By Guy Crittenden
Back in 2007 Google launched a research initiative to accelerate the identification and adoption of renewable energy technologies to stave off man-made climate change. It was an exciting idea: a high-tech company intent on helping commercialize disruptive technologies to replace coal (at first) and ultimately reliance on fossil fuels in general. So it was quite shocking when the lead researchers advised the company to cancel its research project. You can read the details about why they did this in a decent Vox article here. The gist of the concern was that the experts discovered early on that existing technologies simply weren't up to the task of generating enough power and, worse, the vast resources and energy inputs needed to fabricate the equipment (think cement, metal, mining exotic materials, etc.) would entrain an absurd cycle in which more and more energy would be required to manufacture the energy-saving equipment, in the end saving little if any energy at all. Google's analysis was, ultimately, that something even bigger was needed — a disruptive technology (think cold fusion or something like that) that would totally change the game. Building wind turbines and solar panels was simply never going to be enough.
I think the Google experts were correct in their thinking, though I make allowances for unpredicted innovation that could tilt things a bit further in renewable energy's favour. It might not be enough to avert calamity, but (as the Vox article suggests) could maybe reduce the scale of the problem such that civilization will survive, or at least the human species (or some amount of life). I'm encouraged by revelations like this one in which the Gates Foundation announced a the results of a successful secret project that demonstrated a solar technology that's dramatically more powerful than anything built to date, that can offset the fuels used to manufacture cement, among other things. (Cement is important as it's responsible for seven per cent of global emissions.) In fact, the Google engineers never said to cease innovating and investing in these kinds of technologies; they simply realized Google's research project would never generate a solution that matched the size of the problem.
Fast forward to 2019 and the situation isn't much better than it was in 2007. The price of renewable energy continues to drop, which is a good thing, and some new technologies like that from Bill Gates hold promise. But no single disruptive energy generating technology has emerged to sufficiently course-correct against ecological collapse. (I'm not speaking only of climate change here but of various challenges, including ocean acidification [to name but one]. The problem with carbon dioxide isn't just its heat-trapping qualities but straight-up chemistry.) Worse, the very same monopoly capital entities and agencies that manage the current unsustainable system and which have capitalized on neoliberal austerity policies and endless regime-change wars are hijacking the environmental movement, sallying forth with the very same projects that the Google engineers said wouldn't work because it's profitable for them. As is often said, you can't expect the system to fix the system. Gates' discovery notwithstanding, the potential disaster of trusting the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations of the world to "save us" has been carefully documented by Canadian journalist and activist Cory Morningstar in an exhaustive article series on her website The Art of Annihilation. Morningstar has connected the dots between various members of what she calls the Non Profit Industrial Complex to reveal the corporate agenda that's afoot, and which has exploited young Greta Thunberg's campaign to greenwash a very questionable set of ideas.
To understand Morningstar's concern, ask yourself: Who will decide what solutions will be implemented to solve which environmental problems — as defined by international monopoly capital organizations? Will "solutions" be prioritized that actually work? Or ones that are most profitable for the same companies that made money polluting the earth in the first place? And will the process be democratic? Will it reward plutocrats in the industrialized world, allowing them to maintain their deeply unfair casino economy system a while longer? While doing nothing for people of colour in poor countries? For instance, a huge part of the solution might be simply planting, say, one trillion trees. This idea is becoming more feasible with drones that can fire seedlings into the ground at a faster rate than human workers, and in remote places that are difficult for people to access. But will that solution — if deemed sound — get sufficient backing? Or will the funds flow instead to large liquid natural gas installations and port terminals? And more nuclear plants? (I don't know if these are inherently good or bad ideas; I'm simply questioning the process of how this will be decided upon.)
