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!


Robo said...

Photovoltaics are nice, but the materials and processes are exotic. Thanks for the reminder that electricity generation does not have to be high-tech. A few people are hard at work developing ideas in this field. For example, a quick search turned up this site ---

MIT and Boston College are apparently collaborating on a higher tech approach that is more efficient but much more complicated, expensive and proprietary.

Jeff Z said...

Congratulations on the publication of the new book! I have to admit I probably won't order it myself, but I will encourage the local library to do so.

The link to the study on the payback time for solar water heaters was interesting. In a climate like India's solar hot water is a no-brainer. I've had the chance to shower in solar hot water in Nepal, and it seems to work well. In a sunny climate, where there is little access to natural gas, and unreliable electric service, the sun is really the best power source available.

I posted about in April on my blog:

DIYer said...

Memphis, TN had its first grocery store in 1917:

Draft said...

I buy your argument that we're now double counting fuel statistics, and that is creating this eerie plateau in fuel production that makes it seem business-as-usual can continue.

I do wonder though, what the right metric is, and what the data shows on that. It seems we need to plot all liquid fuels that have no direct petroleum inputs that also have the same energy as conventional oil. So that'd be conventional + offshore oil and syncrude from tar sands. I don't think it's a "problem" to count tar sands since it enables the conversion of natural gas energy into syncrude which is more useful (ignoring the horrific environmental impact for the moment).

I wonder if anyone here is good with plotting graphs and could produce a non-double-counted oil chart.

John Michael Greer said...

Robo, it's possible to make a very efficient thermoelectric device using doped semiconductors -- the same technology, basically, that produces integrated circuits and photovoltaic cells. Still, as you point out, that's an exotic technology, and unlikely to be preserved long in a deindustrial age.

Jeff, even in the US, a solar water heater will provide on average 70% of your hot water for free! We'll have one here as soon as the cash outlay is an option.

DIYer, a grocery store and a supermarket aren't the same thing. What made supermarkets new at the time was that they included the products you'd get from a butcher shop, a dairy, a greengrocer, a regular grocer, and some departments of a general store all under one roof.

Draft, that would be worth doing. I don't have the chops, but if somebody can produce a chart (with properly documented numbers) I'll help get it the publicity it deserves.

John Michael Greer said...

Predictably, I've already fielded one bit of spam from a perpetual motion promoter insisting that if I like thermoelectric power I've got to like "zero point energy" as well. My post probably should have clarified that thermoelectric power obeys the laws of thermodynamics. That's why it works, unlike perpetual motion schemes. 'Nuf said.

R.E. said...

Right on JMG. We are living the low energy reality here on a ridge line in Pittsburgh, PA. Heat at 58 F in winter and AC only for a total of possibly two weeks in summer. Most times we wimp out and sleep on screen porch! Tea anyone? Lemon? Our current low consumption of fossil energy is by design...we relocated to city-center and proximal location to rail transit (1 block away) and Amtrak a short walk from rail platforms in downtown. WE SHOP AT A NEIGHBORHOOD GROCERY STORE and pay slighty higher prices but save on auto overhead.
By the way-a two tube regenerative radio set uses less power than a 25 watt light bulb and could work in a low tech future. Just a thought.

Kevin said...

I'm extremely interested by what you say about thermoelectric power. I'm currently working on a parabolic solar cooker designed for use in a window. The idea that such simple tech can be used to help generate electricity fascinates me. It seems I must get my hands on a copy of Farrington Daniels' book.

I suppose that the tyranny of the temporary can be summed up in the word "obsolescence" and all that it connotes, which appears to me to be in direct opposition to all that is suggested by the phrase "heirloom technologies." It's the latter that I can best envisage developing and building upon.

Jason Heppenstall said...

While saving up for a nice fancy solar hot water system it's possible to build your own one for next to nothing. The most simple ones are little more than coils of black plastic pipe, like the one in this video:

I added a bit of extra sophistication to mine (in Spain) by including a header tank - actually just a thick black rubbery bucket made from recycled tyres. Some people use old radiators painted matt black, but if you do this make sure they don't contain any oil. It wasn't exactly state of the art but it's pretty easy to make and you can use the money you save for buying a more robust one in the future.

sofistek said...

I used to think that the double counting would come out in the wash. And it will but not as much attention is paid to the consumption side of thing, only the production side. So a rising output of all liquids is seen as a sign that the peakers were wrong and will always be wrong. Meanwhile, the consumption side is creeping up remorselessly. No doubt, there will come a time when official statistics keep talking about rising demand, as economies round the world slip into depression, with no realisation that the only demand rising is the input to more and more unconventional sources.

Good grief, is zero-point energy still doing the rounds? It's amazing that sane people actually believe that energy can be extracted from a system that is already at the lowest energy state it can be in.


phil harris said...

Yes, supermarkets are mostly just cheap sheds to house the outlet from a system.
In UK we went from food rationing when I was small to the 'big sheds of plenty' by the time I was 30, and the out-of-town versions a few years later. Based latterly as you say on complicated logistics of oil-fueled transport, and to a degree, refrigeration.
We always needed to import food in UK (more than 70% of food as calories in 1939 and not very different now).
If push came to shove we could temporarily live more on UK-produced cereals and legumes, supplemented by our own garden fruit and vegetables while orchards and market gardens were restored. A very different logistics scenario. But longer term is something else. We are best described as a set of vary large urban populations in a relatively small agriculture background. Can't see 'super markets' in that scenario myself.'Green markets' yes, granaries and town bakeries where the latter are also set up to cook most people's dinners, perhaps. I remember these things not so long ago in the Balkans and Greece, and even in my time in Edinburgh there were self-help laundries ('steamies')and sparkling clean civic places where I could get a hot bath. More economical of fuel and maintenance costs in densely packed urban environments, I guess. Solar hot water though would keep us going though under the roofs of latterday more widespread suburbia, even in Scotland.

Mike Monett -Ohio, Florida said...

I am 57 and have been interested in energy since I was a teenager, and I specialized in thermodynamics and systems engineering in college. I think Mr. Greer's attempts to cut through all the misconceptions are incredibly well written. Last August I began living on a solar-powered boat in tributaries of the Saint Johns River near Deland, Florida. I have kept a journal online for years so the details of this new life are there ( ). When I've been asked to explain the trade-offs and limitations of such a boat, I've recommended The Archdruid Report. This May 18th post is very relevant. I will continue to recommend this blog to strangers who ask what is and is not possible when someone decides to live off the grid.

Bill Pulliam said...

Draft --what we really need is to express all these fuels as net energy yield, not gross. The energy content could be converted to barrels of oil equivalent, or left as MJ or BTUs or whatever. W also need to subtract the extraction and refining costs from petroleum-derived liquids as well.

Remember that if you plant 500 pounds of potatoes and harvest 300 pounds, it's not going to help you to just plant 1000 pounds next year...

Diotima said...

I was born and raised in Manhattan, and in the 50s, my mother bought meat from a butcher, and the groceries were delivered to our apartment in a box by the delivery boy (many teenagers actually worked after school) on his bicycle. D'Agostino's pioneered the supermarket concept in NYC, and it was in the late 50s or every early 60s that the D'ags across from our apt. building expanded and remodeled and became a real "supermarket". I remember being astonished by the size of the new place and the variety of stuff.

On another note, JMG, I am in the early stages of researching a solar hot water heater for my house, and feeling rather overwhelmed. I do not have the $25,000 available that one of the local companies rather snottily told me I should be prepared to spend before they would even talk to me about a solar installation, but I do have a friend who is handy with plumbing and electricity if I can give him a plan. Do you have any advice on narrowing the search for the perfect solar hot water heater?

John Michael Greer said...

RE, that's good to hear! I know more or less where you are, then -- been through the Pittsburgh station a number of times. As for the regenerative receiver, I didn't know that! I've homebrewed a couple of transistor-based regens running off 9v batteries, but working with tubes -- though it's on the agenda -- has had to wait for more spare time.

Kevin, excellent! The phrase "heirloom technology" is a keeper, btw -- expect to see it in an upcoming post.

Jason, that's a possibility!

Sofistek, oh, it'll come out in the wash eventually, but indirectly -- it's remarkable how much of today's society is a sustained exercise in trying to push as many costs as possible out of sight. As for zero point energy, yes, there are still plenty of people chasing that phantom -- or anything else, really, that will allow them to believe that we don't actually have to make do with less energy. I expect to see such fantasies become wildly popular, at least for a while, as the shortages and price increases really start to hit.

Phil, one of the advantages Europe has is that hard times and shortages are still part of living memory. In the US, it's been so long that most people have no conception of what actual hardship is like.

Mike, thank you! And thanks also for posting a link to your blog; it's very helpful for those people who are just getting started on the transition to see that those who've done it aren't shivering in caves.

Bill, exactly. It would be quite something if basic accounting standards were to be applied to the collective conversation on energy.

One of the Remnant said...

OK, so the double counting mentioned in last week's comments and expanded upon in this week's post is simply the familiar problem of net energy? Which doesn't just apply to non-conventionals, but increasingly so to conventionals (think: Deepwater Horizon).

And in fact, as we move into ever more exotic locations, such as deepwater and polar, not only the direct costs of energy to extract energy would be needed, but also the indirect costs - such as energy costs of the environmental cleanup efforts for blowouts and the like. In other words, ALL energy costs associated with modern 'conventional' as well as non-conventional fossil fuel energy sources would ideally be accounted for in the calculations.

As I understand it, though, there are already many questions about how to properly calculate ERoEI/ERoI, aren't there?

Sounds like a very, very challenging task, but really the only way to generate data sets sufficiently valid to bring some clarity to the argument. I wonder what these 'total liquids' graphs would look like with a net energy curve superimposed and extrapolated forward??

This is exactly the kind of work that agencies such as the EIA and IEA would be doing if today's governments were in fact the 'servants' of the people they claim to be.

Tracy G said...

That's a nifty deal from New Society. Does it also work to write that code on the mail-in form? Also, I see they're Canadian, so is it alright to send a check in U.S. dollars?

The reason I'm asking is that I don't have the credit cards accepted by New Society's online ordering system.

I read The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future about a year ago. I can't thank you enough for writing them. Those two guides considerably deepened my understanding of our current predicament. I got hold of them through the Interlibrary Loan program, though, so I don't yet own copies. Although I basically already absorbed the knowledge I needed from them, it'd be good to have copies here which I could give to others who might be interested.

I'm about to go on vacation but will look into this again when I return.

Karen said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Where I live across the pond, in our town, we still have a local bakery (actually bakes its own bread), two butcher shops, two small grocery stores (one of which is local produce), farmer's market on Fridays and a local poultry farm.

It is not perfect but it is a good basis for buying locally and as you alluded to, Europe still has a living memory of difficult times and people where I live are still firm supporters of locally produced items.

Thank you for the book tip, I just found a place where I can acquire it.

Also, congratulations on your latest book!

Andy Brown said...

