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Lazy Quote Diary: Mark Jones on Capitalist Entropy

by DeAnander Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 10:03:07 AM EST

I was introduced to the work of Mark Jones by Stan Goff, but have to confess I still haven't got around to reading more than a few short excerpts (laziness, plus too much other reading material).  Mark (pbuh) was one of a very few marxists willing to come to grips with biotic and physical reality rather than clinging to the fantasies of industrial cornucopianism... or cornucopian industrialism, whatever -- the underlying Christianity, so to speak, of which Communism and Capitalism are the Protestants and Catholics:  at each other's throats in righteous rage over what turn out to be fairly minor doctrinal disagreements when viewed from outside by, say a Zen buddhist or an atheist.  Whatever... Mark was willing to blow the whistle.  I thought I'd share this typically lucid piece from 2000, which Stan tossed at me a few days ago.  I wish I had known Mark when he was still alive.  Clearly we came to many of the same conclusions by our widely divergent paths.

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob


[text by Mark Jones 2000]

Entropy is of course a key concept in any meaningful discussion about energy. The argument that energy supply is 'infinite' derives from the neo-classical economics concept of substitutability. The argument does not of course (for obvious epistemological reasons) take account of the bounded nature of the planetary energy system or of the entropy involved in any use of energy.

Whether or not sunshine is infinite, the earth is a closed entropic system. The solar fluxes it can capture (by photosynthesis or human photovoltaic technology, or wind (a climatic product of solar energy) or whatever other method) are therefore also limited. Thus it is intuitively obvious that energy supplies available to planetbound humans are by nature limited. There are industry suggestions of capturing helium from the gaseous clouds around Jupiter, and using this as the raw material of the future hydrogen economy. Such talk is suggestive of desperation more than anything else.

The problem with substitutability is that it involves the same kind of leap of faith which Yoshie Furuhashi reminded us was the great French mathematician Pascal's definition of Christianity. You cannot argue with neoclassicals because their faith in markets is not susceptible to reason.  As is clear from discussions on this List, some who might define themselves as Marxists also turn out when scratched to be made of different metal.

It is argued that invoking energy as the prime mover of capitalist accumulation is actually a ricardian thing to do, or even Physiocratic.  Malcolm Caldwell's highly original book 'Wealth of Some Nations' attracted this kind of criticism when first published in the early 70s. Caldwell argued that capitalism was coterminous with the era of fossil fuel use: it began when coal began to be used extensively in industry and transport, and will end when oil runs out. Malcolm (he was a friend of mine) paid with his life for his visionary ideas, the logic of which drove him to support the kind of sustainable communist utopia which he imagined Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were just then installing in Cambodia. Being himself a communist and a man of action, he went to Cambodia and was assassinated there on Christmas Day in (I think) 1975.

I was influenced by his ideas then and am now: but I did not support his solidarity with the Khmer Rouge and urged him to abandon it (the last time we met and talked about this was in a pub outside Heathrow Airport, from where he was about to depart to Khampuchea; I never saw him again).  But there is an awful warning about his fate, and I sympathise a little with the motivations of those who joke about me as a 'Jim Jones apocalypticist'.  But they are wrong to identify me with a cause so abhorrent as Pol Pot's.  Actually my position is exactly the opposite to Malcolm Caldwell's:  I am saying that if we want to avoid that kind of dreadful outcome, we need to not sleepwalk into another and this time final energy crisis.

We need to keep our utopian speculations alive, but place them in the context of a different world from the one which socialists hoped for: a world with a damaged ecosphere, and very little usable energy (orders of magnitude less
than now).

In such a world, capital, raw materials and energy will be relatively more valuable factors of production than they are now, and labour will be worth very much less. This is actually a recipe for a return to warlordism, for slavery and for grinding poverty, terrible barbarity and generalised brutality. But it need not be this way, and some societies, for example modern Cuba, show how it can be different. It is Cuba, not Cambodia, which must be our common future.

Energy is a commodity like any other, and its value (and ultimately price) is determined by the socially-necessary abstract labour which it embodies.  But energy is also a commodity unlike any other, since it is an input (like labour-power) into all other commodities, and since available energy is the key determinant of the rate of relative surplus-value. The rise in social productivity which is the technical, material correlative of the rate of s-v, can be expressed as the more efficient use of energy in the transformation of objects into commodities. And this applies to energy itself, the appropriation of which has always been subject to technical/material transformation and to increased efficiency and productivity (in material/technical terms, this is the process of 'decarbonisation' according to which energy-bases and industrial systems switch from more to less carbon intensive fuels: from coal, to oil, to gas, to hydrogen; each time an atom of carbon is dropped, capitalism has renewed itself on a new and radically more efficient energy base).

