The need for a new Matrix…

9 04 2019

How many years have I been saying jobs are unsustainable? Here’s Tim Watkins explaining it better than me…

The (other) economic madness of the green new deal

Remind me again why you go to work in the morning?  Is it because you are so committed to the mission of your corporate employer that you would willingly work for nothing if they asked you to?  Does your job provide you with so high a degree of life-meaning and personal satisfaction that you would gladly do it in exchange for the minimum income required to feed and clothe yourself? 

No, I thought not.

For almost all of us, work is a means of obtaining money; and money is merely the means by which we are able to consume the goods and services we desire.

Now let me ask you a multiple choice question: why do you think that the oceans are currently so full of plastic that it has polluted the entire marine food chain?  Is it (a) because evil petrochemical companies simply dump plastic into the sea; or is it (b) because it is the inevitable product of mass consumption by 7.5 billion humans (especially those of us in developed states)?

Plastic pollution, along with all of the other fallouts from the globalised industrial economy, is the end consequence of our collective consumption of the goods and services that we desire.

The various versions of green new dealism that have hit the headlines recently have no alternative but to avoid both of these questions.  Instead, they reduce a human impact crisis – aka “the Anthropocene” or “the overshoot” crisis – to the single dimension of greenhouse gas emissions.  They then reduce the greenhouse gas emission crisis to a carbon dioxide crisis; which is further reduced to only the carbon dioxide emitted in the course of electricity generation.

The proposed solution – the mass deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels (and, tacitly, the grid infrastructure to support them) – has the primary aim of pulling the global economy out of the post-2008 doldrums by creating millions of new jobs.  Exactly how many new jobs has yet to be determined, although at least some proponents argue for a mobilisation on a par with the Second World War or landing humans on the Moon.  As Brian Murray at Forbes notes:

“Commentators have frequently compared the GND’s potential deployment to two examples from twentieth-century U.S. history that involved dramatic, rapid shifts: 1) the decision to send astronauts to the moon and 2) World War II.”

“The speed of progress toward the moonshot was staggering—and the effort was highly targeted, focusing on the specific technologies necessary to transport a single vehicle to and from the lunar landscape 240,000 miles away while keeping the occupants alive. At the height of the moon effort in 1966, relevant spending amounted to 0.7% of GDP.  In today’s dollars, that would be $150 billion.”

“By contrast, World War II consumed 35.8% of GDP at its peak (1945), an amount equal to $7.4 trillion today. The massive undertaking involved virtually every aspect of the economy. Over 17 percent of the work force was deployed in the armed forces and nearly five million women entered the work force (a 40 percent increase), many in place of men deployed overseas, to bolster domestic production to support war efforts.”

Murray argues that any attempt to implement the green new deal is likely to be closer to the Moon shot than the war.  Nevertheless, we are still talking about billions of dollars and millions of new construction jobs.  For Murray, the key economic problem here is that wind turbines and solar panels require very little labour to operate and maintain.  As a result, any jobs created would necessarily be temporary.  This, however is a secondary concern and is easily counter-critiqued by the proponents of green new dealism – the additional demand created in the wider economy by the new deal workers spending their wages will create a wider economic boom that will generate new jobs to employ these workers as the construction phase comes to an end.

Let us now revisit those awkward questions I posed at the beginning of this post.  What proportion of several millions of green new deal workers will be offering their labour for free?  What proportion will work in exchange for meals, clothing and a bed for the night?  Most will expect to be paid at least the minimum wage.  And if the promises of the green new dealers are to be realised, a large proportion of the jobs created will need to be high-skilled and high-paid.

Most workers do not simply save their wages every month.  Indeed, one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ observations which informed the original new dealism in the 1930s was that ordinary workers had a far greater propensity to spend than wealthier people.  That is, if someone who is currently only able to eat because of food stamps or a package from a foodbank is given a job at the current average wage – $56,500 (US) £28,600 (UK) – they are likely to spend almost all of it; whereas if the same average wage were given to the CEO of an international bank, they would be far more likely to save it.  So, from a demand point of view, creating lots of relatively well-paid jobs for people who are currently unemployed, underemployed or eking out a living on the minimum wage makes absolute economic sense.

Environmentally, not so much.  The technologies that the new jobs are created to deploy are intended to be greener than the technologies they replace – although they still necessarily involve fossil fuels in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance.  Nor – at least for now – are these technologies recyclable; indeed, solar panels contain toxic chemicals that prevent either recycling or landfill disposal.  And, of course, in the absence of seasonal grid-scale storage technologies nuclear baseload and gas stand-by capacity will continue to be needed to smooth out intermittency.  These, though, are again secondary problems.

The main issue that any green new deal has to overcome if it is to have any credibility is how we go about preventing millions of new workers from actually spending their additional income.  For all of its many flaws, one of the environmental benefits of quantitative easing since 2008 is that very little of the newly printed currency has seeped out into the real economy.  Most has been used for corporate share buy-backs or investment in various derivatives that do little to increase demand for goods and services across the real economy.  Indeed, this is one of the central criticisms of the current policies levelled by green new dealers.  Any green new deal, in contrast would be increasing global consumption of goods and services by billions – if not trillions – of dollars worldwide.  But mass consumption is precisely the cause of our environmental crisis in the first place.  Millions of new wage labourers are no less likely to purchase such things as single-use plastic containers, corn-fed beef, petrol cars and international travel than any of the current workforce.  The result is that as fast as the electricity generating industry is curbing carbon dioxide emissions, the manufacturing, transportation and industrialised agriculture sectors will be ramping up their emissions – and using up the planet’s remaining resources – to satisfy the new demand.

Far from being a means of sustaining a global economy built upon fossil fuels, a green new deal that creates new jobs and stimulates economic growth amounts to little more than a final blow-out binge before our once-and-done global economy comes crashing down around our ears.  The only means – assuming any is possible at this late stage – of mitigating the environmental catastrophe that is gathering pace around us is to engage in a managed process of de-growth (which may include some deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies) to create far smaller, localised and less consumptive economies than we have had for many decades.  By necessity, the process would also require a shrinking of the human population to a level in accordance both with what is sustainable and with the standard of living we consider acceptable – i.e., the more consumptive our lifestyles, the lower our life expectancy/birth rate will have to be.

This is not, of course, anything that is going to win votes at an election.  But any detailed examination of the environmental impact of millions of new workers spending their new wages on even more of the same patterns of consumption that have already brought our planet to the edge of extinction should – in any sane world – be no less acceptable.  It is a tribute to our propensity for denial that so many people regard green new dealism as an environmental good rather than the catastrophe it is likely to become.


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8 responses

9 04 2019
Brandon Young

No one could seriously be as simple minded as this Tim Watkins bloke pretends to be.

For example, he says:

“Plastic pollution, along with all of the other fallouts from the globalised industrial economy, is the end consequence of our collective consumption of the goods and services that we desire.”

No. This is profoundly ignorant. Plastic pollution is a failure of our system to account for the noneconomic costs of consumption.

Account for those costs, and plastic pollution would not happen. This guy can’t possibly be so ill informed…

10 04 2019
mikestasse

One of our desires is to not account for our impacts.

Otherwise we would have already come up with an alternative system….

10 04 2019
Brandon Young

“One of our desires is to not account for our impacts.”

That is not one of my objectives, but a feature of the current model of the economic and political system. The objective of ignoring externalities does not arise in the people; it arises in the system of power that reigns over us. That failure to distinguish between cause arising in human nature and cause arising in the system design is exactly why I see this guy’s views as naïve.

If you don’t identify the proper flows of cause and effect, you will never understand a problem well enough to fix it.

Consumerism is not human nature. It is imposed on us by the industrial system, to make us docile and ignorant, and to ensure that we behave in ways that serve the elites that own and operate the system.

You will have seen Baudrillard mentioned in the recent Matrix article at The Conversation, and perhaps even my comment that includes this link to an excerpt explaining how consumerism takes control of human behaviour:

https://theconversation.com/more-than-one-in-four-aussie-kids-are-overweight-or-obese-were-failing-them-and-we-need-a-plan-114005?#comment_1878046

Watkins’ paragraph with the multiple choice questions demonstrates that he doesn’t understand that the pollution is not the inevitable result of consumption, but of a failure of governance of the economic and political system.

We need to be a little more sophisticated than that. We need to distinguish between the destructive and constructive aspects of the system we have, and decide what we want to eliminate and what we want to cultivate.

Just pointing the finger at consumption itself is foolish. It gives us no point of control, except to suggest that we abandon the entire system, which is never going to be allowed to happen on a meaningful scale by the global elites.

10 04 2019
Bev

Unfortunately consumerism IS human nature. Humans are animals, who, like other living organisms, have an inbuilt desire to capture as much energy and resources as possible. This from another ‘Tim’, physicist Tim Garrett: “Civilization is an open thermodynamic system. It uses external sources of primary energy and raw materials and dissipates waste heat and materials.”

10 04 2019
Brandon Young

Consumption is natural. Consumerism is an orchestrated system of mass deception and social control. It was specifically engineered to perform this task.

If you have objections to the Baudrillard excerpt already linked you should state them. If you have a little more time you can follow the Century of the Self videos on YouTube, and see exactly who was involved in engineering consumerism, and why they thought it was necessary. There are links and transcripts of the first two of the four videos here:

https://theconversation.com/the-off-topic-conversation-126-80070#comment_1329345

You will see that Consumerism is most certainly not natural human behaviour.

10 04 2019
Dennis

I’ve been reading Tim’s work for a while and he does have a grasp of noneconomic cost. I guess your comment is just good old fashioned ignorance. Happens to the best of us.

10 04 2019
Dredd

The mysticism of technology is as old as it gets:

(https://blogdredd.blogspot.com/2019/04/the-machine-religion-3.html)

The Matrix is about machines with machine intelligence farming humans.

12 04 2019
Michael D

Consumerism has been used to keep the money flowing (never mind where) and we are all, to some degree, complicit. If the 24 x 7 consumer advertisements were to stop ….

I like how the reality of preparing for a ‘lower standard of living’ is slowly seeping into debates. Most unpalatable.

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