Thursday, July 19, 2012

(There ain’t no) green jobs

Jobs, or rather the lack of, have been a major issue during the last French elections. This is hardly surprising as mass unemployment has been a fact of life in France for a whole generation. Unemployment rates have begun to climb during the late seventies and have hoovered between eight and ten percent since then. Of course the real figure is probably higher. Like its American and British counterparts, the French government will do anything in its power to lower the unemployment statistics, including sending people into pointless vocational courses so as to get them off the official unemployment rolls.

It is no wonder, therefore, that most political discussions in France revolve around jobs, how to create them, how to keep them and what to do with those who can’t get any. The value of a policy is measured by the number of jobs it creates or destroys. It is why, for instance, the main French union (the CGT) supports nuclear energy : it provides a lot of (unsafe) jobs.

Of course, should only one reactor undergo a catastrophic meltdown, a significant part of the country would be definitely out of job. The very concept of catastrophic meltdown being unfrench, however, this is nothing to worry about.

It is no wonder either that everybody’s political programs focus on how to create jobs. The communists want to create jobs by making everyone a civil servant of sort. The socialists want to create jobs by subsidizing them, but they presently can’t because they don’t have the money. The moderate right wants to give more money to those who already have a lot of it in the hope that it will somehow trickle down, not that it matters very much if it doesn’t. The National Front wants to hunker down behind barbed wires, which should somehow create jobs, Muslim people need not apply.

As for the Greens, they want to create green jobs, a lot of them, preferably through generous state subsidies. Make no mistake, those green jobs does not involve growing green things. The group the Greens represent, namely the enlightened upper middle class, wants reasonably well paid and prestigious jobs, and herding sheep in central Brittany definitely doesn’t qualify.

Jobs are remarkably close to niches in a non-human ecosystem, which is hardly surprising since human societies basically work like simplified ecosystems in which the dominant species, as well as some of its parasites / symbionts / commensals, can assume a high number of roles.

And as you know, the maximum number of niches a given ecosystem can support depends upon the energy inflow it gets from its environment.

To understand how this relates to human societies, it is necessary to go back to pre-revolutionary France and to one of the first economic schools, the Physiocrats. The Physiocrats, the best known of whom were François Quesnay and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, believed that agriculture was the only source of wealth, and that this wealth, produced in the fields, was then distributed among the three classes of the society, namely the peasants, the land-owners and what they called the “sterile class”, which included craftsmen and traders.
Of course, such an analysis was extremely subversive in a country where the nobility was forbidden to work. The Physiocrats favored enlightened despotism and their main model was Qing China, with its class of scholar-bureaucrats, who were also agrarian landlords, and its absolute monarch who could impose his will on his Empire without burdening himself with such technicalities as the rule of law.

Needless to say, they were opposed at every corner by both the nobility, which wanted to retain its old privileges, and by the bourgeoisie, which was not interested in becoming a “sterile class” under the thumb of a Chinese style bureaucracy. Despite a few successes, such as the ministry of Turgot, from 1774 to 1776, they failed to impose their views and quickly become irrelevant when their enemies forced the king to convoke the Estates General in 1789.

They were right, however, in viewing the production of goods and services as mere consumption of the agricultural surplus, provided we consider the agricultural surplus as a proxy for energy surplus, which it was in 1774 France. Even though they also used wind and hydraulic power, pre-industrial societies were totally dependent upon solar energy. They captured it by growing plants, which transformed it into various nutriments human and animal muscles used to produce (not necessarily useful) work.

Starting with the early XIXth century, we have replaced chlorophyl-mediated solar energy by fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and gas. This has enabled us to create huge surplus of energy and to buy ourselves a lifestyle which would have made His Majesty Louis XVI white with envy. This has not changed the nature of our economy, however, the production of goods and services is still a consumption. The only difference is that the surplus is no longer provided by peasants. Those no longer produce energy, they transform fossil fuels into food and are therefore no different from your average industry worker.

Those that produce the energy surplus the rest of us is using, are, mostly, coal miners and workers of the oil and gas industry. The sterile class comprises all those who provide good and services, as for the land owner class... well, there is no shortage of kleptocrats. Of course, the boundary between the kleptocrats and the providers of goods and services is somewhat blurred. If your average Wall Street trader or big shareholder is doubtlessly a kleptocrat any responsible government should fiscally bludgeon to death, it is an open question whether the fashion designers or fake artists who cater to their needs are lesser kleptocrats or providers of much needed services.

