Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

Origins of Capitalism?

February 7, 2018

Capitalism is a mode of power (primarily economic), based on appropriation of people’s goods and labour, and the distribution of wealth.

There are a number of forms of what is called capitalism. In my lifetime, where I live, we have had socialist-capitalism and we now have neoliberal capitalism, with more or less complete domination by the corporate sector. Scandinavian capitalism differs from French capitalism, differs from Anglo-capitalism and so on.

Capitalism is not trade. Trade exists in all societies, including ones that most people would not call capitalist. (China is weird, if people want to praise it they point out it is now capitalist, and if they want to condemn it they point out it is now communist. In either case there is trade.)

The origins of any of these forms of capitalism depend upon a heap of contingent factors, particularly including politics, and clearly cannot be summarized in a readable post – so this is only a summary for Anglo-capitalism.

Historically, one argument is that this capitalism grew out of the inequalities, violence and wealth accumulations of feudalism. It was boosted in the UK by dispossession of people from their land, which provided a class dependent on wage labor for survival, and who could be hired and dismissed with little cost or sense of social obligation. Wealth accumulation was also boosted by the slave plantations in the Americas, which pretty obviously depended on dispossession and non consensual labour. It was also boosted by private citizens engaging in piracy on the Spanish treasure ships on behalf of the crown. The British Tudor (and later) Monarchy promoted non-aristocratic citizens to positions of power and wealth, which weakened the aristocracy. This movement was accompanied by the rise of a powerful mercantile class, and between them they began to change the form of British politics and economic structures into one far less dependent upon royal patronage or the ties of feudal obligation.

Then the development of the steam engine, together with an abundance of coal, plus further political action and repression, allowed the relatively secure work and trade of crafts people to be destroyed, so more people became dependent upon capitalist industrialists for survival and more profit was channeled towards those who owned and controlled the technologies of production. The search for markets and resources to support this production led to Empires, as for example when the East India company took over India and destroyed local crafts and to help with their exports of cheap machine made materials (made with Indian cotton). There is a little dispute, but basically the now-standard argument is that the company and its accompanying British Rule completely destroyed the Indian non-capitalist economy and was largely responsible for the mass poverty and inequality that the 20th Century Indian State has had to deal with.

Capitalism has also taken advantage of fossilised energy. It is the development of energy, from slavery, wage labour to coal that produced whatever abundance was shared by the more fortunate members of capitalist society. The steam engine depended upon coal, but around about the start of the 20th Century, oil and petroleum upped the portability and effectiveness of energy once again and with it the apparent abundance. However, this abundance depends on power relations and law which allows pollution and poisoning costs to be ignored by the producer, or diffused onto those of ‘lesser importance’. It is always the way that the poor have pollution poured on top of them. This could be realistically known as ‘trickle down economics’. The current problem for capitalism is that the pollution it, and its variants, are engendering is likely to destroy the ecological systems it has depended upon but has refused to acknowledge. Today we see that battle being conducted in the form of a struggle over climate change and appropriate action.

While the economy is not natural, but political and embedded in power relations, it does need to be acknowledged that conquest and appropriation, in itself, does not lead to capitalism. The way plunder was organized in the Spanish Empire, for example, seems to have destroyed their economy. It was not invested in manufactures and trade – the ‘bloated’ aristocracy won out over the mercantile class and the peasants.

Everywhere that capitalism has gone, it has tried to destroy non-capitalist economies, through dispossession of property, the imposition of wage or indentured labour, and taxes which required people to pay cash which they had to earn through wage labour. There are endless colonial and business reports complaining about the laziness and irrationality of ‘natives’, who had better things to do with their lives than hold down jobs, and who did not need jobs to survive(until that independence was destroyed).

Capitalists always argue that capitalists are wealth creators and deserve special privilege and powers. Because large capitalists end up owning most of that wealth they are usually able to buy politicians and propaganda, and control society to act to give them those special privileges and powers. Hence capitalist power tends to reinforce itself, and make all life even more dependent on capitalist action, and capitalism seems like “common sense”.

We had a relatively generally prosperous period when capitalists feared revolution, but since that period has passed, wealth and power now accumulate primarily at the high ends.


