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Synthesis/Regeneration 56   (Fall 2011)

Energy, Sustainability and the Left

by Ted Trainer

Just about everyone assumes that the energy and greenhouse problems can be solved by moving from the fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as the sun and the wind, enabling us all to go on pursuing affluent lifestyles and economic growth. I think this is seriously mistaken.

For many years I have been working on the potential and limits of renewable energy and have groped towards a more effective way of assessing the essential themes. The journal Energy Policy recently published my approach to estimating the investment cost of a global renewable energy supply. (Trainer 2010a) Following is a summary of the argument.

The first step was to take the commonly estimated 2050 world energy demand we seem to be heading for, which is 1000 Exajoules per annum, or 28 billion kilowatt-hours, twice the present figure.

Then I assumed the following:

The resulting quantity of electricity to be provided was then divided equally between wind, PV and solar thermal sources. The biomass was allocated to transport demand. All the other renewable sources provide electricity, so if the energy in non-electrical form is to come from electricity via hydrogen generation, then at least three times as much energy would have to be generated, given the highly energy-inefficient nature of that path.

… the required annual investment would be 10 times the proportion that world energy investment makes up now.

I then took the available evidence on the winter output and probable future cost of windmills, PV panels and solar thermal plant. This enabled tentative conclusions on the numbers of each of these required to meet the global demand. I added these costs and divided by 25 to give an annual investment amount that would be required (i.e., making the standard assumption that plant would last 25 years). Even when you assume that world GDP in 2050 would be three times as much as it is today, the required annual investment would be 10 times the proportion that world energy investment makes up now. (Birol, 2003; IEA, 2010.)

Several significant cost factors were not taken into account, including the long distance transmission lines from solar thermal sites located in deserts, the biomass energy system, the hydro-electricity system, and the coal burning and geo-sequestration systems. If these could be taken into account they might double the investment sum arrived at above.

The exercise is somewhat crude given that one cannot be too confident about the assumptions made, but the magnitude of the conclusion means that the assumptions would have to be very different before it was remotely possible to afford the quantity of renewable energy required.

… there is no possibility of all people living as affluently as we do … today on renewable energy.

Note that if the nine billion people we are likely to have on earth by 2050 were to have the per capita energy use people in Australia are heading for by then, the target would have to be around four times as great as the 1000EJ/y target taken in this exercise. So unless my assumptions are wildly incorrect there is no possibility of all people living as affluently as we do in rich countries today on renewable energy (plus nuclear energy and coal burning with geo-sequestration).

Energy is only one item among many in the general “limits to growth” list of problems our society is running into. We are also obviously seriously depleting most other resources, condemning about four billion in the Third World to deprivation (while the few in rich countries take most of the world’s resource wealth, mostly from them), and destroying the ecosystems of the planet. All these problems are basically due to the fact that there is far too much producing and consuming going on. We are far beyond the levels of resource use that could be kept up for long or extended to all people. Possibly the clearest indicator of this is the “footprint measure.” To provide the average Australian with their per capita food, settlement area, water and energy takes eight hectares of productive land. By 2050 the amount available per capita in the world would be less than 0.8 ha. We are ten times over a sustainable level for all.

The footprint analysts show that the amount of resources we are using now would need 1.4 planet Earths to provide in a sustainable way. We are only getting the quantities we consume by running down the stocks, e.g., harvesting more forest than re-grows each year.

For 50 years now this “limits to growth” case has been gathering strength as many scientists have contributed evidence and analyses. For a long time it has been obvious that a society based on the pursuit of affluence and growth is absurdly unsustainable.

Yet what is our supreme goal? It is to get richer all the time and to raise the GDP without limit. In other words, economic growth is the driving principle all nations are obsessed with. If the expected nine billion people were to rise to the “living standards” we in rich countries would have by 2050, given 3% p.a. economic growth, the world would be producing and consuming 20 times as much as we are now! The present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable, yet we have an economy that will multiply these many times in coming decades.

Our rich world way of life and our social systems are also based on a grossly unjust global economic system. It is a system which allocates most of the world’s resources to the few who own corporations and who shop in supermarkets. It does this because it is a market system. In a market goods go to those who can pay the most, so we in rich countries get all the oil and the average peasant in Peru gets almost none.

… the world would be producing and consuming 20 times as much as we are now!

Market forces ignore needs, rights, the welfare of future generations, and the ecosystems of the planet. They also ensure that the “development” that occurs in the Third World is only that which will maximize the profits of some corporation. Corporations never invest in the Third World to produce what is necessary. As a result “development” mostly gears their productive capacity, their land and labor, to our supermarkets, not to their needs. The dominant conception of development insists that everything works best when left to market forces. If any nation thinks about opting for any other conception of development the conditions imposed by the IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Packages force them to comply anyway. Those conditions prohibit them from devoting resources to appropriate development.

