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Two Books to Help You Rethink Renewables

Updated: Feb 26

Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert

Who Owns the Wind? Climate Crisis and the Hope of Renewable Energy by David McDermott Hughes

I’ve found only a few books dedicated to taking a critical look at the role of renewable energy in enabling a better future. Maybe that is because the dominant narrative— that renewable energy will replace fossil fuels and carbon emissions will fall and we will somehow, then, be OK – is so comforting and so clearly a fantasy that looking any deeper into the role of renewable energy will shatter the fantasy and send us groping for some other comfort. Then again, maybe the topic is just not as interesting as I think it is. Whatever the reason for the relatively few books on the topic, I am writing today to review and recommend two.

Bright Green Lies argues that, given the materials used in manufacturing renewable energy technologies, the land destroyed and kin harmed in construction and operation, the non-viability of recycling dreams, and the fact that renewable energy and other “green” technologies have not yet resulted in meaningful improvements to our ecosystems, advocating for renewable energy is not an effective way to advocate for the planet. They write that the focus of the environmental movement (the “bright green” environmental movement) is no longer to save the planet, but to save industrial civilization, something that they argue is fundamentally unsustainable. The substantial evidence that they provide about the harms of each of the “bright green lies” (solar, wind, green energy storage, efficiency, recycling, the green city, the green grid, hydropower, and so on) involves both high-level calculations and detailed examples. They want us to advocate politically for “real solutions,” such as protecting and restoring the land and reducing emissions by reducing consumption.

The second book, Who Owns the Wind?, is an ethnography of a small village in Spain, a place that has put up a mighty but not-so-successful resistance to wind energy development. Hughes enters the village with the desire to understand what motivates their resistance, seemingly so he can complete research which will help alleviate future resistance to wind energy. The story is rich with culture and characters, and, unlike many ethnographies, the story is rich with the ethnographer himself. As such, we get to see his intention shift as he forms his argument: if renewable energy is to succeed, the process needs to be fair. Fairness, for the most part, takes the shape of public process and local ownership of developments.

Though these two books are best in conversation, there are a couple of issues I have with Who Owns the Wind? that I want address first. Throughout the book, Hughes presents us with a false choice. The false choice is this: land, sky, and sea filled with steel blades, or a planet ravaged by climate change. Having established this false choice, he dismisses even his own points when they are about to offer (or require) a third option. Reduced consumption or sweeping lifestyle changes in the Global North are not options to Hughes, even as he himself presents seriously good evidence for their necessity.

For instance, Hughes writes,

We need to stay alert, watch ourselves, avoid trouble, and above all refrain from causing more harm. Comfortable, carbon-spewing residents from the Global North have committed an environmental crime of massive proportions. Ever so slowly, renewable energy is disciplining us. As they jangle in the sky, turbines are the ankle monitors we wear while on parole (Hughes 170).

It’s clear that Hughes sees the divide between the Global North and the Global South when it comes to culpability. He also makes clear that he is aware of the massacre of birds and bats that happens at wind farms. And yet he suggests that having to look at wind turbines is “discipline” for the Global North? Wind turbines whose innards are made of materials from mines that are poisoning the Global South? Forget halting environmental crimes, let’s punish the birds and claim it as our own disciplining. I just don't buy this.

Hughes also makes a small nod toward concerns about commoditizing the natural world. Then dismisses them. He writes,

Some may even suggest that wind should not be commoditized—as “natural capital” or as an “ecological service.” Unfortunately, it is already too late: the wind became a commodity when the first latifundista sold his wind rights (Hughes, 221).

To that I say, Dr. Hughes, that the bodies of women became commodities centuries ago. Were we supposed to say “too late” to that? Women, especially indigenous women and women of color, did not and do not say “too late.” They fight for their bodies and their lives. To this very day. Sure, there are a million differences between women’s bodies and the wind. For that reason, you might tell me that the same horrors aren’t relevant to the commoditization of the wind. But, I ask: in a culture where commoditization and domination of the natural world continue, will women’s bodies ever be liberated? Consider this: In the oil and pipeline country of the American West, we know that “violence against the land has been directly related to attacks on Indigenous women’s bodies” (Nick Estes, Our History is the Future), as man camps and pipelines have brought the highest rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and two-spirits to that region. Or consider this: Success of the political right in the U.S. involves getting fossil fuels out of the ground and keeping babies in the womb, a perverse symbiosis of ambitions of commoditization and domination which serves only those at the highest levels of power. The commoditization of nature has repeatedly harmed women and the poor the most. Should we so easily set aside concerns over commoditization?

