An Open Letter to Fellow Environmentalists

19 Mar

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30 Responses to “An Open Letter to Fellow Environmentalists”

  1. Stephen Malagodi March 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Ah yes, the honest, exuberant militancy of youth. I’ve been there, been that, and I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not.

    The author correctly identifies industrialism itself as the core of the problem. However, further study of the history of mechanization – I would strongly recommend Siegfried Gideon’s “Mechanization Takes Command” – would put the development of industrialism in a wider historical and human context. In short, we and our machines are integrated. Machines are part and parcel of what it means to be human.

    Furthermore, I urge the author to travel outside of the United States, maybe to Haiti or to Zambia or some other fairly pre-industrial society to get a feeling of what ~most of the world~ actually lives like. No refrigerators, so no long-term storage of proteins or medicines. No washing machines, so women spend an enormous amount of time getting to and from the river to wash the clothes for their families. Forget about school for women. Tribal wars everywhere over access to resources. Limited access to electricity or telecommunications – social isolation. People in these societies are not concerned about access to or denial of ‘fantasy football’. The stakes are much higher. To say to villagers in Mozambique that they cannot have access to the benefits of the machinery that we have abused is the height of arrogance. To condemn others to lives of unceasing labor and deaths of and malaria and malnutrition is, to put it kindly, unenlightened.

    No, we will not voluntarily give up industry – mostly because we know how to do it and it is a valuable skill. What we must do is reorient our desires and our economies toward mutual benefit (see Peter Kropotkin) and away from individual accumulation. This fundamental shift is both possible and essential for survival. We have done something like it before. Our shift from predominantly hunter/gatherers to herders/agriculturalists shows that this kind of fundamental shift can occur. We can also see that, despite the fact that this transition took place roughly 6-10,000 years ago, hunter/gatherer societies still exist, and history shows a transitional process of conflict and adaptation.

    The author claims that support for renewable energy is support for the planet-killing system of industrialism as we know it. That is correct only if one supposes that support for any energy source is the same as support for any other. That’s just simplistic. It also supposes that industrialism must always continue as it has developed so far because that’s all we’ve experienced, i.e. there can be no other way. As John Cage so rightly said “Experience is the worst form of paralysis.”

    The trick is to learn from experience but not be bound by what you thought it was.

  2. john salko March 19, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    I think the above article is the way it really is and we are in a catch 22. Large industrial systems require large amounts of rescources and so do people and there lies the problem. Its really impossible to change anything and even if we could, what would we change? We are trapped by time and events much like the Earth is captured by the sun.

    • D G March 21, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

      So, besides endless hand wringing, what are real solutions? What exactly is being attacked by abandoning “industrialism”? I get the vague impression that it is the beyond human scale of machines, and of society. If so, how many people must die to achieve a pastoral carrying capacity? Will you be one to go willingly? Sometimes, I think writers like this want the end to be nigh, for me, but not for them.

      Maybe we can turn our backs on civilization, join a closed sustainable non-mechanical farm and do nothing about the rest, letting them die off on their own. The collapsitarian agenda of Orlov, Kunstler, and Jensen is barren. Believe me, I have lived it before.

      So, my parting question is, is the Long Descent something collapsitarians want, or just see as inevitable? If it is something you want, great. Just let me know before I expend anymore time thinking about dystopia. I will take a more optimistic approach of a managed descent. Using less solar and wind power and dematerializing our society, while recycling everything into a more reasonable level of comfort is my plan.

      The rate of population growth is turning down everywhere there is policital stability. More and more people are practicing transition lifestyles, relearning community and enjoying our way to a better, less materially obsessed future. That is my utopian hope!

      Imagine turning all the old fossil fuel infrastructure into less of everything. That is a conversation that’s worth having!

      • Prof SK April 5, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

        I didn’t find any reference in the article to killing people or living on non-mechanical farms. That said, DG, I understand your reactionary response. Clean energy mythologies are what we tell ourselves when we either don’t know what to do, or when we don’t like the simple truth of what we must do.

        The actions and decisions made today according to our immediate perspectives will be the history of people in the future. I think our reformed environmentalist and clean energy advocate has found out the hard facts about something that he “believed” in. People always need to be careful about the line between knowledge and belief.

        Facts: human activities can and perhaps necessarily do cause damage to the environment.

        The rational approach to these facts is self control of the activities to mitigate the damages to a level the environment can recover from.

