The economies of the developed countries are built on waste and cheap energy. The waste takes many forms, including pollution, greenhouses gases, resources used once and then buried, topsoil loss, planned obsolescence, and the diversion of capital to wasteful businesses in the form of subsidies. The cheap energy, of course, has largely been coal and oil, and those days are coming to an end. China, India, and the other developing nations cannot afford this waste-based economy, and must leapfrog us straight to the new green economy.
Saying the economy of the developed world is enormously wasteful is another way of saying that it is grossly inefficient. Any country that eliminates this waste and inefficiency gains a significant competitive advantage. This will become exponentially more true as carbon pollution is priced into goods one-way-or-another, and as the cost of transportation and manufacturing increases with the price of oil. Such a country will also be cleaner and her citizens healthier – both of which also translate to competitive advantage.
China, India, and other developing countries can build coal plants and highways, and they can model their buildings, cities, infrastructure, and economy after our own, but that would be a huge mistake. Most people have pulled their heads out of wherever they had them stuck and realise that the price of oil is going to go up, and that oil is going to become progressively more difficult to come by for reasons both geological and political. Even ignoring pollution and global warming, there simply is not enough oil for the billions in the developing world to own gas-powered cars.
A Day in the Life
Really, just an hour in the morning:
Electric alarm (with battery for backup) goes off, and Mr. Westerner rolls reluctantly out of bed to take a shower.
- The electricity travels hundreds of kilometres through high-voltage transmission lines from a coal-fired generating station. A very large percentage of the energy contained in that coal is lost somewhere along the way and never makes it to the house, and of course the mining operation itself requires huge energy inputs.
- The battery (likely long-since dead) will be thrown ‘away’ when Mr. W realizes its state. All the energy used to extract the materials for the battery, and to manufacture and distribute it, is lost when the battery is thrown into the garbage. So are all the valuable metals and chemicals, which now become toxic waste in the landfill. The landfill itself is a huge cost to create and maintain, and eventually to attempt to stop the toxins leaking from it.
- Mr. W’s shower uses lots more wastefully generated and transmitted energy, of course, and W thinks nothing of the energy contained in the hot water swirling down the drain. The water is heated one-way-or-another by fossil fuel, and stored in a poorly insulated tank. The shower stall is fibreglass, a temporary use of oil before it too becomes toxic landfill.
- At some point W uses the toilet, flushing away many litres of expensively purified water suitable for drinking. If today is washing day, the sheets on the bed go into the laundry, using more drinking water and polluting cleaning chemicals. Some day, the washing machine and dryer will join everything else in the dump, the metals they contain once again buried.
- W’s food comes from all over the world: lettuce from California, oranges from Florida, kiwis flown in from New Zealand. The eggs are almost local, but all the food is produced on industrial-scale farms which would collapse without massive fossil fuel inputs; nitrogen fertilizer comes from natural gas, and most pesticides are petroleum-based.
At this point, Mr. W is only up to breakfast and it should be clear that billions of Chinese and Indians are not going to be air-freighting kiwis from New Zealand or lettuce from California. There isn’t enough land or oil, and they won’t have enough money to outbid rich Westerners. And certainly billions of Chinese and Indians are not going to be hopping in their shiny new 320-hp SUVs to commute to work every day on eight-lane highways.
There just isn’t enough for everyone to live that way. There isn’t enough land to grow all the food needed, for example, even if we clear the rainforests and virtually every other speck of land on the planet, which we are doing. There isn’t enough oil for all those cars and factory farms. Long before the last Chinese or Indian gets his sirloin steak flown in from Australia, the ecology that supports all this will have collapsed and the resources run out.
The only sensible thing for the developing countries to do is to leapfrog us, both economically and technologically. They cannot develop as we did without destroying themselves and the planet – and there simply isn’t enough anyway. The further and faster they go down the Western dead end, the bigger the impact when they hit the limits.
American-style capitalism is not a viable economic solution, as clearly evidenced by the ongoing disasters it produces and the corruption it brings to politics. Capitalism inevitably devolves to Crony Capitalism, where the wealthiest increasingly pervert the economic and political system to serve themselves at the expense of everyone else. When the government attempts to prevent these abuses, the wealthy turn their sights on the government, and the U.S. Congress is now the most corrupt democratically-elected body on the planet.
Marxist-Leninist-style communism is also not viable; it has turned into murderous dictatorships wherever it has been tried. And, to be fair, it also is massively wasteful and polluting; vast areas of the former Soviet Union are polluted beyond human use and China is fighting desertification and skyrocketing cancer rates due to industrial pollution.
Both economic systems place man apart from and above nature; the assumption is that we can do what we want with nature and gain only benefit, forever. Reality has caught up with this belief and is in the process of correcting it.
The New Green Economy
China, India, and other developing countries must learn from the failed experiments of capitalism and communism. These countries must chart their own path to an extent to a new green economy. I will explain the green economy in more detail in another post; suffice it to say here that it is:
- Zero waste; everything is an input for something else, exactly the way nature works. That could mean that washing machines are returned to the manufacturer, as Germany requires, which then reuses the materials. It could also mean that ‘plastic’ shopping bags are actually biodegradable, for example. The new green economy is a Cradle to Cradle economy, meaning there is no such thing as pollution.
- Sustainable; economic activities do not degrade the environment, people’s health, or the political system. An industrial or farming activity can be carried on indefinitely with no harm – in fact, with benefit – to the environment that is the foundation of the economy.
The New Green Technology
There are countless ‘green’ solutions; we don’t implement them primarily because vested interests prevent it. These blocks to innovation and greater efficiency come in many forms, but the largest are subsidies and favourable laws. Canada’s tar sands are ‘cheaper’ than wind and solar because the pollution the tar miners are largely free to pollute and because we provide very large subsidies and tax breaks. The Canadian federal government alone gives $1.6B annually to tar miners. The British Columbia government this year will give oil and gas companies $320M.
The Chinese and Indians can only afford these kinds of subsidies if they divert valuable foreign currency. This would be foolish and unnecessary.
The West was supposed to develop green technology and transfer it to the developing countries, but vested interests and crooked politicians have kept us on the same dirty, dead-end road, so the developing countries will have to do it largely on their own.
Waste Not, Want Not
The first solution is simply conservation. For example, build houses that require no net input of energy for heating or cooling. Such houses exist already. Make these houses out of local, largely free materials. Adobe and earthen houses have been around for over a thousand years, they last literally forever if maintained, they provide excellent thermal mass for passive solar heating, and are built out of the dirt excavated for the foundation. Solutions like this actually save money.
Developing nations typically have lots of manpower but little money. Building earthen houses is one way to put people to work and chop energy use for house building and heating to near-zero.
We used to reuse things like glass bottles, but for the most part we now throw them ‘away’ and make new ones out of plastic – which is, of course, oil. The developing countries would be wise to do what we used to do: reuse bottles and jars. If people are going to the supermarket to buy groceries, they can take back the empties. Or, we can replace garbage trucks with resource recovery trucks. Imagine all those very valuable containers and metals that can be recovered at curbside, rather than mined and processed at great expense of energy and money.
The potential energy and cost savings from conservation are truly enormous. For example, recycling aluminium uses 5% of the energy required to extract and form mined material. Houses can be net contributors to the grid. Reusing glass containers slashes energy requirements.
More astronomical savings are possible simply by making communities walkable. If people can walk to work, shopping, recreation, school, and so on, the need for a personal vehicle is eliminated. When you consider that many Canadians and Americans could work a four-day week if they were not supporting a car or two, that is a tremendous burden to bear. Add in the health costs due to engine pollution (asthma rates among children are now nearly 30% in Canada, for example, largely attributed to diesel engines and soot), the health costs due to accidents, policing costs, road costs, and so on, and the savings add up to much lower taxes.
Furthermore, if walking is supplemented by mass transit and covered downtowns (also called “malls”), then cars can be eliminated entirely. If China and India each forgo 1,000,000,000 cars (the US averages 765 cars per 1,000 people), all the money that would have been spent on cars, roads, trauma centres, police, etc is freed up for productive purposes. It also drastically reduces China’s and India’s need for the energy and raw materials to make those cars, and the oil to power them. When you consider that 95% of a car’s energy is to move the car, and only 5% for the human inside, this is a great reduction in waste.
Once the energy requirements have been slashed to a minimum, then determine the amount of energy required – and generate that energy renewably. You don’t want to end up dependent upon foreign energy in any form; look where that led the United States.
Self-reliance for Necessities
Thanks to free-market fanatics, the idea of a nation being self-sufficient for necessities has become passé. However, it is foolish to rely upon foreign countries for the necessities of life. Nothing starts a revolution faster than hungry bellies. And as mentioned just previously, being dependent upon other countries for something your country must have leads to attempts to ‘secure national interests,’ a euphemism for ‘take by force.’
Don’t Do What We Say or Do
China and India cannot industrialize and develop the same way the developed nations did. There are not enough resources of all kinds, from energy to land to various raw materials. On top of that, the environment upon which any economy must be based will not sustain even one more United States-sized wastrel, never mind two the size of China and India.
Developing countries must chart their own path. The developed countries should have been leading the way to greater prosperity and security for all, by developing clean and green technologies and passing them along to the developing countries. However, due to corruption in our corporate-political system, we have not even developed these things for ourselves.
Our foolishness does not justify another nation making the same mistakes. If anything, you should be learning from our errors and crafting a sustainable and stable economy that uses minimal energy and generates zero waste and pollution.