Socialism and the Energy Question, Part Three

By Brian Yanity

Upside Down World


Energy Question, Part One

Energy Question, Part Two

Renewable Energy Movements

Democratic control over a decentralized renewable-based economy is in direct competition with the profit imperative of many, but not all, large companies. The present policy of governments and most mainstream environmental organizations is to lightly pressure (in effect leave it up to) fossil-fuel corporations and big utility companies to develop energy alternatives. Mainstream U.S. environmental organizations, most notably the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, in the mid-1970s started pursuing “partnerships” with large energy corporations (like union leaders partnering with management) with predictable results:

… [in the 1970s] David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund argued that there was no inherent contradiction between utility profits and the promotion of conservation and renewable energy. Roe contended that it was imperative to cut the utilities into the demand-side deal by offering them a fixed profit share on their expenditures to reduce demand, expenses that ran the gamut from rebates on energy-efficient refrigerators to conservation commercials aired on TV. It may have seemed “too good to be true,” wrote Roe, but under utility-controlled demand-side management, all that the utilities would have to relinquish would be their energy-promotion advertising, which had historically overshadowed research and conservation efforts.

The NRDC and the corporate-backed Energy Foundation (which helps fund the NRDC) both supported the approach as stated in its late 1980s “Collaborative Principles of Practice”, that in environmental partnerships with energy corporations, all “stakeholders” should make decisions by consensus and “speak with one voice.” Activists practicing consensus with corporations has rarely been a good idea, and the renewable transformation must come at the cost of established fossil energy interests. These same organizations had connections to Wall Street money, as mainstream environmental leaders saw no contradiction between renewable energy/conservation and the profits of energy corporations. They wanted to merely change utility “investment practices.” The bankruptcy of this approach was obvious by the start of the 1990s.
Top-down approaches such as international government accords are doomed to fail, as witnessed by the breakdown of the vague “commitments” by governments to the Kyoto Protocol. They are based on the voluntary compliance of corporations to reduce emissions, as well as the goodwill of such people as “Enron Democrats.” For example, the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was eliminated during the Clinton administration in 1995.

We have to go to the grassroots and struggle from below. Poor people and workers spend a much greater part of their incomes on energy consumption than do rich people, so are disproportionately affected by the negative aspects of the fossil energy industry. What kind of grassroots renewable energy development is possible in an industry dominated by a few large corporations? The good news is that this is already going on. Home-sized renewable power systems are becoming increasingly more popular. The movements for municipally-owned and cooperative utilities offer more democratic control for consumers, and though a far cry from any kind of meaningful worker’s democracy, they are still important and should be supported against the likes of Enron. Opinion polls have consistently shown in the last three decades that most of the U.S. public wants greater investment in renewables and energy efficiency. Among the short-term reforms that people should demand include generous subsidies for installing renewable energy systems in homes, and a “green-sin tax” on large energy corporations, from which money could go to renewable energy programs.

Although sun-based heat applications go back to ancient times, the first modern applications of solar energy were developed during the industrial revolution. Some scientists and engineers at the time already saw the contradictions of a fossil-fuel based economy. Scattered groups of scientists, engineers and technical hobbyists kept the dream of solar energy alive until the 1950s and 60s, when solar cells and improved fuel cells were developed by the U.S. and Soviet governments for their space programs. Solar energy proved to be the form of energy most suitable for powering satellites. In the U.S. in the 1970s, a grassroots solar movement started after the 1973 energy crisis, growing out of the anti-nuclear, environmental, and “back to the land” movements. The 1970s solar movement was limited in many ways, but important in establishing the grassroots as the basis for renewable energy. Some of its weaknesses included incompetent installers/lack of knowledge, undeveloped technology, and a lack of solar industry support infrastructure. Also, the politics of many people involved in this movement centered too much on individualist lifestyle politics. In other words: just run away from society, go off into the woods, build yourself a cabin, get your own energy, and that is all you need to do. In other words, their purpose is not to change the world, but to retreat from it. This middle-class movement was very far removed from any kind of mass social struggle. In northern California, the epicenter of the solar home movement, much of this movement was funded by backwoods professional marijuana growers, the exact kind of petty bourgeoisie who want to stay out of the public eye.

