The Climate Movement is Making a Huge Mistake
I’m Max Wilbert, co-author of Bright Green Lies, founder of Protect Thacker Pass, and biocentric community organizer. I use this site to share strategies and explore topics such as sustainability, collapse, empire, resistance, activism, greenwashing, and justice. Thank you for reading.
Environmentalists are losing. Major indicators of global ecological health are heading in the wrong direction. From atmospheric carbon to species extinctions, chemical pollution load, biodiversity, acres of old-growth forest, size of oceanic deadzones, and extent of coral reefs, the news is bad.
In individual campaigns, the story is much the same.
From the Dakota Access Pipeline (which has been operating for 6 years despite a U.S. Federal Court ruling it was illegally permitted) to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation (which has fought pipelines for over a decade, suffered militarized police raids, and is currently facing a pipeline company drilling under their salmon-bearing river), to Germany’s Lützerath where a village was recently bulldozed for a coal mine, our movements are on the back foot.
Even the fight I’ve been participating in and helping to lead for the last two years, at Thacker Pass, is not looking good — despite a new prayer camp, Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokutun — being established on-site.
We all know we’re losing, but we are rarely honest about that, and it’s even more rare for us to reflect on why its happening and how to change.
The blame doesn’t fall entirely, or even largely, on us. Our culture, educational system, and mass media don’t teach ecology and sustainability, they teach capitalism and consumerism. We no longer learn edible and medicinal plants and the contours of our watershed, we learn how to navigate social media platforms and troubleshoot apps.
But we have to focus on what we can control (our actions), rather than what we can’t (society as a whole). I believe there are ways that we can change things for the better. In the spirit of collective improvement, this article will explain why I think climate activists and mainstream environmentalists are making a huge mistake, and explore what we can do about it.
The human supremacy problem
The way we behave in the world is profoundly shaped by our beliefs, and most people in the world today — environmentalists, climate activists, and general public — have an unconscious anthropocentrism.
Anthropocentrism (n): philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world. This is a basic belief embedded in many Western religions and philosophies. Anthropocentrism regards humans as separate from and superior to nature and holds that human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.
Anthropocentrism, which can also be called human supremacy (neither term is great, in my opinion) has serious consequences.
1. Anthropocentrism leads to prioritizing humans over the real, physical world
Most environmentalism today isn’t about water, biodiversity, habitat destruction, or crossover issues such as environmental racism. Much of it isn’t even about stopping global warming directly by shutting down drilling rigs, pipelines, and refineries.
Rather, it’s about promoting electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and other forms of “green” technology.
As myself and my co-authors wrote in our book Bright Green Lies - How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It:
… a mass movement, able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people around the world, has been built to stop global warming. If you ask many of the people who march for the environment why they’re mobilizing, they’ll tell you they’re trying to save the planet; but if you ask for their demands, they often respond that they want additional subsidies for solar manufacturers.
You might be thinking, “What the hell is this guy talking about, why are subsidies for solar energy a problem?” Well, I recommend reading the book, because our arguments there are more comprehensive than I can replicate in this format, but I’ll summarize as best I can.
First, global warming is real, catastrophic, and accelerating, and we must stop burning fossil fuels and destroying natural carbon sinks like forests and grasslands, as soon as possible.
However, most pollution, most species extinctions, and most habitat destruction are not directly driven by global warming, but rather by industrial agriculture, urban sprawl, mining, overfishing and other forms of direct exploitation, and via other consequences of overshoot. In other words: global warming is not the root problem driving ecological collapse, although it is certainly a contributing factor, and one that will become stronger and stronger in coming years and centuries. Rather, it’s one symptom of the Earth-destroying way of life that characterizes global culture today.
Solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles are, unfortunately, implicated in this. Like fossil fuels, these technologies are produced by industrial supply chains linked to factories processing raw materials which are extracted from the Earth. From beginning to end, this process causes harm to the planet.
If you’re not convinced, read this excerpt from Bright Green Lies:
About 800 million tons of silicon is mined each year to create high-purity, metallurgical silicon. This quantity is growing. According to the Minor Metals Trade Association, “The biggest shift in recent years [in the metallurgical silicon market] has been the growth in the use of silicon for use in solar panels, mainly via the production of polycrystalline (or multi-crystalline) silicon (polysilicon).... Continued strong growth in silicon use in PV is expected to lead to market growth ... in excess of 10 percent [per year].”
