Why Today’s Bright Green Environmentalists Won’t Save the Planet

By Lierre Keith, Derrick Jensen, and Max Wilbert

“The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote.“That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.”

Silent Spring, which inspired the modern environmental movement, was more than a critique of pesticides, it was a cri de couer against industrialized society’s destruction of the natural world.

Yet five decades of environmental activism haven’t stopped the destruction, or even slowed it. In those same decades, global animal populations have dropped by 70 percent. Right now, we are losing about one football field of forest every single second. Looking forward provides no solace: the oceans are projected to be empty of fish by 2048.

A salient reason for this failure is that so much environmentalism no longer focuses on saving wild beings and wild places, but instead on how to power their destruction. The beings and biomes who were once our concern have disappeared from the conversation. In their place we are now told to advocate for projects like the Green New Deal. While endangered ecosystems get a mention, the heart of the plan is “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” in the service of industrial manufacturing.

This new movement is called bright green environmentalism.

Its advocates believe technology and design can render industrial civilization sustainable, and that “green technologies” are good for the planet. Some bright greens are well-known and beloved figures like Al Gore, Naomi Klein, and Bill McKibben as well as organizations like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Audubon. These committed activists have brought the emergency of climate change into consciousness, a huge win as glaciers melt and tundra burns. But bright greens are solving for the wrong variable. Their solutions to global warming take our way of life as a given, and the planet’s health as the dependent variable. That’s backwards: the planet’s health must be more important than our way of life because without a healthy planet you don’t have any way of life whatsoever.

The bright green narrative has to ignore the creatures and communities being consumed. Take the Scottish wildcat, numbering a grim 35, all at risk from a proposed wind installation. Or the birds dying by the thousands at solar facilities in California, where concentrated sunlight melts every creature flying over.

Or the entire biome of the southern wetland forest, being logged four times faster than South American rainforests. Dozens of huge pulp mills export 100 percent of this “biomass” to Europe to feed the demand for biofuels, which bright greens promote as sustainable and carbon-neutral. The forest has a biological diversity unmatched in North America, lush with life existing nowhere else and barely hanging on. This includes the Southeastern American Kestrel. They need longleaf pine savannahs, and longleaf pine have been reduced to 3% of their range. The kestrels depend for their homes on red-cockaded woodpeckers, who exist as a whisper at 1% of historic numbers. Last in this elegiac sample is the gopher tortoise. Four hundred mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects cannot survive without the protective cover of the burrows dug by tortoises, tortoises now critically endangered. All these creatures are our kin: our fragile, wondrous, desperate kin, and environmentalists would have them reduced to pellets, shipped to Europe, and burned, while calling their slaughter “green.”

Facts about renewable energy are worse than inconvenient.

First, industrial civilization requires industrial levels of energy. Second is that fossil fuel — especially oil — is functionally irreplaceable. Scaling renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, hydro, and biomass, would constitute ecocide. Twelve percent of the continental United States would have to be covered in windfarms to meet electricity demand alone. To provide for the U.S.A.’s total energy consumption, fully 72% of the continent would have to be devoted to wind farms. Meanwhile, solar and wind development threaten to destroy as much land as projected urban sprawl, oil and gas, coal, and mining combined by 2050.

Finally, solar, wind, and battery 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 a geologic timescale, extirpation of vulnerable species, and use of fossil fuels. In reality, “green” technologies are some of the most destructive industrial processes ever invented. They won’t save the earth. They’ll only hasten its demise.

There are solutions, once we confront the actual problem.

Simply put, we have to stop destroying the planet and let the world come back. A recent study in Nature found we could cut the carbon added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution in half by reverting 30% of the world’s farmland to its natural state. This would also preserve 70% of endangered animals and plants. This is the lowest of low hanging fruit when it comes to combating climate change and healing our planet. Everywhere there are examples of how the wounded are healed, the missing appear, and the exiled return. Forests repair, grasses take root, and soil sequesters carbon. It’s not too late.

The green new deal has reforestation as one of its goals, but it’s not the main goal, as it should be. If environmentalism is going to help save the planet — and if it’s going to respond to global warming commensurate with the threat — it needs to return to its roots, and remember the love that founders like Rachel Carson had for the land. We need to pledge our loyalty to this planet, our only home.

There’s no time for despair.

Wildcats and kestrels 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?

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert are the authors of the forthcoming book, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It. The book will be available March 16th, but you can pre-order to your local bookstore or library via IndieBound now.

