Because The Green New Deal would massively expand fuel-intensive extraction-based production, carbon emissions would continue to increase rapidly. We need a green industrial revolution that is actually green — predominantly hemp-based. Hemp can be turned into more than 50,000 applications, including batteries that outperform lithium, but it also grows quickly, reverses desertification and rapidly draws down CO2 from the atmosphere. Safe, emissions-free, high-energy nuclear is also essential.
The so-called ‘Green’ New Deal is species suicide. It is, in fact, dirty old imperialism. It would massively expand the fuel and heat intensive extractive production of metals in what may be called the ‘neo-colonies’ of Africa, Asia and Latin America. As Asad Rehman of the charity War on Want has written, the scale of new extraction needed “will come to dwarf the current relentless drive for resources that capitalism is built upon”.
The OECD’s Global Resources Outlook to 2060, modelled on an annual 2.8% global growth in GDP, estimates that extracted resources would increase from 79 to 167 billion tonnes, a 111% increase overall, with a 150% increase in metals and a 135% increase in minerals. Resource extraction is responsible for 50% of global emissions, with minerals and metal mining responsible for 20% of emissions even before the manufacturing stage.
In June 2019, Prof Richard Herrington and fellow members of SoS MinErals published an estimate that said meeting the 2050 UK electric car and van targets alone (not including the LGV and HGV fleets) would require almost two times the current total annual global cobalt production, nearly the entire global production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. This is surely suicidal. Clearly, the amount of energy required for all this could keep the fossil fuel industry in business for a while yet….
Not only is extraction-based production energy-intensive, it involves digging up the environment and therefore releasing CO2 presently trapped in nature into the atmosphere. As shown by the Michael Moore film Planet of the Humans, energy produced from logging and deforestation have been rebranded as ‘clean energy’.
As Sid Smith has argued, doubling the size of the economy in its current form, which happens roughly every 20 years under capitalism, would finish off the planet’s atmosphere, guaranteeing human extinction. However, he also argues that the economy is now so large that the expense of doubling the extraction-based energy supply (including solar, wind and lithium) that the system is dependent on is too high for this doubling to be possible. This tallies with my assessment that capitalism is now coming up against a historical limit to accumulation.
We therefore need much more efficient and cleaner ways of producing and consuming energy and the other things we need to produce.
Hemp: the miracle plant
We need to make things to meet human need. New innovtations create new needs. The things we need have to be maintained and, at some stage, replaced. This all requires an enormous amount of material and energy.
What few people seem to be talking about is the fact that most things can be made from fibrous plants — one hell of a renewable material, given that they tend to grow quickly and without having to build and dig enormous mining facilities.
Probably the most versatile and prolific fibrous plant is hemp, which provides food, medicine, fuel and fibre. Hemp can be converted into more than 50,000 applications, including:
‣ anything with an oil base, including paint, varnish, solvent and lubricating oil;
‣ the softest of fabrics that are four times stronger and harder-wearing than cotton, with its antimicrobial properties making it perfect not only for fabric but also as a base for soap and detergent;
‣ sulphur-free charcoal with a heating value equivalent to coal;
‣ biofuel that is up to two-thirds cleaner than petrol and diesel;
‣ paper at a much greater quality and rate than trees;
‣ bioplastic that can be made up to ten times stronger than steel yet lighter than carbon fibre;
‣ highly-insular hempcrete than makes the entire process of constructing and using buildings carbon-negative.
That fibre glass, which has to be heated to 1,371°C, no longer has to be used as a reinforcing component in hemp bioplastic notably reduces emissions alone.
Along with other fibrous plants, such as Kenaf and bamboo, hemp can potentially largely replace the materials that we currently extract from the earth (including trees). (Banana peel can be made into high-performance sodium-ion batteries. Leaves can be turned into solar panels, and much more cleanly than present methods.)
Hemp grows very quickly with little water, making it drought-resistant; heals even the most damaged soil, reversing land degradation and desertification, thanks to its deep areating root system; and draws down CO2 from the atmosphere faster than any other plant. Since it grows tightly packed, nor does it need poisonous pesticides that damage the soil and biodiversity.
