Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Too Much Energy?

One of the bits of mental flotsam that very often drifts to the surface in discussions of peak oil is the assumption, as common among diehard peakniks as it is among the most delusionally cornucopian of their opponents, that the “lottle” principle applies to energy: that is, if a little is good, a lot’ll always be better. Widespread though this belief may be, I’ve come to doubt it, and those doubts crystallized as I rode the train from my home in western Maryland to Minneapolis and back during the interval between this Archdruid Report and the last.

Yes, I took the train. To most North Americans – people on other continents tend to be more realistic on the subject – that’s a shocking thought, though these days the surprise often gives way to nostalgic wistfulness. The United States once had the world’s biggest and best rail system, and Canada’s wasn’t far behind. Quite a few people alive today still remember the days when fast, efficient rail service connected all but the smallest towns here in America. These days, you have to choose your location carefully to benefit from the scraps that still remain; one of the reasons my spouse and I selected the old red brick mill town where we now live was that, unlike dozens of equally pleasant towns nearby, it has daily train service on a major route connecting the east coast and the Midwest.

The reach of rail service even across North American distances in the first half of the twentieth century was made possible by the simple fact that on land, at least, rail transit is more energy-efficient than any other mode of transportation. Diesel-electric locomotives, the standard type in service nowadays, use essentially the same technology as a modern hybrid car, and since they don’t have to make sudden starts and stops, whip around sharp turns, or climb steep grades, the energy content of their diesel fuel goes a very long ways; as a rule of thumb, a locomotive can pull a ton of goods or passengers for not much less than a thousand miles on one gallon of diesel. That means, among other things, that it took less petroleum to get me from Cumberland, Maryland to Minneapolis than it takes a yuppie driving alone in a big SUV to go shopping at the local mall.

Still, the energy efficiency of train travel is only part of the picture. Another is the simple fact that train travel, even in these days of reduced budgets and limited routes, is among the few really civilized modes of travel left. Take a car and you can count on doing battle with traffic hour after hour on one freeway after another; take a plane and, after you trudge through the lines and get ogled or groped by government functionaries who apparently believe that the Fourth Amendment can be suspended by executive order, you get to experience the joys of being stuffed into a winged sardine tin, breathing your fellow passengers’ stale exhalations, and staring at blank cloudscape, for however many hours it takes to get where you’re going.

On a train, by contrast, there’s plenty of room and fresh air; you can sit back, put your feet up, watch the scenery roll by, and enjoy the experience. If the child two rows ahead gets fussy, you’re not stuck listening; there’s always the lounge car, where you can duck downstairs, pick up a beer at the cafe, and sit at one of the tables and read while four old guys at another table play pinochle. The food in the diner car’s on a par with most roadside restaurants and better than most of what you’ll find at an airport, and if you spring for a cabin in one of the sleeper cars – on long runs, I highly recommend this – the meals are included.

If all this suggests that I’m an unabashed partisan of train travel, well, that’s a fair assessment. There are good reasons for that just now, starting with the very high energy efficiency of rail travel, and the advantages of a mature technology that could be redeployed in a hurry without the bottlenecks and dead ends that are an inevitable part of bringing any new technology on line. Most of the world’s other industrial societies, and quite a few of the nonindustrialized nations, won’t even have to go through the redeployment process; they had the common sense to keep their rail networks intact when the United States was busy selling most of its own for scrap, and thus may end up with a critical economic advantage in the difficult years immediately ahead of us.

Here in America, by contrast, whenever passenger rail travel is discussed, two objections come up as reliably as a greasy airport breakfast on a rough flight. The first, mostly heard from the current crop of pseudoconservatives, is the insistence that passenger trains are creatures of government subsidies and should be abolished as a money-saving measure. This argument would have a bit more force if the modes of transport such people prefer didn’t get far more in the way of government largesse than the railroads do. Air travel is economically viable in the United States, for example, only because every level of government from the federal government right down to individual counties and cities carries much of the financial burden of the airports, air traffic control, and other services that make it possible, and subsidize aircraft manufacturers into the bargain.

As for automobiles, drivers pay only a tiny fraction of the cost of building and maintaining the network of streets, roads, and highways; they aren’t billed for the government money that goes to keep auto manufacturers afloat, and they don’t get charged for the immense direct and indirect government subsidies that prop up the oil industry. These subsidies include, of course, the costs of repeated military interventions in the Middle East; it will not have escaped the attention of my readers, I trust, that nations selected for liberation from tyranny by the United States and its allies are inevitably those who happen to sit atop large amounts of fossil fuels. If car owners had to pay all these costs themselves, you’d see very few cars on the roads, just as air travel would still be a prerogative of the “jet set” if corporate lobbying hadn’t pushed so many of the costs onto the government. Myself, I’d be happy to see all government subsidies for transportation abolished, and just as happy if they were set at a fixed sum per passenger mile and shared out on that basis among all transport modes; either way, trains would win hands down.

The second objection is not limited to any one end of the political scene; it’s found straight across the spectrum, and though it seems really rather frivolous at first glance, it leads into territory not often explored in the last century or so. This is the claim that train travel is too slow. It’s true, to be sure, that it took longer for me to get to Minneapolis from Cumberland by train than it would have taken by air. Counting a layover in Chicago long enough to meet a local friend for lunch, I was traveling some twenty-seven hours each way. It’s hard to judge exact times by air, since the Cumberland airport hasn’t had commercial service for nearly a decade, but before then, a puddle-jumper to Pittsburgh or Cleveland and a direct flight from there to Minneapolis, counting the likely layover, might have taken eight hours each way; add in two hours to get through security and the rest of it, and it’s still a good deal faster than climbing aboard the westbound train at 7 o’clock one evening and rolling into Minneapolis around ten o’clock the next night.

Granted, then, it takes more time. The upside, as mentioned earlier, is that the time you spend is less of a waste, since twenty-seven hours of train travel is on average less exhausting, more productive, and a good deal more enjoyable than ten hours of air travel. It’s an interesting situation. In theory, it would be possible to make air travel as pleasant as train travel, and once upon a time the attempt was even made – I recall airline ads from my youth that boasted about the amount of legroom passengers were allotted and the quality of the meals they were served, rather than talking solely about destinations, as they generally do today, and trying to make potential passengers forget about the unpleasant process of getting there and back. In practice, a flying experience more or less as comfortable as an ordinary coach ticket on a train will cost you close to an order of magnitude more.

It’s entirely possible that this is in large part an effect of industrial civilization’s overshoot of its energy resource base. In the realm of energy economics, after all, the primary differences between rail travel and air travel are first, that the latter uses a great deal more concentrated energy than the former – the equivalent in jet fuel of the fraction of a gallon of diesel that brought me to Minneapolis, after all, might not even have gotten me off the ground if I’d taken a plane – and second, that the latter technology is a great deal more complex than the former and thus demands much more in the way of energy and resource inputs. As resource limits clamp down, the more energy- and resource-intensive a technology is, the more likely it is to show the economic strain first; in the case of air travel, that strain shows up in the form of crowded seats, dwindling amenities, and repeated fiscal crises for air carriers.

If the same logic works on a broader scale, and it’s hard to think of a good reason why it wouldn’t, it may be possible to anticipate which industries will be hardest hit by the opening rounds of energy supply contraction by paying attention right now to which industries are slashing the quality of their products and services fastest. In an age when media spin and doctored statistics make it hard to see through the fog, this may be an early warning system worth cultivating.

Still, there’s another issue at work here, one that I’m still only beginning to explore. Most things in life have an optimum which is found considerably below the maximum. At some point in adolescence, for example, most of us find out that there’s such a thing as drinking too much beer. Most of us have eaten too much food at one time or another, and information overload – the point at which taking in more information becomes an obstacle to understanding instead of a help – is a familar state to many of us. Sort through the other activities of life, and pretty consistently there’s a point at which adding more takes away from the experience rather than adding to it.

Today’s economic orthodoxy, to be sure, denies this common human experience, and treats every increment as a benefit. That’s one of the reasons that Americans have created the first civilization in human history where storage units to stash all the things people buy and never get around to enjoying is a significant industry. Heretical as though it may be, though, I’d like to suggest the possibility that there is such a thing as too much energy per capita, and that America may well have been in that territory for a good many decades now.

I’ve mentioned before, and it’s worth repeating, that the average European uses around a third as much energy per capita as the average American, and has a better standard living by most of the usual measures. Until recently – more specifically, until I mulled over the subject while looking out the window of the lounge car while the woods and plains of Wisconsin rolled by – I’d assumed that this was simply a function of waste and mismanagement on our part, and a more efficient use of limited resources on theirs. Still, I find myself wondering if there’s a more direct connection between these two factors. Is it possible that Europeans have, by and large, a better standard of living because they use less energy, not in spite of that fact?

Ask the question and it’s not hard to find obvious examples. Consider the way that so many Americans buy gasoline-powered riding lawnmowers, and suffer the health impacts of a flaccid middle age – with attendant costs to the economic system – that could have been avoided by the moderate exercise gotten by using a push mower. Consider how much of the industrial world’s intractable unemployment has been driven by the replacement of skilled human labor with machines made possible by the availability of cheap abundant energy. For that matter, consider the way that the availability of energy correlates with the civilian death toll in wars. Before the age of fossil fuels, the annihilation of the entire population of a city happened relatively rarely, and took an extraordinary amount of hard labor on the part of the attackers. By the twentieth century it was relatively easy, and therefore routine.

Yet my sense – and it’s no more than an inchoate sense as yet, needing further exploration and definition – is that these examples don’t touch the core of the issues involved. Those of my readers who have put into practice some of the ideas discussed here in the green wizardry posts of the last eight months or so, or who didn’t need those reminders to try out some of the practices in question, have already come closer to that core. I have yet to meet anyone outside of an advertisement who was exhilarated by the act of cranking up the thermostat when it gets cold, say, or getting groceries from a store. I have known quite a few people who were exhilarated, and more, when a passive solar panel or a garden bed that was the work of their own hands warmed a house or contributed to a meal.

It may simply be that evolution didn’t prepare our species for the impact of our brief and self-limiting encounter with the Earth’s carbon reserves. Doubtless, as industrial civilization gradually comes apart and the flow of energy to individuals and communities falters, most of us will find ourselves at least as far below the optimum level of energy per capita as today’s SUV drivers are above it, and a good many will find themselves facing, abruptly or slowly, that zero-energy-per-capita state we normally call death. Still, for those who are willing to consider the possibility, there’s a chance that learning to use a lot less energy on a daily basis may have compensations at least as great as those involved in taking a few more hours to ride the train.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Trouble With Vaporware

Observers of the mechanics of decline and fall found plenty to keep them occupied over the last week. As I write these words, bombs are falling in Libya as the Western powers hurriedly resort to military force; Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s moves toward selling his oil and natural gas to China and India rather than the European nations that have received most of it to date probably explains this abrupt and almost panicked change in tactics.

Meanwhile, the immediate human impact of Japan’s devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami seems to be ebbing. The Japanese military and rescue teams from a hundred other countries have succeeded in bulldozing open transport routes into the stricken Tohoku region, and food and emergency supplies are beginning to reach the survivors. Still, at least two other dimensions of the crisis are still ongoing, and show every sign of getting worse before they get better.

The first of these is the economic impact of a disaster that leveled one of Japan’s major industrial regions. In a global economy geared to extreme specialization and just-in-time delivery, the sudden destruction of scores of factories, chemical plants, warehouses, and shipping facilities is a body blow with potentially wide-ranging effects. One GM plant in the United States has already been forced to shut down because a Japanese factory that was once a crucial part of its supply chain suddenly turned into a heap of salt-stained debris. Over the months ahead, as products already shipped reach their destinations and the details of the disaster become clearer, we will get to see just how thoroughly the proponents of global economic integration got their wish. The possibility that more factories shut down, more jobs are lost, and some consumer goods are in very short supply for months thereafter can’t be dismissed out of hand.

The second ongoing aspect of the crisis, of course, is the Fukushima nuclear disaster. More than a week on, the situation at the crippled plant remains dangerously unstable. Emergency crews on the scene are putting their lives on the line to keep three partially melted reactor cores and two critically damaged fuel rod storage tanks from overheating; so far, they’ve succeeded well enough that leaks of radiation and high-level nuclear waste have been sporadic, but the struggle’s not over yet. Even in the best case scenario, the utility that owns the plant has just had a very expensive and profitable facility turn into a heap of smoldering radioactive junk, and the ensuing financial meltdown may do as much damage to the nuclear power industry as an actual core meltdown at the plant.

Last week’s post here commented on the ways that proponents of nuclear power have tried to put their spin onto a situation that seems to be taking a perverse pleasure in frustrating them. One of their tactics seems to have shifted into overdrive over the last week: the insistence that even though all past and nuclear technologies have turned out to be far less safe and spectacularly more expensive than their promoters claimed at the time, future nuclear technologies not yet off the drawing boards will surely be safe, clean, cheap, and reliable sources of energy. Those of my readers who know their way around the software industry have heard this kind of song and dance before, often enough so that there’s a useful term for it among computer geeks: vaporware.

The mass production of vaporware in the energy field is hardly limited to the nuclear industry’s shills and unpaid fans, to be sure. Connoisseurs of the absurd will remember the flurry of optimistic claims about algal biodiesel released a couple of years ago by GreenTech, which got plenty of money from venture capitalists until an outside analysis showed that their process wouldn’t make a profit until the price of diesel fuel broke $800 a barrel. Still, for some reason nuclear power seems to attract an uncommon number of vaporware schemes. Whether it’s liquid sodium or lead-bismuth reactors, fourth generation this or modular that – and let’s not forget the fusion advocates, still chasing a phantom that has hovered twenty years in the future since before I was born – bring up energy issues online and you’re sure to get somebody making grand claims about some kind of nuclear vaporware.

There are at least three good reasons to ignore them. The first is that every generation of nuclear technology has been sold with exactly the same sales pitch – those of my readers who recall the Eisenhower administration will remember how, back then, publicists for the industry insisted that clean, safe nuclear power would soon make electricity too cheap to meter – and it’s turned out to be wrong every single time. There’s no reason whatsoever to think that the current crop of publicity releases will be any more accurate. It’s easy to make a technology look good if it doesn’t exist yet, and the inevitable technical problems have not been faced, but after this many rounds of grand and unfulfilled promises, it’s arguably time to roll our eyes and walk away.

The second is that building more nuclear power plants, of any kind, is far from the most cost-effective way to deal with shortfalls in energy here in the United States. Nuclear advocates have made much of claims that the only alternative to more nukes is burning coal, but there’s a much simpler, saner, and cheaper alternative: conservation. The sort of cheap and simple conservation retrofits we’ve been discussing in this blog for the last few months can cut home energy consumption by 20% or more. Such measures were at the heart of the industrial world’s successful response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the fact that they’re ignored by all nearly all sides in today’s energy debates – including too many supposed environmentalists – does not speak highly of the collective intelligence of our time.

It’s worth noting, for example, that for the amount of money it would take to replace the 23 US nuclear reactors that have the same flawed design as the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant – $276 billion, at an estimated average total cost of $12 billion per reactor – we could give every one of the 130 million homes, apartments, and condominiums in the United States a $2000 conservation retrofit, including caulking, weatherstripping, insulation, and the like, with room in the budget to spare. That would save more power than those nukes would generate, and do it with no fuel costs, no security threats, no radioactive waste, no risk of catastrophic meltdowns, and an annual maintenance budget per home equal to a couple of takeout pizzas.

A comparable option, a little more costly per housing unit but with similar paybacks, would involve getting solar water heaters on the roofs of America’s houses, apartments and condominiums, and commercial and industrial facilities. I’ve discussed solar water heating in these essays several times already. It’s arguably the most thoroughly developed renewable technology we’ve got; a century ago, solar water heaters were standard in American housing across the Sun Belt, and only the brief heyday of cheap fossil fuel energy squeezed them out of the market. It’s high time we put them back to work.

There are three basic types of solar water heater: batch, passive thermosiphon, and closed-loop active. Batch heaters are the simplest and most robust of all; they can be made and installed by an ordinarily competent handyperson for less than $1000 a piece. They consist of a tank, painted black, in a box with glass walls facing the sun and insulation everywhere else. The simple version is operated by hand: in the morning, as long as the weather is above freezing, you fill the tank by turning a tap; later in the day – the interval varies depending on location, size of tank, and intensity of sunlight – you have a tank of hot water that you can use in all the usual ways.

You can also feed a batch heater into your regular hot water system, but there are more effective ways to use solar energy if this is your plan. The reason I mention batch heaters here at all is that, as the simplest and cheapest solar water heating system, they’re probably the one that will be standard a century or two from now, when the end of the age of fossil fuels has broken our descendants of the bad habit of thinking that they have a right to expect energy when, where, and how they want it. Afternoon laundry and evening baths may well be standard in that age, though it’s by no means impossible that they’ll also pick up the trick of running water through pipes in the back of a woodstove when it’s fired up, and use the two systems jointly to keep hot water ready on tap. (We’ll be discussing that, and the possibilities and problems with wood stoves, in a later post.)

Still, for the time being, those of my readers who like hot water throughout the day have other options. If you live in a part of the world that doesn’t get freezing temperatures in the winter, a passive thermosiphoning system is usually your best bet. This has a set of panels through which water flows, and a well-insulated tank located above the panels, so that hot water rises from the panels into the tank, and cooling water cycles from the tank back down to the panels. The tank connects to your regular water heater, which thus has a lot less heating to do – when the sun is out, in a well-designed system, none at all.

In areas that freeze in the winter, the standard approach is an closed loop active system that uses something other than plain water to take heat from the panels and circulate it into the tank. Various antifreeze solutions are standard; they go from the panel to a heat exchanger in a well-insulated tank, and a small electric pump (which can be powered by a photovoltaic panel) keeps the fluid moving. Once again, heat goes from the panels to the insulated tank, hot water from the insulated tank goes into the regular water heater, and keeps it from having to work hard or, under good conditions, at all.

On average, a thermosiphon or closed loop system will provide you with 70% of your hot water free of charge, though that figure varies significantly by location; in Sun Belt locations with plenty of clear skies, it tends close to 100%. Since water heating accounts for around 15% of the average household energy bill, a solar water heater in an average location will account for around 10% of your home energy. The cost for systems of this kind varies widely depending on the details of the system, the orientation of your house toward the sun, and the ease with which pipes can get from the solar system to your ordinary hot water system, but $4000 is a good ballpark for a passive thermosiphon system and $8000 for a closed loop active system. It’s a noticeable upfront cost, to be sure, but here again it’s worth remembering that there are no additional fuel costs for as long as the sun is well stocked with hydrogen.

