Michael Levi’s “The Power Surge” and Why Everything We Think is Wrong

Ever since I began to ideologically identify myself as an anarchist thirteen years ago, I have always felt a distance from almost every political discussion. I find myself in almost every political debate having to go back to the very basic principles, because in fact our whole discussion of almost every political debate we have is basically wrong. From abortion to LGBTQ rights to military and security policy, we always have the wrong arguments. I intend to write an entire book about this topic at some point, but for now let me offer an example.

Michael Levi in The Power Surge examines very carefully many competing factors in energy policy, mostly as regards the United States but also considering the way that corporations dominating the energy sector (both in sustainable energy and in petrochemicals) certainly has implications for inequality and for power consolidation in the hands of economic elites. Ultimately, Levi tries to take a position that’s fundamentally centrist. He criticizes both “purists” of green energy and of traditional energy, as well as purists in many other domains.

Don’t get me wrong: This is actually a really fascinating book. He really goes into depth about both green and traditional technology. As a scholar for the Council on Foreign Relations, it’d be ludicrous to reject Levi’s position outright.

However, as I read the book, it becomes clear to me Levi assumes certain metrics that actually makes it so that many of his conclusions are too easy to defend. In fact, when considering energy, we must go beyond traditional measures of economic efficiency and prosperity, precisely because it is so hard to measure long-term and chaotic effects.

I know this is a complicated idea, so it bears repeating: Every statistic you usually hear about the economy is basically useless. GDP, GNP, corporate profits… they only ever capture the idea of “efficiency” in an extremely limited way. The United States could double GDP by building trillions of dollars’ worth of bombs or by building trillions of dollars’ worth of supercomputers. Sure, you do want to have some kind of measures that are basically “value-free”. But if the only way you measure the economy and the “growth” of that economy is by a metric that says that pollution is good while a family saving money for their child’s college is bad, you have a massive problem.

Market systems have a gigantic failing. If a cost is external to a buyer and a seller, then the buyer and the seller reap benefits that other people have to pay for. If there’s one principle of microeconomics everyone should know, it’s the idea of the externality.

With that in mind, we have to read Levi’s book very critically.

Consider, for example, Levi quoting without critical comment Chevron CEO John Watson’s opinion that “on a per-unit basis, stripped of subsidies, [green energies] are not cost-competitive with fossil fuels”. Watson’s argument may seem to make sense by a very strict market analysis, but it is actually the height of idiocy. It is exactly the “per-unit” and “cost-competitive” metrics that are the problems with really creating a balanced energy policy. It’s cheap at the pump to buy gasoline, for example, but why is that the case? It’s “efficient” for energy producers to extract petrochemicals, for gas stations and other stores to sell them to the consumer, and for the consumer to pump it into their cars. But the pollution that makes people have asthma, the cost of individualized transportation instead of mass transportation in terms of road maintenance and congestion, the destruction of habitats… those aren’t efficient. Those have immense and real costs.

It may not really be Watson’s fault on this front, of course. It’s difficult to measure something like the impact that a species going extinct may have. Any one individual species going extinct may not be a keystone species that impacts the whole ecosystem, but enough species go extinct and there can come a disastrous tipping point. And it’s actually impossible to really measure the impact to quality of life that can emerge from certain kinds of pollution. Can someone reasonably put a price tag on a child suffering from asthma, or the loss of natural beauty from pollution and roadways being created?

Levi doesn’t touch on these issues sufficiently, which makes it easy to criticize those who advocate green energy and consider a “balanced” approach. The very reason why we are now seeing a “balanced” approach in the market economy is precisely because the way that we count productivity, whether it be corporate profits or the GDP, makes it so that sustainable energy is now starting to make some money. But the efficiency of petrochemicals, given that they are a non-renewable resource, may never have actually really been higher than any renewable energy. Every single petrochemical that is used will never be recreated.

In all of the analysis of biofuels, for example, Levi barely discusses the fact that biofuels are renewable (pages 22, and 120-138). Levi notes that the challenge for biofuels has been “expense” (page 120). But the expense is not really important when compared to the fact that oil will go away while corn can be grown year-in and year-out. Market systems by their very nature don’t ration: Future generations, or even present people a day from now, don’t have any say in a market system because they don’t have any dollars. And governments have proven loathe to actually properly ration and control non-renewable resources. Maybe non-renewable resources should be allowed to be extracted at an unlimited rate, or a very high rate. But the fact that Levi doesn’t even note that there is an issue of rights of future peoples to be debated is a big issue.

Hell, why does one person get to pump oil from the ground at all? Or, even more pointedly: Why do immortal persons with more rights than people – yes, corporations have more rights, even if just by dint of the fact that they’re people that don’t die – get to pump oil out of the ground at all? One could easily argue that everyone has a common right to the benefits of a non-renewable resource. The United States has had a huge energy supply, for example, which has brought it prosperity. But the fact that there is one United States now, instead of, say, a Lakota nation-state and an Iroquois nation-state, is because our ancestors took the land by violence. Why should corporations in the United States now have the right to that oil? Why should the government?

Yes, the right to “private property”, you might say, justifies all that. But you can see how you actually have to have the discussion about exactly how far the right to private property should ever extend to really make the discussion meaningful. Do you think that people like John Locke envisioned hundreds of years ago that the private ownership of resources could lead to that entire category of resources not existing for anyone else ever again, across all of time and space?

Similarly, in the entire book, Levi mentions Native Americans once. Yes, I’m doing this based off of Google Books which isn’t a perfect search engine, but the search terms “indigenous” and “aboriginal” don’t even appear. Nor does “First Nation”.

Anyone who knows about oil politics in any real capacity knows that you can’t talk about oil without talking about the indigenous peoples who often live on the land where oil is being extracted. Ecuadoran native peoples and their conflicts with Texaco are just one example.

Okay, so Levi can’t review every part of oil politics, even in a book that’s about two hundred pages worth of content. But it’s always illustrative what people talk about and what they leave out.

So Levi’s basic conclusion, that (as according to the summary) “Both unfolding revolutions in American energy [traditionalist efforts to get more gas from fracking and similar efforts on the one hand and green energy on the other] offer big opportunities for the country to strengthen its economy, bolster its security, and protect the environment… [and Americans should] seize those with a new strategy that blends the best of old and new energy while avoiding the real dangers that each poses” can’t be supported. The values of many people who want green energy just aren’t Levi’s values. I don’t have the same values as John Watson. I don’t care about what he cares about. We’re not likely to ever be in the same room.

Until we can consider that tens of thousands of children more having asthma as a result of smog can’t just be measured as an impact by the cost of doctor’s bills, we can’t talk about green energy in any way that makes sense.

Until we can find some way to measure the heartache that comes from someone seeing their favorite forest being destroyed to make way for a new bypass, words like “efficiency” are just propaganda.

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2 Responses to “Michael Levi’s “The Power Surge” and Why Everything We Think is Wrong”

  1. cborgiawgeorgia Says:

    Agree with pretty much everything you said, Externality issues were anticipated by Victorians starting with William Forster Lloyd in 1833, This was extended by Hardin in 1968 in a famous essay on the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Lloyd was analyzing sheep grazing; Hardin realized that the same effects were showing up on macro scale in the air and water.

    • arekexcelsior Says:

      Thank you for the comment! My point here isn’t just about externalities. It’s that so many externalities that we try to put a price tag on are inherently beyond easy calculation, and some should be viewed as beyond any calculation. I won’t even deny that perhaps some efforts to get unconventional petrochemicals might be worth it, but people like Levi do not properly characterize the costs and benefits so we will go into the debate with one arm tied behind our back from the get-go unless we redefine what we mean about “efficiency”.

      Please do check out my main blog, the fredbc.wordpress.com, as well as my film blog, thefilmpositive.wordpress.com!

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