Posts Tagged ‘Anthropocene’

Can we reform capitalism

June 14, 2018

This is another website’s summary of the arguments of Yorrick Blumenfeld, slightly modified. URL below.

Summary: Capitalism cannot be reformed, because its nature is destructive.

Capitalism erodes and corrupts democracy: Capitalism is fundamentally antidemocratic. Money controls Parliaments and politicians, not the other way around. Corporate money tends to buy the ability to write and engineer favourable legislation, as parties need money to campaign, and corporate sponsored think tanks decide the environment of thought. The highest bidder – which is usually a group of corporations – buys the government.

Drive to the Bottom: Capitalism pits small countries, states, and counties against each other, seeking special tax breaks and subsidies in highly wasteful “corporate welfare” programs. Capitalism seeks the lowest level of conditions for the people: cheap labour, cheap resources, cheap dumping of waste and cheap regulations.

Capitalism drives off accountability: The political strucutre of corporations shields upper level managers from accountability, while shareholders are protected from personal liability for damage done by the corporation in making the profit they share. Multinationals are not responsible to any electorate, or to governments that respect them. Corporations can always be elsewhere, when they are challenged – just as they take their profits away from where they are earned.

Capitalism’s values are insufficient: Capitalism doesn’t foster many things we value such as: ethics; controlling child labour; strict health and safety standards; reducing hours of labour; providing security for workers; preserving nature; or guaranteeing holidays and weekly breaks from labour. The market economy has failed to focus on durability and ecologically sustainable products and services, and it cannot because these count as costs, not profits. The only spiritual values capitalism can recognise are those that see money as a sign of God’s favour, demand obedience from workers, or generate sales.

It fails to serve the poor: This model underserves over three billion people. Two hundred plus years of capitalism have not brought about global prosperity or environmental balance. It has brought massive prosperity for the very wealthy. Most of the world’s current wealth is controlled by an extremely small number of people – which gives them even more power to govern in their interests alone.

Capitalism has a stability and debt accumulation problem: The supply of money is dependent on people and firms relying on loans and perpetually increasing their debt. Issuing interest requires endless economic growth to pay back the debt, which is neither in the national nor in the global interest. This inflated speculative debt drives the never-ending economic crises and bubble bursts. Without debt current capitalism would collapse. Most of the world’s monetary transactions are purely speculative: wealth is being burnt.

Corporations are subsidized and unaccountable: Capitalist companies are often heavily subsidized (including subsidized by the global ecology by making pollution and destruction an ‘externality’). They also avoid giving back to the community. For instance, corporations avoid taxes that support infrastructure fundamental to their expansion. They use shell companies, tax havens, and modern electronic transfers to shuffle capital around and evade responsibility and to avoid contributing to the life conditions they need. They are parasitic on healthy societies, which they help run down

Globalized capitalism creates local vulnerability: Globalized export-oriented high-tech capitalism undercuts national and regional self-reliance in key commodities. Heavy dependence on global supply lines for items such as food and energy creates a fragile and dangerous situation. Countries may not be able to feed themselves in the near future. Just like workers cannot be self-sufficient without jobs in capitalist organisations. Capitalism creates low resilience to crisis.

Capitalism undercuts diversity and threatens groups: It favours cultural homogenization as well as the homogenization of goods and services to advance market control and to increase profit through uniformity of production. By pushing consumerism and materialism and crushing all other value and survival systems, some would argue that capitalism inspires terrorism. At the least, undermining local conditions creates nationalisms, and fundamentalisms in response.

Capitalism ignores and destroys nature’s life support systems: Capitalism denies that the biosphere has any limits. By failing to internalize the costs of environmental pollution, and purposefully misleading people about the effects of pollution to further their profit, corporations drive a process that radically reduces planetary carrying capacity. Endless expansion of growth and destruction of resources and ecologies is destined to cause overshoot and collapse. Fisheries are over fished, land is over grazed, chemicals are pumped into the environment with little restraint or knowledge of effects, other minerals are extracted from the environment destructively with little attempt at rehabilitation. More waste clogs the land air and sea. The ‘invisible hand’ of corporate power has been destructive. Capitalism will almost certainly drive global suicide.

http://www.fdnearth.org/essays/capitalism-cant-be-reformed-try-the-incentive-economy/

Other points

Capitalism destroys commons: Capitalism produces the tragedy of the commons, in which common property is consumed and destroyed by profit seeking, because the only property that can be recognised is alienable private property. Capitalism enforces the idea that people should not cooperate to restrain the business of others when it impacts on them. Common-land is simply land to be exploited, and to be destroyed or polluted in order to cheapen the cost of production, as is the air and water. All cheap or free things tend to be undervalued, unless they can be monopolised. Capitalist theorists say they can solve all our problems by turning everything, including you, into private property. Then somebody will care. But capitalist property rights also include the right to destroy ‘your’ own property. If someone owns the air, then they can pollute it without challenge. However, if no one owns the air then everyone, especially the powerful, can pollute without challenge as well. Common property is of no value, yet it is the basis of all value.

