Transport: how Silicon Valley turns technologies against us all

January 23, 2023

Review of Road to Nowhere: what Silicon Valley gets wrong about the future of transportation, by Paris Marx (2022, Verso)

Unleashing Uber on cities would cut car ownership, because ride-hailing would be cheaper, Travis Kalanick, then Uber’s chief executive, claimed in 2015. It would reduce traffic congestion, allow car parks to be converted to other uses, and complement public transport with its “last mile” service.

Uber drivers demonstrate in London in March 2021, when the IWGB union won a court decision that they are workers, not self-employed. Photo from IWGB

Investors bought into Kalanick’s story, that Uber’s innovative app would produce these benefits, to the tune of billions of dollars. Central to his patter was the claim that Uber was a tech company, not a transport company (since denied by courts in the UK and New Zealand), and his crusade against local government regulations and the “taxi cartel”.

In Road to Nowhere, Paris Marx not only unmasks these falsehoods, but also explains Silicon Valley’s place in the broader crisis of capital, and the social, economic and ecological damage it does.

Marx recounts how Uber expanded in the US after the 2008 recession, flooding the market with drivers, to whom it offered incentives that were then withdrawn, while pay was cut.

Uber’s predatory pricing, financed by stock exchange investors, drove traditional taxi companies out of business. Taxi drivers’ incomes plummeted and their lives fell apart, triggering a slew of suicides.

The post-recession environment provided both a large pool of precarious labour and what Marx calls “incredible technological optimism” (page 109). Central to Uber’s strategy was an assault on cities’ transport regulations and on the labour conditions won over decades by taxi drivers’ union power. Uber and the other technology companies, cheered on by US conservatives and libertarians, deployed technologies as weapons in the class war. 

In the midst of the gathering climate crisis, Uber’s new technology drove greenhouse emissions upwards. Directly contradicting Kalanick’s promises, the Uber model put more vehicles on the road.

Read the rest of this entry »

The real futures tech is building

January 23, 2023

In this excerpt from Road to Nowhere, PARIS MARX explains how and why the big tech companies moved into urban transport in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. Republished here with permission. See also People & Nature’s review of the book 

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the tech industry grew substantially and claimed a dominant position not just in the United States, but across the global economy. The internet was firmly established by that point, and it began moving from the desk to the palm of people’s hands as smartphone adoption soared through the 2010s. Cloud computing and other software products made it much cheaper than in the past to launch a start-up and compete for a piece of the rapidly growing industry. Meanwhile, financing was abundant, not just because decades of inequality had caused more wealth to flow to those at the top, but also due to policy choices taken to combat the recession.

The trillions of dollars printed by the Federal Reserve and other central banks through quantitative easing, and the low interest rates that persisted throughout the 2010s, created an environment that boosted the stock market even as most workers’ prospects continued to stagnate, which benefited venture capitalists and made it much easier for new companies in the tech sector to access capital. Such a dynamic granted investors, influential founders, and executives at the dominant companies in the industry a significant degree of power in shaping what the post-recession economy looked like – and who it served.

By 2010, today’s tech giants were continuing their rapid growth, but they were not yet the juggernauts they would become a decade later. Google had a number of popular services in addition to Search, but many people still believed its “do no evil” slogan. Amazon’s positions in ecommerce and cloud computing were growing, but it was not yet seen as such an existential threat to brick-and-mortar retail. Apple was reinventing itself with the iPhone, but it was far from being one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. Yet, as they expanded, other companies made use of smartphone access, new digital tools, and the excitement around the tech economy, to make their own splash.

Read the rest of this entry »

What cutting greenhouse gas emissions actually means in practice

October 24, 2022

“We have to do things very differently”, transport researcher Jillian Anable told the Royal Meteorological Society’s Climate Change Forum in London last week. “It’s not about celebrating electric vehicles.”

Cars are “getting bigger and heavier”, Anable warned, meaning that “it will take longer to decarbonise the system”. Of new car sales globally, 46% are SUVs.

Architects for Climate Action and Architects Declare joined Fridays for Future to march through London on 23 September. Photo from Architects Declare twitter feed

For every electric car sold, 10-15 large vehicles are sold: they “negate the effect of that electric vehicle many times over”. Moreover, half the electric cars sold are plug-in hybrids, which use “a great deal” of petrol and diesel.

No country has “achieved the speed and scale of reductions [in greenhouse gas emissions] that we now need”, Anable, professor of Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds, said. And no country has “achieved deep and long-term reductions [in transport emissions] without restricting car use.”

