Home > Economics - General, Environment > Decarbonizing the economy is easy and cheap

Decarbonizing the economy is easy and cheap

Since I wrote my post on good climate news for 2017, a couple of news items have caught my eye

* Britain now generates twice as much electricity from wind as from coal, and around 30 per cent from renewables in total
* More than half the vehicles sold in Norway are now electric or plug in hybrid

My thoughts on these examples over the fold:

TL;DR version: These examples show that, at least for developed countries, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are feasible right now, with no discernible effect on living standards.

Let’s take Norway first. The rapid shift to electric vehicles is part of a program aimed at ending sales of internal combustion cars by 2025. It’s been driven by subsidies of various kinds, as well as easier access to parking. These subsidies are substantial when considered in relation to the purchase price of cars. What matters, however, is that they are quite modest in relation to government budgets and the economy as a whole. They don’t even rate a mention in the summary page of this OECD economic survey. Of course, Norway is rich, even by developed country standards, but only about 25 per cent richer than Australia.

As we’ve seen repeatedly, subsidies for ambitious climate programs are initially set too high, with goals being overachieved as policymakers are surprised by consumer demand and technological progress. Norway is already scaling back its subsidies, but that won’t derail progress towards decarbonization. Countries that move a bit later will be able to start with lower subsidies and draw on Norway’s lessons regarding the best way to encourage a rollout of charging stations, the key infrastructure requirement.

Finally, it’s worth observing that Australia offers some pretty big subsidies to (mostly) large car buyers through our indefensible concessions on FBT, and through inadequate road pricing. The only benefit of these subsidies is to maintain employment in the salary packaging industry and to keep the toll road juggernaut rolling.

Turning to Britain, it’s striking to recall that, only a few years ago, we were having heated arguments about whether an energy sector with 30 per cent renewables could possibly work. Looking in more detail at the numbers, the UK has one advantage in eliminating coal, namely that it generates around 25 per cent of its electricity from nuclear (a high cost source, but the cost of existing stations is sunk), which has constant supply characteristics similar to those of coal. Even so, coal and nuclear combined only account for around 30 per cent of the total, far less than Australian fans of “baseload” assume to be necessary. Against that, Britain has some big disadvantage. It’s a notoriously lousy location for anything solar, and the lack of available land (amplified by NIMBY resistance) means that most of its windpower development is offshore. The British example shows that, with sensible policy, Australia could reduce the coal-fired share of electricity to 30 per cent in a decade or so and at negligible economic cost.

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  1. Anthony
    January 8th, 2018 at 16:55 | #1

    40% of the UK electricity supply is from gas – According to this article in The Guardian last year: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/07/how-green-is-britains-low-carbon-energy-supply.

    Is perhaps gas comparable to coal/nuclear as it pertains to electricity generation?

    Meanwhile, this majority of domestic heating is from gas fired central heating – see this 2015 study from (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378778814008317.

    I would argue that switching from coal to gas is an important lesson here. I’m guessing 10-15% of natural gas could be made from sewage and waste. It would be possible to make large quantities of methane from algae. However, my understanding is (like solar) you need large amounts solar energy to grow the algae. However, in Australia given the availability of solar and large coastlines, I would argue fossil fuel gas can be supplemented with biogas.

  2. January 8th, 2018 at 20:48 | #2

    Anthony: gas is much more despatchable than either coal or nuclear. Gas turbines can be started from cold or switched off iin minutes (******researchgate.net/post/What_is_the_typical_MW_minute_ramping_capability_for_each_type_of_reserve). That makes them technically a good complement to variable wind and solar. One big development in 2017 is that grid batteries are becoming competitive with gas peakers for certain backup uses, especially for short-term fluctuations.

    You are right that gas can be sourced renewably up to a point. Surplus wind and solar can be used to electrolyse water into hydrogen, which can – again up to a point – just be injected into existing natural gas networks. The scheme is known as power-to-gas, or P2G, and Germany is putting a lot of effort into the technology. It’s not IIRC very efficient, but ex hypothesi the input electricity is largely free.