This process by itself goes some way to explain the paradox that although energy is becoming relatively more scarce, its value and price continue to fall and will do so until a qualitative change sets in. At this point the world energy-system, which is constantly being entropically eroded, will flip into a different mode. Production will collapse, capital will be devalued, energy prices will suddenly spike, and a whole new energy-poor world will stand before us in all its bleak glory. This moment, which is the same thing as a Hubbert Peak, is now approaching and has probably already arrived, or anyway, we are passing through the cusp of system-change.

This has happened before. Energy is everywhere, but it is invisible and unseen, does not figure in our calculations or daily thoughts, and designedly so: the more efficient the economy becomes, the less of an issue energy seemingly is. 200 years ago energy came in filthy black sacks and filled the air with fumes. Now it is silent, invisible, omnipresent and omnipotent, so we don't much think about it. But this blindness is the purest form of commodity-fetishism. In ancient Rome people were similarly blind to slaves, and also designedly so.

The institution of slavery was designed to convert human subjects into inhuman objects, mere items of furniture, and socially invisible just as furniture is. The medium through which all social transactions were made was slavery, omnipresent and omnipotent. Roman law itself was based on this categorisation of 'property' according to certain Aristotelian 'properties': thus there was an "instrumentum mutum" [the plough]; an "instrumentum semi-vocale" [the ox] and an "instrumentum vocale" [enslaved ploughboy]. All three were objects.

Such a social order, based on not so much mystification as mass self-hypnosis, obviously could not last, and did not. Slavery always and everywhere collapses.

Modern Americans consume about as many joules of energy as did the average Roman who owned 200 slaves (according to some calculations). This is possible because of the perfection of a vast system of energy supply, which is almost entirely (95%+) petroleum based (even though 20% of US electricity is nuclear, according to some calculations nuclear energy is a net energy sink, i.e., when decommissioning, waste management etc costs are added in, nuclear power stations will turn out to have consumed more energy than they ever produced; they were simply a wasteful subsidy from oil; i.e. they were pharaonic constructs, social icons whose only meaning was to evoke a faustian dream of limitless power, but a dream having no more social utility than a pyramid).

Natural gas delivers up to 100 times as much energy as it costs to produce.  No 'alternative' comes near and most of the alleged alternatives turn out on inspection to be either uselessly inflexible or actually to be energy sinks.  Fuel cells, PV's and biomass ethanol almost certainly are sinks, or else of almost no net benefit. (We cannot return to coal, which in any case will cease to be economically recoverable even in the well-endowed US, in less than a generation). It will not be possible to support an industrial behemoth like EuroAmerica on the basis of so-called 'renewables', which in all cases anyway depend for their development on cross-subsidies from fossil fuels. All of this is well-known stuff by now.

Once you accept that energy is limited and that oil-based capitalist civilisation will collapse, then your political outlook is bound to undergo a radical change. As some on this List have argued, we should then be already looking at the social, political etc implications, the implications for praxis. We should and we must. Everything we do and say (politically speaking) should be refracted through the prism of our understanding of this truly defining moment in the history of capitalism.

Poll
A Defining Moment?
. Nah, he's just chickenlittling. LIfe will go on pretty much as usual, just a bit more expensively 7%
. I suspect he's right: industrialism is headed for a pratfall when the cheap oil runs out 28%
. What does it matter what happens to industrialism, when we're gleefully undermining our food production capacity? I worry about eating. 57%
. Sorry, I only got through half the excerpt before I had to pull the covers over my head again. 0%
. I confidently expect to be piloting my helium-powered personal spacecraft around a shiny new Mars colony in 2030. 7%

Votes: 14
Results | Other Polls
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PV and wind both have an EROEI greater than one, with wind already beating out oil on some fronts. Sloppy rhetoric on his part. For someone whose views are 100% "doomer" he is strangely optimistic.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 09:26:29 PM EST
Sloppy rhetoric on his part.

I'll say.  To be fair, though, it seems he wrote this in the context of ongoing discussions in pre-existing threads.

