Ecology and Socialism
Ecology and Socialism by Chris Williams, 2010
In this book Williams demonstrates how capitalism, with its “blind, unplanned drive to accumulate” has created the problem of climate change – along with many others. Since “market-based mechanisms such as cap and trade and personal lifestyle changes” haven’t put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions, Williams believes that “the way the economy works must be fundamentally altered to prioritize real human and ecological needs rather than profit and the market. This will require a social, economic, political, and cultural revolution,” he says, “including mass democratic decision-making and a holistic and ecological worldview based on interconnections and co-creation with nature.
Much of the environmental movement in the North is focused on trying to convince ordinary people to make sacrifices in order to save the planet,” but as Williams points out, the millions out of work or working part-time and mired in debt have more pressing things to think about. The only way to “make environmental arguments meaningful to the vast majority of people in the developed world, let alone the Global South, is to focus on justice, jobs, equality, and improving the quality of life, not the need for more sacrifice. In other words, environmental activism must be about socio-ecological justice the world over.
Swift, decisive action that challenges the continuance of the current system is required. World leaders are too wired into the system of profit and competitive national development to negotiate real solutions to climate change.”
Williams reviews the science of climate change, reminding is that the earth’s atmosphere functions like an “insulating blanket,” regulating global temperature and making life possible. “Concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests are now causing average global temperatures to rise, however, because of the way this gas absorbs infrared radiation (heat energy) reflected from the earth’s surface, preventing it from escaping back out into space – the famous ‘greenhouse effect.’
Carbon dioxide is generated whenever a substance containing the element carbon is burned, and 80% of the energy generated on the planet – mostly for the production of electricity – and virtually all the fuel used for land, air, or sea transportation depends on the burning of carbon-containing coal, oil, or natural gas, the so-called ‘fossil fuels.’ Many of the world’s poor, over two billion people, also depend for heating, lighting, and cooking on another carbon-containing compound: biomass in the form of wood, other plant material, or animal dung.
Another 17% of our energy is generated from nuclear power, with the remainder, 3-4%, coming from renewable sources, mostly in the form of hydroelectric dams. Transportation accounts for more than 25% of global energy demand, and industrial processes another third.
Climate change negatively impacts sea life as the oceans warm and become more acidic (CO2 is an acidic compound), leads to an increase in forest fires and agricultural and other pests, and changes the geographical spread of such disease vectors as malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
In the 4.5 billion years that the earth’s been around, its climate had gone through some dramatic changes. In fact, the climate stability of the last 12,000 years, enabling the prediction of annual weather patterns and a shift to farming since the last ice age, is more of an anomaly than the norm. However, left to nature, the sum of solar and volcanic activity over the last 50 years would likely have produced cooling.
Since 1750, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have grown from 280 parts per million (ppm) to today’s level of 387 ppm, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004, precisely mirroring the vast global economic expansion that occurred during those years.
CO2 and CH4 (methane) concentrations in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. In the last 250 years, 1,100 billion tons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere through industrial processes, mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Half of these emissions occurred after the mid-1970s.
Scientists predict that global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase over the next few decades by 25-90%, and the US Energy Information Agency projects continued growth in CO2 emissions to 2030, rather than their decline [even with peak oil?]. While the bulk of this increase will come from developing countries, per capita they’ll remain far lower than the developed countries’ per capita average.
Regardless of what we do now, our world will warm 1.5-2ºC by 2050, more if we continue on our present path of increasing rather than reducing emissions. If we go above a 2ºC average temperature rise – which we will without radical economic and social changes in the next decade, future scenarios become increasingly apocalyptic. Within this picture, some cooling is predicted for the next 20 years or so, and some areas will be affected more than others. Some areas will experience increased rainfall and floods rather than drought, for example. A large part of the problem will be that yearly weather patterns will become unpredictable, making agriculture – the basis of human existence – increasingly difficult to plan.
Now that we’re already at a CO2 concentration of almost 400ppm, what’s urgently required is that we stay below 450ppm, and as quickly as possible reduce that to 350ppm in order to limit warming to 2ºC. Once we go above 450ppm, there’s the possibility of an unstoppable increase in global temperatures that would eventually make human civilization untenable across large swaths of the planet. Humans will have to live near one of the poles to escape the twin extremes of drought and flood, and 50-60% of plant and animal species will cease to exist. Human population will drop by the billions as mass migrations and civilizational breakdown become continuous features of life for those who survive.”