There is nothing wrong with living sustainably in the countryside, but what is a problem is if this is a political end in itself. Individually switching to renewable energy only has any real impact if it is part of a mass movement liked to other social struggles.

Movements by people around the world affected by capitalist energy projects are truly inspiring and deserve our support. In the Brooks Range of Alaska, the Gwich’in people are working on solar energy projects while fighting oil drilling in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The successful popular mobilizations against water and gas privatization in Bolivia have been making headlines around the world. Grassroots struggles in the Narmada Valley of India against big dam projects have also attracted international attention. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or “Save the Narmada Movement,” has teamed up with the People’s School of Energy (PSE), a progressive engineering group based in the Indian state of Kerala, to help affected Narmada villages build microhydro electric plants as a working alternative to big dams. The PSE is part of India’s remarkable People’s Science Movements, which are centered in Kerala, a state famous for its progressive development programs and social movements. The Communist Party of India [Marxist]-related Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which literally translates as “Science Writers’ Forum of Kerala,” coined the term “science for social revolution.”

Why people's science? Because science and technology could have fulfilled the basic needs of all of humanity; could have liberated minds from the dead weight of obscurantism and backwardness. But in a world where the greed of a few have strangled the needs of the larger humanity, science and technology have been turned into further means of concentrating power and wealth into a few hands, are being abused as tools for wasteful consumption, hideous militarization and gruesome wars. Their distorted use has brought both humanity and nature on the verge of annihilation.

All the People's Science Movements are committed to working for a society where every single person is guaranteed a minimum quality of life, a society which is equitable and sustainable. The PSMs believe that science and technology inputs are essential to achieve this goal though such inputs by themselves are not sufficient to do so. The PSMs believe that the public needs to develop a critical understanding of science and technology to enable them to participate in shaping the growth of science and technology and in decisions regarding its application, especially in the choice of technologies in different contexts. The PSMs believe that science and technology must be actively shaped to serve the goal of serving humanity. The PSMs share the optimism that WE can by collective action ensure such a future.

As India’s People’s Science Movements demonstrate, knowledge of energy production should not strictly be the realm of so-called experts. Millions of everyday people should be learning about these issues and making their voices heard, not just in India but in the industrialized countries as well:

After the bombing of Hiroshima marked the end of World War II, Albert Einstein warned that the facts about atomic energy must be carried “to the village square.” From there, he said, “must come America’s voice.”

One of the greatest corruptions of American academia since the 1960s is the decay of science education due to the influence of postmodern ideas. As noted by Scheer:

It is the task of the modern, environmentally conscious age to force this transition to a solar global economy, thereby overcoming the doomed fossil industrial age that has not only closed its eyes to the life-and-death choices that confront it, but utterly denies that such choices exist. The US philosopher Arran Gare writes in his book Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis that disorientation ‘has been made a virtue, and the absence of fixed reference points is celebrated.’ He portrays a generation mistrustful of the wider picture and of large-scale solutions. Such crises of identity and the loss of confidence in the future of society have always made an appearance when the existing social model has lost its credibility. But that is no excuse to all abandon all convincing models.

Thanks to postmodernism, primary school teachers, and thus children, are trained to ignore a scientific understanding of the world. Most of the graduate students in departments of physical science and engineering throughout the industrialized countries are from Asia, where postmodern ideas about primary and secondary education have less influence.

The Public Power Movement

We should demand public ownership of electric utilities, as they are a natural monopoly unsuited to the free market. Publicly-owned utilities almost always charge lower rates, and don’t have to pay taxes or dividends to shareholders. The public power movement has gone on for more than a century, as described by public power guru Harvey Wasserman:

As Morgan and Westinghouse built their gargantuan fortunes, angry grassroots Americans demanded ownership of their own power supply. Starting with a Brush generator in Fairfield, Iowa, some 53 cities and towns established their own municipal systems by 1888. Over the next hundred years, such public systems -virtually without exception- would consistently deliver power more cheaply and reliably than those in baronial hands.

In 1893 the U.S. plunged into an economic disaster known until the 1930s as “the Great Depression.” That spring, 15,282 Detroiters voted to establish a municipal generator to produce power under public control, exclusive of private monopolies. Despite a massive campaign by Morgan’s Detroit Electric Light and Power (whose chief engineer was Henry Ford), only 1,745 voted no. By 1895 the city had a “muni” –a municipally-owned utility. Populist Mayor Hazen Pingree said such public power put electricity “within reach of the humblest of citizens.”

