Unveiling Progress as Parasite, or Replacing “Renewable” Energies with Ecological Ethics

Cara Judea Alhadeff

Unveiling Progress as Parasite, or Replacing “Renewable” Energies with Ecological Ethics

Paintings by Micaela Amateau Amato, from Zazu Dreams (2017)

Analog color photographs by Cara Judea Alhadeff

This essay examines the insidious manifestations of greenwashing and environmental racism in the context of humanitarian imperialism—the ways in which our taken-for-granted standard of living dictates and breeds relentless consumption, even in the name of the “environment.” It draws attention to how we may unconsciously embody the hegemonies we seek to dislodge, including our technocratic petro-pharma addictions that rely on technology to create “sustainability.” The essay closes with applied examples of ecologically responsible lifestyles and the ethics in which these are rooted.

1. Introduction

You cannot regulate an abomination. You have got to stop it.

– Wendell Berry

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

– Edward Abbey

Rather than asking how we can save industrial civilization, this article explores how we can transform habitual behaviors of self-appointed privilege and obsessive accumulation so as to embody our interdependencies as a model and resource for compassionate living. How can we take urgent, collaborative action in a way that does not reproduce the very challenges we are attempting to overcome? Through a commitment to creative-waste collaborations, we can transform the everyday violence of corporate capitalism—consumption and entitlement—and create a bridge between community action, infrastructural design, corporate accountability, policy reform, and individual response-ability.[1] This ability to respond—a mutual deep listening—gleans from indigenous wisdom and biocentric, life-affirming perspectives.

The transition from our ethnocentric, xenophobic Anthropocene Era (characterized by plutocrat-driven corporatocracies embedded in bacteria-phobia, commercialized childhood, and extractive industries) into a biophilic social permaculture[2] requires an embodied awareness of interdependency rooted in the Commons. Permaculture is a creative process of recognizing, designing, and implementing interrelationships. Social permaculture is applied ecology—creating relational infrastructures for each and every social system. This pluriverse of complementarity, reciprocity, redistribution, and cross-community alliance-building is the foundation for the Ecozoic Era—ecotheologian Thomas Berry’s concept of humans sharing mutually beneficial relationships with the world around us, intellectually, structurally, and spiritually.[3]

My challenge in this essay is rooted in three interrelated inquiries:

  1. How do our daily choices reinforce the very systems we are questioning or even trying to dismantle?
  2. How do the alternatives to fossil-fuel economies and environmental racism reinforce the very systems we are questioning or even trying to dismantle?
  3. How can we decolonize our thinking as we learn from indigenous philosophies and socialist ecofeminist subsistence movements in order to establish eco-regenerative infrastructures—a resilient pluriverse, an Ecozoic Era?

2. Toxic “Sustainability”

We live in a strange world, where we think we can buy or build our way out of a crisis that has been created by buying and building things.

– Greta Thunberg

As it is currently defined throughout the imperialist West, resiliency breeds impotency by reinforcing the normalization of the “urban-industrial-vehicular-commercial-technological-pharmaceutical-electronic-information-spectator” society.[4] City commissions on community resiliency focus their citizen education programs on adaptation and preparedness for climate chaos—reminiscent of Noah’s Arc, or of dumping our toxic waste on Mars. This perspective manifests in reformist solutions such as the corporate “green economy,” carbon offsetting, emissions trading, climate-smart agriculture, geo-engineering, and the erroneously-named Renewable Energies Revolution.[5] Instead, we must shift focus to prevention by scrutinizing the interrelational roots of each crisis, fostering transformative initiatives that lead to a collective bio-civilization, a pluriverse that generates horizontal and respectful, productive dialogue.

We do not have to travel far in our cross-cultural histories of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to learn from world-changing examples of union strikes, boycotts, expropriation, infrastructural sabotage, embargoes, and divestment protests. Yet, most contemporary transition movements are founded in the very system they are trying to dismantle. Our perceived “resources,” alternative forms of energy proposed to power our public electrical grids, are misidentified under misleading misnomers, labels such as “renewable,” “sustainable,” “clean,” and “green.” How is “clean” defined? For whom? There is no clear division between clean and dirty energy or power. “Clean energy” easily gets soiled when it is implemented on an industrial scale. The neoliberal denial of corporeal and global interrelationships instills complicit laws of misconduct that continually reload the toxic soup in which we live. Additionally, the concept of “resources” itself is rooted in the rhetoric of anthropocentric progress. Like so many indigenous activists, Vandana Shiva reminds us:

