Is the Emphasis on “Green Technology” Misplaced?

Surviving Earth

Directed by Peter Charles Downey (2014)

Film Review

This Australian documentary on climate change, like Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans places heavy emphasis on “stabilizing” global population. The methods it advocates include free contraception for all women who need it and increased education about the benefits of family planning.

The film also dispels the myth that renewable energy (ie a well-integrated combination of concentrated solar thermal, wind, PV solar, and bioenergy) is too intermittent to cover periods of peak energy demand. Now that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, this is also the main argument fossil fuel lobbyists use against 100% conversion to renewables.

Downey also calls for a significant reduction in energy consumption by the industrial North – for two main reasons. The first relates to the extreme resource intensity required for some green technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs). As of 2014, there were one billions cars globally. There isn’t enough lithium on the planet for one billion EV batteries, to say nothing of the massive fossil fuel expenditure involved in the manufacture of EVs.

His second argument relates to the declining energy return on investment (EROI) with renewables (and unconventional fossil fuel sources such as fracked gas and oil and tar sands). EROI is defined as the amount of energy you produce for each unit of energy you expending in mining and production. Modern EROIs have steadily declined since a high in 1900 of 100 units per each unit expended (for oil).

Current EROIs summarized below

  • Wind 1:25
  • Saudi oil 1:12
  • Fracked gas 1:10
  • Fracked oil 1:5
  • PV solar 1:5
  • Coal 1:5
  • Tar sands 1:2
  • Biofuel 1:1

According to Downey, a more realistic approach to reducing carbon emissions combines 1) intelligent urban design that moves services closer to residents homes, enabling them to meet most of their needs by bicycle or on foot and 2) free and convenient public transport for long trips.

He blames the steady decline in EROI for the failure of global growth to recover after the 2008 economic collapse. The Club of Rome’s 1973 Limits to Growth predicted economic growth would totally collapse around 2019-2020. A totally new phenomenon in civilized society, economic growth began around 1800 with intensive fossil fuel use. Growth will continue to decline as the EROI of available fuels declines. Eventually it will reach 1:1, and we will resume our reliance on human and animal muscle power.

Downey predicts the growing cost of energy (resulting from declining EROI) will drastically increase the cost of food – to the point local communities will again be forced to be food self-sufficient


The Corporatization of the Climate Movement

The Planet of the Humans

Directed by Jeff Gibbs (2020)

Executive Producer Michael Moore

Film Review

This very alarming film mainly (released on Earth Day on Michael Moore’s YouTube channel) concerns the capture of the climate movement by Wall Street interests. It places special emphasis on environmental NGOs, like Serra Club,, and the Nature Conservancy, which are increasingly partnering with Wall Street banks and corporations to promote technological solutions (such as solar panels, wind turbines, concentrated solar mirrors, and large scale biomass and biofuel production). These technologies are immensely profitable for corporations, but as director Jeff Gibbs demonstrates, are unsustainable in the long term without addressing population growth and massive overconsumption in the industrial North.

The film begins by closely examining, in turn, each of these heavily promoted renewable technologies. For me, the issues raised about solar photovoltaic and wind turbine technology, both strongly embraced by climate activists, are the most concerning. Gibbs reminds us that all solar panels and turbines have a fairly short lifespan (20 year), which is most concerning in light of the large environmental and carbon footprint they leave during mining and manufacture of the raw materials they consume. The steel and cement required for wind turbines have a sizeable carbon footprint in themselves, and the mining (in third world countries) of cobalt, lithium, nickel, tin, and rare earth minerals used in solar batteries and electric vehicles produces substantial quantities of uranium, radon, and other radioactive isotopes as waste products. The mining process also produces a significant quantity of sulfur hexafluoride, a  greenhouse gas 23,000 times more potent than CO2.

Gibbs ends by examining specific ties between environmental NGOs and Wall Street players:

Sierra Club

  • received millions in donations from the world’s leading timber company for their support of biomass energy (ie clearing of native forests to produce wood chips).
  • received millions in donations from Michael Bloomberg to replace coal fired power plants with those powered by (equally polluting) natural gas.
  • major backer of Green Century Mutual Funds, which are 1% invested in solar and wind technology and 99% invested in oil, gas, tar sands, and unsustainably produced biofuels.
  • sell solar panels and electric vehicles from their website.
  • is biggest international investor in Viva, the biggest corporate destroyer of native forests.

Bill McKibben and

  • assisted Goldman Sachs in raising capital for a Brazilian project to increase sugar cane production for ethanol (increasing Amazon deforestation and displacing indigenous populations).

Al Gore

  • co-founder of Generation Investment Management, a company specializing in biomass and biofuels production (this was prior to the 2005 release of his film An Inconvenient Truth).
  • co-founder of a multibillion dollar sustainability investment fund based in the Cayman Islands.

