Monday, October 6, 2008

S-C-A-ISM minus O-I-L?

The Pathfinders column from the October 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oil is the super-fuel. Nothing else does all the things oil does, from heating, fuel, plastics, food, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and clothing. It has the highest energy conversion rate of any fuel and it constitutes 40 percent of global traded energy and 90 percent of transport (Financial Times, 4 January, 2004). But aside from its contribution to global warming, it's also running out.

Or so we are told. Despite the record rise of oil recently, this is mainly speculator-driven and not due to any real shortage of oil. What is running out is cheap oil. In fact the world has only used 15 per cent of known reserves, with at least another 20 per cent recoverable by today's technology (BBC Online, 21 April 21, 2004). Though pundits talk about hitting peak oil, estimates for this turning point range from already to as far away as 2050. As supply diminishes and prices rise, more expensive options like the Canadian and Venezuelan tar sands, with capacities rivalling Saudi Arabia, will become profitable to extract. But the rise in costs will be mirrored by a rise in the price of everything dependent on oil, and for the world's poorest billion people, this could be a sentence of death by starvation, with a likely proliferation of food rioting, instability in liberal democracies and an upsurge in the ruling class's faithful stand-by, fascist repression. Meanwhile, as the stakes rise, so do the international tensions. Oil is already determining many countries' domestic and foreign policy, and few people doubt its role in recent wars. Governments are increasingly jumpy. Oil production plants, and bottleneck sea-lanes, are particularly susceptible to guerrilla attack, and with no in-house reserves Europe or America could be reduced to chaos in weeks (New Scientist, 28 June). Worse still, the ruling elites' increasing inability to keep their oil-starved military up to scratch may make wars more likely rather than less, as weakened capability could provoke opportunistic pre-emptive attacks by rivals.

Socialism faces a rather different problem. It is predicated on communal sharing and participation, which in turn rely on the fact of material sufficiency. Should anything threaten this sufficiency, the basis of socialism itself would be threatened. Today, for example, over 50 percent of world rural populations have no access to electricity (UNDP World Energy Assessment, 2000). Though not a problem to capitalism, which doesn't care about non-effective, i.e. non-paying demand (for more on this see page 19, this will be of the first importance in socialism. Even allowing for waste reduction in the west, that electricity must be found.

There is no single alternative to oil, so a suite of alternatives will have to be employed. Of the non-renewables, gas won't last much longer than oil, and coal, the chief source of electricity globally, though there is up to 250 years worth at present usage, is dirty stuff to burn. Carbon capture technology may mitigate this, but is at an early stage.

The main problem with renewables is that the oil-addicted capitalist economy has hitherto starved them of funds, because set-up costs are prohibitive and returns long-term. This is true of geothermal heating systems, but also of wind and tidal systems, ocean thermal electricity, biowaste to oil reconversion plants, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technology. Only nuclear fission, with its potential for weapons, has found success, though its waste problem remains intractable, and biofuels, though their impact on food crops and deforestation is well known. Nevertheless, so-called 2G biofuels that use waste feedstocks of lignin and cellulose are beginning to put in an appearance (New Scientist, 21 June), while algal fuels are also showing some promise, though expensive in land area (New Scientist, 16 August). The central problem of collection and conversion in solar energy is being addressed with 3G tech involving plastic panelling which can be printed cheaply on any surface and may offer up to a 60 percent conversion rate. Hydrogen, much vaunted in the press as a cheap fuel, is really an energy vector not an energy source, being only as clean as the energy used to create it, currently coal-fired electricity, and the problems of storage and distribution are enormous. Currently there are a small handful of hydrogen filling stations in the whole of Europe (, 4 September)

There is some hoopla about the renaissance of the electric car (New Scientist, 20 Sept ember) with its macho speed and mileage performances, but aside from the £100,000 price tag, there is something about the electric car that utterly misses the point.

Probably the biggest difference between socialism and capitalism as regards energy would not be how we produce it but how we consume it. Instead of developing electric cars that do 0 - 60 in 4 seconds, socialism would be developing ways of getting cars off the road altogether, because abolishing paid employment and the need to make a living would also abolish the commuter madness on the roads and motorways. Homeworking, or just doing something useful in one's immediate local area, would be a much more practical solution than hi-tech boy-racing.

Similarly, there's no need and no point having, as a norm, private kitchens all cooking the same food at the same time, when socialising the process in the form of volunteer-run restaurants could cut energy hugely and save on waste as well as time. Many people detest cooking anyway and eat pre-packaged and expensive rubbish as a result. There's no need either for each household to possess identical music or DVD collections, books, clothes, tools or any other item that could be shared via public library systems. The life-span of a domestic power-tool in use, from purchase to a 10,000 year career in landfill, is estimated at just 10 minutes (New Scientist, 6 January 2007). Waste is simply energy misused, and capitalism does a lot of that because privatised materialist consumption is how it makes its money.

Then there is what we literally consume. Socialism has to feed everybody and it is obvious it won’t be able to do so on a western-style meat diet. Even now we are starting to be told to reduce our reliance on the meat industry not simply because of its clear link to obesity, or to rainforest clearance, or greenhouse gas emissions (18 percent - more than transport, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation - BBC News Online, 7 September) but also because of its global impact on water and oil usage. Aside from any ethical considerations, meat is simply too expensive a way of feeding people when for every kilo of meat protein you need approximately 8 kilos of grain protein (New Scientist, 14 June)

If capitalism really uses up the obtainable oil in its customary spendthrift way, then socialism is going to have to employ a suite of solutions, both in means of supply and modes of consumption. Whether this will involve a generation without coffee, or cricket fields under cloches, a communally-managed planet is going to be better placed to deal with these issues than the privately-owned one we have. Socialism will do whatever works, and whatever it takes. Capitalism just does whatever pays, and devil take the consequences. Only one of these systems has a future.