Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A wry smile...

...for John Michael Greer, who wrote recently chastizing critics who can't seem to comprehend the difference between "energy" and "technology" and think they can plan their way out of the fledgling economic mess before it grows fat and sassy. To remind you, Energy (capital E) is the power needed to move a 5000 pound car and all the lard-butt couch potatoes sitting in it at 60 or 80 mph. "Technology" is the process by which that energy source is funneled into actual motion. John wrote:

...There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.

No, silly, harnessing unicorn flatulence - which of course has the same BTU potential as petroleum, as everyone knows.

...The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it’s much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there’s nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we’ve got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can’t simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required...

To remind everyone once again: petroluem has the highest concentration of BTU potential of any energy source on earth. It is millions of years of condensed and distilled solar energy - and in order to get the same BTU out of any other source, you would need that same millions of years of stored solar power. There simply IS NOT any energy source that has that much BTU potential, period. No amount of tweaking Technology is going to make Energy appear out of thin air and hurl you and your SUV at any sort of economically viable level, except MAYBE electric cars in areas which have nuclear power plants. And that turns out to be a bigger "maybe" than anyone realized, since uranium isn't found in a bottomless pit, either.

So you need to understand the problem is not going to be solved in a way that includes widespread usage of private automobiles. In order to keep everything ELSE in society going, private cars are going to have to go. It's that simple. If our way of life and standard of living is going to have ANY chance of surviving relatively intact, what Energy we have available from alternate sources (which have FAR LESS BTU potential) CANNOT be wasted on private automobiles.

In case you've forgotten your high school physics (or never learned them), Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed from one phase to another. In the case of petroleum, millions and millions of years of sunlight was stored away in organic photosynthetic material. Once that Energy is burnt up and turned into HEAT and MOTION and dissipated away, ITS GONE. There's no getting it back - it has been dispersed back into the atmosphere from which it came. It's like throwing confetti - as a small ball, you can direct it and use it and throw it where you will. Once it starts flying all over the place, scattered to the wind, there's no way to gather it up again.

And more to the point, there is NOTHING on this planet (outside of nuclear power, another non-renewable natural resource that has worse dangers than oil) which has such a tight density of Energy packed into it. NOTHING. NADA. ZIP. NIHILO.

The days of cheap energy are over, class. They're just over, and there's nothing you can do about it except adapt and adjust.

...Now of course it’s quite possible to imagine post-industrial communities and societies in a fair amount of detail, and several imagined futures of this sort have found enthusiastic followings. The fact that something can be imagined, though, does nothing to prove that it will work. It’s not too hard to envisage a perpetual motion machine, say, or an investment that keeps on gaining value forever, and as we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to build a substantial social movement around belief in the latter, only to find out the hard way that attractive visions and passionate beliefs can rest on foundations of empty air. I recognize that many people find belief in such visions a powerful source of hope in a difficult time, and I sympathize with their feelings, but if we allow the desire for emotional comfort to trump the need to face unwelcome realities, we are in very deep trouble indeed.

There is actually a third irony to all this. As mentioned above, the last round of energy crises in the 1970s saw a great deal of energy go into making plans. A great deal of energy also went into improvisation, in a wide range of fields – notably alternative agriculture, renewable energy, and home design and construction. The plans have been forgotten; I don’t know of a single one that was still in force a decade down the road. The improvisations, on the other hand, have not; they include today’s organic intensive gardening, permaculture, most of today’s arsenal of solar energy methods, a range of alternative homebuilding methods, and much more.

Nobody drew up plans to develop these things, after all; the developers simply developed them, working things out as circumstances demanded, and shared what they learned with others as they went. Thus nearly all the ingredients being inserted into the current crop of plans for the deindustrial future were themselves the product of improvisation. It might be worth suggesting on this basis that our best option would be to skip the plans altogether and get to work on more improvisations.

All the points made here can be phrased in another way: a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve.


Or, you can go extinct, clinging to the failed paradigm that will simply no longer function because you cannot or will not move and/or change. We have reached the Götterdämmerung of this age, but unlike the Ragnarok video game my sons play, we can't just turn it off and walk away if the game isn't going well for us. We have to play whether we like it or not. How well we play depends on how realistic we're willing to be - how adaptable and flexible we are. If we play well, we win. And if we don't - well, I'm philosophically opposed to having my family become extinct.

1 comment:

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