Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Energy: Embracing the Real Alternative

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though the pace of events has picked up significantly over the last few weeks. As I write these words, Libya is apparently poised on the brink of civil war, several other nations in the Middle East are facing mass uprisings, and the price of oil has soared to levels stratospheric enough that the global economy is gasping for breath – US$112 a barrel for benchmark Brent crude. For those who are keeping track, this is right around ten times what the same barrel would have brought in 1998, when today’s peak oil scene began to shake itself out of its post-Seventies hibernation.

Exactly where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but the mostly US-backed dictatorships that have kept much of the Arab world locked in a state of sullen passivity while our SUVs burn their oil are clearly nothing like as stable as they once seemed. Soaring food and commodities prices, along with the impact of a global depression that has ended only in the imaginations of the Obama administration’s spin doctors, have shortened the fuse of popular discontent over large parts of the nonindustrial world. Those people in the industrial nations who have convinced themselves that the natural resources that support their lifestyle are conjured into being in corporate boardrooms are beginning to have to come to terms with their actual dependence on corners of the world where the comforts they take for granted are nowhere to be found.

It will be interesting to see what happens if the current round of crises turns into a full-blown energy crisis, as it well might, with oil prices spiking up past $200 or $300 a barrel, say, and the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel following the same upward trajectory until demand destruction puts a ceiling on them. No doubt there will be any number of attempts to blame it all on the oil companies, or the Arabs, or the Obama administration, or perhaps David Ickes’ imaginary space lizards; no doubt there will be at least as many proposals to rush another round of stimulus money the US government doesn’t have from the Fed’s already overworked printing presses and pour it into fusion power, cellulosic ethanol, and an assortment of other high-tech ratholes; no doubt there will be plenty of people insisting that we’d have all the energy we need if we just put the same amount of freshly printed money down some other set of ratholes. What interests me, though, is whether there will be any amount of attention, or even lip service, paid to the real alternative to petroleum.

There is one, you know. People in the contemporary industrial world rarely think about it, because our civilization is so obsessed with delusions of limitlessness that the only alternative to unlimited fossil fuels most of us can imagine is some other energy source that’s as least as abundant, convenient, and concentrated. The fact that no other energy source fits these specifications simply adds pathos to the fantasy, and motivates the sort of breezy optimism that insists that there must be some vast new source of energy waiting to be found because, basically, we want one, and will whine incessantly until we get it. Beyond the daydreams of cellulosic ethanol, algal biodiesel, and all the other attempts to insist that we can replace the value produced free of charge by half a billion years of prehistoric sunlight and geological heat and pressure with our own supposedly limitless cleverness, though, there’s a simple and relatively straightforward alternative waiting to take up the slack as petroleum goes from cheap and abundant to expensive and not nearly abundant enough.

What’s the alternative? Using a lot less energy.

The average American, it bears repeating, uses something like three times as much energy each year as the average European, to support a standard of living that by most of the usual measures isn’t nearly as high. Some of that extravagance is hardwired into the built environment of American society on a scale that individuals can’t readily change, but this is far from true of all; quite a bit is held in place by nothing more than habit and fashion, and can be changed readily, while a good deal more is built into our physical surroundings on a scale that can be changed by individual action.

It’s this latter dimension that I want to continue to address this week. Unless you live in New England, or one of a few other regions where oil-burning furnaces are still a common source of domestic heat, decreasing the amount of energy you use to heat your home won’t directly affect how well you’ll be able to weather a new oil spike. Indirectly, of course, anything that decreases the amount you have to pay out for one kind of energy will free up money for other uses; furthermore, as the price of petroleum continues to rise relative to natural gas, coal, and other energy sources, it’s a safe bet that other fuels will be used to substitute for petroleum in one way or another – there are already plenty of cars and buses that burn compressed natural gas, for example, and electric cars (running, of course, on electricity that’s mostly produced by burning natural gas or coal) are also beginning to hit the market.

Factor these conversions into the likely future price of natural gas and coal- or natural gas-fired electricity, and a petroleum price spike risks setting off a broader energy crisis, just as it did in the 1970s. The cost of home heating is as vulnerable to this knock-on effect as any other kind of energy use, and being able to make a given amount of heat go further becomes a crucial strategy.

With this in mind, it’s time to talk about insulation.

Most American homes leak heat like sieves. Part of that, as discussed last week, is a function of the fact that most American homes leak air like sieves, and as cold air leaks into your house and warm air leaks out of it, a portion of your heat bill goes for warming the great outdoors by some tiny fraction of a degree. Part of it, though, is a function of the fact that the ceilings, walls, and floors of most American homes offer inadequate resistance to the flow of heat. Put your hand flat against the inner surface of one of your home’s exterior walls some cold winter night; if the wall feels colder than the inside air – and in a lot of American homes these days, it will – you’re feeling the result of low resistance to heat flow.

Resistance to heat flow is measured by what, usefully enough, are called R-values. Every material has its own R-value, and the R-value of most construction materials isn’t very high – a half-inch thick sheet of plywood, for example, has an R-value around 0.62, which is actually less than the R-value of the thin layer of air that clings to the inside surface of each wall of your house. A wall of standard frame construction, without insulation, has an R-value averaging around 4.25. Insulate the same wall with a roll of standard glass-fiber insulation, and its R-value goes up to an average around 12.75, which means that heat takes three times as long to flow through it.

