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Capital Blight - Green Illusions or Malthusian Miasma?

By Steve Ongerth - April 17, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent item on truth-out.org, published on April 8, 2013, features an interview by Steve Horn of Ozzie Zehner, author of the book Green Illusions: the Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism . Titled, “Power Shift Away from Green Illusions” the interview would have been more appropriately named, “Deep Dive into a Vat of Malthusian Miasma.”

The interviewee, author Ozzie Zehner, argues that the public is being offered a false choice between fossil fuel based civilization and a renewable energy / clean tech based alternative, and that “most environmentalists” have “jumped on board the bandwagon”.

In Zehner’s mind these are not choices at all but, in fact, the same choice, because renewable energy technology production, usage, and maintenance cannot exist without fossil fuels coexisting alongside of it throughout its usage cycle, from manufacturing, to deployment, to maintenance, and so forth.

“There’s no such thing as clean energy, but there’s such a thing as less energy,” he says. “There’s a misconception that once alternative energy technologies are off the ground they can fly on their own. But alternative energy technologies are better understood as a product of fossil fuels,” he continues, also declaring, “Our planet has bounded resources and limited capacity to absorb the impacts of human activities.” Zehner goes on to dismiss electric cars as being no better than conventional fossil fuel vehicle, asserting that electric cars “merely create a different set of side effects (than their fossil fuel counterparts). It’s just that those side effects didn’t come out of a tail pipe, where we are accustomed to looking for them." He finishes up by opining that, “Mainstream environmental groups seem transfixed by technological gadgetry and have succumbed to magical thinking about their pet fetishes.”

These arguments are hardly fresh or groundbreaking. They are, in fact, essentially the same that were made by Richard Heinberg in The Party’s Over: Oil, Water, and the Fate of Industrial Society, in 2003, by William R Catton Jr. in Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, in 1973, and by Paul Erlich in The Population Bomb, in 1968, and Zehner expressly considers Heinberg and Erlich his compatriots (though he doesn’t mention Catton).

In their minds, the source of industrial pollution (and just about all of society’s ills for that matter) can be traced to an excess of human population, which is itself the result of fossil fuel based technology which enables a false increase in the survivability of human beings that would otherwise not be possible in nature. This core assumption (of nature as a rather harsh and unforgiving mistress) itself is a rather twisted reinterpretation of the ideas of reactionary cleric Thomas Malthus.

Malthus is most famous for his essay On Population which essentially argues that human population expands until the available sources of food is scarce enough to induce starvation among its poorest and/or weakest members. Early naturalists, including Charles Darwin expanded this line of reasoning to other species, and it has long been assumed to be an ecological maxim, but in fact, this is not true.

Malthus was not an environmentalist, and were he alive today, he would have likely been vehemently hostile to most environmentalists, primarily because of the latter’s tendency towards antiestablishment beliefs. Malthus was a defender of the status quo, a deeply religious Anglican cleric, whose treatise had been written as a rebuttal to the ideas advocated by William Godwin, the “father” of modern anarchism. Godwin had married the radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and their daughter, Mary Shelley wrote the original poem that became the story of Frankenstein, an allegory for class struggle based environmentalism if there ever was one.

Such ideas were an anathema to Malthus who defended class stratification as “God’s will” for punishing sin--though he never offered any coherent analysis on how the rich were somehow able to avoid it. If anything, Malthus was as antithetical to environmentalism as one could get, and Shelley much closer to it. Many an environmentalist invokes Frankenstein as a metaphor for the industrial technocracy they so vehemently oppose never grasping the sheer irony in doing so!

As one would expect from those who find affinity with Malthus, none of these individuals analyze the effects that capitalism has on energy use or resource consumption. Instead, they take the combined energy usage of each nation, whole blocks of nations, or humanity as a whole and divide that use per capita. No accounting is given for the fact that multinational corporations are treated as individuals and counted as part of the whole. If the amount of energy used by corporations were factored out of the equations, the median energy usage would drop precipitously, even in the United States, where the average citizen is said to be gorging on an energy overdose.

Zehner and his ilk would likely counter this point by asserting that corporations (like states) are merely amalgamations of humans, and therefore it is pointless to raise this argument, but in fact, that is a wrongheaded notion.