In the second chapter of his book, Williams asks whether population growth is part of the problem, noting that “Marx argued that what level of population is sustainable depends on how people procure their subsistence. Hunting peoples, for example, need a great amount of territory for just a few people. The modern biological concept of the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth ignores this, as well as the fact that humans often grow more food and limit reproduction based on rational economic and social considerations.
The problem for the environment isn’t overpopulation,” Williams says; it’s the capitalist imperative of rapidly expanding production to realize a profit. “In a society in which the purpose of production is to procure useful things, the natural qualities of the product, as well as the preservation of the natural prerequisites of production, are the producers’ main consideration. Under a system based on production for the market, however, goods produced for exchange, independently of whatever useful qualities they may have. The producer only cares about their exchange value – what money can be obtained from their sale. Under fully developed capitalism, exchange value comes to dominate use value,” and production expands regardless of long-term negative effects.
“Enough food is now produced globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to more than feed everyone. Even in 2030, despite an estimated global population of 8.3 billion, there will be enough to give everyone 3,050 calories a day. [I don’t think the likely effects of peak oil have been factored into this.]
The rate of population growth peaked in the 1960s, and has been declining ever since. The rate is set to decline further from the 1.7% it’s been for the past 30 years to 1.1%. World population, rather than increasing exponentially, is predicted to continue to slowly rise through this century before leveling off at around 9 billion [again, the effects of peak oil are ignored]. It’s possible that 9 or even 8 billion will never be reached – population could peak closer to 7 billion by 2040. Because there will be fewer females being born, population decline then becomes all but inevitable, to around 5 billion by 2100.
Racist fears that American, European, and Christian populations are declining faster than non-white and Muslim ones have become part of this discussion. As Jack Goldstone wrote in “The New Population Bomb” in the January/February 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, ‘Worldwide, of the 48 fastest-growing countries today – those with annual population growth of 2% or more – 28 are majority Muslim or have Muslim minorities of 33% or more.’
The fact that should really be highlighted is that what the vast majority of these 48 countries have in common is poverty, much of it induced by Western financial institutions that focus development on corporate wealth extraction, production for external markets, and debt repayment. Goldstone concludes that ‘It’s imperative to improve relations between Muslim and Western societies. This will be difficult, given that many Muslims live in poor communities vulnerable to radical appeals, and many see the West as antagonistic and militaristic.’”
Williams puts the onus on the US, saying that “with the US military occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, feeding high-tech weaponry to Israel to maintain the continued brutal occupation of Palestine, regularly bombing countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, facilitating the government onslaught against insurgent groups in Indonesia, helping to ensure that the Mubarak and Saudi dictatorships cling to power with gargantuan arms shipments and military training, and saber-rattling against Iran and Syria, there would seem to be a fairly good basis for extreme animosity and people in those countries, Muslim or not, seeing the West as ‘antagonistic and militaristic.’
If we really want to reverse large sections of the world resenting Western policies and an extremely small minority of them seeking redress through acts of terrorism, the answer is simple. Rather than blaming religion, withdraw the troops, stop the arms sales to repressive governments, cancel developing-country debt, eliminate immigration controls, and provide development assistance based on countries’ real needs.” One of these needs, contrary to the self-serving recommendations of “the cabal of international financial institutions and multinational corporations” is food self-sufficiency. Watch the film “Life and Debt,” which “focuses on the effects of ‘free trade’ in the Caribbean” to see how all this works (it had “devastating effects on local agricultural production,” as subsidized American products like milk undercut the price of local products). This mechanism also explains how Mexico, “the home of corn domestication,” became a net importer of US corn after the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994, causing 15 million Mexican farmers to lose their land. Many of these men and women and their children have been forced to seek work as illegal immigrants in the US. The same process has been repeated in country after country (it was rice and chickens in Ghana, which in 2009 ranked 152 out of 182 in the UN’s Human Development Index). This is how capitalism and accompanying Western imperialism, economic and political, create war and hunger, completely unrelated to population increase.
