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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Planet of the Neoliberals: Environmentalism and Policy Collapse




From climate change to nuclear proliferation, deforestation to species extinction, resistant bacteria to psychotropic drug proliferation, collapsed schools to media consolidation, civic idiocy to identity politics, endless warfare to mounting terrorism—all are extensions of the dialectic of enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1969) into the atmosphere, the ocean, genetic evolution and culture, and so on. At center is a dialectical silence echoing an untenable myth that nation states and the marketplace must define the theater of human history: an empty stage of human culture that has replaced slavery with machines, and democracy with imperialism, knowledge with information, and political liberty with culture war and overconsumption. As all crises are rooted in a common epiphenomenon, any solution must lie in a transformation of not merely policy but of democracy, economics, and the idea of knowledge as well, as they are practiced throughout our culture. It is up to us: we are today on the cusp of either catastrophe or transformation, the midnight hour at which the Owl of Minerva must finally take flight, or every crisis will indeed combine into an epochal, permanent darkness.

Environmentalism, which focuses on the defining epiphenomenon of climate change, is profoundly defensive, dissembling a negative posture toward the world, but falling into it, to a point of myopia. Environmentalists oppose windmills as passionately as a coal plant and smart meters as passionately as nuclear power. Environmentalism is paranoid. Activists run from issue to issue like children at a haunted house, encompassing, ultimately, an existentially passive position: a fixed position in empty time by which the past races ineluctably: Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Like Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, we awaken from a sleep of denial—to regretted oceans, regretted forests, lists of annihilated species, giant industrial aberrations, and profoundly undermining trends, as if they had already happened, yet also as if nothing ever happens. Passing seamlessly from denial to resignation, a rising fatalism perceives that an existential condition, not actions, condemn humanity to inevitable ruin. Environmentalism is the penultimate pragmatism and utilitarianism, which is to say that it is defined by the absence of theory—by the active trivialization of the idea of nature, which is scaled to the global and inclusive, into the empty concept of “environment,” which is simply de facto, decontextualized and dehistoricized.

Environmentalism is the vision of the dead watching the living in horror. Symbols of a pristine paradise ruined by people regurgitate the Biblical sense of blinded fallen-ness, but with pagan, misanthropic promiscuity. Energy’s destructiveness is not merely an environmental problem. Ours is a life made intense by compulsive work and consumption, devoted to filling time that has been made empty by systematic social displacements. Energy replaced slavery in more ways than one. Big business, through energy and mineral exploitation, has reinvented the conditions of medieval lords, repatriating a new position independent from any democratic government. As with white flight and globalization, under US/UK liberalization and deregulation regimes, corporations have off-shored the wealth of all nations that comply with Pax Americana.

Globalization is trade imperialism, and free trade is the global imperialism that it espouses progressively against the slavery-based and metallurgical empires of old.

A financialized feudalism has opposed itself existentially to democracy since World War II: led, ironically, by the United States, which itself is mired in the multiple personality disorder of homeland politics under empire. Free trade agreements have subverted all constitutions and disempowered all states. Big business, which is the continued force of the de Medici family and the industry that financed the Crusades a millennium ago, has reinvented the medieval land- and violence-centered definition of noble political rights into a contractually centered, financial definition of political rights based on laundered violence. Moreover, Big Business has acquired the Fourth Estate to control political discourse within the democracies it has subverted.

Financial interests represent a new utopia based on commodity fetishism rather than political freedom. Not eliminating slavery, the energy industry has replaced and universalized it as “modernization” with machines and fuels: petroleum, coal, gas, hydro-and nuclear-powered machines. Energy slavery  defines a new vision of progress erected upon a condition of permanent warfare over fuel resources and imperial corruption of those “cursed” with natural resources. Energy corporations control the resources in agreements with foreign princes and governments. While operating under European and American banners, many are functionally placeless and no longer politically loyal to their mother countries. As with Rome, globalization comes at a price—with new emperors born in the provinces and emergence of imperial disloyalty to one’s somehow reduced homeland.

