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My last diary brought up the idea of global solidarity around the idea of global solidarity across classes as a necessary framework for the solution of the abrupt climate change problem.  But invariably when I write such diaries I encounter those who think a techno-fix will solve the problem of abrupt climate change by itself.  Society need not change; some new gadget will come along to solve the abrupt climate change problem, and we just need to wait until the world's nerds invent such a gadget, and all of our eco-problems will be solved.  This diary intends to examine the arguments against such an assertion.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Now, in response to my last diary, titled "To Solve The Climate Change Problem, End The Class Divide," I encountered this discussion, in which it was said:

The "economic community" only cares about making money.  So when a technology arises that can save such a massive amount, they will flock to it.

GM, Ford, Chrysler, Benz, Nissan, Renault, VW, Toyota, will all have pure electronic or plug-in hybrids for sale within 18 months.

They are proving that chapter's concept wrong.

The concept being challenged here was a concept elaborated in Chapter 6 of Meadows, Meadows, and Randers' Beyond The Limits (sorry I didn't clear it up in the discussion thread!), in which 'twas actually said:

Market signals such as oil price are too noisy, too delayed, too amplified by speculation, and too manipulated by private and public interest groups to give the world clear signals about oncoming physical limits.  The market is blind to the long term and pays no attention to ultimate sources and sinks, until they are nearly exhausted, when it is too late to act.  Economic signals and technological responses can evoke powerful responses, as the oil price example illustrates, but they simply are not connected to the earth system in the right places to give useful information about limits.  (p. 184)

So in my last diary's comments section we could read that the big car companies will "all have pure electronic or plug-in hybrids for sale within 18 months."  Does that show that market signals will save us from peak oil and abrupt climate change?  Will market signals save us from the ecological depredations of technological society?

The corporations assume, as a matter of course, that the answer to this question is "yes."  But to what are they really responding?  Are they responding to the increasing transformation of the Earth's climate system by vastly increased amounts of atmospheric CO2?  Are they responding to Earth's declining endowment of fossil fuel reserves?  Not likely.  What about the fiduciary duty of managers to stockholders to make the corporations turn a profit?  That's something we should expect.  Increasing ecological consciousness among wealthier consumers (i.e. those who can actually afford a new vehicle, which means definitely not me) has created a demand for electric vehicles.  Is the market for fossil-fuel burners going to disappear merely because the car makers are putting out electric vehicles?  I don't think so.

At any rate, I'd like to say a few more things here to challenge the idea that technology will save us all and so we don't have to change society to deal with abrupt climate change.


Jevons' Paradox is a concept of the 19th-century economist William Stanley Jevons, who argued that an increased efficiency in coal use would merely increase overall use of coal, because increases in the efficiency of energy use are typically accompanied by an increased scale of energy utility.  The "savings" made possible by increased energy efficiency, then, merely make more energy-consuming activity possible.  The Treehugger article on Jevons' Paradox illustrates this:

   * Because of improvements in refrigerator efficiency, consumers can afford more and larger refrigerators.
   * Because of improvements in vehicle efficiency, car owners can afford to drive more miles per year.
   * Because of improvements in airtightness, window performance, and insulation techniques, homeowners can afford to build larger houses.
   * Savings resulting from energy-efficiency improvements -- or even savings resulting from giving up meat in one's diet -- allow consumers to take more vacations, resulting in greater energy use.

The fundamental problem Jevons' Paradox creates for conservationists is given in this piece in The Oil Drum.  Increased energy efficiency results in money savings, which will then be plowed into increased energy use.  Increased energy efficiency, then, makes it more, and not less, possible for people to adhere to the energy-intensive lifestyles common to well-off people in the "developed" nations.  Given that the bottom half of humanity lives off of less than $2.50/day, there are still a good number of people out there who can be moved into those energy-intensive lifestyles.

At any rate, the question posed by Jevons' Paradox to the whole of the capitalist system is examined in an old piece by John Bellamy Foster, "Capitalism's Environmental Crisis: Is Technology The Answer?"  As Foster pointed out back in 2000, the dynamic of Jevons' Paradox is illustrated by the same electric cars which will be coming out with such fanfare (see above) in 2010:

The capitalist class is divided when it comes to reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions to slow down the rate of global warming. A significant part of the ruling class in the United States is willing to contemplate more efficient technology, not so much through a greatly expanded system of public transport, but rather through cars with greater gas mileage or perhaps even a shift to cars using more benign forms of energy. Efficiency in the use of energy, as long as it does not change the basic structure of production, is generally acceptable to capital as something that would ultimately spur production and increase the scale of accumulation (leading to the Jevons Paradox).