Corporations are organized on the capitalist economic model, in which wealth and resources are concentrated into the hands of an elite few, and the costs--including the pollution and waste--are outsourced to the workers (who produce the wealth), general public, and the environment. Under such a system, the capitalists seek to maximize profit and short term gain while minimizing the costs to themselves. Under such a system, there are few incentives for the capitalists to conserve resources, because doing so doesn’t benefit their bottom line (and if they are forced to do so as a result of public pressure, they will always try to outsource the costs of doing that). Therefore, under capitalism, all industrial processes will inevitably follow a capitalist model, including the production of clean(er) technology and the generation of clean(er) energy. What isolated exceptions to the rule exist are examples of “niche” markets and those are under constant pressure to conform to the norm in order to compete. It’s no wonder that wastefulness seems to be second nature to the common person; their minds have been thoroughly colonized by the capitalist mindset.

Further, Zehner and his ilk make it sound as though the vast majority of humans in the so-called “industrialized” world are on an energy and resources consuming binge, one that those merely struggling to survive in the so-called “developing” world would gladly join given the chance. In reality this description is highly misleading and elitist (not to mention, to some degree, racist). Most people, including most “first worlders” are just trying to survive, let alone flourish, and few—if any—of them would describe their day-to-day experience as anything resembling “a party” as does Heinberg.

Perhaps Zehner and his comrades actually believe the tired old rhetoric about capitalism being a manifestation of a “free market” (it is actually nothing of the sort). In their view, perhaps, the capitalists merely make decisions based on the choices of the consumers. In reality, the opposite is usually true. The consumers’ choices are generally limited by the decisions already made by the capitalists, often with the assistance of a great deal of state intervention on their behalf.

Perhaps Zehner and his compatriots actually believe that consumers are free to make informed choices about products that are the least energy intensive, or better yet, can easily choose to abstain from purchasing any products at all, but don’t because they are greedy, or at best, misguided. If only it were that simple. Under capitalism, the consumers don’t, in reality, enjoy that level of power and rarely are they thoroughly informed about the choices available to them (think, for example, about how much information is kept private under the cloak of “intellectual property”). In reality, the capitalists have created a vast propaganda system to dumb down most consumers and create the illusion of choice, all for the sake of maximizing profit. (Isn’t that essentially what Zehner is suggesting with regards to renewable energy?)

“The consumers” didn’t ever elect to create an autocentric culture at the exclusion of mass transit and smart development. Numerous studies show that this was the result of private, centralized, capitalist planning with the aid of a compliant state, far more isolated from the public than any Stalinist caricature of “communism” ever was. In the industrialized world, people purchase cars because they’re given few if any alternatives to doing so, in order to sell the labor and survive, And naturally, the capitalists have carefully crafted the autocentric culture of the automobile (largely through advertising and the marketing of various entertainment spectacles) that glorify the car to the point of it being an extension of the person to cement the idea in the public’s mind.

To be sure, there are some points offered by Zehner and his like-minded fellow travelers that have merit, such as reducing the overall usage of energy by humans as a whole, but implicit in their argument is an increase in austerity (which they refer to as “simpler living”). In reality there are a substantial amount of energy and resource usage reductions that can be achieved through the abolition of capitalism, including: replacing production for profit (which would greatly reduce needless surpluses, planned obsolescence, and the huge advertising effort to create the artificial need for such useless things) with production for need; reduction in long distance transport of resources and products in favor of locally produced goods in most instances; favoring the production of things that endure as opposed to wear out—thus reducing the need for their constant replacement; and the elimination of warfare (largely inherent in capitalism). Surprisingly, Zehner offers no specific suggestions on how to reduce energy usage or resources in his interview, other than the vague suggestion that we all “use less”.

Likewise, it is quite sensible to advocate a reduction in the human population (as long as it is done through the process of voluntary, collective attrition, i.e. the reduction in childbirths to the point where natural mortality outpaces the birthrate), but Zehner offers no specifics on exactly how a reduction in the population is to be achieved, nor does he specify just how much of a reduction is necessary. If one takes a cue from other Malthusians who have adopted the mantle of radical environmentalism, such as Dave Foreman, Ed Abbey, and Christopher Manes, this is to be achieved through the denial of resources, including food and medicines to starving people so that they die from famine and pestilence, thus allowing nature to “seek its balance”. More extreme measures along such lines include the forced sterilization of people (usually reserved for people of color); or even genocide. Nobody is suggesting that Zehner or his fellows advocate this. No doubt they do not. But, just as Communism was perverted into a totalitarian dystopian nightmare, well-meaning primitivist ideals can likewise be perverted if not carefully or specifically mapped out.

