Thursday, August 28, 2014

#41 [2014/CBR6] "Green Illusions" by Ozzie Zehner

One day, that I can't remember now, although I'm sure it involved procrastination of some sort, I stumbled upon Goodread's list of Best Non-Fiction (non biography) books. I'm a fan of a good non-fiction book once in awhile, but I was still surprised by how many on the list that I've read and really enjoyed. When I saw Green Illusions (2012) by Ozzie Zehner, I was intrigued and a little wary:

"We don’t have an energy crisis. We have a consumption crisis. And this book, which takes aim at cherished assumptions regarding energy, offers refreshingly straight talk about what’s wrong with the way we think and talk about the problem. Though we generally believe we can solve environmental problems with more energy—more solar cells, wind turbines, and biofuels—alternative technologies come with their own side effects and limitations. How, for instance, do solar cells cause harm? Why can’t engineers solve wind power’s biggest obstacle? Why won’t contraception solve the problem of overpopulation lying at the heart of our concerns about energy, and what will?"

I have a background in natural resources and environmental law. My personality is naturally geared towards conservation, and I appreciate the beauty of the woods and open areas that I was lucky enough to grow up around. However, at first glance, I couldn't tell if this book was an attack an alternative energy, only useful as propaganda for the oil and gas industry. I was not interested in reading a partisan, right-wing screed aimed at attacking environmentalists. On the other hand, I find the dire, "the world is ending, and we're all screwed" themes of many environmentalists rather alarming and depressing. After doing some research, Green Illusions did not seem to be either one of these so I managed to snag a copy from the library.

Green Illusions is split into two parts. The first half of the book describes in detail why alternative energy is not going to be the environmental saving grace of our society, while the second half focuses on practical changes we need to make in order to deal with the energy and consumption issues facing the world now and in the near future. Glancing through the Table of Contents before reading, I was intrigued that there was an entire section on "Women's Rights."

The first half of the book was probably the most enlightening for me. Zehner looks with detail at various forms of alternative energy, including: wind, solar, hydroelectric, hybrid vehicles, nuclear, etc. It is often difficult to get information on these technologies from a neutral source, but even though Zehner has a thesis, he is refreshingly objective throughout these chapters. He discusses how each one works and the problems that will keep these energies from ever becoming a true alternative to oil and gas. Sure, they are useful in certain situations and can ease some of the burden of energy production, but they are either unreliable, too expensive, and/or have too many negative environmental effects when put on a large scale. Zehner's thesis is that these alternative energies are being bandied about as solutions to our energy problems, most often by politicians wanting to get elected, or companies looking for some shiny, green public relations. The optimistic ideals of alternative energy allow for people to believe that Americans can "technology" their way out of blind over-consumption. This allows money to be wasted on unrealistic projects that do little to address the actual issue. Zehner also brings up the idea that creating more energy only leads to more energy consumption. If alternative energy does get better and cheaper, energy prices will decrease and people will use more--not reducing oil and gas consumption and only increasing energy consumption.

The second half of the book details Zehner's solutions to save the world. As mentioned above, Zehner begins this section with "women's rights." Really, the focus of this section is on population growth. Part of the reason energy and consumption are such a problem are the sheer number of people in the world, and that number is growing exponentially. Although the magnitude of the problem of population growth freaks me out, Zehner's solution of focusing on women's rights is both reassuring and modern. When population control often comes with ideas of controlling women and/or marginalizing nations and ethnicities, Zehner focuses on the fact that population naturally decreases as quality of life increases and women are more educated and have more power in society. 

Other solutions to energy over-consumption that Zehner discusses are making the U.S. energy grid more efficient, and creating cities and neighborhoods that are more dense, with more access for walking and biking. Suburbs with the big box stores and wide roads are incredibly inefficient. People in New York City use the least amount of energy in the country. In addition, people tend to be healthier and happier when they can walk and bike to do errands and don't have to commute through traffic every day--Zehner uses the Netherlands as an example.

Zehner goes into a lot more detail and touches on more subjects than I am able to go over in this short-ish review. I was impressed by both the content and the writing, which is both conversational and surprisingly literary. This book reminded me of something I might have read in a seminar in college: a book that we could discuss for hours, and that would provoke my idealist soul into taking some action. With that in mind, I jotted down a couple of the websites and further reading materials available at the end of the book, in case my idealism continues to outweigh my ennui. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in the subject, or any interest in learning about the subject.

National Women's Law Center -
International Women's Health Coalition -
Institute for Women's Policy Research -
American Institute of Philanthropy -

Sustainable Energy Consumption and Society by David Goldblatt
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

No comments: