Monday, December 21, 2020

Barry Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

When I read Barry Commoner's seminal The Closing Circle (1971) last year I was blown away. It was a book that had a refreshing approach to exploring the relationship between capitalist society and the natural world, demonstrating the dialectical relationship between the two and the way the drive for profit destroyed nature and people. Written 50 years ago, it felt like a contemporary radical book.

So I was looking forward to Commoner's Poverty of Power. This was written a few years after Closing Circle in the aftermath of the economic shock caused by the main oil producing nations withholding oil to drive the price up. The mainstream explanation of the crisis in the 1970s was that the US was deficient in energy production (particularly oil) and this placed them at the mercy of the oil producing countries. Commoner argued the problem was much more complicated, and more fundamental, and the crisis was "a symptom of a deep and dangerous fault in the economic system".

Commoner then deploys a series of analytical tools to understand how energy is used by the capitalist system. The most important of these are the laws of thermodynamics, which he deploys to prove that the US energy system was inefficient, wasteful and designed to maximise profit for energy corporations. He writes that "The Second Law of Thermodynamics is perhaps our most powerful scientific insight into how nature works... it is perhaps time that we should begin using it to govern the ways in which energy is employed". But Commoner argues that there is a dangerous potential problem with this use:

What has gone wrong, I believe, is that we have failed to use thermodynamics to ask the right questions. As a result, we are burdened by powerful and overbearing answers to the wrong questions, or to questions that no one has bothered to ask. For example, one reason some people are so enthusiastic about nuclear power is that they assume that its sole product, electricity, is an essential and unquestioned good. However, behind this assumption lies an unasked question: What is electricity good for?

Answering this means looking at precisely how energy is used by society, and in whose interests. How well are the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, reflected in the economic system? 

Commoner answers his own questions through an in-depth analysis of key segments of the US energy system. While this is interesting the age of the book is clearly exposed here. Commoner takes apart the oil, nuclear and coal industries to show how inefficient they are, and how they are motivated by profit, not anything else. Despite fears about lack of home-grown energy production, Commoner shows, for instance that much of the profits of oil companies are invested abroad. His detailed proof of this is interesting, but enormously out of date. Nonetheless his conclusions are pertinent to the 21st century - the motive of the energy producers and their friends in government is not national security, keeping prices down for consumers, or avoiding pollution, but profits. This fact itself, Commoner highlights, was a particular public grievance during the oil shock years. He concludes that the oil companies were not a "reliable vehicle for the production of US oil".

Dated though these parts are, they nonetheless contain much of interest. However the relevance of Poverty of Power begins to come through when Commoner looks at renewable (solar) energy. In passages that will be breath-takingly relevant to environmental thinkers today, Commoner shows how the power of the oil companies, and their centrality to US capitalism, undermine the development of solar energy technology and infrastructure. The author quotes a 1973 report of the US National Petroleum Council on solar, "because it is so diffuse and intermittent when it reaches the earth, solar energy can be put to no foreseeable large-scale use over the next 15 years, even with appreciable improvements in technology."

Commoner responds: 

What is most unfortunate about such evaluations of solar energy is not so much that they are pessimistic putdowns and perhaps motivated by the self-interest of the purveyors of oil, coal and uranium. (The chairman of the NPC task force quoted above was an officer of the Gulf Research and Development Company, the research subsidiary of a firm engaged in producing all three non-renewable fuels.) Much more distressing is the fact that the supposed disadvantages of solar energy - its diffuse nature and the economics of constructing solar devices - turn out, when properly understood, to be precisely the reverse.

He concludes in words that could be taken from an anti-capitalist response to climate crisis today:

Solar energy enjoins us to attend to the task: to find the best way to link the task to resources; to cherish the resources that nature lends us: to find value in their social; use, rather than profit in their private possession.

The way that the profits of energy multinationals has negatively transformed US society is a key part of Poverty of Power. There is a fascinating account of the much discussed process by which the US tram and light rail system was systematically destroyed by a combination of car manufacturers and oil companies. These companies "motorised the city". By 1949 General Motors had been involved in the replacement of over 100 electric transit systems. The result, pollution, congestion and expensive commutes to work remains a blight on millions of US citizens decades later, but demonstrates the way that the interests of profit undermine wider social concerns. Commoner explores similar issues when related to US agriculture and other aspects of the economy.

Commoner argues that the centrality of fossil fuel technology has led to a situation where production - of energy, food, transport etc - in ways that are inefficient, wasteful and destructive.

Before the postwar transformation in production technology, food was grown and eaten, shirts, shoes and handbags were manufactured, freight was moved and people washed dishes and clothes - all in amounts ,per capita, that are about the same as they are now. But the methods were different: farms used manure rather than synthetic fibres; shoes and handbags were made of leather rather than plastics; freight and people were carried chiefly by railroads and small, lower-powered cars instead of by trucks, airplanes and large cars; dishes and clothes were washed with soap made out of natural fat rather than with synthetic detergent made out of petroleum. The amount and energy and capital needed to accomplish the same task has increased; the amount of labour used to produce the same output has decreased; the impact on the environment has worsened.

Commoner argues this as a change in the means of production. But continues to argue that it is a symptom of a much more profound change:

These changes, which surfaced first as the chief cause of the environmental crisis and later of the energy crisis, have a much deeper, and more immediate, economic meaning. They have seriously affected the relationship between the output of the production system and two major economic inputs: capital and labour. The two effects are diametrically opposed; Most of the newly introduced production technologies have reduced capital productivity... and have increased labour productivity... As new production technologies have displaced the older ones, energy has displaced human labour. 

These processes have deep roots in the economic system itself. For Commoner, writing in the 1970s, this was important because it proved that the economic stagnation in the United States was not about where oil came from, or who pumped it out of the ground, but the way that an economic system based on profit was driving and energy and economic crisis, unemployment and pollution. 

The last point about pollution deserves a brief comment. For readers today there is a gaping hole in The Poverty of Power: climate change. This is, it must be emphasised, not a criticism of Commoner. Despite him discussing the greenhouse effect, he is not aware of global warming as an environmental issue. This is simply because it wasn't yet an issue for anyone. Yet for the modern reader it is the thing that will be in the back of your mind as you read all of the book, for it is the final proof of what Commoner is arguing throughout. Climate change is the consequence both of the how capitalism is run, and the nature of the system itself.

Commoner was not afraid to draw radical conclusions. Some of his readers in the US in the 1970s must have been shocked to find his conclusions drawn from Karl Marx. Today the environmental movement often draws on Marx's insights to understand capital's destruction of the natural world. But Commoner goes further and argues that what Marx does is to show that there is an urgent need to transform society. His conclusions are worth quoting here:

The inherent faults of the capitalist system will now appear in full force. Although economists can, of course, provide alternative explanations for these phenomena [environmental and energy crises], their general similarity tot he faults which are the substance of the socialist critiques of capitalism suggests that there are grounds to at least consider the possibility that the pervasive and seemingly insoluble faults now exhibited by the United States' economic system can best be remedied by reorganising it along socialist lines.

Related Reviews

Commoner - The Closing Circle

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