Alex Nichols on the energy crisis and socialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 2 17:18:58 MST 2002

(Alex posted this to alt.politics.socialism.trotsky under the heading
"Renewable Energy or Khmer Rouge socialism". Since he reads Marxmail, I
assume that it was in response to our discussion here.)

If the world's oil runs out and can't be replaced by an alternative in the
next 50 years, then the prospects for Socialism are bleak.

Proponents of the "Olduvai Gorge" theory (1) of industrial civilisation
give us another 5-10 years before we "fall over the cliff" and the oil runs
out.  They're exaggerating.  Not because "conventional" oil supplies won't
eventually run out (later than they suggest though), but because they think
a viable alternative isn't possible and industrial civilisation is
essentially, doomed!

Marxists say that socialism will be based on advanced industrial technology
and will require production of energy on a huge scale.

It may be desirable for world population levels to stabilise or reduce in
the future through a conscious decision to limit our encroachments on
nature. Population control in itself though, will do nothing to reduce the
inequalities within and between nations.  The 1.4 billion people in the
world without electricity won't get it if they become 1 billion, or 0.4

In order to counter the arguments of the "radical" ecologists and "Khmer
Rouge Socialists", who fatalistically propose a retreat to pre-industrial
conditions, it's necessary to look at the alternatives to oil.

Nuclear power doesn't represent a long-term solution. This is truly a
Sorcerer's Apprentice technology. Its development was intimately linked to
the nuclear weapons programme and it will bequeath future generations with
environmental problems for millennia to come. We should oppose the
development of any new nuclear power plants and argue for the phased
de-commissioning of existing ones.

Renewable sources of energy offer the best long-term answer to the world's
energy needs.  Potential sources of renewable energy are more than enough
to meet the world's energy needs.  Utilising renewable energy isn't
primarily a technical problem, but a political one.

Renewable Energy sources (2)

(Figures in Terawatts; 1TW = 1*10^12 watts)

Resource base   TW              Recoverable resource TW

Solar radiation         90,000          1,000
Wind                    300-1200        10
Wave                    1-10            0.5-1
Hydro                   10-30           1.5-2
Tidal                   3               0.1
Biomass         30              10
Geothermal              30              ?

(Current World energy demand is around 12 Terawatts per annum).

There was an initial flurry of activity in the renewables sector after the
first OPEC boycott in the early 70's, especially in countries without
significant oil reserves. One notable example being the Brazilian
"Proaclool" Programme, which contributes to 60% of the country's automotive
fuel requirements using ethanol fermented from biomass.  It's estimated
that Brazil saved almost US$ 9 billion in avoided petrol costs from this
programme between 1976 and 1985.

With the advent of a liberalised energy market in the 1980's, many
renewables programmes in Western Europe and North America lost impetus, or
fell foul of the neo-liberal economic environment. Luz International, which
pioneered a parabolic trough solar generation system in the Mojave Desert,
initially received US State and federal tax credits to build 9 commercial
power plants. A combination of a fall in oil prices, sudden reductions in
tax credits and lack of confidence by investors, caused Luz to file for
bankruptcy in 1992. The nine plants they built generate over 350 MW of
electrical power for commercial use, but further development of this
technology is on hold.

European governments, lacking large reserves of oil have invested more in
renewables than the US, and were in favour of tougher targets on greenhouse
gases at Kyoto in 1997. The EU negotiating position called for the
industrialised nations to adopt a target of a 15% reduction over 1990
levels by the year 2010. About half the necessary emission reductions were
to have been delivered by renewables, with the rest coming from energy

The US government, representing the interests of its oil corporations,
opposed even this mild proposal.  The opening up of the Caspian oil fields
means a plentiful supply of cheap oil for the time being. With the military
muscle to guarantee exploitation occurs on the USA's terms, the Bush
government isn't going to embark on anything as trivial as solving the
world's energy problems.  This may have been deferred, but it won't go away
for two reasons: -

1) Production of US & North Sea oil has peaked. Increasing dependence on
Middle Eastern supplies, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf
states and Iraq is entangling the Western powers in an unholy mess of
political contradictions, of which the war on Iraq is but one example. Even
presuming that the region can be subdued indefinitely, these supplies will
begin to dry up within 25 years. (3)

2) Profligate short-term exploitation of the world's "banked" reserves of
fossilised carbon, combined with the degradation of the world's forests is
creating a dangerous imbalance in the atmospheric carbon cycle.  Although
the details can be debated, the overwhelming consensus of scientific
opinion is that global warming is a reality.  Man-made CO2 is the most
significant cause of this.

The exploitation of alternative sources of fossil fuels is of course a
possible alternative to current sources.  After all, the liberalised fuel
economy was used to destroy the British coal industry, which has proven
reserves for another 400 years of production.  There is also a school of
thought, which says that oil is widespread around the world and new fields
could be opened up by deep drilling. (4)

While it may become economic for capitalism to exploit these sources of
fossil fuels in the future, this wouldn't solve the question of global
warming.  Coal, natural gas and oil shales and orimulsion can't be used to
meet a shortage of cheap oil, without having further negative environmental

Sooner or later, the world will need to move to a situation in which the
majority of its energy comes from renewable sources. The problem is, that
private investors and capitalist governments are only engaging in token
attempts to develop an alternative.

