Why techno-fixes won’t solve the eco-problem by themselves

Published online 17 December 2009.

My last diary brought up the idea of global solidarity around the idea of global solidarity across classes as a necessary framework for the solution of the abrupt climate change problem.  But invariably when I write such diaries I encounter those who think a techno-fix will solve the problem of abrupt climate change by itself.  Society need not change; some new gadget will come along to solve the abrupt climate change problem, and we just need to wait until the world’s nerds invent such a gadget, and all of our eco-problems will be solved.  This diary intends to examine the arguments against such an assertion.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Now, in response to my last diary, titled “To Solve The Climate Change Problem, End The Class Divide,” I encountered this discussion, in which it was said:

The “economic community” only cares about making money.  So when a technology arises that can save such a massive amount, they will flock to it.

GM, Ford, Chrysler, Benz, Nissan, Renault, VW, Toyota, will all have pure electronic or plug-in hybrids for sale within 18 months.

They are proving that chapter’s concept wrong.

The concept being challenged here was a concept elaborated in Chapter 6 of Meadows, Meadows, and Randers’ Beyond The Limits (sorry I didn’t clear it up in the discussion thread!), in which ’twas actually said:

Market signals such as oil price are too noisy, too delayed, too amplified by speculation, and too manipulated by private and public interest groups to give the world clear signals about oncoming physical limits.  The market is blind to the long term and pays no attention to ultimate sources and sinks, until they are nearly exhausted, when it is too late to act.  Economic signals and technological responses can evoke powerful responses, as the oil price example illustrates, but they simply are not connected to the earth system in the right places to give useful information about limits.  (p. 184)

So in my last diary’s comments section we could read that the big car companies will “all have pure electronic or plug-in hybrids for sale within 18 months.”  Does that show that market signals will save us from peak oil and abrupt climate change?  Will market signals save us from the ecological depredations of technological society?

The corporations assume, as a matter of course, that the answer to this question is “yes.”  But to what are they really responding?  Are they responding to the increasing transformation of the Earth’s climate system by vastly increased amounts of atmospheric CO2?  Are they responding to Earth’s declining endowment of fossil fuel reserves?  Not likely.  What about the fiduciary duty of managers to stockholders to make the corporations turn a profit?  That’s something we should expect.  Increasing ecological consciousness among wealthier consumers (i.e. those who can actually afford a new vehicle, which means definitely not me) has created a demand for electric vehicles.  Is the market for fossil-fuel burners going to disappear merely because the car makers are putting out electric vehicles?  I don’t think so.

At any rate, I’d like to say a few more things here to challenge the idea that technology will save us all and so we don’t have to change society to deal with abrupt climate change.


Jevons’ Paradox is a concept of the 19th-century economist William Stanley Jevons, who argued that an increased efficiency in coal use would merely increase overall use of coal, because increases in the efficiency of energy use are typically accompanied by an increased scale of energy utility.  The “savings” made possible by increased energy efficiency, then, merely make more energy-consuming activity possible.  The Treehugger article on Jevons’ Paradox illustrates this:

   * Because of improvements in refrigerator efficiency, consumers can afford more and larger refrigerators.
* Because of improvements in vehicle efficiency, car owners can afford to drive more miles per year.
* Because of improvements in airtightness, window performance, and insulation techniques, homeowners can afford to build larger houses.
* Savings resulting from energy-efficiency improvements — or even savings resulting from giving up meat in one’s diet — allow consumers to take more vacations, resulting in greater energy use.

The fundamental problem Jevons’ Paradox creates for conservationists is given in this piece in The Oil Drum.  Increased energy efficiency results in money savings, which will then be plowed into increased energy use.  Increased energy efficiency, then, makes it more, and not less, possible for people to adhere to the energy-intensive lifestyles common to well-off people in the “developed” nations.  Given that the bottom half of humanity lives off of less than $2.50/day, there are still a good number of people out there who can be moved into those energy-intensive lifestyles.

At any rate, the question posed by Jevons’ Paradox to the whole of the capitalist system is examined in an old piece by John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis: Is Technology The Answer?”  As Foster pointed out back in 2000, the dynamic of Jevons’ Paradox is illustrated by the same electric cars which will be coming out with such fanfare (see above) in 2010:

The capitalist class is divided when it comes to reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions to slow down the rate of global warming. A significant part of the ruling class in the United States is willing to contemplate more efficient technology, not so much through a greatly expanded system of public transport, but rather through cars with greater gas mileage or perhaps even a shift to cars using more benign forms of energy. Efficiency in the use of energy, as long as it does not change the basic structure of production, is generally acceptable to capital as something that would ultimately spur production and increase the scale of accumulation (leading to the Jevons Paradox).

The problem with greater energy conservation as a “solution” to problems like abrupt climate change, then, is that a capitalist economy is addicted to growth, and that growth means more energy consumption, which means more energy production, which (ultimately) means more fossil fuel production.

But won’t “alternative energy” make it possible for the capitalist economy to get out of the fossil-fuel consumption business?  Well, yes, but it’s easy to see from here that the capitalists will not want to do such a thing with their “alternative energy” tools.  First off, as long as fossil energy consumption is an option, its consumers will want to use it.  The whole infrastructure militates toward this; if you put out a line of new, super-green cars, those with money will want to use them, whereas those without such money will still rely upon the old, fossil-burning cars.  Thus the vacuousness of “alternative energy” solutions to “global warming”: “alternative energy” will merely serve as a supplement to fossil energy, and the only way in which it would not do so is if an “alternative energy” source were to be discovered which was so plentiful and cheap so as to render fossil energy economically superfluous.  So far nothing of the sort has happened, with no real progress in that direction to be seen on any horizon.

Before you all start throwing innovations at me, let’s take a look at what real-life criteria we’d have to meet if we were in fact to find an “alternative energy” source which would make fossil energy superfluous:

  1. Our source would have to produce an awful lot of energy, for starters.  World society burns 85 million barrels of oil each and every day, and a more-or-less equal carbon equivalent in coal.  Oil and coal combined, moreover, only accounted for maybe 71% of total industrial carbon emissions.  Cheap energy has made it possible to create a world-society which requires enormous quantities of energy.  If we wish to duplicate that society, we will need an energy source to duplicate its energy “needs.”
  1. It would have to absorb the costs of getting rid of the old infrastructure.  Let’s say you want to bring out a new car which uses much less fossil energy.  You want everyone to drive this car, so that we can all stop using so much gasoline.  What are you going to do with all of the old cars?  They won’t fit in the world’s junkyards; there are just too many of them.  You will have to recycle them all in short order to save space.  Who’s going to pay for that?  If we wish to duplicate the old society while giving it a makeover, we have to find someone to pay for the makeover.  (Government?  Government is too busy paying for the military-industrial complex.)
  1. It would have to get proponents of the old, fossil energies to voluntarily give up the profits they currently make on their poisonous stuff.  Corporations make profits as a duty — coal-mining corporations make profits off of coal-mining as a duty.  How are you going to get them to stop doing that?  (And how are you going to get them out of your government?)

This is not to say that “alternative energy” is not a good thing to explore — indeed it is.  The issue being examined here, however, is one of whether “alternative energy” is being pursued as a supplement to fossil energy, or as a replacement for said energy.  If we want to see some kind of techno-fix to solve our abrupt climate change problem by itself, we would want the “replacement” aspect to kick in, and we want it to do so rather quickly.  Remember, we have to find some way of getting the global atmospheric CO2 component down to 350 ppm.

If we are to rely upon the established, neoliberal capitalist system, with some techno-fix, to make all of this possible, we will have to make our techno-fix so good that it will make fossil-fuel energy use superfluous.  If it isn’t cheap enough, people will still use the oil/ coal/ natural gas.  Can we do that?  I don’t think so.  This, then, means that dramatic social change becomes an irreducible necessity for the movement to limit abrupt climate change.  We at the very least need what the people at 350.org are trying to do.  But, generally, we need something radical, something more.

One direction for this irreducible social change should have been obvious for readers of FishOutOfWater’s diary of yesterday: more democracy, less oligarchy.  More specifically: as I suggested in my previous diary, we need to alter the oligarchy’s plans to “decide to do nothing for us.”

And remember this headline?  “Saudis Seek Compensation for Any Drop in Oil Revenues.”  Yeah, that’s right.  If we don’t screw up the world by burning enough Saudi crude, the Saudis want financial compensation for our refusal to do so.  The big oil company, and oil-producing nation “producers” of fossil energy (i.e. those who sit atop its underground deposits) are (under capitalism at least) going to want to seek the full exchange value for the fossil-fuel commodity lying underneath them, and will attempt to interfere with geopolitical efforts to avoid consuming said commodity.  Does anyone here think that the rest of the world really has the willpower to tell the Saudis to get lost, while the global political and economic structures stays the same?

So, given the irreducible necessity of a social solution to abrupt climate change, what is to be done?  People have objected to my previous response with the suggestion that “ending the class divide” will take too long.  (My first response would be “so this is an excuse to do nothing?”)  We may not have to produce the classless society in toto to get what we want from an initiative to resolve the social class problem.  The initial need, though, is an initiative to do just that, and thus enough to put global pressure, across social classes, upon the oligarchies in power.

Does that clear things up at all?


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