Feels Like I’m Dying…From that Old Used-to-Be

Sharon May 29th, 2007

“I got the blues…Won’t you save me?
I got the blues…as far as I can see.
I got the blues…Won’t you save me?
Seems like I’m dying, from that old, used-to-be.”
-Lyle Lovett

I tend to be an optimist, at least by the standards of peak oil activists (which isn’t very hard). By that I mean that I believe in individual action and I believe that we could overturn the system that we live within and make better choices. But I also think this is less likely than that we’ll do the wrong thing, and part of it is that our brains are trying to kill us (or at least our kids). That is, we’ve gotten into habits of thought so destructive and so automatic that we don’t even recognize their basic failures. And if we don’t recognize the failures in our own heads and overturn them, we’re in big trouble. One of those problems is that we can’t stop looking for a quick fix.

I liked this essay by James Kunstler quite a bit, and I recommend it to you, because he has a useful grasp of essentials,

” It only made me more nervous, because this longing for “solutions,” strikes me as a free-floating wish for magical rescue remedies, for techno-fixes that will allow us to make a hassle-free switch from fossil hydrocarbon power to something less likely to destroy the Earth’s ecosystems (and human civilization with it). And I think such a wish is, in itself, at the root of our problem — certainly at the bottom of our incapacity to think clearly about these things.

I said so, of course, which seemed to piss off a substantial number of my fellow festival attendees.”

I, like Kunstler, think that the phrasing of the call for “solutions” as “ways to keep things mostly the way they are” is completely mistaken. Trying to keep the cars going and growth capitalism up and running is a. futile and b. destructive. Not only will we be doing the wrong thing, but we don’t seem to grasp that none of these represents a real solution in any meaningful sense.

Ethanol, biodiesel, solar panels - all of these are tremendously fossil fuel intensive. We can’t make a solar panel without using a whole lot of silicone and metals that are mined, smelted, crafted, assembled, sold and transported using…fossil fuels. The day that we can create a solar panel made from cradle to grave with renewable energies, I’ll buy the notion that we’re all going to be running around in electric cars fed by solar panels.

Now when I say that, people start arguing that it is hypothetically possible that someday we’ll use bioplastics and mine metals using electrically powered machinery. And again, I point out, show me a case of having done it, having made even 5 solar panels that way, and I’ll buy it. Heck, I’ll write a free ad.

Because most people don’t grasp that solar panels, or wind generators or ethanol aren’t a magic bullet unless they represent a self-perpetuating system. Oil was nicely self perpetuating, at least for a good long time - you used oil based equipment to get oil out of the ground in a nice ration of energy returned over energy invested (EROEI) of 100-1. But we don’t have the infrastructure, or the grid system, or the renewables, or the tools, or in some cases the technology to make things like solar panels or wind generators entirely out of renewables. They take fossil fuels at 20-50 different spots along the ride. When you add up all the fossil fuels involved, the EROEI of most renewables is somewhere between 1 to 1 and 20-1, probably on the low side for most of them. That means that even to match our current energy needs, we’d need 5 times as much power generated from wind as coal and 50 times as much generated from solar as natural gas. Do you begin to grasp the scale of the problem?

And these alternative energies aren’t a permanent solution - it is true that a solar panel might last 20-30 years. It is also true that they might not, and that the batteries certainly won’t. That grid intertie that keeps you from having batteries - that uses lots of fossil fuels quite regularly and needs quite a lot of regular maintenence and other energy inputs. And even if your windmill lasts you two decades, unless we can make them again with renewables, that means that we’re just sticking the problem on our kids.

That is, let’s say we do a massive build out of windmills and solar panels, enough to keep our whole society going (never mind that we could never fund it or engineer it). We use up a huge amount of our remaining fossil reserves to keep everyone comfy and in their cars, and we go into massive debt to do it. Well, five years from now, all the solar panels need new batteries. But we don’t have any manufacturing plants that make batteries from solar panels. So we need to do it again, with fossil fuels, plus fix the solar panels that got broken and replace a few parts on the windmill. And all the metal, and the chemicals and the little pieces need to be made, mined, manufactured…with fossil fuels. And then five years later we have to do it again, and then a decade after that we have to do it on an even bigger scale - to replace all the worn out windmills and solar panels. And as we go along, supply constraints are increasing, and prices of fossil energies are rising. Capital costs go up, investment costs go up, and remember, since energy costs are way up, there may not be as much money around to invest.

Where is the energy and the money for all these fossil inputs going to come from in our nice, “renewable” society? In order to keep things going on renewables, we’d have to vastly *expand* our existing infrastructure - not only would we have to make enough windmills to keep the grid going, but also to run the electric cars, to power the mining equipment, to make bioplastics, and smelt aluminum, to manufacture titanium parts - all things that were done comparatively efficiently with oil and gas (because they are heat intensive) now must be done much less efficiently by electricity. So we’d have to build enough windmills not just to power things as they are, but to produce 3 times as much electricity - and rebuild the grid. This would costs trillions of dollars, tons of oil and natural gas…and in a few years, we’d have to do again.

Whenever I bring this up from people looking for techno solutions, they all tell me that eventually we’ll be able to make things from renewables, of course. Hmmm…of course. That is, we’re betting our kids lives on the hope that at some point renewables will become self-perpetuating, even though we have no idea how that will happen, that would require major, multiple large scale technical breakthroughs in many cases that might or might not happen, AND, we’re not willing to do it now, when we have energy to burn, lots of money and no crisis - instead, we’re going to bet the farm (and lives) on the fact that we’ll be able to do this 20 or 30 years into a depletion crisis with much less money, much less oil, much less availability in a society that we simply don’t know the shape of. That is, we’re going to stick the next generation with the problem, and hope it isn’t too serious. But if we can’t do it now, when we have lots of energy and lots of money and all the time in the world, the chances are excellent we won’t be able to do it.