There are probably other ways to heat water using the sun that haven’t been invented yet, but the three I’ve just mentioned have a major advantage: they represent mature technologies, with strengths and drawbacks that have been tested thoroughly in practice. To put it another way, they’re the opposite of vaporware; when you install a solar water heating system, you know exactly what you’re getting into, and though it can sometimes be necessary to correct for the pitches of overenthusiastic salespeople, most of the firms that install solar hot water systems these days have been around for decades and have learned, as most small businesses learn, that satisfied customers are the advertising that matters. You can also look up the performance of the available models in a variety of independent sources, go fishing for complaints on the internet, and do everything else you would normally do when assessing a piece of technology for your home.

You can’t do that with vaporware. If someone came knocking on your door and offered you a chance to buy an exciting new water heater using advanced technology, you’d probably want to know how well it worked in practice, and if the salesman wanted a dizzyingly high price up front for a heater that had never been built or tested, was ultimately nothing more than an appealing concept, and wouldn’t be ready for decades, I doubt, dear reader, that you’d go running for your checkbook. This is what the proponents of untested new nuclear technologies are doing, and once again, it’s worth recalling that the sales pitches they’re repeating right now are the same ones that were used to justify building the reactors at Fukushima.

That points up the third and, to my mind, conclusive reason to ignore the promoters of nuclear vaporware: we don’t have the time to spare. Peak oil is already here, peak coal and natural gas are a good deal closer than the cornucopian assumptions of previous decades liked to admit, and peak fissionable uranium – the fuel for our existing reactors – is not far off either. We can’t afford to take the risks involved in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into untried nuclear concepts that may prove to be as unworkable as fusion or as fatally flawed as the Fukushima reactors, and in the very best case won’t produce a watt of power for decades to come. A realistic approach to the looming energy crisis of our time, rather, will have to depend on existing technology, and especially on mature and thoroughly tested technologies that have proven themselves to be safe, effective, compatible with existing systems, and capable of meeting genuine human needs. Those technologies exist; they won’t enable us to continue to waste energy with the unthinking carelessness that most Americans have somehow come to think of as one of their inalienable rights; but they do offer a realistic way of providing a viable, comfortable, and humane existence as we extract ourselves from the tight corner into which the vaporware salesmen of the past have wedged us.


Once again, the starting point for green wizards interested in solar water heating is the Master Conserver papers available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are those on passive solar water heating and active solar water heating. There have been some useful improvements introduced since these were published, but they still provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the technology.

Readers interested in building batch systems should find a copy of Daniel K. Reif’s classic Passive Solar Water Heaters; which provides plenty of information and detailed plans for two systems. David A. Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book is a good sourcebook for the range of batch designs in use or under development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Passive thermosiphon and closed loop active systems are beyond the reach of all but a very few home workshops; if you want to go this route and have the funds, your best bet is to talk to a professional. There are solar energy companies in every region of the United States and a good many countries abroad that can set you up with a system suited to your location.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Limits of Incantation

Since I started talking about the end of the industrial age in this blog, not quite five years ago, a fair number of my readers have had some difficulty imagining what industrial decline would look like in practice. That’s been a hard question to answer, not least because the notion that the only possible futures are progress or catastrophe has been repeated so often that it’s become integral to most contemporary worldviews.

Still, events have taken care of the matter. Readers of this blog who still want to know what the decline of an industrial civilization looks like need only take a good look at the latest news.

I could pull out any number of examples from the ongoing flurry of current affairs, but the ones that come readiest to hand are also the ones on most people’s minds these days. The cascading series of disasters in Japan is first on the list, of course. Poised unsteadily on a set of volcanic islands in one of the world’s most tectonically active areas, the Japanese have been hammered by massive earthquakes and tsunamis at regular intervals since before the dawn of recorded history, with a commensurate cost in death and human suffering; there are good reasons why Japanese culture so insistently stresses the impermanence of life and the transience of worldly things.

This time, though, the ordinary convulsions of the earth and sea intersected with an aging and brittle technostructure in ways that are amplifying the damage. Exhibit A, of course, is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Built in the early 1960s using a design now considered dubiously safe, and pushed past the safe limits of its working life for the usual economic reasons, the plant turned out to be just that little bit too fragile to deal with the tsunami. A breakdown in the cooling system launched a series of cascading systems failures; as I write these words, it’s anyone’s guess whether the emergency crews who are risking their lives in the face of potentially lethal radiation will be able to get the crisis under control, or whether a chunk of northeastern Japan will get a dusting of high-level nuclear waste.

Meanwhile large sections of the global economy are quietly grinding to a halt as products and components from the shattered factory belt of northeastern Japan vanish from the world’s shelves. Global supply chains and just-in-time ordering turned out to have the same problem as every other attempt to improve efficiency by eliminating redundancy: they work great, until something goes wrong and you need a fallback option. Another object lesson in the hazards of too much interconnection is coming from global stock markets, which have been slapped silly by the sensible decision of millions of Japanese to cash in their foreign investments and get some liquidity in place where it counts right now, at home. The yen is up, most stock indexes are down, and another layer of instability has been added to a global economy staggering under the blows it’s already received.

Instability of another kind comes from the Middle East. In Libya, what looked like yet another canned “color revolution” suddenly had the script torn up by Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s unwillingness to play along. Whatever his failings as a person and a head of state, a lack of resolve is clearly not one of them; while Western politicians were smugly dismissing him as a has-been, Gaddafi marshalled his remaining forces, consolidated his position, and then launched a forceful military response that seems to have turned the civil war in his favor. Proponents of nouveau internet insurgencies take note: tanks, fighter planes, and infantry may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but that doesn’t make them ineffective.

The ruling house of Bahrain turned to similar methods when the insurgent flashmob occupying large sections of the capital turned violent. A call for help to neighboring monarchs brought in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who promptly crushed the rising. The Saudis themselves had gotten on top of a similar rising at a much earlier stage; Western reporters in Saudi Arabia have noted with some discomfort that anyone who tried to organize protest rallies on the internet or the cell phone network could not be contacted shortly thereafter. It’s not unreasonable to be appalled at such methods of repression, but it’s worth remembering that the Western heads of state who denounce them, if they were faced with the prospect of an armed insurgency in their own countries, would do exactly the same things.

Behind the spread of insurgencies across the Arab world, in turn, lies the simple mathematics of food prices. Last month the cost of food worldwide passed the previous record set in 2008. To most people in America, where food accounts for a small portion of the family budget, that’s an inconvenience; to most people in the nonindustrial world, where it’s not uncommon for families to spend half their income putting food on the table, it’s an existential threat. Starving people do desperate things, such as trying to overthrow the local government. Autocratic governments with their backs to the wall do equally desperate things, such as calling in air strikes, or shoving dissidents out the back end of a van in the middle of the Arabian desert a couple of hundred miles from the nearest water source, doubtless with a pious wish that Allah will protect the virtuous.

