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Time to Pull the Plugs

Andreas Malm, ROAR Mag, Jan 4 2018 - 15:00

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

A Transition to the Flow

How fast could a transition to the flow — all those sources of energy originating in the sun and flowing through the biosphere — be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date, American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030. Reorienting manufacturing capabilities towards their needs, the world would not have to build one more coal-fired — or even nuclear — power plant, gasworks, internal combustion engine or petrol station. After another two decades, all old equipment based on the stock could be taken off-line, so that by 2050 the entire world economy — manufacturing, transportation, heating: everything — would run on renewable electricity, roughly 90 percent of which the sun and the wind would provide. The job could be done by technologies already developed.

In the real world, the flow does seem to be undergoing something of a boom, output of wind and solar growing exponentially year after year. Despite the financial crisis, global wind-power capacity increased by 32 percent in 2009; for photovoltaics — also known as solar panels — the figure reached 53 percent. In the eighteen months ending in April 2014, more solar power was adopted in the US than in the previous thirty years; in 2013, 100 percent of the fresh electricity in Massachusetts and Vermont came from the sun, while China installed more photovoltaics than any country had ever done before in a single year.

Yet the flow remained a drop in the fossil bucket, evidently doing nothing to dampen the emissions explosion. Between 1990 and 2008 — from the first to the fourth IPCC report — 57 times more fossil than renewable energy came online in the world economy; by 2008, wind represented a trifling 1.1 percent and photovoltaics a microscopic 0.06 percent of primary energy supply; excluding hydropower, renewable sources generated a mere 3 percent of the electricity. In 2013, more energy entered the world economy from coal than from any other fuel. How can this be? Why is humanity not running for life out of the fossil economy towards one based on the flow? What impediments block its way?

A prime suspect is price: fossil fuels simply remain cheaper. And indeed, one decade into the millennium, renewable sources still cost more on average than the conventional incumbents. But the gap narrowed fast. In many parts of the US, onshore wind was already neck and neck with fossil energy, the price of turbines having fallen by 5 percent per annum for thirty years. Photovoltaics crashed at double that speed. In 2014, after a fall of 60 percent in only three years, solar panels cost one-hundredth of what they did in 1975. In nineteen regional and national markets, they had attained “grid parity,” meaning that they matched or undercut conventional sources without the support of subsidies.

Had it not been for state subsidies to fossil energy — six times larger than those to renewables in 2013 and showing no signs of decreasing — sun and wind might have had significantly lower relative prices. Had the costs of climate change, air pollution, lethal accidents and other “externalities” been included in the market price of fossil fuels, they would not have stood a chance.

The ongoing collapse in the prices of the flow is, at bottom, a function of its profile: the fuel is already there, free for the taking, a “gift of nature” or Gratisnaturkraft, to speak with Marx. The only thing that has exchange value is the technology for capturing, converting and storing the energy of the fuel, and like all technologies, it is subject to economies of scale: mass production slashes the costs of panels and turbines. Every time the cumulative volume of photovoltaic installations has doubled, their market prices have declined by roughly 20 percent.

Moreover, there are numerous potentials for increasing performance and further cutting costs. In what is perhaps the only subfield of the climate debate bristling with optimism and near-utopian zeal, experts predict that both solar and wind will be generally cheaper than fossil fuels sometime before 2025. There is talk of approaching “peak fossil fuels,” beyond which coal, oil and gas will be left in the ground simply because they cost so much more than their clean alternatives.

Woes of the Gratisnaturkraft

Now, it is easy to imagine that falling prices must be an unadulterated blessing for solar and wind. Alas, the outcome is not so straightforward.

In the early-twenty-first century, two of the largest players in the solar industry were BP and Shell, both of which used their newfound inclinations to great PR effect, BP rebranding itself “Beyond Petroleum” and Shell printing double-page adverts on its faith in a “new energy future.” For a time, these oil giants were the second- and fourth-largest manufacturers of solar panels in the world, apparently determined to throw their humongous resources into the sector: exactly what it needed for expansion.

But in 2006, Shell sold its solar subsidiary. In 2008, it pulled out of the London Array, slated to become the largest offshore wind farm in the world, and the following year, the corporation announced its complete exit: there would be no more investment in solar or wind. Why? “They continue to struggle to compete with the other investments in our portfolio” — oil and gas, that is — said spokesperson Linda Cook. BP gradually closed down its panel factories, complained in 2011 that it “can’t make any money” on the sun and, two

years later, followed Shell’s lead: “We have thrown in the towel on solar. Not that solar energy isn’t a viable energy source, but we worked at it for 35 years, and we really never made money,” CEO Bob Dudley explained, going on to sell off the company’s entire US wind business for good measure.