My wife's main complaint about living in the country is the car-dependence. On the other hand, my grandmother kept a general store in the Poconos from the early 50's into the late 80's. More a crossroads than a town, the place maintained 3 then 2 such stores, and they sold everything from sandwiches and vegetables to hardware and kerosene. Casual mobility (cheap fuel that is) eroded the business over the decades until a place like that couldn't support any kind of business at all. $4 gasoline is already making people think twice about making 10 mile excursions for a quart of milk, and I look forward to the possibility of re-creating a kind of local infrastructure - that would make the populated countryside more walkable and bike-able.

August Johnson said...

JMG – regarding tube regen radios, it's really amazing what can be done. I've built 2-tube regen receivers that use less than 1 watt. These use tubes built in the late 40's – early 50's for battery filament operation.

I think the most amazing is a 1-tube I regen I built that uses an older 1609 tube and drives an earphone on a horn that fills a room so that several people can listen at once. All with 45 volts from 5 9-volt batteries. Total parts count - 1 tube, 1 variable capacitor, 1 variable resistor, 1 fixed resistor, 1 fixed capacitor, handwound coil, earphone, 1 D battery and 5 9-volt batteries.


Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Very interesting, though when I read a post like this I realize how much I don't know.

Off Topic: since I've read Long Descent and Ecotechnic Future and will be reading Wealth of Nature, and am learning to be a writer, myself, I'd be interested to know sometime how you came to be a writer and how you came to write your first book--and then got a publisher interested. You must be feeling good--great!--about seeing this latest one through publication.

What I'm learning about this transitioning is that you can't do everything at once. It's too overwhelming. So my husband and I have a very long list--short-term, mid-term and long-term--but you really have to pick one thing at a time or nothing gets done.

Meanwhile, according to the latest usage graph from the electric company, we apparently use less electricity than anyone in our neighborhood.

Another alternative to grocery stores--we subscribe to a small-scale CSA grower, which is why I'm only now, thanks to this blog, getting serious about growing my own annual vegetables.

Looking forward to reading more about the less stimulation part of LESS.

Sixbears said...

Looks like some DIY thermoelectric research is in order. There are some things that can't be done without electricity, but it doesn't take much electricity.

I can't believe how expensive commercial solar hot water tech can be. I feel lucky if I've got $50 to play with. My heaters might not be pretty, but hot water is hot water.

Ventriloquist said...

Bill P. said:

Remember that if you plant 500 pounds of potatoes and harvest 300 pounds, it's not going to help you to just plant 1000 pounds next year...

It depends . . .

Maybe 1000 pounds of a different, more disease-resistant variety might do the trick.

Or, maybe 1000 pounds planted in a different micro-climate.

Or, maybe 1000 pounds planted in soil enriched with ample organic amendments.

In other words, if you plant 500 pounds of potatoes and harvest only 300, you probably need to examine your planting techniques.


Brad K. said...

The "recent research from India" about solar hot water heating isn't new "news" to me. In San Jose, CA, in the mid 1980s, a co-worker told me that solar water pre-heating was the only commercial solar practice, at the time, that paid for itself. The issue then was energy cost and economic consequences. And for the most part the approach was limited to commercial resources.

I don't recall the push for solar solutions in Silicon Valley, at the time, including simple insulation and weatherizing as part of deliberate use of "alternative" approaches to save money, or energy.

Twilight said...

OK look, you're a druid, I'm an engineer - what do you think you're doing messing around with ham radio and slide rules, explaining thermodynamics and practical uses of diffuse energy, and now coming up with this bit of antique technology? The world must have a certain order to it, and if you keep it up I'll have to report you to the guilds!

I've never even heard of that before, but it fits very well with something I've been considering for years - my woodstove is in the basement next to an outside wall, so in the winter I've got a good temperature differential to exploit. I've considered a stirling engine, but this may fit much better. I can see I've got some research to do.

Thanks for the technology tip, and for making me think (as always)!

ZZ said...

Thanks for bringing up the thermoelectric idea of electricity generation form sun. Now that you mentioned it some memories of the technology came back to me from the long gone days back in high-school. It is great to collect these ideas that can be used for home-made solar power use. After all it is not so easy to build PV panels without some high-tech components such as the silicon waffels. I'd like to mention another great sun-powered idea I came across recently, the solar powered fridge:

Again, this is very easy to construct from simple materials in a matter of hours and it can provide the much needed cooling for food items (meat, milk etc) in hot sunny climates.

A more "industrialized" version but still feasible to construct in DIY fashion can even make ice:

Both of them based on the simple principle that sun-heat caused liquid evaporation can cool the objects.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ventriloquist -- A) The line is derived from an old joke, and B) the fact that you need to reexamine your techniques and not just keep doing the same thing was kinda the whole point. "Planting more potatoes" is a metaphor for continuing blindly down the same unprofitable path.

John Michael Greer said...

Dio, the resource list at the end of this post ought to get you and your friend started. Solar water heating isn't rocket science; any competent plumber could manufacture a working system given a few good tips, and those are included in the books I've listed.

Remnant, it's actually much simpler than EROEI, since it doesn't require a complete accounting of, say, the energy needed to manufacture the trucks that haul the raw materials to the factory that makes the drill bits! A simple subtraction of BOE (barrels of oil equivalent) consumed directly in producing liquid fuels and their immediate feedstocks would be enough to give a clear sense of what was actually going on. For ethanol, in other words, you simply need to subtract the diesel fuel usage needed to grow the corn that produces ethanol, and the BOE of the natural gas used in the ethanol plant; for tar sands, the energy used in mining the sands and the BOE of the natural gas burnt in processing, and so on. Even a broad per-barrel average would be enough.

Tracy, I'd drop 'em an email (using the contact info at the website) and ask. I know they take US dollars, for whatever that's worth.

Karen, thank you. Those local shops are likely to be lifesavers down the road a bit!

Andy, one of the interesting things is that an earlier form of mobility helped create such stores -- a lot of the trade that kept them open, I bet, was vacationers coming up to the Poconos in the days when vacations were about going someplace quiet and green, and doing as little as possible for a week or so. It takes a lot less fuel to do that than to fly to Mazatlan, and it's occurred to me that in the aftermath of the current wave of crises, when things settle into the next period of partial stabilization, we may see some of that again for a while.

August, that's very good to hear! Do you have a schematic anywhere online? It would be great to get more green wizards interested in low-tech radio.

Adrian, the short form is that I spent more than a decade trying to break into print writing science fiction, and failed. In the meantime, I'd been developing expertise in a couple of fields, and when I decided to try nonfiction
I discovered that I had something to say and could say it in a way that publishers liked. I placed my first book with its publisher via unsolicited submission -- I simply sent 'em a query following the guidelines on their website, and had an acceptance and a contract about six weeks later.

I also discovered that 80% of all would-be writers want to write fiction, while 80% of all books published are nonfiction, and so it's one heck of a lot easier to get published in nonfiction. You don't need an agent, if you focus on the small- to mid-sized publishers (which a beginning writer should); you just need to have a solid grasp of your subject matter and some fluency with the language.

Bears, exactly! The difference between a little electricity and no electricity is much greater than the difference between a little and a lot. As for solar water heating systems, I'm hoping that some smart young entrepreneur with a bit of an engineering background and an eye for the market will get around to launching a company to produce good cheap solar water heaters; most of what's available are Cadillac systems, and we need VWs.

Ventriloquist, granted, but he did say "just plant 1000 lbs.," you know.

Brad, it wasn't news to me, either, but a lot of people like to see footnotes, and that was a good convenient one.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, if you think there's some sort of barrier between Druids and engineers, check out Stonehenge! (No, the historical Celtic Druids didn't build it, but a good case has been made that the ancient Druids may have inherited some of their lore from the folks who did.) I think of a slide rule as a portable stone circle adapted to slightly different uses, and sun worship makes all the more sense when you understand the laws of thermodynamics! ;-)

As for the Seyfert effect, though, the only reason I knew about it is that Daniels' book is part of my tolerably large library of Seventies-era appropriate tech books, and I happened to pick it up as bathroom reading the other day.

ZZ, many thanks for the link! Daniels' book also discusses solar cooling and air conditioning -- I'll be discussing that in a later post, too.

Draft said...

Bill - sure but that's a different calculation. Net energy is something that someone should plot but since peak oil is really a liquid petroleum problem (and the problems for other fossil fuels come down the road a bit) we shouldn't factor in net energy in the calculation that I was suggesting.

Really the question is net crude - how much actual crude oil is available each year for something other than producing more crude oil. Doing this would exclude natural gas liquids, ethanol and the like but include unconventional sources like tar sands and deepwater oil (minus the amount of actual oil that goes into their excavation/production).

One of the Remnant said...

@ August

Super-cool dude! Do you have pointers to an instruction manual to build what you've described?

- Oz

Twilight said...

I see now that the Seebeck effect thermoelectric generator is basically a scaled-up thermocouple, so it's more familiar technology, but the idea of using it to generate electricity for practical use is still intriguing. I like the mechanical simplicity and ease of construction.

Ventriloquist said...

Bill P.

Sorry, deciphering the nuances of inflection, which are lacking in written internet postings, has never been a strong point of mine.


That said, having been a vegetable gardener for upward of 30 years, and also having moved around a fair number of times during that period, I've learned that all gardening truly is local.

Transplanting yourself from one location to another, just 75 miles apart, often results in having to redo a major chunk of your gardening repertoire. What was successful in the last location can often produce abysmally in the new one.

Which is why all gardening literature can only benefit you to a limited extent, regarding what to plant where . . . the only thing that truly works is old-fashioned trial and error.


Nick said...

Speaking of low tech solar, I got an prototype sure to come in vogue soon. Low-medium temp stirling engine with a twist, the pistons are actually bellows made from insulated rubber tubing. Low speed, high volume, low energy density, but easy to build/maintain. Can drive either pvc free piston water pump or crank for dc generator. 3rd-1st world applicable.

Just imagine being able to build a 500kw generator that can run on your woodstove top, or passive solar panel out off inner tubes,and standard piping and metal parts. I'll be posting some details soon here.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Twilight

ROFL... ;-)

@ Adrian

I enjoyed your post on the energy bulletin the other day. :)

@ Sixbears

Suggested niche company name: Butt-Ugly Solar
Suggested motto: It ain't pretty - but it gets the job done at a fraction of the cost!
Alternate motto: Butt-ugly: it's the new black!


First, thanks much for the clarification - I get it and agree. A first order approximation is good-enough.


"I spent more than a decade trying to break into print writing science fiction"

I've always been a die hard sci-fi fan (like many here, I suspect), though the last decade's reading has been much more about non-fiction for me. I very much enjoy your Star's Reach story - I think it's a terrific tale, excellent characterization, intriguing plot, great build up of tension, etc. Reading only a chapter or two per month is tough, though!

I'd love to see some of your earlier efforts at sci-fi posted online sometime...perhaps with a donation button? ;-)

- Oz

Brian Johnson said...

@Draft, Bill P., Others... Charts for EROEI: (slides 18/19)

To find the analysis of your favorite energy tech use the google search on the left of the oil drum site, i.e. "eroei solar" or "eroei wind"

August Johnson said...

JMG – Here are a couple of regen receivers very similar to the one I was building years ago. Now I'm going to have to dig out parts and build again! The first is the wikipedia page for the regen circuit and has a very good schematic. The second is basically the same, but even tells you how to build the resistors and capacitors yourself!