Some remarks on Geo-Engineering

January 22, 2018

Geoengineering (GE) involves the attempt to solve the problems of climate change by altering the Earth’s ecology.

It comes in two forms:
Solar Radiation Management (SRM) in which you try and lower the amount of the Sun’s energy/heat reaching the earth’s surface. This can involve: mirrors in space, reflective gasses in the upper atmosphere, or painting mountains white.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) in which you try and suck CO2 from power stations or from the atmosphere. One problem with this technique is the question of what you do with the CO2 once it is extracted.

The idea of GE is that we can continue on with polluting, and try and lower the effects of that pollution. A common argument is that there is no evidence we can halt CO2 production and climate change, at this moment, so GE may give us a longer period in which we can change, or transition to a new set of energy generators.

The primary question for both SRM and CDR is a simple one. GE, like everything else that depends on humans, is unlikely to be immune to its social bases. If the dynamics of contemporary societies are inherently destructive of ecologies, then GE is unlikely to prevent that destruction, nor to give a breathing space for new developments. It is likely to help make things worse, or continue the destructive dynamics of that system.

Clearly if we use SRM, the system has to be continually maintained, and that will cost billions. There will be ongoing arguments over who should pay, and how much they should pay. If there is a financial collapse or large scale war, then that maintenance is unlikely to be without problems. In which case climate change would have the brakes taken off, and would accelerate rapidly, causing even worse climate turmoil.

The governing idea of SRM seems that it is easier to change the whole ecological system than to change a political arrangement of economic power and profit. This I’m not sure about. The risk of unintended consequences when fiddling with a system as complex as that of climate is very high. We may already be living in a complex maladaptive system, which is bent on its own destruction and SRM simply magnifies this.

GE could be the equivalent of encouraging smoking to preserve corporate profits, while trying to do research in the hope of some day being able to postpone the inevitable and increasing cancer toll. It might be simpler to discourage people from smoking and to make cigarettes less profitable.

Basically, it can be suggested that if GE becomes the main way of dealing with problems of Climate change, then we live in a society in which ‘instrumental reason’ does not function very well as there are cheaper and possibly better options available, but those options require us to challenge established corporate power, and we are unlikely to do that successfully. I think the last 20 to 30 years of politics in the English Speaking world demonstrates that this failure is very likely to be the case.

Amazingly it is true that among people who both support corporate dominance and deny climate change, GE is quite popular. At the moment I can hypothesise this is precisely because GE does not challenge corporate power, and provides an opportunity for leeching money away from the taxpayers, but I don’t know. It certainly strikes me that if you really wanted less State intervention in life, then you would not want geoengineering.

I have not seen any viable self-supporting GE proposals. Nearly all of them require massive tax-payer subsidies, and some require appear to need massive cross-national governance and regulation. Of course we could give the massive subsidies to private enterprise and hope they do they job without any oversight, but I doubt that will appeal even to the pro-corporate power lobby. With CDR when that involves storage of CO2 underground, we know that ultimate and infinite responsibility of checking for leaks and collapse of storage, will reside with governments and taxpayers, as corporations do not last that long and will not take on those responsibilities. At the least, it seems probable that people will be concerned about other countries freeloading on their efforts, and there will be massive governmental jaunts to try and sort this out. The likelihood of small government and GE seems miniscule.

Climate hoaxes

September 5, 2017

I keep reading people arguing that climate change is a hoax promulgated by governments or by the corporate sector.

I guess this shows something about how disinformation works, as the most obvious source for conspiracy would seem to involve those who make money from doing the things which are thought to cause climate change, and who generally have a reputation for ruthless political engagement; that is fossil fuel companies, oil and coal barons etc. In general renewable companies do not have the established connections with politicians, and do not have the money to throw at false research or think tanks. Most of renewable companies also came into being after climate change first seemed to be a highly probable trajectory in the late 1970s early 1980s.

Perhaps because this is implausible, and because people who don’t like corporations will have some awareness of how fossil fuel companies have acted in the past, it is more common to argue that scientists ‘believe in’ climate change because governments pay them to and encourage it.

There is only one minor problem with this argument. There are few governments in the English speaking world who show they are really interested in promoting the reality of climate change, and getting out of fossil fuels.