Nationwide, between sixty and 120 new munis were formed every year from 1897 through 1907. By 1912 there were 3,659 private utilities, and 1,737 public ones. War raged between them. A community would propose a public utility to cut prices and restore democracy. Then the privates sent in an army of lawyers, politicians and public relations flaks. Years- sometimes decades- of bitter struggle followed.

The movement for public ownership of electric utilities and electric streetcar companies (which were intertwined) became part of the burgeoning socialist and populist movements. By 1912, one third of the 5,396 power companies in the U.S. were publicly owned. The National Popular Government League was formed in 1916 to promote publicly owned utilities. Despite these efforts, the 1920s saw massive consolidation of electric companies and the buying up of some public systems. By the 1930s, however, the U.S. government had to extensively subsidize rural electrification in order for it to exist at all, as part of the “Electric New Deal”:

The private power companies fought every inch of the way. But the 1936 Rural Electrification Act brought a new technological dawn to America’s poorest farmers. Funding from the Public Works Administration helped push rural coops into the continent’s farthest reaches. By 1944, nearly half America’s farms had electric power… the REA revolutionized American rural life in what [Nebraska Senator] Norris called “the spirit of unselfishness for the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The REA created 740 rural electric cooperatives and more than sixty public utility districts. Thanks to the REA, 95% of U.S. farms had electricity by the early 1960s.

In the U.S. today, there are more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, serving over 40 million people or about 15 percent of the nation's electricity consumers. U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Sacramento, San Antonio, Jacksonville, Nashville, Memphis, and Cleveland have publicly-owned electric power. This does not mean that public power can’t be taken over by corporate interests, as it often is. Public power is not panacea, but historically publicly-owned utilities have been much more amenable to renewable energy and energy efficiency, and in general are more accountable to the public. For example, The New York State Power Authority has long been famous for corruption and control by corporations, while the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has been a leader among U.S. utilities for renewable energy and efficiency:

Obviously, some public-power systems are more democratic than others. The New York State Power Authority is governed by a board of trustees appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the New York State Senate. The most democratic public utilities have governing boards chosen by direct election of the people. Sacramento’s municipal utility is governed by a five-person board elected by the citizens of the district SMUD serves; if the constituents are dissatisfied with outages and rate hikes, or frightened about a nuclear plant, they have a mechanism for debating solutions and choosing leaders who will implement those decisions.

America’s largest power producers are federally-owned hydropower agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The directors of these agencies are appointed by the president and confirmed the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps the best way of extracting reforms from capitalist utilities is building a grassroots political movement to municipalize them. After the 2001 California blackouts, some of the loudest voices demanding public power were large manufacturing corporations, who prefer the low, stable rates of public power to the price-gouging of deregulation.

Individually, people should go to renewable resources as fast as possible- photovoltaics, wind, and increased efficiency. Find ways to technologically circumvent the monopolized energy sources. We have the power to solarize our homes. We have to use energy efficiency to bring on publicly owned power. Nothing less will do. We can’t have a kind of vague discontent. There has to be a concerted and explicit movement to take over these power grids, to have the public own and operate them. That’s the way it has to go.

As stated by a 2001 International Socialist Review article about the California energy crisis:

The fight for public power in California must be seen as part of the fight against private school vouchers, welfare reform, growing mass layoffs, and HMOs. We also can offer an example to our brothers and sisters fighting the same battles around the world. But the fight for public power also needs to be linked to the struggle for public ownership and democratic control over all of our resources and institutions--to socialism. Price gouging, kickbacks for public utility bosses, pollution, and profiteering are features of the state utilities that remain public, just as they did in California before deregulation. The same logic that says that power is a good that should be democratically and publicly controlled and allocated to all equitably applies to water, food, health care, and other essentials that have been turned into commodities to be bought and sold for profit under capitalism. The current energy crisis in California exposes the failures of the market and why we need to struggle for a socialist society.