One Tube

The fault with the one-tube circuit is that it can also act as an interfering transmitter at the same time. That's the advantage of the 2-tube circuit, it uses a tube as an isolating RF amplifier between the regenerative detector and the antenna.

Two Tube

A different version of the 2-tube uses the second tube as an additional stage of audio amplification instead of antenna isolation. This just makes for a louder earphone/speaker volume.

Another Two Tube

The Internet is absolutely full of info on simple vintage radio transmitters and receivers. There's still lots of interest!


Harry J. Lerwill said...

I'd forgotten about the Seebeck effect since school.

The question that immediately came to mind to me was, "what products do we have today that will be less useful in a less energy-intensive world will provide a good supply of suitable semi-conductor material?"

As we get rid of things though our weekly yard sale and chat with our neighbors doing the same, I'll be keeping an eye out for what can be re-purposed.

Summer experiment: Try and get the pool house lighting, which is very low power LED lights, running off this appropriate technology and free up the small PV panel for something else.

Matthew Heins said...

Thermoelectric generators!

Never even heard of this before, really encouraging, thanks Archdruid! :)

Thanks also to Robo for the link. A wood stove is the primary heat source in my home and in many homes in our little mountain City, to have a ready-for-purchase way to turn that stove into a small electrical generator is very, very welcome.

It immediately put me in mind of a self-charging pellet stove. The perfect gift for the lazy woodsman. ;)

It also occurs to me that if we take it as likely that wood (biomass) burning thermal mass heaters will be the norm for "country living" in the not-distant-future, then attaching such a generator would be a good way to get a bit of electricity even when the wind don't blow and the sun don't shine. A couple of electric lights or just a working radio will likely be quite the comfort to snowed-in families of the future.

In re JMG's response to Andy:

I think we may be seeing a bit of the effect you are talking about where I live. We're in Roslyn, WA. Which, for folks who don't know, is on the eastern face of the Cascades, a few miles off Interstate 90, about 30ish miles from the peak of Snoqualmie Pass and about 90ish miles from downtown Seattle.

Roslyn, another very small city (pop 800ish and 1500ish) and two tiny towns lie sandwiched between National Forest and Wilderness areas north and south of the highway. So camping and "wilderness" tourism have been the main thing here for a while.

But in the last two years things have picked up noticeably. And this year is already putting both of them to shame and the summer season isn't even here yet.

More folks are coming up to the mountains for a bit of a break from the city, no question.

Some are new vagabonds living cheap at a campsite until they figure out the next step. But most are middle- and upper-middle class folks taking a weekend or week in the woods instead of a trip to Sandals Jamaica(TM). Many are also wealthy folks who have given up the second home in Belize for a more "modest" mansion/cottage in the mountains.

Anyway, I think what you anticipate is happening already.

If someone would chuck out $25 million or so to reconvert the old Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad section from Seattle to Ellensburg from bike trail back to railroad, we'd be over-run. ;)


John Michael Greer said...

Draft, that would certainly be a good start.

Twilight, exactly -- it's what you get when you use a thermocouple for something other than measurement. Same effect, different application.

Ventriloquist, I don't know that I'd go quite that far -- I've learned a lot of useful tricks from gardening books, though of course trial and error was also involved.

Nick, that sounds very promising. As a way of generating electricity, though, any heat engine runs into the thermodynamic problems that affect any transformation of one form of enegy into another -- if you have to go from heat to rotary motion to electricity, you tend to lose more to entropy than if you can go straight from heat to electricity. That said, a good heat-powered motor could drive a lot of useful devices that need rotary motion as such.

Remnant, I've got one SF novel, The Fires of Shalsha, in print from a small press. (One reviewer described it as "reading like Seven Samurai rewritten by Ursula Le Guin," which I thought was high praise. When time permits, I should probably dust off some of my others, give 'em one more rewrite, and try to find a home for them, online or elsewhere.

August, many thanks! You may just have convinced me to make the time to get to work on some of those. Mind you, I've got a whole stack of electronics and radio projects waiting for time and money...

Harry, that's an interesting question; I don't know enough about what you'd need in a semiconductor to make that work, but it's certainly worth scoping out.

James said...


Another data point to show that though you are ahead of the curve, segments of the public are starting to understand what is happening. Read this article's final paragraph, see where it was published, and notice that it was linked to on Drudge. Not sure if hedge funds buying farm land is a net positive though...

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, exactly -- wind plus sun plus a thermoelectric generator on the stove, and you've got very good odds of a steady supply of 12v current for the radio and a couple of light bulbs. Spartan? 200 years from now it'll be what every aspiring young farm family hopes to be able to afford in a couple of seasons.

Thanks also for the data on Rosslyn -- and I hope somebody has the brains and capital to replace the tracks and get a couple of old locomotives running from Seattle to Ellensburg; the tourists are the obvious cash cow, but within a couple of years, shipping produce from farms in the Ellensburg and Snoqualmie Valley areas to Puget Sound farmer's markets and food co-ops will probably be the bulk of the railroad's business. All aboard the milk run!

James, thanks for the data point! No, I'm not happy that hedge funds are now buying up farms -- that drives up the cost of acreage for those who might actually do some good with it -- but it's a sign of the times.

Bruce The Druid said...

My introduction to thermo-electrics was a thermo-electric cooler/heater I bought at a truckstop. I was driving for Mayflower and was tired of the buffett food and also wanted to save some money. These coolers simply plugged into the cigarette lighter port, and the temperature dropped inside the cooler! The trippy thing was that if you reversed the plug that went into the cooler, it would generate heat! One trucker complained that they would often freeze his milk. My father, an electronics engineer, explained that the missle transporters used them to keep critical components cool. Thermo-electic coolers were preferred because they were very reliable (as opposed to standard compressor-driven a/c systems.
On the subject of acronyms I thought something longer would be usefull, so I concocted WASTE not WANT not. Warm Arses Store Thermal Energy, Wear All Natural Threads. I must confess I haven't got anything good for "NOT".
Finally, "abstemious"! Are you freakin' kidding me? What kind of word is that?

Ric said...

A little bit off topic, but your mention of Stonehenge reminded me...

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker showed two paleolithic sorts contemplating a stone circle. In the caption, one of them is explaining the incomplete state of the circle: "And then the price of stones went out of sight."

Pretty darn funny. It might be a reference to the common argument that the Stone Age didn't end because of a shortage of stones, meaning we change technologies because we discover something better. (Usually this continues in the cornucopian vein to argue there's plenty of oil, but but not to worry cuz we can do better, but there's a different possible take more like JMG's, that we'd do well to revive some of the older stuff still available.) But I don't think that's the intention of the cartoonist, who might just be a reader of this blog with a wry take on Ozymandian leftovers.

I'm guessing that skyscraper steel is more useful to recycle than whopping big rocks in a circle, which remain in their original, mystical realm, now partly lost.

(Submission using my Google Account attaches my first name only, for reasons obscure to me.)

-- Ric Merritt

Spiritchaser said...


When I saw Seebeck, I knew where you were going. Thermocouples make great thermometers (I am in the atmospheric sciences). Thermoelectric generators are beautiful in their simplicity. The Seebeck effect is a gift of nature.

In terms of oil data, there are many, many problems even outside of the double counting that you note. Few, if any of the charts we so often see contain error bars. Without error indicated, the presentations are not scientifically rigorous. Before any claims of a "peak" in the monthly data can be made, error has to be known. This is basic science. Without error indicated, the person presenting the data has no argument. Especially in a case where the new "peak" is only a tiny amount higher than previous upward excursions. The best one can probably say is that world oil extraction rates are still on plateau in the case of maximums that are very close in magnitude (e.g. 74.3 mbd vs. 74.6 mbd to pull numbers out of thin air), and even this claim, without error demonstrated, can not be made with a high degree of confidence.

My suspicion is that error in the monthly oil production figures is in the range of 2-4% (for 2 SD), if not higher (I think I am being generous here), and maybe a bit less for annual averages. This would mean that a difference of even a million barrels per day is not meaningful. There is also the question of bias in the measurement.

An actual determination of error for world oil extraction rates would be very difficult to do--maybe impossible as it would require a different and reliable measuring system outside the one(s) being used to make a good calibration check. Nevertheless, even with error determination quite difficult, it does not mean that error does not exist. On the contrary, error is present in all systems of measure. Error is inescapable. And in the complex and convoluted human world of oil extraction, which takes place in many different countries/cultures, it is a safe bet that error in the reported figures for extracted volumes is probably quite high.

Steve said...

Last week's post was reassuring for me. This week's was another well-timed kick in the pants to get my basement workshop set up. Good thing there's room enough among the food storage area, the brew buckets, and the solar hot water tanks!

The parabolic geometry is something we've got time to reverse engineer thanks to the proliferation of satellite TV dishes scattered throughout the suburban landscape. Lining one with foil, spraypaint, or mirror chips can focus quite a bit of heat for such a device on the cheap.

Some combination of passive solar retrofitting, biogas digesters, and thermoelectric generators seems to fit the bill for downscaling and surviving comfortably in the energy shortages and price shocks to come. Thanks, JMG, for answering my unasked question about what to do when you've saved up and set up in a fixer-upper house with a big garden, plenty of insulation, a woodstove, and a bucket or two of bubbling wort in the basement.

Thanks, also, for making me look up a word like "abstemious."

team10tim said...

Net energy curves, courtesy of the oil drum:

Net energy cliff

Peak liquids with net energy

Patrick said...

Thanks JMG for another great post!
Bringing together the idea of solar concentrators and Seebeck generators is a fascinating idea that, as you say, just may last for the duration of our species. The proliferation of satellite dishes may end up easing the coming transition, because an effective secondary (salvage) use for old satellite dishes is as a solar concentrator. They're already parabolic, they're robust, and will be readily available for quite some time, long after cable and satellite TV is history. They can be quite powerful, too, with the proper reflective covering, as evidenced by this video:

I suspect that such rigs will be instrumental in cooking, fire-starting, and water purification in the de-industrialized future, and in the short term, they utilize a readily available resource. I can picture a future world in which every family still has a satellite dish, but they all just use them to cook dinner or power a small radio!

idiotgrrl said...

Book find --- from 1979, "Energy Future" -- "Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School."

They were saying then precisely what you are saying now. The Harvard Business School sounded like Green Archdruids. "And then along came Ronnie, optimist Ronnie, 'why worry' Ronnie ...."

I found it at "Sally Ann's Recessionista & Soul-Saving Boutique" a.k.a. the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, right around the corner from the bus stop at the Senior Center I go to, with a hundred other long-dead nonfiction best-sellers. Amazing!

Zach said...

For an example of a very non-Cadillac solar hot water heater, here is a solar shower put together out of (mostly) salvage and on the cheap:

So, it can be done. Haven't tested that shower myself, so I can't vouch for it personally. I do very much enjoy my non-sustainable long hot showers...


John Michael Greer said...

Bruce, er, abstemious is a perfectly good English word! As for the reliability of thermoelectric systems, bingo -- because they have no moving parts, nothing to wear out or use up, they just keep on turning heat differentials into electricity or electricity into heat differentials, take your pick.