  3. January 8th, 2018 at 21:06 | #3

    JQ: “the lack of available land (amplified by NIMBY resistance) means that most of its [Britain’s] windpower development is offshore.”
    Scotland is a very big exception here. From the site of a Scottish energy firm (****sse.com/newsandviews/allarticles/2017/07/whats-the-future-for-onshore-wind-in-scotland/):
    “Scotland currently has 6.1GW of onshore wind in operation with (at least) a further 1GW expected to come online before 2020.”

    There are two major differences from NIMBY England and Wales. (1) The devolved Scottish government is strongly supportive. For instance, Trump’s NIMBY effort to block a near-offshore wind farm from spoiling the view from one of his golf courses was successfully squashed in Edinburgh. (2) Maggie Thatcher’s vindictive nationalisation of business rates (property taxes) did not extend to Scotland. An English local authority will see little or no financial benefit in approving a wind farm; a Scottish one will see a large one. In Scotland the political playing field between supporters and opponents of a development is roughly level, in England it’s rigged for the NIMBYs.

    However, the market incentives are or were uniform across the UK, and their withdrawal by Westminster has therefore slowed onshore developments is Scotland to a trickle. The falling costs of wind should have made subsidy-free wind power profitable in much of upland Britain, and a revival in Scotland is quite possible.

    I don’t have information on Northern Ireland, but IIRC it’s more like Scotland than Wales in this area.

  4. Ikonoclast
    January 9th, 2018 at 08:50 | #4

    “Norway is rich.” The irony is that Norway is rich because of North Sea oil. North Sea oil is rapidly depleting now as peak oil is well and truly past for the NS oil fields. Norway was wise enough, and opportunistic enough, to convert its NS oil largess into a sovereign wealth fund which it has invested around the world.

    “The Norwegian central bank, which runs the country’s sovereign wealth fund – the world’s biggest – has told its government it should dump its shares in oil and gas companies, in a move that could have significant consequences for the sector.

    Norges Bank, which manages Norway’s $1tn fund, said ministers should take the step to avoid the fund’s value being hit by a permanent fall in the oil price.

    The fund was built on the back of Norway’s hydrocarbon wealth, and around 300bn krone (£27.73bn), or 6%, is invested in oil and gas companies.” – Guardian.

    So, while the wealth fund is used for social funding at home, it operates in a capitalistic fashion, extracting rents from the rest of the world, and it was built on oil.

    Pockets of “hope” like Norway have this complex and checkered history embedded as it is global capitalism. Only by being differentially “blessed” with natural largess, which they harnessed for themselves and then invested in a global capitalist economy for rents, have they become the “aristocracy” of renewables and the clean economy. Australia is the same, except with coal instead of oil, and except that we are slow to move to renewables.

    The test is not when a small, absurdly advantaged capitalist country, drawing rents from the rest of the globe, can move to renewables, but when and if the third world could move to renewables, do it sustainably and do it under capitalism. The last point will be found to be impossible. Without a reform away from capitalism it cannot occur.

  5. Mr T
    January 9th, 2018 at 13:01 | #5

    I was interested to see that the battery bank in SA is used in a way different to what was being talked about.

    40% was used to smooth supply on a minute by minute basis. (Don’t know how the grid handled this in the past. Possible this was just an inefficiency in the system that everyone lived with. Would be interested in technical comment)

    60% used to shift supply from Day to Night.

    None was used to shift supply over a number of days.

    As an aside, in Victoria, the retail companies offer a off peak rate. It can be used to power heat banks (not really a thing any more), electric hot water systems, and in floor heating. This was introduced when power was mainly generated using coal, and the turbines had to tick over at night even when there was low demand. Does this pricing structure make sense any more? If not, how do people think it will change under the current market setup?

  6. Smith
    January 9th, 2018 at 13:43 | #6

    “Norway is rich”.

    Norway has become rich by exporting fossil fuels. This is so ironic, Alanis Morrissette could write a song about it.

  7. January 9th, 2018 at 19:19 | #7

    Smith: Pretty much every rich country got that way using or selling fossil fuels (even export economies rely on fossil fuels to run the machinery and carry the materials to the container port, and Brazil, Australia, Russia, and Canada have oil and coal too). They were the basis of the world economy in the 20th century. Given that every rich country is guilty, arguing about who is greener than thou does not seem as useful as trying to move towards a new system, ideally lead by the countries who burnt or sold the most fossil fuel and got the most benefits creating our current problems!