Biofuel obviously releases gasses previously trapped in the plant back into the atmosphere when burned. But the unburned products made from hemp sequester the CO2 indefinitely.
A worldwide hemp/plant-based industrial revolution is therefore absolutely essential if we are to reverse desertification and stabilise the climate, and with the added bonuses of furthering technological and industrial advancement and ending pollution, whether plastic or atmospheric.
This is not a call for a hemp monoculture. In 1984 it was estimated that just 6% (90 million acres) of contiguous US land cultivating hemp could supply all current demands for oil and gas while maintaining a neutral carbon system. (‘Coincidentally’ the US government pays farmers not to grow on 6% of the farming land (to keep food prices high and profitable), while another 500m acres of marginal farmland lies fallow.) Clearly the figure would have to be higher than 6% if hemp were also to replace steel, concrete, plastic and lithium, etc. While the economy is now much bigger than in 1984, a lot of what we produce is completely wasteful (bombs, for instance) and are only made to serve the needs of capitalism’s profit-based accumulation. So a hemp monoculture is not necessary.
Mycelium and ‘sky mining’
Other clean, ‘natural’ alternatives exist to mining and extraction.
Mycelium, a type of fungus, can be coaxed, using temperature, CO2, humidity and airflow, to rapidly build fibrous structures for things such as “packaging, clothing, food and construction — everything from leather to plant-based steak to scaffolding for growing organs”; all with minimal (mostly compostable) waste and energy consumption.
Carbon-negative ‘sky diamonds’ that are physically and chemically identical to those mined from the earth can be made by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. Producing a one carat diamond requires the shifting of around 1,000 tonnes of rock and earth, consumes almost 4,000 litres of water, and generates more than 100kg of carbon emissions.
And gold that is ‘golder’ than mined gold can be grown in labs.
Having said all that, there is still a large role for nuclear power to play. Hemp’s energy density rate is about half that of coal’s, whereas nuclear’s is much higher. Pound for pound uranium provides 16,000 times more electricity than coal. Nuclear power must be re-embraced to provide the energy for the large-scale, centralised infrastructure that enables the masses to have access to cheap electricity, water and food.
Before the era of neoliberalism, after 1973, France decarbonised 78% of its electricity in just 13 years by building 54 publicly-owned nuclear power plants. The abandonment of nuclear power has had nothing to do with safety concerns but rather its expensive upfront costs and — because it is long-lasting; there is no inbuilt obscelence involved — unprofitability. Nuclear is much safer than seems to be generally thought. As Leigh Phillips writes:
“Exposure to cosmic rays while taking two transatlantic flights (0.16 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation) is roughly equivalent to the annual exposure of a UK nuclear power station worker (0.18 mSv), which is far less than the annual dose of the average US citizen from all sources (2.7 mSv), or exposure to radiation as a result of one CT chest scan (6.6 mSv) or the average annual dose from radon from the ground experienced by people who live in Cornwall (7.8 mSv). We also know that the new generation of dramatically safer reactors employing passive-safety systems physically cannot melt down, and that safe methods of waste disposal are proven. The amount of waste produced is also tiny compared to that of many other industrial processes, and far less hazardous. Radioactivity also decreases with time, but the danger presented by solar panel production, such as cadmium, mercury and lead pollutants, never goes away. Instead these pollutants bioaccumulate (there is ever greater concentration of the pollutant in an organism) and biomagnify (there is ever greater concentration of the polluting as you move up the food chain). Advanced nuclear power systems can completely recycle used nuclear fuel, actually producing a net positive balance of energy in this process. In a 2014 survey of all energy sources exploring which delivered the least direct harm to biodiversity, nuclear was among the best options, due to its small land and mining footprint. Nuclear has by far the best safety record of any energy source, clocking in at 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour, compared to wind’s 0.15 deaths, solar’s 0.44 deaths, hydroelectric’s 1.4 deaths, oil’s 36 deaths and coal’s 100 death.”