Ric, funny! Fortunately the price of slide rules is still pretty stable. ;-)

Spiritchaser, you're quite correct, of course. (Recalling memories of experimental design and statistics classes back in college...) Bertram Gross commented back in the Seventies that economic indicators were being turned into "economic vindicators," that is, statistics crafted to support a viewpoint or a political faction rather than to show what's going on. A lot of current energy stats fall into the same category.

Steve, the old appropriate tech literature can keep you well supplied with projects! It would be fun sometime to put together a "Greener Homes and Gardens" project book, like the old Popular Mechanics-style handbooks of neat things to do in your home workshop.

Tim, many thanks!

Patrick, true enough. I've also been mulling over a solar thermoelectric generator that would use a conical reflector, like the ones Augustin Mouchot used on his pioneering solar engines; it would focus sunlight on a vacuum tube solar collector (the kind used for water heating), the business end of which would stick out the back end of the reflector, so that the thermoelectric setup and its cooling fins would always be in full shade. Mount it on a sturdy equatorial telescope mount so it will track the sun, and you've got what ought to be a very sturdy little solar generator.

Grrl, good heavens. Harvard Business School? The same school that nowadays produces so many graduates who think the laws of physics can't possibly compete with the almighty dollar? I'm all but speechless.

Zach, many thanks for passing this on!

dltrammel said...

As I drove over this week to the local nursery for my last load of compost, I couldn't help but notice all the large backyards across local suburbia, here and there dotted with spring gardens. Not many but more than last year.

We could go along way to stretching our food supply if everyone had such a garden. Perhaps there will be a place for all of us green wizards then.

Now that I am finished with the planting, I'm looking to first get the weatherstripping and retrofitting done to lower my heat/cooling loss.

Also on the drawing board is a prototype of a thermo-siphon heater for my office. I used a small electric space heater this year to keep one room comfortable with the rest of the house around 60 degrees all Winter. It only added about $20 a month to my electric bill but then if I can cut that down too, all the better.

Keep up the good work JMG.

One of the Remnant said...

@ idiotgrrl

"The Harvard Business School sounded like Green Archdruids. And then along came Ronnie, optimist Ronnie, 'why worry' Ronnie .... "

To be fair, who elected Ronnie, and soundly rejected Carter, and then re-elected Ronnie in a landslide?

I'm no Reagan fan, but c'mon - if we wish to assign blame, then the American electorate has to shoulder a significant measure of it for where we find ourselves today, and that include lotsa Democrats as well as lotsa Republicans. After all, Reagan won because he swung the 'Reagan Democrats' to his side.

I'm not trying to be argumentative, just think its important to understand that the trajectory that led to where we are started loooong before Ronnie, though he and his administration, to be sure, encouraged the proliferation of the very worst tendencies at what turns out to have been precisely the worst moment, and as such deserve plenty of castigation for it.

But that trajectory has also persisted unaltered through every president since, including Clinton and Obama, as well as Bush I and II.

- Oz

Robert said...

Of course, the elite beneficiaries of the global economy in the US, (but also elsewhere), are no longer Americans in the crude sense. They have homes, assets, deposits, companies, incomes, careers, investments, wherever they wish, and they move themselves and all their stuff to wherever the action promises the most gain. So, they never lose. If something looks like it may lose, they package it up as a junk bond and sell it to another sucker. They are virtually immune to the negative consequences of the break-down in the global boom. You would need to have a universal melt-down before they are caught, and by the nature of things, capitalist meltdowns are never symmetrical..they are zero-sum.

rylan said...

Nice article. I have a general type question. I have been supporting this basic viewpoint, live simply so others can simply live, since the 70's. What I struggle with is why do so few get it? What you are saying here seems blatantly self evident to me but I suspect most people just cannot go there.

I am wondering about a possible reason why. I am trying to drill down to the most basic underling determining process. The desire to avoid being in a mentally depressed mindset.

I am thinking that there are two basic ways of doing that. First is what most people do, create a setting where you can feed off a power trip. The second way is to get your ego support by creating a setting that is about/involves cooperation.


John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, one of the most hopeful facts I know is that whenever the economy gets bad, gardening supply places have their business increase. Good luck with the weatherstripping!

Remnant, I'm about halfway between you and the Grrl on that issue. Of course what happened in the 1980s had antecedents, but there was also a very pronounced change in the temper of the public at that time -- I talked about that at some length in a series of posts last month.

Robert, you need to review your history. Once a financial crash spills over into the political sphere, the wealthy are among the very first up against the wall, and their assets are sitting ducks for confiscation by governments in need of ready cash. What happened to the Russian plutocrats at Putin's hands is a mild example. It's one of the common fallacies of modern American popular culture that the rich never lose; in the real world, a fortune rarely lacks people willing to cut its owner's throat and scoop the pile.

Rylan, did you read my series of posts last month titled "An Alternative to Nihilism"? I have a rather different suggestion to make about the reason why so many people -- well, "don't get it" is a mild way of putting it; it's rather more reminiscent of a seven-year-old scrunching up his eyes, plugging his ears with his fingers, and shouting "La, la, la, I can't hear you!"

Edward said...

I'm new here and have been itching to get my first comment in.

At the beginning you mentioned that Americans assume that the current ways of doing things will remain in place indefinitely (the supermarket analogy) while they ignore the signs that their lifestyle is getting ready to terminate itself.

But then later you touch on America's bizarre relationship with it's own history and the tendency to forget it's roots and be enamored with progress.

These two notions seem to be at odds with each other. Holding on to the past on the one hand, and forgetting the past on the other hand. How can we make sense of that?

Perhaps the answer is that much of what passes for progress is really a diversion. The steady stream of new gizmos makes us think that progress is being made. This kind of feeds the idea that technology will come to the rescue, but also, this false progress helps us forget about the areas where real progress is needed.

sofistek said...


I think Daniel Quinn's Ishmael provides one view of why most everyone acts like they do, with respect to this stuff. Concisely, it's partly to do with the constant messages we get from birth about our place in the world and the beauty of consumption. It's hard to fight against that kind of conditioning.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG, Thanks for your informative answer about your writing. Luckily I have no yearning towards writing fiction. It would be interesting to read one of your old stories. I should look at Star's Reach.

Remnant, thanks for the good words. ;)

Rylan, yes, read JMG's post about Nihilism. Very helpful. I vote for cooperation--not always easy, but beats ego trips.

All you tinkerers with your tube radios, low tech solar and thermoelectric generators--I'm jealous! But I do know how to darn socks, crochet a sweater and make a patchwork quilt. We all can't do everything: another point for cooperation.

One of the Remnant said...

"Remnant, I'm about halfway between you and the Grrl on that issue. Of course what happened in the 1980s had antecedents, but there was also a very pronounced change in the temper of the public at that time -- I talked about that at some length in a series of posts last month. "

Exactly - my point was that it was not one political leader, or party for that matter, that got us in this mess, even if their lies and propaganda helped to usher this phase of it in. Blaming politicians misses the point when the public elected those politicians.

This is important, IMO, because that blaming springs from a pernicious belief that I see often expressed in today's environmental movement (Bill McKibben being one of the most egregious in this regard): the notion that 'if only we could get the 'right' people into office, then things would turn around' - and they won't. As the last few years surely should have convinced those who pinned their 'hopes' for 'change' on the election of one man.

I told every environmentalist I knew (and that's quite a few!) that Obama was not going to alter a thing - they didn't accept that and now many are bitter, disillusioned and dispirited - which is a real loss.

I think for many in the movement, this habit of looking to national politics for the answers inhibits them from moving ahead with something that can have an impact: bottoms up, grass roots, individual and community action that does not fall into the trap of seeking top down change that will make it all better, which will never come in the way it's hoped. It cannot.

And, as your posts noted, a (the?) major share of responsibility falls upon 'the public' - or more accurately, the electorate. And that's really, to my way of thinking, where both the threat and the promise for the future lies, and we need to see it clearly, and not be blinded by the impulse to blame a handy (and one must admit deserving) target like Reagan.

All that said, it feels a bit like I'm beating a dead horse at this point and this has gone way off topic - if that's the case, feel free to drop this comment. :)

- Oz

dennis said...

"...ignore the signs that their lifestyle is getting ready to terminate itself with extreme prejudice."
bout sums it all up.

Matthew Heins said...


No problem, it'll be interesting to see if the trend continues.

One other bit of data that a buddy mentioned to me when I told him about my earlier post:

There are 4 National Forest campgrounds reachable by road to the north of Roslyn (1 w/RV hook-ups & boat launch on the reservoir lake, 1 w/just RV hook-ups, 2 w/no hook-ups but fire pits and camp stewards). Apparently, they have all been booked solid for Memorial Day Weekend since either the first or last week of April (depending on who you ask). This is definitely ahead of normal. And there's a couple of dozen bookable sites per camp so we're talking 100-plus reserved sites for more than a month (and something like 50 of them RV hook-up equipped).

The private campgrounds are filling because of the overflow and the "camp where you will, at you're own risk, behave" land on the opposite side of the river from the official ones has had folks there since the snow melted in March (including one multi-generational family, by the looks of it.)

Anyway, if anything interesting develops that seems to pertain to the larger situation, I'll be sure to mention it. ;)

-As for hooking a thermoelectric generator up to a solar concentrator, well, tres elegance! Seems like that aspiring farm family of the 23rd century could hook up their "therm" (anticipating slang) to the solar concentrator in summer, and the rocket mass heater in winter. Kinda paints a nice picture actually. I'm gonna cross my fingers for reincarnation just to check it out, I'm thinking. ;)

I ran across this design for a solar concentrator after following the link to Open Source Ecology someone posted a few weeks back and then following a link from there. The makers are in India. In addition to being Open Source, the machine was specifically designed to be a) constructed of relatively easy to fabricate parts, and b) simple and easy to operate. The only tricky bit, apparently, is calculating the mirror adjustments. But they also provide an Open Source program to calculate all of that for you.

My suspicion is that the program is not doing anything that a couple of Mentats or slide-rule armed Green Wizards, couldn't accomplish, however. ;)

Click on "Products" for the run-down, the P32 is the set up I'm referring to above (though I think their larger set up that runs a peanut-butter making machine is better!). There's a nice, non-techy video file on the P32 as well.


SophieGale said...

I like the term "heirloom technologies"! Low-tech Magazine is fascinating reading. Just this week I found an article on "Aerial ropeways: automatic cargo transport for a bargain".

Some cableway systems: "where the surplus power delivered by the descending cargo was larger than the power required to haul up the ascending carriages, the cableway could be a net producer of energy. Power could be taken off at any point along the track and utilized to drive nearby machinery, for instance driving ore crushers, pumps or sawmills." Something to think about in the mountains...

Eric said...

As Derrick Jensen always says (paraphrasing). If you believe your sustenance comes from a supermarket, you will defend to the death the system that brings you that sustenance. If you believe your food comes from a landbase, you will defend to the death the system that brings you that sustenance

Cherokee Organics said...


You've really hit a nerve with these posts. Good work.

I haven't read the comments yet, so I hope I'm not repeating anyone.