  8. January 10th, 2018 at 03:47 | #8

    Norway started with another natural advantage. It consists almost entirely of mountains, narrow valleys and fjords. The hydro capacity is unlimited for practical purposes, and the grid supply is almost entirely (>99% for the mainland) renewable already. Norway is happy to act as “Europe’s battery”, and it already is for Denmark. Denmark is in fact a better poster child for the transition, as it is flat and owns no oilfields.

    See also Costa Rica, a pocket of successful social democracy in otherwise misruled Central America. Mountainous, so runs on hydro.

  9. Greg McKenzie
    January 10th, 2018 at 07:29 | #9

    There seems to be too much focus on supply issues with the energy debate in this country. This is exactly what the Turnball LNP government want. The demand side is said to be price inelastic but is it that simple? Certain cross elasticities of demand seem to be more relevant. Income inelasticity issues prevail for those who cannot use credit cards and other debt options to cover over usage of power supplies. As far as the subsidy debate is concerned there may be a need for initially high subsidies to switch to renewables. The argument here is the difficulties caused by inertia. But governments do fail to plan for success just as John mentioned above. High subsidies need to have a grandfather clause that reduces them over time and eventually ends them when no longer necessary.

  10. John Quiggin
    January 10th, 2018 at 07:34 | #10

    Interesting comments on Norway, but unrelated to the question examined in the OP, which is: can a transition to electric vehicles be achieved with no detectable impact on living standards.

  11. Ikonoclast
    January 10th, 2018 at 08:16 | #11

    J.Q. says “Decarbonizing the economy is easy and cheap”.

    A wiseacre would probably say “Oh yeah, then why hasn’t it been done?”

    Of course, it has only become easy and cheap in the last decade or so. Advances in renewable energy, especially Solar PV, have seen to that. The deeper point however is that our political economy (late stage neoliberal capitalism) is not amenable to the types of changes necessary to decarbonize the economy in a timely fashion. The necessary changes have been resisted and delayed by vested interests. The political-economic resistance of the system to change is far greater than the resistance of the relevant problems to technical solutions.

    At the very least, we need to take a far more dirigiste approach. The state (each nation state) needs to direct the economy towards a full renewables model and the target date for full conversion needs to be earlier than 2050 at about 2040 or 2035. Capitalism on its own will meander along and never reach the target in time. Moving to a renewables model is not enough. Capitalism’s predilection to waste resources, with planned obsolescence, over-production, over-consumption and environmental destruction, must also be addressed. Since these are systemically inbuilt features of the capitalist system, it is capitalism itself which must be superseded.

  12. Smith
    January 10th, 2018 at 08:46 | #12

    @John Quiggin

    What is the net effect on carbon emissions if all motor vehicles become electric but the electricity to power them is produced using the fuel mix as now?

  13. January 10th, 2018 at 10:06 | #13

    Ball-park attempt at an answer. ICE vehicles are about 15% efficient, EVs 85% efficient, coal power stations 40% efficient, gas ones 60% efficient. Assume a grid equally powered by gas and coal. The net efficiency of the EV plus grid system is about 43% (corrections wrlcome). A complete shift from ICEs to grid- powered EVs reduces vehicle CO2 emissions by around two-thirds.

    It is not worth my or anyone else’s time doing a better calculation because it’s a bad faith and irrelevant question. Real grids are already partly renewable – countries like Brazil with a lot of legacy hydro are already >80%. This proportion will rise rapidly over time everywhere, as countries implement their Paris commitments with variable zeal, facing very favourable costs. The life of a car is two decades, so the average carbon intensity of an EV is that of the grid ten years from now. What else can we do but make the switch?

  14. derrida derider
    January 10th, 2018 at 10:29 | #14

    @James Wimberley
    Mountainous, so runs on hydro.
    Mountainous and wet is what you need for hydro, something that people from wet parts of the world are apt to forget. But seriously wet also makes solar PV less attractive, so a really good wholly renewable grid should move a lot of power between generator and storage. We’re ultimately going to need plenty of long distance HVDC cables.