Anable was one of several researchers at the Forum who addressed the yawning gap between government declarations about climate change, and the snail’s pace of action – the gap that has infuriated, and motivated, the new generation of protesters from Greta Thunberg to Just Stop Oil.

Transport, the built environment and the food chain – three areas of gigantic fuel consumption – were covered in detail. Adaptation (coping with the effects of climate change) was considered along with mitigation (how to minimise the level of global heating).

Built environment researcher Alice Moncaster launched a broadside against the culture of demolish-and-build, as opposed to retrofitting existing buildings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Europe’s hydrogen greenwash is the last thing Ukraine needs

August 12, 2022

The European Commission, cheered on by fossil fuel companies, is promoting a plan to put exporting hydrogen to Europe at the centre of Ukraine’s post-war recovery. The plan reeks of greenwash and neocolonialism, and should be scrapped, Simon Pirani writes.

Tripilska heat and power plant near Kyiv. Photo by Matvey Andreyev / Creative Commons

Hydrogen is extracted from fossil gas and is used in oil refining and industrial processes. It has a huge carbon footprint, as left-over carbon is released into the air.

Hydrogen lobbyists say that in future the gas will be “blue” (with the left-over carbon captured and stored) or “green” (made by electrolysis – passing an electric current through water). But even “green” hydrogen, the only carbon-free kind, gulps down huge quantities of renewable electricity. Plans to export it from Ukraine – which will need that clean electricity itself for decades to come – are little more than cynical profiteering in wartime.

Hydrogen may be used in future in industrial sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as steelmaking, fertiliser production and long-distance transport. But the picture painted by lobbyists, of its widespread use for residential heating and urban transport, is dangerously counter-productive.

It undermines effective climate policies in the interests of fossil fuel companies – who see hydrogen as a survival strategy, because it can be made from gas, and uses similar infrastructure and technologies.

Where the plan came from

The European Commission’s Fit for 55 decarbonisation policy, published in 2021, featured a plan to generate “green” hydrogen from thousands of electrolytic cells in Ukraine and north Africa, and export it to European countries. This idea was lifted wholesale from a plan proposed by Hydrogen Europe, an industry lobbying group, the year before.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, far from offering pause for thought about plunging resources into a speculative technology, accelerated the hydrogen import plan.

Read the rest of this entry »

Two enemies, one fight: climate disaster and frightful energy bills

May 16, 2022

Two clouds darken the sky. A close-up one: gas and electricity bills have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and millions of families are struggling to pay. And a bigger, darker, higher one: the climate disaster, and politicians’ refusal to tackle it.

Ultimately, both these threats have a single cause: fossil fuels and the systems of wealth and power that depend on them. We need social movements to link the fight to protect families from unaffordable bills with the fight to move beyond fossil fuels, and in that way turn back global warming.

Here I suggest ways to develop such a movement in the UK, starting by demanding action on home heating.

Two linked crises

Since the government lifted the price cap on energy bills on 1 April, the average energy bill for 18 million households on standard tariffs rose to £1971 per year, from £1277. Another 4.5 million households on pre-payment schemes are paying an average of £2017 per year. And in October, bills could well rise above £3000.

There are now 6.3 million UK households (including 2.5 million with children) in fuel poverty, meaning that they are unable to heat their home to an adequate temperature. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition says that could rise to 8.5 million by the end of this year.

The main fuels for UK homes are gas, and electricity produced from gas and nuclear power. Retail prices have been driven up by a rise in gas, oil and coal prices on world markets – which started rising last year, as economies recovered from the pandemic, but shot upwards faster from March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war, and sanctions on Russia by western powers, could keep fossil fuel prices high for years. They have also driven global food prices upwards. This is the biggest bout of inflation worldwide since the 1970s.

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy from renewables

February 17, 2022

As part of a discussion about energy and social justice, DAVID SCHWARTZMAN responds to points made by Larry Lohmann in his article The class struggle inside energy, also published today. And you can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here.

On the use of metaphor, I said in my post Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?, that Larry is now responding to:

While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition.

Metals recycling is part of the answer

Yes, of course I recognize the essential role of metaphors in the generation of scientific theories, as well as their use in more general discourse (for another example see the section “Other Uses of Entropy”  in my 2009 paper “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?”).  