Physical and Economic Law

In the innovative 1912 work Matter and Energy, Fredrick Soddy wrote:

The laws expressing the relations between matter and energy are not solely of importance in pure science. They necessarily come first… in the whole record of human experience, and they control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of political systems, the freedom or bondage of nations, the movements of commerce and industry, the origin of wealth and poverty and the general physical welfare of the race. If this has been imperfectly recognized in the past, there is no excuse, now that these physical laws have become incorporated into everyday habits of thought, for neglecting to consider them first in questions relating to the future.

About the truly “free electric market” of the 1880s and 90s, Wasserman said:

This single decade of frontier-style chaos was the only time in U.S. history the electric market could be termed “free.” Future advocates of deregulation with mythologize such competition. But in practice, it was an unmitigated disaster: a short-term free-for-all, followed by an avalanche of corporate consolidation. In city after city, throughout the 1880s, poles and wire proliferated like weeds. Hundreds of small, underfunded entrepreneurs pasted together financing for generators, wires, and lights, only to fall prey to lethal shortages of capital, expertise and integrity.

Then came the sharks. In Chicago, in 1887, the Gas Trust Company established “a monopoly of all the light with which Chicago is to be blessed.” Everywhere, this story was much the same- except in New York, where the scale was bigger and the names better known. Buying into the area around Wall Street, Edison hooked up with J. Pierpont Morgan, the nation’s premier banker, and began building the biggest of all electric empires.

The current neoliberal model of energy production and distribution is clearly showing signs of strain. We are now seeing deregulated history repeat itself:

Deregulation is a disaster for the public. All deregulation really means is the removal of any semblance of public participation in any of the decisions involving energy generation and distribution. It’s a completely cynical, antidemocratic, and ultimately catastrophic move to deregulate… Because electric power is a natural monopoly. You will never have meaningful competition in the electric power business. It’s like proposing that there be competition between streets. The only real competition in the electric power business is between public-owned power and private-owned power. And public-owned power, without exception, has provided electricity cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more reliably throughout the last century… the idea of using deregulation to introduce the so-called magic of the marketplace to the electric power business is utter nonsense. You are simply exchanging a regulated monopoly for a deregulated monopoly, and there’s nothing worse than a deregulated monopoly.

Big energy companies are now starting to branch out into telecom, water, waste disposal, and media, in order to monopolize everything. The neoliberal economists’ electricity deregulation theories always seem to work beautifully at conferences and in academic journals, but they didn’t realize until after the fact that these so-called laws of the market violate the laws of physics. Power engineers were warning about this problem years before the famous deregulated blackouts of California in 2001. In a competitive market, surplus transmission capacity doesn’t pay. When the laws of physics clash with the ideology of neoliberalism, physics will always win, whether it be electrons running through wires (as in the August 2003 Northeast blackout) or the thermodynamics of the atmosphere (global warming).

This is stunning example of how far removed mainstream economics has come from the empirical reality of the planet we live on. These economists tend to forget that humankind’s relationship to natural resources and the physical world are a most fundamental aspect of the economy. An important result of the 1990s electric generation construction binge was that not enough transmission grid was built to keep the additional generation capacity, simply because transmission is a historically less profitable business than generation. By analogy, using roads built by the government (paid for by everyone) is more profitable than building them yourself. And deregulations of roads could lead to such stupidities such as the removal of stop signs and traffic lights in order to “cut costs.” Expansion of the transmission grid, as advocated by private utilities, would not be necessary if the power grid were more rationally planned, with less reliance on long-range transmission. Spot markets combined with long-distance wholesale power trading makes rational grid planning impossible. Expansion of the electric power grid will of course be a big subsidy to certain companies who would benefit from building more transmission lines. All this of course will mean increases in utility rates, as they can pass on any expense to their workers and consumers.

Energy Use and Scarcity

Scarcity can be orchestrated by capitalists -as in the case of grain supplies- or be the result of plain negligence, and also can be the result of the natural constraints of the physical environment. For example, water can be called a scarce resource in desert regions. Likewise, both arable land and liquid water are extremely scarce resources in Antarctica. However, in both cases, the lack of resources can be made up for with lots of energy. In the Persian Gulf oil-producing region, seawater desalination is powered by abundant natural gas. Nuclear energy used to be purported as being able to create a new era of abundance, ending scarcity forever. The US Navy actually operated a nuclear reactor in Antarctica from 1962-72, under the cold-war belief that anything was possible with the “abundance” created by nuclear energy. One of the goals of this reactor was to prove that tropical fruit could be grown in the coldest climates! Like many reactors, it got eventually shut down because it was too expensive to operate. According to Wasserman, “Even Students for a Democratic Society, the radical campus crusade, cited atomic energy as a potential solution to the plight of the world’s poor in its founding statement.”