Capitalism owns the law: for the same reason it owns politics. It buys the lawmakers, and exemptions from the law, so that law favours it’s actions. Similarly because law itself is a process involving lawyers, it can buy the best lawyers and exploit the incoherencies of law, and stretch out cases for such a long time that ordinary people are rendered bankrupt, and cannot afford to challenge the wealthy – even if the wealthy do break the law. The more the law can be bought the more wealth dominates.

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Thinking on the spot: Algorithms and Environment

June 1, 2018

I may, or may not, be asked to participate in a radio show/podcast about algorithms and the environment….

This is my initial spur of the moment thinking…

I’d start by talking about the difficulties of getting algorithms for a complex system. The whole point of complex systems is that they are unpredictable in specific, while possibly being predictable in terms of trends. For example, we cannot predict the weather absolutely accurately for a specific place in 3 months, but we can predict that average temperatures will continue to rise. Initial conditions are important to outcomes in complex systems, but there are always prior conditions (ie there is a way in which initial conditions do not exist), and because so much is happening and linking to each other, there are always problems determining what is important to the model, and what the consequences of an action were. Another problem with complexity (as far as I understand it) is that it can only be modelled to a limited extent by any system which is not the system itself.

Then the model tends to be taken for reality, so we act as if we knew something and are working directly on that system, rather than working on a model which may increasingly diverge from reality with the passing of time….

Then there is the issue of power relations. We know that one simple way of proceeding with Climate change, is to phase out coal and other fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energies. However, we can’t even do this transition at the speed we need to because of established power relations and habit (power is often the ability to trigger established pathways of behaviour) – and we cannot guarantee there will be no unexpected side effects even if we could. For example, we may not succeed in replicating something like our current social life with renewables or we construct them in such a way that it harms the environment.

We also seem to need to absorb greenhouse gases as well as cut back on emissions, but absorption can be used to delay reduction (again through power relations), and there is, as yet, no yet established way of dealing with the GHG that have been removed which is safe or long term. Algorithms cannot successfully model the effects of things we don’t know how to do…

On top of that there is the potential power consumption of the algorithms – while hopefully this will not be too bad there is some evidence that bitcoin (which is a complex algorithm of a kind) could end up being the most energy hungry thing on the planet…. In which case our efforts to save ourselves could intensify the crisis.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that computational algorithms are never of use, but that they tend to be used without testing because they depend on fictional stories which have a high level of conviction, and are treated as if they are the reality we are working with and not as models of that reality. If the model / algorithm tends to advantage some group more than others, and the appliers belong to people loyal to that group, then it will probably be harder to curb if incorrect, and be more likely to be taken for correct. The same is probably true if the model reinforces some precious group belief. The point of this is that models tend to become political, (consciously or unconsciously) because the axioms seem like common sense.

According to some theories humans tend to confuse the ‘map’ for the ‘terrain’ (to use the General Semantics slogan) almost all the time unless its visibly and hopelessly not serving them and there is an easy alternative. If so, that could be one reason why science is so difficult and so relatively rare, and so easy to ‘corrupt’ when it becomes corporate science.

If we are going to model what we do in the world then we absolutely need something like computer modelling, but we also need to emphasise that these models are unlikely to ever be totally accurate, always are going to require modification and change, will get caught in politics and could always be wrong.

If we don’t do this then the aids to helping us model what we are doing and need to do, could well make things worse.

The difficulty of thinking Ecologically

May 17, 2018

Last night I attended a panel run by the International Panel on Social Progress, effectively launching their soon to be released three volume report called “Rethinking Society for the 21st Century” This report involves 269 different authors from all over the world and aims to change the game in thinking about society.

There were 6-7 authors launching it. Not one of them mentioned ecology. Not one.