“Hey kids, when you are poorer, more indebted, and energy costs are up at 250 bucks a barrel, guess what? The techno people want to offer you the chance to keep the society going. And if you can’t afford it, or get the energy to do it, well…tough. You can adapt then, even though every infrastructure adaptation will cost you more and require more scarce resources. What, you wanted to use your precious legacy of remaining fossil fuels for cancer treatment drugs? Tough - we used it to build batteries so we could have windmills. Oh, but you can’t have windmills or cancer drugs. But feel free to scavenge in our debris.”

So what we’re offering our kids is for them to take on the real burden. We, we are told need “transitional” solutions - ones that would enable poor rich us to be able to get comfy with a more sustainable life. We need our electric cars because we can’t be expected to change hard - that will be much, much easier for our children. Does anyone else see a problem here? Like the wacko, immoral reversal of what parents and grandparents are supposed to do for children - we’re supposed to be willing to work our behinds off and make sacrifices for the wellbeing of future generations. And what we’re really saying is fuck them, I don’t want it to be too hard for me. How did we get here? How did we turn into this?

Well that’s been the strategy for the last 50 years, right? Let’s stick the next generation with the problem and not worry our pretty little heads about whether it is sustainable. In the 1970s, when we became widely aware that the oil was going to run out, the people who were able to vote (not me, I was 5) decided to elect Ronald Reagan and go for denial, instead of starting to build renewable energy systems. So now it is my problem. And their parents, after World War II, decided to destroy the nation’s agricultural system, which meant that the chemicals and the pesticides became my parent’s problem, and my problem, and my kids’ problems. Wow, so that’s what an inheritance is!

I would suggest that the “find a short term solution solution” even if it were feasible (probably not) is morally bankrupt, ugly, inelegant and in part responsible that each generation’s children seem to want less to do with their parents than the last one. The notion that there’s a techno solution out there is probably wrong, but even if we could find one, Kunstler’s right, would we want it? Would we want to be people who said, “Let’s just put it off a little longer so that someone else has to deal?” Would we want to be the opposite of the generations who made huge personal sacrifices so their kids wouldn’t have to?

The thing is, there is a solution, and like most good solutions is really, really simple, and equally elegant. Stop being rich. Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Stop living like rich people. Right now you probably have a servant to wash your dishes, another to do your laundry, another to transport you to your destination. These aren’t people servants (somehow we’re convinced that paying other people is wrong), they are electrical or oil based. But you live like a lord in a castle. Your castle is probably huge by world standards. You probably have a whole bunch of servants. You take a lot of wealth from poorer people (ie, you buy cheap things manufactured by virtual slaves that are cheap because of that), also like lords in castles.

The answer is really simple. Get off your ass, and dump the castle, or at least move a few more people into it. Get rid of most of the servants. Start doing for yourself without using power. Stop buying anything you want and eating like a king. Live like a peasant. Wear peasant clothes. Do peasant work. Eat peasant food. Get comfortable with it.

The thing is, peasantry isn’t really that bad. Peasant clothes are sturdy and comfortable - peasants don’t have to wear pantyhose, get botox shots or wear a necktie much. Peasant work isn’t that bad - the fact is that 11th century serfs managed to feed themselves working just over half the year - the rest of the time was spent drinking beer. Ladakhis work hard 4 months a year, and spend the rest partying. The !Kung people can meet their needs in 3 hours a day. Once you get good peasantry, it really isn’t that hard. Peasant food is great - fancy restaurants in cities serve peasant food and call it “Trattoria” or “Bistro” fare.

The craving for a solution that will mean things don’t *REALLY* have to change in any deep way is not just a sign that we’re missing the point. Because even when confronted by the obvious and simple truth, we choose denial or simply not to give a flying fuck. I’m not always sure which one it is. I suppose if I have to choose one, I’d rather we were stupid than evil, but, as my husband once said, “no dichotomy where dualism will do!”

But I still want to believe that we can count without our fingers, figure out when things don’t make sense, take our heads out of collective asses, and stop killing our children with our old-used-to-be. It might even be true.

Sharon

40 Responses to “Feels Like I’m Dying…From that Old Used-to-Be”

  1. Danaon 29 May 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Oh dear.. I came back to link to your Monday post which I read a few minues ago, and now I can’t decide whether to link to this one or that one. Just found you and am fascinated, as I try to figure out how to work towards a genuinely environmentally responsible lifestyle (while living in the city and being a full time grad student…).

  2. Scoton 29 May 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Mining is accomplished in many many cases with electrically powered machinery. The mined materials are almost wholly transported using ‘diesel hybrid’ engines.

    The torque needed to move the massive materials in mines can only be accomplished with electric motors. Sometimes the motors get their electricity from diesel generators, but more often are directly tied to a power plant.

    This is more efficient than engines burning fossil fuels, and no engine could be made large enough to move what mine equipment are capable of moving.

    There are massive improvements in solar, away from silicone and at ever thinner layers increasing efficiency. The life of solar cells is greater than twenty or thirty years. The payback on the manufacture is amazing.

    So, not so dire in this area.

  3. Anonymouson 29 May 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Sharon–

    Thank you for this post. I am embarassed to admit that I had not thought about the battery issue in regard to solar power. I’ve always assumed that when I had enough money saved, I would go off the grid, and that would be that–one huge problem solved! Really, it’s with a kind of relief that I’m recognizing the limitations. One less (hugely expensive) thing that I have to save for!

    The idea of competing with everyone else in my area for heating/cooking wood fuel is daunting, though.

    -Connie

  4. jewishfarmeron 29 May 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Connie, I’m not opposed to renewable energies, so much as the idea that we can always have everything the way we have it now. I think small scale renewables make sense - the question is the larger one of whether we’ll all have private cars and every appliance known to man.

