Once the further shores of the environmental and ecological movements understand what George Monbiot is saying here he’s going to get excommunicated from the Temple of Gaia. George is probably safe though, as getting an ecologist to understand an economic point is as productive as taking comportment lessons from Philip Green. Still, what Monbiot is saying is entirely true, the way out of ecological problems is economic growth. And as even Marx himself pointed out, the system which produces that is this free market and capitalism blend.
The thing is, I’m not entirely certain that George has understood that he actually is talking about growth here:
But could we go beyond even a plant-based diet? Could we go beyond agriculture itself? What if, instead of producing food from soil, we were to produce it from air? What if, instead of basing our nutrition on photosynthesis, we were to use electricity to fuel a process whose conversion of sunlight into food is 10 times more efficient?
Well, OK, that’s a pretty reductionist way of looking at it but right all the same. Farming is indeed the production of certain chemicals through the use of sunlight as the energy source. Plants then animals being the reactor vessels which perform this feat. It’s theoretically possible to skip the plant and animal part and construct those proteins, sugars and all the rest on the lab bench. Again, theoretically at least, this can be done more efficiently.
Well, efficiency depends upon what you’re counting as an input and its cost but still, we can at least imagine that such a technology could exist.
This sounds like science fiction, but it is already approaching commercialisation. For the past year, a group of Finnish researchers has been producing food without either animals or plants. Their only ingredients are hydrogen-oxidising bacteria, electricity from solar panels, a small amount of water, carbon dioxide drawn from the air, nitrogen and trace quantities of minerals such as calcium, sodium, potassium and zinc. The food they have produced is 50% to 60% protein; the rest is carbohydrate and fat. They have started a company (Solar Foods) that seeks to open its first factory in 2021. This week it was selected as an incubation project by the European Space Agency.
What they’re producing seems to be a sludge that contains all those goodies. Which can or perhaps should then be processed into something more appetising. But then that’s roughly what we do with the basic feedstocks of the world anyway. A plate of soya ain’t all that appetising, we variously choosing to process that into tofu through one technique, into bacon by the use of a pig. There’s nothing here that is beyond the bounds of possibility, certainly.
According to the researchers’ estimates, 20,000 times less land is required for their factories than is needed to produce the same amount of food by growing soya. Cultivating all the protein the world now eats with their technique would require an area smaller than Ohio. The best places to do it are deserts, where solar energy is most abundant. When electricity can be generated at €15 (£13) a megawatt hour (a few years hence), their process becomes cost-competitive with the cheapest source of soya.
Hey, great, why not? But now for the part that’s being missed. In alternate columns Monbiot tells us that economic growth will just have to stop. Because of those environmental limits which tell us that we simply cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. To which the standard answer is that economic growth, that rise in GDP, is a measure of the value being added. Not of resources being consumed, but of value added. As long as we keep thinking up new ways to add value then we can – indeed will – continue to have an increase in value added, that is we’ll have economic growth.
This is Julian Simon all over again and boy, don’t the ecologists hate Julian Simon. But the thing is within the terms Simon used he was right. GDP is value added, as long as we can continue to increase the value added then we’ve economic growth.
Making the world’s food supply out of air, water and sunlight – note, without the use of that land – is an increase in economic growth, an increase in value added. It’s the very definition of economic growth in fact. And it’s capitalist – people are going to make profit out of this.
Hmm, what’s that? But we’re just getting the same amount of food, the same value, so where’s the growth? The growth is over in the resources we’re now not using to produce food. That land we don’t have to plough returns to wilderness and we get lots and lots more environment and ecology. The environmentalists and ecologists – George, say – will insist that this is of value. Indeed demand that it is of value that we have more environment. So, now, with this new food production process we gain our food and also more environment. By the very definitions being forced upon us by the ecologists we’re richer – more value has been added, we’ve just had economic growth.
Or, as us neoliberals and even the neoclassical economists have been saying all along. The way out of environmental and ecologic problems is more economic growth. As even George Monbiot is telling us today.