        Activism for Change: Say NO.
        Be very clear that LESS coal use next year and every year after is the objective. (Not more wind turbines, less coal).
        Be very clear that regeneration of environments, one river or reef or forest valley at a time, is the goal, and that every single square meter of remaining natural environment left is too precious to allow ANY kind of development.
        Be very clear that less mineral extraction next year and every year after is the objective.
        Be very clear that less water use and less waste disposal every year is the goal.
        These types of up-stream requirements are easy to evaluate, regulate, monitor, measure, achieve through policy. Quotas. Then the economy will work out how to deal with it, and if it makes sense to have some kind of i-phone in that context of declining inputs, then they will be in the market. The ratcheting quota system would have to continue until the risks are reduced to a manageable level.

        If all of the “clean energy” activists of the past 30 years had been focusing their energies on upstream solutions, hard resource constraints and quota implementation, then there might have been change in the right direction. I didn’t seen the light either. Like so many others I was distracted by more efficient, cleaner, more optimistic un-sustainability. Now I work in a focused way on reducing and eliminating what is the most dangerously un-sustainable rather than thinking that there is anything that is sustainable.

      • Iuval Clejan April 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

        “So, besides endless hand wringing, what are real solutions?”
        There are three that I’m aware of. The first is going back to a pre-industrial technology, village scale. There are several places that are serious about this, the one I know in the US is near LaPlata MO.
        There are a few in europe, the oldest ones were started by a disciple of Ghandi by the name of Lanza del Vasto. The one in MO is called the Possibility Alliance. They have made great strides in agriculture and non-violent human interactions, but still not much in terms of grains and beans and food from cattle. And their technology infrastructure is still in its infancy (e.g. no blacksmiths yet).
        The second is primitivism, but as far as I know it is mostly theoretical at this point. People are trying to relearn ancient technical survival skills. But they are not anywhere close to creating sustainable human populations.

        Both of these might actually take generations to produce a livelihood independent of industrial technology and it seems like they may not produce the carrying capacity needed to sustain current population levels.

        The third solution is what I call the Luddite Manhattan Project. Instead of building a weapon, let us collaboratively and intensely build a solution to the enviro-social-spiritual problems we face. Let us use the tools of the prison to get out of prison (didn’t Jensen say this at some point?). Let us use computers to figure out, in a place-dependent manner, how a village-scale technology ecosystem, can interact sustainably with the natural ecosystem, and also produce basic needs (while computers, bicycles, solar panels, batteries, and solar/hydro/wind electronics, and cars can continue to be produced by current industrial system, but at a much smaller rate, partially because this solution will ensure a much smaller rate is needed) for its human inhabitants. I want to get Will Wright to help create SimVillage. It will calculate how to satisfy caloric needs, soil fertility needs, material needs for shelter and clothes, how to store and transport water, how to make medicine, and most importantly, how to network the hundreds or thousands of people producing basic goods in this village so that everyone is employed in a humane way and all basic needs are satisfied. It’s a technological networking problem, not an economics problem, though the game could include economic scenarios as well. It will include mostly pre-industrial technology, but maybe some innovations too (e.g. rocket stoves). For a fuller description of what I have in mind, and how it can go beyond simulation into real life implementation, please email me: I would also like feedback and welcome discussion from people who disagree with this approach.

  3. Dave Ewoldt April 4, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    It’s good to see more people waking up and realizing that slapping band-aids on symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause isn’t going to change much–if anything–for the better.

    But it’s also not going to do us any good in the long run to go to the other extreme. Humans are naturally innovative and inquisitive. Progress is actually part of the direction of life. What we’ve allowed to occur is for the industrial mindset to subvert this reality to its exclusive benefit. What we must do is put it back into service for life.

    Energy production in a sustainable future will be clean and renewable. But it must occur within a truly sustainable framework. Which means it must start with an honest carrying capacity analysis, and an honest conversation of the differences between standard of living and quality of life.

    As this post should make clear, industrial renewable is an oxymoron. Anything that keeps the centralized distribution of national grids humming along is a bad idea. Distributed generation at the neighborhood level using vertical shaft wind turbines is one possible alternative. This can be combined with micro-hydro and various types of solar along with a storage technology designed to be non-toxic and recyclable–which themselves must be combined with a redevelopment of the built environment to be harmoniously integrated into a living world. Richard Register’s ecocities and permaculture design principles provide a starting point for this necessary work.

    But we must also let the human population naturally fall to sustainable levels instead of supporting a paradigm that demands pumping out ever more producers and consumers. It must also be understood that the majority of the stuff produced by the Industrial Growth Society serves no purpose but generating profit. And infinite profit on a finite planet means that wars of imperialism will be necessary until there is no one left to fight them and nothing left to fight for. Steady-state or ecological economics provide an alternative here.