  15. iain
    January 10th, 2018 at 10:34 | #15

    That’s a really striking graph, with coal dropping off the cliff.

    With renewables, the key groupings are : Wind+Bio+Solar and Hydro+Geotherm.

    The first grouping (W+B+S) is the main one to think about, as it is the one more easily adapted across geo-political regions.

    The US and China, far and away, lead the world in total terms with energy from W+B+S, but remain the biggest polluters.

    Denmark, Germany, Texas, and to a lesser extent Britain (as in this example), lead the way in terms of W+B+S as percentage of total – for developed, large economies.

    Denmark, which has spongy grids in neighbouring countries to help manage loads, is a key outlier, as there still isn’t much above 25% for W+B+S for significant economies.

    Energy storage is a helpful step for bringing up this percentage – as some non-trivial issues around thinking about energy in geographical/weather terms and transforming grid management are not as quick moving.

    When batteries hit the right price point – that striking “whooosh” graph with previously untouchable energy sources falling off the cliff – will be the norm.

  16. Smith
    January 10th, 2018 at 11:59 | #16


    A couple of days ago the CDU and SPD coalition negotiators agreed to drop Germany’s target to cut emissions by 40% by 2020 (from 1990 levels). The reason: higher than expected economic growth and higher immigration mean the target won’t be hit without additional measures, which they are not prepared to take. (But they are keeping the 2030 target of a 55% cut, presumably because it is so far into the future it will be someone else’s problem).

    As Dean Martin once sang, “Get on with your livin’ and I’ll get on with mine …. ‘Cause it’s one step forward and two steps back most of the time”.

  17. Ikonoclast
    January 10th, 2018 at 12:38 | #17

    @James Wimberley

    Good points. I have pointed out several times on this and other forums that an electrical economy is much more efficient and thus can function on a lower EROEI. I’ve pretty much been ignored on that.

    On the issue of “bad faith and irrelevant question”, that’s true as far it goes. But assuming that we all need to have private vehicles is probably wrong too. With better mass transit and self-driving for the small passenger vehicles left in the mix, we should need far less small passenger vehicles.

    The real “bad faith” comes in when people won’t critique capitalism as the central part of the problem. How can a system entirely dedicated to, and predicated upon, endless growth, wasteful over-consumption and environmental destruction as an uncounted cost, ever make the right decisions to save us from environmental destruction? It simply is not possible.

  18. iain
    January 10th, 2018 at 16:38 | #18


    Carbon targets are irrelevant to the onslaught of green tech.

  19. Smith
    January 11th, 2018 at 08:34 | #19


    If that is true, why do people get so excited about renewable energy targets and their variants, and climate policy in general? If green tech, driven by market forces, is going to fix the problem, we can all sit back and relax, yes?

  20. Ikonoclast
    January 11th, 2018 at 10:36 | #20

    From ABC News site:

    “BOM annual climate statement shows 2017 was Australia’s third-warmest year on record.”

    “Despite there being no El Nino, usually associated with warm temperatures, 2017 was still the third-warmest year on record, at 0.95 degrees above the 1961 to 1990 average.”

    This news is somewhere between very disturbing and totally frightening. The Barrier reef has just suffered two bleaching events for two years running. This is the first time this has ever happened.

    We are truly entering run away climate change. Climate experts are commenting with statements like “Our models were showing such large predicted temperature increases we thought they must be wrong. Now the temperature increases are occurring just as the models predicted.”

    Mass die-offs will start in tropical areas within the next few years as temperatures exceed the wet-bulb level where humans die.

    See: “Wet Bulb Temperature Soon to Become Leading Cause of Death”

  21. January 11th, 2018 at 22:58 | #21

    @John Quiggin
    Article here with some numbers on the Norwegian subsidies for EVs: *****masterresource.org/electric-vehicles/norway-ev-costs/
    The source is hostile so the numbers are not likely to be underestimates. Takeaways:
    1. The subsidies (exemption from very high purchase taxes, exemption from road tolls, free parking) are very high, at least $3,000 per car per year.
    2. They have begun to generate political pushback, so far with little effect.
    2. The subsidies at most amount to 0.5% of the government budget, clearly sustainable in economic terms.
    The road toll exemption looks unjustifiable, whether you see the tolls as a user charge to recover costs or a proxy congestion tax. They are also the sort of thing that creates envy and resentment. The same argument holds for free parking. The purchase tax exemption makes most sense as a proxy carbon tax.

