Visions of a globalised future with renewable energy are wholly unrealistic unless we change the economy.
Over the past two centuries, millions of dedicated people – revolutionaries, activists, politicians, and theorists – have yet to curb the disastrous and increasingly globalised trajectory of economic polarisation and ecological degradation. Perhaps because we are utterly trapped in flawed ways of thinking about technology and economy – as the current discourse on climate change shows.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions are not just generating climate change. They are giving more and more of us climate anxiety – public concern over climate change in the UK, for example, is at a record high. Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in 10 years must be half of what they were 10 years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?
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Most scientists, politicians, and business leaders tend to put their hope in technological progress. Regardless of ideology, there is a widespread expectation that new technologies will replace fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy such as solar and wind. Many also trust that there will be technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for “geoengineering” the Earth’s climate. The common denominator in these visions is the faith that we can save modern civilisation if we shift to new technologies. But “technology” is not a magic wand. It requires a lot of money, which means claims on labour and resources from other areas. We tend to forget this crucial fact.
The cost of going green
As much as 90% of world energy use comes from fossil sources. Meanwhile in 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind. So why is the long-anticipated transition to renewable energy not materialising?
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One highly contested issue is the land requirements for harnessing renewable energy. Energy experts have estimated that the “power density” – the watts of energy that can be harnessed per unit of land area – of renewable energy sources is so much lower than that of fossil fuels that to replace fossil with renewable energy would require vastly greater land areas.
In part because of this issue, visions of large-scale solar power projects have long referred to the good use to which they could put unproductive areas like the Sahara desert. But doubts about profitability have discouraged investments. A decade ago, for example, there was much talk about Desertec, a 400bn euro (£364bn) project that crumbled as the major investors pulled out, one by one.
Today the world’s largest solar energy project is Ouarzazate Solar Power Station in Morocco. It covers about 25 sq km (9.6 sq miles) and has cost around $9bn (£7.5bn) to build. It is designed to provide around a million people with electricity, which means that another 35 such projects – that is, $315bn (£262bn) of investments – would theoretically be required to cater to the population of Morocco. We tend not to see that the enormous investments of capital needed for such massive infrastructure projects represent claims on resources elsewhere – they have huge footprints beyond our field of vision.
Meanwhile, our global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise
The cheapening of solar panels in recent years is to a significant extent the result of shifting manufacture to Asia. We must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labour, scarce resources and abused landscapes elsewhere.
Also, we must consider whether renewable energy sources are really carbon free. Wind turbines and nuclear power remain critically dependent on fossil energy to produce, install and maintain. And each unit of electricity produced by non-fossil-fuel sources displaces less than 10% of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. At the current rate, the renewable power revolution is going to be very slow.
Meanwhile, our global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do our carbon emissions. Because this trend seems unstoppable, many hope to see extensive use of technologies for capturing and removing the carbon from the emissions of power plants and factories.
Of course, it is easy to retort that until the transition has been made, solar panels are going to have to be produced by burning fossil fuels. But even if 100% of our electricity were renewable, electric-powered aircraft and boats are a novelty and not capable of replacing the masses of vehicles in our global transport networks. Likewise, steel and cement production – required for many renewable technologies – are still major sources of greenhouse gases.
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Among most champions of sustainability, such as advocates of a Green New Deal, there is an unshakeable conviction that engineers can solve the problem of climate change. Central to the Green New Deal’s vision is a large-scale shift to renewable energy sources and massive investments in new infrastructure. This would enable further growth of the economy, it is argued.
The problem with global tech
The general consensus seems to be that the problem of climate change is just a question of replacing one energy technology with another. But a historical view reveals that the very idea of technology is inextricably intertwined with capital accumulation. And as such, it is not as easy to redesign as we like to think. Shifting the main energy technology is not just a matter of replacing infrastructure – it means transforming the economic world order.
The viability of the steam engine relied on the flows of human labour
The steam engine, for instance, is simply considered an ingenious invention for harnessing the chemical energy of coal. While this might be the case, the steam-driven factories in 19th-Century Manchester would never have been built without the triangular Atlantic trade in slaves, raw cotton, and cotton textiles. Steam technology was not just a matter of ingenious engineering applied to nature – like all complex technology; it was also crucially dependent on global relations of exchange.
This dependence of technology on global social relations is not just a matter of money. In quite a physical sense, the viability of the steam engine relied on the flows of human labour and other resources that had been invested in cotton fibre from South Carolina, coal from Wales and iron from Sweden. Modern technology, then, is a product of the metabolism of world society, not simply the result of uncovering “facts” of nature.
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Many believe that with the right technologies we would not have to reduce our mobility or energy consumption – and that the global economy could still grow. But is that an illusion? It suggests that we have not yet grasped what “technology” is. Electric cars and many other “green” devices may seem reassuring but are often revealed to be insidious strategies for displacing work and environmental loads beyond our horizon – to unhealthy, low-wage labour in mines in Congo and Inner Mongolia. They look sustainable and fair to their affluent users but perpetuate a myopic worldview that goes back to the invention of the steam engine.
Is our goal to overthrow “the capitalist mode of production”? If so, how do we go about doing that?
In making it possible to exchange almost anything – human time, gadgets, ecosystems, whatever – for money, people are constantly looking for the best deals, which ultimately means promoting the lowest wages and the cheapest resources in less developed nations.
Despite good intentions, it is not clear what Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the rest of the climate movement are demanding should be done. Like most of us, they want to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, but seem to believe that such an energy transition is compatible with money, globalised markets, and modern civilisation.
Redesigning the game
In order to see that “all-purpose money” is indeed a fundamental problem, we need to see that there are alternative ways of buying and selling. Like the rules in a board game, they are human constructions and can, in principle, be redesigned.
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The only way to change the game is to redesign its most basic rules. The “system” is perpetuated every time we buy our groceries, regardless of whether we are radical activists or climate change deniers. It is difficult to identify culprits if we are all players in the same game. In agreeing to the rules, we have limited our potential collective agency.
National authorities might establish a complementary currency, alongside regular money, that is distributed as a universal basic income but that can only be used to buy goods and services that are produced within a given radius from the point of purchase. This is not “local money” in the sense of the Local Exchange Trading System (Lets) or the Bristol pound. With local money you can buy goods produced on the other side of the planet, as long as you buy it in a local store, which in effect does nothing to impede the expansion of the global market. Introducing special money that can only be used to buy goods produced locally would be a genuine spanner in the wheel of globalisation.
The only way to change the game is to redesign its most basic rules
This would help decrease demand for global transport – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions – while increasing local diversity and resilience and encouraging community integration. It would no longer make low wages and lax environmental legislation competitive advantages in world trade, as is currently the case.
Re-localising the bulk of the economy in this way does not mean that communities won’t need electricity, for example, to run hospitals, computers and households. But it would dismantle most of the global, fossil-fuelled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries and other commodities around the planet.
Solar power will no doubt be a vital component of humanity’s future, but not as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. The current blind faith in technology will not save us. For the planet to stand any chance, the global economy must be redesigned. The problem is more fundamental than capitalism or the emphasis on growth: it is money itself, and how money is related to technology.
Climate change and the other horrors of the Anthropocene don’t just tell us to stop using fossil fuels – they tell us that globalisation itself is unsustainable.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.
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