There is also no relationship between population and malnutrition within countries. In the US, for example, “enough food is produced for everyone to eat eight full plates of food a day – yet almost 40 million Americans struggle to put food on the table, and are classified as ‘food insecure.’ The recent massive increase in allocation of land for the growing of agro-fuel crops, including 30% of corn production in the United States going to ethanol manufacture” has aggravated these trends, causing the price of staple foods to rise.
Poverty actually causes a higher birth rate, since desperately poor families have no certainty that their children will live to adulthood, and because they need extra help to earn money, especially when parents are too old to work. Another point that should be made is that it’s the developed countries that produce most of the greenhouse gases and other pollution – poor people, especially those in undeveloped countries, live very simply.
To sum up, it’s capitalism that creates both poverty (and hunger) and ecological degradation. “The European Union, even with immigration, is predicted to have at least 50 million fewer people by 2050, while its carbon emissions and resource and energy use rise. [Because it’s based on debt and interest,] if the economy isn’t permanently expanding at a minimum of 2-3%, the whole system goes into a tailspin of layoffs, budget cuts and mass unemployment.
The senseless waste and pollution under capitalism includes not only the toxic byproducts of the production process, but the production and distribution of useless products, the preponderance of inefficient transportation systems based on cars rather than public transportation, the wasted labor and materials involved in militarism, and the creation of mounting piles of garbage as a result of planned obsolescence and single-use products.
According to a recent report, at the various stages of production, transportation, retail, and consumption, half of all food is wasted. This corresponds to wasting an enormous quantity of water, as 70% of the fresh water used by humans goes to crop irrigation. Our food system has also become degraded nutritionally” and produces significant amounts of toxic waste, especially the livestock industry.
Because of the destructive, unsustainable, and wasteful manner in which fish are caught to maximize profit, fish stocks don’t have time to regenerate, and there will be no wild fish left by 2050. “The fine mesh of massive strings of gill nets, which can be left in the water for several weeks, often see half to three quarters of their catch unusable by the time the boats return to port.
The capitalist answer to wild fish depletion is to invent an even more pollution-intensive industry” that produces a nutritionally inferior product: fish farming. Farmed fish “have to be repeatedly doused with pesticides to prevent outbreaks of disease and to keep parasites in check, and continually escape to breed with wild fish, negatively impacting their genetic stock.
Socially just, sustainable agriculture, contrary to common opinion, produces higher yields than corporate monocultures.
Rather than seeing the poor as some kind of demographic threat, as do neo-Malthusians like Lester Brown, we should recognize them as our allies. Indeed, some of the most inspiring struggles to preserve livelihoods, decent jobs, environmental integrity, and indigenous cultures over the last 15 years have come from peasants and workers in the developing world fighting against water privatization, deforestation, and the strip-mining of local resources and food supplies by Western multinationals and financial institutions.
The richest 7% of the global population are responsible for 50% of the world’s CO2 emissions, whereas the poorest 50% are responsible for a mere 7%. The conclusion is clear: it’s capitalism that needs restraining, not people. We must aim for real development that takes social, cultural, and ecological improvement as its goal.”
Having dealt with the population issue, Williams explains why capitalism won’t be able to solve the problem of climate change – or any of the other problems it creates. He notes American president Obama’s capitulation to the nuclear, fossil fuel, and agro-fuels lobbies in his first State of the Union address in January 2010. In his speech, Obama advocated “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear plants,” more offshore drilling, and “investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.” There’s no such thing as a safe, clean nuclear plant – or clean coal technology; and, as noted above, biofuels compete with food production, and have been shown to be energy inefficient overall.
“Moving away from coal will be difficult,” Williams acknowledges, “because the industry employs many people, generates much of our electricity, and powers our railroads. Workers will have to be retrained and reemployed in a new green economy.
Producing crude oil from the tar sands in northern Alberta generates up to four times more CO2 than conventional drilling, uses up to five barrels of water per gallon of crude, and destroys the landscape. It takes two tons of the raw sands to produce one barrel of oil. The oil industry is using environmentally hazardous methods to extract as much as it can of the remaining conventional oil and natural gas. In the case of the latter, ‘hydrofracking’ releases gas from shale; shale gas already accounts for 20% of US gas supplies, up from 1% in 2000. Because of the energy and water intensive method of extraction, a recent study questions whether hydrofracked natural gas is any better than coal in terms of CO2 emissions. Though the process also pollutes ground water with toxic chemicals, it’s currently exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Williams notes that global warming is making drilling for oil and shipping possible in the Arctic, dooming the polar bear and other species there. But, he says, as long as there’s a profit to be made by selling oil, it’ll be extracted by whatever method.
