Below is a letter from prominent eco-socialist Saral Sarkar which I am republishing here. It was written in response to a debate that I was having with a U.S activist who was skeptical (like most) about the need for socialists to advocate for an egalitarian contraction of industrial economies, towards a simpler egalitarian society. Saral’s letter outlines four critical reasons why this is, today, necessary.
I would, however, like to make a couple of brief points in response to Saral’s letter.
- In my view, Ted Trainer, contrary to what Saral argues below, has indeed shown that intermittency (and related storage problem) sets an additional major problem for any conceivable 100% renewable energy system – see here. Ted argues that a reliable 100% renewable system will require so much back up plant, that it would be unaffordable. Its true, as Saral points out below, that industrial societies also spent huge amounts of capital when investing in the fossil-fuel based infrastructure we rely on today. However, to my mind, the difference is that these costs were once-off whereas Trainer is arguing that renewable systems will always be prohibitively costly (at least for our energy intensive society), due to the huge amount of back-up plant you will need to deal with intermittency problem (and given storage, on the scale needed, looks unlikely to be possible). As I see it, the points that both Sarkar and Trainer making about renewable energy limits as largely complimentary.
While I agree that the question of energy is absolutely critical to our case, even if it turns out that we could find abundant clean/green energy, I would still advocate for a simpler egalitarian society. Why? Firstly because, as Steb Fisher pointed out, in an excellent article here, if we get our hand on more energy (especially within capitalism) we will only then destroy the environment faster. Its true that the abundant energy could then be used, to some extent, to clean up the mess or recycle resources etc, but I don’t think we could do much about the inevitable, for example, catastrophic (even for ourselves!) biodiversity loss that we would inflict!
More positively, I think one can also make a case that a simpler more communal/cooperative society, would be a better for us. This is a much harder case to make, and its not likely to convince many today, accept, perhaps, by inspiring practical/lived examples). I always had a sense that something is profoundly, spiritually, wrong with the way of life in the consumer society. Readers might like to consult Ted Trainer article on Your Delightful Day, for the case that life could be far better in an alternative simpler society.
With that, I will leave you with Saral Sarkar’s excellent and important letter.
Dear Steve Ongerth, dear Jonny,
I would like to say the following in response to your debate:
There indeed are some cleavages in, generally speaking, the ecological left movement. That does not necessarily mean that any group is sectarian. The differences may be sincere and they might be overcome through further thinking, reading, discussion, and joint activities. I have identified four root causes the cleavages:
- The Energy Question
I think the most primary root cause of the cleavages lies in different positions on the energy question.If one is an optimist, if one believes like Ongerth that 100% renewables is not only achievable, it’s EASILY achievable, then why should one at all object to further growth and advocate a steady-state economy as Ongerth and his anarchist and socialist friends do? After all, then there would be no CO2emission any more that would not be reabsorbed soon, that would hang on in the atmosphere; then the problem of global warming would be solved! Then there would not be any environmental pollution at all, for, with cheap and abundant renewable energy, any waste can be easily recycled. Hermann Scheer, until his death the high priest of solar energy in Europe, wrote:
“For an inconceivably long time the sun will donate its energy to humans, animals, and plants. And it will do that so lavishly that it could satisfy even the most sumptuous energy needs of the worlds of humans, animals and plants experiencing drastic growth: [for] the sun supplies every year 15,000 times more energy than what the world population commercially consumes … .” (Scheer 1999: 66)
Then the resource problem would also be solved! Then we can get by without extracting a single molecule more. And we can then even have further economic growth (why remain stuck up in steady state at the present level?). Then why shouldn’t all the poor people of the world also enjoy each, individually, a swimming pool, a sailboat, skis, a big house and other wasteful luxuries, Why not for allat least a car powered by renewable energy? Or by electricity drawn from hydrogen fuel cells? (If they want to use a car collectively, then not because it would not be possible to own and use a car individually and without damaging the environment!). But if the optimism of Ongerth, Scheer etc. are unfounded, then we must soon begin the process of economic contraction (one can call it so if one does not like the term de-growth because of its alleged association with reactionaries and white-supremacists.) But then an egalitarian/ socialist policy is the best way to achieve that contraction for the sake of saving the planet. And that is the new argument for socialism in the 21st century. I hope Ongerth and his optimist friends will now notice the inner contradiction in their position.
