Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: New jobs in a transforming economy – a low carbon future

This forum took place on May 2nd, details here

There were four speakers:
Martin Haese (Adelaide Lord Mayor), Giles Parkinson (journalist, editor at, Heather Smith (energy and climate change specialist and blogger)  and Catherine Way (industry development manager)

Brief summary

Martin Haese spoke first, and focused on South Australia’s leadership in the area of renewables, and Adelaide City Council’s support of the carbon neutral Adelaide project.
Giles Parkinson spoke next, and focused on the technological aspects and the way that renewable electricity is now the cheapest new electricity generation.
Heather Smith spoke next and focused on industry and employment as we transition to a renewable economy.
Finally, Catherine Way spoke about the fact that there are likely to be fewer jobs in a society based on renewables, but that the web and disintermediation could make up for it.


It was interesting that the first two speakers didn’t mention jobs at all. Though the second pair of speakers did, I felt that overall the forum didn't underline the depth of the problem. Based on my reading at her blog, it is clear that Heather Smith understands the issues, and she mentioned it on Monday. Smith also collated community input on her website, which shows a lot of thought about jobs in new industries. Similarly, Catherine Way also articulated the problem of future jobs and clearly sees problems. Despite this, I still think it didn't get the attention it needs.

The problem (or part thereof) as I see it is this: for renewable energy to be economic, a high-tech manufacturing sector is required. Most of the cost reduction in renewables has come not from fundamental improvements to the technology but from efficiency gains. In this context, efficiency means more automated manufacturing with fewer workers, and more streamlined installation with less labour and a preference for lower-skilled (cheaper) labour.

If we extrapolate what is already happening, we will have an ever-larger unemployed or underemployed underclass, and a wealthy minority whose material needs are attended to by machines.

Simply put, automated manufacturing means that we need a lot fewer workers to deliver the goods and services we want and this can’t be disentangled from the renewables revolution.

I think this is underappreciated by most people who are thinking about renewables and labour in the 21st century. The reason I think it is underappreciated is that most of the “thinkers” are middle-class people for whom the kinds of people who make things are largely invisible. They have an attitude based on consumption of goods, and it doesn’t matter where those things are made or whether it’s by humans or robots. This is why we’re so comfortable using terms like “efficiency” to mean staff redundancies as the labour pool grows ever smaller.

A second industrial revolution? No thanks!

The other problem I had with the presentations is that some of them glibly refer to a second industrial revolution – as though that’s a desirable thing to have. We have forgotten how convulsive and devastating the industrial revolution was to the people living through it. While it was great for the emerging middle class, for most people the industrial revolution brought poverty, immiseration, disease and death. If you want a picture of this, read some Charles Dickens. People didn’t want to be forced from their villages to work long days in dark, dangerous and crowded factories for poor pay. To make them do so, the land they lived on was privatised (it had previously been the commons) and they were kicked off their subsistence farms where they had lived for generations leaving them the choice of moving to the city to earn a living or staying in the country to starve. This was, of course, very profitable to the factory owners (who now had a huge pool of desperate, cheap labour), and is known today as the enclosures.

I think the blithe attitude to a “second industrial revolution” speaks to the sense of entitlement that so many people have today – as though we can realise all the benefits of cheap goods manufactured by robotic labour, but none of the costs of unemployment or social instability.

An answer

For centuries, resources have been plentiful and humans’ ability to harvest them limited. Because of this, a strong work ethic has developed, which views hard work and the accumulation of resulting riches as an expression of virtue. This work ethic and “virtuous consumption” can be seen across our society.

Today though, we have the opposite problem: resources are scarce and humanity’s ability to harvest them far exceeds what the planet can sustainably yield. In this environment, there is less work needed (or desired) than what people want to do and work stops being a virtuous contribution to society but instead a competitive scrabble (also known as a zero sum game) for what is available so that people can gain status.

We need to change our attitude to work and recognise that workaholics are really depriving someone else of their time at work. This attitude-shift will need to have implications right across the labour market – from industrial relations (the length of the working week), to welfare (perhaps a regulated minimum income) to taxation (a stronger progressive tax system with higher marginal tax rates for high income earners to acknowledge the costs to society of them monopolising employment)


I probably sound quite critical of the forum. Overall (despite my criticisms) I thought it was excellent and thought-provoking and I support all the speakers in what they said and their endeavours. However, I think it's easy to fall into the trap of techno-utopianism, and I think that Martin Haese, Giles Parkinson and a significant proportion of the audience[1] did so on Monday.

[1] I have no evidence to support the claim that "a significant proportion of the audience" fell "into the trap of techno-utopianism" -- is was a feeling based on the questions that were asked and the conversations I heard afterwards.


  1. Hi Angus,

    Thanks for the thoughtful review of the forum. Glad I wasn't there, I probably would have embarrassed everyone by stating some unpleasant truth - that no one wants to hear really. ;-)!

    About two years ago, I was at a local meditation session and two of the people worked in aged care. Their biggest fear was that the robots were getting so good that soon they'd both be out of a job. And I was looking at both of them thinking: You seriously believe this? And they did.

    I dunno. I reckon we'll get to an economy based on renewable energy, it is just that we'll be converting sunlight into plant material to use as energy and also into low grade heat and I reckon long term that is about the best we'll ever be able to manage. Incidentally, I reckon that is a pretty good outcome, albeit an unpalatable one for most people these days. Still, that is what life has looked like for most of our species existence on this planet.

    Dunno, what do you reckon?



  2. Hi Chris,

    I honestly don't know about the sustainability of renewables. Part of me thinks that it is hubris to think we can improve on the total system efficiency of evolution. On the other hand, part of me thinks that consciousness can have ideas that are unavailable to evolution because evolution needs a "feasible path" to get from A to B (ie. every system design between the two points must be viable), whereas consciousness can have "leaps of inspiration".

    Having said all that, I think the success or failure of renewables this century will be decided by political and social (rather than technical) factors. I certainly think renewables are sustainable for this and possibly next century. Forever? Who knows! ;-)

    But for the point of this essay I wasn't even thinking about that. I was thinking about whether renewables will let us continue business as usual where we are all in this hyper-work hyper-consume system. To me, even that looks unlikely -- even in the relatively short (10 - 20 year) timeframes.

    I think it's quite conceivable that in the next few decades we'll see robotic personal servants. Not because it's the best or cheapest way of doing it, but because they'll make great status symbols and be a useful political/economic tool for the control of the poorer classes. Long term (centuries), I doubt they'll be viable. Time will tell though...

    Cheers, Angus

  3. Hi Chris,

    ps. I agree with your comment "I reckon we'll get to an economy based on renewable energy".

    A sustainable economy based on renewable energy is an inevitability! It's just a matter of how we get there, which could become very unpleasant...

    Cheers, A

  4. Hi Angus,

    Thanks for your considered reply.

    I reckon you are correct with both assertions, but of course, one acts to limit the other, anyway, that's what I reckon. Yes, we can improve upon natural systems so as to say convert more photons into electricity than a plant with the same surface area. And yes, we can use our consciousness to achieve that outcome. To be sustainable both outcomes have to be goals for the very long term.

    Yeah, renewables are great - check out the wiring for the battery room on this weeks blog. I love that gear, but yesterday 4.2kW of panels only brought in 0.9kWh for the day. It was a bit better today, but not much.

    To me it looks unlikely as well. But small systems, you betcha! They're awesome and can be built with the long term in mind.

    Absolutely, time will tell. I don't know the future.

    Yeah, maybe, maybe not about the unpleasant future. The system as it stands is far more resilient than I ever considered it to be. So who knows?




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