by Ozzie Zehner (2012)
I was surprised by how much I liked this. Just scanning some reviews I was prepared for a very polemical and contentious take on alternative energy, possibly from a conservative-in-disguise standpoint, and while it may arguably have been that (except for the conservative part) I also found myself pretty easily agreeing with everything Zehner wrote.
The subject is too broad to go over every point here, but the main gist of the book is Zehner’s assertion that focusing on alternative methods of energy production is a dangerous and deceitful distraction from the only viable solution to our looming environmental cataclysm.
The solution is energy reduction. He states it many times: we need to focus on reduction and not production. In this way he is able to identify any poor, irrelevant or misguided proposal for what it is; if at root it’s working toward a status quo of continued or increased energy production it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The most original idea he brings to the debate is his insistence that you can’t separate environmentalism from other issues like women’s rights (reproductive rights and sex education –> birth control –> population control), military spending (arms production is one of the largest users of fossil fuels and producers of environmental pollutants), city zoning and walkable communities (well-planned communities reduce energy consumption) and income inequality and consumer culture (the wealthy feel entitled to consume and waste in mind-boggling quantities).
I had never thought of environmentalism as inextricably linked to all of these other issues and I appreciate the new perspective. At the same time, linking them together makes “saving the planet” feel like an even more daunting task, because outside of women’s rights and local zoning ordinances it essentially depends on defeating Big Oil and other mega-corporations that will literally kill before giving up their profit margins.
And that’s where Zehner comes off as either naive or disingenuous: offering solutions such as voting and campaign finance reform, carbon taxing and other regulations, the creation of a “Department of Efficiency,” and decoupling energy profit and production. He is clearly intelligent enough to recognize that all of these ideas are utter pipe dreams in our current political and cultural context. It’s hard to envision a scenario short of revolution in which the entrenched monied interests would cede this kind of territory, and an obvious first step would appear to be the revocation of corporate personhood, a virtually impossible task that he never mentions. So I’m a little confused as to how realistic he actually considers his “solutions.”
Other than that the problems with the book were minor. He gets somewhat repetitive toward the end and there is some bloat in the middle chapters on women’s rights and the “Architecture of Community” where he veers off into fairly tangential territory (the need for bicycle insurance is one of his more bizarre and thankfully short sections). Otherwise, besides some ill-advised pretentions toward lyricism and metaphors the book was highly readable.
More than readable, however, is that this book is Important (capital “i”). It’s the 2nd Important book I’ve read in a month after the devastating must-read The New Jim Crow. This one is not quite as pressing for me because it doesn’t directly deal with issues of justice and civil rights, but it’s a necessary read nonetheless.
I was way off on my suspicion that Zehner could be some sort of conservative or tea party shill; he’s really so far left that he is post-environmentalist (in a good way). And I’m optimistic that this book could become a bible of sorts for post-environmentalism, that it could help reframe the movement so that it becomes more — ahem — efficient.