I am puzzled by Larry’s claim that I defended by implication an unrestrained capital-driven renewable energy transition.  I clearly advocated that this energy transition should be informed by an ecosocialist agenda, not relying on “green” capital to deliver a just process, rather strongly supporting the goals of decommodification and a global solar commons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuel systems and how to change them

January 20, 2022

An on-line talk (35 minutes) by Simon Pirani, hosted by Endgames / RS21, on 17 January 2022.

“Most politicians pretend that by (i) substituting renewable electricity generation for coal- and gas-fired generation, (ii) introducing technofixes such as electric cars, and (iii) ‘reducing consumption’ by final users (a little), they are doing something about climate change. These are delusions. To combat delusions, and work out which technologies are compatible with tackling climate change and social injustice, society as a whole needs to develop its understanding of these technological systems and of alternatives.” (The slides for the talk are here.)


Liverpool: Stop the electronic war fair

August 13, 2021

RITCHIE HUNTER writes about Liverpool City Council and the electronic arms fair due to take place at the Exhibition Centre in Liverpool in October

Slave-branding in England, 1853. Photo from wikimedia commons / New York Public Library

During the slave trade, Liverpool Council spent thousands of pounds fighting the abolition movement and conferred the freedom of the borough on those who were the ‘spin doctors’ of the day. 

This was in a city where thumbscrews, branding irons, and fetters for use on slaves, with devices for opening their mouths when they refused to eat, could all be seen for sale in ships chandlers’ windows.

Fast forward to today and Liverpool City Council have decided not to cancel the arms fair planned for October, even though they own the venue.

This is the resolution passed by the Council on 21 July 2021:

Read the rest of this entry »

Luddism for the age of robotics

May 5, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job, by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller.

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry” (page 127).

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Alfa Romeo strikers march in January 1972. The placard reads “the Working Class Goes to Heaven”. From Libcom

Allowing Walmart or Amazon to “swallow the globe” would entrench “exploitative models of production and distribution”, and channel resources to reactionary billionaires, he writes:

Letting technology take its course will lead not to egalitarian outcomes, but authoritarian ones, as the ultra-wealthy expend their resources on shielding themselves from any accountability to the rest of us: postapocalyptic bunkers, militarised yachts, private islands and even escapes to outer space (page 128.)

Given the persistence – in trade union hierarchies and even among leftist writers – of technocratic dogma (fantasies about electric cars or geoengineering, for example), Mueller’s book is very welcome.

He grounds his “decelerationism” not only in texts, but in workers’ struggles to confront, confound or control technologies in the workplace – starting with the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed machines that were used by employers to cut pay and tighten labour discipline.   

Read the rest of this entry »

The hydrogen hoax

December 18, 2020

“Low carbon?” Its emissions are more than twice the UK economy’s

All of a sudden, hydrogen is (supposedly) a weapon to fight global warming. Governments are bigging it up in their “net zero” plans; oil companies say they are investing in it; union leaders say it will create jobs.

But no-one talks about the really existing hydrogen industry, that each year produces about 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen, and another 45 million tonnes of hydrogen in other chemical products … and pours 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yes, you read that right. 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 2% of total global total greenhouse gas emissions. Equal to about four-fifths of the emissions from aviation; more than twice the entire UK economy’s emissions. (See Endnote 1 about the numbers.)

Of that 115 million tonnes of hydrogen output, more than 99% is “grey” hydrogen – which means it is extracted from natural gas, coal or oil, and the carbon dioxide left over ends up in the air.

It’s fashionable to talk about “blue” hydrogen (made from fossil fuels, but with the carbon captured and stored, instead of being emitted) and “green” hydrogen (produced by electrolysis of water, using gigantic quantities of electricity). But these techniques are used only in a tiny handful of businesses. “Grey” hydrogen is completely dominant.

Companies and governments are promising to expand “blue” and “green” hydrogen production. They claim it will replace natural gas to heat people’s homes, and petrol for cars, and that it will cut carbon emissions.

But before expanding hydrogen production, what about decarbonising existing output?

That would be a big cut in the world’s carbon emissions. Nearly as big a cut as if aviation stopped. More than twice as big a cut as if the UK went to zero.

It would also mean a big shake-up of some of the world’s most polluting industries – oil refining and petrochemicals production – where the hydrogen is produced and used.

There is little mention of hydrogen’s gigantic carbon footprint in the glossy reports, press releases and “net zero” policies of the companies that produce it. But a report Read the rest of this entry »


%d bloggers like this: