The Next Greed Revolution

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“Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people.” — Alex Steffen, “The Next Green Revolution,” Wired Magazine, May 2006

— It’s about time you woke up to the good news, Jimmy!  If we can just unleash the forces of innovation, like the creativity that made Silicon Valley the hub of the Information Revolution, we can lick the environmental crisis once and for all!

— Gee willikers, Mr. Caring Capitalist!  I thought that unrestrained growth and ever-expanding energy consumption created insoluble problems!

— Oh, Jimmy, don’t make me laugh!  You’ve been listening to those killjoy hair-shirt environmentalists again.  They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain.  They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler way of life.  No wonder the movement got so little traction.  Asking people in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naive at best.

Those old fogey tree huggers didn’t realize that technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions.  Business can be a vehicle for change.  Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want.  Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have.  Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.

— Why, that sounds great, Mr. CC.

— It certainly does, Jimmy.  In the long run we won’t have to give up anything.  Remember Jimmy Carter’s sweater?  Boy, did he ever look silly!  You can turn that thermostat up.  We can afford it.  Just as soon as we get our hands on clean, inexhaustible power: wind turbines, solar arrays, wave-power flotillas, small hydroelectric generators, geothermal systems, even bioengineered algae that turn waste into hydrogen.

— Wow!  What a terrific future!  That’ll be whole lots of windmills!  But what about the sealife disturbed by the wave-power structures?  And don’t hydro plants create reservoirs with silting problems and release CO2 from the vegetation they drown?

— Don’t worry, boy!  The sea life will adjust.  And I’m sure we’ll come up with a fix for the hydro problems, too.  We’ve got the technology basics.  The challenge is to scale up these technologies to deliver power in industrial quantities — exactly the kind of challenge brilliant businesspeople love.

— And I always thought businesspeople were in it for the money.

— No, Jimmy.  They’re in business because they like the challenge.  They’d do it even if they didn’t get paid a hundred million or more a year.  Besides, we’re seeing businesspeople in every sector getting a jump on the competition by consuming less water, power, and materials.

— Well, Mr. CC, I can see how economizing on inputs can give you a competitive advantage.  But aren’t a lot more companies saving even more money by downsizing and outsourcing?  They don’t have to invest in risky new technologies, and when they outsource to China or get raw materials from some debt-ridden Third World country they can externalize the cost of pollution, too.  Why bother with the environment?  Especially if cheap energy keeps on making it economically reasonable to ship the stock of a dollar store 10,000 miles from a Chinese factory to a mall in Ohio?

— Now, Jimmy.  Think a minute.  If consuming less water, power and materials gives you a leg up here in the US, wouldn’t it do the same in China?

— In the long run, sure.  But only in a theoretical sense.  You can’t just decide to use less of those things.  You have to invest in new production methods, and that costs money.  With labor costs so low, would a Chinese factory owner get any meaningful advantage over his competitors from investing in high-efficiency production processes?  I don’t think it would make sense for decades.

— The rising green tide will lift all boats, Jimmy.  Soon they’ll be making real salaries in those factories, just like we used to here.  Then it’ll pay to invest in efficient production.

— If wages start rising in China, there’s always Indonesia and Africa and other places where labor is even cheaper.  The Chinese factories will close as fast as the maquiladoras did in Mexico.

— Hold on there, my boy.  You can save on energy and material costs while you’re economizing on labor.  The savings mount up, and they’ll mount up even more as energy costs rise and wage rates equalize.

— We’re hooked on those low production costs, CC.  Without a big disparity between what Americans have to spend and what the Chinese will take as wages, how is the same income going to support the same level of consumption?  What about all the people who have to shop at WalMart?  If they can’t get jeans for twenty bucks and kids’ dresses for $7.99, what are those people going to wear?  If they can’t get a DVD player for thirty bucks and a color TV for sixty, what are they going to watch?

— WalMart’s a thing of the past, smartass.  Quality is wealth.  More is not better.  Better is better.  You don’t need a bigger house; you need a different floor plan.  You don’t need more stuff; you need stuff you’ll actually use.  Ecofriendly designs and nontoxic materials already exist, and there’s plenty of room for innovation.  You may pay more for things like long-lasting, energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, but they’ll save real money over the long term.

— You don’t really save money.  LED lightbulbs have an economic advantage because energy is expensive.  But if everyone uses them aggregate demand for energy goes down, the price of energy drops, and there goes your incentive to save.  And it’s not like this happens in isolation.  The energy companies want to maximize their profits, and they’ll do everything they can to encourage us to use the energy we saved somewhere else.

The same goes for manufacturing inputs.  Making better commodities that we’ll have to replace less often is a great idea, Mr. C., but wouldn’t it mean economic contraction?  If everyone is buying fewer lightbulbs because they’re all LEDs, there’s going to be less money for lightbulb manufacturers unless the new bulbs are really expensive. Less of the national income will go to the “lightbulb sector.”

— So the less efficient lightbulb companies will make something else!

— Exactly.  Things which will have their own inputs in materials, energy costs, and labor. Face it, CC.  What you’re talking about only makes sense if the economy shrinks.  If everything on the market is made with fewer raw materials and less energy, and if everything uses less energy, too, we end up either with a smaller economy or a market that takes in the same inputs and uses them more efficiently to make even more stuff.  And since you’re telling me that the new stuff will be so durable and reliable that they won’t be replaced as often, the market is going to shrink even more.

— Oh, Jimmy, now you are pulling my leg!  Isn’t that just what environmentalists want?

— Mr C, I’m not objecting to the result.  I’m just wondering how a competitive capitalist marketplace, with every player striving to sell more at higher profit rates than anyone else, is going to lead to lower and lower sales levels.