Historically, the electricity industry is the hardest industrial sector to change; it is the single largest cause of crises worldwide; and it represents the largest concentration of capital that exists in the world’s economies. Indeed, rather than protect the homeland borders, the control of foreign energy resources and defense of global supply chains defines US military objectives. Nuclear power adds new kinds of domestic and foreign military threats based on the proliferation of nuclear materials in plants and uranium enrichment facilities, necessitating a militarization of the homeland, too, where energy is the center of the domestic economy, controlled mostly by monopolies and cartels traded on Wall Street.

The energy industries both cause climate change and actively campaign against anyone who tries to do something about it, leading the Left in a circular dance between bad regulation and criminal deregulation. Resisting or misdirecting technological change for decades, they have corrupted and controlled governments, using extra-constitutional leverage to erect barriers to policymakers and competitors who might achieve public technological objectives inimical to their private interests. This revolt of true elites has produced carbon policy collapse worldwide as well as a rapidly collapsing atmosphere and ocean die-offs from increasing acidity, radiation, and war, and created artificial pressure for nuclear and gas-fired power plant development as “bridge” strategies that are actually off-ramps— political betrayals. Fuel is a destructive business upon which electricity generation was built, but from which local power must now decidedly divorce itself.

Today America is a detritus of failed markets, and Europe continues to imitate American economic policy mindlessly, under the free trade, deregulation, and austerity regimes of the EU. Changes in trade or military policy have become more unthinkable than cultural transformation, world war, or genocide. Facing an eclipse of enlightenment as if suddenly today, Americans and Western Europeans face a crisis in our self-image as champions of freedom and democracy around the world, because we ourselves no longer practice political freedom, nor political democracy, at home.

We live within manufactured fictions, and these fictions prevent us from being able to change.

In energy, the predominating fiction is the kilowatt-hour. Samuel Insull built the electric industry on selling energy in time—a commodity we have internalized. We pay rates per kilowatt-hour, and regulation of energy costs is focused not on how much we have to pay in our bills but in how these rates are structured and set. When economists assess economic feasibility of technological change, they compare the old with the new in terms of rate savings by the minute. The economics of energy thus rests not on how much energy costs us in our electricity bill each month but on the rates per kilowatt-hour: just one charge or measurement of 8760 hours per year per meter, per building, per block, per substation, per municipal boundary, or per transmission control area. These are nonlinear factors radically impacting actual fixed capital costs: an implicit financialization of need.

Allowing rates to define energy, as if it were paying for gallons, excludes energy efficiency (as unconsumed energy) from the core economic and environmental equations of policymaking and relegates grid energy demand reduction (on-site renewables, efficient appliances) to a mental and administrative ghetto—a welfare program attached by legislatures, but not counting in the customer-facing economics of delivered energy needs. Renewable energy and energy efficiency do not require commodity fuels: reducing demand for energy is not counted in “rates,” which define the supply-side ideology underlying energy economics.

The United States has built a kingdom of fictions upon Insull’s foundational fiction. Having a flawed, supply-centric idea of what energy is, all of our concepts and laws concerning changing energy have had to be fictions too. In the fiction that electrical transmission has enabled, we have a timeless concept of energy as something that is omnipresent and constant, rather than the product of a fire that is burning somewhere and fuel extracted somewhere else that is being pumped into that fire—and consumed. The kilowatt-hour facilitates this fiction by reproducing the structure of fuel combustion in a charge-per-minute. It is a fiction that obliterates energy literacy and marginalizes fuel-free technologies, particularly those that may be installed behind the meter and outside an incumbent monopoly utility system’s infrastructure. Rates are thus a reification of corporatism itself.

Throughout the world, green power is defined by two policies: Feed-In Tariffs (or less generous Net-Metering Tariffs) and Renewable Energy Certificates. Both are neoliberal, growth imperative-sustaining fictions designed to accommodate a supply-centric system that will not change but merely be added to. Under such tariffs, utilities pay a consumer who elects to install solar panels on her rooftop for the power that is generated, as if it were to feed into the utility’s electrical transmission grid. Marketing materials say the utility will pay you for your power, that your meter will run backward, which it does, this fiction of supply, like water as it were, this metaphor of physical flow. Intuitively it seems real, yet it is another financial fiction: a mechanistic arms-length effort to cooperate with society anonymously under engineered conditions of location neutrality, under which actual physical cooperation with community members has been systematically rendered  uneconomical.

