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Issue #1562      29 August 2012

The Poverty of Power

By Barry Commoner

It may seem odd to review a book written 36 years ago. However, its message is just as important now as it was then, and is given striking urgency because of its author’s far-sighted and still-relevant recommendations.

Commoner was a biologist and professor of environmental sciences. In The Poverty of Power he examines the impact of the laws of thermodynamics, which determine the relative efficiency of different methods of generating and using energy.

He concludes that in the US the driving force behind that policy has been the profit motive of the oil, petrochemical and nuclear power corporations, not energy efficiency or the national interest, and that since WW2 successive US governments have helped these corporations transform transport, agriculture and other US industries in their own interests, and in many respects for the worse.

The book was written before the disasters at Long Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, but his assessment of the hazards of nuclear reactors now resounds with significance.

Commoner also examines the capital productivities of nuclear and fossil fuel energy, which are declining in comparison with that of renewable energy because of the law of diminishing returns. He explains:

“Every barrel of oil that is produced makes the production of the next barrel more difficult and more costly in invested capital; every new environmental and safety problem that is uncovered in a nuclear power plant makes the next one more complex and more demanding of capital.

“ … In contrast the capture of solar energy can be continuously expanded with no decrease in capital productivity because the production of one unit of solar energy in no way makes it more costly to produce the next.

“… unlike conventional energy sources, solar energy will not become progressively more demanding of capital as its use expands. What is more, as solar energy replaces conventional sources, the latter can be gradually phased out, thus reducing the most intense demand for capital in US industry.”

The latter sentence forms a rational but ironic conclusion. Had the US and other nations followed Commoner’s advice we would have been 36 years ahead in the battle to mitigate climate change, which wasn’t even a source of public concern when he wrote the book.

Commoner’s recurrent theme is that the use of energy in the US has been grossly inefficient because the major petroleum, petrochemical, automotive and nuclear power corporations used their power to eliminate more energy-efficient rivals, for example the highly efficient electric tramways that existed in most US cities.

The corporations also jeopardised public safety, particularly in developing the nuclear industry, and shackled farmers to the chemical industry in schemes that eliminated crop diversity and inflicted vast environmental damage from pesticides and artificial fertilisers. As Commoner explains, all of that relates to the crucial issue of energy efficiency, often in surprising ways.

Since Commoner wrote his book, the US national debt (i.e. the cumulative amount successive governments have borrowed over decades) has soared beyond $11 trillion. Much of this results from massive military spending and taxpayer-funded support for the nuclear industry and other major corporations.

In the final chapters Commoner examines the exploitation of workers and the interminable US involvement in warfare. In an ominous portent of the later war in Iraq, he cites discussions by US politicians on the possibility of waging a Middle East war to secure oil supplies.

Commoner was not a communist, but, as he admits in the book his conclusions concerning the exploitation of working people and the accumulation of capital coincide with those of Marx. He argued strongly against war and in favour of strict control of industrial development.

Regarding energy efficiency he declared:

“… a rational, thermodynamically sound energy system … is a social need, and it is hopeless to expect to build it on the basis of production decisions that yield commodities rather than solutions to essential tasks, that produce goods which are maximally profitable rather than maximally useful, that accept as their final test private profit rather than social value”.

Commoner’s book is accessible through libraries. Readers may find the sections on thermodynamic law and economics tough going, but with this book perseverance is well rewarded.  

Next article – WA Stolen wages plea

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