With the upcoming oil supply crisis, there has been a lot of news, discussion, and old-fashioned bloviating about what humans should use for energy sources once oil is no longer viable.
Most of the discussion that I’ve seen has focused on several major technologies – electricity, ethanol, vegetable oil, solar power, etc. I like most of those ideas, but the one problem they all seem to have is that none of them can generate enough energy to replace the energy we get from oil.
The other problem, one that’s common to most of the energy sources we have used historically, is that we use them in such a way and to such a degree that they become depleted, and once depleted, cause major problems when it comes to the maintenance of societies. Even worse, such large-scale use can cause massive damage to the planetary ecosystem – see global climate change for one example (this holds true for some of the proposed forms of energy as well).
Still more observers say that we shouldn’t be looking for one single source, but a few major sources (like using all of the above instead of one). I think this approach at least puts us in the right direction, but that people are still thinking well inside the proverbial box. My own thinking, I hope, will provide the tiniest bit of insight towards a better path to so-called ‘energy independence,’ and more importantly, towards sustainability.
To really get at what I think is a better way of envisioning energy sustainability, I want to take a look at a very simplified version of, for lack of a more serious term, the circle of life.
I cannot say this enough: I don’t really know shit about nature, so if I make some sort of egregious error, please let me know. Laughing at said error is also acceptable, even encouraged.
Energy in some form is present whenever almost anything happens. A plant takes in sunlight and grows? There is a form of energy there, and we harvest it for food. A plant dies and is decomposed via natural processes? We utilize that as well when we eat mushrooms or through methane reclamation from the organic materials in waste dumps. Water flows downhill, and we create barriers in the form of dams & turbines and convert the resulting force into energy. Tectonic plates move a fraction of an inch? Lots of energy there, we just don’t know how to get to it. Lots of energy in ocean swells, too (just watch Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch), though I hear humans are pretty close to getting energy from that particular phenomenon as well.
The point is that there is energy all over the frackin’ place if we could just get to it. Figuring out how to benefit from a much larger variety of types of energy transfer is one step towards a more sustainable base of energy. As well, energy flows in just about every direction around the planet; the only external source is the sun (as far as I know), but as for the rest, it just moves around to different places and takes different forms. To paraphrase (or perhaps mangle) some law of something or other: Energy can never be created or destroyed. At least that’s the practical point of what I’m talking about.
Second, right now, we – especially in the so-called West, which is really what this piece is about – are obsessed with finding solutions to the upcoming oil shortage that are capable of scaling up to the hundreds of millions of people. I’ve read lots of news regarding how much ethanol or vegetable oil we can really produce without causing massive food shortages. The same goes for all the increased electricity we’d need for electric cars – as of today, I’ve not seen a reliable suggestion as to where we would get all that extra electricity-generating capacity. The point is that, as mentioned above, none of these solutions work because none of them can scale to the degree people think we need.
So that’s where we are, more or less. The closer you get to the Establishment, the more conservative ideas get, and the less innovative. I suspect the threat of a post-peak oil world also manages to get lost in the shuffle, which takes the urgency out of the picture. The closer to the margin you get, the more innovative and radical the solutions, as well as the sense of urgency.
I’d like to suggest a direction, if not a solution, one that I think is pretty radical (in the classic sense of gets-to-the-root-of-the-issue sense).
Basically, I think we’re going about looking for solutions to the peak-oil-lack-of-energy-crisis all wrong, and to explain why, I need to talk about values.
The values I see espoused in the current mainstream-y energy debates are pretty standard American values: The necessity and desirability of massive scale (and the resultant consumption); the conception of nature as a giant machine; use of classic top-down hierarchies through central production and distribution facilities; and reliance on nature-dominating, mechanized, big-technology solutions (such as the mass farming of soybeans or corn for vegetable oil or hundreds-of-square-miles floating windfarms). It’s not really a surprise that these values are present, but I do think it’s a problem.
Why is it a problem? Because that’s not how nature works. Not at all, in fact. That giant wave you see headed towards you is not, in fact, one giant wave. It’s millions or billions of tiny water droplets all working in unison, each one exerting a tiny amount of force; a mechanical conception of nature often does see it as one wave.
The same goes for most natural phenomenon; they are not one large bundle of energy or force, but many small bundles working in unison. The human body is analogous here – it’s one body, but billions of cells with a more-or-less coherent plan.
So, for me, rather than try to force the natural world to conform to typical American values, I think we should start thinking about how to draw energy from the world in a way that doesn’t lead to cataclysmic crises when said energy source runs out. And, of course, in ways that are sustainable.
Basically, I think we should emulate nature in a few very specific ways:
1. Inverted economies of scale. Rather than have a type of energy production that relies on one giant device, like a dam, why not have types of energy production that siphon off tiny amounts of energy from a natural process without disrupting that process? Some of this is already happening – there is a house in Belgium I visited that has a small dam, solar panels, and a wind turbine on their property. Not all of this is feasible for everyone, especially in urban areas, but it is one way to generate power on a micro-level and in such a way that doesn’t cause the disruption of natural processes.
2. Decentralization. This goes hand in hand with micro-generation. Rather than have one big windfarm, or a giant coal-burning facility, energy generation should be part and parcel of every building, be it residential, commercial, or industrial. Solar panels, rainwater collection, rooftop gardens, designing and placing the building for minimized heating/cooling costs, etc. – these all serve to create usable energy, and, if done well, don’t cause any appreciable harm. This is happening to some extent, but I think it needs to happen more, and faster.
One great example of this, designed especially for urban areas, comes from this BoingBoing post. The idea is to utilize the mechanical energy people exert while walking on the floor by converting it to electricity. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing I think of when I think of micro-scale sustainable energy sources. It doesn’t “take away” energy that is needed by nature, it’s unobtrusive, (I hope) it’s environmentally neutral, it occurs on a relatively micro-scale, and, as an added bonus it’s perfect for high-density urban areas. (Can you imagine using the same technology on roads?)
I’m not as excited about this second example (via /.): Using nanotechnology to siphon energy from the flowing blood inside human bodies. I like the principles – micro, utilizing existing energy flows – but I’d much rather see this applied in a stream somewhere to power a house than in my veins. Nevertheless, it is a good example of thinking on a small scale.
There are all sorts of benefits that come from thinking about energy generation like this; reducing environmental harm is just about at the top of the list. Second (or maybe even first) is the empowering nature of it. Can you imagine paying your last power bill ever? Or even getting money or earning power credits for putting power back into the grid (or simply giving it away to your neighbors when they need it in return for some fresh corn on the cob)?
Frankly, I think this idea embodies a somewhat anarchist value system; done well, it could do a pretty good job working within environmentalist values as well.
Another benefit is that it would require massive social reorganization. I call it a benefit because I think it’s good and necessary. More specifically, it might require people to live in places that conform to the land a bit better, necessitating demographic shifts that are environmentally friendly (i.e. get more solar power or get the hell out of Phoenix, people).
Well, the one that I expect will come up often is sort of precisely the point of this post: “But you’re undermining American values and/or the profit-motive system!”
Too bad. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s also necessary, since it was relatively unfettered use of the profit motive and other American values that got us here in the first place. I’ll take survival and sustainability over profit any day.
Such a system, done on a large scale (meaning not one big unit, but thousands of small units) would, of course, require substantial social reorganization. I am placing this here as well as above because I think it does take away privileges and advantages for some, and I want to be clear about that. I just think it’s a good idea to rock the boat in favor of the masses, that’s all.
Other downsides? Well, I don’t know much about the environmental impact of many of these ideas. I suspect that given the principles as a starting point – and don’t get me wrong, these principles and ideas are in use all over the place already by indigenous groups and other folks at the margins – I’m sure more low-tech and environmentally sustainable ideas could come out of a good brainstorming session. This is more of a vision thing than a blueprint, anyway.
Basically, I am really attracted to the idea of small-scale, empowering, sustainable ways to generate usable energy (an idea which comes straight of David Graeber and his point about ignoring the state entirely; I see this as one way to get around the need for materials that, thus far, only the state can provide). I
can’t imagine don’t want to imagine a plausible future without substantial energy use and technology, but I can imagine one in which existing technology does a much better job working with the natural world rather than against it, and I think the advantages of moving towards making these values a reality now are immense.