Monday, December 10, 2012

The Robots, the Rift and the Rebound

This is a placeholder for an essay that will respond to Paul Krugman's recent column on Robots and Robber Barons and John Bellamy Foster's feature article in Monthly Review on The Planetary Emergency.

I've been here before. Again and again. It's like one of those dreams where you're screaming as loud as you can and no sound comes out.

Here's the proposition, the creation of wage-labor "jobs" is coupled with the consumption of hydrocarbon-based fuel. This is an historical-empirical fact that anyone can confirm for themselves by looking at the data for the last 200 odd years. It is neither rocket science nor brain surgery.

Although it may be theoretically possible --"in principle" -- to uncouple or decouple job creation from fuel consumption, no one has done it or shown how it could be done. It is science fiction. But economists persist in assuming that it will happen "automatically," so to speak, through market-generated technological substitution. Or, in plain language, someone will invent a perpetual motion machine. That isn't even theoretically possible!

The Robots symbolize the age-old anxiety about machinery displacing human labor, throwing people out of their jobs and thus depriving them of their livelihood.

The Rift refers to the metabolic rift between town and country, between industrial processes and natural rhythms, biomes and landscapes. Even a good thing can become too much of a good thing toxic in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Rebound is a descriptive synonym for what is otherwise known as the Jevons paradox, the idea that increases in the fuel efficiency of machinery will paradoxically lead to increased consumption of the fuel because it will make the fuel, in effect, cheaper. And, as Dorning Rasbotham proclaimed 232 years ago, "A cheap market will always be full of customers."

The robot and the rebound are tied to each other continuously in a kind of metabolic Möbius strip. On "one side" are fuel efficiency and consumption and on the other are labor displacement (by machinery) and re-absorption (through market extension). But an ant -- or an unemployed worker -- crawling along this strip would eventually return to its starting point only after traversing both sides.

One can advance further along this Möbius strip-tease with the realization that labor is, according to Robert Costanza, "embodied energy." Admittedly, human labor is more than mere embodied energy -- but perhaps not so much more from the almighty perspective of economic exchange.

Anyway, that's the basic idea. I'm not sure if it will be an essay or a book.

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