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The Green Economy as a Continuation of War by Other Means

CNS Web

February 2, 2016

by Alexander Dunlap

 

NO MEANS NO TO GREEN IMPERIALISM

 

The following essay has been modified from a speech given at the 10th Conference of Critical Justice in Latin America (X Conferencia Latinoamericana de Crítica Jurídica) on April 23, 2015 on a panel titled: “Rights, Dependency and Capitalist Accumulation in Latin America” (Mesa Derecho, dependencia y acumulación capitalista en América Latina). This speech was based on the paper, “The Militarisation and Marketisation of Nature: An Alternative Lens to ‘Climate-Conflict,’” (Geopolitics, 2014) while also building from it, discussing some examples from wind turbine development in the coastal area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Oaxaca Mexico, known as the Istmo.

When we speak about “anthropogenic climate change,” we speak about climate change that is intimately linked to our modern or industrial lifestyles, ones that feel like a routine of jumping through and between boxes: The box shape of the house to the rolling rectangle of the bus, which leads us to work, back to the car, then to the bar, back home, to the computer before bed, and finally, to the rest that anticipates repeating this routine all over again, with hopes of something different for the weekend. In its most simple and basic form, this is the process of anthropogenic climate change. It reeks of the depressing problem of everyday social control and daily confinement within this box system.

What these lifestyles are dependent on are a series of systemic processes: those of industrial waste that result from mining, oil extraction, electricity generation, cars, concrete, asphalt, electronics, and the list goes on. And climate change is really just the result of needing to make this list of resource extraction and technologies grow for the last two hundred years, while intertwining this need with our daily lives.

So when we understand climate change as an issue that is bigger than us, it prevents reflection, inhibits agency, and sends the message that only governments, corporations and NGOs can stop this phenomenon. Yet these institutions’ mitigation and security practices only serve to reinforce global environmental degradation, for the mainstream framework of climate change, while acknowledging a cumulative problem, also projects submission to authority and governing structures that have created new “dystopian markets” with ideas of geo-engineering (see Simon Dalby’s “Geoengineering: The Next Era of Geopolitics?” Geography Compass, 2015).

As I hope to show in the lines that follow, we must acknowledge that climate change has been wielded as a neoliberal weapon to create the idea of the “green economy” in the hopes of maintaining the state and growing economies. These are processes that continue land conflict and pacification through climate change mitigation initiatives and an environmental ethic with various notions of sustainability.

“Green grabbing”

Mainstream notions that seek to address climate change are deeply intertwined with ideas of sustainable development that emerged in the 1970s with the Club of Rome and the 1987 United Nations’ (UN) report Our Common Future, where it was recognized that industrial development had to soften and change its course otherwise it would destroy itself and many of the people dependent on it.

The 1992 Rio+20 Earth Summit recognized climate change and biodiversity loss as critical issues, which would lead to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It would then give way to the 1997 Kyoto protocol that decided market mechanisms would be the principle way forward to mitigate the problem of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Now enters the notion of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that has sought to integrate market processes into the natural environment to dissect and quantify it, so that corporations and philanthropists can pay to keep forests standing and “natural resources” intact.

For businessmen and stupid environmentalists alike, these proposals have been called a “win-win” solution. These areas have been cordoned off on the false and historically genocidal premise of “pristine” or “wild nature,” which claims that humans but specifically indigenous peoples cannot live in forests if they are to be “saved”, conserved, and maintained as “pristine.” As I hope many know, this is contrary to the historical record as many indigenous people made the pristine forests of the Amazon and the world (see my previous work with James Fairhead: “The Militarisation and Marketisation of Nature,” Geopolitics, 2014.)

These are the same areas that are now the new frontiers of capital investment; these new measures and market mechanisms have now made new markets out of trees, plants, and animal life with notions of “carbon sequestration” and “biodiversity.” These novel and strange terms are used to measure and quantify the natural environment and support the commodification and transformation of larger and “exotic” wildlife into a spectacle for office workers and the wealthy with the rise of ecotourism.

Most recently we have the “green market” as the latest pretext to take over land, displace native groups, and create new sustainable development initiatives while powering the cities and factories with renewable energy, often in the name of slowing anthropogenic climate change. Journalist John Vidal has dubbed this capture of land through sustainable development using an environmental rational as “green grabbing,” gesturing to a shared logic of “land grabbing” Marx once termed to describe the systematic theft of communal property from the 15th to 19th centuries.

It is no surprise that these friendly and environmentally conscious ideas have continued the trajectory of the industrial economy, for there was never once a reflection about slowing this industrial cancer that has become so common.

The green economy as counterinsurgency

We should also remember that the history of state craft, development, and the market has been firmly rooted in waging a war for the submission and acquiescence of people and the natural environment into its organizational structure and growth. Nancy Peluso and Peter Vandergeest have shown how geographical landscapes and towns are built on campaigns of widespread terror against both people and the natural environment, whether in colonial, post-colonial or democratic countries (“Political Ecologies of War and Forests: Counterinsurgencies and the Making of National Natures,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 2011).