Republican and other rightist governments often try to forbid people from talking about climate change, they never make it central to their agenda or say the situation is urgent, and they often try to remove research monies from people who study climate change, or gather data. They accuse people of politicising weather disasters when those people point out that these weather events could have something to do with the predicted consequences of climate change. They may appoint people from fossil fuel companies to Environmental Departments, or to enquiries into energy reform. Governments can even try to make it easier for corporations to pollute and frequently actively resist renewables. They can tell companies to continue with coal when the companies do not think it economic. Governments encourage heavily polluting fracking and so on. Even the few relatively active governments are not hostile to increased coal mining and exports, and do their best to protect established corporations, as in India and China. Governments rarely behave as if they actually believed that climate change was a real threat, or as if it was a convenient ruse to increase their power.

There is no real government campaign, which I know of, in the English speaking world, which has promoted climate change and anti-climate change action. If you know of something consistent and coherent, which survived for more than a couple of months until the fossil fuel companies persuaded them otherwise, then please tell me about it!!

The fact that scientists keep being persuaded by the evidence that climate change is real and humanly caused, when this goes against government instruction and bias, could be taken as persuasive evidence that it is real.

Trump and “Energy Dominance”

July 4, 2017

It has just been dirty energy week in the US. If you look at Trump’s speech, then the priorities are clear.

First he attacks the media, and the democrats, and once the essential stuff is done away with, he is very specific.

“Energy dominance” means removing any restrictions on coal and gas. Approving pipelines, including one taking oil to Mexico under the wall. Ending the EPA, so poisoning the population is ok. Expanding nuclear energy. Financing overseas coal plants to support US coal exports. Opening public land (that presumably include national parks) to mining. There is an implication that dirty fuel exports will increase, and imports will decline.

There is a further statement which clarifies all this, should you need it.

“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

“reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”

There is also a sop to Republican Environmentalists “with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.” But there is no evidence of this.

With this kind of government help, fossil fuel could survive and flourish. Certainly renewables could be set back. For Trump, and established business, Climate change is ignored and ignorable. Just a burden on profit.

Conscience, knowledge and Action

July 4, 2017

Stephen Hawking has been talking about Earth becoming like Venus: unliveable.

Generating conditions such as those on Venus, is probably unlikely – and its probably not useful to mention them, as it gives people an excuse not to believe anything about ecological crisis, or to cop out from action, claiming these are just tales of gloom and doom, nothing real.

I have also heard tales of gloom and doom my entire life. However, it is true that we only avoided nuclear war by the finest of margins. Both Russia and the US were about to make mistaken responses on several occasions, and it was only the reluctance of the people on the ground to launch that saved us. We have depended on individual people acting according to their conscience and understanding. They risked unapproved action. Avoiding catastrophe now, requires the same conscience and understanding and action.

It is a simple matter of logic that you cannot keep destroying, and demanding more from, the environment that you depend on for ever. It would seem that we are reaching the ends of what we can demand from the world in quite a few different systems, some of which get no media attention at all (peak phosphorus for example). The breaking of these systems will produce massive tumult and destruction.

If we continue as we are doing, conditions for any complex civilisation will get more and more precarious. Continuing is not a conservative policy, it is a destructive one.

It is not Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that is the problem. It is Trump’s slackening of rules which allow corporations to poison people and the environment, together with his regulative hostility to renewables that is the problem.

Basically, action in the US has to be at the State level. It has to refuse more coal mines and coal based power stations and phase out those which exist. We have to stop fracking, and stop the leakage of gas through crappy pipelines. We have to encourage renewables. We have to make corporations responsible for the pollution and poison they produce. There are no economic externalities in a (more or less) closed system. Non of this will be easy and it may have deleterious consequences as we sort things out and change expectations.

It will involve a massive political conflict, but Trump just makes this explicit. Under Clinton it would have been obstruction in Congress, and the hope that things will be alright. Under Trump there is no Congressional obstruction to destruction, and people have to take back their own power and conscience. There is no alternative. It is up to you and your ability to cooperate with others.


April 8, 2017

I’ve been in Queensland and have just finished reading the last week of the Murdoch owned Courier mail – which may well be the only local daily newspaper for the whole state. Lots of stuff on the massive cyclone, the devastation and the spirit of Queenslanders.