Because national political leaders are obligated to support the capitalist economic development of the countries they represent, an objective, rational appraisal of the degenerating ecological situation and the creation of real solutions based on that appraisal “are beyond the ability of competing nation-states.”
What’s been tried? “The most serious international attempt to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed the industrialized countries to reducing their emissions of six different greenhouse gases below the levels emitted in 1990 by between 0 and 8% averaged over the years 2008 to 2012. Kyoto didn’t go into effect officially until February 16, 2005, because until the Russian Federation ratified it on November 4, 2004, it didn’t have enough signatories; notably, both the United States and Australia refused to sign on. President Clinton never even sent the measure to Congress to seek ratification, because the Senate had already voted unanimously not to commit the US to emissions targets that might negatively impact its economic development. The person leading the US delegation at the Kyoto talks and responsible for much of the watering down of the agreement was none other than Al Gore, star of the 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which warned about climate change.
The deal hammered out in Kyoto was pointless from a practical perspective without the cooperation of the United States, the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions.
To the extent that the signatories have attempted to comply with Kyoto, what are the results? While Britain has achieved some measurable decreases in emissions, these never approached the 12.5% below 1990 levels it signed on for, and were almost all due to switching from coal to natural gas. (With a lower carbon content than coal, natural gas emits less CO2.)
The economic collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s helped Europe to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions somewhat. Meanwhile, the United States increased its emissions by 17% during the 1990s, and in 2008 neither the Democrats nor the Republicans made climate change a priority.” Williams notes drily that “this is not unrelated to the substantial sums industry polluters give both parties.
The 2007 Bali agreement didn’t commit any country to targets or dates, and it extends the market in carbon trading, lining the pockets of carbon traders, banks, and large polluters. The 2009 Copenhagen agreement was no better.
So far, government efforts to curb carbon emissions have done nothing but allow countries to claim they’re doing something meaningful when they’re not. Nothing real is being done, and emissions continue to climb – four times faster than a decade ago, according to the Global Carbon Project.
Even if there was an effective treaty, there’s no way to enforce it. Also, as Vandana Shiva makes clear in her book Soil Not Oil, the biggest disagreement isn’t between rich and poor countries: ‘It’s between corporate industry North and South and farmers, indigenous people, and vulnerable communities.’
The five countries that drafted the Copenhagen Accord represent the major polluters from four continents: the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil – all disproportionately heavy polluters due in large part to their reliance on coal, and in Brazil’s case deforestation. South Africa was just awarded a World Bank loan of $3.75 billion to build the world’s seventh biggest coal-fired power station. Despite their other disagreements, these five countries cooked up a last-minute deal not to push the conference forward toward a real agreement, but to do precisely the opposite by subverting the possibility of other countries coming up with one.
Neither market-based ‘solutions’ to the problem of climate change nor changes in personal consumption can measurably reduce emissions. Not only does carbon trading put a price on clean air, drinkable water, and a stable climate, it encourages polluters to pass the extra costs on to the consumer. Some very large and significant economic actors like airlines and cement and aluminum manufacturers are also exempted from participating in this scheme. Finally, the caps set on emissions by the EU were ridiculously high. The bottom line: there’s been no net reduction in EU [or any other area’s] carbon emissions.
As far as personal lifestyle changes are concerned, these choices are limited under capitalism. We don’t get to choose how things are produced or whether the cities we live in provide reliable public transportation. Nor can we buy a computer or cell phone that can be easily repaired or that won’t soon become incompatible with software ‘upgrades.’ We need societal solutions based on a completely different economic logic. Over-packaging to compete with similar products and single use items should be illegal, for example, and ‘not littering’ and recycling don’t solve the problem of waste. Besides, for every ton of household discards there are 70 tons of industrial debris created from mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and petrochemicals (less than 2% of all waste is residential). Making real changes in the production of waste – just like making meaningful lifestyle choices available to ordinary people – will require government regulation and planning not driven by the profit motive.