When I made a query about this, they said the report was big, and well there may have been something about it somewhere. Someone said they had mentioned the sustainable development goals. (These have very little to do with ecology, and ecology is not sustainable – it changes, its called ‘evolution’).

The point is not that ‘environment’ should be tacked onto social and economic thought as an extra, which it can, it is fundamental to social existence, and thinking ecologically in terms of interrelationships, complexity, surprise, conflicting systems, and the importance of the planet, etc. is something which cannot be marginal to any future politics and social thinking. If it is marginal, then we simply reproduce the kinds of mess that we are in nowadays….

That this international multi-authored ‘report’ (and it was emphasised that authors had the capacity to make input everywhere, and had to sign off on the whole thing) seems to have ignored this completely, or made it marginal, shows the problems we face in generating constructive change…

Donut Economics

May 17, 2018

Kate Raworth’s ‘donut’ presents a relatively new way of looking at the economy, which has attained some fame. I’ve attached the picture below.

As you approach the hole in the middle, you have an economy which does not satisfy people’s needs such as water, food, housing, relative equity, liberty, education and so on.

As you approach the edge of the image you begin to destroy the ecologies of the planet that the economy depends upon, producing events such as biodiversity loss, climate change, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, destruction of fertile land, and so on.

Whereas without such a diagram, the capitalist economy is perceived as a matter of self-contained markets isolated from ecology, she argues that the aim of economics should be to satisfy people’s needs without destroying that planetary ecology.

Normal economic theory, can argue that inequality decreases as growth increases, and that growth cleans up economies, because the economic model looks at the world in isolated ways. Some economies appear to clean up ecologies, but they do so at the expense of other ecologies, and businesses are always happy to lower the costs of pollution and increase profit when offered an opportunity.

People may object that it is impossible to meet the needs of everyone – especially while respecting the planetary boundaries, but at least in this model it appears as something which can be discussed as a major concern. Just as we can ask “What is the economy for? What is it about?” and get a reasonably useful answer.

The old economics had an extremely confining view of human nature, it was humanity stripped of everything but the profit motive. This was a decision originally taken to distinguish economics from other fields such as history or philosophy, and to make things simpler, but it became the model of humanity. Under it we are *just* individual profit seekers. We only cooperate in order to make personal profit, we naturally destroy for profit, we have fixed preferences which we neutrally evaluate, and we have no purpose, happiness or virtue other than wealth seeking.

This view is simply not true, or adequate. Humans co-operate as naturally as they compete. We are social as much as individual, we do not naturally only value money and we do not destroy what we share. We are creatures with many purposes and many aims. Wealth is usually only important to the extent it brings about those other purposes and we are not made happy by consumption.
Raworth’s model, to me, is reasonably obvious and elegant and allows humans to be complex. It is not reductive.

It does have a few problems.

1) It does not explicitly recognise that the current economy is a mode of power, situated within frameworks of power relations, and that historical evidence appears to show that those who benefit from this mode of power will do almost anything to preserve it – including wreck the earth.

Nearly all forms of organisation are nowadays reduced to economic/capitalistic organisations. Media and information is controlled by capitalists, the law is controlled by capitalists, the State is controlled by capitalists, education is controlled by capitalists, and so on. Paying attention to the “bottom line” (measured in terms of money) is a mantra that both permeates society, and ignores reality.

It will be hard to move against inertia and the active power dedicated to preserving existing hierarchy. The model does not easily provide for the distortions that power puts into economics – any more than standard economics does. But as standard economics aims to preserve that power it is not a handicap for it, but a strength, as its users can pretend that inequality of outcome is always proportional to inequality of talent.

2) More importantly, the model does not provide a set of simple positive instructions for politicians. It does not give them an easy and painless set of action slogans and programs, whereas conventional economics does.

Conventional economics says: business is always good and always delivers, you must increase growth, nature is limitless or unimportant, commons don’t work so sell them off to business, government is inefficient so hand it over to business, rich people are talented so give them more support and protection (and pick up the rewards), reduce taxes, stop government services, increase charges, abandon poor people as they are without virtue, and individual wealth and its owners should be worshiped.

Donut economics, just says don’t destroy the world, and let everyone participate. Neither is easy under the current power relations, and these actions do not reward players in the State. The model grinds to a halt.

It needs simple and positive directives.

So time to think what those might be….

the donut

Minorities rule….

April 12, 2018

The interesting thing about Australian Coalition Government’s policy which has been revealed by the so called “Monash group” (which is pro-coal), is that policy appears to be dictated by the fear of not offending five non-cabinet MPs.