Putting insulation inside a wall can be a complicated operation if the wall is already built, though, and I’ve heard very mixed reports on the kinds of insulation that are pumped into an already-built wall through holes drilled for the purpose. Since this blog is focusing on retrofitting and other measures on a budget, you’ll want to consider this only if you’re already planning on ripping out the drywall or replacing the siding – there are rigid board insulation products you can put on the outside of your house, between the old sheathing and the new siding, with good results. You can also borrow a trick from the Middle Ages and use fabric hangings of various kinds to insulate your walls; we’ll discuss those in more detail next week.

If you don’t have major domestic surgery or fabric hangings in mind, though, your best options lie elsewhere. The first is right above your head. Heat rises, of course, and so most houses lose a great deal of heat through the ceiling and roof; walk around the neighborhood on a day after there’s been light snow, an inch or so, and you can often see a dramatic difference between the parts of roofs that have heated space beneath them and the parts that don’t, evidence of the amount of heat rising up into the atmosphere. In most cases, the best place to put your insulation is right above the ceiling of your upper floor (if you have more than one), working from the attic, and you want a lot of it – an R-value of 60 is not excessive in a cold climate. The reason you want to have the insulation just above the ceiling is threefold. First, since heat rises, you want as much as possible of it to stop rising while it’s still in your living space, rather than warming the cobwebs in the attic; second, your attic can then be vented, and if you live in a snowy area this will keep the roof cold and prevent the freeze-thaw cycles that generate ice dams along the eaves and potential repair bills in three or four figures; third, if you live in an area with hot summers, a vented attic and good insulation means that the solar heat that builds up under your roof can be vented out into the outside, while the insulation keeps it from trickling down and making your living space miserable in August.

If you have an unheated air space underneath the first floor, whether it’s a basement or a crawlspace, that’s another good area to insulate. Here your insulation should go right up under the floor, and you normally do this from underneath. Insulation with an R-factor of 19 or so is usually enough to keep the cold from creeping in. In most cases, if you caulk, weatherstrip, and insulate above the ceiling and under the floor, you’ll cut your annual heating bills by up to half, using your own unskilled labor and supplies your local hardware store will be happy to sell you. The one further step to add to the package is insulated window coverings, which we’ll be discussing next week – they provide a huge gain, since your ordinary single-pane window has an R-value around 1, but they’re complex enough to require a post of their own.

There’s a complicating factor with insulation, though, and that’s the effect of water vapor. The amount of water vapor that can be carried by a given amount of air depends on the temperature of the air, and as the temperature drops, the vapor turns back into liquid water and condenses onto any available surface. That’s where the drops on the outside of a bottle of cold beer come from – the air close to the bottle becomes chilled, and the water vapor contained in the air condenses out onto the glass. When it’s cold outside and warm indoors, you get a similar temperature drop in the middle of an insulated wall, and any water vapor that’s present will condense out onto your insulation. Water conducts heat much better than insulation does, so that condensed water causes a sharp decrease in the R-value of your insulation, and it can also lead to problems with mildew and dry rot in extreme cases.

You prevent this with vapor barriers. The standard vapor barrier these days, I’m sorry to say, is plastic sheeting, which is waterproof, moldproof, airtight, and cheap; finding a way to make something comparable from renewable materials would be a very worthwhile project. In the meantime, though, you need a vapor barrier if you’re going to insulate, and that means plastic sheeting, well overlapped and taped with duct tape. A crucial point you need to remember is that the vapor barrier always goes on the side of the insulation that’s going to be warmer – in other words, when you’re insulating the ceiling from the attic side, or the floor from the basement or crawlspace, the barrier goes in first and the insulation afterwards, but if you’ve torn out some drywall and are installing insulation, the insulation goes in first and the vapor barrier goes on over it, right beneath the new drywall.

Here again, if you have the money to spend, you can insulate the living bejesus out of a house and get it to the point that body heat, cooking, and a bit of additional boost on really cold days will take care of your heating needs. The Passive House system mentioned in last week’s post uses this as one of its ingredients, and it’s certainly an option, but it’s going to set you back a chunk of change. Those who don’t have that kind of money to spare – and they will likely be the very large minority over the decades to come – can still keep themselves, their families, and anybody willing to learn from them comfortably warm in winter on much less energy by using the simpler methods discussed here. Further on down the curve of the Long Descent, as current housing stock wears out, other techniques will need to evolve; with any luck, enough knowledge of how insulation works can be passed on through the upcoming crises to make that process easier than it would otherwise be.

It’s probably necessary to reiterate here that insulating your home is not going to save the world. For that matter, insulating all the homes in America won’t save the world, and that probably can’t be managed at this point anyway, if only because most Americans have gotten so tipsy on the fantasy of infinite energy that only a fairly modest fraction of the population is likely to be willing to put in the modest amount of labor and money needed to do the thing. Still, as I’ve suggested tolerably often in these posts, we are long past the point where any sort of grand organized project to stave off the Long Descent could still be carried out with any hope of success, even if the resource surplus still existed and the political will could be mustered. The window has closed, the surpluses are gone, and the political will to accomplish much of anything but handwaving and hunting for scapegoats went AWOL a long time ago; what remains is the hard but potentially rewarding project of adapting to a challenging future, and to that, simple steps such as home insulation have much to offer.


