Why “Green Technology” is Not Sustainable
At this time many people are at least generally aware that environmentally harmful human activities have caused a number of serious ecological problems, amounting to a kind of crisis. The phenomena of global warming is probably the best known example, although there is also some awareness around issues like deforestation and the dangers of nuclear energy.
Several decades ago environmental groups were able to push the motto “reduce, reuse, recycle” into the public consciousness, although in actual practice the concepts “reducing” and also to some extent “reusing” were largely ignored. Today a new answer to environmental problems has been offered, one that goes a step beyond simply forgetting to reduce and reuse, going so far as to suggest that consumption itself is the solution. “Green” consumption has taken the day. Whereas in 1985 the “environmentally conscious” thing to do might have been to turn off the lights in your house for more of the day, now consumers are led to believe that simply buying energy-efficient light bulbs will instead do the trick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that mainstream environmental movements were actually better informed in the 1980s, or that the solutions offered in that day would have actually worked better than those of today. That having been said, the current obsession with “buying green” is uniquely absurd.
Plenty of other pieces have been written explaining some of the problems with what has been called today’s “greenwashing.” Excellent points have been raised concerning its deeply consumeristic character, the fact that it actually bolsters the capitalist economic model which in and of itself cannot be sustainable, and the fact that it places the burden of fixing the ecological crisis on individual consumers, rather than on the industries who are actually to blame for creating this mess in the first place. My intention is not to go against what these other pieces have said, but rather to shine some light on one area of the debate that has often been left too shadowy. That is, the technical sustainability of green technology itself, which often is not explored to the degree required.
Again, there is something of a broad awareness that much of today’s technology is not sustainable. Somehow, this non-sustainability has contributed to various ecological problems. Since it is assumed that we must continue receiving the “benefits” of all of this technology, the obvious solution is to replace non-sustainable technology with roughly equivalent sustainable technology, rather then simply reducing its use or scrapping it altogether.
It’s fairly well assumed that green technology is in fact sustainable to use. Many take it on “good faith” that switching to various green technologies will in some way fix or at least mitigate the ecological crisis, getting it under control and allowing environmental integrity to be maintained or returned to more appropriate levels. In the US it is commonly believed that much of the responsibility for accomplishing this “switch over” falls on individual consumers, by way of their purchasing decisions. I must stress, however, that many who are otherwise critical of today’s capitalist “greenwashing” scam still ultimately believe the larger promise of green technology to be true. They may simply feel that other actors, potentially the state or in some cases revolutionary movements, should be responsible for ensuring this “progress.” Since most people lack a working definition of “sustainability” themselves, they are individually unable to critically determine whether or not this larger concept is in fact true.
Allow me then to provide a definition of sustainability.
An activity is sustainable when it doesn’t deplete or harm its environment in such a way that would make that activity impossible to continue. Sustainable activities can continue for as long as their environments remain and don’t change or disappear for other reasons. To be more specific, a sustainable activity replaces, to the greatest degree possible, everything it uses with material that’s just as good or better than what it took, according to how surrounding plants, animals, insects, etc. can make use of the byproduct. If what’s given to the environment is severely depleted, toxic or harmful to surrounding organisms, then that activity is not sustainable.
Most people are familiar with the concept of nonrenewable resources, and are aware that an activity dependent on the use of such resources (a depletive activity) will eventually become unworkable. Most depletive activities are also destructive activities, however; burning fossil fuels depletes that resource, but also pollutes and harms the environment. If a destructive activity continues for long enough, it will effectively obliterate the environment surrounding it, and all of the life forms that depended on that environment, stopping that activity just as effectively as if the original needed resource had simply run out. Any human activity, then, stops being sustainable when it becomes more depletive or destructive than the surrounding ecosystem can afford.
We can now, figuratively speaking, run various green technologies through the filter of this definition, sifting out what is and is not sustainable.
A little bit of research into various green technologies and particularly how they are manufactured reveals some surprising results. Mainly, all green technology has some basic things in common with all other industrial technology. That is, from solar panels to wind mills, from low-draw light bulbs to energy efficient washing machines, from the US army’s new earth-friendly “green bullet” to hybrid vehicles, all of these things require metals, and in most cases plastics to manufacture. And what’s so bad about that? Metals and plastics are practically the building blocks of today’s modern industrial civilization!