This means our climate and energy policies, in a lower house of 150 people, is being decided by less than 10% of the members (I’m adding extra people to their cause out of generosity). This is not remotely democracy in action – this is rule by the miniscule; the fleas controlling the dog.

How does it come about? Firstly because those 5 people have the support of the Murdoch Empire and the Minerals Council of Australia, which have helped make resistance to the idea of climate change, a hallmark and definer of conservative politics. Indeed they supress discussion of climate change to make everything about an ‘economics’ that is concerned with the profit of established corporations. Mass protests against climate change just don’t get reported, while tiny protests against the left do. Even those radical conservatives like One Nation who think international corporations are destroying local customs and culture, and need to be checked, support fossil fuel companies who are as international and destructive as they come. Any right winger who breaks on this issue will be misinterpreted, seen as a traitor, seen as losing nerve, and punished. Any right winger with principles, fears they will lose selection.

This is polarized information group dynamics in action, and stopping discussion. These groups can be created for this purpose, and are reinforcing it. The 5 people become exemplary examples of a right wing ‘us’ group – while possibly moderate people like the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull become outsiders, who have to continually demonstrate their group loyalty, by not steering too far away from the extreme, and by refusing to challenge that extreme. In this situation the so called ‘centre’ suffers – even when the official ‘left’ move further rightwards to capture its shifting point, and even if ‘the people’ show their commitment to renewables by plopping them on every available rooftop.

The dedication of the far right is reinforced because they stick with the Murdoch Empire and do not see contrary evidence, or have it explained away for them well enough. They are hung up on being just and fair (so if anyone is doing less to mitigate climate change than them, they can always argue it is just for them to support even less action) and they suffer the Dunning Kruger effect, were they do not realise their ignorance in the field and subsequently cannot recognize competence in the field – and they reinforce their ignorance out of group loyalty and the sense of persecution which comes from being wrong.

And so it goes. It could be combatted by strong leadership which stood up for principles and argued against them for the good of the country. But we are probably not going to get that. All we can hope for is that the people themselves get on with the business of lowering carbon emissions, reducing their pollution, getting their workplaces to reduce emissions, protesting against government sell outs to corporations and doing anything else they can no matter how small. While voting Labor and Green is useful, it will not be enough either, because they continually move to the right, to keep on side with the powers that be.

It is up to us to do we what we need to do to survive, and to take government back should we want.

C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and the Spiritual Problems of Our Time

January 2, 2018

In a great Post John Woodcock drew attention to the importance of visionary experience amongst other things. However he also drew attention to C.S. Lewis, and this is where I have a problem.

John reminds us of the end of the Perelandra Trilogy in which the (literally) demonic scientists aim to bring about immortality. He quotes them

It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life, which sheltered the babyhood of mind, the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.

The people on the side of the angels (again literally) are joyous when Merlin (yes that Merlin) breaks up the possibility of the scientists communicating, and then summons hoards of animals to eat them. Unlike John, I don’t find this denouement either satisfying or hilarious.

Indeed, the passage from Lewis reminds me exactly why I find him so disappointing. He is caught up hopelessly in surfaces and binaries. It’s spirit/matter, godly/ungodly, good/evil and so on. If God is on our side then whatever happens must be right, whatever discomfort our enemies suffer is wonderful. There are no tensions because God will win. God is all powerful after all, and the good guys are on the side of all power. Suck on that Demons!

It’s reminiscent of the bits in Narnia where the young woman is exiled because she likes stockings and make-up and the good crusaders slaughter heaps of evil Muslims in the battle to end all battles. All surface, dressed up to be deep. Faced with imagined people who think life is a bit more complicated than he does, all he can imagine is to break up their attempt at communion and praise murder. What a righteous attempt at solution! What imagination! What empathy! Lewis cannot even suspect the shadow of his spirituality, or his God, which he projects onto what he sees as science. His own spirituality can have nothing to do with the problems we face – it is all elsewhere and he is not responsible even a bit.

Its easy to imagine Lewis an inquisitor sadly condemning someone to excruciation until death, and thinking that if there is any sin in the matter its the fault of the secular authorities alone – he is innocent and unsullied. [As a caution we should all note that when we start condemning people, especially collectivities of people, we are probably engaged with the Jungian Shadow – ie the ‘evil’ in ourselves which it is less painful to see in others.]