Just wanted to add that deep water drilling for oil and extraction from remote and difficult parts of the world also requires far more oil than current extraction. It all adds to the cost and reduces the energy returned.

People write about peak oil as if that is the only concern. We also need to be concerned about peak resources. One that troubles me is peak phosphates - the implications for agricultural food production are profound.

I particularly liked the reference to selling the working class down the river for cheapie consumer goods. I'm not a religious person, but I have noticed that there is quite a bit of real world currency in the phrase "do unto others".

There's no real future in a service economy, because at the end of the day, someone has to produce energy, food, clothing and housing. It's like the Internet. You may find out how to go about producing these things, but it cannot of it's own do it for you. We need to face up to this.



sgage said...


"These two notions seem to be at odds with each other. Holding on to the past on the one hand, and forgetting the past on the other hand. How can we make sense of that?"

Well, I think most folks are holding on to the present. To the extent that they're holding onto the past, it seems to be a fantasy past that never existed, not actual historical events or ways of life.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Adrian

"All you tinkerers with your tube radios, low tech solar and thermoelectric generators--I'm jealous! But I do know how to darn socks, crochet a sweater and make a patchwork quilt. We all can't do everything: another point for cooperation."

This highlights an important point. As the process of energy decline plays out on various fronts, we'll witness ongoing reconfigurations of societally valued skills. That is, instead of Wall St traders and basketball stars sitting atop the pyramid of societal admiration and envy, perhaps sock darners and seamstresses, tinkerers, ham radio folks and local food producers, will eventually become admired and sought out among the mainstream. Maybe we need a 'meme-tracker' to help us identify such trends...

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Edward, the American cult of progress is a very weird thing. It assumes that the future is going to be just like the present, except even more so, and forgets that the past was ever different. Thus it's not about holding onto the past -- it's about clinging to the present.

Sofistek, it's actually not that hard to shake off the conditioning, if you actually want to do so. It's the lack of desire that's usually the problem.

Adrian, I'm envious of those who can make fiber behave itself, so we're even. A sweater is at least as good a way to stay warm as a solar space heater, after all.

Remnant, well put -- and no, it's not a dead horse. Among other things, the conviction that everything will be fine if only we get the right set of scoundrels in office is a meal ticket for demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum.

Dennis, thank you!

Matt, thanks for the link and the info! The mentats and Druids might also be able to work out a nomograph -- a sheet of paper with lines and scales on it, set up so that you mark point A on one scale, and point B on another, and then use a ruler to draw a line between them and read off the result on scale C in the middle. A very clever and mostly forgotten technology, well worth relearning!

Sophie, thanks for the link! Low Tech Magazine is pretty much required reading for green wizards at this point.

Eric, and yet he isn't defending anything to the death, you'll notice.

Cherokee, no, you haven't repeated anybody's points! All important issues, too.

Sgage, nicely put.

August Johnson said...

The info I posted earlier about regenerative radios was often used by 10 year old kids in the 1920's to build their own radios. My father was one of those kids. He scrounged his parts, including vacuum tubes, from the trash of the local radio repair shop. There are still lots of old vacuum tubes in the world today, I have hundreds and my wife found a box of about 100 from the 1930's on the side of the road about 2 years ago.

There are even hobbyists out there making their own tubes today at home! What's amazing to me is that I have the stuff sitting around here stored in a shed (vacuum pumps, etc.) to do this if I just had the glassblowing skills, etc.

Here's a 17 minute video of a French radio amateur making a vacuum tube in his home shop

Make a tube

Here's a Polish guy that makes his own tubes at home.

PWL Tubes

Don't forget
for DIY solar ideas.

Back to the garden, time to plant some more. We're already eating asparagus, several squash, peas, green beans, lettuce, radishes. Soon will have carrots and tomatoes. Good eating in Auburn, AL


One of the Remnant said...

@ Edward

"I'm new here and have been itching to get my first comment in."

Welcome to the party. :)

"At the beginning you mentioned that Americans assume that the current ways of doing things will remain in place indefinitely (the supermarket analogy) while they ignore the signs that their lifestyle is getting ready to terminate itself. "

I think much of this is due to 'normalcy bias':

Which seems to be one of the many unhelpful legacies of our evolutionary past. In fact, once of my all time heroes, EO Wilson, wrote a terrific essay called 'Is Humanity Suicidal?' which points to this problem that he terms a 'myopic fog':

"Darwin's dice have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many of our scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough.

Our species retains hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard. Worse, our liking for meat causes us to use the Sun's energy at low efficiency. ...

It is possible that intelligence in the wrong kind of species was foreordained to be a fatal combination for the biosphere. Perhaps a law of evolution is that intelligence usually extinguishes itself.

This admittedly dour scenario is based on what can be termed the juggernaut theory of human nature, which holds that people are programmed by their genetic heritage to be so selfish, that a sense of global responsibility will come too late.

Individuals place themselves first, family second, tribe third and the rest of the world a distant fourth. Their genes also predispose them to plan ahead for one or two generations at most. They fret over the petty problems and conflicts of their daily lives and respond swiftly and often ferociously to slight challenges to their status and tribal security.

But oddly, as psychologists have discovered, people also tend to underestimate both the likelihood and impact of such natural disasters as major earthquakes and great storms.

The reason for this myopic fog, evolutionary biologists contend, is that it was actually advantageous during all but the last few millennia of the two million years of existence of the genus Homo."

- Oz

rylan said...


I had read one of the three, nihilism post and had glanced at the other two. I did go back for second look and reread them. I think you are more or less correct but what I am wondering is why are you correct. What underlying motivating factors are at play that sets the stage for this truism?

I am making the assumption that thru evolution, living things have been predisposed to having there behavior influenced by broad types of motivators. One of these is the strong desire to maintain our feel good neurotransmitter levels at the highest possible level. This seems to be what drives animals to struggle/fight for alpha status. Test the alpha of the herd and there you will find the highest levels of these feel good neurotransmitters. The animal at the low end of the pecking order will tend to have the lowest.

This is what I called feeding off a power trip. I think it is a basic need that is being met here and some people seem to think we are doomed because this cannot be undone. That this evolutionary inheritance manifest into a drive for the love of power, the justification to play win/lose games, and the ability to be in denial about obvious truths and that this will destroy us.

I believe that time is short and things seem bleak but disagree that all is lost. Could be I just want to believe that there is some hope but there does seem to be another modifier important in evolution that also can supply this inherent need for healthy levels of feel good neurotransmitters.

This basic meme comprises of the basic concept of cooperation. It is the drive to feed off the power of love, the knowledge of the wisdom of playing win/win games and the maturity to see obvious truths.


Sure, we spend something like a billion dollars a day on advertizing in the US. The message for the most part is that you cannot allow yourself to be happy/content if you do not buy whatever is being sold. I agree with you to the point that I think it should be considered a form of child abuse/neglect for parents to allow there children to watch commercial tv. However, what I am concerned with is why does tv and the rest influence us the way it does. The beauty of consumption is the consumption of the power trip.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Chris

"I particularly liked the reference to selling the working class down the river for cheapie consumer goods. I'm not a religious person, but I have noticed that there is quite a bit of real world currency in the phrase "do unto others"."

...before they do unto you? ;-)

Seriously, that seems to have been the standard, doesn't it? Modeled most promiscuously by the 'top' echelons.

It's difficult to imagine a world manifesting the 'as you would have them do unto you' mindset. But, it's a pleasant thought experiment, and one worth working toward at the individual level.

"There's no real future in a service economy, because at the end of the day, someone has to produce energy, food, clothing and housing."

I think service will remain an important component, simply because it always has been. Retailers of food and clothes and tools and so on are a part of the socioeconomic fabric, as are repair-persons of all sorts.

But of course, as we've seen, an entire economy supposedly based on 'services' which only make sense in our current hyper-complex society (especially in the financial arena) are not long for the planet. Thank Odin.

One wonders who will be living in the Hamptons several decades hence... :)

- Oz

Kieran O'Neill said...

Started doing a little Googling, and found a few papers using the term "fossil energy ratio", defined as (energy produced in Joules) / (energy required from fossil fuels in Joules).

Apparently for corn bioethanol, the ratio is somewhere around 1.33, although interestingly most of that is from coal and natural gas, which makes it more palatable to "energy security" proponents, but doesn't help the long term impact much.


Of further note (from that source), "Almost every lifecycle analysis is missing something. When the differential is 30 or 40%, it's easy to play with the statistics to push the number to the positive or negative side," says John Sheehan at NREL.

Indeed, the amount of fossil fuel going into bioethanol is hotly debated, but I don't think there is any doubt that it's incredibly wasteful. I think that Brazilian sugarcane bioethanol might be better, though (more manual labour in crop production, more sensible feedstock for fermentation).

escapefromwisconsin said...

Thank you for that advice in regards to writing; I think many of us will find that helpful.

Publishing, like eveything else, is done for profit, and anyone familiar with the publishing industry knows that non-fiction books are the big sellers and fiction is a niche market with anemic sales. We're in the post-literate society, whether we like it or not, and movies, television and video games have pushed people away from the written word. I heard one author compare the craft of writing fiction to ballet - it is a preserved art form for an audience of aesthetes rather than a mass entertainment the way it was in the eighteenth century. That's incredibly sad, but it's useless to wring our hands over it - you can't foce people to read. The publishing industry knows that the readers of fiction are principally women over 40 (the Oprah demographic), and most of what gets published seems to be targetted to them. Either that, or "beach thrillers" about the military, or lawyers, or the Vatican, or some such. It makes me wonder how any good fiction is published at all, and in truth, not much is. It seems the few "serious" fiction writers all live in New York City and have some sort of connection to the industry or academia, or have some sort of "shock" value.

The last literate society was in the 1960-1970s, and you can see the results in the quality of American fiction after that period. Prior to that time, writers like Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and John Updike were household names. They even appeared on talk shows. Can anyone imagine an author being in such a position today? Even the most popular authors have only dedicated fringe followers; they are more like indie rock groups than anything else. Non fiction books like The Affluent Society and The Silent Spring were widely debated and had a significant effect in the wider society. In our post-literate society, could any book have such an effect? Today, the majority of people get all their news from TV, which I think also does a good job of explaining some of the changes in the political climate since the 1970s as well. As Allan Dulles once put it, "Americans don't read." A post-literate society is easier to control and manipulate, and propaganda works much more effectively via TV or radio than in print, especially when every outlet is owned by a very small slice of corporate oligarchs. That also has a bearing on your current line of inquiry as to what changed after the 70s. I cannot help but note that much of the 70s consciousness was shaped by the books you so often reference here and have in your collection, while the consciousness of the 80s and beyond was molded by the media. What effect the Internet has on this dynamic is a subject for contemplation.

There is one bright light - there seems to be a renaissance in comic books (or graphic novels, if you prefer). I think much of the audience for science fiction that one would find in the 70's have migrated to comic books (see Boing Boing for examples). If I may be so presumptuous, perhaps I can recommend teaming with a talented artist to resurrect your stories in comic book form. I'm sure you're familiar with people like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who produce highly-acclaimed and well-written fiction for a graphic format. With your perspective and wide variety of interests, this seems like a type of writing that you would be ideally suited for - I encourage you to give it some consideration.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Oh, and to bring this back to more of the central topic, have you ever heard of a windbelt? It seems like an intesting idea, essentially an aeolian harp that generates electricity:

Also, when checking on the thermoelectric effect on Wikipedia, I found this interesting page on energy harvesting. Apparently, you can even get electricity from trees!

LewisLucanBooks said...

The 1950s, north Portland, Oregon. I remember when they built the Fred Meyer in our neighborhood. Everything you could possibly imagine under one roof. It was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least twice a week, after dinner, my Dad would say to me and my brother, "Well, boys, why don't we go to Freddies and ... look around."

But I can't remember buying much there. I think Mom was uncomfortable with the bigness of the grocery section. So, we just kept patronizing the local grocery store. Also, at that time she didn't drive and the local was only a 4 block walk. We got most of our meat from a German butcher.

A lot of our dairy and produce came from my uncles small farm. His outside job was being one of those guys who delivered milk in bottles, as mentioned above.

One thing I did buy a lot of were paperback books. We were regular library users, but at that time, libraries kind of looked down their noses at all that pulp fiction. Science Fiction! There were racks and racks of it. And, Mad magazines and books. Which I totally credit for my skeptical and jaundice eye view of the world.

The Fred Meyer pretty much killed the local business district of Kenton. The drug store. The hardware store. Where I could remember seeing my first TV. Standing in the snow in my father's arms in a crowd of people, watching this thing through the window, at night. The neighborhood theatre closed a couple of years later with the advent of television.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Remnant,

I was being serious because I reckon there's a certain circularity to life. I'd thought about it a bit too over the past decade or so.

Many years ago, in a more naive phase of my existence as a boss I was asked to sell an individual down the river (basically move them on by any means). Being naive, I complied. It wasn't until about 12 months later they sold me down the river that I started wondering about this issue.

I reckon it may be a top down cultural phenomena. Since that time I've looked around and now see it happening all over the place. At the moment, I'm involved with a community group which you can see has a dysfunctional culture so I keep my distance until such time as they get their act together. You can see other people are doing the same. It's quite fascinating really.

It's pretty much how really unpleasant cultures evolve. It doesn't take too many people supporting the culture before it gains momentum.

So I reckon there is some truth behind the do unto others credos. Basically it's saying if you support these cultures then don't be surprised when they turn on you.



rylan said...

One of the Remnant,

“hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact”

ok, so what do you think, can/do advertisers/big influencers use this knowledge to influence us in nefarious ways? Is this overwhelming influence what has keep the, live simple so others can simply live, message from coming of age?

Seems like to be able to move forward toward establishing a peaceful sustainable world we must understand this and figure a way to counter act its influence. My struggle for the neurotransmitters theory might or might not be on target but I think there is something here we really need to figure out.

One of the Remnant said...

@ rylan

"I believe that time is short and things seem bleak but disagree that all is lost. Could be I just want to believe that there is some hope..."

Maybe I'm missing something, but my takeaway from JMG's posts isn't that 'all is lost' - what will be lost is industrial civilization, which is premised upon exploitation, competition, overconsumption, etc.

In fact, the last year of posts here, at least, have been focused on what is to be gained - to wit, a reconfiguration of human society in ways that are more in harmony with the natural world, which means decentralized, deindustrialized societies based on cooperation and community and ecological common sense.

Far from all is lost, what this blog stands for to me is just how very much there is to be gained.

The losses that are inevitable, at this point, are something like a socioeconomic and ecological version of Schumpeter's 'creative destruction' - it's a perspective thing.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

August, there's a good introductory book on DIY tubes from Lindsay Books, too. With a little work on the part of people now, I think there's every reason to expect long-range radio communication to become a permanent addition to the human toolkit.

Remnant, it seems to me that Wilson -- here as elsewhere -- is painting with far too broad a brush, and constructing an emotionally appealing narrative rather than a suitably nuanced scientific analysis. Still, if it works for you, by all means.

Rylan, well, to start with, I'm not saying that all is lost. I'm saying that civilizations have a life cycle, that ours is on the downward arc of its life cycle, and our dependence on cheap abundant fossil fuel energy is going to make this example of decline and fall a doozy -- but that's not the end of the world by any means. It's simply one of those things that happens, and in this case, the fact that a lot of Americans caught a glimpse of it, panicked, and went on a thirty year vacation from reality is simply the luck of the draw this time.

Kieran, thanks for the data! The point about life cycle data is all too true, and a major factor in the present confusion.

Escape, I'd be interested in such a project, but I don't know any capable comic book artists and I'm not at all a visual thinker myself. I'd hoped at one point that my one published SF novel might have gotten some attention, but that obviously didn't happen. I hadn't heard of a windbelt, no, but using trees as a source of power is covered in one of my old appropriate tech books!

Lewis, I remember when the last dairy in the south Seattle suburbs went under. They used to have the best ice cream on the planet, or so I would have told you at age eight.

Dennis D said...

Old computer hard drives contain super magnets, which are good for home building small alternators, suitable for a small windmill, water wheel or exercise bike. Here is a sample project from a favorite site:

One of the Remnant said...


"Remnant, it seems to me that Wilson -- here as elsewhere -- is painting with far too broad a brush, and constructing an emotionally appealing narrative rather than a suitably nuanced scientific analysis. Still, if it works for you, by all means."

I don't disagree - in fact I'd say that this was probably a deliberate choice on Wilson's part, inasmuch as this essay, published not in a peer reviewed journal or other scientific outlet, but rather in the NY Times Magazine. In appealing to the public, an emotionally appealing narrative makes a lot of sense. He does much the same in 'The Future of Life' which is really the only book I've read from him, so you may be right about this, overall.

That said, Wilson gets props from me for his diligent and strenuous efforts to bring the biodiversity crisis to the attention of the public, even while I think he was both politically naive and tended to put over-much faith in science and technology as 'solution.'

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ rylan

"can/do advertisers/big influencers use this knowledge to influence us in nefarious ways? Is this overwhelming influence what has keep the, live simple so others can simply live, message from coming of age? "

Very thought provoking documentary in 4 parts called 'the century of self' which shows how Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, introduced psychoanalytic constructs to advertisers, so certainly there's little doubt of the conscious manipulation in that area (used extensively by politicians as well of course who are just advertisers of a different sort).

I tend to think more mundane things like normalcy bias, confirmation bias, the social discount rate and plain old propaganda play into it as well.

I also think that JMG has tapped into something rather profound with his nihilism posts. A sort of cultural guilty conscience coupled with cultural cowardice arose.

I also think all of this ties in closely with something I've noticed as I studied American history: modern Americans tend to offload personal responsibility to take action by ascribing it to the government.

For example, in the late 19th century, about one in three adults in America were affiliated with mutual and charitable aid societies which derived, in some cases, from as far back as the guilds of the middle ages, and which together formed the social safety net. When the State usurped that function in the early 1900s, this sense of willingness to engage directly with one's fellows seems to have attenuated to almost nothing. The State came to become the mediating agency between us and our poorer fellows, in that case, and I think this pernicious notion began to pervade much of American life, as citizens accepted government (rather than themselves) as appropriate agency for social action in ways it had not previously.

In other words, I think it's a complex question! :)

- Oz

sofistek said...


Well, yes, if someone really wants to shake of the conditioning, they can, but the conditioning itself is an inhibitor to creating the desire to shake it off. My experience is that people just don't want to come to terms with reality.

I was talking to some friends yesterday about some of this stuff and one topic was peak oil and oil prices. Whilst there was an acknowledgement that oil will peak and that the general trend of prices is up, that was all glossed over in favour of admonishing the greedy oil companies and the speculators. Provided they can think of someone to blame, they can put reality to the back of their minds, where it won't be dragged out until it hits them where it hurts.

sofistek said...


"why does tv and the rest influence us the way it does"

Well, the easy answer is that the people who operate the media have also been subject to the mind numbing conditioning too. I'm not sure where it started but I think religion played a bigger part in the past and most religions tell us that humans are the pinnacle of creation (and, now, evolution) and have dominion over the earth. That's a big part of the conditioning.

Ventriloquist said...

Rylan said:

This is what I called feeding off a power trip. I think it is a basic need that is being met here and some people seem to think we are doomed because this cannot be undone. That this evolutionary inheritance manifest into a drive for the love of power, the justification to play win/lose games, and the ability to be in denial about obvious truths and that this will destroy us.

Somehow, I don't think this behavior (of living beings in general) will cause any different outcome for humans than for any other species.

Just as with the examples of any invasive species artificially introduced to a closed enviornment (eg. an island) with no natural predators . . . and proceeds to grow rapidly until all available resources have been consumed . . . and then experiences a mass dieoff to some sustainable (or not) population level.

I'm afraid that humanity is just another example of the bacteria in the petri dish . . . our species will simply expand/consume this planet's available resources until Mother Nature imposes some very hard and very severe constraints, whereupon the human population is reduced back to the sustainable population levels extant several centuries ago.


Brad K. said...

One of the Remnant,

"When the State usurped that function in the early 1900s, this sense of willingness to engage directly with one's fellows seems to have attenuated to almost nothing".

I think the notion of the state "usurping" the social safety net is straight forward, and the reason for big government.

Nations, politicians, and commercial advertisers all understand that to draw an audience, you present an enemy, a need, that the speaker/advertiser can meet. That need might be contrived, imaginary, or even downright false. But if the audience member comes to agree in any small part with anything the speaker states or does, then the audience member buy into some small part of everything -- including the existence of the need/enemy -- that the speaker posits. And by being seen to follow that speaker, the audience member lends a bit of creedence to the topic.

The person of character, when considering influencing another, would often choose to avoid contrived or deceptive enemies/needs (though not avoid misunderstood enemies/needs).

And only the rare few will take ownership, and participate in de-constructing the enemy/need once the desired influence is exerted. After all, if it was useful once, it might be useful again. And few influencers are willing to state, "I just told you that. Now you can continue to believe everything else that I say." I doubt that would work -- thus propaganda, merchandising, etc. build complexity, overburden governing structures, and overstuff houses that are too big with too many things that aren't actually essential.

Speakers, advertisers, and propagandists can be disarmed, by turning away from them, refusing their message. We can avoid the stimulation of wandering the aisles of Wal-Mart, looking for "something useful" -- but we also need to exert that same caution at yard sales and farm auctions. Yes, that wheelbarrow with trashed wheel but intact tub or pitch fork might come in handy -- but the box of kid's toys, that fancy pipefitting gadget that might be fun, that John Deere logoed t-shirt, that handsaw we might cut up into yard art -- these can be as much a distraction (unneeded overstimulation) as the freshest radio, tv, newspaper, magazine, or internet ad or candidate promise.

Richard Larson said...

You need to understand there are no shortcuts available with a solar water heating system designed to operate through-out the year in a northern climate.

At the base, you will need stainless steel, copper, aluminum, and glass, remember, all these materials being highly energy intensive to mine, refine, and fashion.

Then you need to add in the cost of technology; heat exchangers, pumps, and controllers. The myriad of other smaller just as important parts such as clamps, insulation, clad to protect the insulation (outside it is absolutely warranted), shut off valves, temperature probes, fasteners, copper wire, mixing valve, photovoltaic panel if a DC pump is chosen, propylene glycol, ect.