  22. January 11th, 2018 at 23:10 | #22

    The capitalist system is not dedicated to or predicated upon anything because it has no agency. It is a blind and purposeless assemblage of fragmented selfish desires. Maybe most money is made from expanding material footprints and trashing the planet (Henry Ford and Rex Tillerson), maybe by reducing them (Steve Jobs and Elon Musk). Just now, the footprint-cutters seem to be winning. This may not last, but there is no a priori reason to think that the black cats cannot catch mice as well as the white ones.

  23. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2018 at 08:13 | #23

    @James Wimberley

    It’s quite common to say that an institution or system made by humans is dedicated to something. For example we might say, “Universities are dedicated to learning.” We clearly mean the institution is designed and run by humans with agency and intentions. It is the humans who dedicate their efforts, including institution and system building, to the goal.

    Capitalism is an institution of our society. It is dedicated to endless growth. Our politicians and business leaders always talk about growth. We can see that “endless” is implied. When there is any talk of saving the environment or the need for a steady-state, circular economy, our politicians and business leaders froth at the mouth with outrage.

    A real system made by humans and dedicated to do something is then logically predicated upon certain things. This is true whether or not the dedicators recognize the reality of the predications. A system dedicated to endless growth is ultimately predicated upon the destruction (via anabolism, catabolism or envelopment) of all that is not itself. Of course, there are real limits to growth.

    Finally, I am probably not quite right in saying Capitalism is dedicated to endless growth. It is actually dedicated to endlessly expanding consumption. That then is predicated on endless growth of the productive apparatus which in turn is predicated on the destruction of everything else that is not the capitalist system; climate and ecosystems for example.

  24. Ronald
    January 12th, 2018 at 09:13 | #24

    “Can a transition to electric vehicles be achieved with no detectable impact on living standards?”


    The electrical energy used by electric cars is cheaper than petrol or diesel. In Victoria it is possible to charge an electric car overnight for a few cents a kilowatt-hour while petrol is now around $1 a liter. (Around $1.40 with the fuel excise.) Even if someone is paying 20 cents a kilowatt-hour to charge their car that comes to less than 4 cents per kilometer of range. Australia’s most popular car is apparently the Toyota hilux which has a fuel cost of 8.5 cents per kilometer (11.9 including fuel excise).

    Electric cars also have lower maintenance costs and, before the cost of batteries are included have lower construction costs. Additionally, electric motors simply do not wear out in the way internal combustion engines do.

    As a result, there is not much difference economically before the cost of externalities are included and as the cost of battery packs continues to fall the total cost of electric cars will be less than conventional cars.

    Once the cost of externalities are added then electric cars are a no brainer compared to conventional vehicles.

  25. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2018 at 09:26 | #25


    And better mass transit systems are a no-brainer compared to cars of any type. A logical metropolitan future in this regard would see;

    (a) Electric trains, trams and buses for public transport.
    (b) A relative few self-driving electric taxis.
    (c) Electric trucks and vans.
    (d) Possibly some heavy-haul hybrid-electric trucks
    (eventually running on bio-diesel or bio-methane)
    (e) Some specialised high power ICE emergency vehicles (police , fire)
    (eventually running on bio-diesel or bio-methane)

    With respect to solar power, a city’s roof and window area is more than ample to host all the solar panels and solar-film necessary for a city’s power supply.

  26. January 12th, 2018 at 09:47 | #26

    “Universities are dedicated to learning.” Quite so. It’s in all their charters and mission statements and graduation day speeches. Capitalist firms are dedicated to making profits for their owners, and by extension their hired top managers. Some choose one strategy, others another. One of the strategies of some capitalist firms is short selling: that is, to identify other companies that are in trouble and to make their troubles worse. No growth in real quantities is required. Overall, “I don’t see any method, sir”.