Further, study after study shows that the way to reduce the growth of the human population is to reduce poverty and famine, not maintain it or increase it, and the comparative birth rates in nations with an abundance of food and wealth contrasted by that of those in starving nations supports that conclusion, thus contradicting Malthus. Granted, the “starving” nations are only starving in the sense that the ruling classes in each of them effectively denies wealth to its own working classes and outsources what it doesn’t horde for itself to the capitalist class in the wealthiest nations, and so the notion of “wealthy” and “poor” nations is a bit of a misnomer, but the essential idea is sound. In any case, the solution to the problem is not increased austerity, but in fact the abolition of it. The abolition of austerity is not the same thing as engaging in a resource and energy consumption binge. Far from it. There is very likely a happy medium between the two extremes, and if achieved, it would—most studies show—greatly reduce the rate of population growth, and in some cases—as is already happening in many European nations—reverse it!

When one strips away the veneer and deconstructs Zehner’s and his compatriots’ arguments, it’s not hard to see that they’re based largely on pseudoscience, and such shallow thinking pervades every one of his arguments, including his arguments against renewable energy. “We (de growth advocates) do not have all the answers,” he says. Indeed, they have very few of them, and what few they offer are generally quite wrong. It would require a multi volume book to debunk each and every one of them thoroughly, so in the interest of brevity, here are just a few:

Claim #1 – Environmentalists are making false promises about renewable energy and it’s not really clean.

Reality: nobody is arguing that renewable energy is entirely clean or free of the need for at least some fossil fuel energy embodied within it. In fact, many environmentalists and many renewable energy industry experts are critical of these shortcomings and are working very hard to correct (or at least minimize) the negative aspects. Zehner and his ilk go to the opposite extreme, claiming that there is no significant difference, when factoring in production, embodied energy, transport, and lifespan of the product. This is nonsense. There are absolutely no peer reviewed studies that support such conclusions. While it is true that there are shortcomings that so exist at all stages of the production and deployment cycle as Zehner says, there is no reason to believe that these are static or worsening. If anything the opposite is true as new technologies are developed and refined. Much of the short comings are a result of the technology being new, and those will be eliminated over time, while the remainder are largely a result of capitalist inefficiency.

If anything, Renewables are becoming an increasingly viable alternative to conventional energy sources, according to four recent articles:

Claim #2 – Environmentalists have jumped on a bandwagon.

Reality: This is patently false. “Renewable Energy” is a term that has been bandied about and perverted to include all sorts of hardly renewable (or clean) forms of energy (largely by the capitalists who desire to maintain a status quo of centralized energy distribution which is easier to hoard than decentralized renewable, such as rooftop solar), including large-scale hydro power, biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear fission, natural gas, and gasified (so-called “clean”) coal. Environmentalists (as well as many genuine renewable energy advocates) have been extremely critical of this capitalist greenwash. Environmentalists have also been quick to point out the shortcomings of wind and solar power, including the chemicals and energy used in the production process as well as the conversion of fragile desert ecosystems to provide land for RE farms, and the like (fortunately alternatives exist that can greatly reduce such problems). To their credit, renewable energy advocates and many industry experts have listened to such concerns and have taken steps to address the problem, or, failing that, have bowed to public pressure, and better, more efficient, even cleaner technology and production practices continue to result.

Claim #3 – Electric cars are a false hope.

Reality: That claim is only true if one assumes that advocates of the electric car envision a simplistic one-to-one substitution of every existing internal combustion automobile with an electric one. In reality, few—if any—advocates are calling for that. Most sensible champions of the electric car envision its use in conjunction with greatly increased public transit as well as much smarter, pedestrian oriented, urban development so that the need or desire for cars is greatly reduced. Likewise, many environmentalists insist that the electric car (or, for that matter, electrified railways) only be adopted if the source of the electricity reduces the world’s overall carbon footprint. Zehner does not acknowledge that nor does he even mention public transit.

