but hid the truth.  Ironically, McKibben’s presentation did something similar by hiding the fact that his only ‘solution’ to climate change – the rapid transition from fossil fuels to industrial renewables – actually causes astounding environmental damage.

Out of the Back Comes Modernity

Solar power, he said, is “just glass angled at the sun, and out the back comes ‘modernity’.” But solar is much more than just glass.  One example?  Like wind power, it requires the environmentally devastating – and fossil-fuel based – mining of rare earth metals.  And that ‘modernity’ coming out the back?  That is the lifestyle that is killing the planet.

McKibben extolled the virtues of Green Mountain Power’s industrial ‘renewable’ developments, failing to mention that GMP sells the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from those projects to out-of-state utilities, thereby subsidizing the production of dirty energy elsewhere.  He also neglected to say that one of GMP’s parent companies is tar sands giant Enbridge, which owns a $1.5 billion stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline and is currently working to use Vermont as a corridor for future fracked-gas transport.

Therein Lies the Deception

McKibben once claimed that “every turn of the blade” of an industrial wind turbine “reduces fossil fuel consumption somewhere.”  When the RECs are sold, however, this is simply untrue.  And while the production and installation of every turbine has serious environmental costs, every reduction in consumption really does reduce fossil fuel use somewhere, while simultaneously reducing environmental impacts.

Renewables only make sense in tandem with drastic reductions in energy consumption, and are best implemented through small-scale, grid-free efforts.  But what we have instead is corporations continuing to market the psychotic American dream –  powered by ‘renewables’! This co-opted response to climate change is no longer about protecting nature from the ever expanding human nightmare, it is about sustaining the comforts and luxuries we feel entitled to.  It is business-as-usual disguised as concern for the Earth.  It is utterly empty, but it serves the destructive economy.

Though not Mckibben’s intent, this is what he implicitly supports.

Changing the Fuel Does Not Stop Ecocide

Climate change is a crisis, but it is only one of many ways the planet is being destroyed.  Changing the fuel that runs the system that is killing the planet is not a solution. An effective response would resemble shifting towards the way Frank and Virginia lived. It won’t look ‘cool’, or stroke the attention-seeking narcissism of social media addicts, but it would have immediate benefits.

That shift will require a major rethinking of our lives and economy; it asks us to have the maturity, courage, humility and wisdom to put nature and her needs first. McKibben deserves credit for sounding the alarm about climate change early on, but now he should tell people the unvarnished truth: that if we cannot sacrifice our comforts, luxuries and rapid mobility because we love this Earth, then there really is no hope.

Suzanna Jones lives off grid on a small farm in Northern Vermont. She has been fighting injustice, destruction of the land, and industrial wind projects for decades and has been arrested several times.

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4 thoughts on “Bill McKibben is Wrong on Green Energy”

  1. All you need to know about green energy is exposed in 3 facts from roughly 5 minutes of “Planet of the Humans”:

    • Wind turbine blades are made of petrochemical byproducts, mounted on huge blocks of concrete installed by diesel-sucking tractors, and have a very short service life.

    • Commercial solar power plants are the size of small towns, last only 40 years, and are then left like giant sores on the landscape, because they aren’t economically recyclable. And, as Suzanna said, they’re derived from some of the dirtiest mining on earth, and depend on minerals so rare that “rare earth” is even what they’re called.

    • And for all the greenwashing talk about wind and solar, more than 2/3 (and growing) of all “green energy” comes from biomass, most of which is simply means cutting down and burning trees — or replacing trees with biofuel crops (most notably in the Amazon), and burning them instead. And burning all the trees in America would only meet U.S. electricity demands for 1 year.

  2. But can we all live off the grid? It’s a genuine question. Humanity was blighted for many thousands of years by periodic famines, which I suspect were because of agriculture and fossil fuels which, unlike Indigenous societies, encouraged population growth. But those famines have gone in the last half century. Why? And if we move back to off-grid lives, all 7.5 billion of us, can we feed ourselves?

  3. No, feeding 7.5 billion people living off the grid isn’t going to happen. Capitalism is cancer of the world because fossil fuels not only made our polulation explosion since the Industrial Revolution possible (from 700 million to almost 8 billion in 270 years). Today’s population now depends on fossil fuels for survival.

    City populations require millions of trucks, ships, and planes to bring in the food they eat. Cities could theoretically grow beans, greens, etc. on rooftops, in parks, back yards, and indoors. Singapore is doing some of this already, but it still has to import most of its food.

    At least one African country openly plans to move 80% of its people to cities by 2050, so as to free more land for industrial farming. But that just makes them more dependent on industry, technology, fossil fuels, and everything else that’s unsustainable.

    Various government and intergovernmental organizations have estimated we’ll have 500-700 million food refugees (i.e., starving people) by 2040 or 2050. And the secretary general of the UN warned last week that the economic recession triggered by COVID-19 could put over 100 million at risk of starvation within a year.

    We have other scientists warning of a 40% global water shortage by 2030, due to climate change and overuse of aquifers by industrial farming. Plus bad agriculture (primarily caused by the rush to feed more and more people) is rapidly destroying available cropland (30% of the world’s farmland lost between 1975 and 2015 — a process that continues, year by year).

    It’s a vicious cycle — more and more people causing reduced food production, as a result of trying to produce more food to feed more and more people.

    Technically, we could make vast improvements, if we began to regard multi-child families, industrial meat production, globalization, the travel industry, and the manufacture of non-essential products as antisocial behavior. We might even save ourselves and the world.

    “We could,” as Derrick Jensen said in one of his videos, “but we won’t.”

    We just don’t get it that a growth-dependent economy on a non-growing planet is self-destructive, suicidal behavior. We see profit as an inherently good thing instead of an inherently bad thing, because we fail to remember one of the laws of Nature: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every person’s profit is also someone’s (or something’s) loss. Everything we take from the Earth is lost to the Earth, and the planet that sustains us becomes weaker, more fragile, and a little closer to its functional demise.

  4. Suzanna Jones’s column is spot on about individual consumption, one of the two roots of all environmental and ecological problems. Unfortunately, she totally ignores the other root, human overpopulation. Bill McKibben also wrote a book called Maybe One about limiting families to one child. If Jones was going to discuss McKibben and his sellout to corporate environmentalism, why wasn’t this book mentioned to show his cave-in to the immoral but popular idea that people can just go on having as many kids as they want.

    For those who fail to realize what a huge problem human overpopulation is, consider this: Humans, their agriculture, and their infrastructure occupy more than half of all terrestrial land on Earth, which is far too much for just one species. This human occupation excludes almost all wildlife, which is why human overpopulation is the main (but not the only) cause of the current extinction crisis. Most of human-occupied land is occupied by agriculture. So for those who think that humans could stop wrecking the planet by merely reducing their individual consumption, please explain how people are supposed to greatly reduce food consumption.

    Without fixing both overconsumption and overpopulation, humans will continue wrecking the Earth and all that lives here. I know that leftists bristle at any mention of overpopulation, because racists have used that problem as an excuse to get rid of “other” people who they don’t like. But the fact is that except for the few remaining hunter-gatherers, all groups of people of every type and skin color are overpopulated. If you truly care about the natural environment and wildlife, the best thing you can do is not to have any kids. The next best thing you can do is to limit your family to one child. Refusing to acknowledge the human overpopulation problem and how it’s at the root of all of these other problems is like denying global warming/climate change. As the scientists say, the natural laws of the physical world don’t care whether you acknowledge or agree with them, they exist as they are nevertheless.

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