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Synthesis/Regeneration 53   (Fall 2010)

Three Hands on Biodisaster Groping the Elephant

Review by Don Fitz

As corporate media rehash the same rhetoric on energy and the environment, many recent authors solidly reject conventional claptrap. But alternative perspectives can wear their own blindfolds. Some see through the hype for one type of energy while their faith in a growth economy leads them to embrace another energy form. Those with a "green" background often grasp the need for a smaller economy while believing that market forces can somehow rescue us from planetcide. Socialists understand the role of social domination, but a tradition of demanding "more" can critically interfere with their willingness to promote decreased production.

Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence," by Robert Bryce. New York: Public Affairs, 2008, 393 pp. $16.95. ISBN 978-1-58648-690-7 (pbk.)

Robert Bryce's Gusher of Lies is as important to read for its errors as for its observations. Yet his observations are fascinating. Bryce demolishes the conventional wisdom that the economy can grow while using less energy. Though Amory Lovins claimed in 1984 that energy efficiency would allow US electricity to decrease, by 2007 electricity use had grown by 66%. (p. 138)

Gusher convincingly shows a strong interconnection between energy use, labor productivity and growth in the Gross Domestic Product. These connections cannot be offset by energy efficiency. As long ago as 1867, William Stanley Jevons showed that increases in the efficiency of coal use resulted in an increase (not a decrease) in the use of coal.

Nor does Bryce swallow the myth that solar or wind power can ever amount to more than a small fraction of the energy needs of an expanding market economy. Charging that "ethanol is one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated," (p. 11) he notes that ethanol has costs that are higher, efficiency that is lower, and greenhouse gases that are worse than oil. Producing a gallon of oil requires about 2.8 gallons of fresh water, while a gallon of corn-based ethanol requires 885 gallons of fresh water (pp. 188-189), making it an ecological as well as an economic travesty.

...the entire concept of "energy independence" is pointless.

As the subtitle of Gusher indicates, the entire concept of "energy independence" is pointless. While the US imports 60% of its oil, it imports an even higher proportion of essential minerals and other raw materials. (p. 16) No modern economy can or should be "independent" of the rest of the world.

And the author sees a major problem with the US' extracting raw materials such as oil by force. Bryce despises the use of militarism and instead embraces globalism and trade. Noting that "the Second Iraq war is, largely, about controlling the flow of that country's oil" (p. 23), he derides the role of the US as international cop (p. 290), and describes the war on terrorism as more dangerous than terrorists. (p. 266)

Yet Bryce's solutions are as unworkable as the ideas he debunks. His alternative rests on two horrible premises: the US population must expand its limitless supply of junk, and this expansion requires more oil, gas and nuclear power. Very early on, Bryce decrees that "America needs energy, and lots of it." (p. 10) Later, he lets his readers know that object worship is eternal: "As people get richer, they want more stuff." (p. 133)

These "solutions" quickly become snared in a web of contradictions.

The concepts "biodiversity" and "habitat destruction" are not part of Gusher. Unprecedented species extinction is apparently a price well worth paying in order to amass trinkets. Bryce downplays the exhaustion of oil fields and claims that people "have no choice but to adapt to the changing global climate." (p. 268) Oblivious to environmental threats, he endorses offshore oil drilling.

With tunnel vision on expanding energy, Bryce touts nuclear power. He claims nukes produce less waste and are more economically viable.

These "solutions" quickly become snared in a web of contradictions. His work is devoted to attacking the pervasive belief in a need for oil independence. But he treats the desire for more stuff as a value which must be accepted, revealing his willingness to pick and choose which beliefs he is willing to confront. Bryce never gives any hint of understanding that if attitudes about the accumulation of things were to change, then production could decrease and problems of oil depletion would be resolved.

Even more disturbing is Bryce's belief that crass materialism can be amply supplied by coal, gas and nuclear power. Though he acknowledges that fossil fuels will one day be exhausted, he urges policy makers to rush to hasten the depletion.

His discussion of favored alternatives uses vastly different standards than for options he disdains. First, he correctly notes resource limitations of solar, wind and ethanol, but vastly understates limitations for gas, oil and nukes. Use of the phrase "at current rates of extraction" (pp. 211, 247) can easily lull readers into missing the fact that rates of extraction must increase with demand, hastening resource Judgment Day.

His second contradiction in standards is worker safety. When critiquing ethanol, Bryce admirably describes the horrendous effects sugarcane production has on workers. (pp. 169-170) But when trumpeting nukes, he is silent on the cancers, birth defects and immunological disorders that plague workers and residents throughout the nuclear life cycle of mining, milling, producing power and waste control of nuclear material.

Third are his double standards for environmental hazards. Bryce accurately enumerates many of the disasters with ethanol which are kept out of the corporate press. But he pretends that nukes are carbon neutral (p. 205), again by ignoring the nuclear life cycle.

Bryce bemoans the fact that wind power and ethanol could only exist with government subsidies
but then rehashes the absurd claim that nukes are cheap.

The fourth and most egregious error is financial. Bryce bemoans the fact that wind power and ethanol could only exist with government subsidies but then rehashes the absurd claim that nukes are cheap. This flight from reality omits many factors, but two are most salient.

In calculating the cost of electricity generated by nukes in Austin, Texas, Bryce conveniently leaves out the price of storing the waste for somewhere between 10,000 and 4.5 billion years (depending on whose figures you use), which, if included, would infinitely expand true cost figures. If infinity could be squared, Bryce would need to multiply that cost by insurance figures for nuclear plant and waste containment accidents.

He conveniently leaves out the fact that nukes can only exists by virtue of the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 and other legislation which limits liability for accidents. If he truly wanted full cost figures to be used for all types of energy, Bryce would demand that all offshore oil drilling and nuclear power plant companies purchase full insurance at market value for all stages of their operation without taxpayers footing any of the bill.

Bryce should know that this would mean that both would be immediately halted. Many environmentalists would rebuke Bryce's work. But they should ask if apologies for problems associated with ethanol and solar and wind power are any worse than what he overlooks in defense of nuclear power and offshore oil drilling.

The New Economics: A Bigger Picture, by David Boyle & Andrew Simms. London: Earthscan, 2009, 192 pp. $24.95. ISBN 978-1-84407-675-8 (hbk.)

Boyle and Simms fill in a good part of what Bryce leaves out. Gusher is based on the liberal corporate assumption that the emptiness which people feel in their lives can be filled by accumulating physical objects. It assumes an economics of growth without asking why we must produce more and more things when there is already an obscene glut of commodities.

In sharp contrast, The New Economics points out that economic growth has not reduced poverty or improved the quality of people's lives and that the "system has to move faster and faster just to keep still, generating new desires and unsatisfiable wants, leading to depression, disaffection and environmental degradation." (p. 11)

The authors illustrate that "growth" is often nothing more than a society running in circles with increasing frenzy. In 1900, the average speed for traveling through London was 12 mph. A century of autos, highways and pollution could only drop that speed to 11.8 mph. (p. 65) In 1495, peasants needed to work 15 weeks per year; but now, all adults in a household can work over 50 weeks per year without being able to survive. (p. 79)

A good part of the problem is that 80% of products are discarded after a single use. (p. 100) Boyle and Simms point out that reliance on money contributes to the problem, since money can be a disincentive: more people give blood from a desire to help than do those who donate for pay. They trace the original sin of growth to private banks making loans which must be paid back with interest, thereby enriching bankers and compelling economic expansion.

The New Economics searches for different ways for humans to achieve well-being through satisfaction of basic needs, local self-reliance and a realization that "money and wealth are not the same." (pp. 15, 25) Instead of mindlessly increasing production, Boyle and Simms urge an "awareness of the social, ecological and ethical implications of economic activity." (p. 25)

One of the great virtues of Boyle and Simms is their understanding of the need for programmatic changes in economic and political systems. Their work has a refreshing absence of "Ten ways of personal environmental do-goody" that pervade shallow green thinking.

The authors propose an economic model based on (1) life satisfaction, (2) personal development and (3) social well-being. (p. 42) They point to Vanuatu, a western Pacific island nation at the top of the Happy Planet Index with a high life expectancy and satisfaction but with no military. (p. 31)

However, they waffle on issues critical for moving forward. For example, they note that some authors "suggest that banks be banned from creating new money in the form of loans." (p. 90) It would have been nice for Boyle and Simms to explore ramifications of this idea instead of stepping back from it as "controversial."

Similarly, when discussing climate change, they observe that we "probably" will need a system of personal carbon rationing. Yes, but there is no "probably" about it. The authors' timidity prevents a full discussion of why only rationing can work and how to address the huge problems of implementing rationing.

Their love of markets interferes with an understanding of the central role of rationing in limiting the waste of resources which is at the heart of environmental catastrophe. Boyle and Simms admire Cuba's ability to provide for basic needs with a minimal environmental impact but show no understanding that rationing is core to the Cuban accomplishment.

The authors are also hesitant on worker's self-management. They seem to like the Mondragon collectives but then treat the dichotomy between "managers and employers" as an eternal fact of life, to be resolved by urging managers to have good "human contact." (p. 74)

They dream of a society which functions for the people, and often by the people but not by the people during their work lives. This is illustrated by their list of writers who have inspired "new economic" thought: Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin, E.F. Schumacher, William Blake, William Cobbett, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, Kropotkin, James Robertson, George McRobie, Paul Elkins and Herman Daly.

Their love of markets interferes understanding the central role of rationing
in limiting the waste of resources at the heart of environmental catastrophe.

Despite the many economic authors discussed, the name of Karl Marx never appears. Not to praise. Not to condemn. Not to synthesize with "new economic" thought. Not to acknowledge his influence on any economic theory or political movement that ever existed.

Consistently, the index of The New Economics has no listing for "trade union," "class struggle," or "workplace democracy." The only time I could find "unions" in the book was behind environmentalists, industry, and agriculture as a potential ally. (p. 157) The authors show no interest in the vast literature of working people taking control of production and managing the economy for the good of society. Their "four key" objectives for economic reorganization say nothing about democracy at work. (pp. 116-117)

Rather than pondering how victims of environmental crimes could join together to change what they produce, Boyle and Simms succumb to dead ends hyped by corporate media. These include energy efficiency and creating a demand for recycled products, both of which have been thoroughly debunked by multiple authors. (pp. 101, 103) [1]

The authors show no interest in the vast literature of working people taking control of production.

Rather than replacing corporations the authors advocate "that businesses become primarily drivers that improve the world." (p. 156) To emphasize that they have no desire to alter relationships of power, they note that many of the "demands of the new economics" are "now mainstream." (p. 152)

The New Economics is a mishmash of unconnected ideas, mostly good, some brilliant, many bad, and a few essential for progressives who ignore environmental issues. But the authors give so much weight to keeping markets functioning and so little to social struggle that the reader is left wondering if their primary goal is to preserve the environment or to preserve capitalism. This leaves the "new economics" perilously close to being the old economics with a green happy faced painted on it.

The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, by John Bellamy Foster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009, 328 pp. $17.95. ISBN 978-1-58367-179-5 (pbk.)

If Boyle and Simms claim to be economists who never heard of Karl Marx or "class struggle," these are hardly problems for John Bellamy Foster. Perhaps the crowning point of recent publications, Foster's The Ecological Revolution is based on the premise "that we have reached a turning point in the human relation to the earth." (p. 7) Openly embracing the world view of Marx, Foster connects a vast array of environmental disasters to social relationships of domination.

His admiration for pioneer environmentalists Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson is due to their understanding that issues of radiation and pesticides reflect capitalism's rush to dominate nature. Carson was one of many emphasizing how the economy "was geared toward `overproduction' at the expense of the environment." (p. 81) Mushrooming of ecological catastrophes is hardly surprising, since, "During the last half-century the world economy has grown more than sevenfold." (p. 258)

Social scientists know that a good way to increase the chances of an academic paper being published is to tack on at the end, "And this shows how Karl Marx was wrong." Borrowing a page from their witch hunt, shallow green thinkers are fond of proclaiming that Marx underestimated the role of the environment.

But Foster shows that Marx and Engels did, in fact, discuss topics as diverse "as deforestation, desertification, climate change, the elimination of deer from the forests, the commodification of species, pollution, industrial wastes, toxic contamination, recycling, the exhaustion of coal mines, disease, overpopulation, and the evolution (and co-evolution) of species." (p. 148)

Marx was...virtually alone in developing a system of thought
that had environmental consciousness at its core.

He goes much deeper, showing that Marx was, in fact, vastly different from other economists, being virtually alone in developing a system of thought that had environmental consciousness at its core.

First, Marx is well-known for denouncing the capitalist "treadmill of production" which creates an unstoppable urge to increase the mass of production.

Additionally, Marx's "second contradiction of capitalism" (p. 48) means that it is driven to destroy natural resources that make its accumulation possible.

Foster concentrates on a third concept of Marx, the "metabolic rift" which capitalism creates between human production and the natural world. Manifested in dozens of ways, one of the clearest is how capitalism vastly intensifies the tendency to take from the soil without replenishing it. The way Marx weaves environmental consciousness into economic understanding is a model for modern theorists.

Yet, despite his powerful grasp of environmental problems and his extensive knowledge of Marx, Foster remains wishy-washy on the most important pragmatic need of the 21st century. If destruction of the earth's ecosystems can be traced to massive overproduction, it should not be too hard to reach the conclusion that production must be reduced as a prerequisite for solving these problems.

The Ecological Revolution gives the essential facts:

It is not possible to decouple (separate) profits from production, meaning that to increase profits capitalism must continuously expand the mass of manufactured stuff. (p. 5)

There is a close correlation between Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and carbon emissions. (p. 246)

Decreasing CO2 emissions by more than 1% per year would make economic growth impossible (p. 60)

Yet, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by at least 60-80%. (p. 118)

Just this data shows a clear necessity to reduce the overall mass of production to keep the planet from frying. Even though he lays out all the pieces, Foster does not fit them together and directly state the need to reduce production.

In fact, he does the opposite. He dismisses as utopian the stationary state theories of John Stuart Mill and Herman Daly, because of their desire to let "the basic institutions of capitalism remain intact." Yet he offers no suggestion of how their goals could be attained in a post-capitalist society or why they should be struggled for within capitalist society. (p. 262) Similarly, he scorns "limits of growth" theory as neglecting "the political economy of environmental degradation." (p. 230)

Besides describing Rachel Carson's aversion to growth, he quotes James Gustave Speth's dictum: "growth is the enemy of [the] environment." (p. 62) and Che Guevara's saying "that the crucial issue in the building of socialism was not economic development but human development." (p. 271)

Over and over, The Ecological Revolution hints that the destructive nature of capitalism is rooted in its uncontrollable urge to increase production, a goal which is unnecessary for human well-being. What are we to make of Paul Sweezy's realization that "what is essential to success is a reversal, not merely a slowing down, of the underlying trends of the last few centuries?" (p. 34)

A reasonable person might conclude that, if expansion of production way beyond what people need is a major source of environmental destruction, then reducing production (not merely slowing down its increase) is a core component of the solution. It is not enough to hint at this because, as Foster notes, reducing production runs so counter to the dominant socialist paradigm (especially after decades of the Soviet model of expansion at all costs). Rather than hints and whispers about the need to reduce the amount of crap created, twenty-first century socialists and environmentalists should be screaming it atop every mountain.

The author tiptoes to the brink of stating that production must be reduced
and then recoils from the conclusions of his own analysis.

The Ecological Revolution does not do this. The author tiptoes to the brink of stating that production must be reduced and then recoils from the conclusions of his own analysis. This is profoundly disappointing. Foster misses the opportunity to initiate a discussion of overcoming barriers to lowering production because he does not openly advocate it.

Perhaps his unwillingness to advocate lowering production contributes to Foster's falling prey to labeling solar and wind power as "radical" rather than understanding the need to dramatically reduce the use of energy. (p. 21). This is one area where he would have done well to study demonstrations by Bryce (and many other authors) that solar and wind cannot possibly satisfy energy demands.

Ultimately, the great strength of Foster's analysis is also his weakness. He focuses on repudiating simplistic technological answers to ecological crises. Foster hammers at the need to transform social relationships with superb clarity. But it is necessary to address the material nature of production simultaneous with discussing its social nature.

.... it is necessary to address the material nature of production
simultaneous with discussing its social nature.

It is not enough to say that nuclear power manifests domineering social relationships without clearly stating the need to dismantle it.

It is not enough to explain how human exploitation formed the basis of pesticide development without stating the need to replace chemicalized agriculture with organic agriculture.

It is grossly insufficient to critique capitalism for requiring growth without clearly, unambiguously and intensely waging a battle to reduce the gargantuan mass of stuff.

For centuries, Christians have been under marching orders to be fruitful, multiply and replenish the Earth. One of my favorite bumper stickers quotes this commandment with a check mark indicating "Task Accomplished." With parallel thinking, religious "Marxists" have marched in line to the order of removing the fetters on production so the accumulation of objects can expand geometrically. Unfortunately, Foster will not check this task as "accomplished."

Ecodisaster through three eyes

Each of these works makes invaluable contributions to understanding resource and ecological crises. Though extremely different in orientation, each author is held back by the identical factor: an unwillingness to break out of the mini-culture that created the author's insight.

Bryce immediately sees through the shortsightedness of "alternative energy." But he is too embedded in the culture of consumption to understand that there is no longer any need for economic growth.

Boyle and Simms are the only authors who understand the need to clearly state the need for a downsized economy. But their reliance on those who cause the problems as the ones to deliver us from them means they wish to work within an Earth-destroying system rather than replacing it.

Foster thoroughly realizes the depths of ecological crisis as well as the need for resolution to originate from the oppressed; but his singular focus on social relationships of production interferes with his willingness to espouse the need to reduce the quantity of production.

Together, the authors manifest the pathos of current environmental thought. The same paradigm which one uses to perceive with great clarity a part of the resource/ecological crisis can create a mind block which interferes with comprehending the Gestalt of that crisis. For environmentalism to move forward, we must develop the ability to see through the smoke and mirrors that traditional thinking continuously throws in front of us, and, at the same time, be able to see the realities understood by those who travel the same path as us without marching in line.

Don Fitz produces Green Time TV in St. Louis, Missouri and is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is published for members of The Greens/Green Party USA.


1. For debunking energy efficiency, see Fitz, D. (Fall 2009). Why energy efficiency isn't reducing consumption but how carbon rationing could. Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought [SR], 50, 30-32. Dardozzi, J. (Fall, 2008). The specter of Jevons' Paradox, SR 47, 15. For debunking recycling, see Morris, J. A. (Summer 2008). Is recycling the new garbage? SR 46, 30-35. Palmer, P. (Summer 2008). The death of recycling. SR 46, 22-25.

[10 sep 10]

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