Lewis needed to dream more freely rather than confine vision to allegory, see deeper and depend less on dogma for his interpretations.

By comparison good science is precisely about not stopping with surfaces but exploring reality and letting it impress us; not trying to trap it in binaries and given understandings. And we find an awe – even in people like Dawkins – which is perhaps more spiritual than almost anything in Lewis. The world revealed by science is weirder and more complex than anything Lewis or his characters could imagine. The God revealed in creation is not the tyrant of the Bible, but a being who delights in complexity, chance, freedom, creativity, who puts life into the fundamental bits of existence. Sure science has limits, but what doesn’t? While scientists are more Merlin than Lewis’s Merlin, science probably needs a little more more alchemy (in Jungian terms).

Perhaps Lewis’s apparent spiritual impoverishment (yes that is strong, but that is the kind of language he might use) arises not because of his Christianity, but because of his Platonism. Platonism constructs an ideal world and then regards this world as a falling away, a bad copy, which is of little value, except for the elite to transcend. Dying is good, as it could get you to reality; we must make sure everyone dies. Hence Lewis’s anger that anyone might want to live for ever, unless this life is non-material and it involves his elite and no one else. We probably don’t need Nietzsche to point out the problems with a mythology that seeks its fulfilment in death, either personal or in the death of others (indeed they might well tend to be the same). In that sense Platonism seems to be at the root of our ecological problems, and perhaps our problems of power – in which everything living has to be ordered to be good, when everything that is living is, in reality, messy and unpredictable. For platonists the only good creature is a dead creature. Platonism, and the demand for order is almost certainly one of the roots of the Anthropocene.

Let’s compare Lewis with another and far greater writer: G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton does have his low moments (in Father Brown, you always know it was the atheist what done it), but his work is full of the sense of mystery impinging on and in the world, and the joyous knowledge that arises from catching a glimpse of this reality.

Chesterton’s books on Aquinas and Francis are amongst the best of their kind, and full of the glory of spirit, faith and intellect. He does not see intellect as evil but as part of God’s way, part of the way we go beyond appearance to reality. The Man who was Thursday explores the complexity of an omnipotent God, even if Chesterton denies it does, he can do it. Chesterton fights with what he sees as the evils of the modern world; fiercely as with Shaw and Wells (although he accepts their point that unfettered capitalism is not good), but he never lets go of the insight that his enemies are also expressions of the glory of God, and he remains friends with his foes and engages in dialogue – as that communion is more important than righteousness and murder, even while he admits that sometimes war may be necessary. There is no poverty of imagination here. The real ‘material’ world is potentially holy, or even holy already (God made it and it was good).

Life is a constant potential for transfiguration – although Chesterton would probably use the model of the mass rather than alchemy or hermeticism. Further, he has no need to be of the spiritual elite, because he knows real humility and not the display of humility. He can celebrate the joys of ordinary people who are not perfect, because it is not his business to exclude people from ‘heaven’ or the heaven of Earth. He knows surfaces are holy, and that there are depths beyond the capacity of allegory to imagine.

My only complaint is that Chesterton is largely ignored, except by those usually on the political right) who would confine him, and pretend he was one of theirs – when he most certainly is not.

Climate change and prosperity

September 23, 2017

People can argue that climate change will bring economic prosperity. This is supposed to arise because currently frozen areas will become less frozen, the northwest passage will open, and we can more easily obtain minerals and oil from currently inhospitable locations.

So, let’s be clear – there may well be parts of the world which do appear to get a strategic or financial advantage from climate change. That is indeed possible. That does not mean the rest of the world will not suffer severely, nor that the melting ice will not mean that sea levels will almost certainly rise impacting many communities, that mountain glaciers will almost certainly shrink lessening water supplies, that deserts will probably expand, and that existing farming areas may become less productive. It is also possible that this could cause global warfare as people fight over access to water and arable land.

Indeed, I might argue that one of our problems is that we live in an economic system in which fantasies of wealth are encouraged to take precedence over survival, or even over having a healthy eco-system. Wealth has become symbolically equivalent to life and happiness. However, there is no prosperity if a civilisation undermines the ecologies it needs to survive or flourish. With current trends of climate change, it would seem that there is only increased hardship for most people, whatever the new economic openings (at best – it is hard to predict what the worst could be).