    Consumption (this used to be considered a disease) has been accepted as an acceptable substitute for psychological and spiritual health and well-being. The concept that humans can “own” the Earth, or even small pieces of it, is another basic flaw that is ingrained in our jurisprudence. The alternative here is basing our governance on an Earth jurisprudence.

    So, to me, whether or not we produce energy, renewable or otherwise, can’t be dealt with until we’re willing to address population, consumption, and ownership. Because I fully agree with a basic premise of this post: The manner in which green jobs or a green economy is being presented by mainstream enviros today is just a way to protect and perpetuate the status quo of a death culture. A culture that continues to see Earth as an endless supply of resources and a bottomless pit for waste is fundamentally at odds with the fundamental laws of physics, and has no future.

    True justice is not possible without sustainability, and without justice there will be no peace. In order to meet an ecologically sound definition of sustainability, our future must be based on ecological integrity, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy. It must function in adherence with the core natural systems principles from which sustainable ecosystems emerge, and must be congruent with the prime activity of living systems–the tendency to self-organize into mutually supportive relationships that support the web of life.

    And because humans are a natural part of nature, not apart from it, we embody the wisdom to do so. Yes, it is badly atrophied, but it’s still there, and can be rekindled.

  4. Kim April 6, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on stories of creative ecology.

  5. dido April 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    alex go for it the world needs to hear this. you are a great writer and can say it in a way that works. i want to hear more from you. can you write more about what it would look like to you, if we create some way of living that works for our planet? i believe one thing we don’t have enough of is visions of what we can create, that is an alternative to growth economics. if more people could see another way, we might get more hopeful action happening.

  6. John Saunders April 10, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Wow like the effort and passion as a maybe a bit older man I see it from the view of a person that grew up with the cold war as a back drop. So I view any hope as an improvement. I have very out of this world ideas of our potential energy production. I do agree with your emphasis on positive living and the necessity for it. I hope the author of this can contact me so we can expand on our ideas.

  7. Jonathan Hontz May 8, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    I agree with you on pretty much every point except one. It’s more semantic than anything else, but we are not actually killing the planet: we are killing ourselves and probably a good number of other living things (however we define the word “living”). The planet will survive us, no matter how inhospitable or uninhabitable we ultimately make it. It may resemble Venus when we’re done with it, but in a few million years’ time it will probably return to life and vigor until the sun decides it’s time to quit.

    For all practical purposes, I suppose it could be said that we’re killing the planet, but it’s not as precise as I think we should be. The import of such a distinction is that rather than working to protect the planet in the we’re-killing-it phrasing, we would work to protect ourselves. It turns out that the ultimate way to do that is to respect that we all come from Earth and return to it. The more careful we are to ensure that Earth is able to support us, the better off we are.

    I prefer to view the earth not as a victim, but as our source. We are the victims of our own foolishness. The earth will go on.

  8. Forrest Palmer May 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Beautiful…nothing more needs to be said…period…except, THANK YOU…

  9. Garrett Connelly May 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Write on beautiful writer.

  10. Get real, focus on the stuff that works May 17, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    First: I have an Msc in Environment and Natural resources.

    That being said, I find your “open letter” completely rubbish. Full of factoids, references to media only (NO scientific publishing whatsoever!) and a twisted, reactionary view of the real world (which won’t serve anyone any good). I only hope that most people reading your post will also wish you a happy recovery, and beg that you are less biased and better informed the next time you post.

    I will make my list of “exposed errors” short, but inviting anyone to investigate further each claim (remember, look at each case from different angles, leave your emotions out of it, and double-check any source you are gathering information from. Much of the environmental debate in the media is politisized, and almost always biased one way or the other. Go to the source: scientific papers and basic books about chemistry, physics, ecology and other fields of importance (economy usually have it’s fair share of saying)).

    I a. Wind mills alone won’t cover the energy need. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear COULD. Any structure/facility/energy we add to the world will have some sort of impact on the environment, but it will not be devastating. Lesson: Learn about base load, intermediate load and top load. Take an energy course in university.

    I b. Nuclear IS the key to a low carbon future, although it has the obvious issues with radioactive waste. FBR (fast breeding reactors) and thorium reactors could levy the impacts from RW.

    I c. Steel and a few rare minerals are needed for wind mills. However, calculate how much of the world’s steel production 10.000 wind mills require. Do the math, the amount of iron/steel extraced/produced won’t be more devastating for the environment than mining is today already. THe upside: Around 90 % of the steel can be recycled and reused. After the initial extraction, only 10 % is needed for the 2nd generation of wind mills. You will have to think long term if you’re going to save the environment. It is quite possible. It takes fossil fuels to initiate most renewable energy structure constructions, but the second round is close to “renewable”.

