Changemaker Profile: Ozzie Zehner’s Green Illusions

By Kari McGregor

An academic who doesn’t stake his career on pleasing the establishment, Ozzie Zehner dares to put forth a down to earth and rigorously scientific response to our culture’s obsession with technological fixes.

Among other roles, he is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US, and a reviewer for the IPCC. His scholarly research subjects include the social, cultural, political and economic conditions influencing energy policy priorities and project outcomes, as well as investigation into the symbolic roles that energy technologies play within political and environmental movements.

Ozzie is perhaps best known, however, for his award-winning book, Green Illusions, in which he shatters the illusion of the techno-fix. Lifting the veil on the law of unintended consequences, Zehner has achieved a degree of notoriety among techno-optimists for exploring the grey areas of green technology, delving into the dirty secrets of clean energy, and questioning what the future of the – at present, techno-optimistic – environmental movement holds. In his own words, Green Illusions “…certainly isn’t a book for alternative energy. Neither is it a book against it. In fact, we won’t be talking in simplistic terms of for or against, left and right, good and evil … Ultimately, this is a book of shades.” 

The conversation we need to have with regard to how to live lightly – sustainably – on this planet is also one of shades. Very little of the good-bad, right-wrong, sustainable-unsustainable binary discourse we engage in is really as simple as it may seem at face value. If we are to achieve a sustainable existence on this planet then we have to see the world as it is, and not as we would wish for it to be. This is undoubtedly a challenge, but Zehner is not deterred; if we correctly understand the limitations of technology, and the potential of more systemic change, then we can begin to chart our course. 

The taming of the environmental movement

It is an understatement to say that the environmental movement has not succeeded in stemming the tide of ecological destruction. For all the marches, petitions and publicity stunts, and for all the slogans, hashtags and Twitterstorms the youthful, social media-savvy movement has thrust into public consciousness, carbon emissions continue to rise, and the globe continues to warm. Forests are razed, and mountaintops blasted off. Species are lost, and water, soil and air are poisoned. What is it, precisely, that isn’t working?

Critical of the present-day mainstream of the environmental movement, Zehner sheds some light on the current default activism that flirts with co-optation by neoliberal interests and ideology:

I would say that the environmental movement has relegated itself to cheerleading and mindless chants and that it’s time for us to step away from the pom-poms. I encounter a boundless enthusiasm for creating positive change when holding dialogues with environmental groups. Unfortunately, the mainstream environmental movement is channeling that energy into an increasingly corporatist, and what I call a “productivist,” set of priorities.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Zehner contrasts the environmental movement today with the much more holistic and self-reflective approach of the old-school movement of half a century ago:

Prominent environmentalists were living modestly, challenging dominant economic assumptions, and imagining durable strategies for human prosperity that were more in tune with the non-human planet. That humility has largely eroded.

In explaining this transformation of a movement that was once committed to small-footprint lifestyles, re-imagining the good life, and questioning economic growth, Zehner cites what amounts to a corporate takeover of the ‘green’ agenda, visible to the naked eye of any mindful observer:

The modern environmental movement has rolled over to become an outlet for loggers, energy firms and car companies to plug into. It is now primarily a social media platform for consumerism, growth and energy production – an institutionalized philanderer of green illusions. If you need evidence, just go to any climate rally and you’ll see a strip mall of stands for green products, green jobs and green energy. These will do nothing to solve the crisis we face, which is not an energy crisis but rather a crisis of consumption.

Zehner, an engineer whose fascination with green technology was what led him to build a wind turbine in his backyard as a kid, and an electric car in his high school years, is passionate about technology. But he is realistic about its potential, and its limitations.   

Who killed the electric car?

One of the most celebrated superstars of the renewables ‘revolution’ is the electric car, and conspiracy theories abound as to why our roads are not full of sleek, soundless vehicles powered by abundant, clean electricity, but still congested with dirty gas-guzzlers. It is a pervasive myth, however, that it would be a simple task to convert an entire fleet of vehicles to electrical power, or that it would be sensible to replace all current vehicles – regardless their state of repair – with an entirely new fleet, fresh off the production line. Zehner brings the conversation down to earth with a bump: 

Building a heavy box with wheels and then shoving it thousands of miles down a road requires a lot of energy. There’s no physical way around that. Electric car companies haven’t found a way around the physics. But they’ve created an illusion that they have.

Electric cars can seem clean if you’re wearing some pretty substantial blinders. And if you read reports by industry, political groups, and academic departments at UC-Davis, MIT, Stanford, or Indiana University, who have partnered with industry, that’s what you’ll get – narrow questions that measure easily obtainable data that can be quantified within a semester. On their own, they might be a curiosity, but electric car proponents leverage these fractional studies into the spotlight to paint the whole industry green.