    Scot, no offense but the best figures I’ve ever seen not funded by a solar company are 4 or 5 to 1 EROEI, and I’ve seen several people make a compelling case for 1-1. I don’t actually have a strong opinion on which of these is accurate, but the EROEI on most renewables simply isn’t that impressive.

    Sharon

  5. Ailsaon 29 May 2007 at 11:11 pm

    DH & I have talked about what electric things we most want to keep, and we’ve managed to agree on a short list of a computer, the chest freezer, my CPAP, and the GameBoy. Sounds good, but he views neding/wanting to cut back this far as about as likely as our “When we win the lottery” scenarios, and is jonesing after an iPhone and a Wii, whereas I seriously want dairy goats, chickens, turkeys, an icebox, and a woodburning cookstove. (I’m still trying to decide whather oil lamps are sustainable or if I need to figure out some other way of lighting the house.)

  6. Nadaon 29 May 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Sharon,

    The peasant life is hard. Do not be mistaken! You can rarely BUY your way out of situations. The fat years and the lean years need to be managed. The peasant life is /was hard for people who had/have the skills that we no longer have.

    Having said that it is hard however doesn’t mean that it is unpleasant or not enjoyable. It is can also be very rewarding. For me, I’d rather dig in the garden than spend my time at a gym but I have a choice.

    I spoke to my uncle recently, (I’m one generation removed from European peasantry) and he remarked that he was in the peasant way. He expanded that he had never acclimatised to being a city dweller nor was he a fine gentleman. I responded that if he was a peasant that meant he was prepared for anything. He replied, “Damn right.”

    Enough said!

  7. Anonymouson 30 May 2007 at 12:40 am

    but…but…

    I want cars to go away. I want lawn equipment to die.

    But a peasant life expectancy was about 33 years. To paraphrase a common quote, if I was a peasant I’d be dead now.

    –mem

  8. Anonymouson 30 May 2007 at 12:41 am

    sorry, that link was supposed to go to wikipedia but didn’t format right:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

    –mem

  9. Anonymouson 30 May 2007 at 1:47 am

    Martha here - there’s an interesting article in Issue #64 of The Permaculture Activist (which issue focuses on the treatment of waste) speaking to the need to practice salvage in a meaningful way. Written by John Michael Greer, the article looks at waste as a society’s existing capital, and defines salvage as “…the act of converting some of a society’s existing capital back into raw materials, and running its economy on that…”

    Envision a post-apocalyptic future where we all regularly raid landfills and junkyards for parts. Greer uses as an example the ordinary car alternator, showing how it could be put to use as a salvageable piece of (relatively) low-tech equipment. Also, he mentions that solar power can boil water, and steam can make electricity, perhaps not as elegantly as “monomolecular layers of rare earth metals,” i.e. solar panels.

    I expect more thinking lower on the tech continuum will probably be what we’ll need to do as petroleum gets more scarce. While it is very clear scaling way, way back is non-negotiable, when it comes to power needs for life-or-death applications, I don’t want to pass death sentences before I make an effort to create solutions. (Example: When do I tell her she can’t keep her insulin cold, assuming she can get it at all?)

    While EROEI makes sense to look at when converting virgin resources to capital, Greer notes that it becomes less relevant in a salvage economy. Salvage will have its (fairly significant) limits; at some point, even discards run out. By itself it’s not likely to be a viable strategy, but it could be one leg of the stool.

    The most serious issue we all face is watching our lives minute-to-minute to observe what we need to let go of. It’s excruciating work, and not enough people are talking about either how hard it is or how to go about it. Many are saying we need to do it. The guy down the lane with the flat-screen and his wife with the store charge cards don’t even know about it yet. (But I digress.)

    Martha

  10. Kiashuon 30 May 2007 at 4:45 am

    I think that our friend jewishfarmer is getting a bit burned out on all this stuff. That’s the Activist’s Curse, to spend so much time bumping up against the brick wall of ignorance and indifference that they get bitter and angry.

    Jewishfarmer is ignoring her own advice to focus on what you can do as an individual or family, rather than the “big picture.” When you look at the “big picture”, it’s very easy to end up saying, “well, if only our leaders would do something, it’d be so much easier.” And of course it would. But they might, they might not, not much we can about that. Focusing on that side of it is just frustrating, because it becomes one or a few people against many.

    Our faith has a nice saying: “Pray as though everything depended on God, act as though everything depended on you.” For non-religious political activists, we might change this to, “be an activist as though everything depended on politicians, act as though everything depended on you.”

    Now, Kunstler is right that we’re not simply going to change fuel sources and live exactly the same lifestyle as we do now. Things will change. But they’re not going to change to a Third World peasant-level of existence. Changing all our power sources and our levels of consumption and the types of jobs people do that’s a big change. It’s a change like the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Looking at history, these changes caused rebellions and wars and a lot of suffering and drama - but a new balance was found, and things settled down.

    We’ll find a new balance, too. Comparing this coming revolution with the Industrial, it’s well to consider the Luddites. It’s often thought the Luddites wanted to destroy all machinery, but it’s not true. They just wanted the machinery to work with people, not instead of or against people. They saw change coming, and that it was inevitable, and they advised making sure that the change was as painless as possible - that people were put first.

    The world didn’t listen to them. Thought they were crazy. It’s the same thing happening here. Don’t stress it. The difference between us and the Luddites is that we have a lot more control over our own individual fates than did they. We can things to make the change less painful for ourselves - right in our own backyards.

    Oh, and peasant life expectancy was only 33 because of a high infant mortality rate. There’s a lot of people dying at 0-5, then very few dying until 50-60. That high infant mortality rate keeps the overall life expectancy low. If we all became subsistence farmers tomorrow, even without actual doctors around, our good understanding of hygiene and illness - like, washing your hands before delivering a baby - mean that we’d not have a high infant mortality. So we’d be looking at living till 50-60, at worst.