— Haven’t you learned anything, you whippersnapper?  If some innovative business comes out with a razor blade that never wears out, all the other razor blade manufacturers either meet his challenge or go under.  Think well-insulated houses full of natural light, cars that sip instead of guzzle, appliances that pay for themselves in energy savings.

— Sales still have to go up to keep the factories open.  Otherwise what will happen to the workers?  It wasn’t stupidity that made businesses prefer things that wear out, like razor blades and ink-jet cartridges — it was the assurance that they’d always have something to sell.  You’re taking that away.  Think about the workers in the perfect razor blade company once they’ve sold the last never-wearing-out razor blade to the last guy without a beard and the last woman who shaves her legs.  Who’s going to buy more razor blades?  Nobody’s going to pay workers to produce razor blades that no one will ever buy.

— They’ll move into the burgeoning service economy!

— But you can’t have everyone working in the service economy.

— Oh, Jimmy ol’ boy, there you go with the limits talk.  You forget all the ingenuity humanity can muster. The possibilities are endless.

— I suppose you’ll be telling me that people really did survive by taking each other’s laundry in?

— I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.  Look, there’s lots of work to do.  I can’t believe you’re getting so petty!  They’ll be redesigning civilization.  Cities beat suburbs. Manhattanites use less energy than most people in North America.  Sprawl eats land and snarls traffic.  Building homes close together is a more efficient use of space and infrastructure.  It also encourages walking, promotes public transit, and fosters community.

— I’ve been saying that for years, CC.  Are you sure you didn’t steal it from me?  But really, how are market forces going to get people to move back to the cities?  Or provide the investment to revive the old transit systems, let alone build now ones?  How will you deal with the millions of acres of inefficient, wasteful, suburbs and interstate highways?

— Once gas prices go sky high people will start moving back on their own.  That’s the genius of capitalism.

— That may be.  But what happens to that incentive if your entrepreneurs are bringing out cars that sip instead of guzzle, running on hydrogen from bioengineered algae?  Replace cheap hydrocarbons with high-efficiency buildings, off-grid power, cars with fuel cells, all that good stuff, and what have you done?  You’ve just made the country safe for sprawl for another few centuries.  Your market forces aren’t going to create efficient cars and build efficient, compact cities where you don’t need to drive — at least not at the same time.

Let’s assume that you really could run a market economy built on radically green design, sustainable energy, and closed-loop cities; a civilization afloat on a cloud of efficient, nontoxic, recyclable technology. Assume, too, that those really are closed-loop systems and productive activity doesn’t grow over time, and that you could maintain a capitalist economy even when there’s no way to keep accumulating capital.  Oh yes — you’ll have to assume that you can keep factory farm agribusiness producing without the fertilizers we make from hydrocarbons.  Maybe you could build a sustainable future along those lines, though you’ll have to stop devastating the planet and let the rest of the world’s population build sustainable futures, too.  But short of a complete systemic collapse and a long period of painful rebuilding, I don’t see how you can get there within the market.

Capitalism grows or it dies, CC.   Remember the “problem of leisure”? Automation was going to become so efficient that nobody would have to work more than a few hours a week.  Social scientists back in the ‘sixties wondered what we were going to do with all that spare time.  Only it never happened that way.

That’s because the problem of leisure would have been a crisis of overproduction.  The market’s response was to sweep more and more activities into the economy — everything we used to buy was becoming too cheap, so it came up with more things to pay for.  Once the existing markets became saturated and there wasn’t a lot of unmet demand, money stopped flowing into manufacturing and started flowing into other things, like lifestyle services, cable TV, computers, home video libraries, fast food, house cleaning, and of course finance.  Now we all work longer hours to pay for the stuff that used to be outside the economy, we figure we really need that stuff because otherwise we don’t have enough time to get everything done, and business keeps growing, which is the point of the system anyway.

You’re spinning a nice fairy tale, but even the parts that make sense fall victim to the fallacy of composition — what’s good business sense if one or two or a dozen factories do it is poison if everybody follows suit.  Market logic may encourage some local efficiencies.  But because the same market logic requires constant growth, anything that reduces the size of the system as a whole will lose out.  Do you really expect me to believe that we can grow our way into efficiency?

— Don’t mock me, James.  I’m talking about the long run. . . .

— In the long run, as Keynes said, we’re all dead.  And it’s the intervening steps that will kill us.  Make all the assumptions you want, but look at what’s happening all around you.  Capitalism’s built-in drive for growth is melting the ice caps, turning big chunks of the tropics into desert, draining the oil fields, killing off a third of the earth’s plant and animal species, and leaving hundreds of millions of people starving, parched, poisoned, maimed or tossed away as unnecessary in the slums of the global South — while we sit around waiting for it to downshift into something a little more tolerable.

And why are we sitting around?  Well, for one thing, there’s no end of cheerful futurologists like you.  And you’ve got a powerful fan club.  There will be plenty of losers in the transition.  They’re doing just great the way things are now, they figure they’ll always come out on top, and they’re not going to give that up without a fight.  They find false prophets very useful.

— But redesigning civilization along these lines would bring a quality of life few of us can imagine.  That’s because a fully functioning ecology is tantamount to tangible wealth.

— Don’t be naïve, CC.  It’s tantamount to intangible wealth.  That’s just why your businesspeople ignore it.  And the word you’re looking for isn’t “ecology.”  It’s “ecosystem.”


All italicized portions of the piece above are taken from Alex Steffen, “The Next Green Revolution,” Wired Magazine, May 2006.

Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg reads from his book at Robin’s Book Store, Philadelphia (Photo by Loret Gnivecki Steinberg)

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He is a member of the literature collective Cat’s out of the Bag. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.

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