This doesn't imply that oil, natural gas and coal production should be
eliminated.  It isn't an "ecological" argument for throwing coal miners out
of work, or closing car factories. It's an argument for the planned
substitution of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, while providing
alternative employment to the labour force.  In the case of military
production, unions have long promoted a policy of "substitution".  The
argument is not dissimilar for energy production. (5)

There also needs to be simultaneous developments in vehicle technology,
aimed at replacing the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine.  The
most promising alternative being fuel cells, using hydrogen or methanol
generated from renewable sources.  (Without tackling the question of
primary energy production, all initiatives to use electrical power for
transportation are tinkering with the problem) Along with investment in
public transport and an overall reduction in personal car use, fuel cells
could significantly reduce the effects of traffic pollution. All the major
car manufacturers have fuel cell prototypes, but there is no economic
incentive for them to put them into mass production and no fuel supply
infrastructure. (6)

Fossil fuel based technologies will not disappear overnight. There will
need to be a move towards more diversified sources of energy.  Rather than
having to face a sudden crisis in fuel supplies and severe industrial
dislocation, the lifetime of the fossil-fuel industries will actually be
extended. Oil and coal production are essential to chemicals,
pharmaceuticals and agriculture, but their overall use in transport and
electricity production should progressively diminish.

This kind of transition requires the opposite of a liberalised energy
market, a planned energy policy.  It also require economic co-operation
between a number of technologically advanced economies, not the cut throat
competition and lurches into all-out war characteristic of capitalism.

In contrast, right-wing opponents of planning argue that:

" planning is predicated on the idea that energy markets are
so riddled with imperfections (largely because the environmental costs of
consumption are not entirely accounted for in the pricing system) that
major interventions are necessary to efficiently manage society's energy
choices. Market-based energy environmentalism rejects the idea that the
energy economy is rife with "market failures" and questions the idea that
government regulators--no matter how intelligent or well intentioned--can
improve upon the private choices of millions of economic agents in the free
market. Market-based energy environmentalists maintain that the best way to
ensure the efficient use of both economic and environmental resources is to
rely on undistorted price data and governmental protection of private
property rights. "   (7)

In other words: the oil industry's hidden subsidies, tax breaks and support
from government are the result of the "natural workings "of the market,
whereas state intervention to encourage renewable development interferes
with private property rights.

Even if the technology to realise the potential of renewables is yet to be
fully developed, nothing in principle prevents this. Once the necessary
investment in power plant and transmission methods has been made, the
long-term energy-needs of the world's population can be secured into the
foreseeable future. Natural climatic changes, which have occurred for
millennia can't be stopped, but an economy based on renewable energy can
counteract man-made climate change and secure improved living standards for
all. This will only happen within the framework of a developed socialist

(1) Richard C. Duncan, Ph.D. Pardee Keynote Symposia Geological Society of
America Summit 2000 Reno, Nevada

The term "Olduvai Gorge" refers to a valley in Tanzania where
600,000-year-old relics revealed signs of very primitive humans. Duncan's
"Olduvai Theory" suggests that after about year 2030 when fossil fuels like
oil and gas are exhausted by our industrial civilization, humans may be
forced to return to living as primitively as those early humans did.

ENVIRONMENT "Renewable Energy Sources" March 1998 by Dr Tim Jackson* and Dr
Ragnar Löfstedt Centre for Environmental Strategy University of Surrey

(3) "The two most recent sets of estimates of proven reserves are those
presented in World Oil in August 1996 and Oil and Gas Journal in December
1996. These sources both claim to show proven reserves (based on
unspecified national and independent data). The figures of these two
industry journals are updated annually and are widely accepted within the
industry as reasonable indicators of the reserves situation as it evolves
from year to year. As seen in Table 1 there is a relatively small
difference (of 9.8%) between the two sources for the global total of
reserves with both sets showing proven reserves in excess of 1000 billion
barrels " " A guide to Oil reserves and resources"]

(4) "the then Senior Petroleum Geologist for the Ministry of Geology of the
USSR, Academician Professor V Porfiryev, viz. "the overwhelming
preponderance of geological evidence compels the conclusion that crude oil
and natural gas have no intrinsic connection with biological matter
originating near the surface of the earth. They are primordial material
which has been erupted from great depth." Under this alternative theory of
the occurrence of hydrocarbons (which remains largely unaccepted in the
'west'), the supposed limits both of quantity and of habitat of oil and gas
disappear. The world's oil resources would, in essence, be unlimited in
relation to any conceivable evolution of demand. "

Greenpeace ibid

(5) An excellent example was the plan for alternative production, developed
by the Combine Committee at Lucas Aerospace, under the leadership of Mike
Cooley between 1974-6.  This included proposals for alternative energy
sources such as heat pumps, wind generators, solar and fuel
cells.  Needless to say, it was rejected by management and Cooley was
eventually victimised.  At issue was the question of "who manages Lucas"
and the power of management.

(6) Comparative emission levels of Fuel Cell and Internal combustion engines

- water (H2O), .25lb of vapor/ mile
- carbon dioxide (CO2), .00lb/ mile
- nitrogen oxides (NOx), .0g/ mile
- no unburned hydrocarbons
-water (H2O), .39lb vapor/ mile
- carbon dioxide (CO2), .85lb/ mile
- nitrogen oxides (NOx), .3-.5g/ mile
- presence of unburned hydrocarbons

(6) "Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not "Green" By Robert L. Bradley JR,
president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston, Texas, and an
adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.)

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list