A coral reef off Jarvis Island. / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Samuel Miller-McDonald,  January 18

Carbon Omissions

Ignore reckless utopians—energy transition is the only future we have

A coral reef off Jarvis Island. / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


About a decade ago, in a marginally more hopeful age, I attended an undergraduate seminar called “The Future,” in which a group of about ten of us exercised our impressionable, untethered imaginations to explore myriad futures, plausible and otherwise. Well, mostly the latter. Besides reading speculative novels and conducting a “visioning” workshop, the course was disproportionately dedicated to assessing the ideas of a small community of futurists fawning over the dawning digital age. Much hope was staked on the Singularity, a point at which artificial intelligence would spark feedback loops, generating ever smarter computer chips and leaps in bioengineering that would inevitably yield a utopia run by supercomputers and populated by superhuman cyborgs. 

Most of the other students in the course generally seemed to find inspiration from these breathless predictions of a not-too-distant glittering, silicon superworld. In these visions, Moore’s Law, like some fourth law of thermodynamics, ensures that computing power will continue growing unimpeded until a computer chip reaches human-level cognition, surpasses it, and then surpasses the minds of all humans collectively. At this point, according to Singularitarians, the collective digital super-intelligence will build a perfect government and engineer the optimal society. 

Your sparkling utopia is just dumb dust if non-carbon energy infrastructure is not a central pillar of your program.

I sat silent on most days, letting the fancies wash over me, until one class I burst out, loosing, “I’d rather see civilization implode than live under the unaccountable rule of a MacBook with homogeneous superbros,” or something similarly curmudgeonly. Letting slide the fundamental absurdity of bits of plastic and metal coming to resemble organic neurons, I just couldn’t abide the idea of servitude to Watson, Jeopardy! prowess or no. But more than that, with looming climate change and the decline of cheap oil, I couldn’t shake the question of what would power all these gadgets, and none of the futurists seemed to bring it up.

My suspected designation as class Luddite dramatically confirmed, I’d spend the rest of the course earnestly reminding my giddy classmates that all of the tech needed to build this digital utopia requires tremendous amounts of energy that either we do not have, or that will destroy everything we know. But whether because the energy problem was too complex, too depressing and daunting, too foreign to the cohesive utopian narrative, or simply—and probably this—too boring, my invectives never nudged the conversation toward consideration of what energy resources should underpin any economy capable of yielding the Singularity, or, really, anything.  

Today, in a less optimistic time, political visions still coalesce, maybe more than ever, around variations on utopian themes. Whether it’s Silicon Valley robber barons coveting the imminent immortality, automation, app perfection, and pliant UBI-funded labor force they think tech can deliver, or the professional oligarchists in Washington think tanks cavorting with centrist policymakers—Republican and Democrat both—to maintain strict adherence to the convenient utopia they think we already reside within, or emerging left communities like the Sanders/Corbyn movements calling for a robust welfare state and labor union revivals reminiscent of a bygone industrial factory class, every major voice seems to seek gains in the present by selling a vision of some emergent utopia. And none of these visions, not one of these programs, says anything substantial and realistic about transitioning to renewable energy. All ignore the one thing that will be absolutely necessary for any of these utopias to get built.  

Instead, we are to take it on trust that the tech geniuses will come up with some miracle widget that will generate unlimited energy without emitting pollution while simultaneously going down on you. Maybe the strong and stable centrists with their leash-bound policy wonks will develop the perfect managerial solution that they will roll out strongly and stably. Maybe when the left finally gains power they’ll somehow muster the political capital sufficient to undertake a social engineering project that includes energy transition somewhere on the bullet list between banning private property and mandating Marx beards. This faith is as blind as any. It ignores the fact that we have a few years at most to avoid utter and permanent collapse, it ignores the extent to which carbon energy is embedded in all economic production, it ignores the fact that dense energy is integral for anything remotely resembling a modern lifestyle or modern democratic government, and it ignores the fact that he who controls the energy controls the government. 