  27. John Quiggin
    January 12th, 2018 at 10:49 | #27

    @James Wimberley

    Thanks for this useful link. Agree on road tolls

  28. Ronald
    January 12th, 2018 at 12:14 | #28

    Ikonoclast, if you are going to allow the existence of robo-taxis, and they do exist now, then the line between cars, buses, trams, and trains becomes blurred. Self driving vehicles going the same way can form a traffic snake to reduce air resistance that will act like a bus or the rubber wheeled trams that exist in some places. Robo-cars could also have steel wheels so they could use tram or train tracks. Light rails could be put everywhere so rubber wheels won’t be required, but that’s probably not going to happen soon, so for now robo-cars will probably be stuck with synthetic rubber wheels.

    In practice, those who still have jobs are likely to be willing to pay the extra expense of not having to change vehicles on their commute. And because the benefits of technological society will be widely spread, unemployed people will be able to afford to do that too. All citizens with less than $1 million in assets should report to the Soylent Pet Food Company to receive their Universal Benefit. The robots there will take care of you.

  29. Ronald
    January 12th, 2018 at 12:14 | #29

    Ikon, battery packs are definitely going to fall below $100 US a kilowatt-hour. That’s a foregone conclusion and I’m confident they’ll eventually get a lot cheaper. So I don’t see why long haul road transport would be hybrid and not battery electric. As for emergency vehicles, I don’t think they’d use less powerful, less reliable, more expensive internal combustion engines if electric motors and batteries are available.

  30. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2018 at 12:46 | #30

    @James Wimberley

    “No growth in real quantities is required.”

    Capitalism is not, or need not be, predicated on population growth per se. Capitalist economic growth is possible without population growth. Contemporary capitalism however is predicted on (among other things) continually bringing more of the global population into the capitalist system. As it brings more of the global population into the capitalist system, average global per capita consumption will rise; meaning of food, potable water and all other consumables. If at time t2 as compared to time t1, mobile phones cost half the real materials and energy to produce but four times as many are produced and sold, then material consumption will have risen. This Jevons Paradox type outcome is a consistent feature of capitalism driven by technology. It is even more pronounced in that period where more and more people (think of the entire populations of China and India for example) are progressively being brought from peasant or small farmer subsistence status into the capitalist system.

    Capitalism is predicated on profit and the concomitant increase in “wealth”. Wealth may be defined as the measure of use value(s) made by market operations. In simple terms, more wealth can be achieved by more market-valued stuff (quantity) and/or better market-valued stuff (quality). In the paragraph above I mentioned the process by which better stuff made at less material cost may still lead to an increase in material consumption, at least until the entire global population is substantially incorporated in capitalist production and consumption.

    The question remains whether this process can be completed before the climate and/or environment are degraded to a point where the entire production system cannot be maintained let alone grown further by the “wealth” measure. I refer again to the continuing incorporation of the peasant / worker farmer subsistence population, and other unfortunate “under-classes” like tip-dwelling scavengers for example (Indonesia, South America and other places), into the capitalist system as workers and hopefully finally as middle-class producers and consumers. This is an entirely desirable result in the sense of human emancipation from misery and poverty. Capitalism is indeed performing this revolutionary work. Capitalism is revolutionary in comparison to the economic systems which came before it.

    The question is how is capitalism performing this revolutionary work and are its methods sustainable? Whenever a method is achieving progressive results it also nevertheless has to be subjected to an analysis of the sustainability of the methods. Capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. I do not subscribe to the any simplistic or doctrinaire statement which says the rate of profit has constantly fallen through all stages of capitalism. Clearly this not the case. Counter-tendencies do exist and/or can be developed. Qualitative jumps of the capitalist system to a new higher stage of development can and do occur (especially by technological innovations). These tend to restore the rate of profit, as a counter-tendency.

