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Conjuring clean energy: exposing green assumptions in media and academia

Ozzie Zehner (Science in Human Culture, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 10 November 2014




This research presents uncomfortable questions about the viability of alternative energy technologies, which arise during economic contraction and degrowth but are scarcely addressed within media and academia.


The author identifies and graphically illustrates differences between media expectations for renewable energy production versus energy reduction strategies. The author contrasts green energy expectations with material factors to develop unasked questions about potential: urban myths (e.g. solar cells are made from sand), assumptions (e.g. alternative energy is of comparable quality to fossil fuel energy and can offset its use), strategic ignorance (e.g. solar cost drops reflect Moore’s law), and trained incapacity (e.g. solar and wind energy is low- or zero-carbon).


Compared to energy reduction coverage, journalists cover energy production using 1) more character-driven storytelling, 2) about twice the promising language, and 3) far more references to climate change and energy independence. These observations help loosely illustrate a pervasive energy production ethos, a reflexive network including behaviors, symbols, expectations, and material conditions.

Social implications

Fascination with alternative energy may serve as a form of techno-denial to avoid facing the uncertain but inevitable end of growth in consumption and population on our finite planet.


This paper offers journalists, policymakers, researchers, and students new, unasked, questions regarding the expectation that alternative energy technologies can replace fossil fuel. For instance, if wind and sunlight are free, why are wind and solar energies so expensive, requiring billions in subsidies? Where do solar cell and wind turbine costs ultimately arise, if not from fossil fuels (via labor, materials, etc.)?



© Ozzie Zehner

The author would like to thank Aaron T. Norton, John Grin, Loet Leydesdorff, Chunglin Kwa, Jeffrey Weih, John Petrie, Luke Dodds, Anthony Levenda, Josh Floyd, Richard Slaughter and the referees for their helpful comments through various stages of this research. Short sections of this paper expand on preliminary research published in a different form in Green Illusions (Zehner, 2012).


Zehner, O. (2014), "Conjuring clean energy: exposing green assumptions in media and academia", Foresight, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp. 567-585.



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Copyright © 2014, Authors

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