Any plan that fails to place energy transition at the center of its platform is as wildly fanciful as the Singularity’s immortal Übermensch. Any plan that does not include rigorous, extensive plans for a global-scale and rapid decarbonization of the economy is hopelessly utopian. And right now, that’s every major political platform in existence.

There are two reasons energy transition is necessary for any future reasonable people might want to build. First and most straightforwardly is climate change. At best, unmitigated climate disruption will make everything we recognize as modern civilization impossible. It will spark destabilizing resource and migration wars that render a global economy untenable and ultimately revert the course of economic development to some preindustrial mode of production, probably agrarian slavery and its concomitant privation. At worst, climate change will kill 95 plus percent of life on earth as it did 252 million years ago during the Permian-Triassic extinction event when the earth warmed five degrees Celsius. A status quo emissions trajectory puts us at six degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century or sooner. Humans will likely not survive. 

Though actually warming the planet six degrees may be decades away, the carbon dioxide needed to reach that temperature may have already been emitted. Scientists do not know if the change we have already caused will spark unstoppable feedback loops like ocean anoxia, forest diebacks, melting permafrost emissions, and albedo-destroying ice melts that will bring us to six degrees regardless of our interventions. Against these feedback loops, Moore’s Law cannot compete. It certainly will not require the immense six degrees of warming we are aiming for now to cause ecological disturbances—like droughts and floods—sufficient to spark global armed conflicts. That is already happening, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, and is a small taste of what is likely to come. Energy consumption is by far the main driver of this calamitous change.

Second, energy mediates politics and economics. Every economy is fundamentally dependent on energy production, consumption, and distribution. Every factory, hospital, supermarket, and transportation network is completely dependent on mechanical energy. Means of energy production profoundly affect all economic modes of production. This relationship inevitably spills into politics. Timothy Mitchell, in Carbon Democracy, suggests that modern mass politics was itself the direct result of emerging fossil fuel industrial production, with more concentrated populations of industrial workers in cities creating the conditions possible for collective action. “The exploitation of coal provided a thermodynamic force whose supply in the nineteenth century began to increase exponentially. Democracy is sometimes described as a consequence of this change, emerging as the rapid growth of industrial life destroyed older forms of authority and power.” New carbon energy sources funded the capacity for popular movements for broader liberty and democracy, breaking the monopoly of agrarian feudalism that preceded it. 

The massive injection of material resource wealth into the global economy unlocked from the energy stored in coal, oil, and gas made all classes wealthier. Research by Stanford archaeologist Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, puts per-capita energy consumption at its height in agrarian societies around the low tens of thousands of kilocalories; under industrial economies in the 1970s that number reached the low hundreds of thousands. This leap in energy wealth and the raw material abundance that accompanied it didn’t trickle down so much as flood the new fossil fuel economy before it had a chance to consolidate. That added wealth brought underclasses fortified political power and economic leverage. But the inherent capacity of fossil energy to be concentrated also facilitated emerging challenges to democratic contestation and egalitarian political movements: a new oil oligarchy of industrialist barons and finance capitalists. 

Those who control the flow of energy control the economy.

Those entities—states, companies, unions, or cartels—that control energy production and distribution subsequently gain control of an economy’s capital flow and a state’s government. Mitchell writes, “Coal miners played a leading role in contesting work regimes and the private powers of employers in the labor activism and political mobilization of the 1880s and onward.” They achieved this because their control of energy gave them leverage. A coal miner strike in Appalachia could shut down an office in Boston, or stall shipment of any and every commodity dependent on steam power for transportation. Removing the power of workers to control energy flow removes their political power. In this view, the modern automation of coal mining is not simply a technique for increasing labor-efficiency, but a method of concentrating control of coal distribution in the hands of management, thereby minimizing the power of workers to strike for better conditions and ensuring an uninterrupted stream of coal. Those who control the flow of energy control the economy. 

