Sunday, October 23, 2011

Who needs our "needs"

  1. Introduction
There is a common misconception of the increasing energy demand and therefore an essential fallacy in energy policy discussions. We are asked by the right-wing politicians to believe that according to this and that economic parameters, we need nuclear plants and “clean” coal plants in order to avoid blackouts. On the other side, more “responsible” politicians1 claim that renewable energy resources are enough to satisfy the needs of the society. In the end, all the discussion seems like we are all investors trying to figure out which energy sectors are better for the well-being.

I must open up a parenthesis here to note a couple of things before I state my argument. First, we are most surely not investors; quite the opposite, we as the labor force are one of the commodities to be invested on. Second, renewable energy resources are most certainly not enough. And this is not because there is not enough sun or wind in some geographical region, it is because there is no such thing as enough in this social system. The world is not enough.2 Thirdly, I should also note that if you compare the recent data on carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere with the investments in renewable energy market, you will recognize an almost complete match in data. Of course this doesn't show renewables emit carbon dioxide; but it might perhaps trigger some thoughts about why investing on renewable energy sources cannot be a solution to the climate crisis. I close the parenthesis.

What I argue in this short essay is that these sectoral comparisons and the confusion on which energy is “clean” and which is not are immediate corollaries of an underlying misconception on the too generally defined term “needs”.

One of the misunderstandings on this issue started with the development of discussions on whether climate change was natural or human-caused. In that case, climate scientists demonstrated there is significant anthropogenic effect involved; that is, it does not occur naturally due to some changes in solar activities or due to a natural cycle in the climate, but it has positive correlation to human activities in the world. As a scientific discussion, this makes complete sense; but if you try to historicize the climate crisis and put it into a social context, it is rather misleading. It results in the delusion that we as individual human beings are the cause of global climate change. I will argue for the opposite: We as individual human beings are the victims of global climate change, which is caused simply by the capitalist system.3

  1. Do “we” “need” “these”?


An earthquake in Istanbul would flourish the health sector and would create new investment opportunities for corporations working on construction sector. You can make up your own examples: An oil spill in the middle of ocean; an epidemic affecting millions of people; bombings of this and that country to bring democracy or whatever, huge forest fires opening up agricultural areas... 

These are not daily-life practices for – well, most of – us. But I believe it is more than relevant. Take military for instance. United States reserves 4.7% of its national GDP for military expenditures, which amounts to 698,105,000,000 USD. But US is not an exception: France uses 2.2%, which means 61,285,000,000 USD. The list goes on. NATO expenditures in 2010 were 1,084,915,000,000 USD.4 I kindly urge you to try to read these numbers out loud. These are not for our use.

A typical javelin missile costs some 80,000 USD. They are used in wars as if one is feeding the pigeons. And it is good for business. It is in fact by far better for business than are producing apples or founding an elementary school. It means an eventual increase in gross domestic product. It would also increase the energy demand.

And this applies to the previous examples in a more or less similar fashion. These are things that the world economy most certainly needs. But the question is: Do we need these?


Here are just some of the energy steps that go into making your English muffin. (1) The wheat is taken by a fossil-fuel-driven truck made of nonrenewable resources to a (2) large, centralized bakery housing numerous machines that very inefficiently refine, enrich, bake, and package English muffins. At the bakery, the wheat is (3) refined and often (4) bleached. There processes make up for nice white bread, but rob the wheat of vital nutrients, so (5) the flour is then enriched with niacin, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin. Next, to insure that the English muffins will be able to withstand long truck journeys to stores where they will be kept on shelves for many days, or even weeks, preservative (6) calcium propionate is added, along with (7) dough conditioners such as calcium sulfate, mono-calcium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, fungal enzyme, potassium bromate, and potassium iodate. Then the bread is (8) baked and placed in (9) a cardboard box, which has been (10) printed in several colors to catch your eye in the shelf. The box and muffins are placed within (11) a plastic bag (made of petrochemicals), which is then sealed with (12) a plastic tie (made of more petrochemicals). The packages of English muffins are then loaded into (13) a truck, which hauls them to the (14) air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit, Muzak-filled grocery store. Finally, you (15) drive two tons of metal to the shore and back and then (16) pop the muffins in the toaster. Eventually, you will throw away the cardboard and plastic packaging, which will then have to be disposed of as (17) solid waste. All of this for just 130 calories per serving of muffin.”5
Do we need each of these steps? Or is it perhaps only because it turned out to be cheaper in a specific world economy that each muffin should follow these steps? What we needed in this particular scenario was just a muffin for breakfast, but what the capitalist system needed to produce it results in an ecological disaster. It is not our personal fault that we asked for a simple muffin for breakfast. Yet, it most certainly is our fault if we do not fight against the capitalist system and give consent to the destruction of all the world as we know it.6


What we need is comfortable transportation from one place to another, what the corporations need is that we spend as much as possible during this activity: therefore SUV's and double-roads. What we need is to talk with our family and with our friends a couple of times a week, what the corporations need is that we spend as much as possible during this activity: therefore cellphones with an expected lifetime of three months and low-quality disposable cellphones. Notice my repetition on the fact that the capitalist system needs only one thing: profit-maximization. A human need makes sense for capitalism as long as it is marketable.

Yet if something is marketable, this does not mean that it is a human need. Do we need advertisements at every point we look at? Do we need banks? Do we need wars on oil? Do we need unemployment?7 These are needed only for the maintenance of capitalism. These are not our needs.  

A deeper analysis that I will skip here would demonstrate that capitalism indeed needs ecological crises as much as it needs economic crises. For an amazing elaboration on this subject, I enthusiastically refer the reader to Joel Kovel's brilliant book The Enemy of Nature.

The solution to the ecological crisis, and in particular the climate crisis, has nothing to do with nuclear energy and has almost nothing to do with renewable energy resources. We, as the communists, propose a reduction in total production, a notion in direct conflict with capitalism. We do not promote the construction of solar power plants. We promote the closing down of around half of the existing power plants, and this we propose to do without diminishing the total wealth in the world.8 Only after reducing the energy “demand” by at least one half will we be considering to replace the rest of the power plants with renewables. Only after the abolishment of private property of the means of production is it possible to differentiate our needs from the needs of corporations. Only after the formation of a communist world will it be possible to investigate real human needs. Not before that.

It is not our needs that are the primary cause of global climate change. Global warming is not a direct consequence of our daily-life activities. It is due to industrial, agricultural and commercial activities driven by profit-maximization. There is a tremendous divergence between what we really demand and how the capitalist supply mechanisms work. We are not responsible for causing the ecological crisis, we are the victims. We are the ones who are still starving due to severe droughts, we are the ones who recently had to leave their homes to the extreme weather events, we are the ones who suffer from excessive precipitation. Also, we are the ones who have the need, right and power to put an end to our sufferings. No wind energy company will do that for us.

1 Al Gore is the leading figure here.
2 An inspiring article by John Bellamy Foster argues the impossibility of the coexistence of capitalism and degrowth.
3 I hope the reader understands where I am heading. I am obviously aware that capitalism only defines certain social relations and is therefore human-caused in the strict physical sense. It is in fact an alienation of real social relations: It does not designate a connection between people; instead, people are means for capitalist notions to connect to each other.
4 Keep in mind that some very big economies such as China, Japan, Russia, Brazil, India, Australia are not members of NATO.
5 Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A New World View (New York, Viking, 1980), p.131.
6 Here is another common misunderstanding I should avoid: “The world as we know it” does not only refer to unhappy polar bears, sad coral reefs, melting ice covers on the mountains and some endangered species, it also refers to whatever you understand from human civilization. The question really is about socialism or barbarism.
7 “In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.
8 Well, we most certainly promise to make away with the inequalities in the distribution of this wealth. But that is irrelevant here.

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