Here again, the best place to start is with the Master Conserver worksheets available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are the ones titled "Home Insulation" and "Reducing Moisture Problems." Beyond that, just about any handbook on home repair and maintenance published in America from the 1960s onwards includes a section on how to install the usual kinds of insulation. Larry Gay’s The Complete Book of Insulating is a good reference for those who want to go the extra step or two.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Energy: What Actually Matters

It’s not uncommon, when I give public talks about the end of the industrial age, for people to ask me whether I can offer them any hope. Now of course people mean many different things by the very indefinite word at the end of that utterance; some want me to tell them that I was only joking and industrial civilization isn’t really careening headfirst into hard planetary limits, others want me to tell them that when the crash is over and the dust settles, some kindly power or other will hand them an even shinier society than the one we’ve got, and still others will settle for being told that our civilization won’t drop dead until at least a few moments after they do.

To all these I have nothing to offer. Still, there are always a few who simply want to know if there’s some reason to believe that the next half century or so might not be quite as ghastly as it looks. I do have something to offer them, and it’s one of the ironies of our time that the reason for hope I’d like to discuss in this week’s post is also one of the most annoying features of contemporary society: the very common assumption that people in the industrial world can’t possibly scrape by without access to amounts and kinds of energy that few if any of our ancestors would have been able to figure out what to do with.

I’ve discussed more than once in these posts the fact that the average American uses around three times as much energy each year as the average European, to support a standard of living that by most of the standard measures isn’t even as good. That’s relevant to the point I hope to make, but there’s another factor as well. Most of the energy that’s directly used by a household in a modern industrial society consists of highly concentrated fuels and 120-volt alternating current electricity. The forms of energy that are actually needed to support a fairly comfortable human life, on the other hand, consist of food on the one hand, and a distinctly modest supply of relatively diffuse heat for cooking, water heating, and space heating during cold weather on the other.

Mind you, this is what’s needed to support a fairly comfortable human life. Most of our ancestors got by with a lot less, and a good many of our descendants will probably do the same. Still, most of our ancestors, and in all probability at least an equal share of our descendants, would or will see the point in a well-stocked pantry, a working stove, hot water on tap, and a home where the ambient temperature is well above freezing in winter, and it seems reasonable to aim for these things now – particularly because they are a lot less difficult to provide than most of the frankly less important uses of energy that get most of the press these days.

It’s worth being a bit more specific. Producing highly concentrated fuels and 120-volt alternating current electricity at home, in anything like the quantities most Americans use these days, with the sort of resources and equipment most Americans can cobble together readily, is a very challenging task; for most of us, "impossible" would be a better description. Producing the amounts of food and diffuse heat that’s needed for a comfortable lifestyle under the same conditions is a good deal less challenging, and in some situations it’s actually pretty easy. Most current projects for dealing with the harsh constraints on energy supplies in the wake of peak oil have fixated on finding ways to keep the highly concentrated fuels and electricity flowing, and a great deal of highly dubious reasoning and evidence has been trotted out in an attempt to insist that we can keep pipelines and gas tanks topped up and grids humming with power from renewable sources; meanwhile, by and large, the much simpler resources that human beings actually need to survive have been left out of the discussion.

The Green Wizard project was launched, in large part, to offer an alternative to this sort of thinking. We’ve spent much of the last six months talking about ways to produce at least some of your own food in your own backyard, using hand tools and readily available organic soil amendments in place of the extravagantly energy-wasting methods of food production indulged in by current agribusiness. There’s plenty more that could be said on that subject, and I’ll doubtless be saying some of it in passing as my own backyard garden begins another season, but the main focus of the posts to come will be on the other half of the equation: diffuse heat.

And this, dear reader, means that you need to get friendly with the laws of thermodynamics.

That may seem like an unlikely assignment, if only because the laws in question don’t seem particularly interested in making friends. Most popular presentations of the laws of thermodynamics these days tend to stress the negative side of these much-maligned rules. Still, as the word suggests, thermodynamics is simply the branch of physics that tells you how heat moves, and if you’re going to be moving diffuse heat around, you need to know how that’s done. The British musical comedy duo Swann and Flanders made this easy some decades ago by explaining the first two laws of thermodynamics in a lively little song. (The link, I’m sorry to say, will play you the song but won’t show you Swann and Flanders singing it; for reasons that left me utterly baffled, the only copy I could find online has video-game characters dancing around and fighting monsters in tune to the music. And, inevitably, throwing around vast amounts of energy in the form of lightning bolts. Go figure.)

Got that? Okay, now that you’re tapping your toes to the melody, let’s apply it.

One of the pervasive mistakes made by people in the industrial world these days – oh, all right, made by most Americans and a much smaller number of people elsewhere – is the notion that the only thing that matters when you’re dealing with heat is having enough energy to produce it. Every autumn, accordingly, you can go to your local department store and find scores of portable heaters waiting for you in serried ranks, so that you can turn electricity or propane or what have you into plenty of heat wherever you want it. You can do that, but unless you do something to encourage the heat to stay around for a while, it’s not going to work very well, and it’s also going to cost you plenty, because producing heat is only the first part of what matters; the rest of the equation, which is in many ways the most important part, is keeping the heat from leaving the place you put it any sooner than it has to.

This is helpful even if you’ve got abundant fossil fuels or plenty of electricity handy. If you don’t, and you have to get by with the much less concentrated energy available from renewable sources, it’s not helpful, it’s essential. The maxim from my old Master Conserver classes was "weatherize before you solarize," and the principle can be extended: unless you take steps to use heat effectively, if you try to get your heat needs met from renewable sources, you’re basically wasting your time.

So the first and most crucial step in making sure that you have enough diffuse heat in your life to get by comfortably in an energy-constrained future is to do a smarter job of using whatever heat you’ve got. In order to do this, you need to know how heat leaves the places where you want it—your home will do for now; we’ve already talked about the food you cook, and we’ll talk about hot water in a later post.

Swann and Flanders’ useful ditty could use just a bit of modification for our purposes, because the three ways that heat passes from a hotter body to a cooler body – conduction, convection, and radiation – aren’t equally important in green wizardry. Conduction is the most important of the lot, convection gets a look in here and there, and radiation is a minor factor; there’s also a fourth, combined factor, which is nearly as important as conduction, that’s called infiltration. This is air movement through leaks, and it’s the process by which cold air gets into your house. Technically speaking, infiltration is balanced by exfiltration, which is the process by which the nice warm air in your house goes outdoors so it can radiate its heat to the environment; in practice, since infiltration and exfiltration use the same kinds of leaks and can be fixed in the same ways, the label "infiltration" does for both.

This is a huge issue in most American homes – anything from a fifth to a half of the heating load on a house is typically accounted for by losses to infiltration and exfiltration – and in most cases, it’s also far and away the easiest and cheapest source of heat loss to fix. The gear you’ll need are a caulk gun, several (usually, quite a few) tubes of good weatherproof caulk, and an assortment of weatherstripping supplies for doors and windows; a sturdy scrubbing brush, cleaning supplies, and a pair of gloves you don’t mind ruining also belong on the list. Your local hardware store will provide you with everything you need.

If you’ve never used caulk or a caulk gun before, you’ll find detailed instructions in the fourth of the Master Conserver handouts available for free download at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website, and you can also find good instructions in any decent book on home repair. Your goal is to find all the little cracks where air is leaking into and out of your home, and seal them with caulk. There are almost certainly a lot of them: along the baseplate where your house joins its foundations, along the frames of windows and doors, in the little holes drilled through the walls by the guy who installed cable television or internet service, around outdoor water faucets, and the list goes on. Search the inside and outside of your exterior walls, and find every crack and gap; make sure the surfaces are clean, so that caulk will stick to them, and then, to borrow a phrase from one of my instructors, caulk those puppies.

Now of course you’re not going to caulk the moving parts of your windows and doors, since you need to be able to open and close them. (Nonmoving parts of windows can and should be caulked; if the windows are old, they probably leak like sieves.) For doors and windows that open, you need weatherstripping. There’s a dizzying range of products available; most of them haven’t changed much since I studied this stuff in the 1980s – for that matter, most of them haven’t changed much since the 1950s- and 1960s-era home handyman books I collect started to include chirpy little articles on "Saving Money with Weatherstripping!" – but different door and window situations call for different kinds of weatherstripping, so take your time and explore your options. The Master Conserver handout mentioned above has a fair amount of info on the subject, and so will books, new or used, that cover energy conservation at home.

A few other details can help you close off other air leaks. Electric sockets and switches on the inside of exterior walls are often the places where the air that leaks in through openings elsewhere gets into your living spaces; your hardware store will sell you inexpensive foam gaskets that go behind the faceplates to take care of this. The hatch into your attic, if you have one, needs to be weatherstripped, since your attic is probably vented to outside – and if it isn’t, it should be; more on this in a later post – and can leak a lot of heat. Finally, if you’ve got an open fireplace, one heck of a lot of warm air is rising out through the chimney to warm the great outdoors. A set of glass doors or some other way of closing up the fireplace opening when it’s not in use will be well worth your while.

By the time you finish caulking and weatherstripping, not to mention putting in foam gaskets and installing glass doors on your fireplace, you may be wondering how any air is going to get into your house so you can breathe it. With the relatively simple technologies we’re using, that’s not an issue; if you do a good job, you’re probably going to be able to reduce the rate at which air flows through your house by something around half, which means that you’re going to save about half the money that infiltration currently costs you – roughly ten to twenty-five per cent of your heating bill, in other words – without causing any problems worth noticing with air quality.

There are high-tech methods out there that will save you a great deal more. Very thorough sealing is an important part of those methods, and so is air quality remediation. These aren’t things you can do yourself – you’ll need to hire a professional – and you’re going to shell out quite a bit of money to do it, but if you’ve got the funds to invest, free heat for life is a pretty good payback; the Passive House system, which was invented in Germany and has recently taken root on this side of the Atlantic, is one approach about which I’ve heard good things. Still, unless I’m very much mistaken, the vast majority of the readers of this blog don’t have the kind of spare income that would allow them to drop five figures on a passive house remodel, and even fewer will have that kind of money as the economic unraveling of our society picks up speed; furthermore, it’s exactly those among us who don’t have the funds to spare for that sort of project that have the most urgent need to save money and energy just now.