Hughes implores “current and potential protestors” to read his book. Yet, it is Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert, three individuals who have made protest their lives’ work, who give us the intellectual tools to identify Hughes’s false choice and underlying assumptions. Hughes is exactly the type of “bright green” that Bright Green Lies is criticizing. In fact, they call out Hughes’s main argument directly:

Does the ownership of the technology change the nature of the technology? We raise this point because the argument for local control always arises when we critique solar and wind. The argument, however well meaning, has an unspoken premise: industrial civilization has to continue and the problem facing us is how to power it (Jensen et al. 153).

While that unspoken premise is a weakness of Hughes's, Who Owns the Wind? makes a case for further consideration of local or communal ownership. Hughes introduces us to the motivations and the voices of the people who are debating renewable energy not in theory, not globally, but specifically in their own back yards. The book presents to us the many layers of power involved in a renewable energy projects and the histories that shape that power. Hughes gives us examples of how the fossil fuel industry will support wind power to the extent that they profit off of it, while simultaneously ensuring that it does not grow to replace fossil fuels. He suggests that such a situation can be avoided through “politics of plenty” in which public ownership limits the ability of companies to manufacture scarcity and ensures benefits of renewable energy conversion go to local communities. In the end, Hughes makes the powerful point that the goodwill of the people who live in the places where renewable energy is abundant should be valued as highly as the resource itself. Reductions in consumption and sacrifices in the name of the less fortunate or the planet are only made by those who are empowered to make them and those who can recognize their agency in solidarity with the living world.

Other scholars have begun to explore the ability of renewable energy to encourage new ways of living through the confrontation with consumption that they force or through the community values that could be cultivated around projects. There is more of a case for local control than Jensen et al. acknowledge. Personally, I find myself hoping that we could build trust and create dialogue over local energy projects in a way that allows us to face the difficult reality presented in Bright Green Lies. But doing that would require that we let go of the fantasy and acknowledge that renewable energy cannot replace fossil fuels at the present levels of consumption and simultaneously leave us with a healthy planet.

As we look for a way forward with renewable energy, both books are limited in the guidance that they can offer us due to their conception of the problem and their intended audience. For Hughes, the problem is fossil fuels, and his audience is decision-makers in the renewable energy space. For Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert the problem is industrial civilization, and they are writing to redirect the environmental movement. Both books present a singular problem, which is itself problematic given the complexity of the tensions that humans face. The problem and audience direct each authors’ calls to action. Hughes implores his audience ensure that wind energy lends itself to collective ownership, although the how of that task is left unclear.

Bright Green Lies leave us with a suite of action items, the one which applies directly to renewable energy being, “The list of activities to be halted must also include the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, windmills, hybrid cars, and so on” (Jensen et al. 443). They promote massive allocations of money to land and soil restoration, the end of monocropping, a dramatic reduction in industrial energy consumption, total access to reproductive choices for those of us with baby-growing organs*, and much more. These are uncompromising demands laid out for the environmental movement, which, if taken uncritically by those or us in renewable energy, promote total abandonment. Total abandonment is not a valid pathway from where we are now to where we might like to be.

After reading these books, it seems the pathway is still left for us to map. We must dispose of the idea that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels at current levels of consumption without destroying the planet, reject unconditional advocacy for renewable energy, create new possible futures through community projects, and ask how we can best use our skills and knowledge to make renewable energy into something which helps us bridge the gap between the destruction and the worlds so many of us work for—the ones once again bursting with life and love.

*I feel I should point out that Bright Green Lies uses the term “women” here, and the authors (primarily, Lierre Keith) have been known to have some troublesome views when it comes to trans individuals. I don’t share those views, and so I’ve chosen another identifier.

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