Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Saving energy, and economic imperialism

I don't know who is conning who, but with all the talk about energy conservation there is a serious con' going on. There is talk of taxing aviation fuel, there are constant exhortations for us to use low energy lightbulbs, use energy efficient cars etc etc and so on. But while energy is in the hands of private business, who, we should bear in mind, have a legal responsibility to maximise profits for their shareholders, who really believes that the energy companies want us to use less? I certainly don't. Of course they all want us to use more and more. That's why they are building windfarms all over the Scottish Isles and the North Sea.

Sorry, but this is unacceptable. There is only one way of making us all conserve energy, and that is to nationalise it, and price it to ensure that the most polluting and inefficient sources cost the most. There are, of course problems with this approach of increasing price -- inevitably the poorer sections of society will be the hardest hit, but there are ways around this problem. But what is very clear to me is that the free market economy will simply encourage us all to use as much energy as it can. And if we don't use it in Britain or America, we'll simply import goods made with cheap, polluting energy from Asia.

We are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole, because we imagine (or politicians have conned us into believing) that quality of life is improved by having low taxes and all commodities as cheap as possible. The con' is that under low taxation, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer -- a gap that has widened significantly in my lifetime. Efficiency has become equated with cost. Just because it is cheaper for a council to privatise the street cleaning does not mean it is efficient. There are many ways of measuring efficiency, and in a wealthy society we should include quality of life and several other factors. It can be 'efficient' to cut down a mangrove forest if you own it, because you can make a quick profit, and then reinvest in something else. But is this efficient for the rest of the inhabitants of the region, who then get swept away by the next tsunami?

A couple of months ago I met with Pete Taylor, who worked for the WLT a few years ago, setting up the Focus on Forests website. Since then Pete has worked with Friends of the Earth, and is now working for the World Development Movement (WDM) on their website. I had a good lock at their website, and there are several parts of it which will have resonance with some of my readers -- they certainly struck a chord with me.

Unlike most of the big development agencies, WDM does not receive large amounts of its funding from DFID, or other government agencies, and consequently is able to criticise, when criticism is justified. The following following link is a fairly alarming report:

The British Government, it appears, is spending £30 million on encouraging poor countries to privatise their water companies. With predictions that the next major wars will be fought over water resources, this could be viewed as a very cynical attempt to recolonise the poorer nations. Imperial colonisation may have passed into history, but economic colonisation is alive and well -- just look at the spread of CocaCola and McDonalds. But it is scary when funding ostensibly intended as aid, is used to encourage such economic colonialism.

I confess a total dislike of the very concept of private ownership of resources such as energy and water. They should be a common heritage and managed for the benefit of the commonweal. They should not be used to line the pockets of a few investors and speculators. They are also the prime example of how when profits for the shareholders are claimed to equate with efficiency, other benefits are ignored. Which is easy to do, when you have an de facto monopoly. I have never ever really heard a convincing argument for privatising water supplies, for instance. Our local water companies have changed hands several times, but it's still the same water coming through the pipes, the only difference seems to be that different groups of shareholders have taken some of the profits that could have been used to repair the leaks in the system and help conserve water. And how energy efficient is it when French electrical engineers come all the way to East Anglia to repair cabling, because the company is owned by French shareholders? (as happened locally last month).

If governments are going to be serious about energy and natural resource conservation, they are going to have to think very seriously indeed about privatisation, because in many cases privatisation of such resources is incompatible with conservation. I recall having the basics of this explained to me in the early 1970s, when I was part of a team working of the Whale manual for Friends of the Earth. Under any competitive industry regime, it was not 'efficient' to conserve whales. It was in the interests of the investors to exterminate them as rapidly as it was compatible with profit margins, and certainly in the lifetime of equipment used to exterminate them..... but that's another story.

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