Having said that, I wish he would have unpacked strange insinuations like the following:

... the same kind of leap of faith which Yoshie Furuhashi reminded us was the great French mathematician Pascal's definition of Christianity. ... As is clear from discussions on this List, some who might define themselves as Marxists also turn out when scratched to be made of different metal.

Doe he mean to imply that Marxism is just Christianity in another guise?

Whether or not sunshine is infinite, the earth is a closed entropic system

Huh?  I have a very limited understanding of energy issues, but how could the earth be considered a "closed entropic system" if Averaged over the entire surface of the planet, 24 hours per day for a year, each square meter collects the approximate energy equivalent of almost a barrel of oil each year, or 4.2 kilowatt-hours of energy every day.?

Fuel cells, PV's and biomass ethanol almost certainly are sinks, or else of almost no net benefit. ... so-called 'renewables', which in all cases anyway depend for their development on cross-subsidies from fossil fuels. All of this is well-known stuff by now.

This kind of hand-waving rhetoric always rings alarm bells.  Just how "well known" is this stuff anyway?

The energy payback time of photovoltaic (PV) cells has been a contentious issue for more than a decade. Some studies claim that the joule content of the energy and materials that were put into the process of making the PV cell, will be equaled by the joule content of the electrical output of the cell within a few years of operation. <...>

This review has concluded that the likely energy payback of a typical domestic sized rooftop grid connected PV cell is approximately four years. In addition, it was estimated that larger utility PV cell power stations would have a much longer energy payback period.

Energy Payback of Roof Mounted Photovoltaic Cells



Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.
by marco on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 07:44:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
'Closed entropic system' rang an alarm bell for me too

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 01:45:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, to be fair we have to note this was written in 2000 when we knew much less about the potential of solar and wind even though it was only 7 years ago.

I understand Jones won't be able to tell us whether his perspective on renewables would be different today. I am a little surprised he didn't think then that, although limited, the solar flux is great enough to provide all of our necessary needs and more ("a world with a damaged ecosphere, and very little usable energy (orders of magnitude less than now)" as long as we develop the technologies necessary to harness efficiently the energy provided.

I don't see a problem with his use of 'closed entropic system'. A closed system doesn't allow mass transfers with its surroundings but it permits energy transfer freely (by opposition to an 'isolated' system).

by Fete des fous on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 09:32:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I wish he would have unpacked strange insinuations like the following:
... the same kind of leap of faith which Yoshie Furuhashi reminded us was the great French mathematician Pascal's definition of Christianity. ... As is clear from discussions on this List, some who might define themselves as Marxists also turn out when scratched to be made of different metal.
Doe[s] he mean to imply that Marxism is just Christianity in another guise?
No, he means that, just as Protestants and Catholics are essentially Christian, so Marxists and Capitalists are what De has called "Industrial Cornucopians". Both are Industrial-Revolution ideologies, and both believe in economic growth and productivity. If anything, "real" Communism has been more socially and environmentally destructive than Capitalism when it has embarked on mad dashes for progress and development.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Aug 27th, 2007 at 03:48:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Jones does not mention wind, which might be odd but the article was written in 2000 and wind has been growing rapidly the last few years.

PV has had a problem of getting EROEI greater then one, making it not unresonable that it was the case in 2000. Indeed I heard a lecture by a life-cycle analyst in 2002 (I think) were PV had EROEI smaller then one.

I must admit I have not seen resent calculations of the EROEI of PV. Do you happen to have any links?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 12:23:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
bruno-ken's link has some good data in it. I've seen EROEI numbers from 2 to 5 (bruno-ken's article is based in years for energy payback). It's not that great regardless, although I expect it to continue to improve. For power plants of any size, solar heat is probably a better method.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 12:52:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes the first out of laboratory cells were may be unable to pay back their enery a decade ago (and we're not even sure because we have no real lifetime data yet).

Wikipedia has many links to studies for payback time:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic_cells

The absolute worse we produce right now (or produced a few years ago) installed in a poor place has 5 years payback everything included (roof mounting, etc...). It's easy to get 1-2 year.

From what I understand from my readings the big thing to know is that the PV cell industry uses computer chip industry silicon and the computer chip industry couldn't care less about energy used during production since what they produce is worth way more than gold per kilogram on the market.

If/when the market for PV gets bigger, they'll move to silicon production dedicated to PV cells where energy input is likely to be way smaller and prices will go down big time too (since they won't compete with silicon-gold-chips for this ressource anymore).