With renewable resources such as renewable energy, food, and water, the problem is mostly one of distribution, not availability. As described by McCully:

Political and economic pressures to change water and energy (mis)management practices are growing. New and better technologies and ways of doing things are being developed and becoming economically and socially viable. It is also vital to keep in mind that the reason why the needs of so many go unmet is not because of any overall shortage of food, water or energy. The problem is largely one of distribution, not availability.

How do we equitably distribute them? Renewable resources, by definition, are abundant. The sun, wind, and water evaporation cycle happen continuously, regenerating its energy output every time. Fossil fuels exacerbate the distribution problem because they cannot be regenerated. Humans do have the technical ability for the entire world to be run on renewable energy, but the technical infrastructure in many ways has not been fully developed. The full conversion from fossil to renewable energy will take decades to complete, but the faster the better. Below, just replace “universal provision” with “abundance” in this quote from Scheer’s excellent book The Solar Economy:

The goal of universal provision is the social and democratic ideal of the modern age, an ideal which originated with the industrial revolution. But the industrial revolution’s excesses, which have led us to put ourselves above nature, make it impossible to realize this ideal for all people in the long term. To achieve universal provision, it is not necessary to give nature priority over the needs of humans. What is essential… is the primacy of physical laws over the laws of the market. In practical economic terms, this means above all that locally or regionally produced solar energy, foodstuffs and solar resources should be consumed and marketed in preference to otherwise equivalent products. A society which, with the aid of its political institutions, is unable to reverse the primacy of the market over nature is destined to die. The choice is not between public and private enterprise, between the free market and the planned economy. It is a question of the physical laws that govern private and public enterprise, market and planned economy alike. [ Emphasis original ]

This is the essence of a truly materialist analysis of the energy question. Although Scheer makes the mistake of claiming that “the old dispute of capitalism versus socialism pales into insignificance before the life-or-death choice of renewable versus non-renewable energy resources”, and makes the common mistake of saying Marxism ignores the environment, he still finds it necessary to quote the Communist Manifesto at great length:

The speed and scope of globalization had already been documented in Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. The relevant passage is now more topical than ever. You have only to replace the ‘bourgeoisie’ with the modern term ‘big business’ – albeit they have slightly different characteristics- to arrive at an impressively apt description of the present situation, even down to the one-sided and arrogant conception of economic development:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff. [English edition of 1888]
Renewable Energy and the Material Basis for Socialism

Everybody’s gotta little light under the sun

-Parliament, “Flash Light”

It is the material world that determines what is possible for human beings. A completely environmentally-sustainable world economy is not possible under capitalism, but this does not mean important struggles for environmental protection (which renewable energy is a part of) are unimportant. On the contrary, struggles attacking capitalism’s destruction of the environment are yet another strategic blow against the global system of exploitation. Socialists should actively engage in environmental struggles and foster more discussion within the environmental movement about the exploitative nature of the capitalist system and the mass movement needed to replace it with a fair and truly sustainable system of production. A politicized environmental movement, with a firm grasp of political economy and the role of working people in it, could very well prove to be a crucial blow to the world capitalist system. Renewable energy is an immediate gain for the environment and for workers.

The means of producing energy are vital tools of production. Capitalism may create these invaluable new technologies, but this does not mean that these technologies’ full potential will be realized under capitalism. The technologies and production processes that are implemented under capitalism are the ones which benefit the capitalist class the most.

While only socialist revolution can completely dismantle such economic structures as Exxon-Mobil or Chevron-Texaco, small scale renewable energy projects do provide immediate material and environmental gains. In the short to medium term, renewable energy projects (though still representing a small percentage of overall energy production), demonstrate in a very real sense that alternatives to established modes of production and both possible and desirable. As Chris Harman writes in How Marxism Works:

For example under the Roman Empire there were many ideas about how to produce more crops from a given amount of ground, but people didn’t put them into effect because they required more devotion to work than you could get from slaves working under the fear of the whip. When the British ruled Ireland in the 18th century they tried to stop the development of industry there because it clashed with the interests of businessmen in London.

