Against Efficiency: How A More Efficient Economy Hurts the Planet, Part One

Featured image: Tesla gigafactory construction near Reno, Nevada

Editor’s note: This is the first part of an edited transcript of a talk given at the 2017 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. Read the second part hereWatch the video here.

     by Erin Moberg, Ph.D., and Max Wilbert / Deep Green Resistance Eugene

In this culture, and in the environmental movement in particular, there is an increasing emphasis placed on promoting and implementing so-called “energy efficiency,” or “green energy practices” into all areas of human life on the planet; from commerce to agriculture, from corporations to individual homes, from the economy to the legislative arena, and from academia to activism.

In many cases, striving toward efficiency is viewed and proposed as the only solution from the outset, mainly because it effectively serves as a means to perpetuate this culture as we know and live it. In some of these contexts our current obsession with efficiency is motivated by a genuine desire to halt climate change and the destruction of the planet. Yet at best, the proponents and practices of energy efficiency as a solution to the planet crisis conflate efficiency and sustainability.

At worst, the pro-efficiency movement helps to obfuscate the real causes and impacts of human-caused climate change, towards the end of maintaining capitalism and the socio-political hierarchies on which capitalism depends. From a corporate and economic standpoint, efficiency is generally proposed as the only viable solution to increasingly scarce resources, population explosion, and health issues. In most articulations of the merits of efficiency, the focus and incentive are anthropocentric, explicitly grounded in preserving and furthering civilization, the global economy, and everyday human comforts.

As activists, and also as people concerned with the health of the planet, we find significant ideological and material disconnects between the realities of climate change and the oft-accepted approach of energy-efficiency measures as a means to a more sustainable world and planet.

Economic efficiency as a means to saving the planet is a myth. Instead, that efficiency promotes and perpetuates capitalism because it aims to make more energy available for other uses. Energy efficiency measures ultimately increase the amount of energy being used overall, thereby causing more harm to the planet. As a foundational premise, the health of the planet is primary rather than just the health and lives of human beings.

Depending on the dictionary, the word “efficient” is defined in multiple ways, but we will focus on the two that are relevant to this discussion:

  1. “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense” and;
  2. “preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource.”

Take a moment to juxtapose these two definitions while considering the following quote by Vandana Shiva: “Through the green economy an attempt is being made to technologize, financialize, privatize, and commodify all of the Earth’s resources and living processes.”

The goal of a production line falls under the first definition of efficiency: “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort.” Frederick Winslow Taylor was the creator of what is called “scientific management,” which has been hugely influential on our culture and around the world. He realized that early artisans and craftspeople were highly inefficient; he could make production more efficient by streamlining the process, having each person doing one precise, specific task and then passing it on down the line.

This changed the world forever.

It is worth noting that Taylor was a devout Quaker. Quakers have a rich history of social justice activism, and Taylor thought that by increasing the productivity of production, it would make everyone so wealthy that class differences would be eliminated and lead to a utopian society. Clearly, that is not what happened, and this has echoes in our own time around the efficiency movement.

These good intentions have brought the efficiency movement to the modern era of automated production lines. Robots don’t need breaks or salaries, they don’t get sick, they don’t have children, they don’t go on strike, and they don’t get tired. They are the perfect workers.

Over the past 40 years we have seen more and more jobs become mechanized and now we have the rise of computer learning and artificial intelligence. These are some of the hottest fields in computer science right now, so this is only going to continue and accelerate into the future.

Factories are one of the major factors killing the planet. They are, essentially, the engines of consumerism. On one end of a typical factory raw materials go in – the flesh of the living planet that’s been ripped apart – and on the other end shiny products come out, and usually they are used for a short time and then are discarded, ultimately ending up in a landfill. Factories produce pesticides, bombs, toys, cars, computers, and so on; almost anything you can think of comes out of a factory.

The new Tesla giga-factory in western Nevada, near Reno, is one of the largest factories in the world, and is powered by solar panels and wind turbines. A state-of-the-art facility, it is producing batteries for electric cars and grid energy storage. It is highly efficient. Many people are hailing the construction of this factory as a major victory for the planet, and Tesla and other multinational corporations are building enormous battery factories like this around the world right now.

Environmentalists are speaking out in favor of this. I won’t hide my view–this is an industrial atrocity that’s killing the planet, no less so than any other factory. I was once in favor of “green technology” like this but my attitude has completely changed.

