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Chelsea Green Blog

The First Death Rattle of Our Unsustainable Economy, Part II

Rebekah and Stephen Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, have been writing a series of articles for the Huffington Post on the collapse of our unsustainable economy. You can read the first part here.

The following is an excerpt from Part II.

We promised to take a look at what a sustainable economic system might look like, and we’ll do that in our next blog, but there are at least two other contradictions inherent to our current economic system so glaring they deserve a quick mention. The first of these is similar to the primary problem bedeviling the “wizards” down on Wall Street, and that problem is that if something can’t be traded then it appears to have no value. Where the inherent value resides in a Credit Default Swap we aren’t quite sure, but honestly we’re a lot more concerned with things like the environment, renewable energy, personal independence, our relationships with our family and friends, and time to relax in our garden with a glass of homebrew.

A beautiful forest teeming with wildlife surely has value, but according to our economic system it is worthless until we take some aspect of it, the trees or the wildlife or the property itself, and sell it to another human. Unfortunately, at that point its original value will most likely be compromised by removing some of the resources: whether trees for logging, wildlife to protect crops or livestock, or just bulldozing wholesale for replacement with a new McMansion or Burger King.

This first contradiction — the lack of perceived economic value — has led to massive distortions in our conversation about renewable energy. It is much easier and cheaper to take solar energy and use it for things that need to be heated up rather than to turn that same solar energy into electricity. While solar water and solar air heaters can achieve efficiencies of 60%, a typical solar electric (photovoltaic or PV) panel will be only around 15% efficient. You might think that since our economy is so “efficient” we would not be embarking on huge solar electric projects until we’ve used solar energy to directly heat our homes and our water. But this isn’t what happens. Instead, since solar generated heat is not usually traded, according to our economic system it has little or no value. Indeed, when we install a solar air heater on someone’s home, they will actually use less traded energy (typically coal or natural gas generated) and our so-called “economy” will shrink, even though they are now polluting less and using solar energy as efficiently as possible, not to mention having achieved a degree of energy independence.

Read the whole article here.


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