Claim #4 – Renewable energy (namely solar and wind) is impractical because the wind and the sun are intermittent, their peak production doesn’t coincide with peak consumer demand—thus requiring fossil fuel generation to back it up, and storage capacity is limited.

Reality – These interrelated claims are utterly false. In fact, they have made similar claims for years (in spite of vast improvements in the technology). In truth, all of these problems are easily solvable, if one dispels the illusion under which Zehner and his ilk seem to be laboring: In a renewable energy world, we’re not all going to be isolated producers living off of the grid; if anything, the grid will be more crucial than ever!

These false claims have been disputed for years, and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) has a good summary that debunks Zehner’s false claims here: [link], however, in the interest of sharing information, here are some highlights:

Most renewable energy generation, even distributed generation (meaning local wind turbines and rooftop solar) is now grid tied, and that proportion is only likely to increase over time. True, intermittency exists, but it doesn’t exist everywhere at the same time. Sometimes wind and solar peak at the same time; sometimes not. Sometimes one peaks in one place in the world while it troughs in another. The larger the grid, the more robust and viable the supply of energy.

Also, Zehner’s arguments seem to imply that those backup fossil fuel plants don’t currently exist. In fact, they do, for the purposes of backing up existing fossil fuel energy generation plants when their demand is exceeded, which it often is. Far from requiring additional “peaker” plants to be added to the grid, the addition of renewable energy sources actually lessens the need for such plants!

As for the problem of storage, there are many technologies, including many low level types that can address that problem, from compressed air, to flywheels, to batteries, capacitors, to hydrogen fuel cells. In fact, the more easily deployable such technologies are the lower tech examples, and aren’t those what Zehner and his friends favor? And Zehner and his fellow naysayers, in their zeal to condemn the electric car overlook one huge advantage to its replacing fossil fuel vehicles: the electric car can be used as a storage battery and even as means of transmission of the excess energy generated by renewable energy peaks and demand is lower! In other words, the electric car solves several of the problems raised by Zehner & co at once!

Finally, because of the intermittency of wind, solar, (as well as tidal and other) forms of energy, end users will want to reduce their potential loads on the system to minimize or eliminate demand exceeding available supply, (as well as reduce the installed capacity, hence cost, of their local systems) thus making conservation not only far more desirable, but second nature. Zehner doesn’t acknowledge that either!

Claim #5 – The cost of a wind turbine is more expensive than it was a decade ago.

Reality – Zehner offers no specifics to back up this claim, but it is known that at the turn of the 21st Century, the largest wind turbines had a generation capacity of about 1 MW at the high end. Now the high end is approaching 5 MW, a 500% increase in generation capacity. It is doubtful that the price per turbine increased 500% as well.

If anything, the cost of wind turbines is decreasing. In an article by Jay Warmke [link] the cost of wind turbines has actually lessened by 30% since 2008. Therefore, Zehner is either ignorant or he is lying.

Claim #6 – Even with massive subsidies we see (renewable energy equipment) firms going bankrupt trying to sell (the equipment).

Reality – To exactly what “massive” subsidies does Zehner and his fellows refer? The pittance offered by the US Government for renewable (five times less than that offered to fossil fuel and nuclear energy as well as the built in subsidies favoring the status quo) would hardly be described by renewable energy advocates and most environmentalists as anything even remotely approaching “massive”. Furthermore, the volatility currently being experienced by many of these firms is exactly what one would expect to find in a new industry given the typical chaos of the capitalist market. The same sort of conditions plagued the coal and fossil fuel industries in their infancy, and there is no reason to expect that (under capitalism at least) conditions for renewable would be any different. If anything, renewables have held up remarkably well in spite of the absence of state protectionism that was historically offered to coal, oil, and nuclear and is still enjoyed by them today!

Claim #7 – There is no such thing as clean energy, but there is such a thing as less energy.

