Work, Energy, Money And Climate Change



I was travelling in Europe last month, and was very disappointed by what I saw and heard. There is a lack of unity between Western workers and the workers of the world. The gap between the prosperity of a few highly professionalised workers in the West who are more and more aligned with the capitalists and managers, and the rest of us, has unfortunately increased in recent years. One way to find a new unity among workers is to explain again the mathematics of social and ecological destruction and how the failures of capitalism concern even the highest paid workers, and indeed even the bosses.

Work: The ability to do work and is common to all living things. A human being consumes 2500 kilocalories of energy a day from plant and animal matter. Expressed in Watts for an easy comparison with electricity for example, it allows a person to do 2500 kilocalories / 860 kilocalories = 2.9 kWh of work per day. As there are 24 hours a day a living breathing person is expending 121 Watt per day to live. Living can mean such things as idly consuming or producing information from or for the internet, operating weapons of mass destruction, or it can be digging a field, climbing a tree, making love, or sleeping. The work can be done using machines run on commercial energy, or it can bethe work of looking after children, families, or natural forests that live and grow in ecosystems. Work that does not involve commercial energy is much more likely to contribute to a social system that contributes to balanced carbon cycles of sequestration and release of carbon dioxide. Even if in the long run there may be ecological degradation, it takes much longer to degrade an ecosystem if the group has only the physical work of its members at its disposal.

Unlike capitalist production based on herding workers into machine rooms, it takes much skill and love and patience to create and maintain associations of independent producers who support each other to do manual work in a productive and non-destructive metabolism with nature.

Commercial energy: A litre of diesel has an energy value of 16700 kilocalories. Thus a litre of diesel mined from the earth displaces the work of 16700 kilocalories /2500 kilocalories = 6.67 person days.

Money: Under capitalism a litre of diesel is valued at around Rs 60, or let us say one Swiss Frank / United States Dollar / European Euro / UK Pound. So if a capitalist has to pay more than 1 SFr / 6.67 = 15 cents/10 Indian Rupees for a day of the work of a person, she is better off paying a machine that runs on diesel to get the work done.


Climate change: 1 litre of diesel when burnt emits 2.6 kg of carbon dioxide. Combined with the damage to flora and fauna at the place where fossil fuels are extracted, the damage to ecology of mining and burning coal and petroleum products has resulted in an average global temperature rise on earth of 1.63 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. The Sam Carana website and others pessimistically calculate that under adverse combinations of all parameters and combined with feedback factors, the temperature rise from burning fossil fuels may be ten degree Celsius by 2026. Others agree, with discussions focused on the contribution of each of the various elements causing temperature rise directly and due to feedback effects. The majority of predictions, however, mention lower values, but the alarm at what is already happening is very great amongst all common people, policy makers and scientists.

Much can be said about these numbers and the relationship between work, energy, money and climate change. For example, trade unions and professional bodies have successfully managed to raise the wages of those workers who handle machines on behalf of capitalists to a level above the natural wage as calculated above. Or, commercial energy can be renewable and does not cause climate change. All this, and its significance, can be debated. For example, renewable energy technologies can be manufactured with renewable energy, but certainly not under capitalismnor in the short time frame set by the feedback effectsin the climate system that are already happening. Worst of all, under the present system, there is overwhelming evidence that renewable energy is simply being used to produce products not really needed for human consumption and at the same time they cause the emission of carbon dioxide when produced, distributed and used.

No man-made energy conversion system, whether renewable energy technology, fossil fuelsor nuclear energy can do the work of ecological processes which functionas part of the natural ecology that human beings are intended for. When we do manual work and look after other living things, when we live and die as joyous workers using only our hands and bodies to engage with all other living things around us, we contribute to the ecological wealth of which all living things are a part. When we use commercial energy we are cranking the global heat machine.

Conclusion: 80% of us live by doing manual labour. In the interest of human survival and the survival of the remaining plants and animals, we must refuse to work on machines running on commercial energy, whether such machines are computers or car assembly robots let alone weapons of war. We must unite to overthrow the system which gives overwhelming priority to the growth of private property of capitalists and focus on the social, cultural, material means to do peaceful physical work on the land.

The best kind of physical work involves building up soil, growing food, and supporting the natural cycle of carbon sequestration and release in natural forests and other natural ecosystems of which we are a part. It involves, for example, swimming in the oceans and catching fish. Whether you call it the landscape approach, as biodiversity conservationists do, or land redistribution like landless labourers, or de-growth, or revolution, it all amounts to the same thing. We must overthrow capitalism, which may or may not be possible now. We must, however, at the very least put it under strict social control; if we don’t most human beings except for those in very favourable ecological niches with old cultures will most likely be wiped out along with most other fauna and flora.

Anandi Sharan lives and works in Bangalore

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