Resource implied an ancient idea about the relationship between humans and nature—that the earth bestows gifts on humans who, in turn, are well advised to show diligence in order not to suffocate her generosity. In early modern times, “resource” therefore suggested reciprocity along with regeneration. With the advent of industrialism and colonialism, however, a conceptual break occurred. “Natural resources” became those parts of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.[6]

Congruently, Linda Hogan warns us: “Decent people commit horrible crimes that are acceptable because of progress.”[7] We build bigger houses, use more electricity, build cars that reduce the cost of driving, and consume more products made with toxic materials (too often in countries using slave and child labor). In the name of efficiency, we drown in Jevons’ paradox: In 1865 (at the age of 29), William Stanley Jevons wrote in The Coal Question: “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”[8]

We must practice caution during our transition out of our global petroculture, not necessarily because of the motivation underlying the transition, but because of the false assumptions and strategies offered by ostensible sustainability agendas. At this juncture of geopolitical, ecological, social, and corporeal catastrophes, we must critically question clean/green technocratic solutions. We cannot ignore that inherently industrial-scale “technology comes from digging, blasting, mining, burning, smelting, refining, and manifold industrial processes. Technology consumes non-renewable resources, and emits toxins and pollution.”[9] We must face how perceived solutions to our climate crisis may unintentionally sustain ecological devastation and global wealth inequities, and actually divert us from establishing long-term, regenerative infrastructures.

On the surface, “sustainable development” appears to offer critical shifts toward an ecologically, economically, and ethically sound society, but there is much evidence to prove that #1: Too many green/clean solutions are rooted in the very essence of our climate crisis: extractivism-based development, corporate monopolies, and privatized, growth-driven mass-production technologies. For example, Eric Cheyfitz alerts us that the Green New Deal is a “capitalist solution to a capitalist problem.”[10] It claims to address the linked oppressions of wealth inequity and climate crisis, yet its proposed solutions avoid the very roots of each crisis. #2: Structural changes must be accompanied by a psychological shift in individuals’ usage behavior to effectively shut down consumer-waste convenience culture. This collective-individual dynamic must be accompanied by policy change and juridical enforcement.

In climate crisis discussions, too much attention is paid to institutional band-aids, technological fixes, and consumer distraction, frequently disseminated through greenwashing—eco-capitalist strategies that sustain environmental racism and green colonialism. Thus, one perceived transition “solution” is to create alternatives to addictive fossil fuel economies, as proposed, for example, in US President Biden’s American Jobs Plan—a plan that echoes the greenwashing agenda underlying the Green New Deal. Eric Holthaus describes the dangers of this growth-sustaining agenda:

Blanketing the desert with solar panels or filling the roads with electric cars is no more a sustainable solution than monoculture agriculture is a solution to world hunger. Nor does a carbon tax have the ability, on its own, to reform capitalism. Such market-based mechanisms simply reinforce the status quo that got us into this mess, and trust in the flawed logic that more is better.[11]

However well-intentioned, these supposed alternatives perpetuate the hegemonic violence of wasteful behavior and destructive infrastructures through green colonialism. They ultimately conserve the original crisis: our fatal addiction to economic growth. Therefore, we must examine how supposed energy alternatives are institutionally and infrastructurally confined within an “imaginary […] too narrowly focused on sameness.”[12] In his The Temptation to Exist, the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran enlists Samuel Beckett to caution us: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”[13]

Our goal must be to undermine such “systems of duplication, the rules of duplicity”[14] implied in homogenizing, “transcendental” patriarchy, and to dissolve illusory industrial-modernist conceptual monoliths—whether as general as power, equality, nature, and gender, or as specific as capital, whiteness, masculinity, and sustainability. We must transform our compliance and complicity into a participatory, non-binary, eco-justice-oriented democracy in which theory necessitates practice. Unraveling the social construction of complicity, Michel Foucault warns us of “not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini […] but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism [that] causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”[15] Foucault’s concept of internalized fascism echoes the sanctity of normalcy that drives habituated obedience to the market.