Reality: This assertion is not only naïve, it is highly irresponsible. The vast majority of human civilization cannot simply walk away from its current use of fossil fuel energy or even renewable energy (somewhat currently) dependent upon fossil fuels, and even if it could, it is not likely to do so. Further, society cannot be changed through individualistic choices. Collective, organized action is needed (or else it would be the equivalent of 1000000 monkeys randomly producing Shakespeare’s Sonnets). Less energy usage is ideal, of course, but how is that to be otherwise achieved without organized collective action? And if there must be a bridge to less, should it not be the cleanest alternative(s) available? Doing nothing ensures the status quo. In all likelihood, Zehner’s advocacy of doing nothing, or “using less” will actually result in more fossil fuel consumption, because the capitalist class will continue to push for growth for growth sake and the absence of an organized, oppositional movement will allow that to happen by default.

Finally, Zehner’s consignment of all of those who don’t ascribe to the primitivist, Malthusian dogma espoused by him and his fellows as “productivists,” meaning that all of the rest of us ascribe to the ideology of “growth for growth sake” (what Earth First! inspiring author Ed Abbey once called, “the ideology of a cancer cell). While it’s true that most ideologies and economic theories, including those on the left once held this view for the most part, most anti-capitalists today do not. It is just as wrong to assume that those that are not “de growth” advocates as “productivists” as it is to assume that all anti-capitalists are under the influence of Stalin. In fact, most Marxists and anarchists are harshly critical of “productivism” and instead envision the type of ecological socialism envisioned by Judi Bari in her seminal text, Revolutionary Ecology.

However, for Zehner and his ilk to dismiss that is not surprising, because when one really gets to the heart of the matter, he and his fellows are not environmentalists, but rather they are enviro-fundamentalists, and the transformative movement they seek isn’t a revolutionary one, but in fact a reactionary one. They are part of a tiny, but vocal green Taliban that simply does not like technology, even clean technology, and they will cherry pick facts (and not very good ones) to advance their primitivist, brutalist ideology. If you are not 100% for their way of thinking, you are against them. Where have we heard such rhetoric before?

Like the proverbial “Chicken Little”, they keep claiming that “THE SKY IS FALLING!” They did so when the Ozone Layer was being destroyed by CFCs and HCFC, a process that has been reversed by the phasing out of those chemicals. They likewise proclaimed that “Peak Oil” was imminent, and that industrial collapse was at hand shortly after 9/11. It turns out that the spikes in gasoline prices had much more to do with market manipulations by the capitalists than anything else. Granted, “Peak Oil” is still a possibility, but it’s nowhere near as serious as Richard Heinberg said it was. Now Zehner is trying to argue that wind and solar will actually make global warming worse. This is getting old, and it has no positive value, other than to force those of us who advocate the implementation of renewable energy technology to bolster our arguments carefully.

No doubt Zehner is motivated by the burgeoning anti-fracking, climate action movement that is literally exploding on the scene in opposition to the disastrous Keystone XL Pipeline. Like so many other campaigns before it, such wide and diverse movements always attract their share of kooks who swoop in like so many vultures, looking to scavenge what they can. So far, it looks as though they are little more than a fringe (except that Truth Out—who is normally more enlightened than this—chose to give Zehner attention that he really doesn’t deserve). Should Zehner and his ilk succeed, however, in turning a sizable chunk of this new movement to their cause, the results will likely be similar to those experienced by Chicken Little and his converts. Instead of the sky falling, they’ll be eaten by the fox, and it doesn’t require much effort to figure out who the oily foxes are in this case!

A good, but greatly misguided friend of mine had jumped on the bandwagon, just to cite an example close to me. His rationale for drinking Zehner’s Kool-Aid is that he is very pessimistic about the prospects of averting a climate change disaster. My friend may be correct in pointing out that there may not be any hope of staving off a climate apocalypse. I hope that he is wrong (and I suspect that he hopes so too). He makes the point that many of those advocating renewable energy naively assume that the latter can replace conventional energy sources through capitalist market forces. I agree with his criticism, but it’s not renewable energy technology that is the problem, but rather capitalism. If there is wrongheaded thinking on the part of the movement growing in opposition to fossil fuel, it’s that capitalism can be reformed. That’s where the IWW can offer an alternative vision. It is for that reason that a group of us have banded together to form the One Big Union’s Environmental Unionism Caucus.

For details, visit ecology.iww.org

An injury to one is an injury to all!