Cutting down on infiltration by caulking and weatherstripping, then, is the first step in getting your home ready for an age of energy limits. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll discuss some of the other steps: all of them inexpensive, all of them easy enough that the average homeowner or renter ought to be able to do them effectively, and all of them important in cushioning the impact of rising energy costs in an age when most people will no longer be able to afford ignoring what kinds of energy use actually matter.


The book that needs to be listed at the very top here is one I haven’t been able to find: a good clear explanation of the laws of thermodynamics in language that a fourth-grader can follow, with plenty of colorful examples. If there is one, I’d be grateful if someone can point me to it; if there isn’t, there’s got to be a physicist out there who can write one, and I can probably even talk a publisher or two into giving it a look. In the meantime, there’s always Swann and Flanders.

Good detailed instructions on caulking and weatherstripping can be found in almost every guide to do-it-yourself home repair published since the end of the Second World War; your local public library can probably provide you with a couple of good examples, and so can your favorite used book store; review the details and then get to work, and you’ll be in a position to help your neighbors figure out how it’s done. The Master Conserver handouts mentioned earlier in this post are also useful.

If you’re interested in the Passive House system, a visit to is a good way to find out about it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Energy Funds, Energy Flows

It’s a safe bet that whenever I post something here discussing the limits to energy resources, one result will be a flurry of emails and attempted comments insisting that it just ain’t so. I’ve long since stopped responding to them, since the arguments they raise – they’re always the same – have been repeatedly addressed here and in my books on peak oil, and endlessly rehashing the same really rather straightforward issues isn’t that productive a use of my time. Still, I keep track of them; it’s a useful reminder of just how many people have never quite grasped the fact that the laws of nature are under no obligation to cater to our culture’s emotionally charged fantasies of perpetual progress and limitless growth.

That failure to come to terms with the realities of our predicament is by no means restricted to internet bloggers, to be sure. The World Wildlife Federation, to cite only one example, has just released a lavishly produced study insisting that the world can replace 95% of its fossil fuel energy from renewables by 2050, with ample room for population increases, ongoing economic growth in the industrial world, and a boom in the nonindustrial world that will supposedly raise it out of poverty. The arguments in the report will be wearily familiar to anybody who’s followed the peak oil debate for any noticeable length of time; Erik Lundberg of Transition Milwaukee has already commented on these in some detail, and his points don’t need to be revisited here.

Underlying all the grand and sweeping fantasies of endless economic growth powered somehow by lukewarm sunlight and inconstant wind, I’ve come to think, lies the simple fact that the human mind never quite got around to evolving the capacity to think in terms of the huge amounts of energy our species currently, and briefly, has at its disposal. It’s one thing to point out that a planeload of tourists flying from Los Angeles to Cairo to see the Great Pyramid, back when political conditions in Egypt allowed for that, used more energy in that one flight than it took to build the Great Pyramid in the first place. It’s quite another to understand exactly what that means – to get some sense of the effort it took for gangs of laborers to haul all those blocks of stone from the quarries to the Nile, load them on boats, then haul them up from the Nile’s edge east of Giza and get them into place in the slowly rising mass of the Pyramid, and then to equate all that effort with the fantastic outpouring of force that flows through the turbines of a modern jet engine and keeps an airliner poised in the thin air 40,000 feet above the ground for the long flight from LA to Cairo.

Like the age of the Earth or the distance to the nearest star, that torrential flow of energy is on a scale our minds are simply not capable of grasping in any but the most abstract sense. From the perspective we inherit from our evolutionary origins, where the effort needed to chase down an antelope or fight off a hyena lies toward the upper end of our imaginations, the power needed to keep a couple of hundred tons of aluminum, steel, fuel, luggage, and human flesh in midair for most of a day is so close to infinite that it’s all too easy to confuse the two.

As we prepare to navigate the rough waters of the immediate future, though, confusing the two is a major mistake. The fantasy of infinite energy is what’s behind the assumption, common throughout the industrial world, that using as much energy as possible in as many ways as possible is an unqualified good. Once supply limits enter the picture, unlimited use becomes problematic, but it’s important to grasp that there are two kinds of limits to energy availability and two kinds of problems that result.

The best way to think of the difference I’m addressing here is to borrow a metaphor from money. One kinds of energy limit is a limit to energy flows, which works like the limit imposed by the amount of a weekly paycheck. If you make five hundred dollars a week, that’s how much you have to spend that week, and if the potential uses for that money amount to more than five hundred a week, you have to prioritize. So much has to be set aside for rent, so much for food, so much for utilities, and so on, before you decide how much you can afford to spend on whatever else you have in mind. Neglect to prioritize and you can end up scrambling to get by until your next weekly paycheck shows up.

The other kind of energy limit is a limit to energy funds, which functions like the limit imposed by the amount of an inheritance or a lump-sum lottery win. If you have ten million dollars in the bank from a winning lottery ticket, the kind of limit the fund’s size puts on you is very different from the kind that a weekly paycheck puts on you. Treated as a fund, that ten million dollars is all you’ll ever have to spend, and unless there’s less than ten million dollars’ worth of expenditures you’ll want to make in your entire life, you have to prioritize, just like the guy making five hundred a week.