  11. jewishfarmeron 30 May 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Well, peasants of a particular society lived to be 33, but there are peasants all over the world who live quite a bit longer right now - the world still has plenty of peasants, and many of them have lifespans into their 70s. Lifespan isn’t an inherent factor of peasanthood.

    Martha, I’m not opposed to salvage - I think it is necessary. And I agree the EROEI of salvage isn’t that big a deal *provided it doesn’t require a lot of fossil energy* - in a sense, EROEI in a depleting world needs to be calculated in as multiple, seperate inputs. *Fossil* inputs would be one category. Sort-of-renewables like solar panels would be another. Real renewables like wood, human and animal power would be another.

    Some forms of salvage are very efficient others, like the recycling of plastic, terrifically inefficient. But yes, we can expect to derive a lot of what we need from salvage - and we should be doing it now.

    Kiashu, you are entitled to psychologize me in any
    way you like, but I think simply asserting “a new balance will be created” and that thus means that us rich folk won’t be like poor folk isn’t sufficient. You don’t make the leap to explaining *why* this new balance will be something other than a largely peasant society (and since all societies in all of human history since the invention of agriculture except this one, and very, very recently,
    are largely peasant societies, that’s an interesting case - or are you just saying *we* won’t be peasants?)

    I actually didn’t claim that history would inevitably lead us to peasantry - I think we should volunteer. And yes,
    I agree, our lives won’t be exactly like third world peasants (actually, there are first world peasants, and our lives might look more like theirs -”peasant” does not mean “third world” - every society has peasants.), but that doesn’t mean that the solution is any less the removal of our slaves and our wealth.

    A world with almost 7 billion people on it simply can’t afford rich people - there aren’t enough resources for just reallocation. I assume all of you are familiar with what a fair share looks like -you’ve looked at the ecological footprint and have some grasp of what a 4 acre life looks like. It is true that history may shake things out in such a way as to leave some of us rich - to find a new balance in which we can continue being priveleged. But I don’t think that’s moral. As Rabbi Akiva claimed, “Poverty is as becoming to the nation of Israel as a red ribbon against the neck of a white heifer.”

    I think the word peasant comes with hairy associations for many people. I would recommend that people read Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s _The Subsistence Perspective_ and Teodor Shanin on contemporary peasant societies and peasant economics. I think a lot of what we think we know about being peasants is wrong.

    Sharon

  12. alexon 30 May 2007 at 1:28 pm

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  13. RASon 30 May 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you, Sharon. That was one of your best articles yet. For what its worth, while I admittedly don’t know you, I don’t see you as either bitter or burned out, but as facing the situation with honesty, opneness, and clarity. Which is more than can be said for most people. Including myself, to some extent. I still have the urge to bury my head in the sand and go buy and IPOD. (Okay the IPOD thing was a joke, but you get the picture.)

    The word “peasant” has a lot of bad connotations in this society. This is largely due to our cultural brainwashing that says poor is bad and rich is good. And also, we have these false ideas of what peasants are and were (which were of course, provided to us courtest of the corporate state) that says that all peasants everywhere do and have always spent 12 and 13 hour days doing hard physical labor, never have time off or enjoy themselves, and die at 19 of malnutrition while wearing rags. And of course, that they are constantly exploited by the ruling elites.

    Hey wait a sec -that’s what the corporate predators are doing to the peasants in the 3rd world right now. Hmm, what a coincidence!

  14. Annetteon 30 May 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Wow, this sounds like many of my journal entries over the last 4 years - I’ve even written an apology to my future grandchildren for not doing enough soon enough to try to stop these converging catastrophes that they’ll be left with.

    Bitter and burned-out? Yeah, I probably am - but at least I go on trying to find ways to work for a better world for future generations.

    “Stop living like rich people” pretty well sums it all up. I agree, its immoral to take more than our fair share. To steal from poor people around the world is wrong, to steal from our own children and grandchildren is both wrong and insane. And I think thats what bothers me the most - the level of insanity displayed in the widespread denial of the need to make the hard changes.

  15. Kiashuon 30 May 2007 at 11:47 pm

    I did not mean to psychoanalyse jewishfarmer, I just note that the trend of posts over the last month or two has become less optimistic and more despairing and extreme in tone. It looks bitter and burned-out.

    As to being peasants, well, it depends on what you call “peasants.” In this discussion, people have mixed up their definitions, some talking about modern Frenchmen living in the countryside, others about Kalahari Bushmen - those are very different lifestyles.

    The traditional meaning of “peasant” is a person whose entire working life is spent in gaining a subsistence living from the land; they have no other paid profession, and while in good years they get a surplus which they can sell, in bad years they may starve. This kind of peasant has nothing spare for electricity, education, etc.

    Do I think the entire world is going to become peasants because the oil, copper, etc run short? No. I see the world as moving towards something more like Cuba is today - most people are involved in food production part-time, but few people depend entirely on what they grow themselves to be able to eat, and most adults have some other job which provides some cash. Almost everyone has electricity, and access to electronics, though not necessarily in their own home. Medicine is good.

    The difference between Cuba and the way we’ll go is that we’ll use a mixture of wind/solar, and ethanol - at a Cuban (not American or Australian) level of burnable fuel consumption, ethanol will be sustainable.

    Our lifestyles will certainly drop a huge amount in consumption and material goods. But I don’t think they’ll drop into true peasant poverty.

    As to the accusation that I am indifferent to this because I think “we” will be alright, well… I think that before we go to this Cuba With Renewables level, there’ll be a lot of chaos and a eriod of adjustment. Some countries are relatively well-placed to adjust to things. I think Australia and the United States are very badly-placed to adjust to things. We simply don’t have the skills for it. I think we’re going to suffer a lot. But the world will find a balance, and that balance will look more like Cuba than Bangladesh.