The consolidation of energy resources has coincided with the creeping difficulty of achieving broad economic democracy. This fact is increasingly evident in modern oil states. In the world’s top ten oil producing countries, the oil industry—whether private or state-owned—plays an ever more dominant role in the governments of every single state. Nine of those ten countries are significantly oligarchic, ruled by small, wealthy elite classes many of whom are oil barons or made their fortunes in kin industries. These consist of dynastic royals in the Middle Eastern states, wealthy executives and their analogs in public office in liberal economies, and the non-hereditary heads of state in the cases of China and Russia. The one moderately democratic example, Canada, is nevertheless a government beset by a politics entirely beholden to oil industry interests, as feuds over oil pipelines, tar sands, and indigenous lands attest. Meanwhile, energy companies dominate the global economy. Of the top ten largest companies by revenue, five are energy companies. Two others, automobile companies, are directly dependent on them. Any program hoping to build a viable future politics must contend with this reality and develop some mechanism for governing the production, consumption, and distribution of energy resources. Currently, none of them do.

Again, I find myself taking the role of class curmudgeon, speaking out from a small community of other curmudgeons arguing that nothing matters—really, actually nothing—if we don’t solve the energy problem. Your sparkling utopia is just dumb dust if non-carbon energy infrastructure is not a central pillar of your program. 

Peter Thiel cannot continue to consume young blood after the collapse of civil society that climate change will undoubtedly usher in under status quo emissions—or, rather, he won’t be able to consume it via hypodermic syringe; maybe he’ll resort to mixing it with Soylent™ on his feudal youth-blood farm? What will fuel Elon Musk’s rockets? Tesla’s electric car batteries? Some corporate megaliths may be starting to reluctantly operate a campus or data center with solar panels, but this meager act falls far short of confronting the vastly more difficult challenge of how people will power the devices that gulp their energy quaffing data, or the drones and trucks that ship Amazon’s abundant material detritus to consumers in a day. Aside from Musk’s apparent attempts to establish himself as an early monopolist of renewable energy production, none of the visionaries and luminaries building our bright tech future seem concerned with who will govern the energy that must be generated at ever greater quantities to keep their utopia’s lights on, or, more basically, where that energy will come from.  

Likewise, the prevailing oligarchy administered by reigning neoliberal centrists—Republican, Democrat, Labour, Tory, whatever—cannot be sustained without dense, consolidated energy like oil as its resource base. Financial markets will crash for the last time with the end of oil or a global climate war, whichever comes first. And yet, centrists only discuss energy transition superficially, to mollify, if at all. President Obama, for example, mostly ignored the energy problem, aside from going out of his way to brag about expanding coal and oil extraction. Early in his first term, he neglected to support the only climate bill ever to pass the House, leaving it to die in Harry Reid’s geriatric digits. He only managed to hobble together some weak nods to energy transition by joining the Paris Agreement and designing the presidential orders called the Climate Action Plan and Clean Power Plan, all policies that could be easily reversed or undermined by subsequent administrations—as they have been. (Trump intends to cancel both the CAP and CPP.) Obama only reluctantly stepped in at the last minute for some low-hanging adulation to halt the building of the Dakota Access pipeline, another reversible policy. 

On the whole, Obama’s administration was marked by a major expansion of oil and gas drilling, largely via fracking, continued opening of public land to oil and gas development, and sustained subsidies for the oil and gas industry. His was the charming smile to Bush’s petulant smirk standing sentinel straight in front of a mostly covert and thriving oil and gas industry. Stronger together indeed.

No prominent centrist politicians have any credible plans for massive, rapid energy transition; and why would they when their entire platform depends on maintenance of an oil-dominated status quo? The neoliberal centrists who fancy themselves the most responsibly realistic are in fact the most woefully utopian. Nothing is more idealistic than thinking we can maintain the status quo or indulge in gradual change. 