Notice, though, that if you’ve got a fund rather than a flow, the temptation to ignore priorities and run amuck with your wealth can be very high, because payback doesn’t come midway through the week; it comes when your bank balance drops too low to cover your current expenses, and when that happens, it’s far too late to do anything about it. If you have more than the usual amount of brains the gods gave hominids, you can dodge this by turning the fund into a source of flow. In the world of money, this is called investing: you buy assets that give you a steady return, and the resulting flow becomes the bedrock on which you build your financial life; even if you mess up and have to scramble, there’s always the next check to help you out. Still, you have to make the decision to do that, and then keep your grubby hands off the funds you’ve invested.

Apply this to energy and you’ve basically got the history of the modern world. Until our species broke into the Earth’s store of fossil fuels and started going through it like a lottery winner on a spree, we lived from paycheck to paycheck on the incoming flows from the sun, and we got fairly clever at it. Growing food crops, raising livestock, building windmills and waterwheels, designing houses to soak up heat from the sun in winter and shed it in the summer, and a good many other ingenious tricks gave us the annual paycheck of energy we used to support ourselves and cover the costs of such luxury goods as art, literature, philosophy, science, and the occasional Great Pyramid.

With the transformation of coal from ugly black rock to energy resource over the course of the eighteenth century, that changed radically. Simply put, our species won the lottery, and it wasn’t a paltry little million-dollar prize, either – it was the great-grandmother of all jackpots, unimaginably vast enough that for most of three hundred years, the major constraint on how fast we used fossil fuels was the struggle to figure out enough clever ways to use it all. What nobody noticed at the time, or for a long time thereafter, was that we’d switched from a flow to a fund, and the faster our fossil fuel use accelerated, the faster the bank balance depleted.

We could have done the smart thing and converted the fund into a source of flows. That’s what the alternative energy scene of the 1970s was all about: figuring out ways to use the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves to bridge the gap to a renewable energy technology that could last after the fossil fuels were gone. Even then, it was a gamble; nobody knew for sure if it would be possible, even using the world’s still-huge fossil fuel reserves, to create a renewable infrastructure sturdy and productive enough that it could keep providing ample energy into the far future. Still, it’s possible that it could have been done, if the initiatives launched in that decade had been pursued in the decades that followed.

The people responsible for the World Wildlife Fund study, and those people who deluge me with cornucopian screeds that aren’t simply chanting "Drill, baby, drill" or insisting that God Almighty will refill the world’s oilfields so that we can keep on living exactly the sort of life of extravagant luxury, wealth and pride their own Bible condemns in no uncertain terms, are basically insisting that this is still an option. It’s not, and the reason it’s not comes from the one major difference between money and energy resources: in the world of energy, a fund is also subject to restrictions on flow. It’s as though the bank account where you have your lottery winnings stashed has a regulation saying that you can only withdraw two per cent of your total balance per month.

If you’ve got ten million dollars in the bank, that limit hardly seems worth noticing at first, but as your tastes grow more extravagant and your bills mount up, the amount you think you need each month goes up, and the amount you can theoretically withdraw goes down as your balance depletes. Sooner or later those two lines cross, and once that happens only a drastic program of cutting expenses and prioritizing bills can save you from financial ruin. Unless you’re willing to suck it up and live very cheaply for a good long while, you certainly can’t afford to take the money you have left and sock it into an investment; you need the money to cover your bills right now, and the best you can probably hope for is that the remainder of your lottery winnings will clear your debts and maybe pay for some nice things you won’t be able to afford in the future, when you’re back to earning five hundred a week.

The restrictions on flow that affect fossil fuels are the product of geology and economics, not bank regulations, but the principle is the same. It’s simply not possible to extract more than a certain amount of oil from a given oil field per year – the amount varies from field to field due to fine details of geology – and trying to do so is a good way to exhaust the field prematurely, losing the chance to get some of the oil you might have had by doing things the right way. Despite all the ballyhoo about high-tech methods of extracting oil from the ground, in practice, those turn out to get about the same amount of oil as the old-fashioned method, just a lot faster; in practice, that means that the field keeps production at a higher plateau for a while longer, but runs dry sooner. The limits to coal and natural gas production are a bit more straightforward: neither one is cheap to produce, and the faster you want to produce it, the more it’s going to cost you and the sooner you run out of good places to dig or drill.

Thus you don’t have to run out of fossil fuels to end up in a world of hurt; you just need to get to the point where rising demand crosses decreasing potential flow. Worldwide conventional petroleum production passed that point in 2005; coal is closing in on the equivalent point, the point at which the cost of expanding production from depleting reserves will exceed the ability of the global economy to pay; natural gas is a little further off, though nothing like so far as the press releases from shale gas drilling companies hoping to buoy their stock prices would like you to think. In terms of the metaphor, our bills are mounting and our ability to withdraw enough cash to cover them from the First National Bank of Earth is starting to come into serious question.

Can we afford at this point to invest a very sizable fraction of what we have left in a project of the sort the World Wildlife Fund imagines? Not without a process of global economic retrenchment that would make the Great Depression – the last one, not the current one – look like a lawn party. Political realities being what they are, it’s not going to happen.