    II, FIght ANY kind of non-sustainable mining. Do not buy a gold ring for your wedding if you want to keep this a priority. Try to recycle all and any metal you use (from tin cans to your old car). Recycled metal uses only 5-10% of the energy required for virgin metal! (and it saves water, chemicals etc). Transparency and consumer awareness CAN and WILL be the choice of weapon for environmentalists picking this fight (and I hope we all do!).

    III. Energy consumption. The best way to reduce fossil fuel consumption is to reduce YOUR consumption of ANY GOODS. Take your latest electronic gadget made in china, or your latest “on sale” jackhammer from Walmart. These kind of products pollute through it’s whole life chain: 1) production requires energy and extraction of metals, 2) transport requires fossil fuels, 3) using the product requires energy, 4) at the end of the product’s life, it will need transport to the land fill or recycing facility (and will probably leak a few micrograms of brominated flame retardants every year if it’s ending its life on the land fill).

    Solution to the problem: Don’t buy stuff just because it’s cheap. Don’t buy stuff unless you REALLY need it. If you need that jackhammer for only 1 week/1 job, lease or borrow it. Do you really need 3 TVs and 2 PCs at home? No. Look at the back-of-the-envelope calcuations done in “Without the hot air” : . Check how much impact your consumer goods actually have!

    IV. Energy efficiency. If you really have to buy a new car, or keep your indoor temperature at 75 F, look at energy efficiency. You don’t need to use 100 % pure electricity to generate heat at 75 F, use a heat pump, solar collector or other means. The car: Find one that use less than 1 litre/mile, it should be easy. Don’t go buy those old american wrecks made by GM.

    I could go on and on. My final point is: You, We, CAN do something about the big challenges that lay ahead of us. There ARE positive forces focusing on necessary means- energy production that is moving towards sustainabliity, consuming less while being happier still etc etc – to meet our goal – a thriving planet for plants, animals and humans.

  11. Kim June 22, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    I’ve made a printable version of this article in zine format, the pdf is at
    Let me know if there is a problem with this, I’d be happy to make any changes or take it down.

    • dgrcolorado June 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      Wow! Thank you Kim! I think it looks great! The only thing we might add would be the contact information about DGR on the back of the cover. Would you be willing to send us the editable version for us to make those additions? Thank you again for making this!!!

      • Kim June 25, 2012 at 3:59 am #

        what’s an email address I can send it to?

      • garrettconnelly June 25, 2012 at 5:28 am #

        Well written accurate assessment. This is a good introduction to proposed action. Slipping on my amateur editor’s cap, find words to replace one or two of the personal pronoun; even though good and true, there are a couple too many. Shall we work together to layout an attainable vision and action plan for construction of a new world that heals the planet with human rights?

      • dgrcolorado June 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

        you can send it to Thank you!

  12. Peter van Lieshout June 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    I am at present designing and building a 400 lot ” off the grid” “sustainable village”. Location , about 1 hour from the gold coast of Australia and in the rich subtropical caldera of the Tweed Valley. The question I constantly ask is , what’s the least amount of energy you can comfortably live on ? Excellent small house design and the added bonus of this location not needing cooling or heating within the house , makes me think that maybe 6 solar panels and the use of natural gas for cooking could easily make that the maximum ecological impact . Together with the plan to grow all our own food and the use of a 20 year old plantation forest next to the village for our building materials , this village ( Nightcap) could end up being a good example of what can be done as long as there are enough people out there who are prepared to live a slightly more minimilistac simple life.

    • garrettconnelly June 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm #


      I lived 15 years with six panels and a gas stove, plus a homemade galvanized pipe on plywood hot water panel. I never once felt deprived.

      • dgrcolorado June 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

        Living a simpler life, more in tune with the needs and limits of earth and the land where we live is a great thing, but it’s also important to keep in mind how it is almost exclusively people of privilege who have access to this kind of lifestyle. For the vast majority of people, the ‘homestead’ remains virtually unattainable.

