speri.comment: the political economy blog

The political economy of (ecological) crisis displacement: Part II

Failure to begin the difficult process of questioning the purposes of economic activity may produce even more intractable ecological crises in the future

Martin Craig, Research Fellow at SPERI

Martin CraigIn the previous post of this series I argued that contemporary climate policy – to the degree that it succeeds – can only achieve a ‘de-carbonisation’ of the political-economic status quo. It does not challenge the ways in which contemporary political economies are organised and thus leaves the barriers to economic growth that are bound up with them intact. This is because the transition to a renewable energy infrastructure that contemporary climate policy promotes would not expand the ‘ecological surplus’ upon which the growth of capitalist political economies ultimately depends. The result would be to exchange an ecological crisis for an inequality crisis.

Such an analysis is unlikely to be comforting for those who favour the status quo. However, I concluded the last post by considering a second response to the carbon crisis that, at least in principle, might allow contemporary political economies to avoid this crisis of inequality and continue in the way they are presently organised. This would take the form of a new energy-generating technology that is capable both of dramatically reducing the price of energy at the same time as it de-carbonises it.

Like such epochal technologies as the steam engine before it, the characteristic feature of this innovation would be to reduce production costs dramatically. It would do so not only by supplying cheaper energy directly to producers, but also by facilitating cheaper raw material extraction and lowering the cost of the food produced by an increasingly energy-intensive agricultural sector. Together, these would add up to what Moore calls a ‘revolutionisation of the ecological surplus’ in which cheaper energy, raw materials and food collectively drive a step-change in economic growth, allowing capital to accumulate whilst simultaneously increasing the purchasing power of wage-earners through lower prices of foods and goods. It would thereby side-step the distributional conflicts envisioned in my first ‘thought experiment’. And, crucially, it would do all of this while greatly reducing carbon emissions.

This technology is, of course, a fantasy, although not an entirely implausible one. Humankind has, after all, arrived at such innovations in the past. Moreover, for those industries and policymakers whose (in)actions frustrate a transition to renewables on the rapid timescale demanded by international emissions targets, such an innovation essentially constitutes the only hope for evading the worst effects of the carbon crisis. It is important therefore to consider what the implications of such an innovation might be for the crises we face in the future.

The steam engine is a useful analogy with which to broach this question. Writing in the 19th century, William Jevons noted a paradoxical relationship between coal-efficient steam engines and aggregate coal consumption. For decades after the invention of the steam engine steam power remained prohibitively expensive for most industrial uses because of the sheer quantity of coal that early designs consumed. The situation changed dramatically with James Watt’s redesigned steam engine. This design was substantially more coal-efficient than its predecessors. However, in reducing industrial energy costs and placing steam-powered production in the hands of manufacturers who previously could not afford it, the Watt steam engine increased the aggregate quantity of coal consumed by the economy by many orders of magnitude. It powered the industrial revolution and created a step-change in levels of production, but also, correspondingly, of coal consumption.

This was a paradoxical outcome from the point of view of ‘coal pessimists’ like Jevons, who predicted that accelerating coal depletion would have economically disastrous results for the British empire. This relationship between energy efficiency and aggregate energy consumption has come to be known as the ‘Jevons Paradox’.

Jevons’s prediction of the precise form that would be taken by the ecological crisis arising from increased coal consumption proved false – scarcity of fossil fuels is yet to pose a crisis for capitalism. Yet he was right to note the potential for the creation of ecological crisis as a consequence of a fossil-fuel-dependent step-change in economic growth, for such fuels are at the heart of the contemporary carbon crisis. We could therefore substitute ‘ecological impact’ for ‘energy consumption’ in Jevons’s logic and conclude that innovations that dramatically reduce energy costs are likely to give rise to a much greater scale of production and, in so doing, magnify the environmental impacts of production practices in multiple ways.

A new technology on a par with the steam engine in this respect is therefore likely to exacerbate the many ecological crises that are already latent within contemporary manufacturing and agricultural production practices. The result would be to displace and proliferate crisis elsewhere in the world of ecosystems, yielding an altogether more intractable problem than the present carbon crisis.

An insight into this future is provided by Johan Rockström and his colleagues. In an important but depressing paper, they remind us that the carbon crisis represents but one (and not even the most advanced) breaches of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ caused by anthropogenic ecological changes. The breach of any of these barriers holds the potential to move the earth beyond the relatively hospitable range of eco-systemic states occupied by the planet during the period that human beings have walked the earth. Apart from climate change, the three most advanced of these – phosphorous and nitrogen deposition, biodiversity loss and deforestation – are in many respects related to growing agricultural production, whilst the depositing of man-made substances into the world of ecosystems – a broad category for which Rockström et al. are unable to calculate a ‘safe operating space’ – is related primarily to the production, transport and consumption of goods.

The point, though, is that many, perhaps all, such boundaries would be more rapidly and irreversibly breached were an innovation on a par with the Watt steam engine to lead to a comparable step-change in contemporary production levels, thereby placing the very habitability of the planet into question.

When viewed in this light, the crisis of inequality envisioned in my previous ‘thought experiment’ begins perhaps to appear an altogether more manageable proposition (although daunting enough in its own right). Although the promotion of economic growth is likely to feature prominently in any decisive response to a crisis of inequality, such a crisis may nevertheless create strategic openings for the ecological critics of contemporary capitalism both to assert the ecological consequences of perpetual economic growth and mobilise support around different visions of how political economies might be organised in the future.

These strategic openings would arise because a decisive response to a crisis of inequality would necessitate a reconsideration of the principles that govern income distribution in capitalist political economies, calling into question the primacy afforded to the short-term interests of capital holders in neoliberal political economies. In so doing, it would also expose the contingency of inequality upon political choices and thus falsify fatalistic narratives of the status quo.

It is in the context of such a re-assertion of contingency and political choice that ecological critics of contemporary capitalism might be able to begin to build a broader movement that calls into question the purposes of production and the desirability of economic growth as its long-term fixture. A tall order, no doubt. But, as I have sought to demonstrate in these two thought experiments in crisis displacement, it is a vastly preferable and altogether less intractable problem to have to confront than the crises that otherwise we will be forced to face.

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