Within this corporate-led consumerism and techno-euphoria, collusion includes compulsory Eurocentric education, the entrapments of consumer-obsessive convenience culture, and privatization of every corporeal and planetary so-called “resource”—reducing the Commons to commodities. As with climate crisis injustices, communities that are the least responsible for these calamities are the hardest hit. This manifestation of neocolonialism depends on an externalization of costs that implicitly reinforces “sacrifice zones”: a mainstream standard of living is maintained at the expense of other people and wildlife.

The litany of our collusion with corporate forms of domination is infinite within the Anthropocene Era (increasingly characterized as the Plasticene). Disinformation campaigns spread by fossil-fuel interests deeply root us in assimilationist consumerism. Even if policy appears to align itself with environmental ethics, we are consistently finding that policy change simply replaces one hegemony with another. Within the framework of neoliberal globalization, green colonialism operates under the guise of reformist solutions. How we measure our ecological footprint and global biocapacity is often riddled with paradox—particularly in the context of green colonialism, or what I call humanitarian imperialism. Only when we acknowledge the roots of our Western imperialist crisis can we begin to decolonize and revitalize all peoples’ livelihoods and their environments.

Zazu Dreams, my climate justice book that explores the perils of the Anthropocene, challenges cultural habits deeply embedded in our calamitous trajectory toward global ecological, cultural, and ethnic collapse.[16] The book’s main character, a biracial ten-year old, confronts this precarious irony. He reflects: “We have this crazy idea that anything ‘green’ is good—but we know that there is no clear-cut good and evil. What happens when the very solution causes more problems than the original problem it was supposed to fix?”[17] The Zazu Dreams characters witness the social and environmental costs of subjugating others through both fossil-fuel-obsessed economies and their “green” replacements. Vaclav Smil warns us of this “Miasma of falsehood,”[18] replacing one destructive socializing norm (petro-pharma cultures sustained by fossil-fuel addicted economics) with another (purportedly “renewable” energies that, like fossil fuels, are rooted in barbaric colonialist extractive industries).

In Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith reminds us: “We can’t consume our way out of environmental collapse. Consumption is the problem.”[19] Even within the 99%, consumers are capitalism. Without convenience culture/mass consumer demand, the machine of the profit-driven free market would have to shift gears. We cannot blame oil companies without simultaneously implicating ourselves, without holding our consumption habits equally responsible. How can we insist that government and transnational corporations be accountable when we refuse to curb our purchase, use, and disposal habits? Paul Hawken’s phrase renewable materialism counsels us that this hyper-idealized shift from a fossil-fuel paradigm to “renewable” energies is not a solution.[20]

What it is, for sure, is materialistic: “Green ‘solutions’ involve getting into bed with bankers, industrialists, capitalists, and their ‘foundations.’”[21] For instance, the renewable energy industry is touted as a $359 billion global business.[22] We are told that “the transition toward an environmentally stable global economy[23] represents a $50 trillion (€41 trillion) investment opportunity.”[24] And Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) offers a $41 trillion greenwashing metric-of-consciousness for corporations.[25] We remain trapped within the same colonialist paradigm that espouses climate change as a technical challenge that does not require profound social transformation.

Sustainability then, refers not to sustaining the biocentric integrity of our ecosystems, but rather to sustaining our elitist growth ideology and anthropocentric, energy-addictive lifestyles. In contrast, biocentrism means we do not invest in colossal infrastructure that supports our current energy consumption even if it is allegedly “renewable.”

In order to engage in root-cause analysis, we must question societal norms. As the main character in Zazu Dreams maintains: “Even if we find great alternatives to fossil fuels, what if renewable energies become big business and just maintain our addiction to consumption? […] Replacing tar sands or oil drills or coal power plants with megalithic ‘green’ energy is not the solution—it just masks the original problem—confusing ‘freedom’ with free market and free enterprise.”[26] We must now act on our knowledge that the renewable “revolution” is an endeavor that is as colonialist as it is dangerously carbon-intensive. As the authors of Deep Green Resistance remind us, “the new world of renewables will look exactly like the old in terms of exploitation.”[27]

3. “Renewable” Technologies?

Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.

– Sophocles

Here, I address certain technologies that are falsely identified as “renewable” while they actually reinforce the very problem they are trying to solve.

1. Solar/Photovoltaic and Wind Technologies: Is a community’s commitment to ecological living defined by the vastness of its solar arrays or wind turbines? Is the value of solar panels based on social status signaling, as well as generous rebates and tax incentives? Too often, investment in such technologies ignores interrelated infrastructures such as child rearing, food production/ consumption/ disposal, transportation, new and existing home energy audits, architecture upgrades, and waste management, when in fact the overarching goal should be viable energy efficiency (see Jevons’ Paradox above).

Further, exorbitant resources are required to produce and implement solar cell (including capital-intensive open pit mining and other extractive industries), storage (batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, supercapacitors, pumped hydro, compressed air, and thermal),[28] and disposal infrastructure (leading to vast toxic electronic waste dumps located throughout the Global South) as well as industrial wind farms. In particular, wind and solar energies require vast quantities of fossil fuels to execute them on a grand scale.

100-1000 times more land area is required for wind, solar, and biofuel energy production than for the production of fossil fuel. The authors of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It remind us that “industrial civilization requires industrial levels of energy […]. In reality, solar and wind development threaten to destroy as much land globally as expansion of urban sprawl, oil and gas, coal, and mining combined by 2050.”[29] And “biofuels,” as Lierre Keith puts it, “are just another agricultural assault against the planet.”[30] The United States and China, among many other examples, show that immense solar industrial complexes strip land bare, displacing human populations and migration routes of both wildlife and people for acres of solar fields, substations, and access roads, all of which require incredibly carbon-intensive concrete.[31] Additionally, wind turbines, also known as “blenders in the sky,” devastate migrating wildlife—bats and birds that are critical to healthy ecosystems, and some of whom are endangered species.

This is a prime example of replacing one hegemony with another. Given proposed solutions using industrial solar and wind harvesting, Western imperialism will continue to dominate global relations.

2. Hydro-Power Technology: Large-scale dams for hydro-power have historically had cataclysmic effects on indigenous peoples and their lands. Although macro-hydro, like fracking, has finally been recognized for its calamitous consequences, perversely, it is still proposed as a viable alternative to fossil-fuel economies.

3. Battery Technology: According to the Union of Concerned Scientists and their Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI), in California, fine particulate pollution harms African American communities 43% more than predominantly white communities, Latinx 39% more, and Asian-American communities 21% more.[32] As if tailpipe emissions were the only humanitarian catastrophe, one “clean solution” is the electric vehicle (EV) for public transportation and personal consumption. Completely ignoring embodied energy, this perceived solution displaces the costs of environmental racism, once again exported out of the US into the Global South, in this case to Bolivia, the primary mining site for lithium, essential in battery production. The Renewable Energy Movement claims that our global addiction to oil (“black gold”) should be redirected towards lithium (“white gold”). However, extracting lithium and converting it to a commercially viable form consumes copious quantities of water—drastically depleting availability for indigenous communities and wildlife—and produces toxic waste, as attested by a growing history of chemical leaks poisoning rivers, thus people and other animals.

Sixty percent of cobalt, also essential for battery production, is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As with lithium, the environmental and humanitarian costs of cobalt are unconscionable, perpetuated by wanton corruption, and spurring habitat destruction, child slavery, and death: “We can carry on business-as-usual so long as we change our energy source? We swap oil and coal for wind and solar and hey presto the world is saved? But hang on, what about the carbon footprint, and the slave and child labor, used in building that ‘new green tech’—tiny children digging cobalt in the Congo, for example?”[33] Children as young as six have died working in cobalt mines. Again, the concept of “clean” energy reveals itself as an oxymoron.

In addition to all this, consumers are being pressured by government subsidies. For example, claiming farmers will save money, much of Big Ag coerces farmers to accept the “gift” of electric-powered forklifts (an alternative to fossil-fuel, combustion-engine forklifts). Farmers, however, report that the engine power of these vehicles is insufficient and that they cannot supply the new equipment’s electrical needs, which are different for each vehicle, while propane-based/combustion engines are uniform and can be easily fixed, filled, etc. Also, compared to a gas engine where farmers can bring fuel to the machine, if the EV breaks down in middle of field, then what?[34]

Some final points to keep in mind:

  1. Solar technology and battery e-waste is dumped throughout Asia, South America, and Africa.
  2. Rarely considered are the fossil-fuel sources used to supply the electricity for private and public electric vehicles. Too frequently, the poorest US populations work and live near coal mines, power plants, and fracking station sources.
  3. Furthermore, “renewable” energies are low-power density, that is, they produce very little energy in proportion to the energy required to institutionalize them. They are intermittent: “Intermittency means so-called renewables cannot directly replace fossil fuels without a vast amount of energy storage which does not exist at scale.”[35] Growing exponentially, in 2021, green energy storage was a $108-billion-per-year industry.[36]

4. Radical Empathy

As usual, in every scheme that worsens the position of the poor, it is the poor who are invoked as beneficiaries.