Koch Brothers

  • largest corporate recipient of federal biomass subsidies.

The second video is a Q&A hosted by Michael Moore (executive producer), Jeff Gibbs (director), and Ozzie Zehner (producer) on April 23rd.



The Taboo Topic of Overpopulation

The Mother: Caring for 7 Billion

Christophe Forchere (2011)

As the title suggests, The Mother is about the taboo topic of global overpopulation and its role in serious environmental degradation and growing food and water shortages. The film maintains that our refusal to discuss the population issue leads to confusion and oversimplification. Based on our success in halving population growth over the last fifty years, policy makers make out the problem is solved and there’s no need to discuss it any longer. This complacency can be very dangerous, especially as various countries, worried about supporting a large aged population, start bribing women to have more babies.

According to the filmmakers, population pressures play out differently in developed and developing countries. In developed countries overconsumption compounds the impact of population growth on fragile ecosystems and increasingly scarce resources. This overconsumption is largely driven by artificially created consumer demand orchestrated by a political/economic system obsessed with continuous economic growth. In the US, especially, population pressures (eg media pressure on women to have babies) are an important driver of consumer demand and economic growth

When you include immigration, the US is the third fastest growing country in the world. Rapid population growth is a major culprit in continuing joblessness in the US. The economy would need to add 150,000 jobs per month just to keep up with their growing population, yet clearly falls short of this number.

In the developing world, overpopulation plays an important role in malnutrition, starvation deaths and epidemic disease levels. Here, the film asserts, the number one cause of excess population growth is male dominance over women. In many developing countries, poverty leads families to marry off their daughters as young as nine or ten, while patriarchal fundamentalist religions forbid them from using birth control.

For me the high point of the film was a section on the Population Media Center, which works to empower Ethiopian women and improve their access to education and contraception. Their most effective strategy has been to create radio soap operas with charismatic female characters who serve as role models for young women.

One study revels these programs increased the use of contraception by 150% in a single year. They also gave teenage girls confidence to stay in school rather than following family dictates to marry older men. Research consistently shows that educating girls postpones them marrying and having children, keeps them HIV negative and causes them to have fewer children.

The film also stresses the importance of microfinance in empowering women – and communities – as women are more likely than men to invest their profits in their communities. Globally only 1% of women are able to obtain loans from traditional banks.

*Microfinance is the provision of savings accounts, loans, insurance, money transfers and other banking services (usually by non-profit organizations) to customers that lack access to traditional banks. Traditional microlending models gear these services towards women in developing countries.

Confessions of a Carnivore

red meat

As a strong sustainability activist, I feel quite embarrassed admitting that I derive nearly all my dietary protein from animal sources (eggs and fish). Explaining why I do so is even more embarrassing, a 20-year chronic intestinal infection that makes it virtually impossible to digest plant protein, in the form of nuts and legumes (peas, dried beans, lentils, etc.).

Will Global Population Drop Without Fossil Fuels?

In The End of Growth, post-carbon activist Richard Heinberg predicts that without fossil fuels, the Earth could feed at most two billion people. Organic farmers in the biointensive movement (an amalgamation of the eighty-year-old Biodynamic and the French intensive movements) dispute this figure, pointing to studies showing that Biointensive methods actually increase crop yields by 150-200%. Given current data (see Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room) that our current system of industrial agriculture feeds only 84% of the world, we could guesstimate that a switch from industrial to biointensive agriculture could potentially feed a global population of 7.8 billion.

Now here’s the rub: nearly all biointensive research focuses concerns yields of grains and vegetable crops. Preliminary research applying biointensive methods to livestock production suggests we could only provide a meat-based diet for 2-3 billion people without fossil fuels.

The average fossil fuel input required to produce meat protein is eleven times greater than for equivalent grain protein production. A meat-based diet also requires ten times more land and 100 times more water. In the US alone, the amount of energy, land and water we invest in livestock is sufficient to feed an additional 840 million vegetarians.

The Privilege of Eating Meat

At the moment approximately 1/3 of the planet (those in the privileged industrialized world) consume meat. The high cost of land, fresh water and energy compels the other 2/3 (4.7 billion) to survive on a plant-based diet. With rapid industrial development, in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, these ratios are changing rapidly. In all five countries, a growing middle class seems to be developing an insatiable demand for meat, dairy and other animal-based products. In New Zealand this is a daily news item, as China purchases the bulk of Australian and Kiwi meat and dairy exports.

Hard Choices for Activists

It seems to me that sustainability and social justice activists face some hard choices. It we are genuine in our commitment to replace capitalism with a more egalitarian society, we need to acknowledge that no society is truly egalitarian if only rich people eat meat. In other words, a truly equal distribution of land and water resources will either require a commitment to reduce global population to 2-3 billion – or a commitment by 1/3 of the planet to give up their meat-based diet.