To understand the fiction of price itself, one must acknowledge the challenge. The tariff is inherently cost-imposing on transmission and distribution, but causes no impact upon generation. Tariffs require no changes in the utility system itself, no reduction in fuel procurement, no reduction in spinning reserves or idling power plants that ramp up and down based on fluctuating system demand. It requires no change at all; the random, non-engineered principle of deployment and technology selection has resulted in a machine-gunning of solar panels strewn across the landscape. Not one iota of design was used to match intermittency of capacity, which is utterly predictable for renewable resource technologies like solar photovoltaics, with the known schedule of demand for any given customer at any given location—facts known to both the utility monopoly and the customer. Most solar systems are installed on homes that are empty between 10am and 4pm each day, when solar panels generate power. Tariffs impose a degenerate timelessness under which yet another commodity form supplants actual redesign of the resource, with a distorted, ineffective physical impact on known, geographically specific patterns of energy consumption during the night and morning vs. during the day.

The blindness of tariffs results in a double cost: the cost of paying for the solar and the cost of upgrading transmission systems to export on-site solar power. A blind selection of technology and location has de facto forced local phenomena into export transactions that constitute the ultimate neoliberal method of “prosperity.” The customer must ultimately pay twice, while the utility has arranged to suffer no loss of revenues from reduced sales. The result is an apparent fiction that renewable energy is high cost, and ultimately a decision to discontinue renewables development, raise rates , or reopen coal mines to close nuclear plants, or vice-versa.

Adding resources in a symbolic, ineffective way is another case of cutting the baby in half: give politicians (and voters) what they want, which is sacrificial expenditures on solar panels as spectacles of change, while not actually changing anything at all at the system level—no reduced budgets for substations and transmission lines based on reduced system demand, no reduced fuel sales for gas and coal companies, no degrowth, and no substantial decarbonization of energy. Everyone is happy in this bloated national fiction of greenness: a simulation that ironically represents the greenest strategy available to mainstream policymakers. This is policy collapse under an unquestioned regime of naïve economism.

But there is nothing unique in the comforts of fiction. Even solar leaders are guilty of solar tokenism or charity—not re-engineering the grid utility to accommodate operational management of intermittent resources, storage, and demand levels, but randomly placing solar panels according to isolated consumption decisions upon a network of raging fire: a spending of money, a statute, or idol, not an integrated resource displacing grid supply. The industry is intellectually trapped in (and dependent upon) this two-dimensional metric universe, siloed in feudal dependencies upon the energy monopolies, each naïvely accepting its trap as a “business model.”

Western democracies are proceeding with climate change along lines that obey this fiction and pretend a solution may be found that does not require physical change, only piecemeal additionality. We ignore the difference between policies that turn off fossil plants and policies that do not turn them off. We implicitly exclude scenarios where the owners of legacy power plants and transmission infrastructure may be stranded, even bankrupted, and instead pour billions of dollars on supply-centric schemes of renewables development that only compound the claims of economists that any real change will result in higher prices. It is all an outrageous fiction: a political charade, expressing only an inability to make decisions within zero-sum games. Unless something has to give, the rhetoric of change is all much ado about nothing.

The lie is that technology decides our fate, not politics. The lie is that markets exist independently of government, like the water that fish inhabit, and cannot be questioned. Yet research conducted on California cities and counties by this project that analyzed detailed, previously unavailable, customer meter data, as well as system-level aggregated demand data, and geographically specific renewable generation data has proven clearly that much greater change is achievable economically, without higher electric bills or even higher rates (Local Power 2008a, b, 2013a). But all of this is possible only with the political adoption of the policy structure based on a determination to bring about real change irrespective of damage to the incumbent monopolies (Local Power 2013b). Given this political will, the energy system of any city or county can be physically transformed over a five-year period without increasing the cost of energy, presenting a scaled opportunity to achieve region-wide greenhouse gas reductions without higher rates or taxes: the two conventional choices that voters and decision-makers face and typically refuse to make.

The fictions upon which policy discourse is constructed also support the fictions that comfort people. The idea of solar power has its appeal in some latent paganism: a desire to return to the sun. The idea that we can power our lives on the sun is symbolically beautiful and elegant. But it is irresponsible.

Renewable resources are prolific, each with its own temporal pattern of generation and demand levels. Locational energy demand has a corresponding, temporal intermittency, and these patterns must be matched by rationally chosen technologies. Some communities have lots of daytime commercial energy use; other communities have a strictly nighttime residential need pattern.  Conversely, every location in the world has a unique pattern of renewable resources: some have year-round sunlight; some have windy areas, biomass waste from farms, waste heat from commercial boilers, ocean waves, underground geothermal heat, or rivers; and each one of these resources occurs intermittently at different times of any given day.

Our transcendent, import-oriented system ignores this problem and opportunity to integrate technologies locally to create benefits at the meter, substation, and commodity electricity market cost patterns. In a market equation of producers and consumers, the reality of community is simply ignored. Producers have the prerogatives of ownership and consumers merely of infantile, uninformed “choices”: the Astroturf paradise of neoliberalism. Whereas tariff programs appeal to the sun worshipper by encouraging her to select her favorite goddess, and the utility will pay her a credit to make it seem real, there is no consideration given to the pattern of life in a home or business, a block, a neighborhood, a city—in deciding which technologies are best suited to a place and way of life. Trapped in a fiction of pagan fetishes, there is no enlightenment: only a hermetic symbolism facilitated by state-sanctioned fictions—a virtual displacement of reason itself.

Chaos results from even the best-intentioned state-mandated ignorance. Germany reached its limit of randomly inserted renewables in the mid-20 percentiles, meaning that its ability to afford grid upgrades reached its limit when renewables deployed in this mindless way reached about 25% of the power generation. For example, American utilities are demanding ratepayers pay for huge transmission upgrades claiming it must have them, and consumers must pay higher rates and new “access charges” if governments insist upon higher levels of renewable supply. It is all a charade of stasis: an oligarchic resistance to change and a failure of democracies to force it.

Research indicates that the limit of a designed (vs. marketed) approach that builds portfolios from the ground up rises from 25% to 80% without increasing the cost of service and is achievable in a five- to ten-year period vs. a 50-year period. This is real change: massive greenhouse gas cuts and permanently reduced physical system demand, a leap out of the limited market fictions that cripple energy and climate policy today.

The climate debate pretends that the ability to change is a problem of the cost of technology—the price of solar power vs. the price of coal-fired power. Price is the ultimate fiction, a yawning apology fixed in a naïve rhetoric to the effect that the people, not the corporations, cannot afford change. Our civil society is trapped in an absurd fiction: a protection racket. The extortionist would suggest that you could stop smoking without harming the tobacco companies, who must naturally be entrusted with reducing smoking: such is an industry-dominated energy policy. Unless those fires go out, climate change goes on. Yet climate change is a zero-sum game: nature does not lie!

References (order of appearance)


--Local Power Inc. 2008a. Sonoma County Community Climate Action Plan Energy Element. http://localpower.com/SonomaCleanPower.html.
--Local Power Inc 2013a. CleanPowerSF In-City Build-Out Business Plan and materials, City and County of San Francisco. http://localpower.com/CleanPowerSF.html.
--Local Power Inc 2013b. Preliminary Budgetary Estimates, CleanPowerSF In-City Buildout Report. http://localpower.com/CleanPowerSF.html

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Excerpt from Paul Fenn, "Enlightenment and Power," Enlightenment in an Age of Destruction: Intellectuals, World Disorder, and the Politics of Empire (Palgrave Macmillan/Springer, Critical Theory and Radical Practice Series - S.E. Bronner, editor, 2018).

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