If someone produced a method of solving the food problem of India by slaughtering the sacred cows or providing everyone in Britain with succulent steaks by processing rat meat, they would be ignored because of established prejudices. Developments in production challenge old prejudices and old ways of organising society, but they do not automatically overthrow those old prejudices and social forms. Many human beings fight to prevent change –and those wanting to use new methods of production have to fight for change. If those who oppose change win, then the new forms of production cannot come into operation and production stagnates or even goes backwards.

In Marxist terminology: as the forces of production develop they clash with the pre-existing social relations and ideas that grew up on the basis of old forces of production. Either people identified with the new forces of production win this clash, or those identified with the old system do. In the one case, society moves forward, in the other it remains stuck in a rut, or even goes backwards.

The effort to convert the world from fossil to renewable energy has already started as a series of reforms under capitalism. Socialists should support renewable energy and other environmental causes in the same manner as we support present-day struggles for union rights or racial and gender equality. Renewable energy developments now will add to the experience and technical know-how among workers around the world, laying the groundwork for a totally sustainable, democratically controlled, system of global production. In same way that the steam engine helped lay the foundations of industrial capitalist society, the wind turbine, solar cell, fuel cell, and biomass generator will help lay the groundwork for post-capitalist society. But the steam engine, of course, is only part of the story in the way capitalism became the dominant system. It is up to people to use their knowledge of harnessing energy in a responsible way. As Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Conner write in Who Owns the Sun?: “The real solutions to the energy problem are more democracy, more efficiency, more use of renewable energy, and more local control. To hold otherwise is to help rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”


When decisions about energy production and consumption are decided democratically by the majority of people, renewable energy will naturally become the main energy source. When such decisions are by a few looking out only for their own profits, even if the vast majority of people do support clean sources of energy, renewables will not become implemented in a democratic manner. As socialists, we know that we should not be shy about making public demands which capital says is unrealistic. These will only strengthen are argument that the system as a whole is not reformable. As Paul McGarr said in a 2000 International Socialism Journal article:

The same picture emerges from other collapsed civilisations, where there is little evidence of the ruling class being willing to carry through the fundamental changes needed to avoid disaster. This is what Marx and Engels meant when they talked of crisis having two possible resolutions, either 'a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes'.

Marx pointed to the way this process of crisis could unfold in relation to the environment. He argued that any society depends 'on the climate, the physical properties of the soil, the physically conditioned mode of its utilisation' and how if that society 'is to continue in the old way, the reproduction of its members under the objective conditions already assumed as given is necessary'. But such reproduction of society in its existing form, with its existing class relations and way of organising production, has the seeds of disaster built into it: 'Production itself in time necessarily eliminates these conditions, destroying instead of reproducing them, etc, and as this occurs the community decays and dies, together with the property relations on which it was based'.

The grip of the old ruling class leads to an increasing inability to sustain the needs of society on the basis of the old way of organising production. Persistence in a particular way of organising society and the production it is based on produces social crisis and environmental crisis, the two go hand in hand.

Renewable energy should not be called “alternative” energy, though that is true in the present energy situation. If human civilization is to survive, there is ultimately no alternative to renewable energy.

And as stated by Scheer:

The Earth is rich, and it owes its wealth to the sun. That this wealth is today more often burnt than used and preserved for the future is the greatest economic nonsense imaginable. And then to call this destruction of resources ‘economic growth’ makes a mockery of the phrase. This is not economic growth, but economic destruction, and it leads not to Adam Smith’s ‘wealth of nations’, but rather to Elmar Altvater’s ‘poverty of nations’.

Socialism depends upon abundance, and the only resources which are truly abundant are renewable resources. True abundance, and therefore socialism, on a global scale is impossible without widespread use of renewable energy. The future socialist society will no doubt be powered by renewable energy, while coal, gas, oil, and nuclear will be phased out entirely. Instead of something which should be deferred until after capitalism, this is a problem which we should work on right now. The potential and knowledge are out there, and practical solutions are popping up all over the place. A big part of the job of socialists is preparing the future, and the future will be powered by renewable energy.