The seriousness of the concerns from the Google engineers and Cory Morningstar can't be understated. We cannot afford to be naive here, and must look past public relations and our own confirmation bias to discover real solutions, things that work, and not just schemes that make us feel good. If you doubt this, consider just one example: the coup d'état in Bolivia that ousted socialist President and indigenous community member Evo Morales. This violent imperial coup has been utterly misrepresented in corporate media (which largely aligns with the perpetrators' neoliberal assumptions). Morales is in no way a "dictator" and in fact was elected numerous times because he's extremely popular with the majority of the population — indigenous people that have benefited greatly from his economic reforms. In fact, up until his ousting, Morales and Bolivia were frequently cited as an example of successful socialism and the emancipation of persecuted people. I had long thought it was a good thing Bolivia's not an oil rich nation, assuming it would avoid the fate of Venezuela, which is home to the world's largest oil deposits and the second largest cache of gold. What I didn't know was that Bolivia is home to the world's largest reserves of lithium. So it turns out there was, in fact, a motivation for foreign countries to overthrow Morales (beyond the fact that he's a critic of empire); turns out he was in the process of nationalizing the industry and changing how his country's lithium is sold. Morales sought to benefit his country's citizens by charging more for lithium and not simply allowing cheap extractivism by multinational corporations. You can learn all about the Bolivian coup plot and the commercial agendas of countries like Germany that want ongoing access to cheap Bolivian lithium by watching this excellent short video from the Grayzone:
Just as I believe a proper understanding of what was (in reality) the dirty proxy war against Syria provides the key to understanding US foreign policy and the relationships of various state actors in the Middle East, deconstructing what's really going down in Bolivia is key to understanding US policy in South American. But more importantly perhaps, this is not just a typical US coup or invasion to secure oil and gas: this conflict involves other countries also and companies gearing up to make a killing from the production of such things as Tesla automobiles and Green New Deal schemes that won't work, just as Cory Morningstar has pointed out, along with the Google engineers. Simply put, we're witnessing the violent overthrow of a popular president who speaks for the majority of his population, whom he's lifted out of poverty, in a country that has the highest percentage of indigenous people in South America, in order to secure ongoing access for foreign companies to lithium at ultra-cheap prices, because it makes the products of those companies more profitable. And we must note the corporate media has largely lied about this series of events, claiming there were election irregularities (for instance) — an opposition smear that has been discredited. Enthusiasts for the corporate and state-sanctioned climate action protests ought to note that Extinction Rebellion has protested the Morales government in lock step with the racist parties that overthrew him, even joining in the nonsense that he was somehow responsible for or indifferent to the Amazon rainforest fires in his country. The organization falsely wrote: "While Brazil has hit the headlines, you may not have heard that Bolivia is also being completely destroyed with deliberately set fires. Bolivians in London are organizing a protest outside the Embassy to demand government action." This, despite the fact that Morales invested heavily in fighting the fires, joining in the efforts directly himself.
In the end, the questions and solutions we don't ask and don't consider will likely be more important than the ones we do. Why? Because we'll tend to only ask ourselves the questions that the corporate media and deep pocket foundations steer us toward (for self-serving reasons). The very real risk is that we'll accept the "right answer to the wrong question." In fact it's already evident: most of the current conversation revolves around finding a technology or technocratic solution to climate and other environmental challenges, when there's evidence this won't do the trick. What if the solutions have nothing to do with this? There's the planting of trees idea. But what if the answers aren't technocratic, at all? What if the solution is, say, to adopt a completely different way of life? Consider the Sami people of Siberia — the last indigenous people of Europe. These shamanic reindeer herders live sustainably and in a way that's utterly different and incomprehensible to most people in industrialized countries. Is anyone talking to them? Or the tribal people of the Amazon? Or Africa? What do the elders in those societies have to say? The fact that even asking this sounds bizarre points up how tethered we are in our thinking to the assumptions of late-stage capitalism. These are, after all, the wisdom keepers of old mankind, who know quite a bit about how to live harmoniously with nature.
"Now we must consider blood is being shed to maintain cheap access to the materials needed for Green New Deal technologies, and to maintain high profit margins for multinational corporations."
I'm unsure myself that returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a viable option for humanity. (Although ironically such people might be the survivors of an ecological apocalypse in any case, as author Graham Hancock has noted, with city folk dropping like flies in the face of environmental pressures and their inability to hunt or grow their own food.) An enormous population reduction would be needed — hopefully accomplished via a voluntary one-child-per-couple program and not forced sterilization. In fanciful moments I speculate that perhaps we could return to the old ways, but with small-scale high technology. (Psychedelic writer Terence McKenna once envisioned the human being of the future as a spear fisherman in a loincloth with a nanotechnology eyepiece. Perhaps such people would huddle around artificial fires and signal to other tribes with smart phones.) Whatever the case, exactly this kind of conversation needs to take place. Representatives of a variety of value systems and viewpoints need a seat at the table for a mature conversation about all the options, including solutions that work for everyone and not just elites in rich countries. Eventually they too will suffer and possibly perish, even if they can delay their demise a bit longer than the masses sweltering outside the perimeter of their heavily fortified shelters. But this conversation isn't happening — at least not enough — because public opinion is being spun with a seemingly endless list of distractions that include everything from perpetual war, escapism (think sports or the coming virtual reality games), imposed IMF-style austerity, misleading technocratic solutions, and a media that provides seemingly limitless cover for corporate and other elites.
The violent CIA-backed coup Bolivia, and the motivation to colonize the country's lithium resource, should cause every person of conscience to pause and reflect upon what's really going on here, what's actually being planned. We already knew there'd be dislocation and wars over fresh drinking water and oil. Now we must consider that blood is being shed to maintain cheap access to the materials needed for Green New Deal technologies, and to maintain high profit margins for multinational corporations. This does not seem to me like the way out of our predicament. In fact, it seems like we're set to dig our hole even deeper. We must pay close attention to every development, and resist corruption of the environmental movement at every turn.
Environment and business journalist and award-winning book author (The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls, Apocryphile Press) based in Innisfil, Ontario, Canada and Principal of Crittenden Communication. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org