Nuclear power, another ‘system friendly’ energy idea, is both expensive and dangerous. Nuclear power plants are only cost competitive with other energy sources when government subsidies and huge decommissioning costs aren’t included as part of the cost of building and running them. A recent report by economist Mark Cooper indicates that the cost of adding 100 new nuclear reactors to the US power grid over and above the cost of renewable sources and energy conservation measures is an astronomical $1.9-4.1 trillion over the lifetimes of the reactors. The higher figure is the more likely one, as nuclear projects traditionally suffer from extreme cost overruns and delays. Cooper’s analysis factors in studies from Wall Street and independent energy analysts that estimate the efficiency of renewable energy at 6 cents per kilowatt hour versus 12 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour for nuclear. The financial inefficiency of nuclear power can only be made up from government subsidies or increases in electricity bills.
Nuclear power also has serious safety and waste management issues. No one really knows what to do with the radioactive nuclear waste piling up next to reactors all over the world (36,000 tons in the US alone). The most highly radioactive waste has to be kept in storage for 10,000 years, which means designing and building storage containers that will remain intact longer than human civilization has been on the planet. Many nuclear power stations built 30 years ago are coming to the end of their operational lives, and decommissioning costs to entomb reactors in concrete are gigantic.
As for nuclear power being environmentally friendly, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine exploded in 1986, it released between 50 and 250 million curies of radiation (the equivalent of 100 medium-sized atomic bombs) over half of Europe, with radiation reaching Japan to the east and the American east coast to the west.
Unfortunately, some environmental campaigners – including climate change expert James Hansen – have been seduced by the promise of the new Generation IV nuclear plants, touted as safe and able to overcome the radioactive waste issue, though none have been built and the technology isn’t likely to be viable for at least a decade, if ever. Only Generation III plants are scheduled to be built at the present time.
Uranium ore, the fuel for nuclear power plants, isn’t common, and its extraction and refinement to useable form is highly energy intensive – giving the lie to its being ‘carbon neutral.’ According to one report, ‘the use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favorable conditions, one third as much CO2 emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required are also so limited that, if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted in nine years. Use of the remaining poorer ores would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly.’ (Helen Caldicott in Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, 2006)
The mining and refining of uranium is highly polluting and energy-intensive. The fissile material needed for nuclear reactors, the uranium isotope U-235, is only 0.7% of uranium ore. This means that more than 99% of the rock that’s been mined is left behind as highly toxic ‘tailings’ containing over a dozen radioactive elements. If the tailings are left lying around, they dry and spread radioactive particles via the wind into surrounding watercourses, fields, and plants. As in the ‘containment’ of coal ash, they’re pumped into giant dams containing millions of tons of radioactive waste. Indian women living within a kilometer of one of such dams developed menstrual problems (47%), suffered miscarriages or stillbirths (18%), or had other fertility problems (30%). Many of their surviving children had severe deformities.
While many people have heard of the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the 1986 explosion of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, hundreds of other accidents, leaks, and near-misses have occurred with less media attention.
Nuclear power plants also double as atomic bomb factories. The cost of nuclear defense and spending on nuclear weapons in the United States between 1945 and 1996 was $5.5 trillion in 1996 dollars. That amount represents more than the combined federal spending on education, agriculture, training, employment, social services, natural resources, space, technology, community and regional development, and regulation over the same time period.
We also need solutions to climate change quickly, and it takes at least 5 years to construct a nuclear power plant – often considerably longer. Wind farms take only 18 months. Just offsetting the closing of old nuclear plants and increasing the percentage of global nuclear energy would require building 21-25 large new nuclear plants every year for 50 years. All kinds of bottlenecks exist for this kind of rapid construction, which took place for a relatively short period of time in the 1980s, not least the lack of highly skilled and trained construction workers, engineers, and plant operators.
Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has admitted that nuclear power isn’t ‘a near-term solution to the challenge of climate change, which calls for actions that span all energy applications, not just electricity. Improved efficiency in residential and commercial buildings, industry, and transport is the first choice among all options in virtually all analyses of the problem.’