Emmet Penney and Adrián Calderón write in The Bellows:
“Throughout seven decades of service, nuclear power has consistently been proven to be safer than every other mass scale form of energy production. In one year, residents who live near a nuclear power plant are exposed to less radiation than anyone who has eaten a single banana. Though it may sound counterintuitive, because elements such as uranium and plutonium have such long half-lives, the radiation they emit is low enough to safely hold in your hand. Nuclear is also far and away the most reliable form of energy generation in the US, which makes it ideal for providing baseload power for the electrical grid [whereas wind and solar are intemittant due to night time and winter]. Nuclear reactors routinely spend years in continuous operation. The current fleet of nuclear power plants have no technical limits that prevent them from being in service for 80 years, if not a century
… most [nuclear waste] is composed of low-level waste (LLW) made up of protective clothing, cleaning materials, equipment, and tools exposed to neutron radiation. LLW accounts for 90% of nuclear waste by volume but only 1% of its total radioactivity and can be disposed of safely and permanently. After about half a decade of providing carbon-free energy in the reactor core, the uranium fuel itself must be replaced. This high-level waste (HLW) is the highly radioactive and long-living stuff that you see caricatured in popular imagination. Yet this type of waste comprises only 3% of total nuclear waste. To put this in perspective, all of the waste from the entire history of American nuclear power plants can fit within an area the size of a football field, 50 feet high — half the height of a single wind turbine.
“Meanwhile, weather-dependent renewables require 400–450 times the land to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear. Leveling an area of land larger than almost a third of all US states for energy production might be an acceptable compromise to some, but it does not solve the weather-dependent nature of those sources. Further complicating matters is the fact renewable energy must be stored for later, which requires the use of lithium batteries. But the sheer scale of mining and land use required, and the fact that it involves the domination and exploitation of predominantly developing countries, makes the choice not only inefficient, but unethical. With the abundant uranium reserves already in the United States today, we have the capacity to cultivate an industry to domestically fuel our reactors right now.”
The economics of production
So why is the US and the world ramping up the expansion of solar, wind and lithium instead of hemp, mycelium and nuclear? The simple answer is because the former are much more profitable. Why? Because they are far more labour-intensive, since capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour is the sole source of profit. The cheaper the labour, the higher the profit, so US and European capitalists would rather exploit mining workers across their empires than relatively expensive nuclear workers at home.
Fossil fuel has been ideal for capitalism not only because of its high energy density and portability; but because it disappears into thin air once used, and therefore has to be dug up and treated anew by labour. Renewables by contrast, even extracted wind and solar, are only profitable during their production, after which they only have to be switched on and maintained, which involves little to no commodity-production.
It is only now that fossil fuel is becoming unprofitable, because all the best quality fossil fuel has been found and used, coupled with the fact that the industry has become very capital-intensive (due to capitalism’s ever-greater need to raise productivity) that wind and solar, whose prices are rapidly falling, are starting to get a serious look in with investors.
However, the fact that so much extraction and land are needed for wind, solar and lithium compared to nuclear shows that the move towards theses renewables is about extending the lifespan of capitalism, rather than saving the planet.
Capitalism, since it needs by its very nature to continually expand production on an extractive basis, can only continue to accelerate the climate crisis like a runaway train approaching a cliff edge. It really is an extinction cult.
Because actual socialism (socially owned production and services) creates value based not on exploitation but on utility — something’s use-value, or usefulness — it is not, unlike capitalism, absolutely dependent on extraction or economic growth.
Whereas capital only employs people when it is profitable to do so, a socialist state employs people according to human need, enabling real full, formal employment, a shorter working week, and much higher and consistent productivity. Such a system would therefore be able to afford to transition away from extractive production, since all labour would become productive of exchange-value, not just commodity-production.
Under socialism we could transition away from fossil fuels and metal mining to hemp, mycelium and nuclear, the latter of which are not labour intensive to produce or maintain. Hemp is renewable to the point of being self-seeding and processing it is relatively non-labour-intensive as well, making it a relatively cheap and unprofitable resource. This combined with its versatility, making it a such a threat to extraction-based industries, is the reason it has been under-utilised and prohibited. Given that hemp means ‘useful’, it seems socialism and hemp are made for each other.
