Socialism and the Energy Question,
By Brian Yanity
Energy Question, Part
Energy Question, Part
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004, Upside
to go home
[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),
[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.
[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,
[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