Let’s look at how we actually get these things out of the ground. Industrial metals are refined from ore, or rock that has usable minerals or metals in it. The process of separating ore into it’s usable and non-usable components leaves behind a lot of waste. These mining wastes are known as tailings, and they often contain the following:
- Arsenic — An especially potent poison, used at various times to make insecticides, herbicides, and military chemical weapons.
- Barite — Contains elemental barium, all soluble salts of which are very toxic.
- Cadmium — Extremely toxic even in low concentrations. Inhaling cadmium-laden dust quickly leads to respiratory tract and kidney problems which can be fatal. Ingestion of any significant amount of cadmium causes immediate poisoning and damage to the liver and the kidneys. Compounds containing cadmium are also carcinogenic.
- Calcite — Dust of the calcite mineral has been found to cause lung damage.
- Fluorite — Composed of calcium fluoride. The 1984 issue of Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products lists fluoride as more poisonous than lead and just slightly less poisonous than arsenic. It has been used as a pesticide for mice, rats and other small pests.
- Lead — Infamously toxic and otherwise harmful.
- Manganese — Manganese poisoning has been linked to impaired motor skills and cognitive disorders.
- Radioactive materials — `Nuf said.
- Sulfur (and sulfide compounds) — Hydrogen sulfide is toxic. Although very pungent at first, it quickly deadens the sense of smell, so potential victims may be unaware of its presence until death or other symptoms occur. Sulfur trioxide, a volatile liquid at standard temperature and pressure, is extremely dangerous, especially in contact with water, which reacts with it to form sulfuric acid with the generation of much heat. Sulfuric acid poses extreme hazards to many objects and substances.
- Zinc — The free zinc ion in solution is highly toxic to plants, invertebrates, and even vertebrate fish.
As we can see, all of these things are toxic, caustic or otherwise harmful. In addition, sulfuric acid is created when certain of the above mentioned materials enter the waters of nearby streams and then oxidize. This wipes out all life in the effected stream sections, which can be many miles long. Use of the notoriously lethal substance cyanide is also increasingly necessary for the separation of gold and other metals from ore. Mines commonly utilize a number of other toxic substances in this process as well, including sodium ethyl xanthate, which easily forms a dangerous gas that is readily absorbed through the skin, or potassium amyl xanthate, which is deadly to certain fish, or, yet again, even more sulfuric acid, simply adding to that which already forms in streams because of nearby mines. Mining, or rather digging really big holes in the ground, is a dirty process. Even the most tightly regulated, “clean” mines leak these harmful substances into the surrounding environment. The “ponds” constructed to store most wet mine tailings are also somewhat prone to constant leaking and catastrophic failure. As such, small streams, huge rivers, underground water sources, animals, and the people that depend on all these things continually suffer the ravages of mine-related disasters. When these toxic tailings aren’t held in ponds, however, they are sometimes left in dry dust form, strewn around mining sites, where they simply blow away in the wind. Even if such “accidental” disasters and careless practices were effectively minimizeable or preventable, the disaster of intentionally tearing up huge patches of the earth, sites often ecologically important and sacred to local indigenous peoples, would still remain a necessary precondition.
As was previously mentioned, most green technology also requires plastics to manufacture. Whether this particular technology actually has plastic components or is manufactured with machines and tools that use plastics doesn’t matter much, either way plastics are necessary. Plastics are made with, among other things, petroleum, which is (as many people now understand) nonrenewable and immensely harmful to extract and refine. One of the most common plastics that we encounter is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The production of PVC (and most all plastic or chemical production) creates dioxins, and after production more dioxins leach out of the PVC that surrounds us. This is a very bad thing because dioxins, as a class of chemicals, are some of the most hazardous and deadly substances known, “dangerous at doses of several parts per trillion.” In addition to being “highly carcinogenic and poisonous,” dioxins also alter the function and structure of living cells in disastrous ways. Once accumulated, (either directly through the environment or by consuming the flesh of a contaminated organism) dioxins stay active in human bodies for between four and twenty years.