The fantasy of boom, also tends to be unreal because our economic system is problematic. Since the 1980s it certainly does not look like the proceeds from economic booms have been shared around. They have mostly gone to particular, and very small, groups of people, while the problems of economic busts have been shared around. So an economic boom arising because of the artic opening up, or tundras melting, is not likely to help that many people, or compensate the rest of us for the climate becoming tumultuous and hard.

It is probably better to put the money and effort into stabilizing climate, before pursuing fantasies of gain.

How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

September 20, 2017

Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

Action on Climate Change

September 17, 2017

Some random comments.

Let us be clear, the issue is that people should not emit more greenhouse gases than the environment can handle, if we wish our ‘civilization’ to survive – not that we should not emit any. Not emitting any greenhouse gases is impossible, and the system emits and reprocesses these emissions naturally, just not as much as we are currently emitting.

Coal is particularly bad in terms of the poisons it emits at all stages in its production and use. There is very little positive to say about coal (that is not in the ground) at this stage in our history. Coal mining and power probably needs to be eliminated, as there is no evidence that coal can be made ‘clean’ or environmentally friendly to the degree that we need it to be.

We probably also need to work at changing what seems to constitute modern life. Modern life is not a product of free choice but of what we were offered and chose within a particular set of social arrangements that did not value ecological survival.

That needs to change – and frankly I’m not sure people really ‘need’ or ‘want’ disposable bottles, polluting and failing concrete, coal power, massive amounts of beef, destroyed fishing grounds, and so on. This can be modified, and hopefully will modify.

It will be hard of course. Some of the problem may well be that the system we live in seems to create a psycho-spiritual emptiness which we fill by purchasing products – and this keeps us acting as wage slaves and generally making ourselves feel empty. This is part of the pattern of domination which we often call neoliberalism, but is probably better ‘capitalist plutocracy’.

Recognising plutocracy is important. I’ve rarely met anyone who is interested in renewables, who is not aware that these new technologies are being resisted by people who have lots of wealth, power, status and symbolic resonance tied up in fossil fuels. It’s pretty much an every day experience, and the established powers have heaps of money to throw around to influence the debate. Without them, and without the triumph of neoliberalism, we probably would not be having a debate; we would be engaged in finding the best solutions. Resisting plutocracy is important but difficult.

My main problem with the “energy problem” is that it distracts attention from the other ecological crises which are happening simultaneously. These are produced by building (concrete), mining, farming methods and so on, which are destroying our fresh water supplies, downing our oxygen supplies, wrecking the phosphorus cycle, killing the oceans and so on.

To be real, we need a lot more action on a lot more fronts.

Christiana Figueres 03

September 14, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 03:

Technology and markets

We need to be aware that the economy and the energy situation forms a system.

Renewables are not fossil fuels, they have different characteristics. If your energy system is set up for fossil fuels then it is already not ‘technology neutral’, it is historically biased in favour of fossil fuels and the characteristics of fossil fuel power. Consequently, there is a legacy effect in the system which inhibits innovation, both politically and in terms of expectation of how energy should behave and what factors of that energy production can be ignored.

[For example we ignore the slow response time of coal power, the amount of poison and health problems, it generates, the fact that it cannot be turned down when we don’t need it, its tendency to fail with unexpected temperatures, the amount of subsidy we pay, and so on]

In Chile, which has the advantage of not having coal or oil, the electricity market is fully open. There are no subsidies for fossil fuels or for renewables. They simply have auctions and those companies which can provide the lowest electricity price win the auction. So far that has been renewables. It has not been coal.

India can also be freer of this legacy inertia, and India has recently announced that no new coal power plants will be built in India in the next ten years. This will give time for renewables to develop and demonstrate their worth. They aim for 60% of all power to be renewable by 2027.

Increases in electricity prices have nothing to do with renewables, as is often argued. Renewables have not been around long enough to cause the price rises in those countries in which price rises have been occurring. It is like blaming a baby for the ongoing dysfunction of a family. The baby cannot do it entirely by itself, and the problems were around before it came on the scene. Prices are high because of the way markets are structured and they are structured around fossil fuels. To repeat: fossil fuel markets are set up not to be technology neutral.

Fossil fuels are like libraries – huge centres of generation. Nowadays you almost do not need libraries. You have information online.
We are moving to a decentred market in power where you do not need to go to a centralised place of generation. Australia has the world’s biggest market penetration of rooftop solar, it is moving towards decentred power, irrespective of policy. Some of us will generate more power than we need for ourselves. We are moving from the library to the internet.