Thursday, May 18, 2006

No zealot like the convert

Got a bit of a dialogue going with Matt Sellwood here

Lets take his points a little out of order...
Renewables can go *some* of the way towards solving climate change, but not all of it - what is needed (and what Blair cannot, under any circumstances mention - hence nuclear) is a reduction in demand. Which, under capitalism, leads to a recession.
You would be against a recession Matt? OK. Anyway, what is the limit, do you think, of the generating capacity of renewables? The answer of course is that they could generate all our energy many times over (thousands or millions of times over). So why couldn't they go all the way to solving climate change? Of course they could. A better practical solution would doubtless include some fossils and some efficiency measures. But there is no denying that this problem is solvable at a cost.

We live on a finite planet. Capitalism needs infinite growth. You can shout 'communist' all you like, but unless you address the serious flaws within the market system (a complete inability to deal with environmental or justice externalities, a dependence on growth, a tendency towards monopoly etc) then you will have your head stuck as far into the sand as the proverbial ostrich. Just because a system is the status quo doesn't make it right.

Are you admitting the 'communist' or not? Of course we are in a sense around 40% communist already - that much is taxed and spent by the state, as it should be. Do you think the state/community should be directing more, or all of the nation's wealth? If it is more, say 60%, that's not really a different system, a "radical change", just a change of priorities. If it is all, then that is more or less communism, isn't it?

Capitalism doesn't "need" growth, it generates growth, and that is good, it means people are richer, live longer, are able to do more of the things they want to do, and governments can spend more on health and education, and so on. Stopping growth is easy - whack up taxes, pile on the regulation, no problem. If this is what the environment needs, the Green Party should say so, and we will all understand. It's still not really a change of system, just a change of objectives - rejecting prosperity in favour of the environment. A clear and legitimate political option to offer. (Whether it would work is another question of course.)

Of course there are flaws with the market system, and there are no pure market economies anywhere, it wouldn't be possible. So we have, as we should, things like the welfare state, and environmental regulations and so on. And it requires constant political vigilance to keep it working well. Does the clean air act, or the end of leaded petrol represent a "complete inability to deal with environmental ... externalities"? Of course not.

The environmental crises we face *cannot* be solved simply by a few more pieces of regulation here and there and an absurd faith in the market.

OK so scenario A: Government builds 100GW of wind turbines (other countries do similarly). Global warming averted. Scenario B: Government whacks a whopping tax on carbon emissions and the private energy industry builds 100GW of wind turbines. Global warming averted. What is the difference? Why are you so keen on problems being unsolvable? How exactly would economic planning, if that is what you are advocating, make them solvable?

Capitalism is based on the growth principle. We cannot KEEP growing our way out of environmental problems.

Growth of what? Growth is a statistic. It adds together lots of different things as if they were the same. And they don't all involve despoiling the planet, mostly it is about how much we value the services we provide each other. So if there is anything at all that people do for each other that you regard as good, then good growth is possible. If not, then your values are so warped that we ought to all drop dead.

Of course Green Party policies are not consistently anti-capitalist. Sure, there are coded references to economic planning like:
EC511 Policies to promote local economic management and planning include creating Partnership Bodies to enable a wide range of local people to participate in the development of policy, strategy, projects and enterprise; undertaking a wide ranging audit of local social, economic and environmental affairs and concerns; drafting appropriate sustainable economic development strategies for the locality.


Alongside sugar-coated support for free enterprise like
EC404 ...changing planning and building regulations to encourage home based enterprises, providing grants for re-skilling, and for the necessary tools and technology necessary for home-based enterprises.

The paper as a whole is a breathtakingly inconsistent mixture of the utopian and the banal. But it is clearly a state-driven reshaping and contracting of economic activity, and restraints on trade, which will further reduce efficiency. Redistribution is generous, so the better off will lose more in relative terms, making it a triple whammy against incentives to work.

But even with all that, it is clear that there would be capitalism at work. The roads may have been dug up to make trading difficult, but investment is actually encouraged! (EC512) Encouraging investment more or less directly implies some form of capitalism.

So is this the radical change? Make it hard to do business but "encourage" people to do business anyway?