This means, as these essays have argued repeatedly already, that trying to find some new jackpot of energy to fuel our current lifestyles is not a viable response to our predicament. The foundation of any viable response needs to start from the other end of the equation, by changing our lifestyles to accept the drastic retrenchment that’s waiting for us anyway as fossil fuels continue to deplete. If our imaginary lottery winner wants to get out of the trap he’s made for himself, after all, the first thing he has to do is stop spending money so freely. Once that happens, the range of potential opportunities broadens significantly, but unless that happens, there’s no way that things are going to end well.

The distinction between funds and flows is important enough that I’d like to ask those of my readers who are working on the Green Wizards project to use it to expand on the list you made last week. That list, as you’ll remember, includes every way that heat enters into your house during the cold months of the year, and every way that it leaves. (If you didn’t think of the furnace, the stove, and other heat-producing appliances when you were coming up with ways that heat enters your home, by the way, you should probably do the list over again.) For this week’s work, take each of the ways that heat comes into your home, figure out whether it comes from a flow (for example, sunlight) or a fund (for example, natural gas), and if it comes from a fund, what restrictions affect your access to flows from that fund (for example, the cost of natural gas).

This may take you a bit of research. Your refrigerator, for example, puts a noticeable amount of heat into your home; if it’s electric, what energy source produces the electricity you use? If it’s coal or natural gas, it’s from a fund; if it’s hydroelectric, it’s from a flow; it may well be a mixture of these and more. Take the time to find out; it’s good practice, and will also give you a much better idea of what factors are likely to affect your electric bill in the future as different resources run short at different rates. More generally, go over your list from last week and see if you can expand on it. Next week, with the help of a pair of British musical comedians, we’ll begin applying this information to the next practical stage of the Green Wizards project.

My books on peak oil and the future of industrial society, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future, are available from your local full service bookstore or direct from the publisher at the links just given. My forthcoming book on post-peak economics, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, will be available in June and can be preordered now from the publisher at a 20% discount.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Overcoming Systems Stupidity

Readers of mine with sufficiently long memories may be wondering if the evening news somehow accidentally got swapped for archived footage of a performance of that durable Sixties folk number The Merry Minuet, with its lines about rioting in Africa and global mayhem in general. Certainly that was the thought that occurred to me as news from Egypt and Tunisia jostled the category 5 cyclone (we’d say "hurricane" on this side of the planet) that just walloped Australia, and the far more modest but still impressive winter storm that’s sweeping across America as I write this.

Looked at in isolation, each of these stories are business as usual. Political turmoil in Third World nations is common enough, and big storms are a fact of life in Australia as well as the United States. Still, it’s exactly that habit of looking at news stories in isolation that fosters the blindness to history as it’s happening that I’ve discussed here repeatedly. Remember that the world is a whole system and put the news into context accordingly, and troubling patterns appear.

Let’s start with the revolution in Tunisia and the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Behind the explosion of popular resentments that’s putting once-secure governments at risk is the simple fact that in both countries, and across the Third World more generally, people are having an increasingly hard time getting enough to eat as food prices climb past records set during the last spike in 2008. Plenty of factors feed into the surge in food costs, but one major factor is a string of failed harvests in some of the world’s important grain-producing regions, which in turn has been caused by increasingly unstable weather. Pundits in the US media talk earnestly about the end of an era of cheap food, but what that means in practice is that over a growing fraction of the world, incomes are failing to keep pace with food costs, and as the number of hungry and desperate people grows, so does the pressure toward political explosions.

The context of this week’s two big storms is just as easily missed from media reports. For more than a decade now, the insurance industry has been warning that the annual cost of weather-related disasters has been rising at a dramatic rate – fast enough, according to a study released early last decade, that it will equal the gross domestic product of the entire planet by 2060. (Take a moment to think through the implications of that little detail; if the entire economic output of the world has to go to make up for repairing the costs of weather-related disasters, what about the other things economies are supposed to provide?) Here again, there are plenty of factors feeding into that soaring economic burden, but the destabilization of the world’s climate is one major factor. Whether or not dumping billions of tons of CO2 every year from our tailpipes and smokestacks is the sole cause of this destabilization is really beside the point; if you happen to be sitting next to a sleeping grizzly bear, the fact that the bear may have its own reasons for waking up in a bad mood is not a good argument in favor of poking it repeatedly with a stick.

Now of course the American way of life, and more generally the way of life common to most of the world’s industrial nations, might best be described as an elaborate arrangement to poke nature’s sleeping bears with as many sticks as possible. The business-as-usual end of the green movement has been insisting for decades that we can stop doing that and still maintain something like a modern industrial society, but whether or not their elaborate schemes for doing this could work at all – a complicated question I don’t propose to address here – the political will needed to do anything of the kind went AWOL at the end of the Seventies and hasn’t been seen since. Thus the most likely future ahead of us is one in which sleeping bears keep being poked with sticks, and increasingly often rouse themselves to bash in a head or two: in less metaphoric terms, that is, a future in which increasingly unstable climates load additional burdens on the global economy and drive a rising tide of political unrest that will probably not remain restricted to comfortably distant continents.

The fact that we don’t normally put the events of the day into their proper contexts, and draw such logical conclusions from them as the inadvisability of poking bears with sticks, has a context of its own. It can be credited to the simple fact that Americans are stupid about systems.

