Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Fashion for Austerity

The tempest in a media teapot over the apocalyptic predictions of California radio evangelist Harold Camping, it seems to me, provides a useful glimpse into the state of the collective imagination here in America. Camping, for those of my readers who somehow managed to miss the flurry of news stories, announced some months ago that the Rapture – the sudden miraculous teleportation of every devout Christian from earth to Heaven, which plays a central role in one account of the end times that’s popular just now in American Protestant circles – was going to happen at 6 pm last Saturday.

Now it so happens that I spent a large part of the last year or so researching and writing a history of apocalyptic prophecies, so the trajectory traced by Camping and his followers through the modern zeitgeist came as no surprise. What seems worth noting, though, is the amount of attention given to this latest prediction. At any given time, it’s a safe bet that somebody is proclaiming the end of the world within the next year or so, but it’s very rare that such prophecies make the news. Admittedly, your run of the mill doomsday prophet doesn’t splash his prophecy on billboards across the United States, and Camping did that; one even found its way to the quiet Appalachian town where I live, though it attracted little more than laughter. Cumberland’s well stocked with churches, and they seem to be well attended, but the antics of radio evangelists are apparently not much to local taste.

Still, I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. When times are good, the guy with the sandwich board reading THE END IS NIGH is easy to ignore. When times are bad, on the other hand, there’s a real temptation to buy into even dubious claims that some outside force is going to rescue you. When things are bad and getting worse, furthermore, and any inquiry into why they’re bad and getting worse points straight to choices that you’ve made and are not yet willing to unmake, the hope that someone or something other than yourself will save you from the consequences of your own actions can be one of the few comfortable ways to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

Since most of the people in the industrial world right now are in that situation, it’s probably safe to assume that a bumper crop of doomsday prophecies will feature prominently in the near future. The flurry of mutually contradictory claims surrounding the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 is likely to play a large role here. It’s probably a waste of breath at this point to mention that the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually end in 2012, that Classic Mayan inscriptions contain precisely one offhand reference to that date, that the reference supports precisely none of the gaudy claims currently being circulated about it, and that plenty of other Mayan inscriptions include dates that fall decades, centuries, and millennia past 2012.

For that matter, I doubt many people care that the entire 2012 business was invented out of whole cloth by New Age mystics Terence McKenna and Jose Arguelles back in the 1980s, when the field of Mayan archeology was still cluttered with a great deal of nonsense the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics in the following decade tipped into the dumpster. For whatever reason, the collective conversation of our time has seized on 2012 as a convenient inkblot onto which fantasies of mass enlightenment and/or mass extermination can be projected at will. My guess is that as we get closer to December 21, 2012, the prophetic three-ring circus centering on that date will likely make Harold Camping green with envy.

Meanwhile, less futile responses to the crisis of industrial civilization are moving slowly inward from the fringes toward the cultural mainstream. Members of the peak oil community who track stories in the mainstream media have noted with some bemusement in recent months that the financial press has suddenly given up its habit of blithely dismissing peak oil as a nonissue. Even the Wall Street Journal, which not that long ago was a bastion of cornucopian insouciance, had a piece in yesterday’s issue talking nervously about the end of easily extracted oil reserves. Where the Wall Street Journal goes, the rest of the media generally follows; I think it’s fair to say that peak oil’s arrival as a cause célèbre in the cultural mainstream is very nearly in sight.

One of the best arguments for this last suggestion, ironically, is the recent explosion of comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that this can’t possibly happen. There’s an odd but understandable shift that happens in movements that start out on the outermost fringes of a culture, as the contemporary peak oil movement did. When they’re still comfortably settled in exile from the mainstream, such movements routinely churn out grand and sweeping proposals for worldwide change; it’s entirely acceptable to propose relocating the entire American population into lifeboat ecovillages, let’s say, or sinking half the world’s gross domestic product into a crash program to build solar power satellites, because nobody really expects to have to deal with the gritty details of putting their plans into effect.

Those movements that find themselves drawn inward from the fringes, though, routinely go through a sudden loss of nerve once it becomes clear that something might actually be done about whatever issue the movement is attempting to address. It’s not hard to understand why this should be so. Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that your phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the line belongs to your Congressperson. The government, he or she tells you, has belatedly realized that peak oil is the crisis you’ve always said it was; both parties are in a state of panic; a joint Congressional committee has just been formed, at the president’s urging, to figure out how to deal with it. Your Congressperson wants you to come to Washington and tell the committee what immediate, practical response the nation should make to the crisis. Could you face such a call without breaking into a cold sweat?

Now of course the chance that most of us will ever field such a phone call is pretty remote. If I were Richard Heinberg or Tom Whipple, mind you, I’d make sure I had a list of talking points ready, but as far as I know, no archdruid has ever been asked to speak to a Congressional committee, and I don’t expect to be the first. Still, the point remains the same even when it takes less dramatic form. As peak oil goes mainstream, those of us who have been studying and speaking about it for years are going to have to present meaningful, realistic plans for action. That’s a daunting prospect, and it goes a long way to explain the recent flurry of posts and comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that industrial society can’t possibly change its course, because extravagant consumption of energy and other resources is hardwired into our genes or our nervous systems, or enforced by the nature of human hierarchy, or what have you.

It requires only a fairly brief glance at history to show that this is quite simply nonsense. Plenty of human societies, from Old Kingdom Egypt straight through to Tokugawa-era Japan, have deliberately set aside growth-oriented policies for the sake of survival. Ancient Egypt bought itself three thousand years of cultural continuity; Japan maintained its independence in the face of the rapacious European empires of the time; neither of these societies was exactly free of political and economic elites with an interest in their own enrichment, you’ll notice, but they and other societies with the same burden have found the transition to a steady state worth pursuing. America threw aside its promising initial steps in that direction at the end of the 1970s; thirty years later, most of the easy options have already been foreclosed on, and the combined impact of the end of the age of cheap energy and the implosion of America’s overseas empire is going to make the next few years a very difficult time no matter what decisions get made. Still, there’s a great deal that can still be done even this late in the game.

Ironically, one of the changes that has most often been dismissed as completely out of reach – the suggestion that Americans can and should use a great deal less energy and resources – is one that shows the strongest signs of catching on. One of the more useful pieces of evidence for this shift is the defensive tone of blogs like this one that have taken to denouncing the idea. Nobody wastes time being publicly outraged by notions that their audiences would never think of accepting, you know. It was when the mainstream media began dismissing peak oil in heated language that I realized, and mentioned here, tht peak oil might just manage to go mainstream; the huffy tone of blogs rejecting out of hand the idea that people might actually decide to choose a radically simpler lifestyle, unburdened by most of the technological so-called conveniences that clutter up so many lives just now, is a good indicator that a movement toward drastically lower consumption is stirring in the deep places of our collective imagination.

When it comes right down to it, after all, today’s high-consumption, hyper-connected lifestyle is a fad, right up there with hula hoops and swallowing live goldfish. Thirty years ago, the thought that people would voluntarily put themselves at the beck and call of anybody who wanted to contact them, at all hours of the day and night, would have inspired a mix of horror and hilarity. Thirty years from now, those who now can’t imagine being offline for twenty-four hours at a stretch will look back on their current habits with much the same embarrassed amusement that you get from today’s fifty-something Republicans when they remember their long-haired, pot-smoking youth. It’s precisely in the waning phase of a fad that’s passed its pull date that its participants tend to get shrill and defensive toward those who have begun to drift away – or, perhaps, who never got involved at all.

All this implies, of course, that the strategy I’ve called L.E.S.S. -- Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation – could very well become fashionable in exactly the same way. If it catches on at all, it will inevitably pick up faddish dimensions; there will be those who devote their lives to various forms of conspicuous non-consumption, those who treat some particular austerity as a litmus test while neglecting broader principles, and so on. Those dubious habits existed in the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, to be sure, and for that matter the same sort of thing can be found in every social movement. Furthermore, to the extent that L.E.S.S. becomes a fad, it will have a limited shelf life – fads always do – and there will come a point when it stops being fashionable and some other trend takes its place. That, too, has happened with every other social movement you care to name.

I’m not at all sure that a fashion for austerity would be entirely a bad thing, though. Right now, unless my sense of the flow of events is completely off kilter, we’re moving into the second and probably much more serious phase of the crisis kicked off in 2008 by the implosion of the real estate bubble, which has been metastasizing ever since under the band-aid applied to it by the industrial nations’ print-and-pretend policies. In Europe, extremist parties are making hay off the political mainstream’s insistence that the only possible option is to load trillions of Euros of bad debt onto the backs of taxpayers and ordinary working people; in America, an even more vacuous political consensus is avoiding every significant issue we face; rising powers elsewhere are claiming a growing share of the world’s energy and resource base, largely at America’s expense; festering social strains and rising economic pressures here and abroad are moving toward the breaking point.

Exactly how the resulting mess will play out is a complicated question. Still, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a fashion for austerity, however faddish its surface forms might turn out to be, might be a very good thing to adopt and even to encourage. Even if it only lasts for a decade or two, that may be enough to help a lot of people weather the immediate impact of the crisis. Whatever fashions emerge in its wake, though, it’s safe to say that today’s fad for frantic consumption won’t be among them, for the simple reason that the resources that make that fad possible are running short. Whatever fads and fashions spring up in the aftermath of the approaching crisis will have to make do with a much smaller resource base.

A fashion for austerity may be temporary, in other words, but the austerity will endure. Responding to that latter will demand significant changes to each of our lives. It’s crucial here not to make the mistake (or, more precisely, one of the mistakes) that doomed the climate change movement – that is, the habit of treating the inevitable changes ahead of us as something that can be fobbed off on the rest of humanity through unequal treaties, or conjured into being by collective action that somehow never gets around to affecting one’s own lifestyle. We are all, every one of us, going to have to get by with less energy and less of the products of energy; we are all going to have to do things for ourselves that we’ve come to assume, often unthinkingly, that machines powered by cheap abundant energy will always do for us; we are all going to have to accept a great deal more in the way of discomfort and inconvenience than we do today.

Changes on the collective level, whether driven by fashion or enacted by the Congressional committee I imagined earlier in this post, aren’t going to prevent any of that. If they happen – and I think they can, although that possibility by no means guarantees that they will – their function will be to make it easier to adjust, to provide more options, more useful information, more incentives, more encouragement. It will still be up to each of us, as individuals, to make the hard changes that will have to be made – and to do so, if at all possible, before there’s no other choice, when there’s still the time and the opportunity to work through the learning curves of unfamiliar skills and be prepared to manage the crisis with some measure of grace. As Harold Camping’s followers learned the hard way this weekend, no outside force is going to rapture us away from the consequences of three centuries of mistaken faith in exponential growth, or the act of collective blindness thirty years ago that threw away our best chance at getting through this mess in good order. The world we’ve got is the world we’re going to have to live with, and it’s going to take a lot of work to make it livable.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Tyranny of the Temporary

For just short of a year now, my posts here have focused on exploring one extensive set of options for dealing with the crisis of industrial civilization – the toolkit that came to maturity in the organic gardening and appropriate technology movements of the Seventies, and has been more or less sitting on a shelf since that time, being roundly ignored even by those people who thought they were pursuing every available response to peak oil. The process of hauling those tools down off the shelf and handing them out isn’t quite finished yet, but before we go on to the last round of unpacking, I want to talk about another side of the social process that put them on the shelf in the first place.

That dimension of our predicament was pointed up by a commenter who responded to part of last week’s post by suggesting, among other things, that people would still be getting their food from supermarkets for long enough that anyone alive today doesn’t need to worry about other options. It’s not an example that gets brought up often; still, the same assumption that current ways of doing things will remain in place indefinitely is an important reason why so many otherwise prudent and intelligent people to ignore the signs that their lifestyle is getting ready to terminate itself with extreme prejudice. A hard look at the logic behind it is certainly in order.

Supermarkets, as it happens, make a good example. The first supermarket in America, Ralphs Grocery Store, opened for business in 1929 in Los Angeles, California. Until the boomtime that followed the Second World War, supermarkets were found only in a very few urban centers; most Americans bought meat from a nearby butcher shop, had milk delivered by a neighborhood dairy, and parceled out the rest of their food and sundries budget among other local shops, most of them independently owned and nearly all of them getting the bulk of their supplies from local and regional producers.

It took billions of barrels of cheap petroleum, the massive suburbanization of postwar America, the building of the National Defense Highway System, federal policies that tilted the playing field in favor of big producers and long-haul trucking firms, and decades of highly aggressive and dubiously legal monopolistic practices on the part of national chains, among other things, to steamroller the once diverse landscape of American food production and turn supermarkets selling national brands into the only option that’s still available to most Americans on grocery day. Only if those factors are ignored is it possible to think of supermarkets as the natural and inevitable form of a modern food distribution system, or to assume that it will remain frozen in place as all the factors that made it possible dissolve beneath incoming waves of change.

The same thing is true, doubled, quadrupled, and in spades, of the “global economy” that was so widely ballyhooed a decade or two ago. Its proponents liked to portray it as the unstoppable wave of a new and prosperous future, but it’s become increasingly clear that it was nothing of the kind. It was only economically feasible in the first place because the final blowoff of the age of cheap oil dropped fuel prices so low that transportation costs basically no longer mattered, and it was only politically feasible because the American middle class was quite willing to see the working class here and abroad sold down the river to force down the price of consumer goods, one of several short term gimmicks meant to prop up a facade of prosperity that was already visibly cracking.

It was inevitably temporary, too. The handful of Third World nations that figured out how to cash in on the process proceeded to use the influx of dollars to build their own industrial economies behind trade barriers identical to the ones America used a century earlier to do the same thing at Great Britain’s expense. Today they are busily outcompeting the United States for the fossil fuels and resources that made our lifestyles of the recent past possible in the first place. The countries that have prospered most from globalized free trade, in other words, are those that never allowed their own markets to be held hostage to foreign producers, and treated globalization as the temporary blip it was. Meanwhile the American middle class is discovering, to its considerable chagrin, that the same strategies of offshoring and disinvestment that gutted the working class in the 1970s and 1980s are now being turned on them, in an attempt to prop up the lifestyles of a far narrower circle that we may as well call the investor class. While globalism remains firmly in place in the investment world, as a result, the ability of American consumers to make themselves feel rich by profiting off the low cost of sweatshop labor overseas is going away as incomes evaporate and prices creep implacably upwards.

A third example of the same phenomenon is very much a live issue in the peak oil scene just now, and since the aftermath hasn’t shown up yet, it’s worth tracking. The figures for total liquid fuel production worldwide, which dropped after the housing crash, have risen with the recovery in oil prices and topped their 2008 record this year; a number of peak oil observers – here’s one example – have argued on that basis that we may be able to count on a long-term plateau or even a successful transition to alternatives. Still, there’s a fly in the ointment, and it’s the way that total fuel production figures permit the double-counting of fuel.

Unlike conventional crude oil, after all, much alternative fuel production requires very large energy inputs, and nearly all of this comes from existing fossil fuels. It takes a great deal of diesel fuel to grow corn for ethanol production, for example, and a fair amount of natural gas or electricity (the latter mostly generated by coal or natural gas) to run the plants that turn the corn into ethanol. Oilseed production and refining for biodiesel is subject to similar constraints, while the Canadian tar sands that have received so much attention in recent years yield a usable crude substitute only with the help of prodigious amounts of natural gas. A meaningful measure of liquid fuels production should at least subtract the total amount of liquid fuels that has to be cycled back in to the process of producing more liquid fuels, and might reasonably subtract the value of nonliquid fuel energy consumed in the process of production, for much the same reason that a company’s balance sheet has to subtract expenses from income when it comes time to figure profits.

Does the current statistic for total fuel production do so? Surely you jest. Thus the energy content of a growing fraction of our available liquid fuel supply is being counted twice. Furthermore, the diversion of increasing amounts of natural gas and food crops into liquid fuel production functions as a way of pushing costs off the books of the fuel industry and onto other economic sectors; fuel prices in the industrial world, in effect, are among other things being subsidized at the expense of poor families in the Third World who have seen the price of grain and oil jump in recent months. The political and economic consequences of this sort of malign offshoring of costs are considerable, and have already begun to circle back around to the industria lworld. Here again, a temporary process – the desperate attempt to pad out dwindling oil reserves with anything and everything that comes to hand, no matter what the energy cost or wider impact – is being mistaken for an enduring support for business as usual.