So we’ve got technological crises, economic crises, and political crises, all driving a variety of feedback loops that intersect with other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society in ways that are hard to predict. Those of my readers who want a model for the long twilight of the industrial age may find this one useful; rinse and repeat, with occasional pauses and intensifications, and you’ve probably got a decent model of the next couple of centuries. Still, there’s another factor in play that’s worth a comment or two.

When Gaddafi refused to bow out and the insurgency in Libya tipped over into civil war, my readers will have noticed, President Obama’s response was simply to proclaim, as loudly as possible, “Gaddafi must go.” He had plenty of company in saying those words, but neither he nor any of his fellow heads of state did anything noticeable to make Gaddafi’s departure happen. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes continued to pound the insurgents.

It’s not as though the western powers don’t have options, either, at least in theory. Any European nation much larger than Belgium could easily stop Gaddafi’s offensive in its tracks and take out his air force into the bargain, and we won’t even talk about what a spare US carrier group could do. For that matter, a few well-packed planeloads of munitions landing at Benghazi would probably be enough to turn the tide of the civil war back in the insurgency’s favor. The problem is that the situation in the Middle East as a whole is risky enough that any intervention, anywhere, could trigger drastic and highly unwelcome shifts in the balance of power.

At this point, after all, in the wake of the West’s abandonment of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Arab nations that produce most of the world’s oil have got to be asking themselves whether a sudden shift in allegiances might be in their best interests, and Western support of the Libyan insurgents would put ample frosting on top of that cake. If the Saudi monarch were to pick up the phone one fine morning, dial Beijing, and inquire about the possibility of a mutual defense pact, I doubt he’d be put on hold for long An awareness of this possibility has to be on the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels. This likely has much to do with the fact that the titular commander in chief of the world’s most expensive military machine has been reduced to mouthing “Gaddafi must go” as though it was an incantation.

Most of the way around the world, in Japan, the same reliance on incantation is playing a significant role in the Kan administration’s response to the Fukushima disaster. Right now, to be fair, the only factors that actually matter are the small team of beleaguered technicians who are struggling there at the plant, on the one hand, and the remorseless laws of nuclear physics on the other, so officials in Tokyo really have few other options. Incantations have long counted among the fine arts in Japan – it bears remembering, for example, that the imperial broadcast that announced surrender at the end of the Second World War referred to Japan’s total defeat in that conflict by saying, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” When a high government official announced a few days ago that one of the containment vessels at Fukushima Daiishi was “not necessarily intact,” in other words, those who were paying attention knew that it was time to worry – or to relocate.

Still, far and away the most colorful use of incantations in response to the Fukushima disaster has been in the media and the blogosphere here in America, where proponents of nuclear power have worked overtime to try to put their particular spin on a situation that seems to take a perverse pleasure in frustrating their efforts. It’s likely that much of this is being bought and paid for by the nuclear industry; using paid internet flacks to saturate social media with a desired message has already become a standard tactic in the worlds of politics and big business.

Still, whether they’ve issued from paid cyberflacks or unpaid true believers, the incantations in question make an intriguing spectacle. They started out, in the early days of the crisis, presenting rosy estimates of the situation, even claiming that the results of the tsunami showed just how safe nuclear power is. When reactor buildings started blowing up and made that last claim a bit hard to defend, insisting that the problem was a matter of one obsolete reactor design, and trotting out various pieces of untested vaporware as the wave of the future became the order of the day. When the situation started really spiralling downhill, it was time for rants about the evils of coal, as though that’s the only alternative, and then, inevitably, claims that the only alternative to nuclear power is to slink back to the caves.

There is, of course, another alternative. It’s the alternative that we’re all going to take anyway, as fossil fuels deplete and the various subsidies that make nuclear power and most of the other alternatives look economically viable go away forever. That alternative is to use much less energy than we do today. Here in the United States, it bears repeating, we use three times as much energy per capita as people in most European countries, to prop up a standard of living that by most measures isn’t as good. Fairly modest conservation measures, of the sort discussed in recent posts here, could render every nuclear power plant in America surplus if they were applied nationwide; a more serious national effort aimed at getting down to European levels of consumption could probably manage to turn most of the coal-fired plants into museum pieces as well.

Again, this is what we’re going to do anyway, whether we choose that route or not. The vast government subsidies that currently prop up not only nuclear power, but most of the rest of America’s energy production and consumption, are not going to be sustainable for all that much longer; neither, of course, are the “energy subsidies” that every other energy source derives from the immense quantities of cheap petroleum that are used to mine, transport, and provide raw materials for everything from solar panels to nuclear power plants. Equally, the American imperial presence in the Middle East and elsewhere, which currently backstops a global economic system that provides the 5% of us who live in America with 25% of the world’s energy resources and around 33% of its raw materials and industrial product, has a relatively short shelf life ahead of it, and as that comes unraveled, we are all going to have to learn to live with much less.

Faced with these unpalatable prospects, and a distinct shortage of practical options for doing anything about them, it’s not surprising that incantation has become the order of the day. In the twilight years of civilizations, as political, economic, and technological systems failures hamstring the ability of leaders and pressure groups alike to get their way, it’s a fairly common experience. Still, as an archdruid, I have a certain professional interest in incantations, and I find it disappointing to see them applied in situations where they’re not going to accomplish anything – say, to unseat a dictator who’s proven his willingness to use more robust means to keep himself wedged in place, or to make a brittle, dangerous, unsustainable, overcentralized, and fantastically expensive technology like nuclear power meet the needs of a declining industrial civilization. If any of the people involved would like to learn something about the proper uses and limits of incantations, I’d be happy to provide some tips.


On a brighter note, I’m delighted to report that choreographer Valerie Green and Dance Entropy, a New York City-based experimental dance troupe, will shortly be premiering a new work, “Rise and Fall,” inspired in part by my book The Long Descent, with music by nonconventional industrial group the Tone Casualties. Green writes:

“’Rise and Fall’ is an abstract dance for five performers based on the cycle of a civilization. This experimental dance work is comprised of multiple sections running the course of the following cycle: a new beginning, tracing footprints and remnants of the past, on to a developing population, agriculture, industrialization, modernization, awareness, gross consumption, terror, decline, population dissipation, and knowledge to begin again. The inspiration from this book cane from a recent visit to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, and the book The Long Descent by John Michael Greer...I have found the above ideas thought provoking and an inspiration in the development of a non-traditional movement vocabulary, and a compelling work of dance.”