Brian Yanity is a student at Columbia University. He can be reached at bby2001@columbia.edu

Copyright © 2004, Upside Down World

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[i] Wilhelm Ostwald: Die energetischen Grundlagen der Kulturwissenschaften (The Energy Basis of the Humanities), (Leipig 1909), p. 2.

ii] U.S. Dept. of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Available online at http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/iea/table29.html.

[iii] Richard Spurgeon and Mike Flood, Energy and Power (London: Usborn Publishing 1990), p. 13.

[iv] IEA World Energy Outlook, 2003., p. 28. Available online at http://www.iea.org/statistics/key2003.pdf.

[v] Hermann Scheer: The Solar Economy: renewable energy for a sustainable global future. (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1999), original German edition: (München: Verlag Antje Kunstmann GmbH, 2002), p. 14.

[vi] IEA, p. 33.

[vii] Scheer, pp. 98-99.

[viii] Lawrence A. Ruth. “Advanced Coal-Fired Power Plants,” Journal of Energy Resources Technology, March 2001, p. 5.

[ix] Available online at http://www.greenpeace.org/nuclear/nukepower_reason4text.htm

[x] Thomas Spiro and William Stigliani. Chemistry of the Environment (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 2003), pp. 5-9.

[xi] John Houghton. Global Warming: the Complete Breifing. (Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press 1997), p. 203.

[xii] Richard Spurgeon and Mike Flood, Energy and Power (London: Usborn Publishing 1990), p. 14.

[xiii] Paul Maycock, “PV market update,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 84.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 96.

[xv] Ibid.,, p. 86.

[xvi] Peter Fairley, “Can organics replace silicon in PV?,” IEEE Spectrum, January 2004, pp. 28-30.

[xvii] Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Conner, Who Owns the Sun? People, politics and the Struggle for a Solar Economy (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green 1996), p. 16.

[xviii] ESTIF, “A solar thermal strategy: sun in action II,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, pg. 200.

[xix] Ibid., p. 204.

[xx] Christine Real de Azua, “Grid Wars,” Solar Today, November/December 2003, p. 39.

[xxi] “Wind generates power for 35 million people,” REFOCUS, September/October 2003, p. 14.

[xxii] Paul Gipe, “The BTM wind report; world market update,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 76.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 81.

[xxiv] D.L. Elliot and M.N. Schwartz, Wind Energy Potential in the United States (Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, 1993). Available online at: http://www.nrel.gov/wind/wind_potential.html.

[xxv] “AWEA projections for US wind in 2003 increase, but PTC extension essential,” Renewable Energy World, September/October 2003, p. 18.

[xxvi] Peter Asus, interviewing Steve Zwolinski, “Offshore wind energy takes off at GE,” REFOCUS, November/December 2003, p. 55.

[xxvii] Gipe, pp. 66-8.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 68.

[xxix] “EWEA sets sights on 180,000 MW wind in Europe by 2020,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 14.

[xxx] Alison Hill, “A new power in the marketplace,” Renewable Energy World, September/October 2003, p. 46.

[xxxi] Ibid., p. 48.

[xxxii] Micheal Zaaner and Andrew Henderson, “Offshore update: a global look at offshore wind energy,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 115.

[xxxiii] Godfrey Chua, “The sleeping dragon: wind energy in the Asia-Pacific region,” REFOCUS, November/December 2003, p. 27.

[xxxiv] David Hayes, “Asian renewables,” REFOCUS, January/February 2004, p. 34.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 28.

[xxxvi] Gipe, p. 66.

[xxxvii] Ibid., pp. 74-6.

[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 66.

[xxxix] Spurgeon and Flood, p. 32.

[xl] John Griffiths, “Marine renewables: wave, tidal, and ocean current technologies,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 170.

[xli] John Lund, “Ground-source heat pumps: a world overview,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 218.

[xlii] Spurgeon and Flood, p. 28.

[xliii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy, (New York, Tarcher Penguin 2002), pp. 180-2.

[xliv] Jan Hamrin, “The amazing growth of the U.S. green electricity market,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 148






"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano