Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Green Jobs 1

It is claimed that the transition to green energy will lead to more and better jobs.  I’m going to look at this issue in two posts, this first one focusing on the historical dynamic. 

A common starting point in the analysis of the relationship between energy and employment, and indeed technology and employment generally, is the distinction between capital intensive and labour intensive projects. In the former the hardware dominates, in the extreme in a completely automated plant, in the latter, workers dominate, in the extreme performing traditional farming or other purely manual tasks (though of course land is also capital).

On this view, everything else is strung out between these extreme and, as a society, we are in the process of moving from manual to high tech, with capital constantly replacing labour.  The main driver for this process is said to be the increased productivity obtained when machines replace (or at least augment) people. The result is increased profitability, on the assumption that the cost of investing in major new expensive capital plant will be paid back by an increase in output, and the reduction in the need to pay large numbers of workers. Industrial history has been shaped by this process, which has often displaced unskilled labour in some sectors, but also replaced skilled labour in others, as craft work and small batch production has been replaced by mass production in factories using unskilled labour. But, in turn, mass production has then given way to automated process production, with a few highly skilled staff. 

In reality the process is more complex, dynamic, and uneven.  While labour is replaced in some sectors, it expands in others e.g. in services and retail, until some of them are automated. The debate over the impacts of automation in the 1970s/1980s assumed that this process would continue. Optimists looked to a future of leisure with reduce work hours and a cornucopia of automated production, pessimists to a future of mass unemployment and deskilling, driven by a triumphant capitalism, benefiting only an elite. In the event, capitalism has triumphed, but so far has managed to spread affluence to some degree by accelerating growth in both production and consumption, using advanced technology.  We have seen the creation of mass consumerism and global markets, often based on new advanced products, with new groups of workers in newly developing
countries taking over from the earlier unskilled workforce and the rise of technically skilled workforce alongside a vast new service and retail sector.

Whether this process can continue indefinitely has long been the subject of debate. While exploitation of natural resources and the planet has deepened (O’Connor 1991), it has been argued that there may be internal economic contradictions in the process. Karl Marx saw this in terms of the falling rate of profit, as rival chunks of capital tried to expand, forcing capitalist to reduce wages.  The vast increase in productivity through technology has mostly avoided that outcome for the moment: some of the benefits have spread.  However there is of course a vast underclass of sweated labour, who barely enjoy any benefits, and the potential still for a major confrontation, and certainly continued struggle (WFTU 2011, Lanchester 2012).

The Marxist and radical view has also been updated into an analysis of the limits of technological advance.  For example in his seminal 1976 book ‘The Poverty of Power’, Barry Commoner argued that the cost of new more advanced capital plant was rising faster than the increases in productivity it would yield, so there would be a shortage of capital for continued expansion (Commoner 1976).  He focussed on energy technology and illustrated his analysis by showing how nuclear power plants were far more capital intensive than those they replaced, but did not yield sufficient extra profits to sustain further investment.  On this view the capitalist system was running out of productivity gains. It has replaced most labour, so there were few savings available from further replacement or exploitation (with lower wages) and there was no way for its raw capital base in the energy sector to improve and expand.

However, in the event, a new energy technology emerged that, for the moment, has avoided or limited, this problem, namely gas fired combined cycle turbines. From the 1990s onward in the UK and then elsewhere, there was a ‘dash for gas’, with cheap simple gas turbines using the cheap natural gas that had been found in the North Sea and elsewhere. The dash for gas also to some extend reduced the emerging problem of carbon emissions. Clearly, although it was cheaper than nuclear and even coal  (in the UK), this was no long-term solution. Despite the discovery of shale gas reserves, the resource was limited and it was still a fossil fuel. So although emissions per unit of energy produced were around half that from coal, expanding the use of gas would still lead to climate problems and in any case could not be continued indefinitely. 

If the capital expansion process was to continue, then given environmental and resource limits, a new technology would be needed. The initial default focus was back to nuclear: surely this could be made cheaper with new technology? So far the reality has proved different. Nuclear has become increasingly expensive, in part due to the need to ensure its safety after a series of major accidents. It is one of the few technologies that have negative learning curves (with prices going up not down as the technology develops) and as fissile fuel reserves are depleted that will get worse. Enthusiast still point to new technologies that they claim will be better (e,g. fast breeders using  thorium) but they are long off, with many unknowns, and it is clear that the renewables are already doing much better, with costs falling dramatically. Given that they are also by definition renewable, with no resource limits, it does look likely that this set of options will dominate.

In my next post I will look at what the employment implications for this new set of technologies.  UNEP say we might see 20 million people working in this area globally by 2030. What sort of work will that be?


CES/CNS Pamphlet 1, Centre for Ecological Socialism, Santa Cruz..
UNEP (2008) ‘Green Jobs’, United Nations Environment Programme,

Commoner, B (1976)‘The Poverty of Power’, Knoph, New York

Lanchester, J (2012) ‘Marx at 193’, London Review of Books, Vol. 34 No. 7 · 5 April pp 7-10,

O'Connor, J. (1991) Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Conference Paper

WFTU (2011) World Federation of Trade Unions, Conference declaration on Global Environmental Problems, Athens,

This post and the next draws on a chapter I have produced for a book on science, technology and environmental ethics: Engineering Ethics, International and Environmental Stability ed Marion Hersh, to be published by Springer.


  1. Dr Benjamin Zycher is no fan of green jobs derived from renewables technologies:

    Energy Analysis in USA