Will alternative energy save capitalism?

Published online 10 August 2014.

(Crossposted to Humanitarian Left and Firedoglake)

Every time I publish a diary like this one (“Promoting an Effective Discussion: Capitalism Causes Climate Change,” 8/3/14), I get responses from patrons of alternative energy.  Solar panels and wind farms will save the Earth, the world-society, and the capitalist system, from the prophesies of doom accompanying abrupt climate change, they imply.

Now, to be fair, I have no problem with the idea of saving the Earth or the world-society.  And I’m certainly not against the proliferation of solar panels and wind farms.  But I don’t think that “alternative energy” will save the Earth while leaving the capitalist system intact.  Rather, capitalism will come to a terminal crisis at some point, and “alternative energy” will not save it.  Or maybe capitalism will continue to a point such as to put the habitability of planet Earth into question, as Paul Prew suggested.  And then there’s the option I laid out in last Sunday’s diary:

The likelihood, I believe, is that for some time we will struggle along with a system which will pretend to be capitalism in much the same way in which “Communism” pretended to be communal.  The more fervently we believe in capitalism, the more likely a system of faux-capitalism will continue.

Here are the reasons why I think as I do:1) “Alternative energy” is poised to remain a supplement to fossil-fuel energy.

Advocates of “alternative energy” capitalism imagine a sense in which increased production of alternative energy replaces fossil-fuel production.  You buy a solar panel and, see, you’re not using as much fossil power.  The problem arises when we consider the human race as a whole, and not just individual solar panel buyers.  Instead, as energy becomes cheaper with the addition of new sources, market forces push down the cost of the fossil-fuel energy, and the fossil energy you don’t consume is bought by someone else.  Ian Angus:

A new study by Richard York of the University of Oregon shows that it isn’t that simple. Rather than displacing fossil fuels, green energy sources have proven to be mostly additive.“Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” published this month in Nature Climate Change, discusses what happened when alternative energy sources were introduced in countries around the world, over the past fifty years.

Contrary to the accepted wisdom that new green energy replaces fossil-fuel use,  York found that on average each unit of energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than a quarter of a unit of energy use from fossil-fuel sources.

The picture is worse with electricity, where each new unit generated from green sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

The effect, in general, of “efficiency” and “alternative energy” (as touted “solutions” to the problem of carbon-burning leading to abrupt climate change) is to facilitate the further expansion of the system, thus leading to increased energy use.  Fossil fuel energies (and fossil fuel interests!) can be expected to piggyback onto that increased energy use.  This is the modern day effect that Foster, Clark, and York call “Jevons’ Paradox.”  Foster, Clark, and York:

What is neglected, then, in simplistic notions that increased energy efficiency normally leads to increased energy savings overall, is the reality of the Jevons Paradox relationship—through which energy savings are used to promote new capital formation and the proliferation of commodities, demanding ever greater resources. Rather than an anomaly, the rule that efficiency increases energy and material use is integral to the “regime of capital” itself. As stated in The Weight of Nations, an important empirical study of material outflows in recent decades in five industrial nations (Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, and Japan): “Efficiency gains brought by technology and new management practices have been offset by [increases in] the scale of economic growth.”

So that’s the argument.  If a revolution in “alternative energy” were to benefit the capitalist system sufficiently, the system’s own tendencies toward economic growth would bring the fossil-fuel sector back into economic solvency.  You don’t think so?2) As “alternative energy” technologies improve, so also do fossil-fuel extraction technologies.

In the early 2000s there was a popular discussion of “peak oil” — the notion being that global oil supplies were fast approaching a moment of peak production, and that after “peak oil” we would be in a world of declining supplies and increasing crisis.  Part of the discussion of “peak oil” relies upon arguments concerning the difficulty of finding substitutes for oil in the world economy.  Walter Youngquist:

In regard to substitutes for oil: There is no comprehensive substitute for oil in its myriad end uses, high energy density, ease of transport and handling, and in the volumes in which we now use it. Oil is much more than energy, the context in which most people think of it. There are miles and miles of roads paved with billions of tops of asphalt―the bottoms of oil refining operations for which there is absolutely no substitute. Try paving roads with hydrogen in the projected “hydrogen economy.”

Now, it may not be good news that the “peak oil” prophesy of doom may be too early, because discoveries of more oil may hasten the realization of “global warming” prophesies of doom.  And this appears to be the case, as “peak oil” is not imminent, fossil-fuel extraction technology continues to improve, and the world-society continues to consume more fossil fuels.  Daniel Cusick, in Scientific American:

While the U.S. boom in shale gas helped push the fossil fuel’s share of total global energy consumption from 23.8 to 23.9 percent, coal also increased its share, from 29.7 to 29.9 percent, as demand for coal-fired electricity remained strong across much of the developing world, including China and India, and parts of Europe.As such, coal is expected to surpass oil as the most consumed primary energy source in the world, the report said. In 2012, China alone accounted for more than half the world’s total coal consumption, mostly for electric power generation.

So it’s certainly possible that at some late date “alternative energy” may displace fossil-fuel energy in the context of a global capitalist economy.  But when?  And what sort of raging climate change effect can we expect soon after that point in time?3) Infrastructure conversion costs are too high, and late-capitalist government is not currently positioned to “foot the bill” for all of this.

Let’s imagine a capitalist world-system running entirely upon solar and wind power.  What is going to be done with the old infrastructure, the one dependent upon oil, coal, and natural gas?  Will all of the fossil-fuel cars disappear?  How about the financial infrastructure, with those financial interests dependent upon fossil-fuel extraction?  Will they stop buying our politicians?  Oh, sure, indefinite fossil-fuel capitalism is mass suicide.  The problem is that, given a commitment to the continuation of capital accumulation, economic expansion, and the profits system, it puzzles me to wonder how the capitalist world-system is going to dump the hegemonic role of fossil fuel interests.  Bill McKibben:

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both.

So how are we to keep the grease in the ground under the existing political and economic dispensation?  Said dispensation, both in terms of physical infrastructure and political economy, is geared toward further expansions of the regime of fossil-fuel burning.  Should we just get ready for Hillary?4) Capitalism is still predatory, and alternative energy does not in itself make a sufficient technological revolution to keep the system expanding.

My argument here follows Jason W. Moore in predicting that an industrial revolution in “alternative energy” will not save the capitalist system all by itself.  Moore’s logic is encapsulated in this essay.  Moore argues that the expansion of the capitalist system is maintained by the continuing cheapness of the Four Cheaps (labor-power, food, energy, and natural resources).  The problem with capitalism in the current era, for Moore, is that the costs of the Four Cheaps are all in fact rising.

The most obvious indicator of a declining ecological surplus is the rising price of the Big Four inputs. Labor, food, energy, and raw materials become more and more expensive. The Four Cheaps stop being cheap. This usually doesn’t happen all at
once, although this is in fact what we have seen since the start of the 2003 commodity boom. The point at which the Four Cheaps stop becoming cheaper and cheaper and start to become more and more expensive is the signal crisis of a phase of capitalism. Such crises signal the exhaustion of an accumulation regime (Moore, 2012).  For the neoliberal phase of capitalism, this signal crisis—far more important than the near-meltdown of the financial system in 2008—began around 2003. Since that time, the ecological surplus has been falling, and there are few signs that the decline will be reversed soon, if ever. Why? Largely because the greatest frontiers have been exhausted, and because, at the same time, the mass of surplus capital continues to rise.

The problem, then, is that if there were a forthcoming revolution in “alternative energy,” it would be a revolution in only one of the Four Cheaps.  The cost of the other “cheaps” would continue to rise, and capitalism would continue to exhaust the planet of its resources.  The system will, it is predicted, collapse regardless of what happens in energy.From Moore’s perspective, capitalism tends toward ecosystem simplification.  Capital tends to view both nature and society as a “free gift,” to be packaged into commodities in profit-making business.  The question for any particular era, then, is one of whether or not industrial revolution can save nature and society from capital’s tendency in that regard.

From my perspective, it seems bizarre that advocates of “alternative energy” would also be advocates of more capitalism.  If the world-situation is as severe as has been reported, wouldn’t it just be better to give the stuff away?

And then, lastly, there is:

5) Solar power (at least) could be subversive of capitalist growth itself.

Imagine a world in which everyone had a solar panel.  What sort of radical politics would be possible then?  People could secede from the grid, and work further to end their dependency upon entrenched fossil energy interests.  It’s easy to imagine an anti-fossil-energy movement gaining traction in such a world, but on the basis of independence from capitalism, rather than of more capitalism.  You don’t like that idea?


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