        On a related note, we need to remember that living simpler lives as individuals won’t ever be enough to stop deforesters or Monsanto. It’s absolutely a good thing to minimize the impact our individual lives have on the planet, but as long as the industrial economy–and civilization itself–remains intact, the destruction will continue. Derrick Jensen wrote a great article about this, entitled “Forget Shorter Showers,” which can be found here:

      • Iuval Clejan June 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

        The main issue I see with “living a simpler life” is that most people don’t think beyond consumption. That is, who makes those solar panels, metal pipes, farming tools and materials (twine, stakes, irrigation, etc) etc, etc. It’s the same industrial ecosystem that makes them that is destroying us. So the solution is to start actually making what we need (but in a local craft-based way), not just consuming what industry is making or trashing. Materials, energy, tools, manufacturing. This is not a piecemeal sort of thing, it needs to be done holistically, so that all the makers are working in a web satisfying each other’s needs. It can be done over generations, or it can be done more quickly with just a few planners. Hence the luddite Manhattan project. Protest is a waste of time at this point. Most people won’t change until they see something better. If you are a farmer, craftsman or historian of technology, I need you.

      • dgrcolorado June 29, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

        You’re absolutely right, Luval! Thanks for commenting. Most of those involved in these initiatives don’t even “think beyond consumption”. By going “off the grid”, they prefer to build their own electric grids (albeit smaller ones). They aren’t going off grid; they’re just moving to their own grid. Most of these efforts are still dependent upon industrial resources and materials (“solar panels, metal pipes, farming tools, etc” as you rightly say). Where will they go when they need to replace a solar panel, or when their tools break? Where do they get the wiring and piping, where do they get the natural gas from? Only by dismantling the entirety of industrialism and civilization can we hope to defend and preserve the living world. More sustainable and “lifeboat” communities (whether they are definitively sustainable on their landbases or not) can help to achieve this goal, both by creating alternative ways of meeting peoples’ needs and by being communities that embrace, encourage and enable the resistance that is needed to dismantle the death machine of industrial civilization.

      • garrettconnelly June 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

        Granted, there is such a thing as an effete snob with the money to buy cool stuff and make regular people feel like turds; that is not the subject here; we are considering and planning emergency replacement of consumer based corporatism, survival is not guaranteed.

        We live at a time when the economy is facing friction from a badly wounded earth, remember this, it was just a few short years ago when mother earth handed out free lunches to her well loved humans.

        We have a real and urgent need to establish independence from corporatists who will plunder our earth until nothing is left living. These needs include sanitation, water, shelter, food and a fully functional democracy to focus our human knowledge on the problems, discuss and select solutions, and then plan and implement direct actions which promote prosperity and heal the planet while defending and expanding human rights. I am an applied economist who has devoted many years and much study in preparation for this time of drastic change when survival of our specie hangs in the balance.

        The first and quickest direct action is to plant food, turn it into a social occasion and let the wealth flow to our new civilization we are building to replace the madness of world destruction over plastic fantastics. I am a farmer and can tell you without doubt that eco-agricultural techniques outproduce corporate factory farms at almost twice per hectare and at the same time build back the topsoil lost to mechanized chemical farms.

        Applied economic development research at includes (1) shelter, the $5 per square foot house, (2) sanitation, the flycatcher compost toilet, eliminates water use of centralized sewage systems, and (3) rainwater collecting water tank roofs, for daily use and to harvest hurricanes and save the emergency distribution of water after the storm.

        All these subjects are shared on the internet here : no claim to be definitive last word, open source for you, please share experience … shelter 2010 … rainwater … Compost toilet elements … Compost toilet production feasibility test …. rain gutter spanish …. rain gutter english


        Garrett Connelly

        Manuals suitable for technical community schools may be purchased here

        Sets for non-profit libraries are occasionally available on request, subject to very limited current funds

      • Iuval Clejan June 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

        OK, so do you know anyone who wishes to help with this specific practical project I mentioned? It is a bit different than lifeboat communities in its scope and timescale. I thought I left links here a while ago, but let me know if you need more info.

      • Dave Ewoldt June 29, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

        DGRColorado makes a good point in his reply in this part of the thread. As Roy Morrison says in “Ecological Democracy” you can’t build little eco-islands of sustainability surrounded by the toxins of industrial culture. It must be stopped, and it must be replaced.

  13. shastatodd July 16, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    this is precisely why, after 35 years of championing the solar industry… i have stopped designing, installing and maintaining pv systems.

    it used be that people did this because it was “the right” thing to do, wisely implementing conservation/ frugal consumption/ energy audits BEFORE having systems installed. most conscious/ efficient homes were able to operate on 3 to 6 kWh/day (1 to 2 kW STC system).

    now that solar is less expensive, people are using it to “put lipstick on their pigs”, justifying their waste with “green” power. typical systems are now powering 35+ kWh/day (~8+ kW STC system). this means “magic green energy” is now powering waste and unconscious consumption… which is why i am retiring, as solar is now a huge part of the problem.

    this will not end well…


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