The presupposition of scarcity and competition should not dictate how we end fossil fuel use

I’ve noticed a frustrating tendency among some climate activists to cling to a mode of thought that works to uphold the justifications for capitalism, and the bleak view of life perpetuated by capitalist and fascist propagandists. It’s the notion of endless competition as a driving force in society. It’s Spencer’s pseudo-scientific notion of “survival of the fittest”, supported by the lie that resources will always be less than what would meet the basic needs of humanity. The notion of false scarcity was probably made most famous by the diamond industry, which boosted the price of its product by strictly controlling the supply, and limiting the rate at which new diamonds entered the market. Similar shady practices also drive up housing prices, and a related line of justification is used not to increase the price of food – though that has happened a bit – but rather to justify the hunger of those who are prevented from eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Diamonds are actually pretty common, there are more empty homes than homeless people, and there is more food than we need to feed everyone. We are not, in reality, stuck in endless competition with each other. We live in a world and in a time when nobody needs to worry about their basic necessities.

We’re just forced to, in order to force us to use our bodies and our time for the enrichment of someone else.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we’re going to find a way out of this mess, we will have to train ourselves not to see the world that way, and I think that includes our sources of power. Maybe this is also partly because we’ve found that certain sources – fossil fuels – cannot be used safely, so we see a need to get a “better” energy source, and that can lead to viewing things like solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on as being in competition with each other. As Le Guin said, we live in capitalism, and its power seems inescapable. For an example, take this recent study from the University of Sussex:

If countries want to lower emissions as substantially, rapidly and cost-effectively as possible, they should prioritize support for renewables, rather than nuclear power.

That’s the finding of new analysis of 123 countries over 25 years by the University of Sussex Business School and the ISM International School of Management which reveals that nuclear energy programmes around the world tend not to deliver sufficient carbon emission reductions and so should not be considered an effective low carbon energy source.

Researchers found that unlike renewables, countries around the world with larger scale national nuclear attachments do not tend to show significantly lower carbon emissions — and in poorer countries nuclear programmes actually tend to associate with relatively higher emissions.

Published today in Nature Energy, the study reveals that nuclear and renewable energy programmes do not tend to co-exist well together in national low-carbon energy systems but instead crowd each other out and limit effectiveness.

Benjmin K Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon emissions abatement strategies, and coupled with its tendency not to co-exist well with its renewable alternative, this raises serious doubts about the wisdom of prioritising investment in nuclear over renewable energy. Countries planning large-scale investments in new nuclear power are risking suppression of greater climate benefits from alternative renewable energy investments.”

This is where I start to worry about the analysis of these researchers, and the conclusions they draw. From what I can tell, they’re basing their conclusions on the notion that we’ll be swapping out power sources, but leaving much of the rest of how things work as is. We have the resources, as a species, to do a large-scale rollout of renewable power sources, and also to build new nuclear power plants. The obstacle isn’t one of resources for investment, it’s one of political and social obstacles. Likewise, for countries that currently have well-established nuclear power, it’s not like that’s the only factor affecting CO2 emissions, and many of the power plants in question are decades old, which means they’re worse on pretty much every metric than newer reactor and plant designs.

I have my reservations about nuclear power, but they largely stem back to the same root as my problem with this sort of analysis. It’s likely that without changing the power and incentive structures of our society, no power source will be either sufficient or safe. There are too many problems, even if we only focus on the environment, that are caused by pursuit of profit over all else, and that cannot be solved because doing so isn’t  “profitable”. I think it’s highly unlikely that we will be able to avoid total collapse under the political and economic conditions these authors assume will continue to be the norm.

The researchers, using World Bank and International Energy Agency data covering 1990-2014, found that nuclear and renewables tend to exhibit lock-ins and path dependencies that crowd each other out, identifying a number of ways in which a combined nuclear and renewable energy mix is incompatible.