If we fail to make this choice – and do nothing – we will be left with a scenario in which Malthusian forces (war, famine and disease) drastically reduce global population for us.

photo credit: kevindean via photopin cc


read an ebook week

In celebration of read an ebook week, there are special offers on all my ebooks (in all formats) this week: they are free.

This includes my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age and my memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee

Offer ends Sat. Mar 8.

Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room


Population control is a taboo topic among in most sustainability circles. It shouldn’t be. According to a University of Oregon study, childbearing is the number one carbon intensive activity. Having just one has twenty times the impact of a lifetime of carbon frugality.

How Many People Can the Earth Support?

The human species lives on a finite planet with finite resources. Growing evidence suggests we have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. WHO and World Hunger data reveal our current system of industrial agriculture only feeds 84% of the global population. At present nearly a billion people (out of 7 billion) die of starvation or malnutrition-related disease.

I used to believe that third world hunger stemmed purely from inequality and maldistribution of food resources. Now I’m not so sure. In the past five years, desertification, drought, extreme weather events, increasing fossil fuel prices*, water scarcity and topsoil depletion have caused global food production to level out and start to decline.

The Good News

The good news is that fertility rates are already dropping. According to the CIA (the official source of international fertility data), the current global fertility rate is 2.45 births per woman. This is down from 2.50 in 2011 and 2.90 in 2006.

Demographers attribute the drop in third world fertility rates to massive urbanization and the entry of women into the workforce. In the developed world, declining fertility rates seem more closely linked to worsening economic conditions. In Japan, which has in continuous recession for two decades, the fertility rate is 1.39 In Greece it’s 1.40, in Italy 1.41.

At a global fertility rate of 2.45, the world will reach  replacement rate (2.1 births per woman), between 2020 and 2030 and peak at 8.5 billion in 2030.

At present the planet only feeds 5.88 billion people. Could we feed 8.5 billion? Possibly. If they all give up meat and we dig up a few thousand parking lots and return them to food production.

Dropping Fertility Rates: A Capitalist’s Worst Nightmare

The bad news is the enormous pressure Wall Street exerts to keep birth rates high. Declining population growth threatens the robust economic growth our current economic system relies on.

Like a pyramid scheme, monopoly capitalism is based on the continual creation of new debt. Perpetual economic growth is essential to repay this ever increasing debt. Without it, the pyramid collapses.

The Pressure to Have Babies

At present the US and New Zealand are tied for the second highest fertility rate (at 2.06) in the industrialized word (France is highest at 2.08). The first two countries share two specific population drivers: a high rate of teen pregnancy and the bombardment of young women with constant pro-baby media messaging.

The US is number one in the developed world for teen pregnancy. New Zealand is number two. Although Kiwi teenagers have excellent access to reproductive services (including abortion) through our national health service, there’s no effort to provide effective sex education in our public schools.

Meanwhile, thanks to the capture of New Zealand popular culture by American mass media, Kiwi girls are bombarded with the same well-oiled messaging about the new feminine mystique: that without thin, perfect bodies, faces, hair, husbands and babies, they are utterly worthless as women.

In the US, teenage girls have abysmal access to both sex education and contraception. It’s tempting to blame this on the rise of the religious right. I think the issue deserves more scrutiny. A close look at the millionaires and billionaires who have facilitated the boom in right wing fundamentalism suggests they have cynical economic reasons for furthering policies that ensure robust US population growth.

We Need a Movement

Clearly activists who are genuine about curbing carbon emissions must give population control the same priority they give changing light bulbs, installing solar panels and reducing car trips. We’re not talking mandatory sterilization, abortion or eugenics – but voluntary steps people can take to curb their fertility.

So what does a population control movement look like? First it’s got lots of men in it. Access to affordable abortion and contraception is no longer a woman’s issue – it deeply affects all of us. Growthbusters guru Dave Gardner clearly does his part by handing out endangered species condoms in the street. 

Secondly it works to actively counteract Wall Street messaging that pressurizes women to have more babies. The sustainability movement is successfully counteracting messages to consume more and incur more debt. There’s no reason we can’t do the same with pro-baby messaging. There are numerous advantages to remaining childless. We need to promote them.  

Finally it actively campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy.There is absolutely no reason why the Christian right should have a monopoly on pregnancy counseling. Progressives and liberals need to start our own rape crisis and sex education clinics, comparable to the “birth right” counseling movement. If the schools won’t do it, we need to educate teenage girls about debt rape and where they can obtain free and low cost contraception and morning after pills.

During the sixties, activists concerned about oppression in the schools, medical system, and other pro-corporate entities started their own alternative schools, clinics, abortion centers and child care programs. It’s time we followed their example.

*Fossil fuels are essential for industrial agriculture. In addition to fueling farm machinery, the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used in factory farming also derive from fossil fuels.

 Originally published in Dissident Voice

 photo credit: David Blackwell