Terrorizing unruly people into submission has always been a perquisite for all states to establish a territory and gain a grasp on, and make legible the people, forest, minerals and animals of “the nation”—after all, the kings, empires and states claimed it as their own and because we were their “subjects” this was never a problem, right? This means that if people are not revolting, they are submitting to a claim brought upon them, and this claim was always met with resistance.

The people and the forest worked together to wage every type of insurgency against the colonial, post-colonial and democratic regimes in different times and places in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In general, one can see a pattern that required all states to terrorize and traumatize people through campaigns of counterinsurgency warfare, resettlement campaigns into suburban style villages, cities, and factories with an overall goal to corral and integrate people into “modern” work, national culture and the demands of the economy. Indeed, all states have been at war to subjugate and colonize the people of their “territory” to the imperatives of its organization, which demarcated “Jungles” wild, from “forests” controlled, and forests from agriculture, regimenting every aspect of life and environment to the principle of separations inherent in scientific method. It is under this history of war that the economy and now the green economy stands.

Placing the green economy within the framework of counterinsurgency, the leading theory of state sanctioned pacification, is insightful in this regard. For example, David Kilcullen, Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army and a leading counterinsurgency strategist, defines counterinsurgency as “a competition with the insurgent for the right and ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population” (“Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency,” 2006 [PDF]). Here, the term “hearts” is described as “persuading people their best interests are served by your success,” and the term “minds,” as “convincing them that you can protect them, and that resisting you is pointless.” The green economy is thus an advancement in capturing people to rally for the survival of the economy and business imperatives of the state and its corporate partners—and this in both the city and countryside.

Inclusionary control as pre-emptive pacification

By now, most people have formed their identities and habits around this industrial system, and are attracted to ideas about carbon and biodiversity offsetting, participatory conservation, and renewable energy that provide us with illusions that life and the economy can co-exist. But in many ways this is not true.

Taking the Barra de Santa Teresa near where I live as an example, Mareña Renovables/Eólica del Sur wants to build upwards of hundred industrial wind turbines (aerogeneradore), on a scared and rare ecological zone that took 10,000 years to form, but guess what? The Barra is made of sand and vegetation, which means they will have to pour around a kilometer or possibly more of concrete for their foundations—individually for around one-hundred industrial wind turbines. This is an insane amount of concrete that will no doubt destroy the water table, and create an excess of sand, which as I was told by coastal ecologist, Patricia Mora, “will be total ecological devastation.”

The green economy is advancing techniques of “inclusionary control,” which is a way to include more humans and non-human lives into state and market structures. However, the mid-to-long-term interest of people is to not take the money or questionable promises of jobs, but to get rid of these structures and rehabilitate the land with healthy soil, fruit trees, and animals so they can secure food, shelter, and work to build healthy environments.

Inclusionary control is counterinsurgency and the art of preemptive pacification, which is the art of including people to exclude and neglect their structural grievances—no/crap jobs, no/crap education, drinking toxic waste, police violence, and the standardization of life (the box system) and so on— that is inherent in states, economies and capitalism of every brand. It is why the importance of transforming one’s task into improving the environment is multiplied tenfold if people also value their cultures, land, and lifestyles not being entirely dependent on the economy.

Free, Prior and Informed Consent as Inclusionary Control

An interesting mechanism that is being deployed in the Istmo right now, in the struggle over the invasion of thousands of wind turbines, is the UN’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) procedure, which is mandatory for signatory nations to conduct when constructing development projects on indigenous lands and communities. This mechanism, a success after years of struggle for indigenous recognition, could be important for stalling and fighting megaprojects.

Nevertheless, if people are not conscious, if they are divided and fighting each other—the goal of all governments, corporations and drug dealers alike—then this mechanism can be used by corporate-state alliances to pacify people with the feeling that they are being heard, included, and consulted. It will then reaffirm the strong mythology of democracy that everyone wants to desperately believe in.

But for some reason, whether democracy or dictatorship, people are never really permitted the simple answer: No, we do not want these projects here. No we do not want a form of development that is our submission to factories, migration, and mechanized labor. Rights create constructs of illusion that will always mediate the power of people through states and as I am watching now, FPIC is in a way similar to a ceasefire that allows the deception and fragmentation of people in resistance, while the state, companies and unions can re-strategize and regroup their forces.

Likewise, as I have argued in another paper about UN-REDD+, FPIC is equivalent to an indigenous Miranda Rights (“The Expanding Techniques of Progress: Agricultural Biotechnology and UN-REDD+,”Crossmark, 2014). Miranda rights in the United States are your rights once you have been arrested—“you have the right to remain silent, seek legal counsel,” and so on. In the case with the FPIC in the Istmo, it tells people that you have the right to be consulted by experts, to voice your grievances, and fight for jobs, but while we talk 18 parks are being constructed, with more planned on top of Ejidos and communal land [Silvia Chavela Rivas, “Eólicas: ocaso o resplandor?” 2015 [PDF, Spanish]).