Readers of this blog in the NYC area can see “Rise and Fall” at Dixon Place Experimental Theater at 7:30 pm, March 31, or at the Green Space Studio at 8 pm, April 8 and 17.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Conserving the Differences

As I write these words, smoke is rising from burning oil storage tanks at Ras Lanuf, one of Libya’s main oil ports and a battle zone in what Western media are still trying not to admit has long since crossed the line into civil war. The price of Brent crude oil, the international benchmark grade, is currently on the upside of US$115 a barrel, ticking nervously upwards whenever anybody in the industrial world remembers that this Friday has been announced on anonymous websites as a day for mass protest in Saudi Arabia. What was that old joke about living in interesting times?

I suppose it’s probably unnecessary to point out that this is the sort of thing that happens when a civilization runs up against the limits of its resource base. About 1.3 million barrels of oil per day that usually flow into the global economy from Libyan fields is shut in at the moment, due to the fighting; that sounds like a lot, and of course in objective terms it is, but it’s less than 2% of the world’s total daily oil production. Not that long ago, a 1.3 million barrel a day shortfall would have been a minor issue for the world’s economies, easily covered the moment one of the world’s other oil-producing nations decides to cash in by turning open the tap a bit further. This time, it’s driving a drastic price spike and sending gaggles of panicked US congresscritters to the nearest microphone in order to insist that the US ought to draw down its, ahem, Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The difference, of course, is that since 2004 global oil production has flatlined but demand has continued to grow, and at this point there’s very little slack left. You can draw your own conclusions about what’s likely to happen when global oil production begins to decline, as it will within the current decade. It’s not likely to be pretty.

That, again, brings us back to the need to use energy less extravagantly than we’ve been encouraged to do by the rock-bottom prices and purblind optimism of the last thirty years or so. It’s useful to keep the wider context in mind, because this week we’re going to talk about one of those cheap, simple, grubby tasks that most people know they ought to have done a long time ago, and a surprisingly large number of people never get around to doing: wrapping your pipes and ducts.

Here’s how it works. Most American homes have a furnace and a water heater stashed away somewhere out of sight. Hot water from the water heater flows through pipes to wherever it’s wanted, which may be on the far end of the house; depending on your heating system, there are most likely either pipes taking hot water from a boiler to radiators, or ducts taking hot air from the furnace to registers, and either way they’re going all through the house. That’s straightforward enough.

Look at it from the point of view of thermodynamics, though, and it’s a little less simple. You’re trying to get a certain amount of heat from the water heater to the taps, and from the furnace to the rooms you want to keep warm in winter. To do it, you’re sending a heated fluid, either water or air, through pipes or ducts which, for a variety of reasons, are normally made of substances that transfer heat very readily. If there’s a heat differential between the fluid inside the pipes and the air outside them, in other words, you lose heat.

The standard approach to dealing with this in conventional American housing is to get the working fluid of your system hot enough so that, even after it flows through those cold metal pipes or ducts and gets to wherever it’s going, you still get enough heat out the business end. That’s the way Americans have learned to think about energy: the solution to every problem is to crank up the thermostat and burn more fuel. That might be a plausible approach if you’ve got so much concentrated energy sources that you don’t know what to do with them all, and there was admittedly a time when that was more or less the case here in America, but nowadays? Hardly.

Nowadays, in a world where energy is no longer cheap and abundant, and is going to get a lot less cheap and abundant over the decades and centuries to come, we need to learn a new way to think about energy. Recognizing that energy is scarce and expensive is a good start, but it’s possible to go a bit further than that, and recognize that what you need to do if you want to work with energy – especially scarce, expensive energy – is to conserve differences in energy concentration.

Your hot water pipes make a good example of this principle. The water that flows out of your water heater into your pipes is at 120° F, let’s say. The air in the basement where your water heater is located is around 50° F. The second law of thermodynamics says that heat always flows from a hotter substance (i.e., a higher concentration of heat) to a cooler substance (i.e., a lower concentration), and the rate of flow depends partly on how easily the materials in question transmit heat, and partly on the temperature differential between the two substances. In other words, when hot water flows through a cold basement, what you tend to get is lukewarm water and a basement that isn’t quite so chilly. You haven’t conserved the difference between the two, and the result is a chilly shower.

Insulation is one of the standard ways to conserve the difference. Wrap your hot water pipes in a good thick layer of insulation, and the heat in your hot water has a much harder time moving from the water to the air in your basement. That means, of course, that you get your hot shower. It also means that you can get the same temperature in the water coming out of the tap while using a smaller amount of energy to heat the water in the first place. That’s valuable when it’s a matter of decreasing the amount of fossil fuels you use, as it is for most people nowadays; it’s absolutely crucial once we’re talking about renewable heat sources.

As I’ve mentioned here repeatedly, one major difference between the energy you get from fossil fuels and the energy you get from renewable resources is concentration. Lukewarm sunlight simply doesn’t pack as much punch as burning coal. You can heat water with sunlight, but the process is never going to be as efficient as heating water with fossil fuels or electricity because the heat you get from sunlight is much more diffuse. Of course there’s the additional problem that it’s a bit difficult to turn up the sun twenty degrees or so to give yourself a hotter shower!

This is why “weatherize before you solarize” was one of the mantras of the 1970s-era energy conservation scene. Inefficiencies you can shrug off when you’ve got plenty of concentrated fossil fuel energy will cripple your attempts to make use of the diffuse heat that you can get from the sun; fix the inefficiencies first – that is to say, conserve the differences – and you’re in a much better position to begin using renewable sources. You may also save enough on your energy bills to make a solar water heater a bit more affordable.

The same logic can be applied in other ways. We’ve already talked about weatherstripping, caulking, and various kinds of insulation, all of which are ways of conserving the difference between the temperature inside the house and the temperature outside. Equally, if you live in a climate with hot summers and appreciate a cool shower now and then, insulate your cold water pipes as well. If you go down into the soil more than a couple of feet you get a relatively stable, cool temperature year round; water pipes that run underground keep the water fairly close to that temperature, and if you can conserve the difference between the place your water pipe comes out of the ground and the place where it connects to your shower head. you get cold water out of the tap at, say, 60° F. rather than 80°, which on a sticky July day on the nether side of the Mason-Dixon line makes all the difference in the world.