– Vandana Shiva

Just as all forms of climate chaos/crisis are interconnected, so are all forms of climate justice. Like the metabolism of the human body and the earth’s tendency towards homeostasis, the metabolism of our culture must be scrutinized as a relational organism. An urgent embodiment of interdependency between environmental degradation and marginalized ethnic, racial, and economic communities in conjunction with creative collaboration requires multilateral paradigm shifts. Catagenesis (pragmatic-creative renewal, creativity after catastrophe) is one coalitional path to radical systemic change that includes transformative initiatives integrating biomimicry, patterns and relationships in nature, as well as human multicultural models of symbiosis that counteract the paralysis of climate anxiety/climate grief. From this visceral commitment, we can cultivate regenerative economic tools for biocultural transformation, integrating rather than competing with our natural environment or isolating ourselves from it.

Arundhati Roy invokes this vital political imagination:

That is why we must pay close attention to those with another imagination: an imagination outside of capitalism, as well as communism. We will soon have to admit that those people, like the millions of indigenous people fighting to prevent the takeover of their lands and the destruction of their environment—the people who still know the secrets of sustainable living—are not relics of the past, but the guides to our future.[37]

In The Disinformation Age, Eric Cheyfitz writes: “The wisdom encoded in the indigenous cultures can provide answers to many questions; many seemingly intractable problems could be resolved by [reintroducing] traditional ideas and values. […] As we move into a post-imperial age, the values central to those traditional cultures are the indigenous contribution to the reconstruction of a just and harmonious world.”[38] Deep, culturally sanctioned empathy requires a re-spiritualization of nature that embraces community and self-regulatory equilibriums. This pluriverse nourishes coexistence between humans and non-human nature. In contrast to austerity, corporate bailouts, and increased profits for Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Ag, Big Oil, and Big Telecom, a “Living Democracy”[39] necessitates co-creative infrastructural design and implementation. A biopolitical ethics of radical empathy engenders a sustainable environmental justice in which everyone is “essential.” Integrating cross-cultural socialist ecofeminism with indigenous environmental philosophies (exemplified by Native women like Winona LaDuke, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, or Quechua human rights activist Monica Chuji) leads us to the ethics underlying the Ecozoic Era. Social permaculture and bioregional practices can help guide this transition because they do not simply replace environmental racism in the US with international green colonialism.

Through a commitment to deep inquiry and radical empathy, we can begin to see how the “free market is a euphemism for economic terrorism.”[40] This awareness helps us transform our passive acceptance of exploitative patriarchy’s everyday violence—entitlement, consumption, and ownership. For example, in one week, the average US citizen (not to mention World Wildlife Fund [WWF] and The Nature Conservancy [TNC] executives) consumes as much energy as a sub-Saharan African individual does in a year, and a South Sudanese individual in two years.[41] Just as Gloria Anzaldúa’s writings “complicate conventional notions of subjectivity and subjugation,”[42] this inquiry into the sanctity of normalcy alerts us to both our complicity and the power of our agency. Navigating our own extinction and the collapse of the known world, we witness not only our fears and failures, but also the exhilarating potential to radically transform the Anthropogenic status quo that exemplifies our species’ hubris. By bringing attention to institutional misinformation, we begin to understand how we can transform our individual and collective habitual behavior, ranging from local communities to transnational corporations. We can shift our production/ consumption/ disposal habits, offering non-violent, symbiotic solutions that average citizens can adopt as we transition from our petroleum-pharmaceutical-addicted cyber-culture to an economics of solidarity reminiscent of Charles Eisenstein’s “sacred economics.”[43]

Rather than sustain sacrifice zones in which “disposable” humans, wildlife, and habitat are ravaged and future generations disregarded, the pluriverse of solidarity economics—a balance between individual and communal needs—can be nurtured through a collective commitment to autonomy, cooperation, diversity, and reciprocity. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis declares:

We know how unsustainable the behaviour is of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept degrowth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.[44]

When we collaborate and build cross-sector coalitions, we can shift what may feel like the juggernaut of inevitable Progress, hegemonic meta-crisis (interlocking systemic oppressions), and the internet of things. Just as multiple “I”s become “we,” “we” can radically transform “them.” None of us are separate—we are them, we and them are all interconnected, all interdependent. As Martin Luther King, Jr. declared in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. […] When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American.[45]

As we learn more integrative ways of living our daily lives, we need to create new infrastructures that support these behavioral changes. My own family’s off-grid lifestyle, about which more below, roots these transitions in biosynergy, a resiliency in local resources that acts as the foundation for shifting away from capitalist, convenience-consumer culture to co-beneficial interrelationships. While some applaud this approach, others who are entrenched in a hegemonic and “proper” standard of living maintain that we are sacrificing basic pleasures and depriving ourselves of basic “needs.” “Consumption reduction” has become an unpopular approach to environmental crises because it falsely implies sacrifice-as-depravation. In fact, “[d]egrowth does not mean austerity,”[46] and, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow puts it, “restraint is not self-denial”[47] but an opportunity for joyful individual and community expression. This stance is echoed by so many remarkable activists, scholars, and artists—people like Frances Moore Lappé, who highlights the difference between sacrifice and discovery. Rather than “living simply,” we can live in “radical amazement.” As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. […] Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”[48] Radical self-accountability generates this individual and collective state.

5. “Practical” Steps

When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.

– Meir Berliner, a Polish Jew and citizen of Argentina who died resisting his Nazi captors at Treblinka Concentration Camp

To be clear: I am not suggesting that we should not support alternative energies. My family drives a used electric car that we power with small-scale, community solar panels, and we utilize second-hand solar panels for our DC fridge (we use no other electricity in our converted school bus/tiny home). We use second-hand batteries for our solar energy storage. We also benefit from a micro-hydroelectric system for the needs of our ecovillage community. Rather, I am suggesting that second-hand, shared, small-scale alternative energy is a first step towards collective ecological and humanitarian resiliency—towards really living “off-grid.” Usage needs to converge with technological investments that aim to eliminate the global environmental hazards and human rights infractions that are currently implicit in the production, storage, and disposal of specious renewable energies.

When we talk about “practical” steps, practicality often implies how the situation can adapt to our needs rather than how we can shift what we think we need. While living in ecovillages across the world, however, I found that my own lifestyle, passions, and desires were on the margins of the margins. In response, I teach and live the social scientific concepts of true cost, life-cycle analysis, cradle-to-grave, and embodied energy, designating local and global relationships of production (mining, agribusiness, wage slavery), consumption (advertising and the construction of desire), and disposal (greenhouse gasses and electronic waste), including the process of extraction > transportation > manufacture > installation > demolition > decomposition > contamination.

For the past six years, since we converted a school bus into our tiny home in 30 days and for less than $5,000 (including the bus), my family and I have lived in a biocentric art installation. We succeeded in our commitment to use only salvaged materials, otherwise headed to landfill—a deeply personal social-impact investment. We are like dung beetles that use others’ waste to build their home and feed their family, or like sea slugs that eat debris off the ocean floor.

We ask ourselves how we can shift our epidemic of individualism from consumer-convenience-culture-bred entitlement to a creative self-accountability that integrates profound, sustainable changes in individual behavior, community action, infrastructural design, corporate accountability, and policy reform. We seek collective action that disrupts ossified superstructures, a collective imagination in which each of us co-creates opportunities for public investment in humane infrastructures, with human rights and ecological resilience implicit in every social system. Countering the normalcies of consumer convenience culture, we offer an invitation to embody reciprocal, rhizomatic interrelationships: the personal is political as the political is personal. Instead of ignoring other peoples’ exploited labor as a resource, we can establish infrastructures that support our local communities—where economies and ecologies can co-evolve rather than be in competition or opposition.

Both the words economy and ecology derive from the Greek oikos, meaning home. Collaborating across cultural, economic, and ethnic differences, oikos can become a model for interdependency that generates community, cultural diversity, and biodiversity for ethical, everyday living. A radical paradigm shift that embodies ecological civilization can only take root if we embrace our individual vulnerability and support one another collectively. The individual must function as collective change.