What is sure is that jobs are a cost for a society, a necessary cost, but a cost nevertheless. As our ability to extract resources and energy from our environment declines, so will our ability to fund high diversified highly specialized jobs – exactly the kind of jobs the Greens want to create.

Of course, you can expect anybody with a minimum of political clout to fight to make sure it will be some other guy’s job that will be sacrificed. The kleptocrats are already doing that, but they are hardly alone. All organized groups are using unions and political parties to preserve their interests.

That is what the clamoring and pleading for green jobs amounts to : an attempt by parts of the industrial establishment and of the upper middle class to secure their position within the society through overt or covert public subsidies, and an attempt by the same groups to legitimize their resource grabbing operation by promising a lot of people (and nature) will benefit from it.

Needless to say, subsidizing solar panels in Brittany (to take an example I know well), whether it be through tax cuts or by buying the electricity thus produced at a guaranteed, and rather high, price, is pure unadulterated greenwashing. In fact, any energy source which relies on state subsidies to remain viable is likely to be an energy sink as well as a scheme by some industry guys to divert public money their way.

This does not mean there are no sustainable jobs to be created, but they are unlikely to be green or to be supported by the green establishment. They won’t cater to the needs of the wealthy and probably won’t give much prestige to those who will do them. They belong to the realm of appliance reparation, second hand trade, home (cheap) refurbishing, local manufacturing and of course domestic production, far, very far away from the costly glittering of the solar panels and of the Parisian salons.


  1. Depressing, but you're probably right.

    1. Well, its only depressing if you consider material affluence to be indispensable to a meaningful life. Fortunately it is not a necessity.

  2. When it is all said and done, that last paragraph will be 100% correct.

    1. In fact, I already see it emerging in my own (working class) city. Don't tell it to the Greens, however.

  3. As a so called unemployed domestic worker and artist, I'd quite like the odd solar panel but it is waaaay out of our reach.

    I think we need to rethink exactly what it is that we need to make us happy (not rich in monetary terms) and a part of whatever ecosystem we live in. Small scale, not large and as low impact as possible.

    Utopia - a dream of course.

    viv in nz

    1. Knutty knitter, it is no wonder that solar panels are so costly : they have a very low EROEI and most of the time don't pay for themselves.

      As for living within the limits set by nature... we'll have to learn to do it if we want to survive, as the Maori did after their moa hunting rampage.

      Unfortunately, at this stage, it will be the hard way.

  4. It's not so different here in sunny Australia. The Greens (which are the third party here) are the party of the socially conscious upper-middle class. Whatever some individual members of the Greens may think, the vast majority want the same things as your French greens: solar cells on each house with the sale of electricity to the grid hugely subsidised, lots of "green" consultants jobs for them and their children and someone else to pay for it all.

    The working classes are terrified of losing their jobs to lower-cost migrants and so there is a huge campaign against "boat people": undocumented arrivals from war-torn places. This has been jumped on by lots of the more creepy power-mongers in our society who have a rabid press campaign up and running forcing the two major political parties into outbidding each other for the reputation of the cruelest policies towards asylum seekers. This is despite the fact that the numbers involved are miniscule.

    Australia is a flea on the back of the Chinese economic dog, growing fat on the blood of its host. We actually have no really serious unemployment at the moment. The fun will start when the Chinese stop buying our minerals.

    1. Lloyd, I don't think China will stop buying your minerals in the near future. After all, it need them. Such a special relationship comes with a price, however.

      As for the Greens, they are the ultimate liberals, in both the original and the modern sense of the word. They may pay lip service to community, but what they value is prosperity, hedonism and good feeling.

      Migrations are a complex issue, which has been regularly used by politicians for their own, egoistical purposes. Have a look, for instance, at the Chinese Exclusion Act in America.

      In favorable circumstances, even a small number of immigrants can subvert a country (or I would be writing this in Welsh), but even large numbers of immigrants can be integrated within the local culture, provided a place is made for them (or Greece would be a Slavic country by now). In all cases, of course, xenophobia is a self-defeating strategy