Hardly any mention of climate change. Except to denounce the Greens for exploiting the tragedy for political gain and for dissing Queenslanders, and quoting Bill Shorten, leader of the Labor party, agreeing that the Greens were indeed terrible. So much for the ‘obstructionism’ of the mainstream left.

However, there was Lots and Lots of stuff about how wonderful the Adani mine is going to be for jobs and development, and suggesting that any opposition is from privileged city folk and racists…. They also spent many column inches denouncing a small Melbourne Council who was going to remove its funds from Westpac, because that bank was funding the Adani mine. Most of the denouncing focused on how small this council was. Yes even what they perceive as the smallest dissent, really upsets the Righteous.

They did cheer for the Queensland Labor government allocating Adani unlimited water access and use, at the cost of farmers and rivers all the way down to South Australia. Only recently 87% of Queensland was declared drought affected, but that must not stand in the way of…. whatever this mine is doing. Some Federal Minister said if this mine can’t go ahead then no mines anywhere in Australia will be successful. There is nobody living out there…. News to the local aboriginal people I would suspect and, as usual, devoid of any sense that local events can produce wide range catastrophe. Coal mining does produce poisons and threaten the common water table for the whole state. Coal is burnt and the atmosphere is shared, whatever he might want to the contrary.

There is a kind of total weirdness going on here. A real threat to ‘colonial civilisation’ in Australia is being deliberately shunted to one side, in favour of extremely dubious short term benefits, which will probably not be delivered.

We sell our coal, and get nothing for it, except a dead barrier reef, dispossessed locals, poisoned water, and less than 2,000 jobs. Royalties and taxes will be unlikely to be paid to cover the costs or even repay the loans from the government – Adani’s tax arrangements are legendarily complex. The profit does not even go to a local company, or even a reputable company. We do not help relieve poverty in India, because there is no grid in the poor areas (people cannot afford it).

There seems to be a madness infesting the right, a possession by an ideological machine, which blinds, deafens, numbs and rips out the smell centres of its possessed, and clatters on without any direction other than destruction. Nothing must stop it. It chants away that resistance is useless.

It would be nice to think not, but what is the alternative?

The Energy Crisis

March 19, 2017

This article developed from a comment on an article by Jessica Irvine in the Sydney Morning Herald “Energy crisis: The 9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask”.

Point 1: There may be no energy crisis but there is an ecological crisis – which is growing. It is vital to keep the ecological crisis in focus as other crises flow on from that.

Point 2: The worse the ecological crisis gets, the more the energy crisis mounts, and the more people will suffer or die as a result. The economy and food supply will be hurt as well.

Point 3: There is currently a problem with gas supply in Australia, but that results from gas companies deciding not to supply gas to local consumers, and from gas power stations failing in the heat (from the ecological crisis). We need to get out of the control of the gas companies.

Point 4: A point of agreement with the author. Coal is stupid, expensive and poisonous to people and the environment.

Point 5: One significant problem is that the Coalition parties (both in government and opposition) have become obsessed with defending fossil fuel companies, and have actively worked to prevent alternate energy supplies from increasing. Labor was not much better, but it was better.

Point 6: Prices will continue to increase in the market as it exists, as companies continue to manipulate that market to increase profit. That is what companies do. That is why the prices have increased after the Carbon tax was repealed. We have a situation in which various companies are profiteering from the destruction of both our environment and Australia’s energy systems. This, is the main story, so let’s not forget it.

Point 7: South Australia is going it alone because the Federal government has done little but attack them (mostly using false information) in order to defend fossil fuel companies, and has provided no help, or even moral support. Essentially more states will have to go it alone if we want a solution under this Federal Government.

Point 8: Battery storage is still in development and will get better. They are still cheaper than the alternatives. We might think about a contract in which batteries get replaced with newer models as time passes. But that would not be supporting fossil fuel companies, so there is little chance of that.

Point 9: The Coalition government is in the business of picking losers that won’t challenge fossil fuel companies. The new Snowy scheme will be overpriced, depend on water and snow we may not have, and be powered by coal if possible. It is a massive waste of money, as you might expect.