There’s really no gentler way to put it. Week after week, I can count on fielding at least one comment insisting that my post is just plain wrong because science, technology, progress, the free market, the space brothers, or some other convenient deus ex machina – you name it, somebody’s probably invoked it in an email to me – will allow Americans to continue to extract an ever-increasing supply of energy and raw materials from a finite planet without ever running short, and find places to dump the correspondingly rising tide of waste somewhere or other without having it turn up again to give us problems. Now of course it’s possible that some of that comes from bloggers-for-hire pushing the agenda of some corporate or political pressure group – there’s a lot of that online these days – but the illogic is pervasive enough in our culture that I suspect a lot of it comes from ordinary Americans who basically haven’t yet noticed that the world isn’t flat.

Watch what passes for political and economic debate in America these days and you can count on hearing much the same thing. Take "sustainable growth," the mantra of a large fraction of the business-as-usual end of the green movement already mentioned. Even the most elementary grasp of systems theory makes it instantly clear that there’s no meaningful sense of the adjective "sustainable" that can cohabit with any meaningful sense of the noun "growth." In a system – any system, anywhere – growth is always unsustainable. Some systems have internal limits that cut in at a certain point and stop growth before it becomes pathological, while some rely on external limits, but the limits are always there, and those who think there are no limits to a given pattern of growth are deluding themselves. Mind you, such delusions are always popular – the tech-stock and real estate bubbles that enlivened economic life in the United States during the last decade and a bit are good examples – but the consequences, when growth crashes into the limits that nobody saw coming, are rarely pleasant.

The fixation on the fantasy of perpetual growth is only one of the system-related stupidities that infest contemporary American public life, though it’s arguably the most egregious. I’ve commented before in this blog about the way that popular attitudes assume that raw materials appear out of Santa Claus’ sleigh when wanted and then simply "go away" when we’re done with them. For a good example, consider the way that the American livestock industry pumps animals full of chemicals that make them gain weight at an unnatural pace, and then feeds meat from those animals to people. Does anybody wonder whether these same chemicals, stored up in animal tissues and thus inserted into the human food chain, might have anything to do with the fact that Americans are gaining weight at an unnatural pace? Surely you jest.

A basic grasp of systems thinking would make it easier to get past follies of that sort, but that same grasp would also make it impossible to pretend that Americans can go on living their current lifestyles much longer. That’s an important reason why systems thinking was dropped like a hot rock in the early 1980s and why, outside of a narrow range of practical applications where it remains essential, it’s been shut out of the collective conversation of our society ever since.

For the aspiring green wizard, on the other hand, there are few habits of thought more important than thinking in terms of whole systems. Most of what we’ve been talking about for the last eight months, when it hasn’t been strictly practical in nature, has been oriented toward systems thinking, and a great deal of the practical material is simply the application of a systems approach to some aspect of working with nature. The practical instructions in the weeks and months ahead, as we turn to conservation and homebuilt alternative energy systems, will be even more dependent on having a clear sense of the way whole systems work. The one real limiting factor is that it’s a bit of a challenge to recommend a good clear nontechnical guide to systems thinking to those of you who are working through the Green Wizard program in earnest.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody in the Seventies or early Eighties wrote such a textbook. A truly magnificent book on the subject was already in circulation then, and indeed it had a burst of popularity during those years; the one complicating factor is that very few people seem to have realized then, and even fewer realize now, that the book in question is in fact an introductory textbook of systems thinking.

The book we’re discussing? Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more often than any other book, and the title has received nearly an equal diversity of renderings. I’m convinced that most of this diversity comes out of our own culture’s stupidity about systems, for when it’s approached from a systems perspective the title – and indeed the book – becomes immediately clear. Tao comes from a verb meaning "to lead forth," and in ancient times took on a range of related meanings – "path," "method," "teaching," "art." The word that most closely captures its meaning, and not incidentally comes from a similar root, is "process." Te is used for the character, nature, or "insistent particularity" of any given thing; "wholeness" or "integrity" are good English equivalents. Ching is "authoritative text," perhaps equivalent to "classic" or "scripture" in English, though the capitalized "Book" captures the flavor as well as anything. "The Book of Integral Process" is a good translation of the title.

Replace the early Chinese philosophical terminology with equivalent terms from systems theory and the point of the text becomes equally clear. Here’s chapter I:
A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.
It would be useful if somebody were to do a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching in systems language one of these days – though in saying that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s probably going to be me. In the meantime, prospective Green Wizards could do worse than to pick up any of the existing translations that suit their tastes, and try to think through the eighty-one short chapters of the book as guides to working with whole systems.

While you’re at it, I’d like to ask that you try a slightly more practical experiment in systems thinking, which leads straight to the theme of next week’s post. Using pen and paper, make a list of the ways that heat comes into your home during the winter months, when it’s colder outside than inside, and then make a corresponding list of the ways that heat leaves your home during those same months. Make both lists as complete as possible; those of my readers who’ve downloaded the Master Conservers handouts from the Cultural Conservers Foundation website can certainly use the home survey handout as a guide.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered is available for preorders from the publisher at a 20% discount, and will be on bookstore shelves in June of this year. Longtime readers will recognize many of the concepts in this book from their first appearance in essays posted on The Archdruid Report, and quite a few of the arguments have been improved as a result of discussions here. Many thanks to all!