These parts add up to about half the install price. Then every installer has to add indirect costs such as insurance, fuel, bookkeeper fees, utilities, and one has to understand a small scale operation these costs become a larger portion of the total price tag.

Then, should the installer have employees, add in that per hour cost, (to think, most Americans want to work less and get paid more) and multiply this by 1.33 to account for SS, Medicare, workers comp, and unemployment insurance.

The what is a reasonable profit? On a small job, such as one on a residence, an installer better add 10 percent, or more, because all of these jobs are retrofits and one never knows what type of worms you will have when you pry off the lid. The more complicated the framework of the house, the more fat has to be bid into the job.

Do you have a better understanding now?

If you want cheap, and you want a system that operates through-out the year, it won't work.

Cheap is you paint a 55 gallon drum black and allow the sun to heat the water in it, and you don't need an engineer for that. And don't forget to drain the water out before the freeze wave starts.

I like the thermoelectric idea, I am going to work on that. Great find, thanks.

Oh, hey, the cost to install a proper system that will last 50 years is going up in price dramatically. Better not wait to long. And by the way, I bought your book for full price instead of waiting for it to appear on the use book list!

And I bought it before you offered the 3 book deal too!!

Jason Heppenstall said...

On the topic of energy of a different sort (and relating to the posts about writing above) I would like to ask JMG where he gets all his mental energy from. A clutch of sci-fi books, your non-fiction trilogy, the Archdruid Report (plus answering the 150 or so comments) every week.

In a way, mental energy should be free to us all, and I think we’ll all need plenty of it to overcome the challenges talked about in this forum. I have been reading recently about the 16th century magician John Dee – to whom you bear a passing resemblance ;-) - and how he worked 18 hours a day, every day (with 4 for sleep and 2 for ‘other things’ like eating and talking). Can we mortals ever hope to attain this? Is this something you will be talking about in the future? Any tips will be appreciated.

@escapefromwisconsin – I don’t see a death of literature at all. Everywhere I go I see people reading books and there are bookshops and lit festivals all over the place. But maybe that’s just from my European perspective. I think the paperback book is a pretty resilient thing and will survive long into the future, but that’s just my opinion.

John Michael Greer said...

Dennis, that's an excellent point.

Remnant, if he's an inspiration to you, by all means. The last book of his I read was Consilience, which I found embarrassingly shallow -- a classic example of what happens when a specialist tries to generalize without broadening his perspective. Still, to each his own!

Sofistek, I've suggested before that the "conditioning" is coevolved between the masses and the elites -- the elites learn that they can most easily hold onto their power, after all, by telling the masses what the masses want to hear; and as often as not the elites themselves get caught up in whatever fantasy pleases the masses most (they grow up watching the same media, remember). So it's as much that people like hearing what they already agree with as anything else!

Richard, remember that I've been messing with this stuff since the late 1970s. I'm aware of what's required for a solar hot water system; that doesn't justify a $25K minimum price. There will always be a place for Cadillac systems, to be sure, but there are a lot of options between a high end system and a black barrel on the roof, you know. For many people, a batch or drainback system might be the best bet; for people in the sun belt, a passive thermosiphon system (which costs about half as much as a closed-loop active system) is all they need...and I suspect that bright young entrepreneurs will be able to build closed-loop systems for a lot less than $25k, for that matter.

Jason, I don't work anything like Dee's schedule, but I do a couple of things that give me a bunch of extra time most people don't have. The most important is that I don't own a television, DVD player, iPod, or any of the other electronic noisemakers our society likes to use to stave off the dreadful experience of having quiet time to think. Right there, that gives me four to six hours a day more than most people in America have to play with. I also don't use a lot of "labor-saving" technologies, which one and all take more time to assemble, run, clean, put away, etc. than they save. I may do a post on that, but the key is simply that an uncluttered life means an uncluttered schedule, and more time to do what matters.

Katie said...

I'm about half way through The Wealth of Nature. I have a politically conservative relative who asked me to explain my views. I don't think I could send her either of the first two books in this series. I think she would find them overwhelming. But The Wealth of Nature might be a viable first step. Thank you for giving us some hope for the future.

Matthew Heins said...


In researching what in the heck a "nomograph" is I ran across this book I thought I should make sure you were aware of. Its called The History and Development of Nomography by Dr. H.A. Eversham.

Here's a link for the book and one for the site that I saw mentioning it:


Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Nick,

If you get your stirling engine working, please drop a comment. I'd be very interested in such a beast.



Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the tip for a thermal electric generator. Never heard of it before. I've been looking around for a bit of extra power for those cloudy weeks which sometimes happen here.

There's a tank of very hot water sitting up in the attic which may be perfect for such a device.

Mmmm, I can see some research may be required here.

Thanks again


Mary said...

Ok, so Friday a week ago I saw 50+ comments here, which disappeared as soon as I tried to access them.

Then my favorite forum became inaccessible. By Saturday my ISP was down. By Sunday my phones were out.

I thought, "IT'S HERE!!!"

I had a creepy sense of isolation and abandonment. I headed out in the car and found the world still buzzing along, and by Tuesday most everything in my life was back to normal. I'm taking it as a personal wake up call, lol.

Still catching up, but will have something to offer on low-cost interior storm windows for those with antiques that lack both storm windows and the $10K or so to add them on...


idiotgrrl said...

Off topic, but I found - quite by accident - a traditional method of preserving potatoes that requires nothing but cold nights and warm days. -

The "n" is with a tilde, which did not translate here.

Richard Larson said...

25 grand is a very high price for a solar domestic water system, even a drainback. Just off the top a single 4x10 collector fashioned as a closed loop with a photovoltaic panel connected to a dc pump including a stainless 45 gallon storage tank with an internal heat exchanger, and all the parts and labor necessary to bring it operational, should be close to 10 grand. This would heat 45 gallons of water to 120+ on a full sun day - way more than a conservationist would need. Do it yourself and lop off half that number. If you a friends with an installer and can get wholesale numbers on the parts, in the low 4 grand would be about it.

My issue is with the concept of this system becoming less expensive. It won't, as there is no technological replacement for depleting oil, also is none for a solar water heating system.

You are going to wait for a better price, and you are going to encourage others to wait, and then guess what? It is going to cost so much more these people can now no longer afford to have one installed.

I am often thinking about the story by Richard Heinberg about the message coming back from a hundred years hence. The thrust was the message thanked us in the past for making solar panels - even though the energy required was more than the energy produced.

Way better spending money on devices that capture sustainable energy than prompting Jevon's Paradox through buying a fuel efficient car.

Don't worry, I still like you! :-)

Mark said...


I install closed-loop solar hot water systems in MA. a 3 panel (4' x 7') 120 gallon tank (with electric backup) installed is about $12K before incentives. The state offers a ~$1200 rebate, and a $1000 tax credit. The fed offers a 30% tax credit (compute tax credits after subtracting the state rebate). depending on how you heat water now, the break-even is 4 (electricity) to 12 (natural gas) years.

FYI in terms of cost per BTU when factoring in efficiency of your water heater, High to low:

1.Electricity (95% efficient but kwh are expensive)
2. Tankless in-boiler Oil (only 40% Efficient!!!)
3. Oil with an external tank ~60% efficient (indirect fired tank), or Propane
4. Natural gas (also about 60%)

The percentages factor in standby losses (gas fired tanks have the central tube for the flue gasses which is the major contributor to standby loss)

Some of my colleagues are advocating the new "Heat pump" electric water heaters with solar electric.

Provided your basement is warm enough they'll run with a COP of 2 or higher (2 times the energy out in the form of hot water for each kwh in, the other kwh comes from the room) I'm not convinced.

I like my closed loop system which can easily be run during a power outage with a small solar panel, battery, and ~100 watt inverter (controls and circulator pump only draw 68 watts when running)

FYI a two panel SHW system is about $10K before incentives.

The person who quoted you $25K is either a crook or so busy they don't want extra work - yet priced it to make a ton of dough if they did win the work. Get multiple quotes. Balance price with trust in the contractor (in other words, don't always go for lowest price). Happy to help offline if you need additional info mark )at( newenglandbreeze ]dot[ com

Mark said...

@JMG for those of us who are non-retired engineers, we know the Seebeck Effect as the "thermoelectric effect." It's used every day in our solar hot water temperature sensors. Pardon the pun, but I do believe larger scale applications have potential :-). My son (the thermobiopile experimenter) has fiddled with it but he didn't have the right metals. :-)

LewisLucanBooks said...

On supermarkets (Mary) and Country Crossroads (Andy Brown.)

Mary, I know the feeling. I walked into my local supermarket one night last month and there were NO bananas. None. Just a big empty gapping display where they usually are. Being a banana a day guy for years, for ticker health and to keep night leg cramps away, I was a bit panicked. But, more and more I try to think of alternatives to things I eat or use all the time.

For general health, I like a small hand full of walnuts, 4 tiny piece of really dark chocolate and some candied ginger every evening. Well, the walnuts and chocolate are just about priced out of my budget. I notice other things. Our cheap bread store (really good bread for 4 loaves for $6) used to have the least expensive hot mustard around. I noticed it jumped from $1.59 to $2.19. Long grain brown rice is still .98 a pound out of the bulk bins. Oats are still pretty cheap. I think supermarkets will be around for awhile (barring one of those pesky Black Swans) but I think it will be a scramble to get what you want (THINK YOU NEED.) due to habit or for health reasons. Specials and loss-leaders will become fewer and farther between.

On country crossroads. Where I'm hoping to live is a ways out of town. But where "my" future road takes off from the "old highway," there is an old cross-roads store, now a convenience store. But the old building is there. Less then 5 miles from my intended digs. An afternoons walk. And, right next door is an old Grange Hall. I don't know if it's still active, but it could be re-activated. Newspaper articles have foretold the dying of the granges, but I bet they (or something like them) come back.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Richard

"I am often thinking about the story by Richard Heinberg about the message coming back from a hundred years hence. The thrust was the message thanked us in the past for making solar panels - even though the energy required was more than the energy produced. "

I'm not sure if this is the same thing, but I ran across a very thoughtful analysis recently which thoroughly debunked this notion that solar panels are net energy sinks.

Turns out, people making this assertion (often without realizing it - this has become an article of faith among a subset of the enlightened) are referencing an 'emergy' study done by Odum - but they don't realize that it was an analysis of a centralized solar collector power plant, NOT decentralized solar PV. In the latter case, several studies have found various ranges (depending on varying assumptions and methodologies), but the median seems to be around 3 - 4 years, at which point, solar PV ceases to be a net sink and goes positive.

I'll see if I can dig up the study and post the link - or if someone else here knows the study, please post a link. If my memory is any guide (it's often not), this may have appeared in the energy bulletin.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

Found the study I mentioned - turns out energybulletin has a decent search engine which quickly responded to 'solar payback odum'. :)

Snippet on the Odum utility-scale study which apparently forms the basis for what appears to be a widespread fallacy in the peak oil movement about roof mounted solar PV:

Odum evaluates a utility scale solar voltaic power installation in Austin, Texas, and concludes that the installation uses nearly twice as much “emergy” as it creates over its lifetime.

