Moving From A Fossilized
Economy To A Solar Economy
Dr. Hermann Scheer
The modern economic age is shaped by a rapid succession of scientific and technological breakthroughs which are transforming individual and collective ways of life and economic and political structures. They exceed physical, geographical, intellectual and ethical limits (especially nuclear weapons and genetic engineering). They also exceed the limits of those time periods over which we are able to act responsibly. And yet this constantly accelerating and far-reaching modernity is a fossil construct. Measured against its claim to shape our future, it is stuck in the past, fossilized at its core, based on excavations and ancient deposits—in reality, without a future. We are living in a fossil global economy. The fundamental contradiction between a constant stream of new technological achievements driving the world economy and their lack of a future due to the current method of energy supply is supremely ironic.
The choice of a particular resource base is fundamental to economic and social development and is more determining than the economic system concerned, whether it be more capital- or labour-oriented, economically liberalistic or socialistic. It is one of the peculiarities of the twentieth century that this fact has been discussed less and less as the consumption of energy and materials and its consequences have become greater.
The towering importance of energies and materials has been reduced to a secondary question, because the fossil basis of energy and materials is considered irreplaceable. This is why economics treats only the factors of the energy question that influence pricing. Energy and raw materials are considered as fundamentally available, regardless of where they come from. Thus, the choice of raw materials and sources of energy is viewed by politicians and economists as an engineering and business management problem--and, more recently, as an environmental one—to be dealt with by specialists.
Recognition of the social and political consequences of economic actions has led to the development of "political economy" in the modern age. But even so, overall economic analyses, relationships between the laws of nature and technology, are largely ignored, despite the fact that industrial wealth and the technological advances and developments of the modern age are based on the productivity of the material and biotic ecosystems.
Political and commercial players lack the knowledge of these matters and the natural and engineering sciences have become so specialized that they have lost the overall view. But, the recognition that our ever-growing dependence on finite resources gives rise to global ecological dangers and drastic social catastrophes, together with the awareness that technology dominates economy and society, have made a "political natural economy" essential. The fossil character of the world's economy, and the thus-programmed ruination of all our vital resources, make a comprehensive reorientation to solar sources of energy ever more urgent. The global economy has flourished thanks to this fossil energy baseÑbut now this is driving it to destruction.
THE MODERN GLOBAL economy, which credits itself with unlimited openness and sees itself as developing from an "open global market" to an "open global society", in reality is operating in a limited system and making itself into a "closed shop."
Our Earth is an open and a closed system at the same time: it is open to the constant flow of energy from the Sun, the force of gravity of the Sun and Moon and cosmic radiation; it is closed with respect to the potential of fossil resources, of matter, water, soil and air. As long as the global economy operates on this limited base of energy and raw materials, it has only a very restricted outlook left, for two irrefutable reasons: on the one hand, because fossil resources are finite, and on the other, because during their conversion, the finite, but indispensable elements of life on our globe—water, soil, and the atmosphere—are unavoidably overburdened, damaged and destroyed.
This second reason has become quite literally a matter of burning urgency in the spectrum of energy consumption. Of the statistically registered world consumption of energy, 32% derives from the combustion of petroleum, 25% from the combustion of coal, 17% from the combustion of natural gas, 5% from nuclear fuel, a mere 6% from water power and 14% from combination of biomass—with only a minor portion of this latter consumption being sustainable.
The use of biomass, which can become a perpetual source of energy by planting vegetation to equal use, is still limited mainly to rural areas of so-called "developing countries". The real global economy is fired mainly by crude oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear fuels. Thus, the world's economy and with it the world's society is dominated by pyromaniacs who burn ever more gigantic amounts of fossil fuels and wish to cling to this system as long as possible because of vested interests. In the face of all scientific warnings and environmental promises, at present everything suggests that the amount of fossil fuels "put to the torch" will increase by half between 1990 and 2010 alone.
A SOLAR GLOBAL economy will enable the total demand for energy and raw materials to be met from solar sources of energy and solar raw materials. The inexhaustible potential of solar or renewable energy includes light and heat directly from the sun, thermal winds and waves, hydro-electric power, and energy from plants and other organic substances. By the systematic use of solar raw materials the majority of all material needs of humanity can be satisfied on a permanent basis.
Besides fundamental ecological reasons, there are also economic and other social reasons, such as ensuring peace, that make it urgently necessary to introduce solar resources on a broad scale. Resource crises are becoming graver due to the approaching exhaustion of fossil fuels. It is not just a question of how long these resources will be available, but where they lie. These questions of access can provoke dramatic conflicts. They involve the danger of war. The second Gulf War of 1990-91 and the Chechenian war of 1994-96 are preludes to increasingly sharp struggles for resources. Since resources of energy and raw materials are deposited at relatively few locations around the globe, but are needed everywhere, they have shaped political and economic structures throughout the world. It is this resource dependence which compelled the "globalization" of economic activities. Therefore, the global access of solar power is an essential precursor to peace.
ONE FASHIONABLE MYTH is that resources are playing a less important role since the economy is "dematerializing" and "deindustrializing" through breathtaking new technological advances. But, in fact, this has only evoked a new recklessness and tendency to ignore the fossil resource question, whilst reinforcing the misconception that a technological fix can be found for anything. There is no contradiction between actually occurring dematerialization and reindustrialization and high demands for energy and materials due to increase in the world's population and the copying of the fossil industrial model in India and China.
The global fossil economy continues its work of destruction, unimpeded by any international resolutions supposed to brake and redirect it—that is, despite international policies initiated by Agenda 21 at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The constitution of the World Trade Organization (WTO) treaty agreed upon in Marrakech in 1994 is intended to guarantee a largely unhindered flow of capital, goods and services, globally. The governments which negotiated and signed this treaty had all signed the Agenda 21 treaty two years before without apparently seeing the contradiction between the two.
By contrast to the vague resolutions on global environmental protection, the WTO rules are pretty specific and binding, and a mechanism of sanctions against treaty violators is even provided. The WTO treaty makes the transfer and consumption of resources easier and cheaper, and it speeds up the input of energy into transportation with the explicitly desired acceleration and increase in the exchange of goods. The WTO treaty is supposed to increase the productivity of the world's economy, but it actually increases the speed of its destruction because of the continuing dependence on exhaustible resources.
Two aspects of globalization in its present form are irreconcilable: the ecological aspect and that of economic competition. The protection of global competition has been sanctified and given political priority over the protection of the climate or biodiversity; and the WTO over Agenda 21; competition law over environmental law; the interests of the present over the future. This contradiction can only be resolved with a solar resource base. It is not the massive employment of which has led world civilization into a dead end, but the current choice of natural resources and the orientation of technical developments and their infrastructures to fossil fuels.
Only the deliberate replacement of fossil-fuel consumption by solar energy will end the destructive dynamics of the fossilized global economy and its economic structure, and create a viable, varied and human-scale dynamics of development.
Dr Hermann Scheer is a social-economist, author and member of the German Parliment since 1980.
Scheer's article is reprinted with permission from Resurgence magazine.
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