Still, it’s possible to take conserving the differences in a much broader sense, and when you do so, some very interesting possibilities unfold. Information, to return to Gregory Bateson’s useful definition, is a difference that makes a difference. The capacity for energy to do work is also a function of difference – differences in temperature, pressure, electrical potential, or what have you – and so, in yet another sense, is the capacity of material substances to fill their various roles in the biochemistry of a living thing, the nutrient cycles of an ecosystem, the exchanges of goods in an economy, or the equivalent processes in any other system. In all these cases, the conservation of difference plays a crucial role, and there’s a sense in which the degree of conservation of the various kinds of difference is a measure of the health of the whole system.

This is all the more interesting in that for some decades now, modern industrial civilization – and in particular its American expression – has become very poor at conserving differences. To cite only one example, American farmers used to be legendary for the facility with which they bred new varieties of any crop you care to name, specially suited to local conditions or to particular purposes. These days, by contrast, American industrial agriculture is more notable for its obsessive use of a very small number of varieties of any given crop. Plenty of factors feed into that flattening out of differences, to be sure, but that’s exactly the point – the structures that shape everyday life in contemporary America do not conserve difference. Thinking over other examples of civilizations in decline, it occurs to me that a case could be made that the failure to conserve difference may just be a useful sign that a society has started to unravel in a serious way.

All this is grist for the speculative mill, and might be worth following out in detail. In the meantime, though, if you haven’t started conserving difference in your own home hot water and heating systems, get busy and wrap your pipes! Your local hardware store can provide you with a variety of materials, from foam tubes slit down one side that you can pop over your hot water lines, through fiberglas wrap that will do a good job on pressurized hot water heating system pipes, to the slightly more expensive but very effective rolls of foil-backed foam, which you can use on pipes or ducts equally well and will save you a chunk of heat. None of it’s that costly, all of it can be installed by unskilled labor, and any of it will cut into your energy bills and make your home a good deal more suited to the renewable energy projects we’ll be discussing in the weeks immediately ahead.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Sound of Distant Hoofbeats

There are moments when the things nobody wants to talk about brush the surface, like deepwater fish rising briefly to catch the sun on their backs before plunging again into the underwater shadows. Two of those moments happened in the last few days, and I’d like to discuss them briefly before we get back into the practicalities of life in an age of declining energy availability.

One of those moments was set in motion by something that was almost certainly meant to have the opposite effect. This was the recent pronouncement from umpty-billionaire Warren Buffett, who clambered into the media pulpit last week to insist that the United States is not in decline, and indeed that its best days are still ahead of it. A man with Buffett’s income can be forgiven for believing this; the last few decades, after all, have been inordinately good for umpty-billionaires, though they’ve been rather noticeably less so for the other 99-plus per cent of the American people. As long as the current order of affairs remains welded in place in Washington DC and elsewhere, it’s entirely possible that the days of billion-dollar bonuses for the guys at the top are not quite over yet.

Still, from any other perspective, Buffett’s utterance bears an uncanny similarity to the fine art of whistling past the graveyard. Nations in the rising curve of their history do not need to hear platitudes from obscenely rich pundits to recognize that better days are ahead. Empires on the way down, on the other hand, can count on hearing plenty of pronouncements of this sort, from plenty of people of Buffett’s kind; the British media was brimfull of such utterances by titled statesmen and overpaid financiers all through the period when the British empire was coming apart at the seams. There’s also more than a little echo of the organized reassurance John Kenneth Galbraith chronicled so gleefully in The Great Crash 1929, the efforts by the very rich in the wake of the 1929 crash to insist that the market and the economy were just fine when, by every objective measure, they weren’t.

The second moment I’d like to mention may have helped to cause the first. This was a quiet little article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal commenting, in measured tones, that for the first time in living memory an international crisis has sent investment money running away from US dollar-denominated investments rather than toward them. For decades now, as most of my readers will doubtless be aware, the US dollar has had the reputation of a safe haven for investments, and wars, revolutions, and financial crises overseas have reliably sparked flows of money into investments denominated in dollars, most of them here in the United States. That’s one of the factors that have kept America’s interest rates down and its trade deficit manageable, at least so far, in the face of the federal government’s epic mismanagement of the public purse.

Those days may just be over. The article just mentioned notes that since the current round of troubles hit North Africa and the Middle East, money has been flowing away from the dollar, heading toward other relatively stable currencies such as the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen. Even the euro, which has its own drastic problems, has benefited noticeably from the flight from the dollar. It’s hard to be sure exactly what’s behind this epochal shift, but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that what currently carries the engagingly timid moniker “quantitative easing” – that is, the United States government’s current practice of paying for its deficit spending by having the Federal Reserve print money to buy treasury bills nobody else is willing to take – has started to spook overseas investors.

If so, they’re right to be spooked. When a nation starts funding deficit spending via the printing press, its currency’s days are numbered. It’s true, of course, as plenty of thoughtful people have pointed out in the peak oil blogosphere, that the US money supply in its broadest sense – including all forms of debt, which count as money in our current hallucinatory economy – has contracted sharply in the wake of the 2008 housing-bubble crash, and would have contracted a great deal more if the government hadn’t basically encouraged banks to pretend that the mountains of worthless mortgage-backed securities in their vaults still had the value credited to them, at least in the delusions of real estate promoters, circa 2006. Still, it’s not often remembered that the value of a currency isn’t a function of the money supply alone; like every other measure of value, it’s a function of the relationship between supply and demand, and a currency that’s contracting can still tip over into inflation, even hyperinflation, if the demand for it drops faster than the supply.

For what it’s worth, my best guess at the moment – which is all that any observer of the economy can offer – is that we’re headed for what I’ve called hyperstagflation, more or less 1970s-style stagflation on steroids, complete with a bad case of ‘roid rage. The ingredients for that are already in place: soaring commodity prices, a US economy in freefall, and interruptions in the free flow of petroleum caused, to make the sense of deja vu complete, by troubles in the Middle East. Still, a good deal depends on just how hyperactive the Fed’s printing presses get in the months ahead. If the current shift away from dollar-denominated investments turns into a panic, as it might, and the stock market crashes in response, as it could, and the Obama administration decides to respond with yet another "quantitative easing" program to prop up the market with a flood of freshly printed money, as recent experience suggests it very likely would – well, you can do the math for yourself.

One way or another, though, whatever income my readers happen to have coming their way in the months and years ahead is likely to buy quite a bit less energy than the same amount of money buys at present. That makes finding ways to make less energy do more work crucial just now – and that, in turn, leads to windows.