Upon scrutiny, there are two reasons why these findings can be rejected as indicating that PV modules are unable to payback their embodied energy over their lifetime:

- The installation was a large centralised power plant. The embodied energy in the concrete and other structures was greater than the PV cells themselves. Frameless modules mounted on existing structures or roofs eliminate the majority of this requirement and its associated embodied energy.

- The human labour of a team of highly trained engineers required to design, operate and maintain the plant were large portions of the energy requirement. De-centralised roof-mounted systems also eliminate nearly all of this, as they require very low maintenance after installation. The embodied energy in design is also negligible due to amortization over lengthy production runs.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Katie, thank you! In my own odd way, I'm probably closer to the middle of the road politically than most other peak oil writers, and The Wealth of Nature probably offends as many beliefs of the left as of the right, so it might well be able to speak to both sides.

Matt, your crystal ball is working well. The blog is one I'll be citing in the upcoming post.

Chris, as long as you remember that the hot water is going to get cooler as the heat differential gets turned into electricity!

Mary, that must have been a trip. When it happens for real, it probably won't be quite so quick, but the effect will be the same.

Grrl, many thanks for the link!

Richard, I see where the misunderstanding got in. I was responding to Diotima, who was quoted $25K as a minimum price for a solar hot water system -- and that's not the first time I've seen that sort of Cadillac system presented as though it was the only game in town. I thought you were responding to that. $10K for an installed system, or $4K for a do it yourself, is pretty reasonable; if not Volkswagen, then perhaps Toyota. Even so, it ought to be possible to go lower than that for a passive thermosiphon system in areas that don't freeze, or batch systems for those who aren't going to use it year round.

Mark, of course. Engineers aren't that large a fraction of my audience -- though I'm pleased to see how many of 'em there are.

Lewis, the Grange is still active as an organization; do a little web surfing and you can find the state or national organizations online. Get in touch with them sometime, and ask about the local Grange; if it's still in existence, they'll be delighted to hear from somebody new who's interested.

Remnant, the interesting thing is that right now, whether or not PV is a net energy gain, it's a good idea. Why? Because it leverages energy costs between the present and the future. The energy that has to go into making and installing a PV panel goes into it now, while energy is relatively cheap and abundant, but a good deal of the energy that comes from the panel is available years from now, when energy will very likely be much scarcer and more expensive. (I discussed this at some length in The Long Descent) Especially on the home and local community scale, PV is a useful option; I'll be discussing that in more detail in an upcoming post.

Cherokee Organics said...


Just to let you know that 4 little 158w thermoelectric units are now on their way to me. They were dirt cheap. Like everything else I fail to understand how they produce them for that cost (less than AU$11 each delivered!).

I worked in the final days of manufacturing costings here (a sad experience to be sure, especially since I was also involved in a minor part in the shutdown and sell off) so I always wonder about this issue.

I'll try them on the wood stove first, have a bit of experiment and let you know what the real world output is. Still if I only get 100Wh from the four for a couple of hours I'll be happy (my total useage per day is about 3kWh - not much really).

Do you know if they corrode metals in any way, like a sacrificial annode in water mains?

I'm also glad and appreciate your addressing the PV EROEI argument. I can't believe how many times this pops up. It drives me bananas (which aren't available here either because of the cyclones on both coasts which knocked out production again this year)!

The other thing to add about this issue is that nobody will ever really know the answer to this question as manufacturers themselves don't allocate costs to products this way. In addition to this so many costs are externalised by our industrial system.



Richard Larson said...

In response to One of the Remnant.

Do agree and if we were to understand the effect from the flow of limited energy sources there will be an equation that will narrow the energy cost to manufacture renewable energy devices. Or, the efficiencies that will be built into the process of manufacture, because of declining limited energy supplies leading to higher prices, will increase.

The ultimate success would be when renewable energy devices are able to produce enough energy to mine, refine, manufacture, and install of the product.

Good luck with that!

Good thing we have a misunderstanding Master Conserver, I was thinking about a title and subtitle to a book being; How I Lost 250 Grand Starting a Renewable Energy Business and Lowering the Bar; A Master Conserver waits for Technology to Lower the Cost of Solar Gathering.

Or, How Environmentalists get a Dopamine Rush Attending Renewable Energy Conferences, subtitled; The Best Roads to View Single Species Plantings.

Kate said...


I'm almost finished with The Long Descent. Simply outstanding.

I have some questions in the area of the spiritual dimension. Do you recommend any books that go into magic, myth and narrative in an easily accessible way? Most of the stuff I've read so far makes my eyes cross.

In the context of competing myths, I'm currently looking at simple methods for helping people to identify the emotionally charged myths that speak to them in ways that isolate the messages from the associated content (commercial products and ideologies).

An easy one is vision books, where one picks out images, words and phrases from magazines, books and other media to break them down into their smallest units and rearrange them into different, unique personalized narratives.

I've seen similar things done in terms of "vision quests" and even graffiti and spontaneous public art.

Thank you

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: JMG Re: Remnant Re: efficiency of PV...

The way I have thought about it is that even if a PV panel has a lifetime of 20 years and a EROI of exactly 1:1, it is the most efficient and longest-lasting battery we have ever invented.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Slightly off topic this week (relates more to previous dicussions of "but I live in an apartment and haven't got any land to garden"):

Article from the CBC listing a Canadian website (also one in the UK, not sure about the US) matching owners of land with willing gardeners. The Canadian site is "Landshare Canada" - and one of the commenters also referred to "Sharing Backyards".

idiotgrrl said...

We're going mainstream! Or at least, Barnes & Noble has a book out called "Thrifty Green." I dipped into it first before buying. One woman's account of living on minimum energy and stuff in Taos before having to move to Colorado to get a paying job --- and *how well living green and thrifty can be done in the city just the same.*

Lots of useful details, especially for newbies like me, and some hits-home comments about retrofitting old houses. [No. Don't knock them down and build another, however tempted you are. But it won't be easy.] Blown-in cellulose insulation as better than fiberglass. Stuff like that.

$18 & worth every penny if you have the extra $$$ and, as I said, are just starting out.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I'm always trying to think of replacements for things I think might get to expensive or go away. Things for pleasure and things for health.

I've kicked coffee but still do like my tea. Luckily, it will grow here and is even available at a local nursery.

My banana a day looks to be replaced by a potato a day. According to my Laurel's Cookbook (which I really like for a number of reasons, one being the extensive nutritional charts in the back) a medium potato in the skin packs even more of a wallop than the banana. I may make the switch before I can grow my own.

Banana: Calcium Phosphorus Potasium (in mg)
10 31 440
Potato 10 72 560

Ric said...

Someone mentioned mentats. I love this guy:

Arthur Benjamin does Mathemagic

Why do I think no adult in this man's childhood told him, "A D- is OK Artie; math is hard."

idiotgrrl said...

At the University of New Mexico, the new Sustainability Studies program has three courses, one of them a hands-on project. All three are not only full, 3 months before the semester begins, but have a waiting list. However, the administration, whose heads are still in the 90s, may pull the courses. However, New Mexico is getting rid of its heads-in-the-90s administrations at a high rate of speed.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, to my knowledge thermoelectric units don't corrode -- I suppose they could if you immersed a bimetallic unit in water, but that would short out the electrical current as well. As for the EROEI argument, I addressed that here years ago -- I may have to revisit it.

Richard, I never said I was waiting for new technology, just that I thought -- and think -- that there are options you didn't reference. Straw men are not that useful, you know.

Kate, thank you. I'm not at all sure what to recommend in terms of books on magic and the power of narrative; the problem there is that attitudes and presuppositions vary so widely that what one reader finds useful is guaranteed to make another's eyes cross, to borrow your phrase. Most of my writings on the subject are for practitioners, who have their own jargon and ways of talking about this stuff; the attempt to talk about magic with a more general audience has been made a few times in recent years, but rarely with much success, as three hundred years of hostile rhetoric, media stereotypes, and rampant misunderstandings get in the way.

Bill, if it's 1:2 with a 20 year lifespan, for a battery, that's still pretty good.

Apple Jack, many thanks!

Grrl, we are indeed. The book sounds good!

Lewis, not to mention the skin is the tastiest part. If you favor relatively thin-skinned potatoes, you can mash them with the skins still on, and the results are great.

Ric, do not get me started! I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to devise a system of schools better suited to squash the intelligence and creativity of its inmates than the one we've got, if you sat down and made that your number one goal.

Twilight said...

I found a nice site describing some TEG units of the past:

That Russian TEG lamp is a bit more sophisticated that it might first appear. According to the article:

"The thermoelectric elements comprised a zinc-antimony semiconductor (ZnSb) with constantan as the other element."

It looks like the elements are arranged in a tube around the flue, with the fins on the outside to dissipate heat and keep a thermal gradient.

This may be a bit much for a basement tinkerer, but if the materials were available it might lend itself well to a small shop. I doubt any kind of automation would be required, just jigs and fixtures and some skilled labor. As always it would be tough to make it financially viable in a world of iPods, so once again it falls to the task of preserving the knowledge.

August Johnson said...

Cherokee - Only one thing to be careful of on the thermoelectric units. If you got the ones that are normally used for cooling, they will have a max temp rating of about 200C. A temp much above that will melt things.

The ones that are sold for power generation usually have a max temp rating of 400C. I haven't seen any of them for sale on the sites where you can find them for cheap.

The lower temp ones will workfine, you just have to make sure that the hot side stays below 200C.


Jason A Allen said...

My question for JMG is somewhat unrelated: As a great student of the collapse of civilizations, are you aware of a single society that, after overextending it's use of natural resources, has survived thanks to the efforts of a small, vocal band of people like the peak oil movement?

Richard Larson said...


I wasn't intending to argue the idea of what are your intentions, but rather to make a general point; there is not going to be any engineering breakthrough that will lower the cost of a closed loop solar domestic water heater - without exponentially lowering its durability anyway. I am short tempered about this topic because I am sick of hearing this (myself a solar heater salesman).

I'm sorry to have made such an inference.

John Michael Greer said...

Grrl, that'd be a good thing. I've long thought that it's going to be crucial to have sustainability schools that aren't connected to the current academic industry, for that reason among others.

Twilight, zinc-antimony and constantan are quite doable given a good working knowledge of how to handle nonferrous metals. I know alchemists who could probably make both. (No, I'm not making that up, either.) That might be a very good project for somebody with good engineering and metalworking skills.

Jason, not one. On the other hand, I know of quite a few small, vocal groups of people who have come together in a civilization that's overshot its resource base, and preserved that civilization's legacy during the process of decline and fall. That's been my strategy all along; you might consult my book The Long Descent for a discussion in detail.

Richard, no problem. I'd guessed that you're in the industry. What region do you sell in?

tOM Trottier said...

Another reason for conservation:

eknutz said...

JMG: Just found this today:
"BioLite Stove Charges Your Phone While Cooking Your Dinner"

Small wood burning stove that boils water and cooks food while also charging a mobile phone with 2 watt Thermoelectric generator, featured on Tech Crunch just two days after your post. Fantastic!