This prologue is the first of a series of excerpts we will publish from the new book Bright Green Lies.
By Lierre Keith
We are in peril. Like all animals, we need a home: a blanket of air, a cradle of soil, and a vast assemblage of creatures who make both. We can’t create oxygen, but others can–from tiny plankton to towering redwoods. We can’t build soil, but the slow circling of bacteria, bison, and sweetgrass do.
But all of these beings are bleeding out, species by species, like Noah and the Ark in reverse, while the carbon swells and the fires burn on. Five decades of environmental activism haven’t stopped this. We haven’t even slowed it. In those same five decades, humans have killed 60 percent of the earth’s animals. And that’s but one wretched number among so many others.
That’s the horror that brings readers to a book like this, with whatever mixture of hope and despair. But we don’t have good news for you. To state it bluntly, something has gone terribly wrong with the environmental movement.
Once, we were the people who defended wild creatures and wild places. We loved our kin, we loved our home, and we fought for our beloved. Collectively, we formed a movement to protect our planet. Along the way, many of us searched for the reasons. Why were humans doing this? What could possibly compel the wanton sadism laying waste to the world? Was it our nature or were only some humans culpable? That analysis is crucial, of course. Without a proper diagnosis, correct treatment is impossible. This book lays out the best answers that we, the authors, have found. We wrote this book because something has happened to our movement. 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. The goal has been transformed:
We’re supposed to save our way of life, not fight for the living planet; instead, we are to rally behind the “machines making machines making machines” that are devouring what’s left of our home.
Committed activists have brought the emergency of climate change into broad consciousness, and that’s a huge win as the glaciers melt and the tundra burns. But 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.
There’s a name for members of this rising movement: bright green environmentalists. They believe that technology and design can render industrial civilization sustainable. The mechanism to drive the creation of these new technologies is consumerism. Thus, bright greens “treat consumerism as a salient green practice.”1
Indeed, they “embrace consumerism” as the path to prosperity for all.2 Of course, whatever prosperity we might achieve by consuming is strictly time limited, what with the planet being finite. But the only way to build the bright green narrative is to erase every awareness of the creatures and communities being consumed. They simply don’t matter. What matters is technology. Accept technology as our savior, the bright greens promise, and our current way of life is possible for everyone and forever. With the excised species gone from consciousness, the only problem left for the bright greens to solve is how to power the shiny, new machines.
It doesn’t matter how the magic trick was done. Even the critically endangered have been struck from regard. Now you see them, now you don’t: from the Florida yew (whose home is a single 15-mile stretch, now under threat from biomass production) to the Scottish wildcat (who number a grim 35, all at risk from a proposed wind installation). As if humans can somehow survive on a planet that’s been flayed of its species and bled out to a dead rock. Once we fought for the living. Now we are told to fight for their deaths, as the wind turbines come for the mountains and solar panels conquer the deserts.
“May the truth be your armor” urged Marcus Aurelius. The truths in this book are hard, but you will need them to defend your beloved. The first truth is that our current way of life requires industrial levels of energy. That’s what it takes to fuel the wholesale conversion of living communities into dead commodities. That conversion is the problem “if,” to borrow from Australian anti-nuclear advocate Dr. Helen Caldicott, “you love this planet.” The task before us is not how to continue to fuel that conversion. It’s how to stop it.
The second truth is that 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.
Third, 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 geologic timescale, the extirpation and extinction of vulnerable species, and, oh yes, fossil fuels. These technologies will not save the earth. They will only hasten its demise.
And finally, there are real solutions. Simply put, we have to stop destroying the planet and let natural life come back. There are people everywhere doing exactly that, and nature is responding, some times miraculously. The wounded are healed, the missing reappear, and the exiled return. It’s not too late.
I’m sitting in my meadow, looking for hope. Swathes of purple needlegrass, silent and steady, are swelling with seeds–66 million years of evolution preparing for one more. All I had to do was let the grasses grow back, and a cascade of life followed. The tall grass made a home for rabbits. The rabbits brought the foxes. And now the cry of a fledgling hawk pierces the sky, wild and urgent. I know this cry, and yet I don’t. Me, but not me. The love and the aching distance. What I am sure of is that life wants to live. The hawk’s parents will feed her, teach her, and let her go. She will take her turn–then her children, theirs.
Every stranger who comes here says the same thing: “I’ve never seen so many dragonflies.” They say it in wonder, almost in awe, and always in delight. And there, too, is my hope. Despite everything, people still love this planet and all our kin. They can’t stop themselves. That love is a part of us, as surely as our blood and bones.
Somewhere close by there are mountain lions. I’ve heard a female calling for a mate, her need fierce and absolute. Here, in the last, final scraps of wilderness, life keeps trying. How can I do less?
There’s no time for despair. The mountain lions and the dragonflies, the fledgling hawks and the needlegrass seeds all need us now. We have to take back our movement and defend our beloved. How can we do less? And with all of life on our side, how can we lose?
1. Julie Newman, Green Ethics and Philosophy: An A-to-Z Guide (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2011), p. 40.
2. Ibid, p. 39