19 thoughts on “Why Today’s Bright Green Environmentalists Won’t Save the Planet”

  1. Excellent essay, which makes a similar point to one I’ve been trying to make for years — namely, that industrial arguments that radical environmentalism would “hurt the economy” ignore the fact that without radical environmentalism, there will soon be no economy.

    That’s the argument “environmentalist” Jerry Brown ignored, when he supported fracking in California (after arguing against fracking elsewhere), and the argument that “environmentalist” Justin Trudeau ignored, when he said that tar sands development was a “vital national interest” — though “dirty oil” extraction in other countries must be avoided.

    The problem is that the measures necessary to save the planet would require an end to civilization’s cancerous global imperative of “growth” — meaning the end of growth-dependent economics, the growth of cities, and the growth of human population — a sacred cow that prevents world leaders from even suggesting that having more than two children should now be regarded as a crime against nature, rather than a “blessed event.”

    The measures necessary to reduce human population (currently between six and 100 times Earth’s long term carrying capacity, depending on whether we recognize the development of fossil fuels or the adoption of conventional agriculture as humanity’s break with sustainability) would not be easy, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

    To be perfectly blunt, survival would require drastically retracting the world’s economy. No more supermarkets, cars, airplanes, electrical grid, skyscrapers, flush toilets, foreign imports, modern hospitals, or nursing homes. Due to a steadily reduced work force, people too old or sick to care for themselves would have to accept the fact that it’s time to die quietly, as has always been the accepted norm in nature. Even the computers and the internet we use to communicate these realities today would be no more.

    The measures necessary for survival are both simple and hard. We would have to end fossil fuel use, move from cities back to villages, limit trade to what could be moved on horseback or small boats, impose a global, one-child ethic for at least two centuries, and allow nature to take its course, when it comes to serious injury, illness, or other incapacity.

    That’s the bad news. But it comes along with much good news, which we would only begin to appreciate, once the chirping of birds replaced the drone of engines and the roar of traffic.

    The good news is that the world we would be returning to is sustainable until the death of the sun, a few billion years from now, and that the knowledge acquired by cultures all over the world would now be potentially available to everyone.

    Corruption and crime would be minimal, for the simple reason that in villages (where everyone knows everyone else), trust and cooperation are the norm, while distrust, deceit, and and disadvantage (today’s “haves” and “have nots”) have little chance to emerge.

    For examples of how this might work, we only need to look at the better examples of tribal societies, and a couple of small nations that are almost sustainable today. In Bhutan, for instance, 60% of the land is required by law to remain forested, and profit is considered an alien concept. Kick that forest requirement up to 90%, and global sustainability begins to look like a reality.

    In contrast to neighboring Brazil, the interior of Suriname remains pristine forest, administered by indigenous tribes, and by the descendants of escaped African slaves, who returned to the natural ways of their ancestors. Their method lies in simply recognizing that animals, plants, soil, rocks, water, and air all have inherent rights, and that disrespecting those rights is an inherent wrong.

    In addition, the beneficial knowledge that civilization has brought us would not be lost to the future. Along with the folk wisdom that allowed countless indigenous cultures to survive, we now have other sources of knowledge to support us. We know how to prevent tooth decay, for instance, which plagued indigenous cultures for millenia. We can also preserve what science has taught us about nutrition, medicine, astronomy, and numerous other fields — while remembering the cautionary lessons on how things like mining, monoculture, and shortcutting nature through high tech chemistry, fishing, and synthetics kill us and the world around us.

    The answers, again, are technically simple, because they mostly require non-technical changes. Yes, we would face immense challenges in dealing with nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, other waste disposal, returning cities to forests and meadows, and dams to free flowing rivers. The key is to begin doing it, instead of making excuses for continuing suicidal development, and making it worse.

    As Derrick Jensen said about what we might do to survive, “We could, but we won’t.” What he meant was that modern civilization won’t, because it can’t imagine willingly having less, giving up automation, trading supermarkets for gardening, hunting, and gathering, etc.

    But humanity can — IF we educate ourselves to the fact that our current course means certain and uncontrolled destruction, while radical change means planning to have less instead of plunging ahead along the current course of guaranteed nothingness.

    It is a given that our elected leaders and corporate executives won’t tell us to give up our illusions of prosperity for a world of sacrifice and hardship. What we have to do is educate people to the simple facts that are obvious today, but are still being ignored: Our lifestyle of modern conveniences are poisoning the air, land, and water, exterminating species as if we had an Auschwitz in every neighborhood, destroying the land, and creating an unlivable climate.

    This is something we cannot afford to do to ourselves, and have no right to do to others. It is a crime, and we must stop the criminals, or we all face the death penalty. It’s that simple.