In short, people are being arrested to the imperatives of economic growth and industrial expansion that will destroy life, make alternatives more difficult and create the collective fate of shuffling papers, pimping plastic and flipping burgers—a fate that is already a reality for many, many who often do not care about wind turbines and whose desires and projectuality tend to mimic what is televised in soap operas and music videos.

FPIC is a way to implicate people and hang them with their own participation and rights, when really people have their best interest in rejecting all mediation by state and corporate structures and coming together to create alternative projects, perspectives and even ‘jobs’—since this is a selling point for wind turbines in the region—to improve their lives, but in the end, the hierarches supported by the state and the powers that they bear will not let them without a brutal fight.

War is complex and the green economy is advancing land acquisition and displacement, claiming to fight environmental degradation, while simultaneously advancing it. It is nothing short than crazy, and it is a type of psychosis built in the fantasies of the American or development dream that either are not true for many, hollow for those who achieve it, or maybe it is the answer to everything. Either way, regardless of the different trajectories everyone will still be working to propel the modern industrial system. Probably in an office or some type of building, losing your vision and breath to a computer, trapped in a toxic environments, when really humans should probably be working for healthy, happier and freer lives and we must acknowledge that freedom is disingenuous when it is capturing and killing the people around you, both human and non-human alike.

 

[Alexander Dunlap is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His current research focuses on the social impact of wind energy projects in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico. He can be contacted at a.d.dunlap@vu.nl]

The Limits of the Political Vision of the Authors of the Leap Manifesto

Counterpunch

October 14, 2016

by Roger Annis

 

Author and environmentalist Naomi Klein published a feature article in the Globe and Mail‘s edition of Saturday, Sept 24 in which she defends against its detractors the Leap Manifesto issued in Canada in April 2016. Her unique argument in this essay explains that Canada’s “founding economic myth” has been that of the ‘good’ created by the vast pillaging of the country’s natural resources following the arrival of settlers from Europe. She argues that the myth’s endurance helps to explain the failure of Canada’s contemporary capitalist elite to making the necessary political and economic changes in the face of the global warming emergency.

Klein explains that Canada is on course to blow past the already risible greenhouse gas emission targets it assumed at the international climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, including an industry-planned increase of Alberta tar sands production of 43 per cent. The tar sands industry wants to see four new bitumen pipelines built to carry their raw product to foreign markets.

Klein asks, “Why is it so hard for Canadian political leaders, across the political spectrum, to design climate policies that are guided by climate science?”

She explains that to the European mercantilists driving settlement of the Americas, “the so-called New World was imagined as a sort of spare continent, to use for parts. And what parts: Here seemed to be a bottomless treasure trove – fish, fowl, fur, giant trees, and later metals and fossil fuels. And in Canada, these riches covered a territory so vast, it seemed impossible to fathom its boundaries.”

“Again and again in the early accounts, the words “inexhaustible” and “infinite” come up – to describe old growth forests, beavers, great auks, and of course cod (so many, they ‘stayed the passage’ of John Cabot’s ships).” (Cabot was an early British explorer of the North Atlantic.)

Klein makes an unconvincing comparison between settlement of the U.S. and Canada, saying that the absence in Canada of a slave-powered agricultural economy gave an especially acute dimension to natural resource pillaging compared to what occurred in the United States. But her main point stands–that the ideology of “unlimited” natural resources available for plunder is deeply rooted in Canada’s dominant historical narrative. It’s a useful insight for educating today’s population about the dangerous consequences of such an abiding myth.

That said, Klein’s essay regretfully provides little hint of an alternative to the founding myth she deftly critiques. She makes a characteristic argument that happens to be inaccurate and also misleading when she writes:

“… Other countries are moving ahead with policies that begin to reflect the scientific realities. Germany and France have both banned fracking.

“Even in the United States, there is a wider spectrum of debate. The new platform of the Democratic Party, for instance, states that no new infrastructure projects should be built if they substantively contribute to climate change – essentially the same position that caused all the outrage around The Leap Manifesto…”

Any comparison to the Leap Manifesto, a genuinely radical critique of the environmental status quo, and lofty but empty words by the U.S. Democratic Party is quite misplaced. The comparison illustrates that the higher up the media chain where Naomi Klein speaks, the farther she detaches herself from any critique of capitalism as being the root cause of the global warming emergency. In fact, notwithstanding the sub-title–‘Capitalism Vs. The Climate’—of her 2014 best-selling book, there is very little hard, anti-capitalist critique in her writings and speeches.

leap-ndp

That is also true of the many uncritical reviews of the book which have been published and of the manifesto itself.[1]. The manifesto was issued in April 2016 in an effort to spark serious discussion in the moribund New Democratic Party (Canada’s party of the soft left) and in Canadian society more broadly concerning the global warming emergency. (Read the manifesto here: The Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.)