  16. Anonymouson 31 May 2007 at 2:47 am

    Sharon,

    Thanks for all the work you do for all of us!

    Your recent post “Feels like I’m dying” was great. I agree with almost all you wrote and what Kunstler said too. Technology will not save us!

    The information you shared about solar energy is over a decade old. Solar power systems now have an energy payback, on average, of 4 years. I believe this translates into an EROEI of about 8:1, assuming a solar panel life of 30 years. Later this year two solar module plants will open - one in CA and one in Germany - that will manufacture (in volume – not prototypes) solar cells with an energy payback of less than six months – an EROEI of over 60:1.

    Many myths about solar energy systems are tossed about in the energy debate. To address these myths, the Department of Energy has set aside space on its website to discuss these myths. You may want to check out the myths, before you comment further on the EROEI of solar panels. See: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/myths.html

    Myth number 6 is related to some of the information you shared:

    Myth 6: PV is too expensive and will never compete with “the big boys” of power generation. Besides, you can never get the energy out that it takes to produce the system.
    The cost of producing PV modules, in constant dollars, has fallen from as much as $50 per peak watt in 1980 to as little as $3 per peak watt today. This causes PV electricity costs to drop 15¢-25¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh), which is competitive in many applications.

    In the California market, where state incentives and net metering are in place, PV electricity prices are dipping below 11¢/kWh, on par with some utility-delivered power. Moreover, according to the U.S. PV Industry Roadmap, solar electricity will continue this trend and become competitive by 2010 for most domestic markets.

    The energy payback period is also dropping rapidly. For example, it takes today’s typical crystalline silicon module about 4 years to generate more energy than went into making the module in the first place. The next generation of silicon modules, which will employ a different grade of silicon and use thinner layers of semiconductor material, will have an energy payback of about 2 years. And thin-film modules will soon bring the payback down to one year or less. This means that these modules will produce “free” and clean energy for the remaining 29 years of their expected life.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Solar electric energy is not perfect! Nothing is. But soar electric energy is not a dead end. It can be a lifeboat for us, but only after we squeeze every bit of energy possible out of our lifestyles.

    I hope this information is useful for you. I have access to more information from peer reviewed journals and other sources that support what the DOE reports, but I don’t want to make this a long post.

    Ed

  17. Oz Cynicon 31 May 2007 at 9:15 am

    Yup, you’re right. Merry Old England was an apt description, and the peasants a whole lot less downtrodden in the Middle Ages (that happened later, and they didn’t put up with it for too long) than we in modern times suppose. As both JRR Tolkien and TA Shippey noted: “in a free Society, orders give way to discretion. There are other roads to freedom, than the perverse [modern] ideas…machine masters end up machine minders. The indispensable servant becomes indistinguishable from a master.”

    One thing to note - the poster who put about the bit about life expectancy - listen up: that’s AVERAGE life expectancy. The average is exactly the 50% mark. That means that 1/2 of people died before their 33rd birthday and 1/2 lived beyond that.

    MOST people in the Middle Ages died before their 5th birthday, of childhood diseases. So if you lived to 10 years old, then you would likely live until 60, perhaps 70 and 80 was not unknown. Look to the Third World today - the massive number of deaths in childhood drives the average life expectancy down, but there’s plenty of 80 and 90 year olds who are very much alive.

    The best lifestyle seems to be that of the Tarahumara Indians in NE Mexico. They are dirt poor, but there’s never been a murder and never been a rape. No cops, no tax, no traffic, no traffic lights. They are a patriarchal tribe, where the guys are so shy around their own wives, the wives have to get their husbands drunk in order for the girls to get pregnant.

    While they have a dirt-poor existence, they mostly seem to be long-lived.

  18. Jon Rynnon 31 May 2007 at 3:13 pm

    On manufacturing –

    I wanted to suggest a few points:

    1) There is a big difference between the needs of a society that has cars and one that does not. I we design a society without cars, with walkable town and city centers, with as many streetcars as possible, the energy/resources needs of the society go way, way down. So I think it is important to distinguish between what we can do as a society if one or the other condition applies. If getting rid of cars solves a good chunk of the problem, than as I’m sure you will agree, we will all be better off anyway.

    2) You are correct, in my opinion, to note the reproductive nature of our industrial system — actually, of all human production systems, in my opinion. It took me an entire disseration to fully explain this point, and you can look here for some articles and pieces of the dissertation concerning this, but let me say that the only ethically decent reason to use fossil fuels is exactly to construct a new, sustainable economy that can then reproduce itself, sustainably. So, maybe the electricity will occassionally be spotty — again, there are many shades between what we have now and a sustainable future, we don’t have to have everything working as it is now. I recently argued that we need a positive vision of the future, and as you have argued, it is possible to paint a picture of a fuel-free future that is better than the one we have now.

    3) I think we need to discuss the nature and use of manufacturing more, as you have started to do here. We all use manufactured goods, and we need to understand how to make things without wrecking the environment. If we get rid of cars, by the way, we will have a huge supply of metal and other materials from the discarded cars — seriously! And from the suburban homes that are no longer usable.

    Keep up the good work, I don’t know how you do it with four kids, since I’m so busy with two,

    – Jon Rynn

  19. Philon 31 May 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Sharon, you pipped me at the post there. I was about to blog something very similar. In my case, I was provoked by this statement in the British Government’s consultation on Nuclear Power which was published last week:

    “Our aim should be to continue to raise living standards and the quality of life by growing our economy, while at the same time cutting waste and using every unit of energy as efficiently as possible. But based on existing strategies to reduce energy demand, the IEA predict global energy consumption is likely to grow by about 50% by 2030. Therefore we will also need to transform the way we produce the energy we need for light, heat and mobility.”