  2. @Mark: There is little I can disagree with in your comment, nor in the original article. The problem is it implies a global, green-fascist dictatorship in order to enforce laws which would be wildly unpopular. As most climate scientists know, the sooner we grasp the nettle and begin the necessary changes, the less they will hurt – but they would still be hugely destructive to human lives on the road to a truly sustainable world. Is this a dilemma, or are you and others here over-stating the problem? I truly don’t know.

  3. The global “green” fascist dictatorship is already being implemented under the cover of “fighting a pandemic”.

  4. Possibly. But they aren’t aiming at anything like the same goals as outlined in the article above. No GND I’ve seen mentions ending private car use, drastically reducing human population or stopping the transition to renewable energy infrastructure. Those might well be solutions to climate catastrophe but they would surely also require a kind of oppressive and authoritarian government of the likes we’ve never seen.

  5. Well the billionaires behind the Great Reset do want to drastically reduce human population and end private ownership of everything (except for themselves). It’s just not going to be the green utopia they advertise it as.

  6. I totally agree with this essay and Mark’s comment, with one comment immediately following. In a nutshell, this is about industrial humans prioritizing lifestyles and materialism over life, which could not be more wrongheaded, both morally and practically, AND about believing that you can have your cake and eat it too in that you can have your lifestyle and material things without harming the natural environment (sorry, you can’t). That’s what Planet of the Humans and the Green New Deal issue are really about. Humans want so badly to maintain their current lifestyles and material things that they grasp for anything that will allow them to do that while assuaging their guilt for all the great harms that they do.

    “Their solutions to global warming take our way of life as a given, and the planet’s health as the dependent variable. That’s backwards: the planet’s health must be more important than our way of life because without a healthy planet you don’t have any way of life whatsoever.”

    That’s the utilitarian analysis. More important is that it’s totally immoral to kill anything, directly or indirectly, that you don’t eat. This makes industrial society totally immoral, and makes humans the Nazis of species. Life should always be the top priority, and I don’t mean just human life. Things like economics and lifestyles need to take a back seat to life, period. We need a major mental and spiritual evolution of humans in order to reverse their current attitudes toward all this.

    There are some hunter-gatherer societies that get this right, but they’re a tiny fraction of 1% of humans at this point. As we’ve discussed, humans should be focusing on expanding their consciousness, not on the physical/natural world where they only do harm. The only solution I can see is a major mental and spiritual (NOT religious) evolution of the human race. As James pointed out, as things are now the vast majority of people would rebel and revolt against the needed changes, even small incremental ones. Education seems to be the key to get this started, and I don’t mean just intellectual education. People, starting with kids, need to experience the natural world regularly for starters. I don’t have any magical solution, but we’ve got to try SOMETHING.

    See my comment to Mark. My experience is that people who obsess on the idea of a “green-fascist dictatorship” are anti-environmental, meaning that they prioritize their lifestyles, money, and material things over the natural environment and everything that lives there. If you truly care about the environment, focus on what would work to get humans off the wrong path and onto the right one, not whether people would be offended by doing so. Everyone wants the freedom to do whatever they want, but if you prioritize that over the environment then you harm the environment. I., who responded to you, is our resident anti-environmental troll, if you want to see what that type of anti-environmentalist looks like.

    It would be impractical to try to force everyone to limit their families to one child and to start giving up things created by industrial society (like giving up cars for walking, biking, and public transit — while the latter two are also industrial, this would be the type of incremental change that’s totally doable until we get rid of industrial society altogether), but that’s my biggest problem with forcing people to do what’s right. (China’s one-child-family policy was immensely successful, but Chinese society is not self-centered and individualistic like western societies are, the U.S. being the worst of these, so that kind of thing has no chance here.) I’d much rather that people WANT to do the right things, but they clearly don’t. However, implementing the changes for which Mark rightly advocates would not work by force, so humans need to evolve to the point where they make these changes willingly.

  7. @Jeff: Was China’s population policy a success? It certainly reduced the birthrate enormously – far too much, it seems, as China like much of the developed world has the problem of a declining and ageing populace. How would the world reduce its population consensually and dealing with the inevitable demographic problem of a great preponderance of elderly people?

  8. Before accusing me of trolling I suggest you guys take some time to learn what the Great Reset is. This is going to be essential now if you don’t want to become (or continue to be) useful idiots of the ruling elite. There’s a reason why I put “green” on quotation marks, but not global fascist dictatorship.

    But yeah I won’t waste any time on people who don’t want to learn, so don’t worry, I’ll stop “trolling” with these “conspiracy theories”.

