Thursday, June 30, 2016

How would socialism deal with waste and pollution? (2005)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

How would socialism deal with waste and pollution?
Profit-driven production in capitalism generates huge quantities of waste while recycling technologies have been slow to get started and the financial advantage of ignoring the problem continues to inform every level of production from car-plants to Kyoto. The rational capitalist calculation includes costs for energy (electricity, labour etc) and storage but not for waste and environmental damage nor for longer term sustainability. Usage-driven production in a socialist society would prioritise best quality production over cheap competitive rollout since by extending the lifetime and durability of goods this would minimize the environmental footprint. In addition it would inevitably set far greater store on minimizing or eliminating useless or dangerous by-products, because these would also represent longer-term energy costs.

The effort to control pollution levels in capitalism is a game in which by far the best  individual strategy is to continue polluting, while collective responsibility is a financially damaging option. Moreover, with oil companies increasingly struggling to find new oil reserves to replace those used up and ominous pressure mounting on those oil states not yet colonized by the USA, the perfect solution would be to find a way to turn waste into oil.

And that’s just what they’re doing in Carthage, Missouri (Focus, Aug 2004). Cars, houses and factories in Carthage are being fuelled from a clean oil that is produced by the Thermal Conversion Process, a huge waste-gobbler that can take any type of carbon waste including animal remains, car tyres, old computers and human sewage and within half an hour turn it into useful fertilizer minerals, carbon charcoal and oil. And unlike many energy-producing methods which use more energy than they produce, the TCP uses just 15 units of energy to 85 produced. Since the process only reuses already above-ground carbon it does not add permanently to existing carbon levels.

So what’s the catch? Lack of an obvious profit, of course. Says Dr Paul Horsnell, Head of Energy Research at investment bank Barclays Capital: “To transport and process all the waste, pay the energy costs, provide for the capital costs and still make a profit does look difficult at first sight. By comparison, fossil fuel oil is actually pretty cheap.” Despite this, its supporters are enthusiastic, claiming that processing all agricultural waste alone would remove the need for the USA to import any oil at all. Europe has shown interest and there are plans for new plants in Colorado and Italy. However the likelihood is that, unmoved by its clear environmental advantages, capitalism will only resort to this technology once it has run out of cheap and dirty options. For a socialist society bent on recycling waste and reducing oil dependency, things might be very different, with small TCP plants (presently too expensive to build) on the outskirts of every settlement.

How do you know people will cooperate?
Socialist theory relies on cooperation to work, but although capitalism is ostensibly a game of competition, the very act of playing the game involves a huge measure of cooperation over rules, so the ability of people to cooperate is beyond dispute. What is disputed is the nature of the circumstances determining one strategy or the other. Game theory has always been a controversial encroachment of mathematics into psychology. Its inventor, John von Neumann (also inventor of the computer CPU), infamously concluded from his test studies that the logical strategy of the West in the Cold War was a pre-emptive strike. Happily for us, even capitalist politicians weren’t that barking mad. Older versions (like Neumann’s Cold War example) tended to rely on simple two-player models with limited play duration, which criteria often produced aggressive or antisocial strategies. Later versions have added to the number of players, the level of complexity and the duration of play. Nowadays, among other curious approaches (see Out on a Limbic) game theory is being used increasingly as a way of understanding the complex and unpredictable behaviour of economic systems. In a new study (Economist, Jan 22, p.72) scientists call into question the underlying assumption of economics that people always rationally calculate their individual material outcomes, and suggest that human behaviour is actually governed by evolutionary stable ‘social’ strategies.  In this kind of game, players can adopt one of three strategies: cooperation at the risk of being betrayed, betrayal at the risk of gaining nothing, or reciprocation, warily cooperating but not trusting evidence of betrayal. Of 84 participants, 13% were cooperators, 20% betrayers and 63% reciprocators.

Although obviously not conclusive, this is suggestive of the received wisdom that most people are inclined to cooperate provided other people play fair. This finding ought to encourage doubters about socialist society’s long-term stability. People behave much as one would expect: they are not generally crooks, but they’re not suckers either.

Will socialism make us all happy?
Obviously not, if your mum has just died or your foot has just been run over. The tendency to see socialism as some kind of utopia must be resisted with every effort, although the sheer weight of misery pressing on people in capitalism does explain why socialists can be forgiven for sometimes overstating the case. Happiness cannot be bought, as everybody knows, but neoclassical economists, not being aware of this, have always relied on what people have ‘got’ and what they do as a measure of happiness. Unfortunately for the economists, this doesn’t explain why incomes have doubled in rich countries in the last 50 years but the number of people claiming to be ‘happy’ has stayed level at about 30% (Economist, Jan 15, p.73). In addition, studies of Harvard students showed that Marx’s notion of relative poverty (the huts and the palace story) was probably correct. The students preferred a lower income to a higher one provided nobody else was earning more. Income inequality is a ‘psychic wound’, says Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and the game of competition for money and status, being zero-sum,  can only ever confer wellbeing by taking it from somebody else. Thinking safely within the box of course, Layard proposes heavy income tax burdens to cancel out the superior well-being of the upper echelons.

Meanwhile researchers at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University are busy compiling something called the World Happiness Database (Time, Feb 7). According to this, poverty does not necessarily make you miserable, as the Latin Americans qualify as very happy people (for possible explanation, see above), while the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are crying into their dollar bills. One surprising discovery is that Europe and especially Switzerland score so highly because people tend to be happier the more opportunities they have to vote. Says Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich and co-author of Happiness and Economics, speaking of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy involving several referenda a year: “People feel they have self-determination and a say in the political process, and that’s a big contributing factor to overall happiness.” Move over psychedelic drugs. If more democracy really equals more happiness, socialist society could be the ultimate kick.

Out on a Limbic
The fad for cross-disciplinary studies continues with psychology which, having been invaded by mathematics, itself turns to invading economics (Economist, Jan 15, p.68). The new ‘science’ of neuroeconomics is having a stab at explaining economic behaviour by studying the brain directly. Well, they’ve tried everything else. So far researchers using MRI brain-scanning equipment have established that the reason people find it hard to save money is because long-term plans involving deferred gratification activate the boringly intellectual pre-frontal cortex while blowing your stash on a big night out activates the infinitely sexier emotional centres of the limbic system. Their conclusion, that governments should force people to save, is not the conclusion a socialist would reach. Workers don’t get much immediate gratification. Let’s hear it for the limbic system.

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