    Note how continuing “growth” is implied to be a need.

    Arrrrgh!!!

  20. Anonymouson 31 May 2007 at 11:25 pm

    I find y’all remarkably selective in your assumptions.

    If you want everyone to be peasants, you cannot expect to maintain current health and safety standards. You can dismiss childhood mortality of prior years because we can wash our hands. But you think y’all are gonna have all your vaccinations? Your kids won’t be injured in farm accidents? Genetic conditions that are routinely handled now come back full bore. Reliable birth control and abortion dramatically reduced.

    I hope we can have it both ways in the future: child survival and the joys of peasantry. But I don’t see how.

    –mem

  21. jewishfarmeron 31 May 2007 at 11:44 pm

    Mem, this is a more complex subject than I can work with in the comments section, but keeping a very small, basic medical infrastructure going isn’t at all out of the question, IMHO (and it is something I’m devoting a lot of research time to).

    I think realistically, we could have reliable birth control, at least particular kinds of it, and abortion is one of those medical procedures that can be handled with very low levels of technology, as can certain kinds of sterilization.

    Certain basic medications - pain relievers, even some antibiotics (ones we don’t usually use now) and even a few vaccinations could be produced in urban centers with very low (19th century) levels of input and technology.

    A peasant society doesn’t mean no one else does anything other than work on the land - that has never been true in any culture. It does mean that the vast majority of people do, but even 11th century England had priests, actors, smiths, soldiers, herbalists, etc…

    Kerala is a peasant society with low infant mortality rates and longevity in the late 60s, for example.

    It is also worth noting what people *won’t* die of in a peasant society. 1 million people a year die of car accidents world wide, many of them children and young adults. 1/3 of all people in the first world over 40 have some lifestyle disease - high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes. Quite a lot of them die from it.

    If we reduce our level of medical care that much, we will lose some children to things that would have been preventable, there is no question. We could, however, alter the larger situation so that health care is no longer rationed by price - so that everyone has at least the same basic minimums, world wide. The price of a rich society is the enormous disparities. This isn’t an easy subject for me - I’m a mother too -but I think there’s something much fairer in all of us bearing similar risks, rather than the mothers in some countries losing baby after baby while we get to keep ours.

    Sharon

  22. Anonymouson 01 Jun 2007 at 12:52 am

    Damn, the link worked perfectly in preview. It was supposed to say that even the Amish use lights and fans to keep their kids alive.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18781321/

    I have studied history. I have studied causes of death pre-oil. It even used to be a hobby of mine as a kid to research gravestones. I still love to walk through old cemetaries and read the stones.

    Ah, I had to look up Kerala (a link would be nice, but I’m not going to try). Wikipedia says this (and I know wiki isn’t always trustworthy, but I’m not seeing anyone else’s links either):

    However, Kerala’s suicide, alcoholism, and unemployment rates rank among India’s highest.

    and

    This [lack of major corporations and industry] is mitigated by remittances sent home by overseas Keralites, which contributes around 20% of state GDP

    and

    However, Kerala’s morbidity rate is higher than that of any other Indian state — 118 (rural Keralites) and 88 (urban) per 1,000 people. The corresponding all India figures are 55 and 54 per 1,000, respectively

    Sounds great.

    –mem

  23. jewishfarmeron 01 Jun 2007 at 3:00 am

    Mem, I didn’t make the claim that life in Kerala was perfect. I made the claim that the average Keralan lifespan was in its late 60s (actually, I was wrong, it is 70.6), which it is you can verify this in the WHO’s _Sustainability Assessment_ ed Gibson, Hassan etc… Sorry, I don’t have a link for your, just books.

    Keralans have 100 percent literacy (better than ours), an average lifespan of 70, of 18 per 1000. Compare it to India’s 58 year lifespan, its 50% literacy rate, its 40 TFR.

    As Bill McKibben documents in _Hope, Human and Wild_, Kerala has a physical quality of life assessment score (made by both its inhabitants assessments and its empirical data) of 88 - above all of Africa, South Korea and Taiwan.

    It is true that some of its income (10% according to the WHO) derives from foreign remittences - given that Kerala has 1/*70*th of the income that Americans have, a little money goes a long way. We should note that 13% of a the American GDP derives from foreign investments, according to my latest issue of _The Economist_. Of course, 13% of the American GDP is many, many, many billions more dollars than Kerala gets from foreign remittance.

    India’s suicide rate, btw, is virtually the same as the US’s - Kerala may have one of the highest suicide rates in India, but thus would be roughly comparable to urban Cleveland, which has one of the highest in the US. And, btw, those folks in Cleveland have a lower literacy rate, a lower general assessment of happiness and a very slightly *lower* average lifespan and *higher* infant mortality rate. Yup, peasant life is looking worse all the time - when it makes you live like people in Cleveland. All statistics for Cleveland come from _For Hunger Proof Cities_.

    I can’t find any reliable statistics for Keralan alcoholism at all, so I can’t answer you there, although India as a whole seems to have a slightly lower rate than the US as a whole. But I can’t tell you how it compares to Cleveland. But even being one of the higher rates of alcoholism means that it is, again, likely on par with quite a few regions of the US. The problem with statistics is that they can be presented in such a misleading way.

    I’m not claiming that a return to a basically peasant life wouldn’t come with some real hardships - it is one thing to suggest we might have to live like third world peasants, but lord knows, none of us would want to have to live like poor people in America!

    Sharon

  24. Anonymouson 01 Jun 2007 at 4:50 am

    Ok. I thought you said that peasant life was low workload, comfy clothes, and trattoria dishes.

    I missed the hardship part.