Jennifer Eisele is a Paiute woman from the Duck Valley Reservation in northern Nevada who has been fighting against Tesla’s factory construction, lithium mining across Nevada, and the harm it’s causing specifically to indigenous lands which, of course, are all lands. These are global issues, too. Lithium is a strategic resource these days; the price is extremely high and rising, and mining is ramping up around the world, mostly in desert areas, because that is where lithium ends up forming. I mention Tesla to show that there is a tension between our ideas of efficiency, and what that means in the context of the global, capitalist economy, and the natural world.

The Port of Antwerp in Belgium is the second-busiest port in Europe. The commodities that travel through this port, from their website, include: toys, televisions, computers, crude oil, vegetable oil, grain, coal, iron ore, cement, sugar, sand, paper, wood, steel, cars, yeast, buses, trains, tractors, kerosene; almost anything you can think of goes through a port like this.

Port of Antwerp

Essentially, this is a distribution center for the global extractive economy. These are all over the world: there are giant ports in Seattle, Tacoma, one of the biggest ports on the West Coast in Oakland, a big port in L.A. – all over the world. Each shipping container that comes through these centers is a bite that has been taken out of the planet and is being shipped around the world. That material is usually going from the poor to the rich, from the brown to the white, from the global south to the global north, from the colonized to the colonizer.

Most of us have heard the term “free trade,” how twisted that language is; it is the libertarian idea of freedom, essentially: “I have the freedom to become rich, and you have the freedom to become poor.” Perhaps there is a relationship between the two.

Returning to the first definition of “efficiency,” achieving maximum productivity is not something that the environmental movement should build a strategy around. Most of us would probably agree that industrial capitalism already has too much productivity, in fact. Too much fossil fuels, too much consumer goods, too much population, too much suburbs, too much of everything.

It is the final definition of efficiency that is interesting to us as environmentalists: “preventing the wasteful use.” I still have problems with the use of the word “resource” here because that implies a subject-object relationship – it implies that the world exists for our use. People talk about fisheries as resources, but that is an idea that we have constructed around real, living communities of fish that exist independent of our ideas of them as fisheries resources.

We think that we are being sold efficiency by the capitalist system, as a solution to the problems that this same system has caused. The efficiency that we are being sold comes with the same mindset embedded in it. It is coming from the same corporations, the same business interests, and the same governments. Almost all the efficiency schemes and technologies that we see out there today are not, in fact, aimed at reducing the overall amount of energy we use.

They are aimed at making more energy available for other things, and increasing productivity. They are aimed at that first definition of efficiency.

If we are going to discuss efficiency it is important that we talk about the Jevons paradox, the story of which revolves around a man named William Stanley Jevons. He was one of the premier economists of the nineteenth century and was working in the United Kingdom at the height of the Industrial Revolution, during the 1860’s. His most famous text was a study of the coal-driven economy of the United Kingdom.

This was during a period that was at the height of the Empire, and the entire economy was dependent on coal. Coal ground the grain, it pumped water out of the coal mines, it powered the trains, and it powered the ships which were the entire war machine of the Empire. Over the 50 years preceding his report, steam engines had been becoming much more efficient. It was the cutting edge of business at the time, and everyone expected that this increase in efficiency would lead to a reduction in the use of coal at the national level.

It didn’t, and the reason is quite simple: steam engines could be run more cheaply and efficiently, and they didn’t have to buy as much coal, which made the businesses using them more profitable. Because this is capitalism, and production is the goal, those profits were poured back into growth, which means that more efficient steam engines led directly to more growth, which caused higher overall coal use.

Jevons saw that efficiency can lead directly to higher resources use. If we look at the global economy today, we see a similar story.

Obama was supposedly one of the most progressive U.S. presidents, but his energy strategy was called the “all of the the above” energy strategy. This is not so different than what we are seeing with Trump. Basically, he just meant: develop all of these sources of energy. If your main concern is the economy, then that makes sense. In maintaining the American lifestyle, the American Empire, the goal is to bring energy production as high as possible. “All of the above” is what makes that grow.

We know what that energy is powering: construction. The urban expansion of Dubai over the past several decades, which is mainly the result of slave labor and indentured servitude, is an example of this. The urban expansion of Las Vegas from the early 1980’s to now is another example.