And what is it intrinsically about this sort of economy, that it doesn't, say, contribute to global warming? The inefficiencies of central planning and autarchy will make us much poorer, but I don't see why they would intrinsically reduce environmental impacts. Building 100GW of wind turbines would only cost us a little in comparison, and seems rather better focussed on an actual problem.

I don't mean to sneer at the whole paper, there are some good ideas there. But the vision is not consistent, and it hardly relates to the reality of environmental problems.

Why is a clear consistent policy so difficult for the Green Party to express? I suspect because it can't quite stomach trying to sell the idea of being much poorer on the doorstep as a solution to anything. Especially when in many ways prosperity is associated with environmental improvements.



Matt Sellwood said...

Hey Joe,

Wow - an entry all to myself. :)

I've been pretty busy today, since it was Annual Council and we appointed a Lib Dem minority administration at the same time as one councillor resigned the Lib Dem whip....interesting times. However, I will try to respond to this, either on Friday or Saturday, as you raise some interesting points...


P.S. I thought some of Chris Huhne's initiatives today were quite interesting, and certainly showed more concrete thought than either Labour or the Tories have managed.

greenman said...

It is a bit harsh to take current left wing greens to task for inconsistencies in historically created Green policy, some of which must have been on your watch.
The question of course is not 100% state control versus the totally free market - this is not a discussion between Stalinists and Randites. It is a question of how much state/community/union control or influence is required to get the market and economic entities acting in a responsible way in the short to medium term. In the longer term it is a question of whether we see democracy as something which applies to the economic field as well as the increasingly corporate-compromised political sphere, or whether our faith in people making their own decisions stops at the door of the workplace.

Joe Otten said...

Greenman, absolutely it was my watch.

And you are dead right that is surely about the degree of state intervention. But if that is the case, in what way is it a radical change to a different kind of system? How can the "anti-capitalist" rhetoric be justified? (The rhetoric that comes not from the policy but from quite a few activists.)

Does democracy apply to the economic field? Yes. And people vote for parties which promise to spend about 40% of their money as the state and let them keep the rest. And they vote for parties that will pass laws demanding equal pay for men and women, maternity rights and so on; laws to regulate the use of hazardous substances; etc, etc.

What people don't vote for, luckily, is direct state control of money, employment, hazardous substances etc.

Now maybe there are cases where that sort of direct control would be good, in which case let's hear about them and vote on it.

But I don't see an argument being made for more (democratic) state control in general, although that does seem to be the policy.

This is a very interesting line: "or whether our faith in people making their own decisions stops at the door of the workplace". Of course state control is quite unlike worker control. People making their own decisions is the theory, if not the practise, of the free market. All the state does is regulate the interaction (the power struggle) between labour and capital. The balance of this regulation is a classic area of left-right conflict, but not one, it seems to me, particularly relevant to the environment.

Matt Sellwood said...


I didn't think when I took up Jock Coat's point about changing the economic system (something that he raised first, not me!) it would end up with an argument on another blog about the fundamentals of capitalism...:)

Normally, I'd be very happy to argue about it until the cows come home, but I'm so busy at the moment that I'm only snatching 10 minutes between meetings to write even this much. Hope that doesn't seem too much of a cop-out.

So, in my ten minutes, I'd like to try to clarify a few things, so that you understand better where I am coming from.

Firstly, I am slightly confused - you seem to be against greater regulation and state intervention a lot of the time (in classic economic liberal style, perfectly consistently) - but then whenever you talk about the environmental crisis, you seem to agree that massive government intervention in the market is necessary - carbon taxes, regulation and every other economic tool we can get our hands on. So, if what I can see is correct, you do in fact agree with greater state intervention when the market fails.

That greater state intervention is the first step for my political philosophy, but certainly not the last. I am an anti-capitalist (you'll note I say 'I'' and not the Green Party, which I have never claimed) - and in keeping with leftist tradition, I believe in the importance of transitional programmes - or what anti-capitalist Michael Albert calls 'non reformist reforms'. There is absolutely no contradiction with my supporting policies that invigorate local business over multinational corporations, that localise flows of money etc etc - as long as they are not the be all and end all of my anti-capitalism. They are not. They are steps towards the system I want to see, which is one where the conception of the value of things in monetary terms is abolished.