So considerations of justice as well as sustainability make it glaringly obvious that, as Gandhi said long ago, “The rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live.” Satisfactory development for the Third World is impossible unless and until the rich world moves way down to living on something like its fair share of world resources, i.e., unless we move to much lower “living standards” defined in terms of quantity of resource and energy consumption. (Don Fitz made this point in his “Production side environmentalism” in 2008. In another article he rightly points out that the recent book The Environmental Rift (2010) by J.B. Foster of the Marxist Monthly Review school fails to recognize this crucial need for greatly reduced GDP.)

The solution.

Many in green and left movements understand how unsustainable and unjust this society is but unfortunately most do not seem to grasp the following crucial and extremely radical points.

A good society cannot be an affluent society. It is not possible for all people to consume at anything like the rate people in rich countries do.

Technology cannot solve the problems. They are too big. More importantly they are caused by fundamental structures and systems within this society, most obviously the commitment to growth, the market and affluence. The problems can only be solved by changing to a society that does not create them, to values, systems, ways and institutions whereby we can live well on very low levels of production and consumption.

… goods go to those who can pay the most… and the average peasant … gets almost none.

There must be no economic growth whatsoever. In fact the amount of producing and selling, consuming, trade and investment going on now must be dramatically reduced. If you doubt this, explain how the huge “footprint” overreach noted above can otherwise be remedied.

A society without growth will be radically different in many ways. Growth is not an element that can be taken out while leaving the rest of this society as it was. For instance if there is no economic growth there can be no place whatsoever for interest payments. The entire finance and banking sector would have to be utterly different.

A satisfactory society cannot be driven by market forces. It might have a market sector but this would have to be under firm social control, with rational decisions on the main issues made by deliberate collective processes of some kind.

Sustainable settlements must be mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies, run by participatory processes.

There can be no concern with gain. This is the most difficult principle for most people to grasp. If there can be no economic growth, then systems and individual orientations cannot be geared to anything but stable levels of resource use, production, income, consumption and wealth. If there is any concern to get richer, to increase income or resource use or wealth, then the system cannot remain stable. Some will quickly take most of the wealth.

It would be easy for all people to have a very high quality of life living simply in cooperative local economies, enjoying high technology where that is appropriate, secure and relaxed in supportive communities, and focused on non-material life satisfactions. (This is the core claim made for The Simpler Way; see http://arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/.) I have estimated that in such settlements our per capita energy use might be in the region of 5–10% of the present rich world figure, making it possible to live on renewable energy. (Trainer, 2010b, Ch 5.)

This list makes it clear that our prospects are very grim. If we are to get to a sustainable society, which must have no growth whatsoever, then we must give up the fundamental motive that has driven western society for 500 years, the concern to get richer. We must cease being an acquisitive society. The chances that we can bring about cultural change of such magnitude in the very short time available are very slight.

Implications for the Left.

Unfortunately most people in green movements and on the Left either do not understand the significance of the foregoing points or their implications. Almost all green people fail to see that the big global problems cannot be solved within or by this present society. It is a society committed to affluence, competition, growth and market forces, and these are the things that directly create problems of resource depletion, environmental destruction, deprivation of the Third World, conflict, etc. Yet most green agencies and parties proceed as if better technologies (especially renewable energy) and tighter legislation could prevent the resource depletion and environmental damage while allowing us all to go on enjoying increasingly affluent consumer lifestyles in a growth economy driven by market forces.

It would be easy for all people to have a very high quality of life living simply….

In other words almost all green demands are at present merely reformist, aimed at trying to solve problems without challenging a society based on growth, affluence or the market. (Don Fitz has made this point, and for an excellent detailed critique of the Greens, see Smith, 2011.) Few if any talk about any need to so dramatically reduce current levels of production and consumption that radically different lifestyles and social systems must be adopted. (But the tide is turning; see the European de-growth movement, Schneider, 2010, and CASSE, 2010.)

Similarly, few if any people on the Left recognize the need for transition to a Simpler Way. Their conception of the good post-capitalist society has mostly been in terms of freeing the productive system from the contradictions of capitalist control so that “everyone can have a Mercedes.” There is very little recognition that we must work out how all can enjoy a good quality of life on far less production, consumption, income, wealth and GDP than we have now. (Again, this is painfully obvious in the recent Ecological Rift which, in over 300 pages, includes only two references totaling about twenty words that faintly recognize the possibility that production must be reduced.)

Nor can the good society be centralized or governed by a state, let alone an authoritarian one. There will not be the resources to sustain large state systems, and more importantly, the right decisions for running small highly self-sufficient local economies well can only be made via participatory systems at the local level. There would probably be a need for small state and national governments to attend to some remnant functions, but these can and should be controlled by delegates from the grass roots in the classic Anarchist way.

