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.


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