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The Guilt of Capitalism

This essay appeared as a review of Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Connor, Who Owns the Sun? (1996) in Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 2 (June 1997): 60-61.

Though it is neither written nor marketed as such, Who Owns the Sun? by researcher/activists Daniel Berman and John O’Connor, is a devastating indictment of capitalism. As it has developed in the last two centuries, this system is an enormous user of energy, most of it derived from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). An additional—and in some parts of the world increasing—source is nuclear fission. Both of these forms of energy are dangerous and environmentally destructive to life on the planet. Burning fossil fuels generates almost all of the greenhouse gasses that have already begun to change the planet’s climate and, if continued at anywhere near the present rates, will trigger a chain reaction of lethal disasters, not in some vaguely distant future but in the next century or so—historically a relatively short span of time. Nuclear fission leaves a legacy of radioactive waste that cannot now, or perhaps ever, be safely disposed of. Clearly if humanity, not to speak of other forms of life, is to have a future, nothing could be more important than phasing out these sources of energy. So much, I believe, is what can be appropriately called ecological common sense.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is an available, renewable, and unlimited source of energy to take the place of fossil fuels and nuclear fission: solar power. This is truly not only in theory but also—given the present state of our scientific knowledge and technological knowhow—in practice. (Berman and O’Connor provide a wealth of evidence to this effect.)

Why, then, are we not already living in the period of transition from a proven deadly to a proven safe form of energy production?

The short answer is capitalism—and this is in two complementary senses. First, in capitalist society power is in the hands of capitalists and their acolytes. They cannot be assumed to be ignorant of the energy situation and the dangers it portends for the future. Yet they have never used that power to take remedial action. Second, when faced with the energy crises of the 1970s and the widespread popular reaction, they did their best to confuse the real issues and limited themselves to making soothing promises which they promptly forgot—and obviously never intended to honor—when things calmed down. (Again Berman and O’Connor provide a wealth of confirming evidence.) By the late 1980s what had seemed to be a snowballing popular movement for an energy new deal was effectively scotched and by now is hardly more than a fading memory.

Capital won that battle hands down. But the issue will not go away. As the catastrophes of environmental degradation unfold, the need for an energy revolution will become increasingly obvious and urgent. In Who Owns the Sun? Berman and O’Connor have made a straightforward, hard-hitting contribution to the understanding of the issue and, by implication, of the lessons to be learned from the rich experience of the last few decades: an energy revolution is both possible and necessary, but it will be achieved only as part of a broader revolution that takes power away from capital and puts it in the hands of the people where it belongs.

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