To wit…

Avi Lewis expounds on the Leap Manifesto

A co-author to Klein of the Leap Manifesto, Avi Lewis, engaged in a two-hour debate about the document in Ottawa on Sept 15, 2016 together with Thomas Homer-Dixon. The debate is broadcast on the CPAC cable television channel and website. Lewis’ contributions to the debate provide insight into the strengths as well as weaknesses of the political outlook of the manifesto and its authors.

Lewis’ debating adversary authored a Globe and Mail op-ed in April 22, 2016 opposing the central tenets of the Leap Manifesto. It was titled ‘Start the Leap revolution without me‘. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the CIGI chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Homer-Dixon argued in the debate that while he appreciates the sentiments underlying the Leap Manifesto and even acknowledges that the economic system of “capitalism” is a contributing cause of the global warming emergency, he says there are many more causes at play. He calls the Leap Manifesto “divisive” and says it is “muddled” due to the excessive breadth of the issues it addresses. He also says the focus of the manifesto on “capitalism” as the source of global warming is misdirected; there are many additional sources unrelated to capitalism.

Lewis’ lead-off in the debate is a sharp critique of what he describes as the excesses of “capitalism”. His explicit use of the term is in contrast to the speeches and interviews of Naomi Klein as well as the texts of ‘This Changes Everything’ and the Leap Manifesto itself.

Lewis says that nothing short of a frontal challenge to the expansion dynamic of capitalism is required if rising greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming are to be slowed and eventually reversed. But later in the exchange, Lewis steps back from this central argument. He says the heart of the problem with capitalism is the variant he calls “extractivism”.

Lewis considers “extractivism” to be a distinct phase and element of the capitalist system, saying that capitalism and extractivism emerged in parallel at the outset of the industrial revolution. He calls the surge of human economic pillaging emanating from Europe in the early stages of mercantile expansion “extractivism” and “colonialism”. These were then “turbocharged” by “industrialism”.

This method of analyzing the parts of a social phenomenon distinct from one another leads to a failure to properly understand the whole. While Lewis acknowledged in his talk that the expansion dynamic of industrial capitalism is why the global warming emergency is upon us and is proving so intractable to solve, his division of the constituent whole–capitalism–into seemingly distinct parts–extractivism, colonialism, etc–confuses the subject.

What is the alternative?

The reader can listen to Avi Lewis in the debate with Thomas Homer-Dixon and then judge for himself or herself his proposed political response to the global warming crisis.

He begins rather well. He says there must be a “systematic challenge to every major pillar of our current economic order” if the world is to successfully confront the global warming challenge. He says a victory on the “ideological level” over capitalism is required to create the political conditions to overcome the crisis. He suggests six necessary themes to that ideological challenge:

* Governments must lead the fight against global warming. No other entity in society commands the necessary resources and authority to do so. (Lewis then provides another misleading tangent, saying that what is needed today is a societal mobilization similar to the one sparked by the fight against German Nazism in World War Two. The problem here is that the outcome of WW2—the victory of the U.S.-led imperialist alliance–laid the foundation for the vast expansion of consumerist capitalism which today threatens the planet.)

* There should be higher taxes on the wealthy and carbon taxes which discourage Environmentally damaging consumer and industrial purchasing choices.

* Market mechanisms to lower greenhouse gas emissions have failed, Lewis argues, citing the example of the European carbon emissions trading-credit system.

* “We have to smash the austerity mindset once and for all.”

* The ‘free trade’ investment and trade deals of recent decades be torn up.

* Finally, Lewis argued for ending the global consumerism treadmill that impoverishes the global south. “Over-consumption” must be lowered across the board, he says.

Lewis added that transition to a society burning fewer fossil fuels is not a barrier to progress. It is “the wind beneath our wings”.

As refreshing as are Lewis words and proposals, they beg two large sets of action that are required to meet the global warming challenge.

Emergency retrenchment

Nothing short of an emergency retrenchment of all the waste and destructive excess of capitalist production is required today. That means taking radical political and social measure to curb the relentless capitalist expansion dynamic. Without this corollary to action, all the dire warnings of the dreadful consequences of rising average global temperatures merely sow fear and uncertainty. Yet, Lewis and the Leap Manifesto say far too little on this score.

Last month, the CBC reported:

The Leap Manifesto… calls for Canada to be “powered entirely by just renewable energy” within 20 years, to end trade deals that don’t benefit local economies and pitches the idea of a national childcare program and universal basic annual income.

“It’s actually about giving power to those who have been disempowered and it’s about taking some power away from people who have too much,” said [Avi] Lewis.

Taking “some power” away from those who have too much hardly meets the political challenge.

A centrepiece of the Leap Manifesto vision is this: “We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy.” But if the production and consumption of “things” were powered by “renewables” instead of fossil fuels, then human society would still be headed for the precipice.