He goes on to reference a study conducted with no industry strings attached – one that reveals a rather different picture.

Researchers at The National Academy of Sciences took a step back. They investigated the entire life cycle of an electric car and painstakingly compared its impact to epidemiological data from every county across the United States. They determined that electric cars merely create a different set of side effects. It’s just that those side effects don’t come out of a tailpipe, where we are accustomed to looking for them.

Overall, the researchers found no benefit to an electric car once you account for the broader array of harms – most notably those arising through manufacturing. The National Academies report is showing its age, but it’s the best we’ve got so far because it’s comprehensive and independent. It was commissioned by Congress – we paid for it – and it’s co-authored by 100 of the nation’s top scientific advisers. A more recent Congressional Budget Office report came to similar conclusions.

Inconvenient truths

Clearly Zehner doesn’t beat about the bush when it comes to inconvenient truths. A particularly inconvenient truth, it seems, for the largely techno-optimistic climate movement, is that so-called clean energy is reliant on fossil fuels for its very viability.

There is an impression that we have a choice between fossil fuels and clean energy technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines. That choice is an illusion. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels for mining operations, fabrication plants, installation, ongoing maintenance and decommissioning.

In reality, alternative energy technologies are better understood as a product of the fossil fuel industry. Getting the raw materials out of the ground to build the alternative energy infrastructure requires diesel-powered machinery, and we’re yet to come up with an alternative means of powering the kind of massive machinery that’s required for shifting massive amounts of earth and rock to get at the valued substances beneath. And biofuels, the much-touted replacement for petroleum energy, turn out to be a net energy sink, so reliant are they on petrochemical fertilizers and energy-intensive agriculture for their production.

One of the most glaring misconceptions around alternative energy is that it is essentially ‘free’ because the sun doesn’t charge us when it shines, and the wind doesn’t charge us when it blows. 

Since wind and sunlight are free, why are wind and solar power so expensive? Solar and wind energy technologies should be very cheap – much cheaper than fossil fuels.

But they are not cheap at all. Even with massive subsidies, we see firms going bankrupt trying to sell them. And then we still have to figure in the cost of building batteries, redundant power plants or other infrastructure that arises from their low quality intermittent energy.

But perhaps the greatest misconception of all is that alternative energy sources are clean and safe. They are, inconveniently, nothing of the sort, as Zehner points out:

…we have to consider the mining, health, pollution and waste problems of renewable technologies. For example, we are now learning that the solar cell industry is one of the fastest growing emitters of virulent greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has a global warming potential 23,000 times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The most inconvenient truth of all, it appears, is that we cannot have our cake and eat it. Energy will not come for free, and it cannot be entirely clean and safe, due to the production requirements of mining, infrastructure, and waste disposal. As the law of unintended consequences would have it, although the carbon emissions level of alternative energy systems is lower, the overall destruction caused is far from negligible, thus the technology itself is far from sustainable.

There’s no such thing as clean energy, but there is such a thing as less energy. Every energy generation technique has side effects and limitations. The best way to avoid these negative consequences is to use less energy overall.

It seems we’re simply going to have to swallow our sci-fi ambitions, and power down. There’s a snag with that solution, though, and it’s this: low energy consumption doesn’t fit within the parameters of our paradigm; most of us don’t want to use less energy, and we’ve been convinced (generally by crafty salespeople and politicians) that we don’t have to compromise.

The ‘productivist’ paradigm

Zehner’s major critique with our current approach to problem-solving is that it fits squarely within the paradigm of ‘productivism’, the notion that the production of more of any given thing – be it technology, consumer goods, or GDP – has the power to change the status quo significantly. This pervasive productivist attitude is clearly of benefit to industry and big business, while incompatible with the goal of sustainability. Although it is convenient to focus on the evils of market capitalism and the accumulation of wealth, Zehner warns that these are not the only drivers of environmental destruction.

…we might also talk about human procreation, the work ethic, alternative energy production, or numerous other productivist pursuits. Within these narratives runs a common theme – that which is produced is good, and those who produce it should be rewarded. This creates problems on a finite planet, to put it mildly.

It’s almost too simple to warrant a mention, but it remains largely unacknowledged by the majority of people – environmentalists included: we live on a finite planet; therefore we simply cannot go on ‘producing stuff’ forever without consequence.

Our planet has bounded resources and limited ability to absorb the impacts of human activities. Challenging the dominant neoliberal model can help to justly share those resources and risks. However, the precarious stories around growth and productivism are larger than just neoliberalism or capitalism.

