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Will Alternative Energy Save Capitalism?

Have a sunny day!

Have a sunny day!

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:

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Will alternative energy save capitalism?

(Crossposted to Humanitarian Left and to Orange)

Have a sunny day!

Have a sunny day!

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.
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