None of the luminaries building our bright tech future seem concerned with who will govern the energy that must be generated at ever greater quantities to keep their utopia’s lights on.

By the way, if hard-right Republicans seem glaringly spared from excoriation in this analysis it is not out of sympathy, but rather acknowledgement that the simple motivators animating the right end of the GOP, which is most of it, seem to be nothing but a nihilistic heist of the national treasury and a sadistic anti-humanism whose only passion is a glee gained from eliminating life-sustaining health care for children, the poor, and the elderly. They have no vision for the future because, to them, there is no future, there is only personal wealth-hoarding.

Meanwhile, though the left has been excluded from policy discussions for a few decades now, they too have failed to build a credible vision for a major energy transition. A social welfare state cannot long be funded by oil without bringing about the conditions of its own demise, conditions like inexorably consolidated capital or a political order fractured by ecological collapse and dominated by the crisis-forged dictators who will prosecute the inevitable resource wars. Given this reality, we cannot indefinitely fund the NHS or Social Security with oil cash.   

At present, this transition will probably only be possible through two mechanisms. One mechanism is a massive public infrastructure project that transforms electricity networks into smart grids capable of storing and distributing power generated from non-carbon sources. Coordinating and incentivizing the mass conversion of combustion engine vehicles to electric or alternative energy vehicles will also be necessary. The second mechanism is a grassroots movement that transforms cities and neighborhoods piecemeal into progressively self-sufficient distributed energy-based microgrids. The latter is already underway; the former far from fruition. Both mechanisms will probably need to be deployed in tandem if collapse is to be thwarted and some form of liberal or social democracy sustained. 

With a history of successfully championing and overseeing large public works infrastructure projects and mobilizing communities into democratic, grassroots political actors, the left is uniquely suited to engineer both of these projects. And these goals—a national infrastructure project and grassroots energy movement—both could substantially bolster the legitimacy, appeal, and viability of expanding the power of the left. 

It wouldn’t be difficult for progressive politicians to justify their legitimacy as leaders worthy of support by focusing on these projects; they sell themselves. A national infrastructure plan could create long-term, well-paying unionizable jobs, make the economy more stable and sustainable, break the power of big oil, make the grid more secure from cyber attacks and terrorism, give local, state, and federal government programs a more productive role in economic activity, and bring the nation’s infrastructure into the twenty-first century. 

Indeed, Senators Merkley, Sanders, Markey, and Booker have introduced legislation to transition the country’s energy infrastructure to 100 percent renewable by 2050. Given the reality that we may have already passed critical thresholds of safe emissions, 2050 is disastrously far away from being a meaningful target. Even if the legislation did pass, one could imagine status quo carbon emission growth all the way up to 2049 and then a rapid push to meet the goals—or a revision the law to push the goal back. Without an immediate grassroots push to initiate this transition now, this kind of legislation is just placebo.

A grassroots energy movement, meanwhile, could democratize control of energy, give local communities greater autonomy and self-sufficiency, create a revenue stream that stays in communities by generating and consuming energy locally, create capital that can be distributed to supplement and sustain social services and entrepreneurial ventures, and give community members with otherwise diverging politics a means of working together on a shared, concrete project. These grassroots energy communities are popping up all over the world and in some places, like Scotland, new renewable projects are funding social services, bringing diverse groups together, and making island communities more self-sufficient. Community energy programs can build social cohesion, trust, and political capital necessary to more organizing for progressive political change. Maybe most important, building a distributed energy infrastructure is a necessary means by which to build a new, more egalitarian economics and politics. Securing peoples’ control of the means of energy production would be a step toward democratic ownership of the means of economic production.

The left would be foolish not to make energy transition a central pillar of its organizing tactics, its political strategy, and its vision. And, right now, there’s a faith that everything will just work out that’s as taken for granted as flipping a light switch. 

Samuel Miller-McDonald is the managing editor at ActivistLab.org and a doctoral candidate at University of Oxford

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