The wikipedia timeline has many interesting information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_solar_cells


# 1984 - 30,000 SF Building-Integrated Photovoltaic [BI-PV] Roof completed for the Intercultural Center of Georgetown University. At the time of the 20th Anniversary Journey by Horseback for Peace and Photovoltais in 2004 it was still generating an average of one MWh daily as it has for twenty years in the dense urban environment of Washington, DC.

Probably in the worst place (pollution, etc...) old technology PV are still working after 23 years.


# 1984 - Amoco Oil pulled factory loan to make brutal and unwelcome takeover of Solarex Corporation factory in Frederick, Maryland.
# 1988-1991 AMOCO/Enron used Solarex patents to sue ARCO Solar out of the business of a-Si, see Solarex Corp.(Enron/Amoco)v.Arco Solar, Inc.Ddel, 805 Fsupp 252 Fed Digest.

As with batteries and electric cars, intellectual property is used to gain a few decades of big oil profits and other pro global warning activities.


Section 8. The Congress shall have power [...] To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

Promote progress indeed.

by Laurent GUERBY on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 03:19:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If/when the market for PV gets bigger, they'll move to silicon production dedicated to PV cells where energy input is likely to be way smaller and prices will go down big time too (since they won't compete with silicon-gold-chips for this ressource anymore).

The problem is that chip production is so massively profitable that PV will have a hard time matching it, no matter how popular it becomes.

I'm not expecting PV to take off until/unless it starts using a less demanding technology. It really needs to drop maybe 90% of its current price to become a viable everyday power source - even assuming a significant drop in demand.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 03:30:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let's study the to be built Victoria PV station, technology choosen being mirrors concentrating sun on small patch of satellite tech PV:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_station_in_Victoria

It is announced at a price of 11.3 USD per installed effective watt (I took fx 1 AUD = 0.83 USD).

Effective watt = wh effectively produced over a year divided by hours in a year, here effective is 20% of rated watt-peak taking into account day/night/clouds/etc... according to their published data.

The published data from Jerome offshore windfarm:

http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2006/10/26/155548/15

378 millions euros for 120 MW peak, 40% load efficiency (from Jerome comment in the discussion) makes it to 10.7 USD per installed effective watt (1 EUR = 1.36 USD).

Price of installed effective watt does not take into account financing and maintenance.

So we have to compare maintenance cost over the next N years of an on-shore bunch of mirrors and off-shore wind farm. And also to compare photovoltaic expected lifetime (we know that old tech lasted 23 years in hostile polluted environment loosing only 10% of output and probably no maintenance at all) and the offshore windfarm lifetime.

Does that make 11.3-10.7=0.6 USD per installed effective watt? I think so.

So all in all I'd say according to published numbers concentrated solar PV can already be cheaper than wind.

by Laurent GUERBY on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 05:27:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Plus we're comparing first of its kind solar plant vs quite mature offshore wind farm technology so it's likely future prices will fall more on the solar side than for offshore wind.
by Laurent GUERBY on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 05:31:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
PV using dedicated silicon wafers is starting about now. These wafers will have way more impurities than VLSI grade wafers, and the PV will go down a bit in yield, but the panels should be much cheaper after a couple of years (like 2-3 times per peak watt I expect). Also, they will be decoupled from VLSI economic cycles (by which production of PV basically stopped whenever their was an expansion of the microchip business, every 3 years or so)

Pierre
by Pierre on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 07:21:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, this is definitely the big next step for PV from an economic standpoint.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Aug 15th, 2007 at 01:23:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
i agree with most of what he says, but also agree with the comment how he's missing an important point: that if the correct amount of support had been given to alt energy and conservation, pv could be made more efficient and yield a higher ROI.

he make a lot of sense with the rest though.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 03:07:01 AM EST
Imagine a world where a trillion dollars had been spent on sustainable R&D instead of on killing people.

It's not as if PV etc are the only options. I'm sure there are more eccentric schemes - algae farming already looks promising - that have potential but need to be developed.

But no. Let's have a war instead. That's a much better idea.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 03:32:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Equating energy use with a moral position (i.e. (ab)use of slaves) is an interesting argument.

I don't agree that slave use dooms civilisation. In fact it's a very practical, if ethically unsupportable, answer to the energy crisis. Slave-based civilisation seem to do just fine - it's usually some external crisis or unchecked internal greed that kills them.

It's possible to imagine a weird quasi-Athenian slave-based 'democracy' that can provide replacement energy once we run out of fossil fuels. I wouldn't be surprised if that's where we end up, collectively.

Which suggest the real problem isn't energy economy, it's psychology and politics - specifically how do you create a political environment that goes beyond Marxists vs Capitalists and values long-sighted sane decisions than short-sighted insane ones?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 05:41:54 AM EST
Equating energy use with a moral position (i.e. (ab)use of slaves) is an interesting argument.

I have seen the argument presented as a simple accounting metaphor for the amount of human/animal energy equivalent of fossil fuel use, without the moral overtones.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Aug 27th, 2007 at 03:50:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This text reminded me of a presentation by Hyman Rickover, titled "Energy resources and our future", delivered in 1957:

Possession of surplus energy is, of course, a requisite for any kind of civilization <...>

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living - a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. It provides the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature, or learning. <...>

A reduction of per capita energy consumption has always in the past led to a decline in civilization and a reversion to a more primitive way of life. <...>

It is a sobering thought that the impoverished people of Asia, who today seldom go to sleep with their hunger completely satisfied, were once far more civilized and lived much better than the people of the West. And not so very long ago, either. <...>

Where slavery represented a major source of energy, its abolition had the immediate effect of reducing energy consumption. Thus when this time-honored institution came under moral censure by Christianity, civilization declined until other sources of energy could be found. Slavery is incompatible with Christian belief in the worth of the humblest individual as a child of God. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and masters freed their slaves - in obedience to the teaching of the Church - the energy base of Roman civilization crumbled. <...> Slavery gradually disappeared throughout the Western world, except in its milder form of serfdom. That it was revived a thousand years later merely shows man's ability to stifle his conscience - at least for a while - when his economic needs are great. Eventually, even the needs of overseas plantation economies did not suffice to keep alive a practice so deeply repugnant to Western man's deepest convictions. <...>

I believe it would be wise to assume that the principal renewable fuel sources which we can expect to tap before fossil reserves run out will supply only 7 to 15% of future energy needs. The five most important of these renewable sources are wood fuel, farm wastes, wind, water power, and solar heat. <...>

The United States is expected to quadruple its population during the 20th Century - from 75 million in 1900 to 300 million in 2000 - and to reach at least 375 million in 2050. This would almost exactly equal India's present population which she supports on just a little under half of our land area. <...>

Merely to supply us with enough water and to carry away our waste products becomes more difficult and expansive daily. More laws and law enforcement agencies are needed to regulate human relations in urban industrial communities and on crowded highways than in the America of Thomas Jefferson.

Certainly no one likes taxes, but we must become reconciled to larger taxes in the larger America of tomorrow. <...>

One final thought I should like to leave with you. High-energy consumption has always been a prerequisite of political power. The tendency is for political power to be concentrated in an ever-smaller number of countries. Ultimately, the nation which control - the largest energy resources will become dominant. <...>



Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.
by marco on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 08:09:34 AM EST
Incidentally, the stuff in that passage about Christianity being responsible for the decline of slavery in the Roman Empire is totally false. There is a lot of stuff on this in 'The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World' by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. In short, the Church accomodated itself to the institution of slavery %100 percent.

I'll dig up some passages if I have time.

by wing26 on Wed Aug 15th, 2007 at 12:16:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i thought robots were going to sort our compulsion to enslave lesser beings...



'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Aug 14th, 2007 at 05:39:49 PM EST


No single change can fix all the problems at once.

True, but one basic philosophical change could make 80% of the problems come into focus. That is the idea that minimizing resource consumption/destruction should be the guiding principle for longevity of any system.

Government is really the System for managing future resources in order to provide for sustainability of the future Commons. Cost of government should be directly proportioned to the consumption of resources, and should not create increased resource consumption (...)

The income tax, the patent system, and the military industrial complex are all philosophically premised upon Manifest Destiny type empire-building and expansion in a world of SEEMINGLY infinite resources.

AS we watch the financial markets melt in the coming weeks, lets reflect upon our own children's needs and what we would like them to create in the future with the resources they will have available, and not allow politicians to blow smoke up our arses about Drug Wars, Abortion debates, Health Insurance for Insurance companies, and Terror Threat Levels while they collect millions of dollars to just keep their mouths shut when the Corporatocracy wants cash funneled into the Bahamas.



In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 15th, 2007 at 01:40:46 PM EST


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