Through our home, we attempt to embody a daily practice of environmental justice, ethical consumerism, and community action—a practice we capture in the acronym S.O.U.L. (Shared, Opportunity, Used, Local). S.O.U.L. integrates five place-specific strategies that create a bridge between individual response-ability (behavioral changes), community-action-based creative collaboration (for example, through a “Resource Tree” that outlines the skills and creative possibilities among members of our community so that when an individual or institution [such as a school or library] needs something, rather than purchasing it online or at a big box store, they will have abundant access to a series of local resources and go-to advisors), infrastructural re-design/personal support (for example, parenting-accountability forums, deprivatized-shared transportation) and structural systems (for example, building energy audits, landfill regulations, waste management), corporate accountability (for example, local grocery stores banning single-use plastic bags, restaurants banning styrofoam, a safe drinking water hotline), and policy reform (Town Public Works maintaining the water pipe system to avoid lead poisoning). These five interlocking spheres connect the private with the public, the personal with the political.

I am not suggesting that everyone live on a mountain or in a bus, nor that we should or even can be sustainably motivated by judgment or imposed morality. I am suggesting that we commit to collective, creative risk-taking and that we use our sense of gratitude as an antidote to helplessness, guilt, shame, and an analysis that can lead to paralysis. When we shift our perspective to witness how all systemic oppressions are interconnected, we can begin to collaboratively act on the reality that all emancipation is equally interconnected.

How we built our home is a direct commitment to local and global non-violent environmental justice, one that allows us to straddle the complexities of living in the modern world while maintaining our ecological and humanitarian ethics. These personal-political practices recognize and nurture the sacred in everyday objects and the spaces/environments they inhabit. Our home echoes ubuntu, the Xhosa word meaning “I am because you are,” and the Mayan en lak ech, “you are the other me.” An Ecozoic Era reflects such Indigenous perspectives on kinship, the Quechua sumak kawsay or buen vivir, Buddhist Inter-Are/Interbeing, and socialist ecofeminist bioeconomies, all of them cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural examples of community and empathy (co-implication/co-responsibility) that generate dialogic thinking and action—essentially, a people’s pluriverse.

Ecozoic practices generate this creative response to colonialist legacies of economic oppression and extractive industries. When we implement social-permaculture-design infrastructure rooted in the Commons, we counteract enmeshed and systemic economic violences (from e-waste to the 5G/AI/internet-of-things juggernaut). By recognizing, designing, and implementing emancipatory interrelationships, we co-create humane infrastructures for every social system—including cross-cultural and biomimicry models as well as private-public border crossings in the tiny home movement. This joyful, intercultural, interspecies approach to climate-crisis mitigation weaves together simultaneous individual, community, and infrastructural change. Disrupting our homogenizing “monoculture of the mind,”[49] we aim to unlearn what we think we know while tapping into the fertility of our curiosity, beauty, and ever-evolving interconnectivity.

CARA JUDEA ALHADEFF has published dozens of books and essays on eco-justice, philosophy, ethnic studies, and gender. Her photographs (in collections including MoMA Salzburg and San Francisco MoMA) have been defended internationally by freedom-of-speech organizations. A former professor at UC Santa Cruz, Alhadeff teaches, performs, and parents a creative-zero-waste life.


dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Camila Marambio interview with Cecilia Vicuña, Miami Rail, 2015. See also Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

[2] Social permaculture includes the practices of self-regulation, observation, establishing feedback structures, responding creatively to change, designing from pattern to detail, amplifying diversity, using the fertile edge, integrating rather than segregating, focusing on slow and small solutions, flexibility, and adaptation.

[3] Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

[4] Marty Glass,Yuga: The Anatomy of Our Fate, Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 1999, 330.

[5]  Michael Moore’s new documentary, Planet of the Humans, has been slandered as “unscientific” and “promoting climate deniers and the fossil-fuel industry.” Claiming copyright infringement, YouTube censored the film four days after Moore put it online. Despite the white-male-dominated voices and some perhaps questionable references, this is an absolutely crucial film that exposes the realities of the repeatedly fraudulent renewable energies movement. It demands debate, not silencing.

[6]  Vandana Shiva, “Resources,” in Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London: Zed, 1991, 206.

[7] Cited in Derrick Jensen, Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture, and Eros, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995, 126.

[8] William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines, New York: Kessinger Publishing, 1866, 13.

[9] Simone Rossi, “Jeff Gibbs: There Will Never Be Green Technological Energy,” La Città Futura, 16 August 2020 [3 June 2023].

[10]  Eric Cheyfitz, The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States, Ashgrove: Paper Boat Press, 2019, 28.    

[11] Eric Holthaus, The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming, New York: Harper One, 2020, 124.

[12] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Although, in the original context, Irigaray is exploring gender, the dangers of homogeneity cross through all sectors of society and justice.

[13] E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956, 7.

[14] Sheena Vachhani, “Luce Irigaray’s Philosophy of the Feminine,” in Robert McMurray and Allison Pullen, eds., Rethinking Culture, Organization and Management, London: Routledge, 2020, 55-72, here 13.

[15] Michel Foucault, “Preface” to Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, New York: Penguin Classics, 2009, xli.

[16] Cara Judea Alhadeff, Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle: A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era, Berlin: Eifrig Publishing, 2017.     

[17] Alhadeff, Zazu Dreams, 49.

[18] Paul Voosen, “The Realist: Vaclav Smil looks to history for the future of energy. What he sees is sobering,” Science 359:6382, 23 March 2018 [4 June 2023].

[19] Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011, 27.

[20] Keynote Address at State Theater for Penn State University Colloquium on the Environment, State College, PA, November 2017.

[21] Rossi, “Jeff Gibbs: There Will Never Be Green Technological Energy.”

[22] International Trade Association, “Renewable Energy” [4 June 2023].

[23] This phrase is clearly extraordinarily problematic.

[24] Kristie Pladson, “Davos: Green transition is a ‘$50-trillion opportunity’,” Deutsche Welle, 28 January 2021 [4 June 2023].

[25] James Surwillo, lecture at Ingenium Conference, Las Vegas, May 2023.

[26] Alhadeff, Zazu Dreams, 26.

[27] Jensen, McBay, and Keith, Deep Green Resistance, 172. See also N.J. Hagens and D.J. White, “‘Renewable’ Energy: Solar Photovoltaics and Stochasticity,” in Reality Blind: Integrating the Systems Science Underpinning Our Collective Futures, vol. 1, Independently published, 2021, 307-311 [4 June 2023].

[28]  Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, Rhinebeck: Monkfish Book, 2021, 157.

[29]  Jensen, Keith, and Wilber, Bright Green Lies, 430.

[30]  Jensen, Keith, and Wilber, Bright Green Lies, 58.

[31]  Concrete has an extremely high embodied energy.

[32] Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) [4 June 2023].

[33] Amnesty International, “This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the global trade in cobalt,” 19 January 2016 [23 June 2020], quoted in Stephen Corry, “The Big Green Lie,” Counterpunch, 26 June 2020 [4 June 2023].

[34] “Charge anxiety” is a now diagnosable medical condition.

[35] Rossi, “Jeff Gibbs: There Will Never Be Green Technological Energy.”

[36] Grand View Research, Battery Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by Product (Lead Acid, Li-ion, Nickle Metal Hydride, Ni-Cd), by Application, by End-use, by Region, and Segment Forecasts, 2023-2030 [5 July 2023].

[37] Arundhati Roy, “The people who created the crisis will not be the ones that come up with a solution,” interview by Aron Gupta, The Guardian, 30 November 2011 [2 May 2023].

[38] Eric Cheyfitz, The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States, Ashgrove: Paper Boat Press, 2019, 318.

[39] Frances Moore Lappé, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want, New York: Small Planet Institute,2011, 145.

[40] Lappé, EcoMind, 89.

[41] The World Bank, “GDP per capita (current US$),” World Development Indicators, 2018 [4 June 2023].

[42] Gloria Anzaldúa, “La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness,” in Gloria Anzaldúa, ed., Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras, Berkeley: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 205.

[43] Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition, revised edition, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2021.

[44] Pope Francis, Praise Be to You – Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015, §193.

[45] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, New York: Random House, 1963, 108.

[46] Holthaus, The Future Earth, 124.

[47] Personal conversation with Rabbi Waskow, 2022.

[48] Aharon E. Wexler, “Just a thought on radical amazement,” The Jerusalem Post, 7 May 2020 [4 June 2023].

[49] Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind, London: Zed Books, 1993.