Friday, November 30, 2007

Has It Really Come to This?

Is the best way to deal with climate change to arm ourselves to kill off those we've harmed most?

That's Naomi Klein's take on an apparent recent surge in investment bucks, not toward green technologies, but into the weapons and security industries.

Klein gets this hot tip from "Douglas Lloyd, a director of Venture Business Research, which tracks trends in venture capitalism. 'I expect investment activity in this sector to remain buoyant,' he said recently. Lloyd's bouncy mood was inspired by the money that is gushing into private security and defence companies. He added: 'I also see this as a more attractive sector, as many do, than clean energy.'"

"According to Lloyd, the really big money - despite all the government incentives - is turning away from clean-energy technologies, and is banking instead on gadgets that promise to seal wealthy countries and individuals into hi-tech fortresses.

"So why is "homeland security", not green energy, the hot new sector? Perhaps because there are two distinct business models that can respond to our climate and energy crisis. We can develop policies and technologies to get us off this disastrous course. Or we can develop policies and technologies to protect us from those we have enraged through resource wars and displaced through climate change, while simultaneously shielding ourselves from the worst of both war and weather. (The ultimate expression of this second option is in Hummer's new television adverts: the gas-guzzler is seen carrying its cargo to safety in various disaster zones, followed by the slogan "HOPE: Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies". It's a bit like the Marlboro man doing grief counselling in a cancer ward.) In short, we can choose to fix, or we can choose to fortress. Environmental activists and scientists have been yelling for the fix. The homeland security sector, on the other hand, believes the future lies in fortresses.

"As Lloyd explains: 'The failure rate of security businesses is much lower than clean-tech ones; and, as important, the capital investment required to build a successful security business is also much lower.' In other words, finding solutions for real problems is hard, but turning a profit from those problems is easy.

"Bush wants to leave our climate crisis to the ingenuity of the market. Well, the market has spoken: it will not take us off this disastrous course. In fact, the smart money is betting that we will stay on it."

Is Klein just some Doomsday fantasist? I wish but I don't think so. This is a candle we're burning at both ends - increasing carbon emissions at one end, time to implement practical solutions at the other. As those two ends draw ever nearer, the pressures of climate change(compounded by other environmental challenges such as desertification, water exhaustion, resource depletion, peak oil and all the other problems) will inevitably draw more and more support toward defensive options over the remedial alternatives.

Unfortunately, I agree with Mr. Lloyd. In the West, too many people don't want to really think about these problems and what is really needed to deal with them. If you want examples of how populations in great nations from the past either didn't see or chose to simply ignore what was consuming their civilizations, read Jared Diamond's great book "Collapse." As a species, we're quite capable of doing ourselves in, we really are. We're also capable of overcoming enormous challenges, but only when we make conscious decisions - in time - to solve our problems.


Alex Sloat said...

Well of course military companies are a more secure investment than clean energy companies - that much is obvious just from their business models. Private military contractors are in a field of business thousands of years old, with well-understood methodologies, reasonably low startup costs, and reliable income flows assuming you can get contracts. It's about the equivalent of putting up a pizza shop or a Tim Horton's - you'll succeed as long as you're not a fool, but you won't exactly be a Gates or Rockefeller when you're done.

Clean energy, on the other hand, is new, innovation-based, and has nothing fixed except a plan to fleece wealthy lefties. In order for you to achieve market success, you need to come up with either a revolutionary new way of generating clean energy, or a revolutionary new way of producing it for a tenth(or less) of its present cost. This is not the recipe for a stable market - it's basically like investing in a dot-com company in the late 90s. Yes, there's underlying merit to the approach, but too many people have flooded in with grandiose visions that simply cannot work in reality, and thus too many companies fail miserably. There'll be a few who do incredibly well, of course - the one guy who makes a big advance in the field will become filthy rich in a way no PMC investor ever could - but most will fail. It's a risky business, and even if it's likely to do as well on average as a PMC, people are less likely to go for risk.

Add to that that the economics and physics of clean energy are basically doomed to failure - I can think of only two sources of economically viable energy in history to be cleaner than their predecessors, and those are oil and nuclear, neither of which is exactly what you have in mind - and you're left with a hole that no self-respecting financier would go anywhere near. People are pouring money into it for many reasons, but financial viability isn't among them, and it won't be for quite a while.

The Mound of Sound said...

Well put, Alex. Damn but you're depressing! Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your thoughts.