On the Paradox of Consumption In an Age of Climate Warming
Updated: May 31, 2020
The Wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities (Karl Marx, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, p, 27)
The 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons observed that when technological advances increased the efficiency of how coal was used, the demand for and consumption of coal did not drop, but instead went up! Jevon’s paradox may go some way in explaining how capitalism works: gains in efficiency lead to a drop in the price of a commodity, which, in turn, leads to a rise in demand and consumption, which, in turn, leads to endless growth and increased profits. Endless growth and accumulation of wealth appear to be built into the very fabric of capitalism. This is the reason that Naomi Klein was obliged to conclude in her book This Changes Everything that in an age of disastrous human-caused climate warming we are faced with a fundamental Either/Or: Either planetary environmental stability or unfettered capitalism.
Jevon’s paradox and Klein’s either/or raise an important question about whether we can effectively meet the climate warming crisis simply by converting to greener forms of energy. At the present time, our world runs on about 16 tera watts (trillion watts) of electricity. To keep the earth habitable, we would have to level off CO2 to about 450 parts per million—and even then, there would be melting glaciers, massive species die-offs and climate refugees. Assuming our energy needs do not increase (very unlikely!) we would have to reduce our fossil fuel consumption to about 3 terawatts and replace the remaining 13 terawatts with renewables.
Now, here’s the problem according to engineer and inventor Saul Griffith: To meet our energy needs with renewables would require that we build the equivalent of 100 square meters of new solar cells and 50 metres of new solar-thermal reflectors every second, one three-hundred-foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes, one 100 megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every 8 hours and one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week for the next 25 years! This does not even include large-scale renewables in the form of dams used for hydropower, which inevitably lead to the destruction of aquatic and land habitats, flood plains, river deltas, wetlands, and ocean estuaries etc. Even if we questioned Griffith’s calculations, it is reasonably clear that as much as we would like to think switching to green alternatives is the answer, it is far more likely that it is endless human consumption that is actually killing our planet.
In fact, the creation of new ‘sustainable’ energy industries would be a great windfall to the capitalist economy, even if it were a great cost to the environment and the climate. In a capitalist world environmental harms caused by new green technologies could be written off as ‘externalities.’ Are we forced to conclude then that renewables, greener technology and energy efficiency will not be enough to meet the climate crisis under our present consumption oriented capitalist system of unfettered growth? Was Marx right when he said that capitalism transforms the way we humans desire—that it is our capitalist culture that creates the self-perpetuating illusion that we are fundamentally selfish consumers?
Or, to put the question another way: Is it capitalism that creates the consumer, or is it our obdurate human desire to consume that creates and perpetuates an untenable, life-destroying capitalist system?