Now, you think that is nuts - and that is your prerogative - but I think that the ecological crisis cannot be solved under capitalism. Why? Because the basic rule of capitalism is the pursuit of profit through competition. It is that competition which produces the economic efficiency which you seem to hold dear. In such an economy, however, a firm must continually expand its market share and/or increase its rate of profit. Otherwise, it will go bust or be taken over. And so, continual growth fuels the beast.

You seem to have bought the argument that growth can be delinked from environmental damage. Nonsense. Of course, not all growth in GDP represents material things and production - but a lot of it does, and we are growing and growing and growing, with no end in sight. At what point will you be uncomfortable with the kind of mass consumption of our current societies - perhaps when it spreads across the rest of the world? Our current levels of growth are utterly and completely unsustainable, and yet they are fuelled by the economic status quo. Ever expanding global trade is just one symptom of that problem - apples flying backwards and forwards, wrapped in plastic...the 'wisdom of the market'.

In arguing with me you have probably picked on one of the more 'extreme' leftists in the GPEW. Many Greens believe that capitalism can be tamed and made to serve human needs. I don't. However, that doesn't prevent me supporting greater regulation in the short term - even some LD policies which are good...for example, the Huhne proposal to tax all flights per seat rather than per passenger, which would be a step forward.

It also doesn't mean that I am a believer in the Leviathan state. I believe in decentralised economic planning - I'm a libertarian socialist. You do your argument a dis-service by equating all anti-capitalists with Stalinism - just as I perhaps have done you a disservice by equating your standpoint in the past too closely with market fundamentalists like the Adam Smith Institute etc .

(oh, by the way, talking about Adam Smith and Ricardo etc - the roots of capitalism - thats another problem I have. Ricardo's comparative advantage is based on the funamental assumption that capital is fixed and labour is mobile. The current global system is the EXACT opposite of this. The theories that advocates of capitalism espouse are based on fantasies...and I won't even get started on the completely bizarre notion in economics textbooks that political, military and economic power won't utterly distort markets).

Ultimately, though, all of this theory is so much bunkum - we could go round and round in circles for days talking about it, and I suspect you're the kind of person (very much like me!) who enjoys doing so. But the proof is in the pudding - and I *know* that the Green Party is full of activists who care deeply about the ecological crisis and understand that fundamental choices have to made to solve it. I don't believe that about the Lib Dems. There are some good LD activists - but I think that most of your party think that a 1p tax on plastic bags and some recycling will solve it all. Surely you can't believe that even the 'radical' measures proposed by Huhne this week will go even a fraction of the way towards doing anything about climate change? If you were actually advocating a massive carbon tax and the construction of 100s of GW of renewable capacity, and massive reduction in waste, and an effort against climate change similar to the effort in World War Two (which is what we need) - then I'd treat the Lib Dems as 'ecological comrades'. But you're not.

One statistic sums up my experience of local Lib Dems on this issue. I set up the first cross Council Climate Change Team in Oxford, to work seriously on implementing our Climate Change Action Plan (also funded by the Greens, by the way). The Lib Dem nominee has *never turned up*. Committment to the environment?

Best wishes,


P.S. Sorry, I went way over my ten minutes but rushed so much that the above is a little garbled. I hope it makes some intelligible points, if only in a rather out of sequence fashion....have to dash to my meeting now!

Anonymous said...

Just out of interest, what's the statement above, in the context of growth: "Anyway, what is the limit, do you think, of the generating capacity of renewables? The answer of course is that they could generate all our energy many times over (thousands or millions of times over)." factually based on?

Matt Sellwood said...

I don't know where Joe's figures are from - I suspect he's being slightly hyperbolic. However, technically I think we *could* generate more than 500% of our energy use from offshore wind alone (for example) - it's just that we'd have to have a wind turbine in every bay and inlet in the entire country. Similarly, we *could* run our current fleet of private cars on biofuels - we'd just have to conquer half of Europe and plant arable crops everywhere to generate the biofuel....

Joe Otten said...

Anon first,

This for example:

Suggests 72TW (only 40 times world electricity demand) from prime onshore wind locations only.