The very notion of “renewable” energy is a dangerous and reckless idea which far too many environmentalists give credence. Basic science tells us that every energy source requires inputs and it has emissions consequences. Hydroelectric dams ruin rivers, lands and forests and are damaging sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Solar panels are made from metals and fossil fuels; vast numbers of them are required if the goal is to replicate the vast quantities of fossil fuel-produced electricity. Electric engines (in vehicles, wind turbines, etc) consume vast quantities of metals and rare earth minerals. Wind energies require storage and back-up systems. All large-scale forms of “renewable” energy production require large-scale transmission systems. And so on.

Any form of large-scale energy production gives rise to large, centralized production and distribution systems, the opposite of the “democratically run” management of energy production called for by the manifesto.

The manifesto does speak, importantly, of “Moving to a far more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system would reduce reliance on fossil fuels, capture carbon in the soil, and absorb sudden shocks in the global supply – as well as produce healthier and more affordable food for everyone.” But this is a lot more radical and difficult than it sounds, as can also be said about the total re-casting of urban design with which capitalism has saddled the planet for many generations to come.

What form of government is needed to meet the climate challenge?

Lewis correctly states that government action is required to lead society out of the looming emissions calamity on the planet. But what kind of government is he talking about and on what scale? A lesser-evil variant such as the present Liberal government in Ottawa or a Hillary Clinton-led Democratic Party government in the United States?

What social classes have the interest and organizing capacity to lead the formation of governments that would act in the interest of society as a whole and not simply on behalf of the tiny, capitalist elite? What kind of political parties are required to achieve such a government?

These and other such important questions go unanswered in the world of Leap. We get a certain hint of an answer in this CBC Radio report on Sept 17:

Lewis compared the Leap movement to the Indignados, Spain’s anti-austerity movement that became a political party, and Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States, who are still trying to figure out what to do after his concession.

“It’s a critical question… I think the social forces in Canada need to be more than movements but less than parties,” Lewis said. “We have to be careful to not denigrate the power of grassroots action.”

“Less than parties”? Lewis’ statement came around the same time of his announcement that he would not run for the leadership of the NDP, disappointing many left-wing and environmental activists. So where does that leave us? Protest, and protest some more, all the while hoping that some people in high places are listening? But they are not listening; we know that for a fact.

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein make an important contribution to thought and action on the global warming crisis. They are popular for good reasons. But their vision of the full scope of the global warming crisis and their proposals for what to do are inadequate.

That by itself is not a problem. They are who they are. The problem begins when more radical environmental thinkers and activists, including would-be Marxists, choose not to rock the Leap Manifesto consensus. They opt to limit their vision to the limited outlook of Klein, Lewis and the proposals in the Leap Manifesto.

Complicating matters further in Canada is that leftists and environmentalists are standing around waiting for a Jeremy Corby-type leadership miracle to take place in the NDP or something similar to take place in the conservative, pro-private enterprise Green Party. The urgently needed task of building a broad party of the political left gets left on hold.

This is the subject I addressed in my article six months ago reporting on the outcome of the national convention of the New Democratic Party. Delegates there voted to oust the right-wing party leader, Thomas Mulcair, which was most welcome. But this was mistakenly interpreted by leftists as opening a stage of wholesale renewal of the party. This has not taken place, nor can a deep renewal of the NDP be anticipated so long as there is no independent pressure operating on the party from the left.

My article was titled, ‘Climate change emergency shakes Canada’s corporate establishment and fractures the country’s social democratic party‘. It argued: “The socialist left in Canada has been without effective political voices since the 1970s. Only in Quebec has a partial break been made towards a strong and effective party of the political left, with the formation of Québec solidaire in 2006. Canada and Quebec need a party of the political left which can speak out and organize for socialism.”

Alas, no progress towards a party of the left has been made. The wait for a miracle in the NDP miracle is still on. Yet not a single leadership candidate has come forward to lead the moribund party. It is looking for all the world that the right-wing leadership in the NDP may seek to set aside the April 2016 convention vote and draft Mulcair to stay on as party leader. NDP members of Parliament voted unanimously in August that he stay on as interim leader until a party leadership convention in 2017.

So the gauntlet is still laying there on the ground. Who will pick it up?

Notes:
[1] One of the few substantive analyses of Naomi Klein’s 2014 best-selling book This Changes Everything was published in January 2015 by a writing collective calling itself ‘Out of the Woods’. Their review was titled ‘Klein vs Klein’ and can be read here.

[Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.]

Fetishisms of Apocalypse

The Corner House

by Larry Lohmann

Note: An excellent interview with Larry Lohmann follows this piece.

September 20, 2014

Climate change and other environmental campaigns often try to mobilize people around the idea of avoiding apocalypse. This short piece for Occupied Times explores some of the weaknesses of this approach.

