Friday, October 25, 2013

Green Illusions : The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (Our Sustainable Future) by Ozzie Zehner

Two decades ago, I took a class called Environment and Society. Required reading for that class was State of The World 1990. What that book clearly laid out was that technology was not the answer to our problems with energy; to solve the problem, we'd have to rethink our systems, not just create new technology. There was a place for renewables, but ultimately the answer was using energy more intelligently.

Unfortunately, that's not what we we've been told. Many of us have been dreaming of a day when a combination of solar, wind and hydro power can replace coal and oil for all of our energy needs. That is, if we haven't been convinced that hydrogen, nuclear power or (non-existent) carbon capture are the keys to solving our energy problems.

The first part of Zehner's book slams down those arguments. While he points out many of the drawbacks inherent in renewable technologies (I'm not likely to look at photovoltaic panels again and not think about the waste associated with them), the most damning pieces are his exploration of how hydrogen and "clean" coal came to dominate the energy discussion in the last decade, reaching its most intense pitch during the 2008 election cycle.

The technology, however, is not the real problem and it never was. While our energy delivery systems need to be made more efficient- over half of what is generated is lost before it reaches consumers- the real roots of the problem are population and consumption. Zehner is sensitive to the fact that many population-control measures have been ham-handed at best and draconian at worst (read Mara Hvistendahl's Unnatural Selection for more on that); what he argues for (as many others have for decades) is a comprehensive program that improves women's rights and education. Once empowered, women tend to choose to have fewer children. That's easier- and less tragic- than forcing couples to reproduce at certain levels.

 Perhaps because I'm a mother of younger children and teenagers I found the exploration of marketing to children to be particularly disturbing, but I suspect others will too. Anyone who wants to argue that consumption should be the engine of our economy should read about the way children are stalked so that advertisers can figure out the best ways to market to them, or the way poorer city children are exploited so their tastes and habits can be sanitized and marketed to more affluent youth as a safe form of rebellion. And why is that relevant to a discussion about adult buying habits? Because children become adults- and advertisers want to make sure that they are socialized as early as possible to become consumers.

While the picture many paint is bleak (and rightfully so), Green Illusions points to places where energy is being used more efficiently. Zehner notes many of the efficiencies available in the Netherlands- and big cities like New York City. While this may fly in the face of the DIY model of self-sufficiency that asks us to envision ourselves on rural homesteads, city-dwellers are among the most energy-efficient in the world. The reason that isn't touted more? Because there is nothing sexy (or salable) about small apartments, public transportation or shared furnaces. However, those are the things that consistently work.

Highly recommended for anyone concerned about energy use.