This habit of treating temporary phenomena as permanent conditions has many roots, to be sure. America’s bizarre relationship with its own history, compounded of equal parts popular mythology, nostalgic fascination, and a conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present, has a very large role in it. The contemporary religion of progress, with its dogmatic insistence that history is a one-way street and that what we have now is better than anything the past had to offer even when the evidence points the other way, also plays a substantial role. Equally, the deeply troubled national conscience I’ve discussed in past posts had a lot to do with it; if you’ve sold your soul to the devil, in effect, it’s profoundly human to talk yourself into believing that what you got in exchange was worth the price.

Whatever the sources of the tyranny of the temporary that dominates so much of contemporary thinking, though, it’s a luxury we can’t afford at this point, and we’ll be able to afford it even less as the crisis of industrial civilization unfolds and the available options narrow. An example from a different corner of the deindustrial landscape may help clarify the possibilities that open up once temporary conditions are recognized as such, and those of us who are minded to think about the future start making plans and launching projects on a more sturdy basis.

The example I have in mind showed up the other day while I was rereading Farrington Daniels’ classic Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Published in 1964, it’s still among the best surveys of potential ways to use solar energy, and though the technology is a little dated by modern standards, that’s not necessarily a disadvantage – most of the methods Daniels discusses, unlike most current equivalents, are well within the reach of the sort of basement-workshop mad scientists I’ve suggested we need in droves just now. Notably, too, Daniels covers a range of technologies that seem to have dropped out of the conversation concerning solar energy these days, and one of them is solar thermoelectric power.

No doubt the retired engineers among my readers know all about the Seebeck effect and can skip the next paragraph. For the rest, thermoelectric power is an interesting bit of physics. Imagine a zigzag of metal in which, so to speak, all the zigs are all of one kind of metal (say, copper), all the zags are another (say, zinc), and the two metals join at the angles. If you apply heat to the angles on one side of the zigzag and cool the angles on the other side, electric current starts flowing through the zigzag, and if you solder wires to the two ends and connect them to something that uses electricity, you’re good to go. On a small scale, it’s a surprisingly robust effect; back in the 1940s and 1950s, Russia used to manufacture sturdy little thermoelectric generators that put the heat from a kerosene lamp on one side of the zigzag and the Siberian climate on the other. Those proved quite adequate to power the tube-based radio receivers standard at the time, which weren’t exactly abstemious in their power needs.

In Daniels’ time, a certain amount of tinkering had been done on solar thermoelectric power – plate 8 of his book shows a modestly sized parabolic reflector heating a thermoelectric rig and charging a car battery – and it turned out to be very useful for satellites, since the heat differential between a lump of hot radioactive metal and the chill of interplanetary space produces a nice steady current suitable for deep space probes. Its possibilities on an industrial scale never amounted to much, though, as it proved to be difficult to scale up to any significant degree, and of course as long as we can count on a steady supply of cheap abundant fossil fuels, solar thermoelectric power is a non-starter.

Look past the tyranny of the temporary, though, and the possibilities are fascinating. To say that a solar thermoelectric generator is a simple device understates the case considerably. Benjamin Franklin could have knocked one together in a spare afternoon while waiting for the next thunderstorm to blow in; for that matter, it would not have posed a significant challenge to a skilled craftsperson in ancient Egypt. All you need is the ability to work nonferrous metals and the very basic geometry skills needed to shape a parabolic dish reflector. Strictly speaking, the efficiency of heat-to-electricity conversion isn’t that high, but given a more meaningful definition of efficiency – for example, labor and resources input to electricity output – it leaves many other options in the dust, and its sustainability is hard to match; we’re talking, ultimately, about a technology that could conceivably power radio communication and the like for as long as our species endures.

There are other technologies that are equally obscured by the tyranny of the temporary, and equally worth developing and preserving once a wider view of the situation is taken into account. Some of those may come within reach surprisingly soon; a recent study from India, for example, has shown that solar water heating systems can pay for themselves in two years via savings on fuel costs and yield a substantial net gain thereafter; as energy prices begin their next major upward movement – something that’s likely to happen in a big way once the market starts to pay attention to the tremendous depletion rates of shale gas – that figure is likely to turn even more sharply in a favorable direction. Get over the habit of assuming that today’s temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy is a permanent condition, and it becomes much easier to spot the opportunities for constructive action that remain open, even this late in the game.

I’m pleased to announce also that New Society Publishers has decided to offer my blog readers a freebie to celebrate the publication of my new book The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered. It’s a bundle deal; order all three of my books -- The Wealth of Nature, The Ecotechnic Future and The Long Descent and they’ll throw in free shipping anywhere in the US and Canada. When you place your order at, you simply have to enter the code JMG-BUNDLE at the checkout, then click on the "Redeem" button, and select "Free Shipping" from the "Ship Via:" selection box. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hair Shirts, Hypocrisy, and Wilkins Micawber

I’d like to go into a little more detail about the core theme of the last several posts, the proposal that using less – less energy from nonrenewable sources, that is, and less of everything made using energy from nonrenewable sources – needs to be central to any serious response to the predicament of our time. It’s both a more complicated and a more practical project than it may seem at first glance, and some of the comments I’ve fielded over the last week have pointed up some of the challenges involved in getting to work on it.

One of the problems with the project is that it sounds too much like the kind of fashionable faux-activism that was skewered a few years back in a wickedly funny song by the British singing group Fascinating Aida. I’m sure we’ve all met people who make quite a show of boycotting anything environmentally destructive on loudly proclaimed moral grounds, just so long as they can replace it without any actual change in their lifestyle or decrease in their comfort level. That’s not the sort of approach I have in mind, of course, but I’m also not suggesting that my readers put on a sustainably harvested hair shirt and retire to a Bat Conservation International-certified bat-safe cave in the mountains to offer up their sufferings in the hope of assuaging the wrath of Gaia.