To anybody who has ever gone around Europe or North America giving talks or workshops on environmental politics, the scene will be familiar. At some stage a person sitting in the front row will stand up to wonder aloud what the point of the discussion is given that the world is going to hell so fast. A list of terrifying trends will then be laid out. At least three “planetary boundaries” out of nine have already been breached. Humanity now appropriates between 20 and 40 per cent of nature’s net primary production. The proportion of atmospheric carbon dioxide is now higher than it was 10 or 15 million years ago, when sea levels were 100 feet above current levels. If temperatures continue to rise and release even a small amount of the carbon still locked up in the soils and ocean bottoms of the Arctic, we’re fucked. If any doubt remains about whether apocalypse is really on the way, just look at all those crashed civilisations of the past (Easter Island and the Maya are regularly invoked) who also failed to pay attention to “ecological limits”.

The tone of the recital is that of a grim call to order. Those present have just not been registering the facts, and clearly the volume has to be turned up. Why sit around sharing experiences of financialisation, environmental racism, or the enclosure of commons when climate change is about to fry all of us? There’s no time for social transformation. Ruling elites have to be persuaded to act in their own interest now. So obvious is all this to the person in the front row that at this point they may just get up and leave – not so much in protest at the triviality of the proceedings nor out of conscious disrespect for the other participants as from a sense that now that the people present have been alerted to the situation, it’s time to take the message elsewhere.

In a meeting of the kind I describe, the front-row apocalyptician will probably get a respectful hearing. This is a person, after all, in possession of an impressive body of research and statistics – and who is more than justified in insisting that the status quo is untenable. Yet one or two things are likely, rightly, to raise a tremor of unease among those present.

One is the implicit dismissal of class politics. The apocalyptician’s reasoning is as follows. We’re talking about a catastrophe that could kill everybody and everything. Who could have an interest in bringing that on? No need now for the Marxist project of trying to understand how capital accumulation continually recreates human interest in destruction, because, ex hypothesi, no one could ever want destruction to that extent. Catastrophic climate change makes distinctions between hotel room cleaners and hedge fund managers irrelevant. “People” become the universal political subject. Climate politics moves out of the realm of, say, class struggle between workers in Chicago and the financiers of energy projects that pollute their neighbourhoods, or between indigenous bands in the Amazon and the oil companies despoiling their territories. Instead, it becomes – to quote the words of US climate movement guru Bill McKibben – a battle in which generic “human beings” collectively learn to submit to the Great Other of “physics and chemistry”.

For the apocalyptician, the spectre of universal catastrophe may look like a good way of rallying a middle class who may not directly suffer from the impact of fossil-fuelled globalisation. But for many listeners, to flatten out existing social conflict in this way feels disempowering. If the threat of global collapse is supposed to spur us all toward concerted action, why does it seem instead to paralyse the political imagination, spook ordinary people into putting their rebellious instincts on ice, and deaden discussion among different social movements about the lessons of their struggles? Why does it lead so easily to despair or indifference – or even to a sort of sado-masochistic or death-wishy pleasure in the pornography of doom? And why do the remedies proposed – “we need a crash programme to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent below 350 parts per million” – sound so parochial?

Indeed, instead of unifying political struggles, apocalyptic obsessions often seem to shrink transformative politics to the vanishing point. Slavoj Zizek has remarked that whereas it is precisely out of struggles against particular forms of oppression that “a properly universal dimension explodes … and is directly experienced as universal”, “post-political” campaigns against abstractions like “CO2” suffocate movement expansion because they close off possibilities for people to see their own strivings as a “metaphoric condensation” of global class struggles.

***

Yet isn’t the deeper problem with the appeal to apocalypse not that it is “apolitical”, but that it is all too political in a pernicious way? Not that it is “disempowering”, but that it is all too empowering of the technocratic and privileged classes?

Take climate apocalypse stories, which are currently reinforcing the old capitalist trick of splitting the world into discrete, undifferentiated monoliths called Society and Nature at precisely a time when cutting-edge work on the left – often taking its cue from indigenous peoples’, peasants’ and commoners’ movements – is moving to undermine this dualism. On the apocalyptic view, a fatally-unbalanced Nature is externalised into what Neil Smith called a “super-determinant of our social fate,” forcing a wholly separate Society to homogenise itself around elite managers and their technological and organisational fixes.

By “disappearing” entire peoples and their adaptations, this manoeuvre merely applies to the past the tendency of apocalypticism to hide the complexities of current conflicts involving imperialism, racism and capitalism.Thus disaster movies – not to mention the disaster stories broadcast on the news every evening – are not produced just to feed our sneaking joy in mayhem. They also present narratives of technocratically-minded stars responding on our behalf to “external” threats in which they are portrayed as having played little part. Books like Collapse by Jared Diamond, meanwhile, replace complicated political stories of long-term survival, struggle, and creative renewal among civilisations like those of the Easter Islanders or the Maya with fables of apocalypse and extinction in which one non-European society after another supposedly wipes itself out through its rulers’ failure to “manage” the Menace from Nature. By “disappearing” entire peoples and their adaptations, this manoeuvre merely applies to the past the tendency of apocalypticism to hide the complexities of current conflicts involving imperialism, racism and capitalism.

