Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Why Solar Energy Sucks

This is an unusually good political cartoon, and kudos to Mike Peters for producing it. (For a larger view, click on it.)

Peters concisely states a fundamental problem with relying on capitalism to produce and distribute energy and manage natural resources.

In order for something to have exchange value, the system requires scarcity, or control of supply. Thus, in order for water to be a profitable commodity, someone has to control the reservoir. The coal mine. The oil well. And so on. Monsanto is even trying to do this with seeds.

“The common sense of mankind,” [contended James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale, writing in the 19th century], “would revolt” at any proposal to augment private riches “by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man.” Nevertheless, he was aware that the bourgeois society in which he lived was already, in many ways, doing something of the very sort. He explained that, in particularly fertile periods, Dutch colonialists burned “spiceries” or paid natives to “collect the young blossoms or green leaves of the nutmeg trees” to kill them off; and that in plentiful years “the tobacco-planters in Virginia,” by legal enactment, burned “a certain proportion of tobacco” for every slave working their fields. Such practices were designed to increase scarcity, augmenting private riches (and the wealth of a few) by destroying what constituted public wealth — in this case, the produce of the earth. “So truly is this principle understood by those whose interest leads them to take advantage of it,” Lauderdale wrote, “that nothing but the impossibility of general combination protects the public wealth against the rapacity of private avarice.”

Inside this problem, there are two connotations of value. There is the intrinsic value of something good and necessary to human life, like water. There is also the "exchange value," the ability for someone to make a buck out of it. From what I understand so far, modern economics deals with this problem by ignoring the former as a concept and focusing on exchange value.

According to the logic of the system, solar energy is less desirable because the supply can't be controlled. No one can own the sun. Some businesses are making money from the technology needed to harvest solar energy, but this is simply not enough. The system wants monopoly control of the source. To own the sun. Because it can't do that, solar energy sucks.

That's the logic of the system.

So maybe this is not an area where that system is appropriate. Maybe -- oh, I know this is shocking and taboo to say -- but maybe capitalism isn't the best way to do everything. We could, if we wanted to, rethink our assumptions about economics so that we can actually respond to our ecological crisis.

This is not merely about salvaging some abundance and beauty for the future of our species. This is actually about salvaging an eco-system that will sustain us.


For more cartoons by Mike Peters, visit here.

The quoted passage above is from "The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction," by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, appearing in the Monthly Review Vol. 61, No. 6, November 2009. The essay is available to read online here.


Kelly said...

My husband and I have always been interested in solar power and are seriously considering that option now.

I guess if we can ever harness enough to supply our needs I can boast that we own a piece of the sun. :)

Rustle Kirk said...

You have a terrible concept of what creates value. Clean, drinkable water is, in fact, a scarce supply with high demand. Same with coal, oil, calorie-rich food. It requires skill, labor, infrastructure to provide all of these things, to keep us from regressing to subsistence farming. The desire to use energy that normally would be focused on basic survival to enjoy leisure time, explore and create, is what creates value.

It's not at all shocking that your logic criticizes Capitalism. You don't consider all of the intensive labor, manufacturing, transport, etc that goes into creating dinky panels that degrade to worthlessness in a decade or less and NEVER, EVER returns an equivalent amount of energy to the energy used to create it.