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Capital Blight: The More Things Change...

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, July 12, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent article from the folks over at the Rocky Mountain Institute--a pro renewable energy, green capitalist think tank founded by Amory Lovins, Lessons from Australia: How to Reduce US Solar PV Costs through Installation Labor Efficiency, written by Robert McIntosh and Koben Calhoun, demonstrates all too clearly why it's not enough just to replace the existing fossil fuel energy system with renewable alternatives. To sufficiently transform our world, we must confront the root of the problem, and that's hierarchical command / control political-economic systems like capitalism itself.

Yes, it's certainly a good idea to strive for a reasonable degree of efficiency in accomplishing one's desired goals by minimizing input and maximizing output. Doing so is human nature. If this weren't true, humans wouldn't have developed tools and machines to minimize throughputs. The flaw in this concept is the tendency to "externalize" the negative consequences of maximizing this efficiency and to unfairly distribute the fruits of such efforts. A several thousand (or perhaps million) year history of combined and cumulative efforts has created hierarchical class structure and nearly brought about a sixth mass terrestrial extinction event.

The idea that such practices can somehow be reconciled with both a sense of fairness and with ecological sustainability is simply another way in which capitalism has poisoned our minds and our environment.

The article suggests that American solar installation costs can be made "competitive" with those in Australia and Germany by "maximizing labor efficiency", specifically:

We noted several factors that may increase efficiency based on observations and analysis of installation practices in Australia, Germany, and the U.S.:

  • Optimizing the pre-installation process
  • Reducing time spent on base installations, especially for clay-tile roofs
  • Pursuing rail designs that minimize installation labor

  • Reducing the number of meters installed in each electrical system to monitor PV output
  • Viewing the one-day installation goal as an opportunity to reduce time spent on non-production activities such as meals, travel, breaks, setup, and cleanup (emphasis added)

These opportunities vary in magnitude, but in combination could have a significant impact on the number of labor-hours/kW U.S. installers typically invest in system installations. We believe installers in the U.S. could approach or go beyond Australian levels of efficiency by pursuing these primary measures, as well as other opportunities that help the industry approach the one-day installation as standard. If it can be done in Australia and Germany, there is no reason it cannot be done in the U.S.

If we lived under an economic system that represented something resembling sanity and good sense, I wouldn't have to explain why the last, italicized point is so wrongheaded (not to mention contradictory to the stated goals), but we don't live in such a world. No, dear reader, we live in the ubiquitous swamp of capital blight, and common sense is very elusive here.

The writers of the article seem to take it as a given, that building trades workers are typically lazy--at least in the US anyway. Either that, or they assume that builders (in the US) are machines whose motors aren't running on the highest gear. I've got news for these talking heads. There's a reason why workers take breaks: they get tired. There's a reason why they take meal breaks: they get hungry (imagine that!). As for transportation time, that's a result of (capitalist created) autocentric urban sprawl. No amount of reduced meal or rest breaks will address that problem!

Comparing solar installations in Australia, the US, and Germany is like comparing apples to oranges to pears. There's far too many variables to consider.

Plus, is the time spent on the installation actually a good metric? I can think of numerous ways in which it isn't.

Not only does what the authors are proposing constitute a speed up--which inevitably increases the personal risk of injury or accident to the workers--it's also likely to have negative ecological circumstances. In their haste to get jobs done more quickly, bosses (or workers in some cases), will be more likely to cut corners, resulting in less quality work (thus requiring corrective maintenance down the road, which results in the increased consumption of resources), and they'll be far less thorough in ensuring that they minimize negative impacts from their work. Why take the time and make the proper effort to properly dispose of waste materials (or better yet, recycle or reuse them) if doing so takes "too much time"?

Worse still, in practice, encouraging more speedy work encourages installation companies to undercut each other in competition for bidding the work, thereby compounding the speed up to the workers and carelessness in ecological concerns. This exact tendency has been observed among logging operations under the so-called "gyppo" system. There's no reason to think the experience will be any different for solar installers.

Capitalism is still capitalism, whether or not it wraps itself in a green cloak.

And no amount of "efficiency" under capitalism will change the fact that the most powerful wing of the capitalist class--the fossil fuel industry, led by the Koch Brothers--will do everything they can to hold back the deployment of renewable energy, because the latter represents a potential systemic threat to trillions of dollars in profits. The folks at RMI may seem to be "reasonable" capitalists by comparison, but they're a minority, and capitalism grows less reasonable by the minute as the contradictions it creates become more evident. At best, the admonishments by the RMI for "efficiency" are naive.

There is an alternative, however, that genuinely increases efficiency, and that is the elimination of the most inefficient factor in the system of production, and that's the capitalist element itself. The profiteer contributes no productive benefit to the production process. And, by coincidence, the profit system is the root of our ecological problems! Seems like a no brainer to me...but I forget! Common sense is a rare commodity here. Maybe we need to create a new world in the shell of the old?

We can start by encouraging solar installation workers to organize one big union, oust the profiteers, and really increase the efficiency of solar installations everywhere! What are we waiting for?

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