Zehner points out that the neoliberal mindset is not only the domain of Libertarians and Tea-Partiers, but also of conservatives and progressives; all subscribe to solutions that fit within the parameters of productivism. Political outliers who run on a platform of degrowth are few and far between: 

I know of one political candidate in the US who has run on a platform of slowing down the machine in order to preserve long-term prosperity only: Dave Gardner, who ran for mayor of Colorado Springs and directed a movie about it called Growthbusters.

That’s our very own Dave Gardner, author of SHIFT’s regular Growthbusting column. Dave didn’t win the race for mayor of Colorado Springs, but then who stands a chance against competitors who tell us we can have our cake and eat it?

Powering down

Although a soft-spoken and seemingly introverted guy, Ozzie doesn’t shy away from hard truths that need telling. If we are to have a sustainable future on this planet, we are going to have to accept the limitations of its finiteness, and this itself poses a conundrum.

Our future success will rest upon our ability to bring the population down over time as we also reduce per-capita consumption. How do we do that while maintaining life satisfaction?

That’s the question that Richard Heinberg, Curtis White, Albert Bartlett, Paul and Anne Erhlich, Jeff Gibbs and I are asking along with theorists in the French de-growth movement and others. We certainly don’t have all of the answers – far from it. There’s not even much room to discuss these topics within the existing progressive movement, but I invite everyone to come join us in creating that space. The first steps are to shed our green energy illusions and to start thinking more critically about perpetual growth. Afterward, I suspect we’ll be able to ask clearer questions and maybe even imagine what a truly advanced civilization might look like.

The difficulty with powering down is less a technical issue and more a cultural one, and the environmental movement needs to join with the degrowth movement in pioneering the path toward a cultural shift that will enable society to shift down a gear or two in terms of consumption.

A culture shift within a movement

The environmental movement, however, comes up against its own internal set of pitfalls that have thus far prevented a return to the old-school days of energy conservation, envelope-pushing, and challenges to the economic paradigm. Funding is the first of these pitfalls that Zehner mentions, with the compromises required to secure it resulting in a shifting of the goalposts. 

Mainstream environmental groups are exchanging their principles for power at a suspect rate of exchange. It’s not just the alternative energy technologies that rely on fossil fuels. The environmental groups do, too. They rely on funding from the excess wealth accumulated as froth on the top of the fossil fuel economy.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the mainstream environmental movement has ‘made do’ with the position they are in with regards to funding, and focused their energy on promoting the techno-fix solutions of the industries that provide them with the funding required to do their work. The unintended consequence, of course, is a tacit – and sometimes overt – endorsement of fetishized gadgetry over the seemingly boring alternative of ‘less is more’. 

Mainstream environmental groups seem transfixed by technological gadgetry and have succumbed to magical thinking surrounding their pet fetishes. The last thing you want to give to a growing population of high consumers is more “green” energy. Even if it did work as advertised, who knows what we would do with it, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be good for other species on the planet or, for that matter, long-term human prosperity.

The mainstream of the environmental movement seems, therefore, to be riding a wave of self-perpetuating fantasy, rather than confronting reality. If the net result is not environmental protection and regeneration, then new questions need to be asked, and new strategies drawn up.

We’ve built up stories around green technologies and we make comparisons that are bound to satisfy those preconceptions. As a result, we have an environmental movement that is asking the wrong questions about growth, economy, equity and global risks.

Take, for instance, the practice by mainstream environmental groups of vilifying petroleum cars in order to promote electric cars. No doubt, gas cars are expensive and dirty. They kill tens of thousands of people annually. But using them as a benchmark to judge a technology as green is a remarkably low bar. Even if researchers at the National Academies are wrong – even if electric cars someday pass over that low bar – there’s another problem. How will electric cars stack up against the broader array of transportation options at hand, such as transit, cycling and walking?

Zehner clearly has a point: surely the raison d’etre of a movement is to shift the centre of gravity, to shift the discourse to the conversations that are hard to have, yet necessary if we are to bring about the vital changes that will secure our long-term survival. Ultimately, we cannot expect alternative energy technologies, or any flashy consumer gadgets, to solve problems whose causes are social, political, and economic in nature. 

If we are to really make a difference, the environmental movement is going to have to trek the path less-travelled; the movement’s own centre of gravity will have to shift. We need to not only seek different solutions, but also ask different questions, such as what the ‘good life’ really looks like, and how it can be achieved without ecological compromise. The last word on this I’ll leave to Ozzie: 

We are so far from finding solutions. We first have to change our questions. We have to stop touting green growth, green jobs, green buildings, green business, and start to interrogate assumptions that undergird the belief that material growth will lead to long-term prosperity.

If you’d like to keep up with Ozzie Zehner’s work, check out his website, and consider grabbing a copy of Green Illusions.

Zehner’s comments for this article were sourced from: at Zehner’s own recommendation. All points made in this article are Zehner’s own, and have been edited for brevity and clarity by the article’s author.


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