More specifically, both corporations attributed their pullouts from the sun to the plummeting prices on panels. Since they could not extract the fuel and sell it on the market, the only thing amenable to self-expanding value would be manufacturing the technology; the margins were squeezed year after year, however, until little if any profit remained — a tendency with no equivalent in their core business. “BP couldn’t make it [solar] profitable. They couldn’t keep pace with the industry, and didn’t like the capital allocation required. When oil is $100 per barrel, the board wants to stay focused on what they do to maximize earnings,” a former strategist at BP Alternative Energy recalled as the reasoning behind the decision: for someone who is in it to make a profit, a high and stable price is better than a low and falling one.

“In the oil market, the prices are going up and down in cycles. The solar price is just going one way — it’s going down,” lamented one former executive at the defunct Shell Solar, restating the case for eternal fixed capital based on the stock: “Oil companies invest in plants that should work for thirty years, whereas an investment in a solar manufacturing plant can be uncompetitive in five years. That kills the enthusiasm of oil companies.”

But not only inveterate oil companies seem to shun a flow on the way to becoming cheap to ultra-cheap. In 2012, Siemens said it would bury its solar interests due to the plunging prices; Bosch headed in the same direction; Solon, the first publicly traded solar company in Germany, went bankrupt. A more highly publicized death was that of Solyndra, a California solar company, whose factory couldn’t withstand the competition from panel manufacturers in China: first stimulated by the German market, then by state credits in the wake of the financial crisis, Chinese panel factories excelling in mass production developed overcapacity. This would sound like another blessing for a species that needs solar power now more than ever, but it rattled the industry, set off a string of bankruptcies — including in China itself, where the head of one defaulting company leapt to his death — and prompted the EU to impose import tariffs, destroying the appetite of capitalists of all hues.

From a peak in 2011 to the year of 2013, global investments in renewable energy fell by 23 percent. In Europe, the figure was a stunning 44 percent. Solar tumbled; wind proved more resilient; venture capital and private equity steered clear of the razor-thin margins, their involvement in the sector reduced to 2005 levels. Had it not been for government spending — still rising, but just barely — the fall would have been even steeper.

Due to the prices of photovoltaics and turbines dropping even more quickly, these years nonetheless saw growing volumes of actually installed capacity, but that offered scant solace to an actor like Bloomberg New Energy Finance: “The decline in investment was disappointing for the industry and those hoping to see investors and financiers increasing their dollar commitments to the decarbonization of the energy system.” In other words, capital did not engage in the transition as many had expected it would, largely because energy from the flow lost so much of its exchange-value at the very same time that its social use-value — slowing down climate change — rose towards priceless heights.

Overcoming the Lauderdale Paradox

It is too early to tell if these trends will persist, but we do here discern the contours of a version of the “Lauderdale paradox”: the less exchange value that is attached to a necessity of life — such as light or air — the less interest capital will have in producing it as a commodity for the market. Or, the more the price of energy from the flow approaches the zero cost of the fuel, the smaller the prospects of making profit and the more deficient the private investments will be. If this is correct, a realization of the potential of solar and wind on the basis of capitalist property relations would, at some point, become another self-undermining, involuting enterprise.

The spatiotemporal profile of the flow does not allow for anything as lucrative as the primitive accumulation of fossil capital: since the fuel is not hidden away in a separate chamber, but rather hangs like a fruit for anyone to pick, there is little surplus-value to extract in its production — no gap between the location of the energy source and that of the consumers in which the chasm between capital and labor could be reproduced. To some, res communes remain off-putting. There thus appears to be a general catch-22 freezing the transition (or, as it is often and appropriately referred to, the exit). Should we manage to get out, relations would seem to have to move in a more communal direction — in line with the concrete profile or the communist tendency of the flow.

The res communes of water, light and air are still in a “state of continual motion and ceaseless change,” with Blackstone; or “of a vague and fugitive nature,” in the words of a French legal scholar. The capture of their forces appears technically viable today, but only on condition of planning and coordination on a level unknown today.

The first thing to keep in mind here is that any transition requires investments on a scale out of the ordinary. While they might yield cheaper electricity in the long run, technologies for concentrating the flow can only be put into operation at high initial costs. Numbers fly around — the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the world should spend 1 trillion dollars per year until 2050 to shift to renewables — but however one counts, it is evident that the investments needed are colossal and that capital is not rising to the occasion: total spending in 2012 amounted to one-third of the level posited by the IEA. If the decisions remain in the hands of private agents, all indications are that too little will happen too late.

Not that there is a lack of money: the financial players of the world have hundreds of trillions of dollars at their disposal. Not that they shun risky projects: they are willing to gamble their fortunes on the most hazardous speculation. Instead, as Swedish researchers Robin and Staffan Jacobsson argue, the dynamics of financialization have made private investors utterly unfit to bankroll a transition, the chase for instant profit taking them ever further from a super grid or an offshore farm. When the average stock is owned for a mere twenty-two seconds, why would they underwrite a long-term project for exploiting the flow with little in the way of guaranteed revenues?

Abandoning the illusions, Jacobsson and Jacobsson recommend that the states pick up two sledgehammers: a complete restructuring of the financial sector and the founding of public investment banks with massive lending capacity. Then the infrastructure could be built from the ground up.

The Inevitability of Planning

If states alone are fit to commit to the investments, so only states and other public authorities — like municipalities — can make the imperative decisions. But as Naomi Klein maps out in detail, the entire logic of neoliberalism runs counter to the basic requirements of the transition: instead of resources for investment, we get ever more famished public coffers; the opposite of intervention, states have systematically deregulated markets; loathing the mere thought of extending their influence, they give up one sector after another to private agents. The fact that scientists awakened to the magnitude of global warming and called for a drastic change of course just as governments, under neoliberal hypnosis, surrendered the very idea of interfering with the self-driving market is indeed — another key aspect of climate temporality — an “epic case of bad historical timing.”

These insights are shared by less radical thinkers. A U-turn to renewables can be realized solely by means of “concerted social and political efforts beyond the traditional sorts of economic incentives,” in the restrained words of Jacobson and Delucchi. Even Anthony Giddens, who can hardly be accused of communist sympathies, recognizes that the powers of the state “have to be invoked if a serious impact on global warming is to be made”: there must be a “return to planning, in some guise or other.” In the Soviet Union, the five-year plans often missed their targets; we need plans that do not. There is no alternative: planning is “inevitable.” It has to cut far deeper into our economies than any prevailing paradigm permits, and even deeper once the signal dimension of climate change — time — is fully taken on board.

The more CO2 that has been released into the atmosphere, the smaller the scope remains for limiting global warming. Consider the 2 degree target, not as a threshold to dangerous global warming — we are well within its field of force — but rather as a demarcation between the dangerous and the extremely dangerous, beyond which positive feedback mechanisms might run amok. To have at least a reasonable chance of maintaining an orderly civilization, we should keep the rise in average temperature below that line; the emissions explosion of the early twenty-first century, however, has pushed the climate system perilously close to it. The carbon budget for 2 degrees is in the process of being consumed: if global emissions remain at 2014 levels, it will be entirely exhausted within thirty years.

But emissions are, of course, growing fast; current projections suggest a continued growth of upwards of 3 percent throughout the second decade of the twenty-first century. Only a narrow field for a war of maneuver is still there. According to the latest scientific consensus, global emissions would have to peak before 2020 and then decrease by at least 3 percent per year — the same pace at which they currently increase, the explosion inverted into a flood of cuts, business-as-usual completely reversed. What if the peak occurred after 2020, perhaps ten or twenty years later? Then the emissions would have to be slashed even more brutally, if anyone then still dares to aim for 2 degrees. Such is the subversive, immutable arithmetic of climate change.

Towards a War Economy?

It tightens the screws on Marxists as much as on everyone else. Any argument along the lines of “one solution — revolution” or, less abbreviated, “socialist property relations are necessary to combat climate change” is now untenable. The experiences of the past two centuries indicate that socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve; any proposal to build it on a world scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable, but reckless. At this moment in time, the purpose of an inquiry into the climatic destructivity of capitalist property relations can only be a realistic assessment of the obstacles to the transition. They grow higher by the day.

But if the temporality of climate change compels revolutionaries to be a little pragmatic, it obliges others to start pondering revolutionary measures. Had the dismantling of the fossil economy begun, say, after the UNFCCC was signed in 1992, when the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 355 parts per million rather than the current 400, the trick might have at least hypothetically been made with some gentle nudging of the market — a little tax here, a little tariff there, some discounts for electric vehicles — but the longer the postponement, the more dramatic the demolition must be when it starts.

If global emissions are to contract by 3 percent a year, those of rich nations might have to shrink by 5 or 10 percent or even more to give developing countries some space. According to Kevin Anderson, distinguished expert on mitigation scenarios, humanity might retain a 50 percent chance of staying below 2 degrees if emissions hit zero before 2045, but then “flying, driving, heating our homes, using our appliances, basically everything we do, would need to be zero carbon — and note, zero carbon means zero carbon.” Cuts of this magnitude have no historical precedent. The collapse of the Soviet Union set the record, with emissions dropping by 5 percent for a couple of years in the 1990s. How, then, could such a last-ditch effort possibly succeed?

Anderson states the obvious: the market cannot do it. “Conventional market economics is premised on understanding and making small (marginal) changes. But with climate change, we are not talking about small changes; we are dealing with a world of very large changes, outside the realm of standard market theory.” The alternative? “Planned economic recession,” claim Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows. They do not say it loud, but a planned economic recession would of course objectively constitute a war against capital.

A popular analogy is that of the Second World War. In one of the most clear-sighted papers on climate politics so far, Australian researchers Laurence L. Delina and Mark Diesendorf lay out the case for wartime mobilization as a model for rapid abatement of climate change. Conjuring up an enormous defense budget after Pearl Harbor, the American state planned and enforced the production of everything from airplanes to ammunition. The executive branch of the government directed the resources of the nation, summoned labor, requisitioned properties, forced manufacturers to accept contracts, terminated the production of certain goods — notably private cars — and, in short, mobilized the economy in toto for the sole aim of defeating the enemy.

When the task is to cut emissions by some 10 percent per year, nothing less is required than a similar centralization of economic decision-making power under “a special Ministry for Transition to a Low-Carbon Future.” Given exceptional prerogatives, that ministry would raise funds, redirect labor, speed up R&D, sequester fixed capital based on the stock, organize mass production of everything from buses to CSP mirrors and roll out the full powers of the flow.

Annual emissions cuts of a set quantity could be executed against the will of fossil capital and its representatives. Delina and Diesendorf estimate that such regimes could bring the transition to its zero-carbon conclusion within twenty-five to thirty years in developed countries and perhaps forty in the world as a whole. Four political entities — the US, the EU, China and India — currently account for more than half of all emissions: set up one special ministry in each and we would be on our way.

The Second World War analogy has its limitations, however. Big business had little to lose from entering the war. A zero-hour transition to the flow would have to be imposed by forces antagonistic to the interests of fossil capital: in the absence of a mass movement, “it seems unlikely that governments will undertake emergency mitigation, even when life-threatening climate disasters occur.” For some forces, a planned economy for power is an absolute abomination. They will fight the idea, come flood or drought.

Activating the Emergency Break

Enter Naomi Klein, who bases her call to revolt on the proposition that “we are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority.” From this standpoint, climate change is not so much a surprising reversal of fortunes as a lifting of the veil on the social power relations undergirding two centuries of fossil capital — which is, of course, the literal meaning of the Greek word apokalyptein. The truth has been hidden from view; the present moment reveals the meaning of what has been going on for a long time.

Walter Benjamin’s angel of history “sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at its feet”; Theodor Adorno concurs — “normality is death” — but emphasizes that the eternity of horror “manifests itself in the fact that each of its new forms outdoes the old. What is constant is not an invariable quantity of suffering, but its progress towards hell: that is the meaning of the thesis of the intensification of antagonisms.

From the very start, at the very smallest scale — in the hot factory, the smoky street, the mine laden with explosives — there emerged a pattern — some swept away by the storm we call progress, others sailing to their fortunes — subsequently magnified and iterated on progressively larger scales, until climate scientists discovered it in the biosphere as a whole, where the self-similar storm now spirals on. Every impact of climate change unfolds a fraction of that hitherto folded past.

Why engage in a lost cause?, sceptics might ask of the struggle against climate change, and not without reason. But fighting from a position of defeat is nothing new: global warming is itself a sum of lost causes. Commoners and Luddites and plug drawers and innumerable other vanquished challengers counsel us to rethink “the moment of the danger” as extreme and unprecedented by dint of being the latest manifestation of the past. Or, in Benjamin’s supremely visionary words: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

Benjamin’s conception of history — his voluntaristic messianism, organized pessimism, revolutionary melancholia — draws its inspiration from the heritage of the oppressed in order to derail the ultimate disaster of the present. And what is needed today, if not some global edition of the Plug Plot Riots? Go and stop the smoke! That might seem like an exceedingly improbable event, but political action can never be based on probability calculations — that would be swimming with the tide or sailing with the storm. At the time of this writing, a global climate movement is gathering momentum. It should be the movement of movements, at the top of the food chain, on a mission to protect the very existence of the terrain on which all others operate. But the question is — as so many have pointed out — whether it can attain that status and amass a social power larger than the enemy’s in the little time that is left.

But then again, every truly revolutionary movement has faced a similar predicament, as understood by Benjamin. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train — namely, the human race — to activate the emergency brake.” The prospects are dismal: hence the need to spring into action. As in previous emergencies, but now more than ever, as we soar above 400 ppm, we must “accept symptoms of collapse as the quintessence of stability and see salvation alone as something so extraordinary as to pass understanding and verge on the miraculous.” The only ones with at least a hypothetical ability to conjure up that miracle are humans.

This essay is an abridged excerpt from Andreas Malm’s award-winning book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016).