The expert Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) follows the same procedure, avoiding collective inquiry into the ins and outs of capital accumulation in favour of a simplistic narrative pitting Society against a Nature consisting of greenhouse gas molecules. Except that unlike the apocalyptician visiting the activist meeting, who chooses to get up and leave after speaking, the IPCC is actually statutorily required to “present the global warming science” as if it contained a politics-free message from Nature itself, requiring no discussion, and then get up and walk out in order to allow the sanitised missive to sink into Society (a.k.a. the delegates to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).

Although they can hardly be accused of drawing back from analysing the dynamics of capital, some flavour of this approach lingers on even among some thinkers on the left such as John Bellamy Foster and Naomi Klein, who, contemplating apocalypse, are tempted to fall back on creaking Cartesian slogans according to which not only does Capitalism act on a wholly separate Nature (“Capitalism’s War on the Earth”), but Nature itself somehow acquires that long-coveted ability to overthrow Capitalism (“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”).

***

Apocalypse stories are always about rule. Every community, perhaps, recounts its own apocalypses, paired with its own ideals of elite or revolutionary response. St. John’s biblical apocalypse found its answer in God’s infinite love. In early capitalist England, the threatened apocalypse of rebellion on the part of an emerging, uprooted proletariat was countered by, among other things, a new discipline of abstract Newtonian time that promised to keep everyone in line. Marxist visions of capitalist  apocalypse are typically matched with projections of political redemption through revolution.   Southeast Asian millenarianists gambled on a moral cleansing of the worldly order, as do some  survivalists in the contemporary US, where doomsday religious rhetoric has often gone hand in hand
with rampant extractivism and free-market ideology.

The prototype modern apocalypse story is perhaps that of Malthus, with his 1798 vision of uncontrollably breeding hordes whose ravening after land would “sink the whole world in universal night”. Helping justify the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, Malthus’s tale also energised murderous 19th-century famine policies in British India, powered Garrett Hardin’s 20th-century polemics against commons and communism and serves as an unacknowledged foundation for countless World Bank economic reports and research projects in biology and “natural resource management”. Finding an echo in Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” apocalypse speech, it also haunts the immigration policies of UKIP and other British political parties.

Of equally enduring influence has been the slow-motion apocalypse prefigured by 19thcentury
thermodynamics: heat death, when capital can extract no more work from the universe, all the lights go out, and the machines rumble to a halt. While this particular catastrophe story has ceased to be the object of the obsessive brooding that it was among North Atlantic intellectual classes in the 1800s, it too remains active today, hovering ghostlike in the background of every post-Taylorian drive to sweat labour and other resources, as well as every energy-saving programme or excited politician’s appeal to the “white heat of technology” or “increased efficiency for national competitiveness”.

Al Gore’s famous documentary An Inconvenient Truth heightened viewers’ anxiety about global warming by enjoining them to think of themselves as frogs being slowly boiled alive, only to climax with a paean to capitalist competition and the “renewable resource” of US “political will”. In the global warming debate as well, apocalypse has come to be invoked mainly to tell us what will happen if we don’t adopt innovative business practices. Al Gore’s famous documentary An Inconvenient Truth heightened viewers’ anxiety about global warming by enjoining them to think of themselves as frogs being slowly boiled alive, only to climax with a paean to capitalist competition and the “renewable resource” of US “political will”. In Carbon, an August 2014 climate campaign video from the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation, cartoons of a rampaging, Transformer-like “fossil fuel robot” without a human face stomping around the planet laying waste to all living things alternate with interviews with bland, besuited North American and European technocrats and  politicians drawling about carbon prices as the solution to all our climate problems. Which half of this composite vision is the more terrifying is, for me, an open question.

Justice Matters – Larry Lohmann

Published on Mar 13, 2015 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hMmr4rgMWk

Reality Check: Germany Does Not Get Half of its Energy from Solar Panels

The Energy Collective

August 18, 2014

By Robert Wilson

The rise of the Internet means that simple factual issues can be checked quicker than would have been believed possible a generation ago. The rise of social media means that facts are not checked, they are retweeted.

Such is the case with renewable energy in Germany, where it appears almost anything is to be believed.

Here is the most popular meme: “Germany now gets half of its energy from solar panels.” This does the rounds of Twitter and Facebook almost every day. In fact, it has now spread to more reputable outlets such as Popular Mechanics, and has even appeared on the website of Richard Dawkins, the inventor of the term meme, under the headline “Germany Now Produces Half Of Its Energy Using Solar.” The problem, of course, is that Germany does not get half of its energy from solar panels, and will not do so any time soon.

As with any myth there are multiple versions. In this case it is either that Germany gets half of its electricity or half its energy from solar panels. The latter version is easily refuted by pointing out that the majority of German energy consumption is not in the form of electricity. BMWs, Mercedes and Volkswagens run on petrol and diesel, not electricity.

The more common version of the myth is debunked with simple reference to Germany’s official statistics for electricity generation. And what they tell us is quite simple. Germany does not get half of its electricity from solar panels, instead the figure is around ten times lower. Last year only 4.5% of Germany’s gross electricity generation came from solar panels, far short of 50%.