Many industrially produced items, products like carpet and paint, also utilize flame retardant chemicals called poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These also coincidentally help give cars (yes, even green hybrid cars) that “new car smell.” In addition to liver and thyroid toxicity, exposure to PBDEs has been proven to cause problems in reproductive organs and with memory loss. A veritable laundry list of health problems caused by exposure to various other plastics could be drawn up, but a complete one would be too long for this brief piece. This list would, however, include cancer, birth defects, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, and blindness, to name just a few.
Remember that part about “If what’s given to the environment is severely depleted, toxic or harmful to surrounding organisms, then that activity is not sustainable?” As it turns out, the processes required for producing industrial technologies, whether green or not, are both depletive and massively destructive.
But these things don’t happen right in most of our backyards, right? If these processes just happen far enough away from us, if they only destroy those habitats way over there, then won’t our environments be ok? Well, no, as a matter of fact. Any and all environmental damage eventually comes back around, affecting those who started the damage as well as those who did not, because everything in nature is ultimately connected. Because of this connectedness, the loss of habitat, or a specific environment, anywhere, also harms habitats everywhere. This understanding undoubtedly motivated the saying attributed to Chief Seattle, paraphrased here, that “humanity did not weave the web of life, humanity is merely a strand in it. Whatever humans do to the web, they do to themselves.”
Many have already learned that burning fossil fuels for energy is not sustainable, and that it must stop soon. Some are learning that other energy sources, like dams, are also having serious negative effects, such as destroying those waterways that act like the life-giving veins of this land. But if we really look at the proposed green alternatives, it turns out that these sources of energy are also far from sustainable. The various industrial devices that we would ideally power with this energy are likewise not sustainable to produce.
Unfortunately for us, the ecological crisis we are in as actually much more severe than most realize. Many have ignored or forgotten what such widely recognized and regarded sources as the American Museum of Natural History and the United Nations agree upon, namely that “we are in the midst of a mass extinction of living things, and that this dramatic loss of species poses a major threat to human existence in the next century”. To be more specific: “we are in the middle of a sixth major mass extinction… The last great extinction event occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago, when an estimated two-thirds of all species, including all the dinosaur groups except the birds, were obliterated.”
We have manufactured a comparable extinction event. “Over the next few decades, we could lose about 50,000 species per year, a rate 20,000 times the [average natural] rate. By the year 2100, perhaps two-thirds of the Earth’s current species will have disappeared or be on the way to extinction.” “Perhaps three species an hour, nearly 30,000 species a year, are currently being lost.”
Considering what we now know about how life systems work on this planet, that is, how tightly interwoven and connected they are, it is very unlikely that Homo Sapiens Sapiens (modern humans) will survive such an extreme downsizing of biodiversity on this planet.
Furthermore, in this latest stage of what is now called the Holocene extinction event (named for the geological period of time we are now in), the activities of industrial, “civilized” humans are solidly to blame. The industrial economy has been around for less than 1% of the time that humans have existed, and in that short period it’s already facilitated our delivery into this sorry state of affairs.
Many people have come to view non-sustainable technologies as “less preferable, but still an option.” That is, many do not take issues of sustainability vs. non-sustainability seriously. They see the whole problem as a regrettable, messy inconvenience, rather than as an immediately life-threatening issue. Simply put, we have to snap out of it. We are running out of time.
So what are we supposed to do then instead of adopting green technology?
Well, this might come as a shock to many, but the vast majority of human life has been lived without industrial technology. Also, before going any farther, do yourself a favor and forget the racist hubris of past historians and social scientists. Life before industrial technology was not necessarily “nasty, brutish and short.” As many anthropologists have recently begun to point out, starting with the (now slightly outdated but still significant) example of Marshall Sahlins, non-industrial peoples actually created the “original affluent society.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that those of us currently living in highly industrialized modern societies must adopt the exact practices of any specific non-industrial people. Rather, we should learn from the numerous examples of actually existing sustainable societies and draw our inspiration from there. I’m confident that, if we put our minds to the task, we will figure something out.
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Most of the content of this piece was shamelessly stolen from various sources: namely this zine (http://zinelibrary.info/how-not-kill-most-life-planet-introduction-radical-sustainability) which in turn got a lot of its points from Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay’s book, “What We Leave Behind.” Content was also stolen from Wikipedia and other nerdy websites.
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