June 27, 2011

The Deep Green Meaning of Fukushima

Don Fitz writes at Counterpunch (click the title of this post for the entire piece):

Humanity must decrease its use of energy. The decrease must be a lot (not a little bit) and it must happen soon. A failure to do so will lay the foundation for the destruction of human life by some combination of climate change and radiation. ... There is also a deeper green meaning: The limits of economic growth have long since passed and we need to design a world with considerably less stuff. ...

Claims that society must choose between fossil fuels and nukes are 100% false

Pretending to care about climate change, utility companies say that we must have more nukes to avoid increasing CO2 levels. Hansen and Monbiot parrot corporate propaganda when they present the false dichotomy: nukes or fossil fuels.

Their tunnel vision on climate change interferes with their ability to perceive global warming and nuclear power as different manifestations of the same problem. ... The deep green connection between radiation and climate change is that they are both part of the lockstep march toward economic growth. The question for both Hansen and Monbiot is what humanity will do when uranium ore is exhausted but the drive toward growth intensifies.

Coal, oil, natural gas and uranium will run out at some time in the future. None of them can ever be the basis of a sustainable economy. The issue is not whether society will or will not have to do without non-renewables — the only issue is whether humanity will stop using them prior to destroying the biological web of Life or whether humanity is forced to stop using them, either because it takes more energy to extract them than they yield or because our descendants have lost the mental or physical ability to process them.

Solar and wind offer no alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power

In a growth economy, solar and wind cannot replace fossil fuels and/or nukes, which they must depend on for their own creation and for making up energy short-falls. As Ted Trainer and others have clearly demonstrated, solar and wind power are subject to conditions like how much sunshine and wind exist at a given time. An industry which is geometrically expanding must be drawn to fossil fuel and nukes because they are not subject to weather fluctuations and they can produce enormous quantities of energy for manufacture.

Weather variability means that solar and wind power have a greater need to store energy than non-renewables. This means solar and wind lose even more energy during storage and retrieval. They also require considerable energy and resource extraction to produce associated technologies such as transmission lines and batteries. These are not green attributes.

During the opening of his seminal exposé of renewable energy, Trainer points to turf where solar and wind proponents dare not tread: The issue is not merely whether solar and wind can provide for the industrial needs of a modern economy — it is ridiculous to suggest that they could provide energy needs of a global economy which is 60 times its current size. Trainer calculates that bringing all the world up to consumptive standards of the overdeveloped countries, maintaining a 3% annual GDP growth rate, and reaching a population of 9.4 billion would require a 6000% increase in the economy between 2007 and 2070.

The mechanical impossibility of infinite solar and wind power leads to a deeper green problem: They reflect the same fetish on things as do non-renewables. Switching from one fetish to another in no way rejects the thingification of human existence. It is this worship of objects which is the core of the problem.

Failure to challenge the endless manufacture of artificial needs and the continual shrinkage of the durability of commodities means that no combination of nukes, fossil fuel, solar, wind, and other energy sources can ever satisfy bottomless greed. Seeking to replace human caring, sharing and community with object glorification will always result in feelings of emptiness and craving for more and more objects. Object addiction can never be satiated — even if those objects are “green.”

Stan Cox notes that a huge expansion of fossil fuel use would be necessary if solar and wind were to increase enough to replace nukes. Creating this solar and wind infrastructure would result in massive emissions of CO2. Thus, in a growth economy, renewables are no more separable from non-renewables than climate change is separable from radiation.

Recent increases in solar and wind power has resulted in lawsuits to protect native lands and sensitive species. [16] How many more valleys must be transformed into ugly wind farms and how many more deserts must be covered with solar collectors just to enable landfills of discarded junk to expand to the moon?

Why grow?

The ideology of growth is the bedrock of nuclear power. Growth requires the expansion of energy. As Robert Bryce demonstrates, “America’s energy consumption has grown in direct proportion to its economic growth.” Between 1913 and 2005, the 300-fold increase in oil imports was paralleled by a 300-fold increase in US economic output.

As energy sources have gone from wood to coal to oil to nukes, there has been a steady increase in the total amount of energy available. During most of this progression economic growth has meant an expansion of goods which people need. By the end of World War II this was no longer the case as there was enough to provide basic needs for everyone.

More than ever before, production for need gave way to production for militarism, for obscene wealth, for throw-away goods and for marketing to take precedence over utility. Nuclear power became the cornerstone of both militarism and the seemingly limitless energy necessary for planned obsolescence. Nuclear plants were born as a physical manifestation of social relationships underlying growth without need. ...

Is anti-growth feasible?

“Anti-growth” means that people will have better lives if society produces fewer things that are useless and dangerous. It assumes that the total quantity of things needed to make everyone’s lives better is vastly less that the total quantity of current negative production.

“Anti-growth” can be contrasted to “de-growth,” which has become synonymous with trying to change the economy by tiptoeing through the tulips. The phrase “anti-growth” aims to dismiss two myths: (a) the belief that a decrease in production requires people to suffer; and (b) the belief that lifestyle changes can substitute for social action. (Though altering individual lifestyles is important to show that a new and different world is possible, it does little to bring about the scale of needed changes.)

The corporate line on reversing growth is that it would bring agony worse than nuclear radiation and is therefore impossible. Sadly, many progressives (including environmentalists, anti-war activists and even “Marxists”) swallow the line.

Let’s not confuse an increase in provision of basic needs like housing, clothing and education with overall economic growth. Reducing unnecessary and destructive production (such as military spending) can be done at the same time as increasing preventive medical care. Reducing the advertising of food, packaging of food, long-range transportation of food and animal protein can occur simultaneously with increasing healthy food. Nobody’s quality of life is going to deteriorate because they have a simple coffee pot that lasts for 75–100 years rather than one with a mini-computer designed to fall apart in six months.

To reiterate: The economy can shrink while the amount of necessary goods expands. Anti-growth is not too complex to fathom. The idea that we should make more good stuff and less bad stuff is so simple that anyone except an economist can understand it.

Unfortunately, many advocating a smaller economy shoot themselves in the foot by rejecting anti-corporate struggle. ...

A radical rethinking

... The survival of humanity is at not only odds with right wing politicians and “free market” economists who preach growth by engorging the rich. Human existence is simultaneously threatened by “liberal” politicians and Keynesian economists who promote growth by governmental intervention. Preserving a livable environment is likewise at odds with “environmentalists” who advocate growth via purchasing green gadgets. “Socialists” and wooden “Marxists” walk less than a shining path when they demand a planned economy for the purpose of “unleashing the capitalists fetters on production” (i.e., unlimited growth). Planetary extermination under workers’ control does not fulfill dreams of Karl Marx.

In the wake of Fukushima many scream that we must abandon nukes as rapidly as possible. Yes, yes, and yes. Join their screams and demand a halt in the production of new nukes and a rapid shut down of those that exist!

We must do the almost the same for fossil fuels, with a rapid reduction to 90% of current levels, then 80%, and so on until we level off at perhaps 10% of where we are at now. If and only if this reduction is made can solar, wind and geothermal (along with a very judicious use of fossil fuels and biofuels) meet energy needs in a sane society.

But all of us, especially environmentalists, must abandon the illusion that solar, wind and geothermal can be a source of infinite economic growth. And all of us, especially social justice activists, trade unionists and socialists, must abandon any misplaced belief that a massive reduction of energy requires any sacrifice in the quality of life. We must affirm if we change our values, change our society and change our economy, we can have great lives by focusing on people rather than the eternal accumulation of objects.