Also use of a 500km square in the north sea for wind would supply enough electricity for the whole EU.

Solar radiation falling on the earth is 7000 times our energy use (OK not millions) and dwarfs our entire coal, oil, gas and uranium reserves. Tidal is extra.

Matt Sellwood said...

Donning my enviro-nerd hat now that I am back home (seems Joe might have put on his slightly before me!) - meeting the current *electricity* need of the UK with wind power (electricity, not energy, which is obviously higher) using big 3 megawatt onshore wind turbines, would require covering 4% of the UK's landmass in turbines - about 920,000 hectares, and 51,000 turbines.

If the Lib Dems are going to advocate meeting the year on year energy increase from a growing economy (which is, at the moment, FAR outweighing energy efficiency gains) by covering 5% of the UK in renewable energy, then...thats' very interesting. But as far as I'm aware, it certainly isn't Lib Dem policy at the moment!


Joe Otten said...


Thanks for your reply.

Yes, this is probably not the place to go into all the classic arguments on state intervention, free markets and so on. What I'm looking for is some clarification of the Green position, some explanation of how it is something new and radical, and not just old ideas with a positive spin.

Yes, I agree that things like carbon taxes and environmental regulation are good. People somewhat to the right of me will get very agitated over whether a particular government activity is an intervention (bad) or not. I am rather more relaxed. Whether one considers a carbon tax to be an intervention, or whether it is in fact supporting efficient markets by correcting an externality, is a philosophical nicety that doesn't really matter to me. A distinction without a difference.

And, as I support Huhne's Green Switch proposals - that the revenue from such a carbon tax should be balance by tax cuts elsewhere, this measure does not imply a bigger role for the state.

On to your suggestions. Abolishing the concept of valuing things in monetary terms? How do you abolish a concept? Burn all the books? Send all the believers to Guantanamo Bay? And what does it mean? That everything of value should be valued in an unquantifiable way? Buying and selling would be rather difficult - is that the idea? Price tickets could say: "Not very much", "A lot", "Shedloads"? And what would it achieve? You see I think an honest Green would say "I want us to value the environment rather more than we do." But this is quantifying, comparing, it is saying that something is more important than something else. More fundamentally, how people value things is up to them, they might think in monetary terms for some decisions, and not for others, or whatever. Seek to influence people's values and priorities, by all means, that is what politics and persuasion are all about. But telling people not to quantify is like telling them not to think. It doesn't help at all.

Growth. Yes, there is no particular connection to environmental damage. Many poor societies are more polluted, and not just from our dumping on them. The damage can be cut out without hurting growth, because it is not the damage that we are valuing and paying for. We value and pay for goods and services, and if they get better, or more people can have them, that is growth. Objecting to things being made or done better, that's just pointless. Object to larger volumes of supply of particularly damaging things, by all means. But please be specific. Let's not damn prosperity in general, just because some elements of it have done disproportionate harm. Especially considering that prosperity has made some very good things possible, like sanitation, healthcare, and frankly, environmentalism. Frankly, you can't claim to be of the left, if you don't seek to improve access for the poor to the fruits of prosperity, merely to deny them to everyone else.

We don't know how far Huhne's proposals will go, because we don't yet have the figures (us evil quantifiers). I would like to see a substantial increase in support for renewables - particularly offshore wind and marine techonologies, because I think the most important thing at the moment is supporting the technologies. This is so that we can go to developing countries and offer them the option of developing in a cleaner way, rather than asking them all to sacrifice 20+ years life expectancy by simply forgoing quick and dirty development. 100GW would be very cool, but I doubt it somehow.



Anonymous said...

This is where he got that data from.

The Archer & Jacobson paper is groundbreaking stuff and very encouraging, but as they themselves say, there are many practical problems to be overcome. There are also, naturally enough, ongoing discussions within the scientific community about whether their parameterization approach is correct. That said, it's very encouraging even as a first step to modelling the best sites for large scale wind energy production.

It's probably worth taking a look at the practical issues to be addressed though. Here are few just off the top of my head.

1) Competition for land. This isn't nearly as much of a problem for wind energy as it is for say biofuels, but it's still something of a problem with only 0.27 ha of arable land per human worldwide and soil erosion rapidly eating into that. Wind doesn't exclude other land use to a large degree and many of the best sites are in any case offshore.

