Will Edison, or Marx, or Both Prove Right on Big Energy?

Quote of the Week:  We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. –Thomas Edison

Over a century ago, the controversial technology developer (some would say, “inventor,” while others might hedge at that title) Thomas Edison evoked his hope that man would not limit himself to destructive and extracted energy sources when there was unlimited natural energy all around us.  His conflicts with Tesla over alternative energy schemes notwithstanding, and leaving aside the morality of some of Edison’s own approaches to business and corporatism, this specific Edisonian vision has been betrayed by the energy corporations that today live in his shadow.

Energy companies themselves should be at the forefront of green energy research and implementation, and they would be if they did not suffer from a myopia that afflicts most American corporations.  Corporations are all too wedded to the quarterly profits and the stock-market values of their stock shares, to look into the future and invest in their own success.  If and when green energy supplants oil and coal, those companies that today profit the most from extracted energy ought to have ensured their own survival by spearheading the transformation to green energy.  But that takes a corporate vision that is beyond the quarter-to-quarter profit motivation of American corporatism.  Instead of a steady transformation that protects the economy, the environment, and the corporations’ own stockholders, there will likely be a market disaster as coal and oil become suddenly too expensive and limited in quantity to provide the world’s increasing hunger for power.  Some forward thinkers will make a fortune; and some old money will disappear into the coffers of the new.  In the meantime, of course, those less wealthy people who had mistakenly invested their savings in old energy may find their retirement savings gone and their lives financially ruined.

The corporate myopia is also related to “financialization,” as major corporations worldwide invest fewer resources into research and put greater resources into stock buybacks to artificially inflate their own market share values.  Overall, business is becoming less enamored of research and more enamored of artificial devices to put greater stock values into the hands of the stockholders – and to concentrate those stocks into fewer, richer hands.  Karl Marx’s predictions for the potentials that capitalism has for destroying itself have outlived the communist movement that he helped create.  The fall of communism notwithstanding, corporatism is becoming ever more the corrupt, inefficient system that Marx criticized.  Capitalism’s increasingly apparent inability to solve problems, to create jobs, and to make people’s lives better may yet generate a new methodology for economics in the future.

Extracted energy suffers from a dilemma, in that increasing energy extraction competes with food and water resources (through environmental degradation and through the need for water to push resources out of the ground).  On the other hand, increasing food and water production require ever-increasing energy availability.  The world’s rapidly growing middle classes want energy, food, and water in ever greater quantities; and the only way to assure those needs in the long run is by switching our energy systems to non-extracted energy; to wind, sun, and other systems as hoped for by Thomas Edison.  Who will win in the end – Marx with his predictions for the end of capitalism; or Edison with his hopes for the transformation of energy?  Or will capitalism’s end help to finally enable a transformation to green energy?  The 21st century offers us both an opportunity to make our world better through innovative technologies like green energy, and a danger of what may happen if we do not.

Headline image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain images.

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