It’s estimated that the 15 largest ships on the ocean today create more pollution than all of the cars in the world. That’s about 800 million cars. 15 ships. That energy powers technology, such as data centers.

Consider just a few of the elements that go into your average smartphone, and of course, that all comes from mining, usually open-pit mining or strip mining, what sometimes is called mountaintop removal mining.

That energy is also powering industrial farming. Viewing the Great Plains from space, you can see the biotic cleansing occurring there. Anything that’s not for human use has been killed, and replaced with things that are grown exclusively to feed human beings. This applies to industrial fishing, as well.

Every major sector of the economy has become vastly more efficient. Whether you’re talking about transportation, mining, steel production, combustion engines, farming, lighting, heating, all these things have been getting more and more efficient, yet the energy use overall continues to go up, just like fossil fuel use goes up, just like erosion goes up, just like species extinction goes up.

Things are getting worse, and efficiency isn’t doing a thing to stop it. Inside this system, inside an empire, there’s rarely a surplus of energy. Energy always gets put to use. The reason we’re getting confused about this is that we’re using the same word, which has two different definitions. Corporations and governments are talking about that first definition, and environmentalists are talking about that second definition.

Pilbara Minerals Pilgangoora lithium tantalum mine, Australia

I have a checklist for determining if efficiency improvements are likely to actually help the planet, and it’s relatively simple:

  • If a given efficient increase doesn’t reduce the cost of operation and therefore lead to more profits for business;
  • doesn’t result in a flush of extra spending money for individuals in a capitalist society;
  • doesn’t free up materials or energy in a way that reduces scarcity or price of these resources for other development;
  • doesn’t itself encourage further technological escalation that may lead to further destruction of the land;
  • and, doesn’t set in motion certain models of development that can have unintended consequences;

then, that efficiency increase may actually help the planet.

Regarding the last requirement about unintended consequences, the development of housing in arid desert regions provides an excellent example. In desert regions, like around Las Vegas, the limiting factor on new housing developments is water availability.

There’s just not enough water to have unlimited houses. In a situation like that, if you increase the water efficiency in each household, what you are actually doing is enabling further development to take place. You are freeing up more water. People may go into that situation thinking, “I’m saving water and that water is remaining with the planet, that water is there for the plants, and for the ecology of the area,” but, in most cases, it’s not.

Your good intentions end up supporting the same system that is killing the planet. In terms of efficiency we need to be addressing the main things that are killing the planet, such as major fossil fuel expansions, the existing fossil fuel industry, the number of dams in operation, the number of mines in operation, the scale of industrial farming, fishing and logging. These are the numbers we need to concern ourselves with.

We also need to be asking, “where does our efficiency lie?” Does it lie with a baby turtle hatching? Or does it lie with the system? The point is not only to get you to question efficiency as a method to saving the planet, but to question capitalism, and industrialism, and civilization itself.

Yes, fossil fuels are killing the planet, but a solar panel production facility costs around 100 million dollars to produce, and produces its own set of toxins and greenhouse gases. Even the latest so-called “eco-technologies” are ultimately technologies of Empire. They require mining, and global supply chains, and free trade, and all this, of course, is made possible by war and exploitation. These are not things that help the planet; they’re not solutions.

The Elon Musk SolarCity solar panel factory

You may have heard this quote before: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” Thomas Friedman isn’t my favorite person, as he is ultimately in favor of global invasion and capitalism, but this is one of the most biting quotes about how the global economy works.

Don’t believe for a second that these so-called “green” technologies are actually going to challenge the system that is killing the planet. Don’t believe it. We all need to be using less energy, we all need to be scaling down our lifestyles and so on, but the U.S. military is the biggest polluter on the planet. The majority of trash, pollution and consumption is driven by industry.

Our personal choices aren’t going to stop this system, unless our personal choices are to take down that system. I think that doubling down on industrial technology is not a good move to make. We’ve been down that road before. We know where it leads.

Instead we need to start thinking systemically about how to stop the globalized industrial economy that is killing the planet. Considering all of this concrete data and historical context, what do we do about the fact that efficiency measures cause further harm to the planet, by promoting capitalism, by promoting consumption, by promoting greater energy usage overall? As radical environmentalists, the radical environmentalist approach highlights that you can’t stop global warming without stopping the burning of oil and gas, without stopping the construction of industrial infrastructure, without stopping the omnicidal system of this culture as a whole.

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