    However, capitalism also restores profits by drawing more and more (people and natural territories) into its system. The capitalist system grows and envelops and subsumes systems (human and natural) which are not capitalist or not capitalistically exploited. The imperative for more profit drives both quantitative and qualitative expansion. Quantitative expansion like drawing more of the global population into the capitalist system permits both greater profits and a greater rate profit, the later by labour arbitrage. “Global labor arbitrage is an economic phenomenon where, as a result of the removal of or disintegration of barriers to international trade, jobs move to nations where labor and the cost of doing business (such as environmental regulations) is inexpensive and/or impoverished labor moves to nations with higher paying jobs.[1]”

    A discontinuity will be reached when either (a) all of the global population has been drawn into the capitalist system or (b) the biophere’s resources and/or bioservices system prove unable to further sustain quantitative growth. This juncture of discontinuity will be an acid test of the theories held by capitalism’s supporters and apologists on the one hand and Ecosocialists (broadly speaking) on the other. If and when (a) happens capitalism will have lost a major supplementary method of increasing or restoring the rate of capitalist profit. It will then have to rely entirely on technological progress to achieve this end. If and when (b) happens, and it may well happen before (a), this will be another kind of shock to the entire system.

    I don’t want to sound doctrinaire or absolutely certain of my (Ecosocialist inspired) thinking. However, I do feel it is more likely that theories in the zone I read and “work” in (rather, dabble in to be honest) are much more likely to be correct than those that see endless growth (if only of the qualitative kind) as entirely feasible. Even endless qualitative growth mandates ever-increasing complexity and ever-increasing energy consumption to maintain complexity in the face of entropy. The Laws of Thermodynamics are on the side of the Ecosocialists.

    It would take another large post to outline why Ecosocialism (rather than the Ecomodernism which yourself and J.Q. appear to essentially espouse) is very arguably more nearly congruent with the real possibilities of our human and civilizational future.

    Here endeth a slight exposition on some elements of my method. 😉

    Is there method in my madness or just madness in my method. I leave it to others to judge.


    [1] – from Wikipedia.

  31. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2018 at 12:55 | #31


    Ron, on reflection you are probably right there. Technology has overtaken my assumptions. It is hard to see the military progressing beyond ICE and jet engines in the foreseeable future. However, this is just another good reason for reducing military spending.

  32. Ronald
    January 12th, 2018 at 16:41 | #32

    Ikon, militaries are looking at hydrogen plus fuel cells. The reason being it can provide more effective energy per kilogram than diesel, kerosene, or petrol. This reduces the number of vulnerable supply convoys or enables people who are defending their country from within another country on the other side of the planet from the country they are defending be entirely supplied by air.

    They are also using solar PV to reduce the need for fuel.

  33. January 13th, 2018 at 13:18 | #33

    I feel very conflicted reading such posts for several reasons. I would like to believe that we have solutions to climate change, but I find it very hard to reconcile the positive tone of this post with the empirical evidence that emissions are still increasing. It seems like never never land – good things are always going to happen tomorrow.

    Also, the optimistic tone seems to me at risk of obscuring other important issues, such as continuing environmental degradation (the breaching of other planetary limits such as loss of biodiversity and nitrogen phosphorus balance, eg see Steffen et al). It also seems to risk obscuring the continuing and growing problems of inequality.

    Further, it seems to lend credence the widespread belief that technology and industrialisation improves human life with no downsides. This is not correct and should be critically examined. For example, industrial food systems and motorised transport are undoubtedly contributing to the increase in chronic disease.

    You could say that I am reading too much into this one post. However the problems I’ve referred to are all inter-related. They are the result of a complex system, with systemic flaws deriving from its origins in patriarchal capitalism, imperialism and a belief that ‘men’/humans are superior to ‘nature’/environment. The risk of posts like this I think is that by focusing on one bit of the complex system and saying ‘look we can fix this bit’, the systemic problems are obscured.

    We could be looking at the system as a whole, and looking at ways to reduce inequality, promote human and planetary wellbeing, and increase environmental sustainability. My research suggests this is complex, but not impossible, but does involve looking critically at the way we use technology, rather than seeing technological solutions as the entire answer.

  34. January 13th, 2018 at 13:22 | #34

    I hadn’t seen Ikon’s long post at #30 when I posted. On first glance there seems to some overlap so I will go back and read it to see where we agree or differ.

  35. January 13th, 2018 at 14:53 | #35

    Looking at this post, there are many comments I could make and it’s difficult to be succinct. In some ways our approaches are similar because my position is something like ecofeminist socialism or ecosocialism feminism. However there’s also some very basic points of disagreement.

