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Synthesis/Regeneration 30   (Winter 2003)

Thinking Economically

Implications of Industrial Collapse for Green Politics

by Patrick Eytchison, Redwood Coast Greens

The 21st century will be characterized above all by a global ecological crisis of production. Several interlocking factors of deterioration are involved in this but the primary will be a world depletion of fossil fuels. Inevitably, this will be a period of turmoil and trial, but it can also offer significant opportunities for the Green Movement, but only if the true nature of the crisis is understood.

This essay presents a bare-bones outline of the coming crisis, as well as some suggestions for changes in Green strategy adaptive to the new reality. A brief capitulation of the US Green movement’s 18-year past will be a logical bridge to a discussion of what is coming and how we as Greens should proceed.

The period from 1984 to the Gathering of 1991 at Elkins was characterized by attempts to find a political direction. Deep Ecology and Bioregionalism were cast aside, and the period ended as a standoff between rightwing electoralism and a left/movement faction. From Elkins to Carbondale (1991–2001) found The Greens/Green Party USA (the continuation of the actual Green Movement during those years) following a fairly traditional left activist path. Over a decade, of course, many Party members found this route too steep and attempted to capitulate the Party to the outside electoral faction. In 2001, Carbondale represented a victory over this effort.

The present moment is a key turning point for a party such as the Greens/Green Party USA, whose goal is more than a reform of the present system. Insight towards a productive new path, however, will only come through an understanding that the present ecological crisis is at its core a crisis of production, and that this is, in fact, the key issue for politics today and into the future.

Regardless of growing and innumerable social and economic contradictions, the major contradiction of world production today is an irreversible exhaustion of the basic resources needed to support an affluence-directed world system. These fundamental resources include water, soil, minerals, as well as adequate waste disposal reservoirs. Among these, however, predominant is an impending irreversible depletion of economically recoverable petroleum, the essential energy source for modern world production as well as the raw ingredient for many Affluent Age products. Finally, the energy food which has allowed world population to grow from 1 billion to over 6 billion in approximately a century. In this context, there is now a growing consensus that the Earth’s original “ultimate recoverable reserve” of oil was between 1,800 and 2,000 billion barrels of oil, and that approximately half of that has now been used.

Whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or whatever, all of these green technologies are also simply new material modes for labor exploitation.

There is a vast literature on this so-called “Oil Peak” issue but in summary about the only body of opposition to the Peak theory is from the American Petroleum Institute and the US Geological Survey, both institutions with obvious political bias. [1] Supporting facts to the thesis are that new finds peaked in the 1960s and have been declining since, and that modern petroleum exploration technology assures us that there are no significant, undiscovered oil pools lurking about anywhere under the Earth’s surface. Basically, we know what is available and that, given our industrial system and its needs, it will be an ever diminishing reserve. What does this mean?

Since the fate of both modern industry and the world’s human population rests ultimately on petroleum energy, what awaits us over the coming century is a disintegration of the present industrial system and a die-off perhaps equivalent to the Black Death of Europe’s 14th century, but on a global scale. This may sound grim but it should be kept in mind that it was the 14th century plague deaths in Europe that brought about the restructuring of social/labor dynamics that was in part responsible for the rise of pre-industrial capitalism. It is certainly possible that the social and economic democracy for which the left has been struggling for the past 200 years may only be possible through such a catastrophic ecological crisis. This can never happen spontaneously, but only with human initiative.

In his last published work, Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, Rudolf Bahro, anticipating a world crisis on the scale indicated above, called for a “Salvation Council,” an elite ecological-spiritual leadership which would guide world governments through a period of biospheric breakdown. This notion has, obviously, all of Bahro’s well-known faults but it does possess two profound merits:

1. Open recognition of the crisis in its full force; and,

2. Recognition of the need for some guiding political instrument during the crisis.

No one else has had the nerve to say these things as directly as Bahro did, bringing the issues to center stage for open discussion and debate. This is a considerable gift Bahro left a movement he helped found. After all, during an extended social catastrophe, individuals and families caught up in it typically do not experience crisis as crisis. Rather, it becomes everyday life, to be dealt with as best one can. But this is the lack of a broader awareness that leaves the masses vulnerable, an exploitable labor resource regardless how bad material conditions become. This vulnerability of the people at large is only countered by the existence of a radical party around which suffering can rally. This is a fundamental organizing fact that should be recognized.

The Greens can…become the guiding council Bahro called for; not, however, as a spiritual elite but as a tough, democratic, radical party…

Of course, the point I am leading to is that the Greens can, if we have the political skill and courage, become the guiding council Bahro called for; not, however, as a spiritual elite, but as a tough, democratic, radical party ready to articulate the disaster and offer leadership through it. This would mean a Party that plans, strategically and tactically, not year by year, or even by decades, but for a century. More specifically, much of this planning would necessarily center on what Immanuel Wallerstein has recently spoken of as “defensive politics:” fighting as best one can to limit economic, environmental, and governmental abuses which will necessarily intensify as the world crisis advances. Also, however, such a guiding Party would provide leadership in organizing for the future. a point of opportunity as a certain bottom is reached.

Finally, one word of warning: We must be wary of accepting sustainability as a substitute for real Green leadership. During an actual collapse, there can be no real sustainable mode of production. What there will be, and necessarily so in the view of the powers that be, are various temporary new forms of technological exploitation which “ratchet down” the slide. Already, major corporations such as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell are moving aggressively into the “renewable energy” field.

Whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or whatever, all of these green technologies are also simply new material modes for labor exploitation. Since all of the new alternate energy systems are either “environmental sinks” (i.e., they require more energy input than their output), or are much smaller in total output than petroleum, or are highly polluting as in the cases of nuclear power and coal, the overall effect of their implementation will not be a “Green Age,” but a spread of mass poverty and an intensification of labor exploitation.

Renewable energy has been a keystone of the Green program from the beginning. A question which has hardly been explored, however, is that of the relationship between labor and mass affluence and a mass transition to renewable energy sources. As Leslie White pointed out decades ago, the overall affluence of any society is determined by per capita energy use. The affluence of the modern age, particularly since World War II and in the West, has been largely a result of the massive input of fossil fuel energy into production. Maintenance of 20th century affluence without fossil fuels will depend entirely upon the availability of alternative energy in sufficient amounts. So far, no substitute or combination of substitutes able to do this has been found. The affluence-generating and labor-saving power of fossil fuels derives from their concentrated nature. Renewables, such as solar and wind power, represent the collection of dispersed rather than concentrated energy.

Any mass shift from reliance on concentrated to dispersed energy must imply an increase in per capita labor or a drop in material well-being.

Although a full argument backing the statement is more lengthy than I can go into here, I would hold that any mass shift from reliance on concentrated to dispersed energy must imply an increase in per capita labor or a drop in material well-being. The only alternative to this dilemma that has been suggested is a drastic reduction in world population, thereby decreasing overall energy need by a truly significant global figure. [2] Greens, however, tend to be reticent on this point. It is important that a Green party not fall into a trap of false greenness that is not honest about these difficult issues; that is essentially a co-optation to ruling elites. [3]

In summary, a crisis mission has been presented by history and its ecology. The party with the will to take up this mission will be the Green Party of the future.


1. A classic example of USGS exaggeration is the "vast Caspian Sea oil reserve" myth. Some years ago the USGS floated a figure of 200 billion barrels for Caspian Sea oil which became stuck in the press as a geological reality; the estimate was totally false. Soon after the 200 billion figure, the estimate was trimmed to 115 billion and then, by oil companies, to 70 or 50 billion. In April 2002, however, a more accurate report given at the Eurasian Economic Summit, by Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, Chairman of Italy’s Eni oil company, put the figure at a mere 7.8 billion barrels. Probably the reality.

2. David Pimentel has estimated that the optimal number for sustaining a world population at present US standards is 2 billion. See: Will Limits of the Earth’s Resources Control Human Numbers? in first issue of the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1999.

3. One example of the incredible obfuscation being put out around so-called sustainability: recently Phil Watts, Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, gave a speech under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program on the "End of the Hydrocarbon Age" in which Watts pledged $500 million to $1 billion over the next five years for development of solar and wind power and evolution to a "hydrogen economy." Hydrogen, however, is not a primary energy source (like petroleum) but can only be obtained by applying another energy source in its production, usually by the electrolysis of water. Fuel cells also are not an energy source but simply energy carriers like the gas tanks of cars. Furthermore, putting the infrastructure of a global hydrogen economy in place would be tremendously complex, enormously costly and a very long-term project.


Rudolf Bahro, Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation, Gateway Books, Bath, England; 1994.

A. A. Bartlett, Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment, Population and Environment, v.16, n.9, pp. 5–35, 1994.

C. J. Campbell, The Coming Oil Crisis. Multi-Science Publishing Company & Petroconsultants, S.A., Essex, England, 1997.

J. E. Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, W.W. Norton, N.Y., 1995.

Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, Princeton Univ. Press, 2001.

Richard Duncan, "Running on Empty" (http://www.runningonempty/oilcrash.htm).

Richard Duncan, "Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Age" (http://dieoff.org/page125.htm)

Stephen K. Sanderson, Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development, Blackwell Publishers Inc., Cambridge, Mass., 1995

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988.

F. E. Trainer, Can Renewable Energy Sources Sustain Affluent Society? Energy Policy, v.23, n.12, pp. 1009–1026, 1995.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Left Politics in an Age of Transition, Monthly Review, January 2002, pp. 17–29.

Leslie A. White, The Evolution of Culture, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1959.

Walter Youngquist, The Post-Petroleum Paradigm—and Population, Population and Environment, v. 20, n.4, pp.297–315, 1999.

Walter Youngquist, Alternative Energy Sources, (http://www.hubbertpeak.com/youngquist/altenergy.htm)

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