Naomi Klein, photograph by Joe Mabel, distributed via Wikimedia Commons

In a tidal wave of good news stories, infographics and Facebook memes about renewable energy job creation, the implicit, unquestioned assumption is that More Jobs = A Healthier Economy.

A popular Facebook meme, based on the Stanford University Solutions Project, celebrates the claim that in a renewable energy-powered Canada, 40% more people will work in the energy sector.

From the Environment Hamilton Facebook page.

From the Environment Hamilton Facebook page.

In elaborate info-graphics, the Solutions Project provides comparable claims for all 50 US states and countries around the world – although “assertion-graphic” might be a better term, since the graphics are presented with no footnotes and no clear links to any data that might allow a skeptical mind to evaluate the conclusions.

From The Solutions Project website.

From The Solutions Project website.

And Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and one of the proponents of The Leap Manifesto, cites the Energy Transition in Germany and notes that 400,000 new jobs have already been created. In her hour-long talk on the CBC Radio Ideas program and podcast, Klein gets at some of the key issues that will determine whether More Energy Jobs = A Good Thing, and we’ll return to this podcast later.

To start, though, let’s look at the issue through the following proposition:

The 20th century fossil-fueled economic growth spurt happened not because the energy industry created many jobs, but because it created very few jobs.

For most of human history, providing energy in the form of food calories was the major human occupation. Even in societies that consumed relatively high amounts of energy via firewood, harvesting and transporting that wood kept a lot of people busy.

But during the 19th and 20th centuries, as the available per capita energy supply in industrialized countries exploded, the proportion of the population employed supplying that energy dropped dramatically.

The result: instead of farming to provide the carbohydrates that feed humans and oxen, or cutting firewood to heat buildings, nearly the whole population has been free to do other activities. Whether we have made good use of this opportunity is debatable, but we’ve had plenty of energy, and nearly our entire labour force, available to run an elaborate manufacturing, consumption and service economy.

Seen from this perspective, the claim that renewable energy will create more jobs might set off alarms.

What’s in a job?

Part of the difficulty is that when we speak of a job, we refer to two (or more) very different things.

A job might mean simply something that has to be done. In this sense of the word, we don’t usually celebrate jobs. If we need to carry all our water in buckets from a well five kilometers from home, there are a lot of jobs in water-carrying – but we would probably welcome having taps right in our kitchens instead. Agriculture employs a lot of people if the only tools are sticks, but with better tools the same amount of food can be raised with fewer people working the fields.

So when we think of a job as the need to do something, we typically think that the fewer jobs the better.

When we celebrate job-creation, on the other hand, we typically mean something quite different – a “job” is an activity that is accompanied by a pay-cheque. Since in our society most of us need to get pay-cheques for most of our lives, job-creation strikes us as a good thing to the extant that pay-cheques are involved.

Here’s the wrinkle with renewable energy job creation: the renewable energy transition will likely create jobs in the sense of adding to the quantity of work that must be done (which we normally try to minimize) and jobs in the sense of providing pay-cheques (which we typically want to maximize). The two types of job-creation are at cross-purposes, and the outcome is uncertain.

Allocation of energy surplus

Widespread prosperity depends not only on what work is done and what surplus is produced, but on how that surplus is allocated and distributed.

In the middle of the 20th century in North America and Europe, only a few people worked in energy supply but they produced a huge surplus. At the same time, the products of surplus energy were distributed in relatively equal fashion, compared to the rising levels of inequality today. The mass consumption economy – a brief anomaly in human history which is ironically referred to as Business As Usual – depended on both conditions being met. There had to be a large surplus of energy produced (or, more accurately, extracted) by a few people, and this surplus energy had to be widely distributed so that most people could participate in a consumer economy.

Naomi Klein gives prominent emphasis to the second of these two conditions. In her CBC Radio Ideas talk, she says

There’s a group in the US called Movement Generation which has a slogan that I quote a lot, which is that “transition is invevitable, but justice is not.” You can respond to climate change in a way that people putting up solar panels are paid terrible wages. In the US prison inmates are making some of the solar panels that they’re putting up. … There has to be a road map for responding to climate change in an intersectional way, which solves multiple problems at once.”

She cites the German Energy Transition as an encouraging example:

There are 900 new energy co-operatives that have sprung up in Germany. Two hundred towns and cities in Germany have taken their energy grids back from the private companies that took them over in the 1990s, and they call it “energy democracy”. They’re taking back control over their energy, so that the resources stay in the communities and they can use the profits generated from renewable energy to pay for services. They’ve also created 400,000 jobs as part of this transition. So they’re showing how you solve multiple problems at once. Lower emissions create good unionized jobs and generate the revenue we need to fight the logic of austerity at the local level.”

In Klein’s formulation, democratic control of the energy economy is a key to prosperity. Because of this energy democracy, the new jobs are “good unionized jobs” which “fight the logic of austerity”. But is that sustainable in the long run?

As Klein says, in Germany’s “energy democracy” they use “the profits generated from renewable energy to pay for services”. But that presupposes that the renewable energy technologies being used do indeed generate “profits”.

It remains an open question how much profit – how much surplus energy – will be generated from renewable energy development. If renewable energy developments consume nearly as much energy as they produce, then in the long run the energy sector may produce many pay-cheques but they won’t be generous pay-cheques, however egalitarian society might be.

Book cover, Life After Growth by Tim Morgan

Energy sprawl

Tim Morgan uses the apt phrase “energy sprawl” to describe what happens as we switch to energy technologies with a lower Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI).

‘energy sprawl’ … has both physical and economic meanings. In physical terms, the infrastructure required to access energy and deliver it to where it is needed is going to expand exponentially. At the same time, the proportion of GDP absorbed by the energy infrastructure is going to increase as well, which means that the rest of the economy will shrink.” (Life After Growth, Harriman House, 2013, locus 2224)

As Morgan makes clear, energy sprawl is not at all unique to renewable energy transition – it applies equally to non-conventional, bottom-of-the-barrel fossil fuels such as fracked oil and gas, and bitumen extracted from Alberta’s tar sands. There will indeed be more jobs in a renewable resource economy, compared to the glory days of the fossil fuel economy, but there will also be more energy jobs if we cling to fossil fuels.

As energy sprawl proceeds, more of us will work in energy production and distribution, and fewer of us will be free to work at other pursuits. As Klein and the other authors of the Leap Manifesto argue, the higher number of energy jobs might be a net plus for society, if we use energy more wisely AND we allocate surplus more equitably.

But unless our energy technologies provide a good Energy Return On Energy Invested, there will be little surplus to distribute. In other words, there will be lots of new jobs, but few good pay-cheques.

Top photo: Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, photographed by Joe Mabel in October 2015, accessed via Wikimedia Commons