America’s Puritan heritage being what it is, it’s not surprising that the idea of using less has at times been applied in both these unproductive ways, and rather more often been mistaken for them. Still, the point I tried to make in last week’s post is that under many circumstances, making yourself much less dependent on the resources provided by a failing system is far and away the most practical thing you can do. Those circumstances, I’d like to suggest, are very much in evidence right now.

Here’s an example. I field emails and comments a couple of times a week from people who are seriously troubled about the future. They see themselves as trapped in a system that’s already started to go to bits around them, and lacking the money and other resources that would be needed to make the preparations they’d have to make to weather the approaching crash. A good many of them are living in apartments with nowhere to garden and few options for energy retrofits, and they quite reasonably worry about what’s going to happen when access to energy becomes intermittent, food prices spike, and what now counts as a comfortable urban lifestyle begins the long downhill skid into the shantytown existence facing something like half of the American people within a few decades. They want to know what options I can suggest for them.

The core strategy for people in this position? Use much less, so that expenditures drop well below income, freeing up money to be used to get out of the current, unsustainable situation. Most Americans can cut their expenses by anything up to a third in short order by simply giving up the energy- and money-wasting habits of the consumer economy. That may involve moving to a smaller apartment with lower rent, fewer amenities, and a bus line close enough that you can get to work by public transit; it may involve not buying the new computer every two years, the plasma screen TV, and any number of other expensive toys many people think they have to have; it may involve learning to cook, eat, and enjoy rice and beans for dinner instead of picking up meals at the deli; it will likely involve plenty of other steps of the same kind. The payoff is that you get the extra money you need to learn the skills that will make sense in a deindustrial economy, and can save up a down payment for a fixer-upper house with good solar exposure, a backyard well suited for an organic garden, and a basement where you can get to work learning to brew good beer. For people in that position, using less now has nothing to do with hair shirts or hypocrisy; rather, it’s the entrance ticket to a better future.

More generally, it amazes me how many people seem to think they can downshift in a blink from a modern American lifestyle, with all its comforts and privileges, to the close-to-subsistence lifestyle most of us will be leading in the middle future. It’s reminiscent of those old-fashioned survivalists whose idea of being ready to feed themselves once the rubble stops bouncing is a nitrogen-packed tin of garden seeds, a random assortment of tools, and a manual on how to garden, which they read halfway through on a slow afternoon ten years ago. Those who adopted that approach have been very lucky that their doomsteads have never had to function as anything more serious than deer camps, because if they’d tried to feed themselves that way, death by starvation would have been the inevitable result. Growing food in an intensive organic garden is a skilled craft requiring several years of hard and careful work to master, and if you hope to rely on it for even a small part of your food, you need to get through the steep part of the learning curve as soon as possible.

The same thing is true of most of the other skills that are needed to live comfortably in hard times. If you don’t know how to do them, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and suffer a great deal more than you have to. The sooner you start that learning curve, the easier the curve will be, because you’ll still have the resources you need to pick up the pieces when your early efforts fall flat. If you wait until you have to live with less, you won’t have that cushion, and the potential downsides can be drastic. It’s entirely possible, for example, to live through summers south of the Mason-Dixon line without air conditioning; people did it for a very long time before air conditioners were first marketed in the boom times following the Second World War, after all. Still, it’s not simply a matter of gritting your teeth and sweating. It requires certain skills and, in most recently built houses, certain modifications to your home, and if the thermometer hits three digits when you haven’t yet installed the attic fan or figured out how to open a couple of windows at the right angle to catch the breeze and keep heat from building up, you could be risking heatstroke. Starting the learning curve now provides a margin of safety you’ll be glad to have.

Furthermore, most current talk about the impact of peak oil assumes that the end of the industrial age is a nice, cleanly marked point located conveniently off somewhere in the future, and that’s a potentially dangerous oversimplification just now. Those Americans who have run out of their 99 weeks of unemployment checks and become members of the new class of economic nonpersons, after all, have just been pushed out the exit doors of industrial society. For them, the end of the industrial age has arrived. That same eventuality could show up on any of our doorsteps with 99 weeks of warning, and quite possibly less. If that happens to you, will you be better prepared to meet it if you’ve been spending everything you earn and then some, in standard American middle class style, or if you’ve cut your expenses, cleared your debts, mastered the fine art of getting by with less, and learned the skills and bought the tools you’ll need for a backup profession or two? You tell me.

All this amounts to variations on a common theme, which is that the rules governing life in a stagnant or contracting economy are precisely the opposite of the rules governing life in an expanding one. In the growth economy of the recent past, it usually made sense to spend money freely and gamble that you could always get more, because the sheer fact of continued economic growth meant that more often than not, you were right. With the end of economic growth, the Micawber Principle – "annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness; annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery" – once again comes into force. Most Americans haven’t yet grasped this or any other implication of the end of economic growth. For all of that, most Americans wouldn’t recognize Wilkins Micawber if W.C Fields rose from his crypt to reprise his sole (and brilliant) serious dramatic role on screen. Still, ignorance is not bliss; the consequences of the former of these blind spots, at least, are likely to include a horse doctor’s dose of economic misery.

So much for the practicality of using less now. The complexity deserves a few words as well, though partly that’s a matter of finding the right way to talk about the subject. Choosing a term can have remarkable consequences. The wife of a good friend of mine pointed out the other day, for example, that part of what tripped up climate change activism was the choice of the phrase "global warming" as a label for the problem the activists hoped to address. To most people, "global" sounds positive and "warming" even more so; the resulting phrase simply didn’t have the threat value to inspire a mass movement. She suggested the alternative moniker of "radiation entrapment" – a good description of what excess CO2 does in the atmosphere, you’ll notice, but also a a pair of words that have unsettling negative connotations of their own. If a politician insisted that radiation entrapment wasn’t a danger to anybody, can you imagine anyone within earshot thinking anything other than, "He’s lying"? I certainly can’t.

I don’t have anything so elegant to offer. What comes to mind at this point, rather, is an acronym – LESS – that stands for "Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation." In outline, that’s the strategy I’d like to propose for those who want to weave the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in these posts into a broader way of life; just as it’s a lot easier to heat a house with solar power when you’ve already got to work with insulation and weatherstripping, so that the house doesn’t leak heat from every wall and corner, it’s a lot easier to live a life in an age of decline when you’ve made sure your life isn’t leaking energy and other resources from every available orifice. That’s what the LESS strategy is meant to do; think of it as a way of weatherstripping your life.

The last part of the acronym, "stimulation," may seem surprising to my readers, but it’s a crucial part of the recipe. For the last thirty years and more, Americans have been pushing their nervous systems into continual overload with various kinds of stimulation, and I’ve come to think that this is another symptom of the deeply troubled national conscience discussed in recent Archdruid Report posts. A mind that’s constantly flooded with noise from television, video games, or what have you, is a mind that never has the time or space to think its own thoughts, and in a nation that’s trying not to notice that it’s sold its own grandchildren down the river, that’s probably the point of the exercise. Be that as it may, recovering the ability to think one’s own thoughts, to clear one’s mind of media-driven chatter, manufactured imagery, and all the other thoughtstopping clutter we use to numb ourselves to the increasingly unwelcome realities of life in a failing civilization, is an indispensable tool for surviving the challenges ahead, and one that I’ll be talking about at more length in a future post.

"Stuff" may seem a little less puzzling, but getting out from under the tyranny of excess ownership may be every bit as challenging for many Americans as shaking off the habit of stimulating the mind into a state not far removed from coma. As far as I know, ours is the only civilization in history in which storing personal possessions that won’t fit even in today’s gargantuan McMansions has become the basis for a significant economic sector. It’s a critical issue to confront, though, because our passion for what I’ve elsewhere termed prosthetic technologies – machines, that is, that are designed to do things that human beings are perfectly able to do for themselves – has built up habits of dependence that could easily, and literally, prove to be fatal if they’re not broken before demand destruction puts the machines and the power needed to run them out of reach. In an expanding civilization, your success is marked by what you have; in a declining one, your chances of survival may well be measured by what you can readily do without. That’s another point I’ll be expanding on in a later post.

"Energy," finally, may be the most obvious factor in the equation, but some of its aspects are far from obvious to most Americans today. A very large fraction of the energy that props up the American lifestyle, for example, gets used to manufacture, package, ship, retail, power, maintain, and dispose of the heap of consumer goods that people in this country commonly mistake for having a life. Another very large fraction, as just suggested, goes into technologies meant to keep human bodies and minds from doing things they’re perfectly able to do, and as often as not become unhealthy if they’re not allowed to do. For every watt-hour that can be saved by direct methods of the sort I’ve discussed in this blog already, there’s more than one – very often, many more than one – that can be saved by indirect methods such as buying used goods from local sources rather than new items from chain stores with intercontinental supply chains. That, too, is a point I’ll be developing in a post later on.

Still, the basic concept should be easy enough to grasp. The habit of living beyond our means is as much an individual problem as a collective one, and it’s a significant factor keeping many people stuck in a set of lifestyles that are as unsatisfactory as they are unsustainable. Freeing up the money, the time, and the resources to make the shift to a more sustainable way of life needs to be high on the agenda of anyone who’s seriously planning to deal with the cascading crises of the decades ahead of us, and using LESS may be the single most important and accessible tool for doing so.


On a different note, I’m delighted to announce that my third and latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as though Survival Mattered, is hot off the press and available for purchase. Those of my readers who remember the series of posts a couple of years back on ecological economics (and why you can get better economic advice these days from a randomly chosen fortune cookie than from a professional economist) will find the themes from those posts explored at greater depth; those of my readers who are new to the journey we’re making together on this blog may find it useful, or at least interesting, to check out some of the basic concepts underlying the Green Wizardry project.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Downside of Dependence

I’m not sure if last week’s Archdruid Report post hit a nerve, or if thoughts similar to the ones I discussed there have been busy all by themselves stirring up nightmares in the deep places of our collective imagination, but it’s been fascinating to note how many blog posts over the past few days have taken issue with the core point my post raised. That point, for those who readers who are just joining us, is that using less – less energy, less resources, less stuff of every kind – is the hallmark of any serious response to the predicament facing industrial civilization

Typical of the responses, if that’s what they were, was a blog post by Forbes blogger Roger Kay. It’s a clever post, to be sure, and Kay’s an engaging writer. He imagines beer yeast in a vat of wort – for those of you who aren’t yet initiated into the mysteries of brewing, that’s what you call the stuff that turns into beer before it turns into beer – faced with the inevitable problem that beer yeast face in a vat of wort: once the alcohol produced by their own life processes reaches a certain level, it poisons the yeast and they die.

Kay goes on to imagine a yeast cell with a conscience, who decides not to consume the sugars in the wort, and points out that the only thing that results from the moral yeast’s decision is that the other, less scrupulous yeast cells eat all the sugar, and all the yeasts die anyway. His conclusion is that we might as well wallow in our fossil-fueled lifestyles while we can, since everyone else is going to do that anyway, and the only hope he offers is that technology might save us before the consequences hit.

George Monbiot, who’s carved out a niche for himself as the staff pseudoenvironmentalist of The Guardian, had a blog post of his own on much the same theme. His argument is simply that most people in today’s industrial societies are not going to accept anything short of continued economic growth, and so a strategy based on using less is simply a waste of time.

Like many people these days who worry about global warming, he dismisses the issues surrounding peak oil out of hand – the problem we face, he insists, is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much – and as evidence for this, he points to the recent announcement from the IEA that world production of petroleum peaked in 2006. Since industrial civilization hasn’t collapsed yet, he tells us, peak oil clearly isn’t a problem. I suppose if you ignore drastic and worsening economic troubles in the world’s industrial nations, food riots and power shortages spreading across the Third World, and all the other symptoms of the rising spiral of peak-driven crisis now under way, you might be able to make that claim. Still, there’s a deeper illogic here.

It’s an illogic that seems highly plausible to many people. That’s because the fallacy that forms the core of the argument made by Kay, Monbiot, and so many others is a common feature of today’s conventional wisdom. An alternative metaphor – one at least as familiar to the peak oil blogosphere as Roger Kay’s yeas – might help to clarify the nature of the failed logic they’re retailing.

Imagine, then, that you’re on the proverbial ocean liner at sea, and it’s just hit the proverbial iceberg. Water is rising belowdecks and the deck is beginning to tilt, but nobody has drowned yet. Aware of the danger, you strap on a life preserver and head for the lifeboats. As you leave your stateroom, though, the guy in the stateroom next to yours gives you an incredulous look. "Are you nuts?" he says. "If you leave the ship now, somebody else will just take your cabin, and get all the meals and drinks you’ve paid for!"

Your fellow passenger in the metaphor, like Kay and Monbiot in the real world, has failed to notice a crucial fact about what’s happening: when a situation is unsustainable in the near term, the benefits that might be gained by clinging to it very often come with a prodigious cost, and the costs that have to be paid to abandon it very often come with considerable benefits. It’s far more pleasant to walk down to the cruise ship’s bar, order a couple of dry martinis, and sit there listening to the Muzak, to be sure, than it is to scramble into a lifeboat and huddle there on one of the thwarts as the waves toss you around, the spray soaks you, and the wind chills you to the bone. Two hours later, however, the passenger who went to the bar is a pallid corpse being gently nibbled by fishes, and the passenger who climbed into the lifeboat and put up with the seasickness and the spray is being hauled safely aboard the first freighter that happened to be close enough to answer the distress call.

The metaphor can usefully be taken a little further, because it points up a useful way of looking at the equivalent situation in the real world. As a passenger on board the ship, your relation to the ship is a relation of dependence. You depend on the integrity of the hull to keep you from drowning, on the fuel and engines to get you to your destination, on the food supply and the galley to keep you fed, and so on. That dependence has very real advantages, but it has a potentially drastic downside: if the systems you rely on should fail, and you don’t have an alternative, your dependence on them can kill you.

It’s this downside of dependence that Kay and Monbiot miss completely. Imagine, to approach the same argument from a different angle, that Kay’s yeast metaphor left out two crucial points. The first is that the yeast cells have choices other than either eating the sugar or not eating the sugar. They can, let’s say, evolve the capacity to live on starch rather than sugar. Starch isn’t as rich an energy source as sugar, and it’s harder and costlier in energy terms to digest, but (let’s say, for the sake of the metaphor) yeast who eat starch don’t produce alcohol and so don’t poison themselves. A yeast that evolves the ability to digest starch thus has to accept a far less lavish lifestyle involving a lot more work, but it’s an option that doesn’t result in guaranteed death.

The second point Kay’s metaphor left out is that the wort in the beer vat doesn’t actually contain that much sugar. The brewer, let’s say, didn’t do an adequate job of malting the barley, and so most of what’s in the wort is starch rather than sugar. As a result, the thing the yeast need to worry about isn’t poisoning themselves by the products of their own digestion; it’s starving to death when the sugar runs out. Given these two conditions, a yeast cell that shrugs and goes back to eating sugar, trusting that the Great Brewer in the Sky will dump more sugar into the wort before it starves, isn’t making a rational choice; it’s allowing the immediate benefits of a temporary abundance to blind it to the fact that the downside of depending on that abundance includes an early and miserable death.

That, pace George Monbiot, is more or less the situation we’re in right now. We have a small and very rapidly depleting supply of highly concentrated, easy-to use "sugar" – that is, petroleum, natural gas, and the better grades of coal – and a much larger supply of diffuse, difficult-to-use "starch" – that is, renewable energy sources such as sunlight and wind, along with diffuse nonrenewable sources such as low-grade coal, uranium ore, and the like. Industrial society has evolved to use sugar, and even its forays into the starch supply are dependent on using up a great deal of sugar to make starch into a sugar substitute – consider the vast amount of natural gas that’s burnt to process tar sands into ersatz petroleum, or the natural gas (used to produce electricity) and diesel fuel that goes into manufacturing, installing, and maintaining today’s gargantuan wind turbines.

The coming of "peak sugar" has two implications for our modern industrial yeast. First, it means that the increasing comsumption of sugar has reached the limits of supply; there’s still sugar left, but as we near the end of the bumpy plateau that ordinary stochastic noise imposes on the smooth theoretical arc of the Hubbert curve, we’re getting closer and closer to the point at which yeast start to die of hunger because there’s not enough sugar to go around. Second, it means that trying to deal with that predicament by pursuing existing strategies – that is, by burning sugar to convert various kinds of starch into an edible form – is going to make the situation worse rather than better, because it’s going to decrease the supply of available sugar just as yeast cells begin to die for lack of it.

All this imposes a hard choice on the yeast cells that make up modern industrial civilization, collectively and as individuals. We know already what the collective decision has been – keep gobbling sugar and hope for the best – and though it might be possible to make a different choice collectively even this late in the game, the costs would be appalling and the political will to make such a decision clearly isn’t there. What remains are decisions on the part of individual yeast cells to go along with the collective choice or not. Those who reject the collective choice face the hard work of evolving to feed on starch that hasn’t been converted into a sugar substitute, knowing that in doing so, they’re exchanging a lavish but temporary lifestyle for a more difficult but more enduring one.

That latter choice is the one this blog has been advocating for most of a year now: using the proven appropriate-tech toolkit of the Seventies era to dramatically reduce individual, family, and community dependence on concentrated energy supplies, and make use of diffuse energy sources – primarily sunlight – that can be collected and used right where you are. Most people in today’s industrial societies have shown no interest in considering that option; they’ve made the other choice, and seem to be sticking to it even as the downside of their dependence on a collapsing human ecology is beginning to become visible. Some may change their minds, but there’s another factor that has to be taken into account, the factor of time.

One of the many comments I fielded on last week’s post pointed straight to that factor, though I don’t think the person who wrote the comment realized that. According to his comment, he’s an unemployed union carpenter with thirty years of now-useless experience, who’s about to reach the end of his 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and become one of the growing mass of America’s economic nonpersons. His children are struggling with the same scenario. Wrapping insulation around his pipes, he pointed out, won’t fix the predicament he’s in.

He’s quite right, if "fixing the predicament" means enabling him to return to what has been, until now, a normal American middle class existence. Millions of Americans right now are finding themselves shut out of that existence, and few if any of them will ever find a way back into it. Over the years to come, more and more Americans will undergo the same profoundly unwelcome shift, until what used to be the normal middle class existence becomes a thing of the past for everybody. That’s the inevitable shape of our future, because of the awkward fact I mentioned last week – there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable – and its corollary, which is that if something can’t be made sustainable, it won’t be sustained.

That doesn’t mean that we’re all going to move into cozy lifeboat ecovillages, or any of the other green-painted Levittowns that fill so much space in so many middle class fantasies today. It means, rather, that in the decades ahead of us, something like half the American population will most likely end up in shantytowns on the model of Latin America’s favelas, without electricity, running water or sewers, caught up in a scramble for survival that many of them will inevitably lose. It means that most of the others will likely face a reduction in their standards of living to levels not too different from the one that the poorest Americans experience today, while the rich of that time, if they’re smart, ruthless, and lucky, may be able to scrape together some of the luxuries a middle class American family can count on today, and may even be able to hold onto them for a while.

Does the picture I’ve just painted seem unbelievable? It’s simply the equivalent of saying that the United States will become a Third World nation in the not too distant future. It’s also the equivalent of saying that the United States will undergo the usual pattern of severe economic contraction that’s a normal part of the decline and fall of an empire, or of a civilization. Neither of those are improbable statements just now; it’s simply that most people shy away from thinking about the implications.

What all this implies, in turn, is that those people who make the shift to a low-energy lifestyle in advance, before the sheer pressure of circumstances forces them to do so, will have options closed to those who cling to the unsustainable until it’s dragged out of their grip. Those who downshift hard, fast, and soon, cutting their dependence on fossil fuels and the goods and services that fossil fuels make available, will have a much less difficult time paying off debts, finding the money to learn new skills, and navigating the challenging economic conditions of life in a near-bankrupt society. Had the unemployed carpenter whose comment I mentioned above wrapped insulation around his pipes ten years ago, he’d have spent less money on energy for the last decade, and could have used that extra money to get ready for the hard times to come; had he wrapped his pipes, insulated his walls, slashed his energy bills, recognized the dependence of his income on a totally unsustainable housing bubble and gotten into a different if less lucrative line of work – and there were people who did these things at the time, and are doing them now – he’d likely be fine today.

These are the kinds of steps that leave people in possession of a home, a garden, a career doing something people need or want badly enough to pay for even in a depression, and other desiderata of hard economic times. These are also the kinds of steps that make it easier for people to offer help to their families, friends, and neighbors, to teach vital skills to those who are willing to learn them, and preserve precious cultural legacies through the crises of the present to they can be handed on to the future. That’s the payoff for living with less; it’s a lot easier to avoid getting trapped by the downside of dependence on a society moving steadily deeper into systems failure.

These considerations aren’t the sort of thing you can expect to read in the pages of Forbes and The Guardian, to be sure. You’ll have a hard time, for that matter, finding them anywhere in our collective conversation about the future of industrial society. Even among those who haven’t tried to squirm away from the unwelcome realities of our present predicament, there seems to be a tendency to avoid talking about exactly what the landscape of the American future looks like. It’s understandable; science fiction scenarios and apocalyptic fireworks are so much more exciting than the future of mass impoverishment, infrastructure breakdown, sociopolitical disintegration, and ragged population decline that the misguided choices of the last few decades have handed us.

It’s true, in other words, that huddling in a lifeboat, tossed by waves and soaked by spray, is no fun. It’s a lot less fun than sitting in a cruise ship bar chugging martinis, even if the reason why you’re chugging the martinis is that you’re trying to pretend not to notice that the deck is slowly tilting under your feet and the waves are a lot closer to the porthole than they used to be. There’s every reason to think that a great many people will choose this latter option or, more precisely, that they have chosen it, and are continuing to reaffirm that choice – sometimes, like Kay and Monbiot, at the top of their lungs. Still, those aren’t the people for whom these posts are written, and I’m encouraged by the number of people who are making a different choice.


Those of my readers who are interested in the green wizardry project discussed in these posts may also be interested to learn that a sustainable community in Oregon is hosting what, as far as I know, is the first-ever event focusing on the Green Wizards theme. It’s over the Fourth of July weekend this year; you can read all the details here.