President Obama has proposed combining stimuli to promote employment with the fight against alleged man-made global warming, which allegedly results mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of new “green” jobs will supposedly be created by replacing power from fossil fuels with power from windmills and solar panels. They will be created in the construction of the windmills and in the production and installation of the solar panels, and also in the construction of a new power grid to carry all the electricity that is supposed to result.
A rather serious problem, which seems largely to have been ignored by those urging a race to build windmills and solar panels, is the fact that the wind does not always blow, nor does the sun always shine. And as yet there is no large-scale economical method of storing electricity for later use. This would seem to imply a need to retain the present system of power production alongside the new system that is to be based on wind and sun, or else to grow accustomed to protracted periods without power.
Or is it the case perhaps that this problem is to be taken as an opportunity for even greater gains in employment in connection with wind and solar power? These might be achieved if, in all those times when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine, human beings were employed in rotating copper-clad generator shafts, in a manner similar to that of rotating a grindstone in a gristmill, only in the presence of surrounding magnets, so that electricity could be produced by the rotation. (I don’t know how much, if any, electricity might actually be produced in this way. But it would keep people employed in the attempt.)
Indeed, advancing the goals of environmentalism is capable of creating a virtually limitless number of jobs. Big-rig trucks and their “polluting” emissions might be done away with by replacing them with human porters who would carry freight on their backs. Ocean-going ships and their emissions might be done away with by replacing their “dirty engines” with the clean labor of banks of oarsmen. (Sails would be a substitute too, but they are no match for oarsmen when it comes to the number of workers needed.) Automobiles and their emissions might be replaced by sedan chairs and teams of litter bearers.
And if all that is not enough, then think of the jobs that might be created in making coal in the ground absolutely safe. At present there are outcries over the release of trace amounts of mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals from above-ground accumulations of coal sludge. Yet these metals are found in nature-given, below-ground deposits of coal as well, and could not appear in coal sludge if it they had not first been present in below-ground coal. While perhaps a smaller threat to human health so long as they are locked in below-ground coal, they must undoubtedly represent some threat, if only at the level of parts per billion or parts per trillion.
Since one can never be too safe, it follows that if job creation is the goal, an environmentalist case can be made for extracting all known coal deposits and then, instead of using any of that coal for such environmentally “destructive” purposes as producing electricity or heating homes, simply reburying it. But this time in repositories lined so as to prevent any possible leakage of heavy metals into the surrounding environment.
And finally, think of all of the jobs that a program of environmental “stewardship” might make available. Thus each patch of desert, each rock formation, each clump of grass, and each tree stump, might have assigned to it one or more “stewards” whose job would be to watch over it, protect it, and “preserve it for future generations.” To carry out this valuable work, there could be a whole corps of “stewards.” They could be dressed in special uniforms displaying various ranks and medals, all gained in “service to the environment” and the defense of nature and its resources against the humans.
Indeed, once we put our minds to it, nothing is easier than to think of things that would require the performance of virtually unlimited labor in order to accomplish virtually zero result. Such is the nature of all job-creation programs. Such is the nature of environmentalism. Such is thought to be the path to economic recovery by most of today’s intellectual establishment.
Postscript: I want to note that my book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics provides further, in-depth treatment of the substantive material discussed in this article and of practically all related aspects of economics. Of special note here is the fact that Chapter 3 of the book is a thorough-going critique of environmentalism. The critique is coupled with a positive demonstration of the fact that under capitalism and its economic freedom the supply of economically useable, accessible natural resources is capable of continuing further increase as man expands his knowledge of and physical power over nature. It is also joined by a demonstration that such increase in man’s knowledge and power at the same time serves progressively to improve his environment, understood as his external physical surroundings, deriving its value from its contribution to human life and well-being. In addition, Chapter 13 of Capitalism provides a critique of all variants of the notion that a problem of economic life is the creation of work rather than wealth.
*Copyright © 2009, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His web site is www.capitalism.net and his blog is www.georgereisman.com/blog/. A pdf replica of his book can be downloaded to the reader’s hard drive simply by clicking on the book’s title, above, and then saving the file when it appears on the screen. The book provides further, in-depth treatment of the substantive material discussed in this article and of practically all related aspects of economics.