  9. What are you talking about I.? The Reset is the same type of industry BS that this essay is about. James’s comments were about forcing people to reduce population and consumption, totally different.

  10. @James
    It was a raging success, most importantly because it saved the planet from approximately 400 million human births, and also by definition because that’s what it was meant to do. You raise anthropocentric concerns that are totally irrelevant to the natural world or the great harms that humans are doing to it, and you also exhibit the same immature/unevolved mentality that I described about wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Lowering human population would be the best things that humans could do for the planet, and in order to do that the population will be old for a long time. There is no way around this to lower human population unless you want to commit mass murder on a scale well beyond that of Hitler.

    As to how the best non-coercive method of lowering birth rates, it’s education and empowerment of girls and women (NOT people making more money as leftists have been advocating). Alan Weisman proved this in his book Countdown, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in this issue. The more highly educated and empowered girls and women are, the fewer children they’ll have. However, this only goes so far — the birthrate needs to be one for a long time as Mark pointed out — so we need a global one-child-family policy also. This will take the major evolution that I described, because far too many people won’t abide by this much-needed policy without that evolution.

    There are no magical solutions to any of these problems, and there is going to be great pain & suffering going forward. The only issue is, are humans going to reverse course voluntarily for the good of the Earth and all life on it, which would result in less pain & suffering than not doing so, or are they going to continue on their immoral and unevolved course, which will cause much more pain and suffering by the Earth and everything here, including humans eventually when this totally unsustainable way of living comes to an end involuntarily.

  11. Sorry I dropped this thread temporarily, but I was writing an article for DGR that addresses most of these questions (focusing on the international corporate plunder of Africa).

    In specific response to the questions raised in previous comments: Obviously a green fascist dictatorship won’t work, because people wouldn’t stand for it. But dictatorship isn’t the only solution. Two states in India attained zero population growth almost overnight, simply by limiting government jobs, loans, and assistance to people with no more than two kids.

    South Korea, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, and several other European countries are at or below population replacement birthrates, simply because women there have achieved virtual equality, and the countries have economic stability.

    The problem they have now is that they consider this a crisis, and are encouraging people to have more babies. At any rate, the U.N. now expects zero population growth for India, China, and Southeast Asia by 2100, while Africa’s population is expected to triple, leading to a human and environmental nightmare of starvation, desertification, and the mass extinction of all the animals that symbolize Africa — gorillas, elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, chimpanzees, etc. And the sole reason is that Africa’s wealth is controlled by foreign corporations, who have a short-term economic interest in keeping Africans poor and uneducated. And capitalism is all about short-term interests. The long term, in capitalist thinking, is the problem of future generations.

    As for the economic stagnation and elder care problems that come with zero population growth, those are givens, anyway. Either we do it in a rational way, or nature will do it for us, with mass starvation, resource wars, etc.

    Old people like me will have to accept the reality that when you can’t take care of yourself anymore, it’s time to say goodbye and die quietly, like other animals have always done. We currently euthanize animals when they can’t function normally anymore, and we call it kind and humane. The pre-industrial Inuit simply left old people to die on the ice in sleds. And the old accepted it as the normal way to go (freezing to death, I’m told, is relatively quick and painless when you’re old and weak, though I’m saving a bullet for my last days).

    Jeff’s recurrent theme of expanding our spiritual horizons also has to be fundamental to the survival of life — both our own and that of other species. The Maroons of Suriname have it down. Descendants of escaped slaves, they reverted to the tribal beliefs and lifestyles of their African ancestors, and now live in perfect balance with nature, while maintaining the interior of Suriname as the largest pristine environment in South America.

    Their philosophy is very simple. They’re animists, who believe that all things — animals, plants, rocks, soil, air, and water — have rights, and that we have no right to do anything that denies the rights of others. That’s a simple form of “live and let live,” taking only what you need to survive, and maintaining the natural environment that sustains us and everything else.

    The people of Bhutan have a similar philosophy, as did the pre-colonial Pacific islanders, and the tribes along the California coast, among many others. (For a glimpse into this past, read “The Woman Who Remembered Paradise,” which DGR News republished a year ago, from an article that originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1988.)

    Survival won’t be easy, now that we’ve become dependent on fossil fuels, cities, dams, cars, ships, planes, and electrical grids, expanding the human population by 1100% in the process. Several billion people will likely starve or die in resource wars before the end of this century. We can only hope that some have sense enough to make an orderly transition back to a sustainable lifestyle, so that some of us and enough plants and animals make it into the 22nd century.