I think this optimism is based on nothing but so many illusions and misinformation. Ongerth has read one dozen books and 1000 articles on this subject. So may I suggest that he reads only a few more?: Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s book The entropy Law and the Economic Process,especially his 1978 article, a very short one: “Technology Assessment: The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”. My own effort to understand and present the problem is contained in my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? (Ch. 4, PP. 102 –139). The latest of my efforts to present the problem is contained in: “Krugman’s Illusion: We Becoming Richer, But Not Damaging the Environment”:
Very important is to understand the following: (1) the difference between feasible and viable, (2) theentropy law. (there is a short presentation in my book The Crises of Capitalism, PP. 286–290), (3) the difference between price(money cost) and energy cost, (4) the difference between energy technology and all other technologies, (5) The difference between gross energy and net energy(AKA energy balance, EROEI, and energy pay back time).
Examples and explanations: (1): It is feasible to put a few humans on the moon, but it is not viableto maintain a human colony on the moon because of the enormous costs in terms of energy and materials. (2) The entropy law makes it impossible to recycle all waste. (3) The price of solar cells(at the market) may fall for many reasons, but the energy cost thereof may rise at the same time. (4) When we want to fly by an airplane or have light in the evening, we may be prepared to pay any price (also in energy terms) for the flight/light. But if we want to produce energy (e.g. produce energy from solar cells) by spending energy from coal and oil, then it does not make sense to incur more energy cost for manufacturing all the required equipment than the total amount of energy produced. (5) It is at least very doubtful that the net energy coming from solar, wind and some other energy technologies is high enough to maintain the industrial society as we know it. We cannot save the planet without drastically reducing our present standard of living. We only do not know, by how much we must reduce it. Saving the planet should be our top priority, for our own sake, not saving the average standard of living of First World workers.
It is wrong to argue, as Ted does, that renewables are likely to be unaffordable/unviable to run energy-intensive growth-capitalist-consumer society because of unaffordable capital costs required to maintain a constant energy supply using intermittent sources. That may at best be a secondary or tertiary argument. The transition from the energy system of the 17th and 18th centuries based on renewables (wood, fodder for animals, sundry biomass, wind and water mills) to the energy system based mainly on fossil fuels (plus a little hydropower) also involved enormous capital costs. Mankind could afford that, first the rich countries, then also the 3rd World countries. It of course took a long time and a lot of sacrifice to accumulate the necessary amount of capital, but it could be done. The question that must be answered now is why we (Ted and I) think that this time the capital costs involved in the transition from today’s energy system mainly based on fossil fuels to an energy system based on renewable energies should be unaffordable. The answer lies in the concept of energy density (orenergy content) and not so much on intermittency of the renewables. One Kilogram of coal or oil contains many times more energy than the same amount of wood etc. (for details of the argumentation see my book Eco-socialism …..). From the first named transition (from the renewables to the fossil sources), mankind came out richer. From the increased wealth, our forefathers could accumulate enough capital for completing the transition. But this time, from the transition from the fossil sources to the renewables (if that at all takes place, for which I am not seeing sufficient signs), mankind would come out poorer. That is why mankind would not be able to accumulate enough capital to build the second generation of renewable power plants that would have to be built as replacement for the worn out first generation thereof. But why should mankind come out poorer from the second named transition, should it take place?
There has been a lot of dispute about the exact EROEI (or net energy or energy pay back time) of solar electricity, wind electricity etc. at different places and under different conditions. But nobody has till now asserted that e.g. one unit of sunshine (say, on one square meter of the earth’s surface) contains as much or more energy than, say, one Kilogram of bituminous coal. Even a lay person perceives and knows that coal and oil are already concentrated solar energy, concentrated by nature over several millions of years, whereas sunshine reaches the surface of the earth in weak and diffuse form and must first be collected and concentrated by us. It is therefore easier and much less costly to collect and use fossil fuels than to collect and use sunshine and wind. This common sense led India and China – both rich in sunshine and wind – to mainly use fossil fuels for energy rather than sunshine and wind. India has recently decided to double its coal production in five years.