These include the configuration of electricity transmission and distribution systems where a grid structure optimized for larger scale centralized power production such as conventional nuclear, will make it more challenging, time-consuming and costly to introduce small-scale distributed renewable power.

Similarly, finance markets, regulatory institutions and employment practices structured around large-scale, base-load, long-lead time construction projects for centralized thermal generating plant are not well designed to also facilitate a multiplicity of much smaller short-term distributed initiatives.

Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “This paper exposes the irrationality of arguing for nuclear investment based on a ‘do everything’ argument. Our findings show not only that nuclear investments around the world tend on balance to be less effective than renewable investments at carbon emissions mitigation, but that tensions between these two strategies can further erode the effectiveness of averting climate disruption.”

The study found that in countries with a high GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production does associate with a small drop in CO2 emissions. But in comparative terms, this drop is smaller than that associated with investments in renewable energy.

And in countries with a low GDP per capita, nuclear electricity production clearly associates with CO2 emissions that tend to be higher.

Patrick Schmid, from the ISM International School of Management München, said: “While it is important to acknowledge the correlative nature of our data analysis, it is astonishing how clear and consistent the results are across different time frames and country sets. In certain large country samples the relationship between renewable electricity and CO2-emissions is up to seven times stronger than the corresponding relationship for nuclear.”

Ironically, my objection to this analysis is similar to an objection I’ve raised to more avid nuclear advocates – we can’t base our plans for the future on how things have been historically, because we are in a historically unprecedented time. If we continue to assign value and importance within the constraints of a capitalist rule set, we’re never going to see an end to overproduction. If a grid designed for distributed power generation can’t handle the output of a nuclear plant, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to put the technology to use. If your reactor is adequately protected from sea level rise (high elevation or placement on a floating structure), a nuclear plant could be an excellent way to power large-scale desalination, hydrolysis, or both. It could also be used to power industrial activity – factories, waste processing, shipping, or even indoor farming.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best path to both sustainable population size and sustainable energy usage is to equalize at a decent standard of living, and to stop centering things around consumption and growth:

However, not only do the findings show that the energy required to provide a decent living could likely be met entirely by clean sources, but it also offers a firm rebuttal to reactive claims that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a ‘return to the dark ages’.

The authors’ tongue in cheek response to the critique that sweeping energy reform would require us all to become ‘cave dwellers’ was: “Yes, perhaps, but these are rather luxurious caves with highly-efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; comfortable temperatures maintained throughout the year, computer networks — among other things — not to mention the larger caves providing universal healthcare and education to all 5-19 year olds.”

That said, providing growing conditions that can feed humanity, ensuring access to water, maintaining pleasant indoor temperature and air quality, and manufacturing durable goods in a sustainable manner are all likely to consume a lot of power. I generally favor distributed power generation through “renewable” energy sources, for the flexibility and resilience that provides, but it would be very foolish, in my opinion, to just dismiss nuclear power, or to stop working on ways to improve on it.

There’s also another factor to consider. Ideally, we’re going to do more than just deal with our impact on the climate and reduce the production of new waste. We also need to deal with the waste we’ve already produced, both in terms of disposed products, and in terms of things like mine waste, industrial byproducts, and new kinds of toxic waste like the concentrated brine from desalination plants.

We need to make an industry out of cleaning up and rendering harmless a vast array of substances, including radioactive waste that has nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear power.

Unfortunately, the speed at which the planet is heating means that the amount of energy we’re going to have to consume to both survive and end fossil fuel use is going to be massive. Even as we take steps to increase energy efficiency and reduce consumption, we’re going to have other growing demands for energy. I think it’s entirely likely that in some situations, a nuclear reactor is going to be the best option. The focus should be on what conditions must be met. I think most modern reactor designs are very, very safe, if they’re operated by people whose primary incentive is their safe and reliable operation, without consideration for things like profit. Any community within the exclusion zone of a reactor should have a role in oversight of that reactor, as well as a responsibility to educate themselves in defense against misinformation.

