Public Energies, Private Energies

Sharon December 29th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about the above distinction in terms of my own peak oil plans for some time, but I thought it might be a helpful tool for thought for others as well. Whenever I talk about going to lower energy usage, a percentage of people shout out something like “But that would mean going back tothe stone age, to lepers walking the streets and people throwing their feces out the window on our heads!!!” (Ok, I exaggerate for effect. I do that.) But I think it is fair to say that variations on the “without power, life would be intolerable” is a common assumption.

Part of the thing that bothers me about it is that I don’t think it is true. I’ve spent a lot of time studying history, and I don’t think the lives of all of those in human history who preceeded us were intolerable. I am fond of useful things like antibiotics and nutritional knowledge, but those are things that can be had at a very low level of technology. I’ve met a lot of people who lived all or much of their lives with very little power, and seen their homes, and I have ample visual evidence that often life can be quite graciously lived with little or no gas, electricity, and other inputs. Oh, everyone uses some, if only when they hand-till their land with an iron hoe, and is dependent in some ways or another. But I’d like to propose what I think is an important and useful distinction - between public use of energy and private use of energy. The former, I would argue, is essential to maintaining a good life, the latter is not.

People who have access to neither private energy usage nor public energy (and by energy I mean mostly fossil fuels, or fossil fuel based renewables, like solar panels) tend to be at a distinct disadvantage. It is not impossible to live in a horsedrawn economy, but it is difficult. Without public energy for things like clinics, the transport of food and goods, the importation of medicines, etc… life can be highly functional, but often is very vulnerable to disaster, either personal (disease, injury, loss of land or income), or public (witness the recent Pakistani earthquake, for example). While there are ways of mitigating some of the problems lack of access to all forms of energy come with (the use of animal power instead of tractor power, or instead of powered vehicles, for example), the lack of certain resources usually puts people at some disadvantage.

On the other hand, people who have no private energy resources, but have access to public ones often have extremely high quality of life, assuming that natural resources enable them to feed themselves and produce some tradable extras. There are parts of India, Cuba, Georgia, etc… where there is power for public buildings (some schools, hospitals, etc…), collective transportation (buses, trains, communally owned cars and taxis) and where energy is expended wisely on importing or making certain energy intensive goods that require (or are much eased by) the use of fossil fuels - but only on the ones that are demonstrably and significantly a public good. For example, money and energy are spent on power to pump water for the community well, or on vaccinations, but not the subsidy of personal transport or private electrification, generally speaking.

It is no accident that the places where a high quality of life and low levels of personal energy consumption coexist are often former or present marxist cultures and economies, with strong cultural incentives towards the creation of a collective good. That said, however, it is not impossible for capitalist economies to also determine that personal good and collective good are the same. But what is required is a fundamental belief in cooperation - the idea that enriching your neighbor, even at the cost of one’s private wealth, makes you richer, not poorer. And of course, this is true, although we rarely believe it as a first thought.

It is lovely, of course, to have private energy resources, assuming that they are sustainable, but it generally isn’t necessary for high quality of life. In quality of life evaluations, people in Kerala were generally happier with their status, possessions and lifestyle than most Americanswere, even though many lived at extremely low levels ofconsumption. There are some exceptions, of course, but neither life-span nor happiness seem to correlate all that closely with private energy consumption.

The distinction between public and private is important because we have limited resources, and limited time, and one of the big questions is where do we put our personal and economic and literal energies. If we put our resources primarily into lifeboat building (as Richard Heinberg puts it), building independent, free-standing households in which everyone has one of everything they need, we may not have enough resources remaining to be able to afford to build public structures that would fulfill the needs of many more people. And second, if we begin to think in terms of public requirements and private requirements, we have another tool to help us distinguish between what is necessary and what is pleasant to have, something I think a lot of us have troublewith.

One of the questions we can think in terms of, then, is “how can we make our need for X” resolvable in some communal or public way. For example, the American model is already pretty much “everyone has their own private water source from a well or resevoir.” In rural areas, where houses are far apart, this may make some sense. In towns and cities, however, much of Africa and Asia gets its water from public wells, pumped with electricity. Doing so is obviously somewhat less convenient than having running water in your house, but a public well in your neighborhood obviates the great problem of power loss in many communities - which can mean that no one has safe, drinkable water. One or several communal wells can be pumped by stand alone solar units, and even in hard times, water will be available.

It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs - everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars - even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don’t share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different - they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense - that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can’t afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.

We’re all going to build our lifeboats to some degree. But thinking in terms of how you can soften the blow by creating public resources, and public energy sources, means prioritizing community based resources that enable both personal conservation and collective security. Public resources provide a safety net, potentially a better, richer community, allow us to allocate scarce resources towards other things. They encourage inclusion, and keep the poor and the disabled, the elderly and the especially vulnerable from being deprived of their most basic needs. Since peak oil means that almost any of us could join the poor, that only makse sense.

Thinking in terms of public energy also enables us to do more, if our governments will not cooperate. In most cases, I suspect those public resources are going to have to come out of our own pockets. And that’s another argument for doingit - 10 of us can put that well pump on, 50 can arrange to have the physician’s assistant come to town one day a week, 75 can fund thevolunteer ambulance corp, and can probably continue to do so even if things get rough. But we probably will not be able to do these things if we’re stretching our personal and economic resources thin by trying to maintain our private consumption *and* build public resources - that is, if you are still trying to maintain thepersonal car, you may not be able to afford to help create the taxi service. While there are exceptions, I think it would behoove most of us, in most cases, to choose public resources over private, even at the expense of some inconvenience to ourselves, and when we think aboutthe importance of power, to distinguish between the two.

Sharon

2 Responses to “Public Energies, Private Energies”

  1. Eileenon 29 Dec 2006 at 11:29 pm

    Sharon, I’m really enjoying your stuff. I’ve been hanging around a bunch of peak oil sites and the level of nuttiness around roving bands of turnip-stealing maniacs and complete dissolution of civil society just bugs me. Your historical perspective seems much more like mine–people did survive without oil.

    And also your perspective on public vs private power makes a great deal of sense to me as well. I was just listening to my heat come on and thought that it really would be more efficient if my local pub {public house} had a fireplace or had the heat on and you spent most of the night there! I’m not sure that would be so bad…maybe not exactly what you meant about public, but still :)

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