- Scientific-technological progress
The second root cause of the cleavages lies in our expectations from science and technology. Many optimists (both socialists and pro-capitalists) believe that it is only a matter of a few years more when 100% renewables will be achieved. Haven’t we succeeded in overcoming gravity? Are we not talking with persons who live 20 000 miles away? Or think of the computer and internet! Particularly the computer has been cited by the optimists again and again. I saw the first IBM computers in the mid 1970s – three big cupboards and a one meter long key-board for punching holes in cards. After only ten years, I saw small table-top PCs in every office. In another five years, PCs had became so cheap that I could see, in Germany, a PC in almost every household. If all that has become possible, why shouldn’t 100% renewables be possible?
It is true, these achievements appear like miracles. Yet I am quite skeptical about 100% renewables. Flying by an airplane, landing on the moon, telephoning a friend who lives 20 000 miles away, computers etc. – all these achievements were possible only after we discovered and started using the fossil fuels and their immense and concentrated energy. But these energy sources are going to be exhausted or unaffordable, sooner or later. And their use must also be drastically curtailed for stopping further global warming.
But, as Georgescu-Roegen argued, manufacture of all equipment of renewable energy technologies (silicon wafers, rotors, turbines and reinforced concrete towers of windmills etc. etc. etc.), require expenditure of large amounts of fossil fuels. That means, renewable energy technologies will only exist as long as fossil fuels remain cheap and abundant. That is, the former are parasites of the latter.
In my youth, in the early fifties, I too was an optimist. I thought that progress in science and technology will one day also enable us to make the Sahara bloom, that nuclear energy will make electricity so cheap and abundant that it would not be worth the trouble to measure its consumption in individual households. Only much later did I realize that there are several things that are, of course, feasible but are not viable on a large scale. Thus I saw the first solar panel pumping water in the mid 1970s. Forty years later, today, unlike the computer, solar electricity still has not been able to make a breakthrough. It still needs state subsidies of various kinds.
- The Population Problem
The third root cause of the cleavages lies in our respective stances on the population question. However muchone may denigrate Malthus, Hardin and Ehrlich as reactionaries and anti-communists, the fact remains that a certain quantity of national (or world) income divided by a population of, say, 2 millions will yield half as much income per capita as when it is divided by a population of one million. This is true in any society, in a capitalist one or in a classless socialist one. Moreover, the allergic reaction of most leftists in North America and other rich or huge but sparsely populated countries to the population issue shows that they have not understood at all what ecology is about. Ecology is the study of the relation of a population to the (natural) resources available in its habitat. I am a socialist from my school days and I have lived in India for 46 years (current population 1.26 billion). Malthus was my first ecology teacher. From Paul Ehrlich I learnt, “Whatever your cause, it is a lost cause unless population is controlled”. The more India and China (current population 1.4 billion) try to improve the standard of living of their masses, the more they degrade their environment. There indeed is a fundamental contradiction between ecology and economy, and not just between ecology andcapitalism (what Marxists and old leftists have been trying to make us believe since the days of Marx). If Ongerth is prepared to read another article, I would recommend him the following written by me:
Polemics is Useless
A Proposal For An Eco-socialist Synthesis In The Overpopulation Dispute
- The Strategy Question
The fourth root cause lies in the question of faith or lack thereof in the revolutionary role of the working class. You know what Marx expected from the working class: “Workers of the world unite!”, “They have nothing to lose but their chains …”, “They have no fatherland ….” etc. etc. The whole assumption of continuous material progress and development of the forces of production, on which these expectations of Marx and his disciples throughout the subsequent decades were based, is no longer valid. But already by 1914, on the eve of the First World War, these expectations proved to be utterly baseless. The workers of Europe could not unite, they showed that they were divided, and each group had a fatherland. They killed each other en masse. And already a decade or two earlier, German workers had said that Germans as a Kulturvolk (people with a culture) must also have colonies.
If one asks me, who then would change the world (the agency question), I cannot give a clear answer yet, but a vague answer might be what Erich Fromm said. Fromm said he recognizes only one division, namely division between those who are concerned and those who are not concerned. I think my provisional and very vague answer would be: those who are concerned must take up this responsibility. They may come from any class, nation, race, religious group etc.
Since I count all leftists (also a vague term) and environmentalists among “those who are concerned”, I would call upon them to unite on the basis of whatever agreements today exist, and start the work of changing the world. We may at the same time continue to discuss our differences on theory, goals and strategy in order to come to further agreements.