Refining silicon dioxide into metallurgical-grade silicon requires heating the crushed raw ore to about 4000°F in an electric arc furnace. Carbon, often in the form of coal or coke, is added and bonds with the oxygen to create carbon monoxide. This reaction, which of course leaves behind slag, produces 99.6 percent pure silicon. But still more purity is needed for solar cells.
The second refining step involves heating the material inside a steel furnace insulated with thick layers of graphite until the silicon is molten, around 2500°F. Hydrochloric acid and copper are added to the mixture, and they react with the silicon to produce trichlorosilane gas. Boron or phosphorus is introduced to the furnace to help make the silicon conductive. Finally, a “seed crystal” is inserted into the mixture and slowly withdrawn while spinning at a precise speed. This process, entirely controlled by computers, results in a single huge 99.99 percent pure silicon crystal in which all the atoms are aligned. During that process, about 80 percent of the original metallurgical silicon is lost as waste.
Keep in mind this is one small part of the process of producing solar panels. Other essential elements in the solar supply chain (batteries, inverters, frames, transmission lines, electric substations, etc.) have their own associated horrors, and the same is true of other so-called “green technologies.”
Here’s another excerpt from Chapter 5 of Bright Green Lies:
According to the World Steel Association, the trade group that represents most of the world’s large steel companies, “every part of a wind turbine depends on iron and steel.” And it’s not just essential for the turbines themselves, either. Steel is required for other phases in the generation of wind power, from the mining machines that extract the ore that will become the steel in wind turbines to the massive ships carrying turbine components around the world to the cranes that lift and install these turbines.
… Steel is one of the most important global commodities, essential to many parts of industrial civilization. Buildings, ships, cars and trucks, appliances, infrastructure, machinery, and weapons all require abundant, cheap steel…
Iron ore is the main raw precursor to steel and is mined around the world. Five of the 10 largest iron ore mines are in Brazil. Because iron ore mining is big business, worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually just in Brazil, the government does all it can to streamline mining permits, sidestep environmental regulations, and mute community opposition.
The world’s largest iron-ore mine is the Carajás mine, located in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. More accurately, the mine is located in what used to be the Amazon rainforest. Now, it’s located in the center of a wasteland, a clearcut, an industrial chasm. Every year, more than 2,400 square miles of forest around Carajás are cut down, mostly to make charcoal used for smelting iron ore. Yes, you read that number correctly. And yes, that’s annually. The latest $17 billion mine expansion project has already destroyed mile after mile of rainforest, and threatens a unique part of the Amazon, a savanna around two lakes, home to more than 40 endemic plant species found nowhere else on earth.
Toxic “tailings” sludge from these mining operations is impounded behind huge earthen dams, two of which have failed in recent years. A 2015 collapse near Mariana, Brazil destroyed two villages, killed 19 people, polluted water supplies for 400,000, and released more than 43 million cubic meters of toxic waste into 400 miles of rivers of streams and the Atlantic Ocean. According to a United Nations report, “Entire fish populations—at least 11 tons— were killed immediately when the slurry buried them or clogged their gills.” The same report describes that “the force of the mud- flow destroyed 1,469 hectares (3,630 acres) of riparian forest.”
The report uses the term “eliminating all aquatic life” to describe what has happened to more than 400 miles of river. The Mariana tailings dam failure has been called the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.
The second major failure at a Vale iron-ore mine hit Brumadinho, Brazil, in January 2019. This time, the mudflow killed 270 people and released 12 million cubic meters of toxic sludge—destroying all life in another river, the Paraopeba. In the aftermath, Vale safety inspectors “failed to guarantee the safety” of 18 other Vale dams and dikes in Brazil.21 As one researcher put it in the aftermath, “In Brazil and [the state of] Minas, it is the ore above everything and everyone.”
Iron ore mines in the Amazon basin have displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people, decimated newly contacted tribes through the spread of infectious diseases, and flooded remote areas with thousands of workers. A 2011 report from the International Federation for Human Rights attributes “incessant air pollution” to the iron ore mines. Forced labor and child slavery have been documented by the Brazilian government. Mines become the locus of networks of roads that cut into the jungle, leading to poaching and illegal logging in protected areas.
People in the region contend with cancers, birth defects, and lung diseases caused by pollution from processing facilities, factories, and constant traffic of industrial trucks and trains. In some towns, a fully loaded train passes every 20 minutes, day and night.
“[The town of Piquiá de Baixo is] a place where practically the whole population is likely to get health problems and lung diseases,” says local teacher Joselma Alves de Oliveira.
Resistance has been widespread, with tribal people, students, and forest lovers blockading railways and holding public protests, but with little success. Local business elites and politicians, many of whom have been powerful since the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, protect the mining operations with the help of police and paramilitary forces.
“In thirty years, iron exploitation [has left] deforested areas, slave labor, migration, and has torn apart the identification of the communities with their territories,” says community organizer Padre Dario Bossi, who has been fighting iron ore mines for decades. “It has also left land conflicts, pollution, urban disorganization, and violence due to the intense exodus of people in search of work, the most affected being indigenous or African.”
This is, of course, not good for the planet.
It’s destructive to the planet, in the similar ways that fracking for gas, drilling for oil, mining for coal, and refining, processing, and shipping fossil fuels is. My point is not that fossil fuels are sustainable or a good idea. Clearly they aren’t; my point is that so-called “green technologies” — all of them depending on mining and other destructive processes — aren’t sustainable either.
2. Anthropocentrism leads to prioritizing temporary convenience and luxury for some over the well-being and lives of the poor and future generations of human beings
Electricity, cars, and the abundance provided by industrial civilization give us freedom, mobility, and power. They allow us to access information, education, work, video conference with friends and family, and get lifesaving medical care. Our society has been built around these technologies.
But not everyone benefits. For example, there are an estimated 40,000 children laboring in slave-conditions in Congolese cobalt mines which produce minerals found in every cell phone, laptop, internet network, wireless headphone, electric vehicle, and cordless power tool.
We can’t ignore the workers dying from workplace accidents, people becoming sick due to air pollution, or the women trapped in prostitution at Indonesia’s Morowali Industrial Park where most of the world’s nickel for batteries is produced.
If you’re one of the hundreds of species being driven to extinction by the extraction of resources and pollution necessitated by industrial supply chains, you definitely don’t benefit.
If you’re one of the children alive today or yet to be born who will live through 2050 and beyond, when scientists are projecting there could be 1.2 billion environmental refugees flooding the world, you may have a problem with the decisions being made today.
My point is, the benefits of these technologies are not universal. They accrue to the wealthy (the cheapest EV produced by General Motors, the Bolt, costs around $26,000; the median global income per person in 2023 is approximately $2,920), and they are by definition temporary, since:
These minerals are non-renewable on human timescales,
Some are used consumptively,
Recycling is not even close to 100% efficiency, and
Because the whole economy they help power is destroying the planet.
3. Anthropocentrism will destroy itself
Modern economics is supposedly based on a simplified Darwinian model of evolution via total competition: “survival of the fittest.”
This is a misconception. Even Darwin didn’t believe this. A more sophisticated take on evolution tells us that, while fitness is important to the survival of a species, even more important is its ability to fit in. In other words, a species which learns to exist in balance with its surroundings is likely to survive. Those which do not are likely to fail.
Another way of saying this is that sustainability is an adaptive trait.
Destroying the planet you live on is really stupid.
And it’s ultimately suicidal, because we are not separate from the rest of life on this planet. From our microbiome to our mental health, from our climate to the food we eat and air we breathe, we are in a state of inter-being with the rest of this planet. Whether you take a superficial mechanistic perspective (“we depend on healthy ecology for survival”), or perceive the deeper truth that separation itself is an illusion — that we are part of the whole — the outcome is the same.
As we destroy the planet, first we lose our quality of life, health, and well-being (we’re already quite far down this road), and then we lose our ability to survive.
4. Anthropocentrism leads to compromise
Another effect of anthropocentrism is that, by prioritizing human desires, it creates an over-developed sense of compromise in environmentalists.
This has been on full view at Thacker Pass, where mainstream and even many grassroots environmental organizations have refused to speak out strongly against the proposed open-pit lithium mine that would destroy critical wildlife habitat, pollute water and air, destroy a sacred site, and release greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a small city.
At best, these organizations have talked about making the mine “better” and “less polluting,” but they have been reluctant to say that "mining is unsustainable, and we’re against this project completely.”
This is both morally wrong and strategically unsound, and I’ve taken a different approach. I’m not completely against compromise — there may be cases where it is necessary. But my view is well summed-up by David Brower, the former head of the Sierra Club:
“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. [Instead] our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.”
I was reminded of this yesterday when I was researching a new report on ways to reduce lithium demand and increase human mobility by increasing recycling, reducing battery size, and prioritizing public transit and walkable communities over single-occupancy electric vehicles.
These are all better alternatives to the status quo, but what the report doesn’t do — and what so few activists and organizations do — is visualize a future that is actually sustainable. Instead, it visualizes harm-reduction, a typical progressive approach that by definition always ends in compromise.
This approach is both uninspiring and pre-supposes defeat. It pre-supposes a world in which billions of people continue to demand and receive massive quantities of consumer goods delivered by multinational supply chains, mining, and other forms of extraction.
If we concede that, we’ve already lost.
We have to face reality
We are in a broad ecological crisis of which global warming is only one part. Stopping that crisis will mean changing everything in our society: our economic system, politics, education, consumption, energy use, culture, even our spirituality.
The environmental movement used to understand this.
It used to be a revolutionary movement.
But no longer. Instead, what we call bright green environmentalism, which argues that “green technology and design, along with ethical consumerism, will allow a modern, high-energy lifestyle to continue indefinitely,” has become dominant in the environmental movement. Much of the reason that so-called “green technologies” like wind and solar energy and electric vehicles have become so popular among governments, corporations, and mainstream climate activists, is that they don’t represent any fundamental threat to the status quo. Energy, consumption, capital, economic growth — all can continue to flow.
To quote Bright Green Lies:
Once upon a time, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places from destruction… but something has gone terribly wrong… Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet. The how and the why of this institutional capture is the subject for another book, but the capture is near total…
…one could easily be forgiven for concluding that much environmentalism has become a de facto lobbying arm of the solar industry. That’s a hell of a PR/marketing coup. And the blame shouldn’t go to individual protestors. They’re not the problem. The problem is that this is what capitalism does.
Judged by their actions rather than their words, many environmental organizations put more emphasis on sustaining a modern western lifestyle than on sustaining the planet.
They’ve become more focused on what is politically feasible than what is ecologically necessary.
This is a very serious problem.
These issues have completely hamstrung the mainstream environmental movement, and in fact, have led to a significant co-optation of the movement by corporate elements (this was the subject of a chapter which didn’t make it into the final version of our book Bright Green Lies, which I may publish as a standalone piece sometime in the future).
What the hell do we do about it?
We build an organized, political resistance movement that prioritizes the health of the planet, rejects anthropocentrism, and works to dismantle industrial civilization (call it what you like: capitalism, imperialism, globalization, the culture of empire) in favor of localized, ecologically sustainable land-based communities using whatever means are necessary.
To be clear, I’m not calling for wanton violence — that is almost always counterproductive. In most cases, “whatever means are necessary” translates to non-violent civil disobedience, grassroots community organizing, education, building alternative institutions, mass mobilization, and so on.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. This is an actual emergency.
I’ve been working for a better world for over a decade with Deep Green Resistance, and I’ve learned a few things in that time — mostly through my own mistakes. This essay is the first in a series aiming to identify why environmentalists are failing to be effective, and suggest ways to improve.
If you want to read the next part in the series, consider subscribing. Thank you.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my recent interview on Leilani Navar’s Turning Season podcast.
Bright Green Lies has been translated into German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
Elsewhere in Europe, my photograph of a Great blue heron was used for the cover of a French translation of Derrick Jensen’s book Endgame published by the great people at Éditions Libre. They did a great job with the design: