Humanity or Capitalism?

cartoon from the New Yorker

cartoon from the New Yorker

Green Growth is touted as a solution for economic growth and climate change. Its strategy is economic growth through the creation and implementation of energy efficient and renewable energy technology for domestic use and export. Underlying this belief in technological innovation as a panacea for climate change and growth is a reckless faith in its ability to overcome physical and environmental limits. Lost in the conversation is a sober assessment of whether renewable energy and greater energy efficiency can meet the needs of a growth obsessed market system. In his book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David JC MacKay explores the viability of renewable energy in meeting the United Kingdom’s energy needs. While the study is specific to the UK which is rich in wind and wave energy sources, it still provides an idea of the scale of renewable energy required to sustain most capitalist systems, excepting lowly populated desert areas rich in solar energy.

South Korea energy consumption per area is  slightly higher than the United Kingdom's

South Korea energy consumption per area is
slightly higher than the United Kingdom’s

Renewable Energy Sources Lack Power
Petroleum was formed when thousands of years of geologic pressure concentrated the energy of dead organic matter into oil, coal, or gas. Because energy is concentrated and stored in petroleum, it makes it a useful fuel for electric power plants. Renewable energy sources, on the other hand, are fleeting and dispersed. Thus, they lack power.[2] This means that to achieve the same amount of energy great amounts must be harnessed. Thus, a large number of renewable energy devices (e.g. wind turbines, solar panels) are required to collect it. What kind of scales are we talking about? To cover the United Kingdom’s energy needs with solar photovoltaic energy, you would need to cover 25% of it. With wind energy, you would need to cover 50%. Even if you planted all of the UK with biofuel plantations, it would just cover half its energy needs. If 500 kilometers of the UK coastline were used to harness wave energy, it would only meet 25% of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

25% of the UK would have to be covered by solar panels to meet all of its energy needs.

Even with 500 km of coastline covered by wave energy collectors, only 25% of the UK’s energy needs would be met.

Even with 500 km of coastline covered by wave energy collectors, only 25% of the UK’s energy needs would be met.

Solving One Problem by Creating Another
Given the limitations of renewable energy in meeting capitalism’s needs, some would argue that the difference should be made up with nuclear energy and “clean” coal. Yet, building more nuclear and clean coal[3] power plants solves one problem – climate change – by creating another one – radioactive and CO2 waste. Furthermore, within a market system, there is the constant pressure to adopt cost cutting measures that potentially compromise the integrity of toxic waste capture and storage and, worse, result in disasters such as the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear meltdown. Solving the climate change problem shouldn’t create a toxic waste one for us and for posterity.

Renewable Energy is neither Carbon nor Environmentally Neutral
While far better than fossil fuels, it is a mistake to think of renewable energy as not producing greenhouse gases or not having an impact on the environment. The production of its devices (and replacement parts) requires minerals and energy (often fossil fuels) to produce. Furthermore, its large scale has a negative impact on surrounding ecosystems. For example, in addition to being loud, windmills around the world have killed hundreds of thousands of birds; agrofuel plantations take land away from food production and increase global food prices[4]; solar thermal[5] kills birds with its concentrated sun rays; wave energy collectors impact ecosystems in shorelines by draining energy from waves. 

Energy Efficiency and the Jevons Paradox
The second element of Green Growth is energy efficient technology. Yet, energy efficiency within a market system does not necessarily result in decreased energy consumption. It may even result in an increase. This is the Jevons Paradox. While greater energy efficiency means that less energy is consumed per unit, in a system driven by price, the cheaper price per unit incentivizes its greater consumption and lesser consumption of a substitute. For example, if a person drove short distances but took the train for long distances, then driving and taking the train are substitutes to each other. With greater car fuel efficiency, driving becomes cheaper thus creating an incentive to drive rather than take the train. Ultimately, while the car may consume less fuel per miles, the diversion from taking a train, which is more energy efficient, to driving adds up to more fuel consumption. Furthermore, the cheaper price per mile of driving means that one can drive more. When prices dictate behavior, as markets attempt to do, lower prices mean greater consumption. 

Renewable Must Still Replace Fossil energy
All this is not to say that we should ditch renewable energy or energy efficiency. To avert climate disaster, we have no choice but to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy efficiency despite their limitations. Yet, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that renewable energy and energy efficiency – i.e. green growth – can be a panacea to climate change and capitalism. We are then faced with a contradiction: to avert climate disaster, renewable energy and energy efficiency must replace fossil fuels; renewable energy and energy efficiency cannot sustain capitalism. Which do we save: humanity or capitalism?

Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones
History has shown us that social transformation is not born fully formed. Rather, it is fought for and built amidst the death throes of the old social order and the birth pangs of the new. To construct a society that is ecologically sustainable, we must resist and reclaim it from the market while imagining and building a new social order and production that respects nature’s limits. As capitalism suffers ever greater crises, it will persist by exploiting new sectors such as carbon markets and public services. We must dismantle it before it pushes the environment past a point of no return even as we cross to a new system by “feeling the stones.”

In its search for markets and profits, capitalism is conquering the public sphere and markets abroad. Free trade agreements not only give corporations access to markets abroad but also greater leverage to shake off regulations and weaken organized labor through the threat of lawsuits[6] and capital flight. From an energy perspective, energy efficiency is lost through the long distance transport and storage of imported goods while corporation’s greater mobility allows it to resist energy efficiency measures that impact its profits. To find new sources of profits, corporations also cannibalize public enterprises through privatization. Privatization links goods and service provision (and its connected energy and resource consumption) to profits rather than to the most effective fulfillment of people’s needs. Creating a just and ecologically sustainable society requires that we resist and push back against the market’s penetration into society.

Elements of the New
While an alternative ecologically sustainable system to capitalism is yet to be constructed, we can discern some of its elements.

To reduce greenhouse gas production, Germany has embarked on an ambitious 20:20:20 program: 20% of its energy will be derived from renewable energy and 20% of its energy demand will be decreased through greater efficiency by 2020.[7] One of its main strategies is retrofitting human habitations (e.g. home, office, library). About 40% of Germany’s energy is consumed in human habitations, 80% of which goes to heating rooms and water. This energy usage can be reduced by half with the use of insulation, draft proofing, energy-efficient systems and appliances, and better controls. Germany’s goal is to save 20% of total energy used in buildings by 2020. In contrast, Korea’s strategy to creating greater energy efficiency under the Lee Myung Bak Administration focused on construction of energy efficient buildings and homes rather than the retrofitting of existing ones. Instead of focusing on green growth for construction companies often with little benefit and great detriment to poor residents, Germany’s approach reuses resident’s homes by retrofitting and in the process meets residents’ need for insulation and the state’s goal of greater energy efficiency.

People’s Needs not Profits
In 2012, in Barlovento, Venezuela, communal council members of a small village discussed their project to fix and build homes with delegates from a Korean exposure and education group.[8] The project was funded with grants and resourced with materials and experts from the government. The community council identified which families needed new homes and which needed repairs and improvements. The government minimized costs by employing villagers along with experts to build and fix their homes. The government, thus, directly met people’s needs while eliminating the profit margin from costs. This is one example of Venezuela’s communal council system which employs revenue from the state oil and telecommunications companies to fund projects that create jobs and directly meet people’s needs. If we are to best utilize our natural resources, we must replace the profit motive with people’s needs.

History has shown us that only the exploited whose lives are immiserated by an obsolete politico-economic system have the will and strength to rend apart the old social relations and bring about a new order. Peasants whose livelihoods are destroyed by free trade agreements; workers whose livelihoods are immiserated by globalization and deregulation; women who pull double duty in and out the home due to patriarchy and a social welfare system cannibalized for profit; students who will be tomorrow’s workers and are today’s debtors; and all of us and our children who will weather the storms and droughts of climate change – we have nothing to lose but our chains and the world to gain.

 [1] David MacKay’s first explores the limits of renewable energy based on the power that it can provide per area that it takes up. For example, wind power produces 2.5 Watts per square meter. This can be contrasted to how much energy is consumed per square meter (calculated by dividing total energy consumption by total area).

[2] In the discussion of energy, power – the flow (production or consumption) of energy in a given time – is important. An example helps illustrate the point: If a boy spends 2.5 kW a day watching television for 10 days, he will use 25 kWh of energy. If 10 boys each spend 2.5 kW a day watching television for 1 day, they will spend 25 kWh of energy. While both require the same amount of energy, the 10 boys require 25 kWh/day while the one boy requires 2.5 kWh/day. In other words the 10 women require much more power than the 1 woman. How much energy is available at a given moment is important in the provision of energy.

Energy Power
1 boy watching television for 10 days 25 kWh 2.5 kWh/day
10 boys watching television for 1 day 25 kWh 25 kWh/day

[3] Clean coal refers to coal power plants which capture and store underground CO2 released from the power plant. The CO2 would then be injected into depleted oil and gas reservoir, non-minerable coal seams, the ocean or deep saline aquifers. Yet, it is unclear whether the CO2 would bubble up to the surface or not.


[5] Solar thermal energy uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy into a central point in order to boil a liquid into vapor which runs a generator to create electricity.

[6] Free trade agreements with the United States, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), include investor state dispute settlement mechanisms that allow investors to sue governments for regulations or policies that hurt their profits.


[8] In 2012, members of the International Strategy Center went on an exposure trip to Venezuela. One of its components involved visiting a communal council in the rural chocolate producing Barlovento.


And Happiness for All: Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination

On October 3, 2014, Jeong Eun Hwang (Communications Coordinator) and Dae-Han Song (Policy and Research Coordinator) of the International Strategy Center met with Kyung-Seok Park, the president of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination and principal of Nodeul Disabled People’s Night School. (Interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang. Interview by Dae-Han Song.)

Kyeong Seok Park (on the left) with fellow activists in the Gwanghwamun Occupation Site

Kyeong Seok Park (on the left) with fellow activists in the Gwanghwamun Occupation Site

Can you give us a brief history of the disabled people’s movement?
Before 1980, the movement around disabled people revolved mostly around individuals signing petitions or providing welfare and services to disabled people. What could be termed the disabled people’s movement began in 1980. That year, disabled students who had passed the university entrance exam applied for admission to university but were rejected because they were disabled. That’s how the struggle against educational discrimination of disabled people started. Then in 1987-88, we organized around the 1988 Olympics and Paralympics. The disabled people’s movement expanded greatly through that period of organizing. In 1999, we had another round of organizing and expansion with the struggle to reform the Physical and Mental Disability Welfare Law[1] (which existed as an empty law) and to create a law promoting disabled people’s employment. Then in 2001, disabled people’s struggle is reframed as a human rights issue. That year, a disabled person died after falling off a wheel chair lift in Oido Station. This was a fight around mobility rights. During this struggle, we started to take to the streets. Our tactics became bolder and more radical like occupying buses and rail tracks. In addition, along with the struggle for mobility rights, we see the rise of the independent living movement.

Kyung Seok Park chaining himself to a bus demanding mobility rights on August 29, 2001

Kyung Seok Park chaining himself to a bus demanding mobility rights (August 29, 2001)

Why do we see a shift from welfare projects to a struggle for human rights?
In 1980, the rejection of the disabled students was such a spark because you had students that had passed the test, that wanted to study, but were rejected simply because they were disabled. The wronged students organized press conferences and rallies. People could sympathize with the injustice. That was the beginning. In 2001 with the Oido Station accident, we realized that moderate actions couldn’t create the big changes that were necessary. While it hadn’t taken much money to just admit a few students, when we started talking about installing elevators in subway stations or providing low floor buses, that was a sizeable amount of money. People could sympathize with the idea, but they would balk when it actually came to implementing them. So we escalated our actions. We stopped buses and occupied rail tracks. These struggles brought public focus to the issue. As the number of people that became convinced that society should not continue in this direction increased, new laws were passed, buses were constructed, and elevators installed.

Did people’s consciousness shift along with this shift in the movement?
The way that others looked at us shifted from pity and charity to human rights and as protagonists of our struggles. For us, disabled people, we were able to recover our protagonism, self-respect, and confidence through this movement and struggle.

What were your most memorable struggles?
It was the struggle around the Oido Station accident. The Oido Station death happened in January 22nd. In protest, we occupied the subway tracks of Seoul Station on February 26th. We occupied it for almost an hour demanding that they install a station elevator. About 100 of us were arrested and many had to pay stiff fines.

Activists for mobility rights occupying subway tracks  at Seoul Station for an hour (February 26, 2001)

Activists for mobility rights occupying subway tracks at Seoul Station for an hour (February 26, 2001)

Can you talk about the current struggle?
Our occupation of Gwanghwamun Subway Station, which started on August 21st, 2012, is currently on its 774th day in protest of the Disability Grading and the Family Support Obligation systems. The Disability Grading system was first established in the 1981 Physical and Mental Disability Welfare Law and actively implemented starting 1988. It ranks disabled people into six grades based on the severity of their disability. In 2007, an activity support service [which provides an assistant to a disabled person to help with his or her daily living] was established. This was the first direct support system for disabled people in Korea. Before, disabled people only received support indirectly in the form of free access to services or tax exemption.

However, the implementation of this service revealed the contradiction in the disability grading system. While those that needed the service numbered 350,000, the budget only allowed for 50,000. So, at first they limited this service to the 1st grade [the most severely] disabled people. After protestations, they expanded it to also include 2nd grade disabled people. Currently, only 1st and 2nd grade disabled people can get this service. We are proposing that instead of basing a person’s eligibility to their disability grade, that each person should be evaluated separately for the service they are applying for. This is just a convenient way for the government to control and manage people.

The second issue is around income. If a person that is unable to earn an income has parents with a little bit of income or assets, then under the Family Support Obligation System, that person can’t receive any assistance payments from the government. Even if that person were in his or her 30s, 40s, or 50s, that person wouldn’t be able to get the income he/she needs to live. We are fighting for its abolishment. If a person has no income, then they don’t have an income regardless of whether their family does or not. They should receive a minimum living income.

The reason why this is such a difficult struggle is because with the current welfare budget allocations, it’s impossible to meet our demands.

Across the occupation site on a station wall: a shrine to martyrs

Across the occupation site on a station wall: a shrine to martyrs

Your organization is called Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination. What would a society free of discrimination against disabled people look like?

That society should be one where not just the disabled, but all people can be happy. We need to ask ourselves: What kind of tools do we need to create this happiness? Right now we have a society of ruthless competition where only the successful survive. In this society, disabled people are treated as a special group to be helped. But the society that we are envisioning is one where everyone can be happy. While what makes each person happy may differ, it should at least provide the basic needs: food, shelter, health, a job.

So to create such as society we first need to disseminate the value of living together. Then that value should be supported by the law and the budget. After the universal adoption of such value, then if disabled people have extra special physical or mental needs, they should be addressed. The needs of disabled people should be addressed as part of a much larger effort for everyone’s happiness. If we try to resolve the issue of disability rights without changing society’s structure and values; if we view disability rights as an issue separate from society as a whole, then our issue can’t but become distorted. This is the approach of capital, or those that rule.

[1] This law was formed under the Chun Doo Hwan Dictatorship in 1981 as part of its façade of creating a social welfare state. It just existed in the laws but was not implemented.

Unbroken: Kwon Nak-gi, Long Term Political Prisoner of Conscience

Kwon Nag-ki (center) with our Korean Economy History and Politics Program (KHEP) members.

Kwon Nag-ki (center) with our Korean Economy History and Politics Program (KHEP) members.

On June 14th, Kris Pak, an Adoptee; Stephanie Park and Dae-Han Song, two Korean-Americans; Taryn Assaf, a Lebanese-Canadian; Anastasia Traynin, a Russian-American; and Erica Sweett, a Canadian meet with Kwon Nak-gi: trim, neatly dressed, nearing 70, set of black hair, hint of  slouch, and tattooed eyebrows. He speaks with the earned conviction and justification of one who stayed true to his beliefs and comrades in the face of torture and 17 years of solitary confinement.

The National Security Law
Kwon, Nak-gi was arrested in 1972 (along with his father, mother, and younger brother) for violating the National Security Law in the incident of the Gyongsang Province Revolutionary Party for Reunification. The National Security Law had been created soon after liberation from Japan, to repress the uprisings erupting within a divided South Korea: On one side stood the nationalists, communists, and socialists; on the other, the Japanese collaborators. Since that time the National Security Law has been used to censor, incarcerate, torture and kill dissenters. Those imprisoned are grouped between ones who renounced their beliefs under torture, and ones who did not. Separating those let free and those that persisted was a signed statement renouncing one’s beliefs. Those that persisted are referred to as prisoners of conscience. Kwon Nak-gi is a third generation long term political prisoner of conscience.

Four Generations of Political Prisoners
The first generation of political prisoners was arrested at the end of the Korean War: they had fought for the North but were trapped in the South when the war ended. Some were executed; others received life sentences eventually serving up to 40 years. The second generation was arrested upon returning to the South in the early 1960s to jumpstart the South’s reunification movement. The third generation was too young to fight in the war but old enough to participate in the South’s reunification movement in the early 70s. The fourth generation was arrested in the latter half of the 1970s, framed as spies to justify the continued existence of the National Security Law. They were later retried and found innocent, including those executed and those killed in prison.

Struggle and Freedom
As the struggle for democratization intensified, pressure to release the political prisoners mounted. Many, including Kwon Nakki, were released after the October 1987 uprising. Others were released under Kim Yong Sam, and finally one by one the remaining unconverted long term political prisoners were released under the Kim Dae Jung presidency. 63 of them were repatriated to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture under the June 15, 2000 agreement between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il.

Prison Life
As we move from the background to his story, I ask, “What was prison life like?” Kwon Nak-gi describes the cells for political prisoners: Each prisoner was held in a 0.75 pyeong (2.5 square meters) cell: just large enough to sit against one wall and touch the other with your feet. To break them, the prison kept them under solitary confinement. “In our cells, we didn’t have any books. If you had books, you could escape. They wanted to keep the pressure on: They wanted us to feel sadness, misery, loneliness.”

As he relates his daily prison life, I glimmer moments of resistance, persistence, and dignity in the mundane: keeping mind and body busy, strict adherence to hygiene and exercise, and even discipline and resourcefulness in the use and reuse of a pail ration of water.

“One of our greatest sources of strength was study. Among the hundreds imprisoned, we had philosophers, professors: learned people. So, they created lessons on dialectical materialism, contradiction, the principles of an organizer, political science, economics.” While each of the political prisoners was kept in solitary confinement, they communicated through a secret system of taps, scratches, and knocks on the wall.

“We would sit alone in our room doing these studies. Our elders would tap out a sentence on the wall. Then I would recite and memorize it in rhyme.” As he demonstrates by tapping, scratching, and knocking in rapid succession, he murmurs off a string of sentences from memory. “It’s been so long, that I’m starting to forget them…It took me about a year to memorize it all.”

“After breakfast and the dishes, I would recite my lessons. It took exactly three hours. Without that, there was no way we could have held out for 10, 20, 30 years. A human being needs a purpose and a practice. That’s the only way to endure. We have to remind ourselves why we exist. For us, it was important to not while away the day. That’s why we studied everyday. It gave us a purpose.”

“The second source of strength was struggle. If they simply left us alone, we would have become bored, listless. But, they tortured us. All animals fight back when you mess with them. But, humans are special: We also fight back when someone messes with others. That is our strength. If they beat one of us, then the others would start a hunger strike. These struggles helped keep our humanity.”

“Study, struggle, and finally comradeship. I wonder if without comrades I could have kept my beliefs for so long.” Kwon Nak-gi relates how, in winter, younger prisoners would pad their underwear and in the exercise yard would exchange it with the worn-out ones of the older prisoners. Or of when someone had diarrhea, he would save his food and pass it on to hungry comrades despite punishment if caught.

His voice recalls a past moment, “One day after getting tortured, I returned to my cell. I was bloodied; my energy was drained. As the sun set and night fell upon me, my eyes welled up with tears. I wondered to myself, ‘Do I really need to keep getting beat up like this?’ My thoughts wandered off to a woman back in Busan. ‘Why did I listen to my father? Why don’t I just give up and live comfortably outside?’”

“The next morning, through the food slot, I saw a senior comrade in his 50s – his skin down to his bones – raising his fist motioning me to stay strong. At seeing that, there was no way I could sign the renunciation document. How could I leave behind all these elders and comrades to live comfortably outside? I stuck it out to the end not because I was smarter, or tougher, or better. It was these relationships. It was these moments, once, twice, thrice, ten times, one year, ten years, twenty, as time flowed…that is how I was made. No one is born good or bad. Our education, our actions – that is what make us.”

Releasing the Han
Anastasia asks, “What are your goals now?” The question stirs a reflection. Kwon Nak-gi pauses then responds, “When you say goal, there is that which forms in our rational self, from our knowledge, which we plan and then try to execute, and there is that which forms within our hearts and releases our unresolved feelings, our Han. The goal which resides in my rational self and in my heart, are one and the same: reunification.”

His “rational” reasons for reunification are many: an independent country; military spending used for social welfare instead; and the freedom to hear, read, learn what one wants and to choose freely. Then, a profundity permeates his voice, “Reunification is also an ardent wish that resides in my heart. We all make promises, like today, we made a promise to meet here. But, a promise between living people, can be changed, postponed, or even canceled if both acquiesce. A promise with those who’ve died cannot be canceled, postponed, or altered. That is the han that resides in the hearts of those that survived. I made a promise to my elders that I would struggle on until the reunification of our homeland. They died in prison. Even my juniors, who I loved and cared for, that were released but passed away, we promised to fight for reunification.”

Advice for the next generation
As our meeting comes to a close, Anastasia asks, “Do you have any advice for the next generation?” Kwon Nak-gi’s voice mingles with delight, expectation, and respect as he answers, “Dialectical materialism states that the new will replace the old, and that the new becomes old. Nothing remains fixed. I see myself as the old: I am 69. You are young; you are in your twenties, in your thirties. I can’t tell you how to live your lives. But, I can tell you that while I spent my twenties and thirties in prison, I never lived in shame. I didn’t accomplish anything great, but I never betrayed my beliefs. I did not live in fear; I did not live in shame. Because you are young, your dreams, your directions, they will all be varied. But, live your life free of fear and shame. To do that, you must preserve your confidence and maintain your self-respect.”