    –mem

  25. jewishfarmeron 01 Jun 2007 at 1:48 pm

    And in many cases, all those things are true. But it is also true that when the richest, most priveleged people on earth give up a little of their wealth and privelege, they are likely to see some declines - the question is how serious the declines are. And saying that it is kind of like being a poor person in the US is very different than saying “Oh, this means going back to medieval lifespans.”

    Again, ask the Keralans - they like their lives better than we do. On most happiness scales, they outrank us.

    Sharon

  26. jewishfarmeron 01 Jun 2007 at 1:51 pm

    I should add that I thought it was self-evident that every life has its hardships. Don’t they? Even when we stick a lot of our hardships off on poorer people, we still come with car accidents, lifestyle diseases, suicide rates similar to many poor, war-torn nations, soil and water contamination, the highest rates of mental illness among children on earth…

    I didn’t realize that by saying peasant life wasn’t bad that I was suggesting it was utopia, any more than I assume you are suggesting the US is a utopia.

    Sharon

  27. RASon 01 Jun 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Hey Sharon,
    Here’s a fascinating new look at the “toxic cutlure” of our country today.
    http://www.adbusters.org/metas/psycho/prozacspotlight/toxicculturetour/index.htm
    -Rebecca

  28. Jon Rynnon 01 Jun 2007 at 3:24 pm

    So, back to blacksmiths?

    So, I assume if we’re talking about peasant-ish economy, we’re talking about a tool-making system based on blacksmithing,no? Let’s assume no steel? One of the reasons we got into this fossil-fuel mess was because the English (and others) chopped down many of their forests, one of the reasons being to create the energy for blacksmithing. So, could we still have wind/solar to generate electricity instead, to get the energy for blacksmithing? (if you can find it in a library, look at Diderot’s “encyclopedia” on technology of the 18th century, way beyond most American’s technical skills).

    Peasants used and continue to use iron-based tools, it’s an essential part of their living, in fact, I would hazard a guess that without metal-based tools most of them would starve. So it seems to me that some basic industrial system is required — some level of machine tools, ability to make windmills, even maybe semiconductors? Although if we go there, we need very sophisticated glass-making to make the semiconductors, which requires very precise machine tools. This could all be done in an environmentally benign way, by the way.

    So here’s the moral of the story: even peasants did and do need a manufacturing infrastructure.

  29. Anonymouson 01 Jun 2007 at 4:38 pm

    No, I’m not suggesting the US is utopia at all. Never said anything of the sort. I’m suggesting that saying peasantry will be happy-happy-joy-joy is as misleading as saying “technology will save us”. And that you can’t pick the good bits of peasantry and ignore the bad ones. Like a cafeteria Catholic.

    I’m walking the walk. I’m at or near 80% reduction in several of your focus areas. But that’s only because I have the luxury of doing it due to a decent location and employment to do so. It isn’t always easy, cheap, and it doesn’t come with shortcuts.

    And I’m thinking about my support network that wouldn’t exist if the fast ambulance and modern medicine weren’t in place. Several of them would already be dead. That’s just a fact. And that’s the way it used to be.

    –mem

  30. Anonymouson 01 Jun 2007 at 10:34 pm

    We have spent the last three years gradually changing ourselves from consumers to producer/consumers. We still have one foot in each world.

    It does feel like peasantry in that we are dead tired at times, except that the relationship we have developed with nature results in an overall feeling of love and that we are doing out of love and not obligation.

    We have gone backwards in small iterative steps: for example learning how to make soap, learning how to make soap with local ingredients, learning how to grow those ingredients(lard/safflower oil),learning how to make soap with home grown ingredients and less energy(not there yet); replacing natural gas with corn,wood and grain burners, etc., etc.

    What the process required for us was not only serious researching and personal learning, but also several seasons of real world mistakes to allow a workable “peasant” approach to evolve.(for the experiential among us: plant a garden and try and live off it the first year to see what I mean)

    Here is what I wonder about:

    We personally have had the luxury of time, resources, information, mechanical/technical saavy and deep motivation…. and it is still a daily adventure for us.

    Does anyone have thoughts on how our culture can plan and create a transition path for people once they run out of time and can’t do the iterative step approach?

    The current popular interests in food security, and upcoming price inflation seem to provide us an opportunity to discuss these ideas with people who have never been the least receptive before.

    What I don’t have a concept of is, what can we offer these people as a pathway? They will not be able to downshift from gated community to gated pasture in one step.

    I would greatly appreciate hearing your ideas. Thanks!

  31. daveon 02 Jun 2007 at 12:33 am

    I take it it’s the wishing for solutions not the seeking that’s so annoying. Reducing our convenience lifestyle’s within everyone’s ability, while far fewer can find the technical solutions perhaps eventually worthy of your writing an ad. Presumably you’re not arguing those with the talent to perhaps create solutions shouldn’t try, even if it does mean benefitting conscientious and non-conscientious alike.

    The peasant argument strikes me as somewhat circular. If a peasant lifestyle is pleasant, with much of the world happier for it, those living the supposedly rich lifestyle are stealing nothing at all, either from the “poor”, or from future generations. Such a program would be problematic for those in cities, now said to be over half the world’s population. Massive relocation and re-education would be needed. Such a program’s been tried before, of course, but the Chinese haven’t been thanking Mao for it lately.

    Driving a cultural change towards simplicity makes a lot of sense to me personally, and in our popular culture there exists signs of longing for it. Finding the “Lamaze” method for this rebirth, making it as easy and as painless as possible doesn’t seem such an unworthy goal for an engineer.

    Thank you for another thought provoking piece.

  32. jewishfarmeron 03 Jun 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Dave, I’m not clear on how you think my argument is circular. Can you clarify? That is, even if peasants are deriving a happy life from it, their happiness is still impinged upon by a heated up planet, poison in their water, globalization, etc.. But that’s presumably not what you mean. Sorry I’m not following.