We could also build things to last, rather than with inbuilt obsolescence. The emergence of 3D-printing and lab-grown food also means we have the potential to make much production increasingly ‘local’, drastically cutting down emissions from international trade and intensive farming.
With computers and gadgetry getting smaller and smaller, production could also potentially move increasingly underground, freeing up yet more land for CO2 sequestion and enviromental revival. With so much fallow land in need of revival, there is plenty or room for increasing hemp production without needing a hemp monoculture. Africa could be key — an industrial hemp revolution could reverse the continent’s desertification and, with its great land mass, turn it into the ‘workshop of the world’, making it the powerhouse of world socialism.
Whereas capitalism needs continual growth based on finite resources, socialism is planned on a break-even basis, meaning the size of the economy does not have to grow. If it is based on clean, renewable resources, growth would certainly be much less of an issue, and may indeed be part of the solution, given that the more CO2 we sequester in hemp products and the more nuclear replaces fossil fuel, the better.
But we would be able to make sure economic growth (which is also necessary to end poverty) happens slower than nature’s ability to replenish itself, which isn’t currently the case.
Stopping people from ‘overconsuming’ can be encouraged and incentivised but ultimately it cannot be enforced (especially as the state withers away under world socialism). People will always strive for higher living standards and innovation. What can be done is to use resources more efficiently through communal forms of living (to be incentivised and carefully planned to embrace privacy and individuality).
The Soviet Union, China and Cuba
The Soviet Union and socialist China had rathermixed environmental records. For all the bad aspects environmentally, though, there were many, many good things about the Soviet Union.
But because the Soviet Union had to trade with capitalist countries, it never got to the stage where it could fully plan its economy or abolish money. It also had to continually update its military capacity in order to be able to defend itself from capitalist invasions and nuclear bombs, and could only do so with materials of production that dominated the world market at that time. Nor was technology as advanced as it is now, of course — we had to go through the chemistry revolution to get to where we are going now, for instance. It’s a similar story with China, whether or not it can still be considered socialist.
It is going to take world socialism to save the planet’s habitability, especially since the countries with the most land will need to supply other countries around the world with hemp and other fibrous plants.
Cuba, though, is already considered the most sustainably developing country in the world, largely due to its urban agriculture. It even has the world’s healthiest bees, which seem to be dying out everywhere else.
While hemp cannot do everything, it can do a lot (this summary only skims the surface, and much more research is of course needed, since prohibition has severely limited research and development). We may or may not be able to abolish metal mining entirely, and it will have to be a transition, but it can be reduced to the bare minimum. Mining for metals that can’t be replaced by fibrous plants could be powered by emissions-free nuclear instead of fossil fuel.
Clearly other things need to happen as well to save the planet. Where possible some devices should return to analog. Does everybody really need an electric doorbell, for example? We may need filtration systems to help de-pollute the air. Hydrogen power, which enables much faster charging than lithium and is more suitable for longer distances and transporting freight; and thorium-based nuclear fusion, which is even less radioactive; will be options to consider. The prospect of space-based solar power and the related wireless transmission, meaning solar can be ‘collected’ without the intermitency of night or winter, is also very promising.
Among the practices that socialist states of the future should almost definitely scale up are hydroponics, permaculture farming and ‘carbfixing’ (dissolving CO2 in water and injecting it into basaltic rocks; again not being done on a large scale because there’s no profit in it; there is no mass commodity being produced).
Socialism or extinction
That none of these arguments are currently being made on mainstream platforms is alarming to say the least given the dire state of the climate crisis. With the arctic sea ice disappearing, releasing the carbon sequestered inside, it is clear that 1 degree of heating was too much, let alone 1.5 or 2.
Most people are being denied the truth about what needs to be done. We urgently need to spread this knowledge and build an unstoppable, international movement for socialism.
Ted Reese is author of Socialism or Extinction: Climate, Automation and War in the Final Capitalist Breakdown