    For one thing, I think you give capitalism too much credit. Certainly some of the developments you are ascribing to capitalism are to do with democracy and human rights. Secondly, capitalism is a historical development and in some ways can simply be seen as a logical continuation of certain historical trends, particularly patriarchal hierarchies, enclosures of the commons and the enlightenment view that men could improve upon nature. I’ve recommended Carolyn Merchant’s ‘The Death of Nature’ before, but if you haven’t thread it, I do strongly recommend it again.

    I agree with you that capitalist systems tend to bring everything into ‘the market’, but you have to remember that ‘the market’ isn’t actually a market where people trade as equals, but a system largely controlled by hierarchical corporations. Again, that’s historically integral to capitalism. For example there’s quite a lot of feminist research on how small scale, local trading by women (eg see Judith Bennett’s work on brewers) tends to become organised into hierarchical male dominated structures in which profit went to dominant men. From a gender perspective, this is partly because were more tied to the local and domestic area, and partly because society and state thought that power should be held by men.

    Capitalism in other words is as much about power as about ‘economics’ in a narrow sense.

    Also Marx didn’t offer a fully developed alternative to capitalism because he accepted some of the basic patriarchal assumptions underlying it, eg that Man improved upon nature and that caring for others (particularly children) was a subordinate form of work (reproduction) which existed to support the (implicitly male) ‘productive’ worker.

    Probably enough for now.

  36. Ikonoclast
    January 13th, 2018 at 17:15 | #36


    On re-reading my own post at #30 there are several assumptions which might not stand up at all. Your comments correctly highlight some of the mistakes and oversights I have made. My post is very poorly written too: poor ideas badly expressed. Maybe, one day, I can re-order my thoughts and write something a bit better and which makes a bit more sense… maybe.

  37. Ikonoclast
    January 13th, 2018 at 17:36 | #37


    With this post of yours, #33, you have nailed it. I can’t support you enough, without simply repeating your sentences… and that would be redundant.

  38. January 13th, 2018 at 21:37 | #38

    I don’t think that your post is badly written ikon and I very much agree with you about capitalism bringing everything into the ‘market’ in the sense of trying to turn all human activity into a financial exchange relationship and opportunity for more powerful (or less scrupulous) players to make profit. I was a bit surprised that you seemed to give capitalism a bit too much credit though!

  39. Ikonoclast
    January 14th, 2018 at 06:57 | #39


    I am not sure what excess credit I am giving to capitalism unless it is the statement that it was “revolutionary” in its time. Of course, it is hard to sort out revolutions and assign cause. Indeed simple causation may be the wrong way to think about it. Which revolution came first? The humanist revolution (the Enlightenment), the democratic revolution, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the capitalist “revolution”?

    “Which revolution came first?” is probably the wrong question. It already presupposes simple linear causation rather than a complex inter-related system with feed-backs.

    In practice, capitalism with steering and benefits (meaning government direction, a mixed economy and welfarism) has worked and lifted many out of poverty. It has plunged others into misery and poverty – the “dark satanic mills” to the Saipan scandal to the Apple factory scandal in China.

    The question now is this. At what cost has capitalism worked? Well, some of the costs are the large wars it periodically unleashes plus now global environmental destruction and climate change. It cannot survive the latter two costs. Also, with the rollback of fair wages and welfarism, capitalism has shown any accommodation made with workers is always provisional and temporary. Workers can never feel secure under capitalism. It destroys their livelihood and their world in the long run… even though there were some nice highway eateries on the journey.

  40. January 15th, 2018 at 00:24 | #40

    Not so small footnote: a Dutch-Belgian inland shipping company is buying autonomous electric barges for shipping containers between Amsterdam and Antwerp. (*****cleantechnica.com/2018/01/13/dutch-company-introduces-autonomous-electric-barge-europe/ ) You may not have them in dry Australia, but in continents with serious rivers, inland shipping is big business for bulk goods. It’s obviously much easier to solve the charging problem for river traffic than oceanic. Manned barges have to stop for sleep.

  41. witters
    January 15th, 2018 at 10:43 | #41
  42. January 17th, 2018 at 04:04 | #42

    There is definately a great deal to know about this
    topic. I really like all the points you have made.