Renewable energy – is it really sustainable?

    Wind farms in Hesse

(photo courtesy Stephen Mosel cc-by-2.0)

There is a school of thought amongst the green movement that renewable energy is not a solution to the ecological problems facing us, but rather another prop for our unsustainable industrial lifestyle.  This article – An Open Letter to Fellow Environmentalists – published recently is interesting as it is written by, to quote the author, ‘a recovering renewable energy advocate’.

My main critique of the article is that the fundamentalist tone in which it deplores modern electronics without any acknowledgement that he is using the internet to publish and distribute the article*. Disappointingly the author also fails to discuss any solutions or alternatives. He cites industrial societies as being the cause of current ecological problems but does not offer any meaningful vision of what it would mean to live within the limits of our planet.

That aside I think it is important to remember that building infrastructure for renewable powered energy – be it wind, solar or hydro- requires mining and all the associated damage to the environment. So while renewables are a good way to cut down carbon emissions we should not have the mentality that having renewable energy allows us to use as much as we want. Rather the combination of renewable energy AND reduction in energy use is a critical, but not the only, part of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle.

‘Destruction minus carbon does not equal sustainability’ – Paul Kingsnorth

Budd, Alex 2013. An Open Letter to Fellow Environmentalists. Deep Green Resistance New York.

Kingsnorth, Paul 2012. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Orion Magazine.

*electricity used for computers and internet is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions eg see – Graham, Michael 2009. ‘The internet is becoming more energy efficient but total energy use is climbing’.  Tree Hugger.


4 thoughts on “Renewable energy – is it really sustainable?

  1. Very interesting comment Dinali. I didn’t read all of the Open Letter as its too long, but I get the general gist of it. I agree wholeheartedly that “the combination of renewable energy AND reduction in energy use is a critical, but not the only, part of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle”. I’d like to add the other major critical issue to address – population control (will it always be the elephant in the room?).

    • I agree Anne that population growth is another issue that needs to be discussed. But curbing population growth requires an acceptance that we cannot expand forever. Humans are after all subject to the same limits that ever other species on this planet is subject to. A very tricky subject to broach though.

  2. Public subsidies to the corporates installing the turbines is $hundreds of millions. I suggest that such resources could be put initially to support a sustainability audit process that has been identified by Government and businesses in EU and parts of the USA. There has also been significant community support. I see the matter of improving integration of business and community interests, and improving business performance, relating change that will include reference to green house gas reduction and business efficiency, as critical. As a way that safety factors can also be identified, and historical reference made to the cost ignoring poor process.
    State Governments and regulatory authorities have not directly addressed many hazardous situations and activities outstanding for decades. Business confidentiality one of the reasons given. I see explanation for this as reliance on an adversarial court system without reference to quality process.
    As part of a community group, I raised the matter of EcoMapping with the Premier and Planning Minister here in South Australia, but we have not been responded to.
    Frustration seeps into dealing with an unwilling State Government unable to recognise the potential benefit of introducing an audit process to improve quality, efficiency, and reduce conflict.
    Will any future Government be interested in further information about this quality review system? Again a system established and developed in Europe in the last 15years, now driving significant management change that is benefiting whole of that community. A system that provides dimension for each of the elements of sustainability, ie. Economic, social and environmental.
    The introduction of a national audit process might compliment the activities already in place in the National Environmental Health Council, the NH&MRC, the CSIRO, and put to use the very relevant findings associated with the National Pollution Inventory. It might see development of project work within Universities.
    “Ecomapping” is an environmental management tool with a simple and visual methodology. International reference is Heinz-Werner Engel, eco-counsellor at ABECE; ( has visited SA and put the case for change a few years ago. This methodology could be incorporated into public business administration and make its dimension and support for our community much more relevant.

  3. Thanks for posting this. The criticism that the author is using the internet isn’t helpful, as I’m sure like everyone he would prefer to be outside rather than in front of a screen, and is using the internet as an effective way to spread the message. For one person to choose not to use the internet does nothing towards dismantling the entire system.
    As for solutions, that depends on what you see as the problem. For the problem of climate change and the destruction of the planet, the solution is simple: stop the burning of fossil fuels and all extractive industries. However if the problem is maintaining a lifestyle that inherently depends on the destruction of the planet and exploitation of other people, then anyone claiming to have a solution is greenwashing. And for alternatives, there are thousands of indigenous cultures who have been living in harmony with their land for generations, and I’m sure they are all happier and healthier for their lifestyle than anyone who spends time on the internet. My grandparents grew up without electricity, and I don’t have electricity at home. Not because I believe that lifestyle choices can lead to a sustainable society, because I know they don’t, but because I don’t need electricity, and feel better without it.
    I recommend the book Deep Green Resistance for anyone interested in a strategy to dismantle the industrial system and create truly sustainable communities.

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