The problem with greater energy conservation as a "solution" to problems like abrupt climate change, then, is that a capitalist economy is addicted to growth, and that growth means more energy consumption, which means more energy production, which (ultimately) means more fossil fuel production.

But won't "alternative energy" make it possible for the capitalist economy to get out of the fossil-fuel consumption business?  Well, yes, but it's easy to see from here that the capitalists will not want to do such a thing with their "alternative energy" tools.  First off, as long as fossil energy consumption is an option, its consumers will want to use it.  The whole infrastructure militates toward this; if you put out a line of new, super-green cars, those with money will want to use them, whereas those without such money will still rely upon the old, fossil-burning cars.  Thus the vacuousness of "alternative energy" solutions to "global warming": "alternative energy" will merely serve as a supplement to fossil energy, and the only way in which it would not do so is if an "alternative energy" source were to be discovered which was so plentiful and cheap so as to render fossil energy economically superfluous.  So far nothing of the sort has happened, with no real progress in that direction to be seen on any horizon.

Before you all start throwing innovations at me, let's take a look at what real-life criteria we'd have to meet if we were in fact to find an "alternative energy" source which would make fossil energy superfluous:

  1. Our source would have to produce an awful lot of energy, for starters.  World society burns 85 million barrels of oil each and every day, and a more-or-less equal carbon equivalent in coal.  Oil and coal combined, moreover, only accounted for maybe 71% of total industrial carbon emissions.  Cheap energy has made it possible to create a world-society which requires enormous quantities of energy.  If we wish to duplicate that society, we will need an energy source to duplicate its energy "needs."
  1. It would have to absorb the costs of getting rid of the old infrastructure.  Let's say you want to bring out a new car which uses much less fossil energy.  You want everyone to drive this car, so that we can all stop using so much gasoline.  What are you going to do with all of the old cars?  They won't fit in the world's junkyards; there are just too many of them.  You will have to recycle them all in short order to save space.  Who's going to pay for that?  If we wish to duplicate the old society while giving it a makeover, we have to find someone to pay for the makeover.  (Government?  Government is too busy paying for the military-industrial complex.)
  1. It would have to get proponents of the old, fossil energies to voluntarily give up the profits they currently make on their poisonous stuff.  Corporations make profits as a duty -- coal-mining corporations make profits off of coal-mining as a duty.  How are you going to get them to stop doing that?  (And how are you going to get them out of your government?)

This is not to say that "alternative energy" is not a good thing to explore -- indeed it is.  The issue being examined here, however, is one of whether "alternative energy" is being pursued as a supplement to fossil energy, or as a replacement for said energy.  If we want to see some kind of techno-fix to solve our abrupt climate change problem by itself, we would want the "replacement" aspect to kick in, and we want it to do so rather quickly.  Remember, we have to find some way of getting the global atmospheric CO2 component down to 350 ppm.

If we are to rely upon the established, neoliberal capitalist system, with some techno-fix, to make all of this possible, we will have to make our techno-fix so good that it will make fossil-fuel energy use superfluous.  If it isn't cheap enough, people will still use the oil/ coal/ natural gas.  Can we do that?  I don't think so.  This, then, means that dramatic social change becomes an irreducible necessity for the movement to limit abrupt climate change.  We at the very least need what the people at are trying to do.  But, generally, we need something radical, something more.

One direction for this irreducible social change should have been obvious for readers of FishOutOfWater's diary of yesterday: more democracy, less oligarchy.  More specifically: as I suggested in my previous diary, we need to alter the oligarchy's plans to "decide to do nothing for us."

And remember this headline?  "Saudis Seek Compensation for Any Drop in Oil Revenues."  Yeah, that's right.  If we don't screw up the world by burning enough Saudi crude, the Saudis want financial compensation for our refusal to do so.  The big oil company, and oil-producing nation "producers" of fossil energy (i.e. those who sit atop its underground deposits) are (under capitalism at least) going to want to seek the full exchange value for the fossil-fuel commodity lying underneath them, and will attempt to interfere with geopolitical efforts to avoid consuming said commodity.  Does anyone here think that the rest of the world really has the willpower to tell the Saudis to get lost, while the global political and economic structures stays the same?

So, given the irreducible necessity of a social solution to abrupt climate change, what is to be done?  People have objected to my previous response with the suggestion that "ending the class divide" will take too long.  (My first response would be "so this is an excuse to do nothing?")  We may not have to produce the classless society in toto to get what we want from an initiative to resolve the social class problem.  The initial need, though, is an initiative to do just that, and thus enough to put global pressure, across social classes, upon the oligarchies in power.

