Even Green Growth Has Limits

Many media outlets have reported the 11% decline in the 2014 Thanksgiving/Black Friday/CyberMonday retail sales. Analysts had looked at the low fuel prices and supposedly recovering economy and, according to Business Insider, had predicted, “the biggest holiday shopping season of all time.”

We did venture out on Saturday to buy toilet paper, soap and a few groceries. There wasn’t much traffic. We also dropped into Best Buy to find a replacement battery for our UPS – they don’t carry those anymore – and saw more saleskids than customers. We dropped by Lowes to buy some window shades and it seemed similarly empty.

One would think that lower spending was clearly a sign of a poorer economy, but a facebook post by Occupy Democrats claimed the drop as a victory for the anti-WalMart protestors. Business Insider, however, noted that WalMart actually reported record sales over the holidays and blamed the drop on those pre-Thanksgiving sales taking away from traditional Black Friday sales by other retailers. Other mainstream articles theorized that since buyers had more money they had more options, and were therefore less interested in taking the first sales that came along, which was of course belied by WalMart’s figures. And round and round.

The Automatic Earth – who I follow on facebook – and Zero Hedge made merry of the MSM’s attempts at reassuring explanations … but a later Zero Hedge article quoted the Wall Street Journal at length to the effect that many consumers are spending on necessities rather than discretionary stuff. So it may be that those people that do still have a few dollars are using them for all the big purchases they have been putting off instead of buying cheap electronics and other gewgaws.

In support of the necessities explanation, one retail sector that did improve was auto sales – especially trucks. Lower gas prices may have convinced Billy Bob to trade in that twelve-year-old rustbed for a shiny new truck. Over Thanksgiving leftovers I asked our favorite contractor whether the new Ford F-150’s aluminum body was a plus or a minus. He didn’t mention the increased fuel efficiency of a lighter weight vehicle. Instead he thought the idea of a non-rusting body was great, but was concerned that it might cost too much. I gather he’d buy one if he could swing it.

Wouldn’t that be a good thing, or at least a better thing? Would getting Billy Bob to buy an electric truck be even better? Or a hydrogen truck?

A lot of liberals think getting people to buy greener products is the solution to energy depletion and climate change, but the more severe environmental pundits charge that liberals are only fooling themselves by thinking we can continue the current paradigms if we only buy that electric or hydrogen car and put solar panels on that McMansion.

In a Counterpunch article from last summer, Why Green Capitalism Will Fail, Pete Dolack observes:

Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. …

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Another Counterpunch article, How Green Is the Green New Deal? ran about a month later. Don Fitz attacked the four horsemen of Green Revolution, Green Capitalism, Green Economy and Green New Deal (GND) as nothing more than greenwashed versions of the growth paradigm:

A central fallacy of advocating “truly green” products is the belief that purchasing them would mean that non-green objects are not purchased. This tends not to happen. Take transportation. Moving in an environmental direction requires less reliance on cars. Thus, an increased devotion to bikes. But this does not mean that fewer cars are being manufactured. As people travel more, bicycles are not replacing cars, but are being used in addition to cars.

This happens throughout Green Capitalism. At best, “green” commodities replace non-green commodities while perpetuating the belief that happiness comes from purchasing objects. But often, they merely create new, additional green markets to aid the overall growth of capitalism. Solar/wind devotees often mock eco-hustlers selling “green” cars to park in “green” McMansions. But their faith in solar/wind power reflects the same belief that purchasing the correct object can substitute for massive social change. “Green consumerism” is the flip side of “green capitalism.” The purchaser still advocates that individual consumer choices can solve environmental problems. …

The Green Revolution, Green Capitalism, and the Green Economy each claimed that economic growth was necessary when it was not. Based on expanding the market economy, each one failed to solve the problem it defined, and, in fact, made the problem worse. For each there was an alternative solution which was not based on economic growth that could have coped with the problem without exacerbating environmental crises. …

Like the New Deal of the 1930s, a GND might temporarily slow unemployment, which would then increase. It would lead directly into Wars for the Conquest of Green Territories, not because of bad decisions by individual leaders but because war would be inherent in the growth dynamics of corporate environmentalism.

That’s the really scary thing that’s been bugging me since last year’s Age of Limits. I think often about a quote from Dune Messiah:

“When a creature has developed into one thing, he will choose death rather than change into his opposite.” – Scytale

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