… almost all green demands are … merely reformist, aimed at trying to solve problems without challenging a society based on growth….

Another major implication is that there is no point in striving to take state power, whether through parliamentary/electoral processes or by the revolutionary installation of an authoritarian vanguard party. Good local communities cannot be run by the center, whether benign or not. They can only work well if ordinary citizens have the power, vision, conscientiousness, energy and good will, and enjoy running their locality well. They are the only ones who know their town well, its history, its social and biological ecology, and what’s possible there. They must implement the decisions and their fate depends on how well they do all this.

… there is no point in striving to take state power….

“But most people don’t have the necessary consciousness and at first must be forced, so we need a party to save us. In time they will understand and not need governing.” This classic Marxist-Leninist approach might have been appropriate in an industrial era, but in the coming era of intense scarcity and localism it can’t work. The task for us is to develop the understanding that will lead people to take control of their local communities. If we can’t achieve this, then we won’t make the transition. The Simpler Way cannot be forced on anyone and cannot be organized and run from the center despite masses who lack class consciousness.

To repeat, there is no role for force and violence, or indeed power in the sense usually understood, in this revolution. Force cannot make local economies work well. Only vision, enthusiasm and good will on the part of the people who live in them can do that.

Nor is there any point working for party-political power. It is not possible to get rid of capitalism and install The Simpler Way by working within the existing parliamentary system. At present few would vote for our program, and if we raised consciousness to the point where 51% would, then there would be no need to bother with parliament; we’d just go out and build the new economies.

Kropotkin, Tolstoy and Gandhi understood this. They saw that the goal has to be developing communities with the capacity and the desire to govern themselves. That can’t happen unless citizens have the vision and eagerness. That defines our task, i.e., to build that vision and desire at the grassroots level. The miraculous achievements of the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s, running whole economies through citizen assemblies, would not have been possible had not decades been spent developing the necessary vision in “ordinary” people.

Although national and international action and movements are important, they should only be about awareness raising, not trying to pressure governments into policy change. Governments have no choice but to make consumer-capitalism work and to attend primarily to the interests of the rich, and they will not and cannot enable the replacement of such a society. In any case, as has been explained, they could not build the new local systems even if they wanted to. People have to do that in the communities where they live; no one can do it for them. Unfortunately most national and international protest and dissent is only appealing or demanding that governments do something for us.

Our transition strategy must therefore be the classic Anarchist one of “prefiguring,” beginning here and now to build aspects of the desired future way, partly in order to insure against the coming times of troubles, but mainly as an educational strategy whereby we can communicate our vision to ordinary people in our locality.

Not much will change until the present systems in rich countries start to break down seriously, e.g., until petroleum becomes very scarce and costly. People will not move while the supermarket shelves remain well stocked. We must prepare for the day they are jolted into action, by getting local systems up and running as best we can so that they can come across to the gardens and networks, working bees, co-ops and committees.

So the best action we can undertake today is to develop local community groups that in time come to be focused on the eventual building of a highly self-sufficient, participatory local controlled and run by us to meet local needs. Sometimes this means joining and persuading existing groups and movements to gear their efforts to this end. Nothing could be more subversive.

There are many groups and movements heading more or less in the right direction for us to work with, most obviously within the booming Transition Towns movement. However, unfortunately few of these presently have the crucial vision, the understanding that just building more community gardens and recycling networks within consumer-capitalist society will not achieve significant social change. Our main reason for joining these groups should be to try to get them to see that our ultimate goal must be for our gardens and cooperatives, etc., to contribute to the eventual building of a radically different society, one that has no growth, does not let the market determine everything, is not about affluence, is focused on needs and quality of life, and is under our local participatory control. (This general strategy is argued in detail in Trainer, 2010b.)

Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them.


Birol, F., (2003), World energy investment outlook to 2030, IEA, Exploration and Production: The Oil & Gas Review, Vol 2.

CASSE, (2010), Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, http://steadystate.org/

Fitz, D., (2008), Production Side Environmentalism, Synthesis/Regeneration, 47, Fall 2008, pp. 2–11.

Fitz, D., (2010), Three Hands on Biodisaster; Groping the Elephant, Synthesis/Regeneration, 53, Fall 2010, pp. 9–13.

Schneider, F., (2010), De-growth of production and consumption capacities for social justice, well-being and ecological sustainability, Second Conference on Economic De-growth, Barcelona, 26–29 March.

Smith, R., (2011), Green capitalism: The god that failed, Real World Economics Review, 56,11th March, pp. 122–145.

Trainer, T., (2010a), Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case, Energy Policy, 38, 8 August, 4107–4114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.037

Trainer, T., (2010b), The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World. Sydney, Envirobook.

[12 dec 11]

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