2) It produces electricity, not chemical energy. That means if you need chemical energy, e.g. to fuel cars, you need to use it to make hydrogen and to modify all the relevant infrastructure to run on hydrogen. This is no small undertaking. Nuclear energy has an identical problem.

3) Intermittency and transmission costs. In order to make this work, you need to get the power to where it needs to be and you need to network a number of distant wind farms in order to make sure adequate production is online at any one time. This is a large undertaking, but probably not beyond us if sufficient investment were made available. Long distance transmission of electricity is however subject to significant transmission losses.

So, I think it's legit to regard this research as very encouraging, but it's the first real attempt, it's very early days and the practical value as opposed to that theoretical 72TW remains to be seen.

Anonymous said...

With regard to the benefits of development and growth. A friend of mine is working for an NGO in Sierra Leone, it's pretty clear that the people starving were starving because they couldn't pay for food, not because there wasn't any food. In Africa there has been a long tradition of communal land ownership. Development generally results in that land being privatised, which means one must earn money in order not to starve. For many people, this is not an improvement. Profits are not 'trickling down' to them, but environmental degradation is. See e.g.

Joe Otten said...

Anon #1, Thanks, I agree.

Anon #2, Thanks also. I think there is a danger of glamourising the subsistence lifestyle. The fact is that it is not just food we need for happy, healthy lives. And, indeed, subsistence is not good at producing surpluses and food security. I remember an Iraqi on the Today program complaining about sanctions "but you have food" they were told. We are a civilised people was the response, we need more than just food.

Trickle down doesn't work, aid doesn't work, does nothing work? Well, if you don't want to wait centuries, there's one thing that works: if you make something that richer people want to buy, and their governments don't put up trade barriers against it. It has worked in Asia-Pacific, but not in Africa.

If this is too old-fashioned a view of progress, I don't apologise for it. It would be racist to suggest that poverty, infant mortality and so on are OK for black people.

Now of course there are many people who have not benefited from development, who have lost out. That poverty exists next to wealth offends us. The autarchic alternative would be poverty everywhere, and the worst of it well out of sight. I find that even more offensive.

Anonymous said...

Hmm last comment didn't work.

What I wanted to say was that subsistence agriculture is better than starving in the gutter. Of course a more advanced civilisation is preferable, but what replaces subsistence agriculture is generally brutal and unsustainable resource exploitation.

If you are an agribusiness corporation, you can move on when you have destroyed any given environment. In general, low-tech subsistence agriculture has a lower environmental impact and cannot move on.

"Escalating land degradation threatens most crop and pasture land throughout the world (Lal and Pierce, 1991; Pimentel et al, 1995). The major types of degradation include water and wind erosion, and the salinization and water-logging of irrigated soils (Kendall and Pimentel, 1994). Worldwide, more than 10 million hectares of productive arable land are severely degraded and abandoned each year (Houghton, 1994; Pimentel et al., 1995). Moreover, an additional 5 million hectares of new land must be put into production each year to feed the nearly 84 million humans annually added to the world population. Most of the 15 million hectares needed yearly to replace lost land is coming from the world's forests (Houghton, 1994; WRI, 1996). The urgent need for more agricultural land accounts for more than 60% of the deforestation now occurring worldwide (Myers, 1990)."

Anonymous said...

A useful model for sustainable agriculture, as opposed to either primitive subsistence farming or destructive industrial agriculture can be found in Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's imports of oil/gas and petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides dropped suddenly almost to zero. Meanwhile the US intensified its embargo, making the situation even worse.

In order to feed their population, they had to figure out very quickly how to do it without all those oil energy inputs. What they did have was a lot of very well-educated scientists, so they put them to work on the problem and made the resources of the state available to them.

The result, while probably not much fun fore them at the time, was generally very successful indeed. While somewhat labour intensive, the new methods they pioneered enabled them to increase food production for their own use, to do so sustainably and supported a thriving local market micro-economy in organic produce.

Joe Otten said...


Do you think then that Cuba has benefited from sanctions, or do you think that they could have done even better with those state resources, had they been able to trade?