Biodiesel is a fairly high-profile energy source these days. Willie Nelson’s fryer oil-powered car is about as famous as Ed Begley Jr.’s electric.
What you may not know is that biodiesel, despite the tree-hugging market appeal of its promoters, is being cornered by a bunch of monopolists as predatory as J.D. Rockefeller ever dreamed of being. According to Adam Schwartz, head of the Green Guild Biodiesel Cooperative (“Nothing Grows from the Top Down,” Green Guild Biodiesel, June 20, 2010), biodiesel production is being consolidated in the control of the big producers and the soybean industry. “In Virginia new legislation made it illegal to transport vegetable oil without a commercial license, essentially forcing an already marginalized biodiesel community to go completely underground.”
I hear frequently from a doctoral student named Keith Taylor, who’s researching electrical power cooperatives and decentralized models for developing wind power. He’s sent me quite a bit of material, over the past year or so, on the extent to which government “alternative energy” policy systematically privileges large-scale, conventional corporate business models and expensive proprietary technology.
The government’s refundable tax credits, for example, don’t go to rural electric co-ops because they’re tax-exempt. Sounds only fair, right? But the thing is the credits are refundable — which means that if a business pays any taxes at all the credits it’s eligible for don’t have to bear any relation to the amount of taxes actually paid. It’s like a $20,000 welfare check that kicks in when you earn a single dollar in wage income, but is unavailable to the unemployed. So the credits are, in fact, a massive subsidy to the largest corporate wind farms.
The government’s wind-power agenda is closely tied to the “smart grid,” which emphasizes reducing the cost of transmitting power from giant wind farms situated far from the point of consumption. As such, it gives a competitive advantage to centralized blockbuster projects — like the kind T. Boone Pickens wants to invest in — at the expense of small, decentralized producers scaled to local demand (the lean, demand-pull model favored by the Rocky Mountain Institute).
It’s no coincidence that Pickens is a leading proponent of the “progressive” or “green” model of capitalism, along with people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono and Richard Florida. This model wants to turn technological progress, and particularly green technology, into the engine of accumulation for a new phase of capitalism.
The problem is that this economic model requires capitalizing the increased productivity from new technology as a source of profit. And the only way to do that is to enclose it through “intellectual property” law and other forms of legal monopoly. This is the model advocated by economist John Romer, he of the “new growth theory,” who sees technological progress as the new engine of growth. The only way increased productivity can cause GDP to grow is if some form of monopoly prevents market competition from socializing the productivity gains. And Romer explicitly advocates “intellectual property” law as a way to do just that.
The original vision of the Internet, on the part of Bill Gates and the other apostles of “progressive” cognitive capitalism, was the “Information Superhighway”: a glorified cable TV system, with the vast majority of its capacity taken up with unidirectional one-to-many communications, streaming proprietary content to households. Like Tom Peters, Gates was a champion of networks and the flattening of hierarchies — so long as the networks could be domesticated within a residual corporate framework enforced by “intellectual property.”
People like Pickens and Buffett are all for ending the country’s dependency on foreign oil, by promoting wind and other forms of alternative energy — so long as they can guarantee themselves profits by controlling the terms on which the energy is produced and sold.
Bono likes to play at fundraisers for Africa and sing about “Bloody Sunday” — but he’s explicitly celebrated Red China’s Internet censorship as a model for Western governments to follow in stamping out the unauthorized distribution of his music via file-sharing networks. And of course he’s working hand-in-glove with the Gates Foundation to feed Africa with patented GMO crops from Monsanto. Like the Puritans, he came to do good and did well.
The Baptists are being taken for a ride, and the Bootleggers are behind the wheel. Or if you prefer Biblical metaphors: “The hands are Esau’s, but the voice is Jacob’s.”