If we manage to actually gain the power to start reshaping society, one of our first problems is going to be cleaning up after the last century or so. It only seems responsible to keep nuclear power as an option, for when we do need a massive concentration of energy in one location.

I also think that we’d do well, insofar as we have the power to influence any of this, to encourage as non-fossil energy production is possible, and rather than focusing on storing excess for later, use the excess as it’s generated, and arrange things so that at the grid’s lowest ebb, we have enough for the minimum requirements of day to day life.

As I mentioned at the outset, a lot of the world’s power comes from control over access to vital resources – food, water, shelter, healthcare, and in the modern era, electricity. One of the reasons that mutual aid networks can serve as a foundation for organized, working class power, is that they make it harder to use the subtler forms of coercion that government and capital typically use to keep people in line. If you can ensure supply lines of food, water, and so on, then people actually have firm ground on which to make a stand. A strike is far more sustainable when those involved know that their families will still have their needs met, even if they lose their wages.

We can use abundance as a weapon against economic coercion.

Now, as we’ve seen recently, they’re willing to be overt, if that’s what it takes to keep people working, but strike-breaking, or openly manipulating things like access to unemployment insurance in order to force people to work for poverty wages, tend to help turn people against the ruling class.

As this century continues, I think it would be wise to adopt a similar strategy for energy production. We need to combine increased efficiency with increased zero-carbon power generation to create a state of abundance, where excess can be used for essential work, and it’s much harder for a government or corporation to wield power over people by controlling their electricity access.

We should continue to invest in distributed power generation, especially at the community level, where possible, but I honestly think we’d be foolish cease all investment in nuclear power.

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  1. says

    This is a thought-provoking piece – Thanks, Abe. The tyranny of an economics based on maximizing wealth, rather than maximizing well-being, ties us into scarcity thinking, and it is poisonous socially, environmentally, and actually economically, too.
    In my youth, I knew an old peace activist and community organizer who often gave talks to churches & community groups, and he always entitled his talks “The final consequences of first principles.” He said that it saved him the trouble of coming up with new titles, gave him space to take the talk in any direction — and after all was at the core of any hope for social betterment…

  2. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To Brian, and maybe Abe too.
    I don’t know if you are merely saying that capitalism needs (massive) government regulation and oversight, or if you’re going further. Brian in particular is making me think that he wants to go further like straight up Marxist communism.

    Resources are scarce. To pick a highly contrived example – we might be able to cure a rare fatal illness that infects a few people every year by spending the total output of society on medicine for that disease. However, that wouldn’t be fair. We see stuff like this all of the time IMAO. Resources are scarce. Some resources, like food and water, need not be scarce, but other resources are inevitably scarce, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Talking about a the real possibility of a (paraphrase) “post-scarcity economy” is supremely foolish and incredibly dangerous.

    If it’s just massive government regulation and oversight of capitalism, then I’m entirely on board. I think libertarian is the worst insult that you can give someone.

  3. says

    The problem is not the fact that resources are, sometimes, scarce.

    The problem is that resources that are abundant are made artificially scarce for the sake of profit. One of the major limiting factors in dealing with climate change is that regardless of what forms of energy you want to use, the scale and speed of change that’s needed is virtually guaranteed to not be profitable, at minimum for the people who’re in charge NOW.

    I won’t speak for my father, but for myself, I prefer a more anarchist approach both to building political power to transition out of capitalism, and to designing a world that makes it as difficult as possible for people wield power over others. As far as I can tell, “Marxist communism” isn’t even close to being a single thing, so yeah, I want a form of “Marxist communism”, but that doesn’t really narrow it down much. I don’t know if you read my blog or just have an alert for the word “energy” or something, but I think I’m pretty clear about my views for the most part.

  4. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Anarchism. Ok. In my view, libertarians are just another kind of anarchist. What makes your version of anarchy different from a contemporary American libertarianism?

  5. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    PS: I typically see contemporary American libertarianism defined according to the following principles:

    1- Property rights should be (absolutely) respected.
    2- No Aggression Principle. One should not use violence (including threats of violence, imprisonment, etc.) except in (immediate) self defense. In particular, taxes are contrary to this rule.

    A consequence of these rules is that the libertarian believes that all associations should be voluntary.

    Most libertarians seem to carve out exceptions to the no-aggression principle for ad hoc reasons to allow taxes for some things but not others. Aka they’re hypocrites. If they take the no-aggression principle seriously, then they’re just anarchists as far as I can tell.

    What’s the important policy differences between your flavor of anarchism and the libertarian anarchism? To me, it seems all the same.

    For me, I flatly reject both founding libertarian principles as wrong.

  6. says

    American libertarians are pro-hierarchy, they just think the hierarchy should be decided by the “Free Market”. Anarchists, generally, oppose unjustified hierarchy. In an operating theatre, there is every justification to have the surgeon in charge – that’s an easily justifiable hierarchy. The goal is on maximizing human wellbeing and freedom, and ensuring that everyone’s material needs are met. There are some American-style libertarians who refer to themselves as “anarcho-capitalists”, but it’s pretty much universally agreed that they don’t meet the criteria for anarchism. If you’re interested in more on that, this video from Thought Slime goes into the an-cap issue.

    I don’t much care about political labels, but the more I learn about anarchism the more it seems to match and inform what I view as the best path forward, and the best way to minimize violence and suffering in transitioning out of capitalism, and building a society that has a decent shot at lasting on a much longer term than the course we’re currently on.

    The “non-aggression principle” doesn’t really exist in any form of anarchism with which I’m familiar. Again, I’m not an expert on anything to do with anarchism. The goal is generally an egalitarian society generally operating on local and regional direct democracy as policies are needed. It’s basically the same goal as communism, with “anarchism” describing the strategy of getting there.

    On a broader level, I believe that we’re more likely to be able to get a movement going if we can help ensure people’s needs are met. That includes using the existing political systems when we’re able to do so, I just don’t believe those systems can get the change we need by themselves. We need to build power from the bottom up, and force change that’s governed by the people who have to live with the consequences, not a bunch of assholes who’ve got bunkers to hide in and aircraft to relocate if things go wrong.

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Just like most anarchists I’ve met, you’ve been very light with details. You’re great at critique, but you’ve thus far failed to present anything of substance to replace it. Just like energy efficiency won’t replace the need for lots of energy – more local production, local growing, etc., won’t replace the need for traditional governments and something like traditional capitalism. I am still absolutely no closer to understanding this apparently naive and silly rhetoric that we’re going to do away with capitalism – unless you’re defining “capitalism” so narrowly that you’re just setting up a strawman to defeat it. In that case, something like mainstream European social democracy? Because I call myself a social democrat. (Not a democratic socialist.)

  8. says

    I’m not going to explain my entire worldview and hope for the future in one or two blog comments. That’s what I’ve got the blog for, and it’s not like this is anywhere close to the first time I’ve talked about this stuff.

    Fortunately, my views on how to progress don’t require ME to have all the answers, nor have I ever pretended I do. “You haven’t given a detailed enough explanation of how you want the world to work” is a non-argument. There’s no point to it.

    There are a number of ways things could go, and none of them involve an instant transformation into some kind of post-capitalist society. The exact nature of what needs to be done is going to depend on a wide array of factors that we can’t really predict. It’d be nice, in theory, to go with something like Corbyn’s plan to promote worker co-ops, and do a gradual transition through market socialism, but it doesn’t seem like that’s likely to happen. I favor the community network approach because I think it’s a form of organization that’s more likely to be able to adapt to changing conditions.

    Capitalism is how we organize production and who controls excess produced. I see zero evidence that we “need” to have most of the world controlled by a tiny number of sociopaths whose only goal in life is money and power. The actual production – the machinery, the workers, and so on – doesn’t depend on having a capitalist at the top controlling everything. Traditional governments and traditional capitalism have brought us to the brink – they’ve been unable to even come close to dealing with the problems of climate change or of things like poverty/injustice.

    We need a radically different course, and I think it’s naïve to think that’s going to come from our corporate or governmental power structures in anything like their current form.

  9. says

    1. by “post scarcity” I mean something like what Abe says: the artificial creation of scarcity so as to turn necessary but not scarce resources, such as food or clean water, into commodities for profit.
    2. Your suggestion that I am arguing for some kind of “straight up Marxist communism” is pretty funny. (I am reminded of Mr Darcy’s comment in Pride and Prejudice, when he expresses admitration of Elizabeth, and Miss Bingley suggests he’s contemplating marraige: “A lady’s imagination leaps very rapidly from admiration to love and from love to matrimony.” )
    Think it possible that there might be other alternatives besides “capitalism” (however massivley regulated() and “Marxist communism.”
    For the record, I am not now, nor ever have been, a “Marxist communist”, but as Abe points out both “Marxist” and “communist” are quite ambiguous terms.
    3. Philosophical or syndico-anarchism, libertarianism (whatever that means), democracy, dictatoriship– these are not economic systems. They are strategies for allocating power. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a system for creating, regulating, and distributing wealth. As usually practiced , however, it becomes, in effect, a power-allocating system also. It has been very effective at generating wealth and innovation, but since it requires constant expansion of markets and consumption, it is inherently descructive of the commons. It thus creates both real scarcities and artificial ones. To ignore ths, or just accept it as “the cost of doing business” is just what we have been doing as a society all along. “We had to destroy the village to pacify it.” I don’t see a problem with seeking some alternative strategy.

  10. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Typical anarchists. Complaining about the system, but admitting that they don’t have anything better, and yet firmly asserting that there must be something better that will bring us to utopia – “no place”.

    You’re also strawmanning capitalism by pretending that the only kind of capitalism is laissez-faire robber-baron capitalism. Again, the economics of social democracy is a thing.

    but since it requires constant expansion of markets and consumption,

    I do not accept this.

    I don’t see a problem with seeking some alternative strategy.

    I agree.

    To ignore ths, or just accept it as “the cost of doing business” is just what we have been doing as a society all along.

    I live in the real world. Until you provide me an actual feasible better option, I will accept it as just the cost of doing business. That is the only sane and rational thing to do. I do not ignore it. I do not celebrate it. I seek ways to minimize it. But its mere existence does not justify me into asserting by naked fiat there exists something better.

    Both of your rhetoric makes me immediately distrust anything you have to say because you are not peddling in practical solutions. The world needs practical solutions. I’m pushing some practical solutions, such as regulated capitalism with greater government taxation for wealth transfer from the rich to the poor (income taxes, capital gain taxes, asset taxes, inheritance taxes), and nuclear power as a major and indispensable component to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Instead, you twaddle on about “community coops” and “local microgrids”. A waste of breath regarding the problems that we’re facing. Solutions in search of problems.

    Again, I’m not against you suggesting these impractical ideas as something that some people can volunteer for as a lifestyle supported by the rest of society (and most attempts to do so would be leaches on the economy of broader society). I am vehemently against suggestions that these ideas are substitutes for real feasible plans for the problems facing society.

    I am a Marxist. I call myself a card-carrying radical Marxist. The solution to the problem of the filthy rich controlling the means of production is not to burn down the means of production – as here suggest with nonsense like local microgrids and community coops. You’re going backwards technologically, economically, and culturally. We’re not going to find good answers in the past. We’ll find only denial. Again, I called one of you a Luddite earlier, and I’ll do it again here.

    I still want to know if and when you lost faith in the future ala Star Trek, when you started viewing “progress”, “technological progress”, “globalism”, “interconnectedness”, etc. as bad things. I want to know what broke you and made you think that the answers lie in technological stagnation and reversion into little city-states. PS: That’s just begging to restart feudalism. I don’t want the world to go through feudalism again.

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