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Energy and the Consumer Society

Paul Kando

More solar energy impacts Earth in a single hour than humanity’s total energy demand. The challenge is to figure out how to fully utilize our share of this huge resource. This challenge has already been met by all other species, so why do humans lag behind much lower forms of life in this regard even though humans have been able to conquer the challenge of space flight? Why do some even deny that this huge resource exists?

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Could the answer be that the Sun shines freely and on everyone everywhere and therefore its energy cannot be owned, while fossil fuels — extracted from the earth at great cost — are owned and therefore can be sold at a profit? Is the profit motive — a cornerstone of the current economic system — not in synch with managing the planet’s solar energy income? Could it be that nature’s energy economy conflicts with a consumer capitalism based on the doctrine of neoliberal economics?

Such questions arise because, even though the very first solar cells were made in the US and the US was an early world leader in wind power, it is China that plans to invest $360 billion in renewable energy because doing so will create 13 million well paying non-exportable jobs.

Unlike the US, China recognizes the emerging renewable-energy-based economy as one of the most promising opportunities to come along in years. According to some estimates, by 2050 it could generate more value than all companies currently on the New York Stock Exchange combined.

The corporate-dominated consumer economy is best visualized as an ongoing five-stage process, which (1) extracts from the earth energy and raw materials, from which to (2) mass-produce goods, to be (3) marketed and sold at a profit (4) to consumers, who purchase, use, and eventually (5) dispose of those goods. Each of these five stages is replete with “externalities” — unintended byproducts, such as rubble-clogged valleys from surface mining, water supplies contaminated by hydro-fracking oil and gas wells, and displaced subsistence farmers turned into impoverished job-seekers who end up in the barrios of major cities.

Responsibility for such unintended consequences is left up to society at large, without compensation from the liable corporations, whose sole legal responsibility is to enrich their shareholders.

It is not my purpose here to explore in depth the social consequences of externalities, but one additional factor must be part of any energy-related discussion: the economic system’s reliance on perpetual growth for its very survival. This is a logical consequence of the system’s reliance on mass-production, which can only be profitable if it is accompanied by growing demand.

However, limitless growth is physically impossible on a finite planet. An illusion of it is possible only because the system focuses on managing money — an entity not subject to the laws of physics — rather than on real material wealth, which is. So, growth is promoted by advertising, i.e., propaganda designed to exaggerate human wants at the expense of serving real human needs—convincing people to buy (and eventually discard) things they don’t need but want to possess. To prop up this false perception, the system relies on popular gullibility, promoting “beliefs” while discrediting science and knowledge — even undermining quality public education.

Denial of climate science and its findings, for example, becomes necessary to convince people that they prefer the convenience of fossil fuels over frugal energy management and renewable energy utilization — even if the ultimate “externality” is the destruction of the planet’s life-sustaining climate.

Consumer capitalism is undeniably incompatible with nature, nature’s laws, and the best interests of the planet’s living beings, including Homo sapiens. Fortunately options exist to mitigate the ongoing destruction: reliance on solar energy in all its renewable forms, and development of alternative structures (especially at the local level) to serve real human needs—subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom—instead of the hyped-up quest for limitless material possessions.