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Toward Democratic Eco-socialism
as the Next World System

14. Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy Sources and Green Jobs

Book cover: Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism by Victor Wallis

A crucial question is how much energy, regardless of the source, does humanity need. Given the demands of global capitalism to continually expand, under a business-as-usual scenario, humanity will need more and more energy in order to feed the treadmill of production, consumption, and population growth. In a steady-state economy, energy requirements could theoretically level out or even eventually decline. Energy efficiency is often hailed as a mechanism for transition to a green-energy economy, but in reality due to the Jevons Paradox, or the 'rebound effect,' increased efficiency in capitalist countries is associated with increased economic growth and consumption, thus in essence cancelling out the benefits of energy savings. This is not to say that energy efficiency is not a desirable goal, but in order to ensure environmental sustainability it has to be coupled with a steady-state or zero-growth economy, which would be part and parcel of a democratic eco-socialist world system.

A shift to renewable energy sources—particularly solar, wind, geothermal, and possibly ocean wave energy—constitutes a significant component of climate change mitigation. A planned centralized economy has the potential to facilitate the transition to renewable energy sources. Solar photovoltaic cells and panels operate the best in sunny locations and have the potential to provide local power in remote areas, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa or even a developed society such as Australia. Large wind farms operate very efficiently in offshore locations, such as the Baltic Sea in Europe or the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean of Australia. Geothermal energy as a renewable energy source already exists in several volcanic regions, such as Iceland, El Salvador, Kenya, the Philippines, and Costa Rica.

While acknowledging their potential usefulness, various scholars have observed that renewable energy sources are not a panacea for mitigating climate change. Ultimately, the deeper question that renewable energy enthusiasts seldom ask is 'how much energy is needed in the first place?' particularly in developed countries. A large-scale transition to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources will need to be coupled with a decline in per capita levels of consumption among the affluent of the world, while allowing the poor to draw on these new energy sources to achieve access to basic resources. Obviously some people in the world, particularly the poor in the developing world, desperately need access to more energy but many of the affluent, in both the developed and developing worlds, need to reduce their energy consumption, often drastically, in order to achieve environmental sustainability and a safe climate. A shift to renewable energy sources will require an integrated approach in order to grapple, for example, with the issue of intermittency in particular with solar and wind energy.

Book cover: Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know by Joseph Romm

Aside from the matter of renewable energy sources, eco-socialism needs to grapple with developing a 'socialist technology'. The component parts of a socialist technology, to some extent, already exist in capitalist societies but are not actively promoted by capitalism because they are not as profitable. The technology already exists to make products that endure for a long time rather than products manufactured in such a way that they will break down fairly quickly, a case of built-in obsolescence. Bicycles, smaller cars, trains, trams, and buses, as opposed to large cars, all could be part of a socialist or an appropriate technology.

A shift to democratic eco-socialism will entail creating green jobs, ones that are not only environmentally sustainable but also cater to people's social, educational, recreational, and health care needs. The creation of green jobs must be accompanied by a 'just transition', which means retraining displaced workers from obsolescent and environmentally destructive industries and enterprises to environmentally sustainable ones.

Copyright © 2016

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