If you’ve caulked and weatherstripped your home, and have a decently thick layer of insulation in the attic, your windows are where the largest fraction of your remaining heating bills go dancing out into the great outdoors. Window glass has an R-value (R means resistance to heat flow, remember?) right around 1 per layer of glass, so a double-pane window has an R-value of 2, or maybe a bit more: that is to say, not much. Interestingly, this is true no matter how fancy or expensive the windows happen to be: you get an R-value of 2 or so from an old-fashioned single-pane window with storm windows slapped on the outside, and you also get an R-value right around 2 from a very expensive vinyl-framed double-pane window with the space between the panes pumped full of inert gas, or what have you. If you want a higher R-value, glass is not going to give it to you.

One point worth taking home from this last comment is that if you’ve got windows that don’t serve a useful purpose, getting rid of them, permanently or temporarily, may be your best option. It takes a certain amount of skill at carpentry to take out a window and seal up the opening so that the resulting wall is weathertight and well insulated; if you don’t happen to have the skills, your friendly local handyperson can do the job in a day or so, and it’s often money well worth spending. If you don’t feel confident in doing anything so drastic, get some rigid-board insulation from your local lumber store, cut it to fit exactly into the window opening from inside, and then cut a sheet of hardboard to fit the same opening, inside the insulation; glue the insulation to the hardboard, paint the hardboard to match the wall, weatherstrip the edges of the hardboard so that you’ve got a good tight seal around the sides, top, and bottom to prevent air leaks, slide it into place and you’re good to go. If you live in a place with cold winters, closing up half a dozen windows in this way during the cold season can save you quite a bit on your heating bills.

What if you want something more easily movable, so you can catch the rays of the winter sun when it’s out but close things up easily at night? Here we come to one of the great forgotten secrets of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, the fine art of insulated window coverings.

I had the chance to learn about those personally in my teen years. In 1977, my family moved from a rental house in a down-at-heels Seattle suburb to a larger and more comfortable place we actually owned – well, subject to mortgage and all that, but you get the idea. The one drawback was that the new place was expensive to heat, and that was mostly because most of the main floor’s walls facing southeast, toward a stunning view of the Cascade Mountains, consisted of single-pane windows. Insulated window coverings were much talked about in those days of high energy costs and state-funded conservation programs; my stepmother found a pattern, fired up her sewing machine, and made what amounted to a set of inexpensive quilts – faced inside and out with the ornately printed sheets popular in those days, and filled with polyester batting – rigged to slide up and down like Roman blinds. They went up in the morning and down with the sun, and the monthly heating bills dropped by a very noticeable fraction.

There are dozens of designs for insulated window coverings – or, more precisely, there were dozens of designs. It will take you a bit of searching to find them nowadays, as a result of the thirty-year vacation from reality American society took in 1980 or thereabouts. All the designs have certain things in common. The first, obviously enough, is that they put a bunch of additional insulation over the window. How much? A good rule of thumb is that your windows, with window coverings in place, should be as well insulated as the wall on either side – for an uninsulated wall of normal American housing construction, this means around R-5, and up from there as your level of insulation improves.

The second common feature is that the window covering should be sealed around the window, especially at top and bottom. Conventional curtains, open at top and bottom, can actually increase your heat loss by convection: air up against the window glass is chilled and flows out the bottom opening, making a draft across the floor, while warm air gets drawn in through the bottom opening and flows across the glass, cooling as it goes. Stop that "flue effect" and you instantly make the room more comfortable. The insulated shades my stepmother made were pressed right up against the wall above the windows, and had little magnets sewn in along the edges to hold them against metal strips in the wall beside and below the windows; there were many other tricks used to do the same thing.

The third common feature is that the window covering should contain a vapor barrier. Ours didn’t, which meant that the windows were thick with condensation when the shades went up in the morning, and often had to be mopped off with a rag. A layer of something waterproof, on the side of the insulation closest to the interior space, will prevent that, and avoid problems with mold, water damage, and the like.

Beyond these three points, the options are nearly unlimited. It’s entirely possible to use something like ordinary curtains to get the same effect, as long as they have something holding them tight against the wall on all sides of the window opening. Shades were a very common approach, and so were shutters of various kinds, hinged or sliding or even concealed within pockets built out from the walls. One of the most elegant examples I know involved built-in bookcases along a northern wall; there was a gap behind them just wide enough to make room for sliding shutters, and at night the homeowner simply pulled two inconspicuous handles together and turned the window into an R-12 wall.

These same techniques can be used in two additional ways to help save energy. The first is to use insulated coverings inside a solar greenhouse at night. The same clear surfaces that let sunlight into a greenhouse lose plenty of heat at night; equip your greenhouse with some sort of movable insulation to cover the glazing at night, and it becomes possible to run a solar greenhouse much more efficiently in cold weather. The other is the old medieval custom of using cloth hangings, a few inches out from the wall, to insulate an otherwise chilly space. That’s what all those tapestries were doing in medieval castles; insulated wall hangings can function exactly the same way in a modern house, so long as they extend from floor to ceiling on exterior walls, and have both a reasonable amount of insulation in them and a couple of inches of air space between the fabric and the wall.

None of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to make. If you have some basic facility with a sewing machine – and if you don’t, getting it might be a worthwhile project sometime very soon – you can knock together a good set of insulated window coverings for a couple of rooms in a couple of hours, using storebought sheets and some quilt batting as your raw materials. If you know how to handle a saw, a screwdriver, and a carpenter’s square – again, these are skills worth acquiring soon if you don’t have them already – it won’t take any longer to turn some lumber, hardboard, and rigid board insulation into good sturdy insulated shutters.

The time to get these skills, and get your window insulation in place, is now. Just as the inhabitants of dying empires in the past used to listen nervously for the distant sound of hoofbeats that told them the barbarians were on the way, those who are paying attention to the predicament of our own time need to get used to listening for the cracks and judderings of an overburdened system as it lurches down the slope of its own decline and fall. Those faint noises and brief glimpses may be the closest thing to a warning that we’ll get.


Once again, the Master Conservers papers at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website provide a good introduction; the paper you want for this week’s topic is titled, not surprisingly, "Insulated Window Coverings." There were also several very good books on the subject published back in the day; far and away my favorite is William K. Langdon’s Movable Insulation, but William Shurcliff’s Thermal Shades and Shutters and Judy Lindahl’s Energy Saving Decorating are also worth a look if you can find them,