Does that clear things up at all?

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:06 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Something radical, something more. (13+ / 0-)

    What's your plan?

    "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

    by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:06:50 AM PST

  •  Viruses (6+ / 0-)

    I tend to think that major pandemic is the best - yeah, best - option for the future of both the planet and for humanity, too.  A lot of suffering, I know, but I just don't see us, collectively, cleaning up our acts any time soon.

    Republicans have found a "winning" strategy for bringing the government to a screeching halt.  (No unanimous consent for anything in the Senate...)  Everything else be damned, their perpetual tantrum is a big obstacle to anything useful being done.  Then, there's the steady drip drip drip of sellout Dems acting as spanners in the works, too.

    Not very hopeful circumstances.  So, viruses are an important line of defense for Mother Nature when we're incapable of doing the correct thing in the aggregate.

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden, 8/30/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:18:07 AM PST

  •  The Copenhagen protesters may be creating a new (10+ / 0-)

    movement equating social justice with environmentalism.  I hope so.  I always enjoy reading your diaries; I never have answers, but in this case I suggest keeping an eye on what's going on over there and see if it translates into any permanent movement or flickers out next week.

  •  This is an excellent diary (7+ / 0-)

    that actually made me think (which I can assure you is rare indeed). You have made excellent points and I agree with the way you framed the argument and explained everything. You have hit exactly the correct point:

    we will have to make our techno-fix so good that it will make fossil-fuel energy use superfluous.  If it isn't cheap enough, people will still use the oil/ coal/ natural gas. Can we do that?  I don't think so.  This, then, means that dramatic social change becomes an irreducible necessity for the movement to limit abrupt climate change.

    So, what is your social solution? please do not suggest a malthusian one, it will break my heart as I think it is poverty that leads to large families, not vice versa. In my book we need a massive world wide income and wealth redistribution to actually reduce world poverty.

    No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

    by NY brit expat on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:25:45 AM PST

    •  I'm a neo-Gramscian NYbe: (7+ / 0-)

      I advocate first the "war of position" for a society which will meet basic needs while bringing the conserver society into being.

      "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:33:28 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  What a relief, this is why we find so much (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Cassiodorus, Nulwee, DBunn, thethinveil

        common purpose. Took a quick look at Trainer's table of contents, I am certain that we will agree on most things on this question. :) I'll get a copy of the book, it looks very interesting and like something I should have read a while ago but did not.

        No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

        by NY brit expat on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:48:00 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Also read the Foster link (above) (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NY brit expat, thethinveil

          You do know who John Bellamy Foster is, no?

          "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

          by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 09:07:06 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  New Urbanism and conservation society (6+ / 0-)

          sprawl has become such an essential part of life that even urban areas are influenced by the principles of sprawl. Trees in cities is a nice goal, but halfway gardens full of invasive squirrels and birds does not solve conservation problems.

          Make the cities smaller, neater, less wasteful, and create more wilderness. Not inner-city "nature band-aids" as Howard Kuntsler calls them. Turn more second-growth back into old growth. Restore farmland that's done not into corporate offices or asphalt lots, but back into that endangered prarier/grassland habitat we're missing.

          I'm not just talking about wildlife, although connecting humans to it more is an essential part of changing our culture.

          Scandinavian countries rank so low in their environmental toll because activities like cross-country skiing, hiking, canoeing are mundane, not to mention eating the nutritive food products Americans waste--liver, tripe, potatoes, cream. They don't have to make a million by-products or shovel it down the pets to put food to use.

          Also streets in older Scandinavian cities aren't designed for cars, so people don't want to drive as much in them. Even Portland, Oregon and other pedestrian cities have very low rates of car-free travel... and it's not hard to understand why. As inconvenient as downtown driving is, only a few spots in downtown areas truly elicit more desire to walk than to drive through.

          (-7.00, -6.21) Jobs, Liberty, Peace.

          by Nulwee on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 09:16:00 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  An important problem with this concept is (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Cassiodorus, DBunn

            that U.S. urban areas in general are not small and dense. Getting them to be that way, more European if you will, is neither easy nor cheap in terms of resources consumed.  Rebuilding cities in short order is extremely intense in energy and resource consumption; doing the rebuilding through normal building turnover takes many decades, on the order of a half to full century.  

            European cities are small and dense because originally they were constrained by their defensive walls, and later until around the start of the 19th century by the limits of transportation systems.  Most U.S. cities grew after that transition time, after horsecars, railroads, and streetcars were in use.

            •  No it's not cheap or easy (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Cassiodorus, DBunn, thethinveil

              But it's a profound way to change the American economy and provide construction, engineering and labor jobs.

              Throw a few billion at some strategically located cities--Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, Phoenix, Atlanta, Providence, San Diego--and you start to make a dent.

              As for American history, American cities became less dense in the 1950s. True there were no medieval walls but cities were quite dense, even with rail-car suburbs, into the 20th century.

              (-7.00, -6.21) Jobs, Liberty, Peace.

              by Nulwee on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 11:00:37 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Electric vehicles are not carbon neutral (5+ / 0-)

    if we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.  It means fewer pollutants emitted by the vehicle, but the pollutants are still emitted at the electrical generation site.  Even with clean fusion energy we would still have to face the fact that we are part of a food chain that begins with the interaction of soil, plants, and sunlight.  Climate change, soil depletion/erosion, and the loss of petroleum based fertilizers will eventually crash this system.  Diversified, local community based agriculture is really the only sustainable economic system for humanity.

    •  Right, cars should be made less convenient (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, Cassiodorus, NY brit expat

      in the sense that it's more convenient to walk or take alternative transportation. You don't have to make cars more expensive per se, though gasoline shouldn't be candy, either.

      Even the most bustling pedestrian areas today look dead compared to video footage of the same places 50 years ago. 50 years ago when there were a ton of cars and bad drivers!

      (-7.00, -6.21) Jobs, Liberty, Peace.

      by Nulwee on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 09:18:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  petroleum based fertilizers? (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cassiodorus, DBunn, C Barr, Rei, thethinveil

      I don't know of any farmers spreading petroleum hydrocarbons on their fields.

      If you mean synthetic ammonia derived fertilizers, then say so. Some 8/10 of the ammonia produced goes into fertilizers, and consumes about one percent of the global energy budget.

      From here:

      The problem is that we waste most of Haber’s fertilizer. Of 80 million tons spread onto fields in fertilizer each year, only 17 million tons gets into food. The rest goes missing. This is partly because the fertilizer is wastefully applied, and partly because the new green-revolution crops developed to grow fat on nitrogen fertilizer are also wasteful of the nutrient. The nitrogen efficiency of the world’s cereals has fallen from 80 percent in 1960 to just 30 percent today.

      so we could reduce the energy consumption of nitrogen fertilizers by perhaps 3/4, dropping its part of the global energy budget to between 1/4 and 1/2 a percent.

      That's a pretty small fraction of energy consumption. Getting rid of televisions, electronic games, home computers, and mobile phones might free up more energy than that.

      But petroleum has little to do with it. The hydrogen used in making ammonia comes from either natural gas or coal, in both cases via the water gas and water gas shift reaction; oil plays a very minor role in the production of ammonia.  And bulk ammonia and its compounds are distributed by pipeline and ocean freighter, about the most efficient way to move stuff about (tankers and freighters are several times more energy efficient than railroads).

      But synthetic ammonia is not the first nitrogen fertilizer used, mankind has needed supplemental nitrogen sources for agricultural use for centuries now. Back in the 19th century South American guano  and caliche saved European agriculture; their value was the root of several cases of military action including the War of the Pacific which changed the map of South America. Before that smaller deposits in other locations had been exploited.

      There is one sort of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that is closely coupled to petroleum consumption.  The bio-intensive organic farming of more densely populate areas today often derives a significant portion of its nitrogen from atmospheric nitrogen oxides that are byproducts of burning fossil fuels in engines and power plants.

  •  You are the first diarist I've subscribed to (5+ / 0-)

    I love technology, but I'm also perfectly aware of its dark side. Technology and science cannot be permitted to run amok. Humans are supposed to be making thoughtful decisions about our societies, but lately we seem to think that things are just going to naturally work out positively for everyone if we just let everything take its course. That's ridiculous. Powerful people are using the "free-market" meme to make sure that things work out for them and not for the rest of us. We have successfully engineered everything except for ourselves. Maybe we need more emphasis on "social engineering," which guided the original Progressives at the start of the 20th century.

    --Free thinkers shouldn't go around thinking just anything. (Terry Pratchett)

    by HPrefugee on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 08:43:01 AM PST

  •  some 'tech' fixes better than others (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    i, for one, am for localized energy production.
  •  RE Jevon's Paradox (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, wondering if
    1. There are sometimes inherent limits:
    * Because of improvements in vehicle efficiency, car owners can afford to drive more miles per year.

    If fuel efficiency doubles, will miles driven double? No, for several reasons: (1) fuel isn't only financial cost; (2) there is perhaps a limit to how much we want to and can afford to spend in the car; and (3) there are limits to how much we want to drive.

    Now, in terms of 'saved' resources going to other consumption, one of the arguments is that the 'other consumption' is heavily labor (labor to put in insulation rather than $s to burn coal).  The 'savings' has ability to enable increased consumption, but the consumption is not necessarily more polluting consumption.

    •  Here you need to calculate in -- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the increased number of people who will be doing any driving at all (because now they can afford fuel, as well as the cars which were left behind because their old drivers switched to more fuel-efficient ones -- and don't forget those who will be newly incorporated into the growth of capitalist economies).

      This may not be covered by Jevons' Paradox, but it falls under the idea that the collision between expanding capitalism and finite planetary capacity has no merely technical fix.

      "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

      by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 11:21:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Indeed. And it goes beyond that. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      The problem with Jevon's paradox is that it treats all human action as equivalent, and assumes that whenever something gets more efficient, we'll just do more of it or of something else.  Basically, it assumes that cost equals energy, or even more explicity, cost equals pollution.  But the world doesn't work that way.  It may make no price difference if I make widgets and either recycle my toxic waste or dump it into the region's groundwater, but it sure as heck make a huge difference to the environment.

      Furthermore, to be quite blunt, what the advocates of Jevon's paradox consider a travesty -- the purported consumption of additional energy to replace what is being saved -- could be more accurately described as an improvement in quality of life.  I.e., getting to drive where you want, go on more vacations, etc.  They're arguing against improving quality of life.  And even if this was a problem, this means that by legislating or otherwise taking action to keep quality of life at the same level, you would reduce energy consumption.

      •  I see. So you're in favor of -- (0+ / 0-)

        "quality of life" today, and abrupt climate change Hell tomorrow?

        The problem with Jevon's paradox is that it treats all human action as equivalent, and assumes that whenever something gets more efficient, we'll just do more of it or of something else.

        The caveat which the authors hold to Jevons' Paradox is that it is true of CAPITALIST society -- that due to capital's tendency to expand, efficiency will drive economic growth, rather than better efforts at conservation.  

        "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

        by Cassiodorus on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 04:23:45 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Not at all. (0+ / 0-)

          The argument by the supporters of Jevon's paradox -- of which I absolutely am not one -- is that any increase in efficiency will be countered by what basically is a quality of life improvement that uses more energy.  They don't call it a quality of life improvement, but that's basically what they describe.  But they're not talking about a quality of life increase that uses more energy -- they're talking about a quality of life improvement that uses the same amount of energy.

          As for me, I'm of the view that Jevon's Paradox supporters are deluding themselves, for the reasons I described previously.

    •  For a specific example... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      turn to California.  By requiring increasingly stringent efficiency standards, California has reduced their state's energy consumption, even while population continues to grow.  According to Jevon's Paradox, this is impossible.

  •  Beyond arguments regarding ... (0+ / 0-)

    ... whether the classical entrepreneurial capitalism and the corporate system we have now are fundamentally the same kind of thing or not ...

    ... lie the growth addiction. It is not economic growth sui generis that is intrinsically unsustainable, but rather incessant growth in particular that is intrinsically unsustainable.

    The only sustainable economic growth, after all, is static material consumption with the economic growth due to pure technological efficiency gains. And while that kind of growth is certainly possible, it is not the kind of growth that can be delivered year after year after year with only the occasional interruption. Rather, it would at most occur in waves, and a wave of growth would be the occasional interruption to a steady state economy.

    And, empirically, our economy is growth-addicted, so it requires the kind of extensive growth in resource use that is, intrinsically, unsustainable.

    On a side-note, many discussions of Jevons' Paradox assume that it necessarily applies to all markets, or to all energy markets, when of course in the context it was a consequence of the price sensitivity of so many poor consumers of coal, and the tendency of poor consumers of coal to not be able to afford as much heat in the winter-time as they would have preferred.

    And assuming that Jevons' Paradox necessarily applies is as ill-founded as assuming that it never applies. That is, there is normally a negative feedback from an efficiency gain due to the reduction in income required to do something, but not only is it not automatically over 100%, but it only rarely is over 100%.

    However, whether the rebound is 10% or 110%, it is an issue that is normally simply ignored by advocates of fixed-price CO2 permitting, aka "carbon tax". Under a tax-based system, any efficiency gain anywhere along the production process allows an increase in the CO2 that can be emitted without increasing the total cost of production. Only by targeting what we actually want to regulate, the total amount of CO2 production allowed, can there be a prospect of actually limiting emissions of CO2.

    The primary vested interest beneficiaries of the growth-addicted system we have will, of course, kick back against that. That's part of the process of growth addiction.

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