Money allocated to nuclear power, fossil fuels, ‘clean coal,’ biofuels, and hydrogen cells is money that could be spent on technologies that are cheaper, safer, don’t lead to the production and spread of nuclear weaponry, and are much more environmentally friendly and quicker to bring on line, such as solar, wind, wave, and geothermal.”
Williams believes that “corporate power must be curtailed via government regulation, and government subsidies redirected to alternative energy. According to the authors of a January 2008 Scientific American article, the United States could obtain 69% of its electricity and 35% of its total energy by 2050 from the sun via $420 billion in investment between 2011 and 2050. In 2050 US CO2 emissions would then be 62% below 2005 levels. $420 billion is less than the Pentagon budget or the cost of the US Farm Support Program for a single year.
|ENERGY SOURCE||POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTION|
|Concentrating Solar Power||Seven states in the US Southwest could provide more than 7,000 GW of solar generating capacity – nearly seven times US electric capacity from all sources. A similar scheme for Europe and Africa would use electricity generated in the Sahara.|
|Solar Water Heaters||Could easily provide half the world’s hot water.|
|Rooftop Solar Cells||Could provide 10% of grid electricity in the US by 2030.|
|Wind Power||Could easily provide 20% of the world’s electricity; offshore wind farms could meet all the European Union’s electricity needs.|
|Geothermal Heat||Could provide 100 GW of generating capacity in the US alone.|
|Wave and Ocean Thermal Energy||Contribution could be on the same order of magnitude as current world energy use.|
The first item on the list, concentrated solar power, requiring a 600 kilometer square area covered with solar panels, could supply enough power for 500 million people – the combined populations of the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, with the equivalent US consumption of 250 kilowatt hours per day (kWh/day), twice the European average. The area required would be just 19% of suitable (barren, with no competing uses) land in the Southwest, and would negate the need for 300 coal plants and 300 natural gas plants. The same size square located in the North African desert would be enough for one billion people at average western European consumption levels (125kWh/day). HVDC transmission networks would have to be built to transport electrical energy via direct current all over the US.
If this system were set up in conjunction with a massive expansion of wind, tidal, and wave power, the US could generate all its energy from renewable sources. The potential for power generation using the wind is similarly enormous, particularly from offshore wind farms. But even onshore, by one estimate, 80% of the current electrical demand in the US could be met by the wind energy of North Dakota and South Dakota alone. Wind and solar power plants have considerably less downtime for maintenance than coal or nuclear plants.
Large storage facilities can be built to ensure a continuous supply of base-load electricity. Energy can be stored as compressed air in underground caverns or as hot salt in insulated containers. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, suitable geologic formations for underground storage exist in 75% of the country. There’s also the possibility of pumped storage in which water is pumped uphill during times of low demand and low cost and stored behind a dam. This kind of storage mechanism can provide power in seconds to augment any shortfall from renewable sources, and recovers 70% of the energy used to pump the water uphill.
Alongside these storage facilities to supplement fluctuating renewable sources, there’s the largely untapped potential of geothermal energy. According to a recent MIT study, the potential for geothermal energy in the United States – with currently available technology and energy that’s easily extractable with minimal environmental impacts or emissions – represents 2,000 times the current primary energy use of the US.
Changing over to alternative energy over two to three decades will require a massive redistribution of power away from corporations to workers, farmers, and local communities connected for mutual benefit. There are also restrictions based on possible limits on the supply of some rare earth metals required for wind turbine gearing mechanisms and elements needed for solar panels. The impact of geothermal plants on tectonic activity and the long-term implications for wildlife and water use from alternative energy power stations needs to be fully and transparently assessed, too. But this is a starting point for a discussion about real solutions for clean energy that are technologically feasible and practically possible within a fairly short time frame. Rather than the one-size-fits-all model of giant centralized utilities using their economic and political clout to determine what kind of power stations get built and where, we need a judicious mix of renewable energy solutions. Some of these will be local or community based, some part of large regional grids, depending on geographical and climatic conditions. Input will come from those affected by the decisions in consultation with scientific and technical experts, and choices will be based on need, energy efficiency, and minimization of pollution and use of resources.”
Two quibbles that I have: (1) Why has Williams has left biomass out of the list of alternative energy sources? Because it generates CO2? I know very little about this source of energy, except that it can be created at the household level with some of the same material now used for composting. (2) I think that, in order to minimize further impact on the environment, significantly simplifying our lifestyles needs to be part of the picture. I don’t think we should expect to be able to do whatever we want anymore – travel whenever to distant parts of the globe, buy goods from far away, have our own private means of transportation, etc. And Williams doesn’t really bring this up.
He does indicate that energy use can be significantly reduced by retrofitting existing buildings with efficient insulation or tearing them down and rebuilding them with energy efficiency in mind. In terms of transportation, he also says that rail and bus systems need to be nationalized so that a coherent national plan can be developed to enhance the quality of travel and reduce energy use. Subsidies currently given to private airline companies should be cut off, he thinks, and redirected to the building of high-speed train lines. Williams proposes that vacation times be lengthened to give people more time to get to their destinations, and recommends that freight be carried by rail instead of trucks. “Public tram lines and light rail need to be built in all major cities. Subway and bus lines need to be increased and made free, with buses running on electricity generated by renewable sources. Cities can also be made much more bike friendly. Auto manufacturing companies should also be nationalized, and workers retrained to make things we need more than cars. Federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, biofuels, etc. should be redirected to renewable energy, and a comprehensive national plan on energy and emissions – paid for by corporate taxes, taxes on the rich, and massive cuts in ‘defense’ spending – implemented.
Bringing about the kind of changes we need will require building a mass movement that combines the best aspects of the social movements of the 1960s with the type of radicalism workers showed in the 1930s. Such a movement must clearly reject unregulated free-market capitalism in order to focus on cleaning up the environment and creating green jobs. Fulfilling this reform-minded scenario requires the complete retooling of global society in every sphere: energy production, distribution, and storage; transportation; housing design and town planning; and agricultural and industrial production.
If socialism means anything, it’s the free association of the people who do the work assuming the power to collectively and democratically decide the future course of a society in which the production of goods is based on human need, not profit. After the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, nowhere has this been true of any society claiming to be socialist.
The right to privately own land and the means of production, which lies at the root of capitalist economics and forces the population at large to work for a living at the behest of private capital, must be abolished. Only by holding land and the instruments of production in common and producing to meet social need rather than profit will the simultaneous exploitation of nature and humanity end [italics mine].
Efficiency gains under capitalism typically lead to increases in scale, more accumulation, and economic growth, thus defeating the original purpose. Efficiency gains in automobile engine technology over the last three decades, for example, have led to larger vehicles, more vehicles, and increased driving.
Radically reducing world car production would lead to huge reductions in the need for steel, concrete, and asphalt, all industries with major greenhouse gas emissions and water requirements. At optimum conditions (i.e., when full) high-speed trains are 27 times more energy efficient than a car, a diesel-powered bus is 13 times more efficient, and underground trains at peak times are 18 times better than cars.
In a truly sustainable system, industries producing useless things, advertising, marketing, much of the packaging industry, and the military would be abolished. The question would no longer be how quickly a product can be made at the lowest possible cost and how quickly we can get it to wear out before someone has to buy a new one. Instead, we’d ask what need it serves, how little energy we can make it with, how much waste is produced with its manufacture and what we can do with that, and how we can make it last as long as possible.
Feeding all the people on the planet with sustainable large- and small-scale agriculture, we could also abolish or reduce the pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and fertilizer industries. We could reduce the need for irrigation and eliminate much soil erosion, aquifer salinity and depletion, deforestation, and desertification as well. A rational plan for the sustainable use of the land would be developed by the peasants and farmers using it, and millions now living in the mega-slums of the urban South could migrate back to the countryside to improve rural agriculture and return countries to food self-sufficiency.
Nation-states would have to be abolished or transformed to allow for regional planning and the use of common water sources. There will be true globalization – worldwide integration of natural and human resources in the interests of all life. Technological help, capital, and training will help the countries of the global South leapfrog over the fossil fuel age and move directly to clean energy.” Williams also thinks that wilderness areas should be expanded and made contiguous.
Williams concludes his book by saying, “the urban and rural working classes that make today’s economy possible need to organize into a political force that can take charge of production and democratically redirect it toward the sustainable satisfaction of human need. Only by organizing and fighting for change on this class basis will the possible future become a real one.”
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