  12. Great comment Mark! I wish DGR would stick to this kind of stuff and drop all the other issues, which detract from this most important one.

  13. @Mark: there’s little or nothing in your comment which most ecofascists and white supremacists wouldn’t agree with. It’s pure social Darwinism, a creed that Darwin himself would have been appalled to see his name attached to.

    “limiting government jobs, loans, and assistance to people with no more than two kids” – and what happens to a woman who has another child accidentally? She and the child must suffer? No. And what about men who father more than two, such as Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK?

    The wealthy societies you mention that have what you label economic stability have outsourced much of their impact on the natural world to the Global South, so that countries with high birth rates are producing the goods that we in the “stable” North enjoy at historically-low prices.

    Your white supremacy is showing, Mark. I was expecting this sentence, and there it was: “Africa’s population is expected to triple… human and environmental nightmare …” It’s the Black people’s fault, is it? Yes, capitalism is exploiting African nations as you rightly wrote. But population densities in Africa are vastly below those in the ‘stable’ countries you praise. Surely Belgium (375 per sq. km) should be a “human and environmental nightmare”, not the nation its late monarch exploited so ruthlessly and so profitably, DRC (37). Yet strangely, it’s not so. Why? Might it have something to do with our continued exploitation of Africa which provides so much for us and for which we do so little?

    As for Russia, I doubt that anyone living there would regard its current demographic crisis as an expression of ‘economic stability’. They gave their lives to save the world from fascism, a creed which seems to be creeping into this site.

    “Why is it happening? The reason is WWII – as far away as that traumatic event may seem. Between 1941-1945, the Soviet Union lost between 25 and 30 million people, according to various sources – the official assessment is 26.6 million, and this demographic “hole” is repeated in every generation (approximately, every 25 years): people who died in the early 1940s didn’t have babies, those unborn people resulted in the next demographic downfall in the late 1960s, then in the 1990s – and now Russia faces its third ‘echo’ of war.”

    “According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, Russia has a very high death rate of 13.4 deaths per 1000 people per year. While decreased from a high of 15 in 2010, this is still far higher than the world’s average death rate of just under 9. The death rate in the U.S. is 8.2 per 1000 and for the United Kingdom it’s 9.4 per 1000. Alcohol-related deaths in Russia are very high and alcohol-related emergencies represent the bulk of emergency room visits in the country.

    With this high death rate, Russian life expectancy is low—the World Health Organization estimates the life expectancy of Russian men at 66 years while women’s life expectancy is considerably better at 77 years. This difference is primarily a result of high rates of alcoholism among males.”

  14. Population control in India *always* has a hand of the eugenicists Bill and Melinda Gates. “Radical environmentalists” cheering them are just shilling for the predatory, parasite ruling class that aims for the same high-tech “green” utopia you guys claim to oppose.

  15. @Mark
    You anthropocentric anti-environmentalists constantly mistake good strong environmental advocacy for things like fascism and racism. Utter BS! Pointing out the FACTS that Africa’s population is rising more by far than that on any other continent and that this will do great harm to the natural environment and everything that lives there is not racism, it’s stating facts. Sorry if the truth hurts, I suggest you change your attitude and perspective.

    The difference between us is that you think that humans are all that matters, while we don’t elevate humans above any other species or above the Earth itself. Radical environmentalists don’t care about humans any more than about any other species, and to make everything about people is as anti-environment as you can get.

    And BTW, just because Africa is less overpopulated than other places doesn’t mean that it isn’t overpopulated; every place on Earth is, including Antarctica where humans don’t belong at all under any circumstances. Mark never said environmental problems are Black people’s fault, but your so blinded by your anthropocentric leftism that’s what you heard, or in this case, read. What you said basically means, hey, white people destroyed the environment, so Black people should be able to also. This is the mentality of a child.

  16. Excellent article on why the Gang Green approach will never save the global ecology. Unfortunately, Naomi Klein and corporate liberals have allied themselves with capitalist corporations, who we are now to believe, will save us from global ecocide. The entire Big Green movement composed of green corporations, the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society etc., the NGO industrial complex, private foundations and governments within the EU have distorted the definition of protecting the environment. We need to change their environmentalist narrative.

  17. @Stan
    The problem is that groups like Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, while being far too cozy with corporate America and taking positions that are too environmentally weak or even sometimes on the wrong side, also do some very good work to preserve the natural environment. When I was a campaigner with Earth First! in the 1980s, I enlisted the help of our local Sierra Club chapter for a campaign even though they were substantially more conservative than we were, for example. This is not black & white, and we need to be careful not to make enemies out of allies, even if they’re just partial allies.

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