And if you want to think that half of Germany’s electricity comes from something green you will be disappointed. 46% of generation comes from coal. And just over half of coal powered electricity in Germany comes from burning lignite, perhaps the most polluting way to generate electricity on the planet.

GermanyElectricityMix

These statistics, then, make it clear that the “solar revolution” that has supposedly occurred in Germany is not worth the name, and is mostly just a combination of hype and wishful thinking. I can make this even clearer by comparing the growth of solar in Germany with that of more old fashioned forms of electricity generation.

In 1990, Britain got no electricity whatsoever from gas power plants. Yet, within one decade this went from zero to forty percent. This is a much more rapid growth than has been in German solar wind, or anything else. In fact, no country has grown any source of renewable electricity at such a speed.
An even more sobering comparison, given Germany’s much trumped green credentials, is with the growth of coal power plants this decade. At the end of last year Germany had a total of 36 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, and this produced 28.3 terawatt hours of electricity. However, between 2011 and 2015 Germany is opening 10.7 gigawatts of new coal power plant capacity. The consulting company Poyry projects that these new coal power plants will have average capacity factors of 80%. If so, they will have a combined average annual output of 75 terawatt hours. In other words, in five years Germany is opening coal capacity which will have an annual output of more than double that from all of its solar panels. However, this comparison is perhaps too generous. Solar panels typically last twenty to twenty five years, but coal power plants easily last twice that long.
What we are seeing in Germany, then, is much more of a coal lock-in than a solar revolution.
And solar power in Germany faces fundamental problems. For obvious physical reasons – the sun always sets – there is absolutely no output from solar panels a lot of the time. In the case of Germany it is around 46% of the time. However, Germany can, on a sunny day, get a lot of its electricity demand from solar panels. On the occasional sunny day solar panel output can exceed half of total electricity demand. This is the source of the myth that Germany gets half of its electricity from solar panels. Media reports on solar in Germany focus on the peak, and not on the average.
The average, well, that’s one tenth of the peak, but I guess not even half of the story.
Germany’s solar output varies massively during the year, and these variations can be made clear by a simple comparison. Daily output of Germany’s solar panels peaked last year on 21st of July, when panels produced 20.9% of daily electricity demand. In contrast, the worst day of the year was 18th January when solar panels produced just over 0.1% of Germany’s electricity demand. This second statistic has, unsurprisingly, failed to elicit any headlines.

PVhighlow

During large stretches of winter Germany’s solar panels generate almost no electricity, with output from solar panels being fifteen times higher in July than in January last year. In addition, Germany’s annual consumption of electricity peaks in Winter evenings, when solar panels reliably generate no power. These simple realities mean that Germany, or any other cloudy and high latitude country, will struggle to generate truly revolutionary amounts of electricity from solar panels.

I will end with a simple calculation of how long it will take Germany to reach 50% solar electricity given current build rates.

The new German government has put in place a long-term target of having between 2.5 and 3.5 gigawatts of solar panels installed each year. If we take the higher figure, and assume that 3.5 gigawatts is installed each year, it will take Germany almost ninety years to reach 50% solar electricity. This however is an underestimate. Solar panels must be replaced every twenty or twenty fives years, and 50% solar energy in Germany would require massive advances in energy storage techniques. Germany, then, is around a century away from getting half of its electricity from solar panels.

Does this look like a revolution?

 

 

Notes

1. Statistics for Germany’s energy consumption are available from BP and Eurostat. In total, solar energy was 2% of Germany’s primary energy consumption last year, using BP’s statistics. The precise percentage however will vary depending on how energy consumption is defined. If we used the IEA’s definition of primary energy consumption for solar, then the figure would be around 1%. I discussed the problem of measuring renewable energy consumption here.

2. Annual electricity production statistics by energy source for Germany are available from AGEB, while Transparency EEX provides real-time production of solar power. Hourly solar power production for the last three years is available at the website of PF Bach.

3. The points made about seasonal variation of solar power output are not particularly valid for lower latitude countries. For example, capacity factors of American solar panels indicate a much flatter seasonal output. There are no long stretches of the year where most of America’s solar panels are producing essentially no power.

 

[Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde. His secondary interests are energy and the environment and writes on these issues at The Energy Collective. Follow him on Twitter: @PrimedMover Email: robertwilson190 at gmail.com or robert.wilson at strath.ac.uk]

WATCH: Ozzie Zehner – Green Illusions

“Ten years from now, will we think of renewable energy as clean and green? Emerging research on the side effects and limitations of solar cells, wind turbines, biofuels, electric cars and other alternative energy strategies will likely transform conventional wisdom about what’s green, and what’s not. Which players will be left in the dust? Who will innovate the next green revolution? And how?

The Sunday Times describes Ozzie Zehner an “an academic who is causing shockwaves.” He is the author of Green Illusions and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He lectures at universities and public policy organizations.”

Published on Oct 8, 2012:

Published on Oct 1, 2012

 

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