    Mem, I too know people who are alive because of modern medicine. I also know people (and most of us do) who died because of lifestyle diseases or car accidents. Anecdotal evidence is sort of irrelevant here - that’s why rely on things like lifespans, which give us a real sense of how much those things *matter* - and it is worth noting that in a peasant society spending 1/70th of what we do on health care, without ambulances and industrial medicine, and with a tiny amount of fossil fueled medical infrastructure, people are achieving lifespans similar to our own.

    The value of this sort of thing is that it gives us a chance to place things like ambulances and their consequences in real perspective - how much actual value do they provide. And the answer is some - but not as much as we intuitively try to claim.

    Anonymous (last one - please sign a name or nickname or something if you don’t log in - it seems so rude to refer to people as “Anonymous #7), that, of course, is the big question, isn’t it. Some of my emphasis on low technology, low intervention solutions has been because I think that we need solutions that can be administered fairly rapidly, even if some kind of collapse preceeds our readiness. I do think the local food movement is a tremendous opportunity for us to get that basic need structured into our community.

    This is a question that deserves a longer answer - I’ll try and write about it sooner, because it is important.

    Sharon

  33. Daveon 03 Jun 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    The circular bit refers to the argument of first we’re stealing energy from the future, burdening our children with a low energy lifestyle, and then stating the low energy lifestyle is preferred anyway. In short, this begs the question of why act now if things will naturally progress in this direction, which I know from reading your blog faithfully for the past six months is not your point.

    My personal desire for solutions comes from seeing a tragedy coming if none are found. Our access to cheap energy has multiplied our ability to produce food, standing Malthus on his head, but only for the moment. The supersized population already exists, and even with no growth a decay in food production correlating with a decay in available energy frightens me. Local food movements, which I personally support for a number of reasons, are only practicable where large amounts of arable land are available in appropriate ratio to the population. Unfortunately, we’ve long since passed this ratio in many poorer regions of the world.

    In the main, I think we agree a focus on solutions to maintain creature comforts misses the point. We need to act to avert a real tragedy. What’s unclear to me is whether we agree there’s also a moral imperative to seek solutions whereever we may find them, whether it be through personal actions or driving new technologies.

  34. Anonymouson 03 Jun 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Well, I tried lifespan data–from history and from present day native groups (see wikipedia). But only your example of lifespan data counts–Kerala. That lovely coastal location without cold weather, which we are to equate with Cleveland for some reason. And you are allowed to subtract infant and child mortality, which I argue would be higher.

    I thought it might bring it closer to others if they thought about people in their circle who wouldn’t be alive now if we were living the charming peasant lifestyle. My sister fell off her bike and cracked her head. That could happen without oil. My niece was born with a hole in heart–a congenital defect. That could happen without oil. Those (probable) deaths have to count in the equation.

    Since only some data counts, and anecdotal isn’t useful for the discussion, I’ll concede. We’ll all be delightfully blissful peasants with full life spans.

    –mem

  35. jewishfarmeron 03 Jun 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Mem, lifespan data includes infant and child mortality - period.

    All I’m noting is that we all know people who would die without X technology - and people who die *because* of X technology. It does personalize it to say that - I know someone in a wheelchair because she was hit by an ambulance - clearly a victim of that technology we need so badly. But again, that’s anecdotal, and not all that relevant.

    That’s why the evidence that you can have a low energy society and high mortality is relevant. It has nothing to do with something being perfect - all along I’ve simply been arguing that we can achieve high lifespans and high quality of life in a largely agrarian society. Nothing more than that.

    As for the relevance to Cleveland - the whole point is *WITH* those ambulances people in Cleveland still live shorter lives of lower quality than people in Kerala - that is, it isn’t the ambulances that make the major statistical differences - if they did, people in inner city Cleveland would have the advantage. I don’t think the climate really has that much to do with it - cold climates get off easy in the endemic disease department.

    Anyway, you’ll have your opinion, I’ll have mine.

    Sharon

  36. jewishfarmeron 03 Jun 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Dave, the reason conserving fossil fuels is necessary is because *some* infrastructure is necessary, and if we can’t make it with renewable energies, or replace most of our renewables that way, we’ll be better off if we leave some fossil fuels for future generations to make the occasional battery or antibiotic with. Or, for that matter, transport local foods from land-rich area to a population rich one.

    The corrollary of this post, which I’ll write about in the future is that our needs for some measure of fossil fuels are unlikely to be reduced to 0 very quickly - the only hope is to reduce them absolutely as far as we can, and conserve for the future.

    Sharon

  37. Daveon 03 Jun 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Hi Sharon, as usual, I’ll look forward to your post on why we’re unlikely to drive fossil fuel usage to zero in the near future. I agree wholeheartedly, precisely for the reasons implied by your mention of needed infrastructure.

    I sense, too, we’re in essential agreement of the worthiness of pursuing technical solutions, or we’ll never achieve the desired zero usage of fossil fuel. Conservation alone seems most unlikely to avert the catastrophe in front of us, striking me as worthy but also too little, too late to be the answer in and of itself.

    While not technical in perhaps its truest sense, a revision of the current socioeconomic system to something other than the inherently expansionist globalization of the current system seems necessary. I do not mean to drift too far off subject, but I’d suggest technology plays a role in how the earth’s resources are equitably distributed as well.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  38. jewishfarmeron 04 Jun 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Dave, I’m not opposed to technological innovation, but often note Jared Diamond’s comment that he can’t think of a single technology that hasn’t created at least as many problems as it solved. I’m not sure that’s absolutely correct, but over all, I tend to think that the search for ever “higher” technological solutions and the rejection of intermediate tech suggests something misplaced.

    I agree on changing the socioeconomic system and the reduction of inequity, but I personally would think of them as “technologies” simply because of the burden that word bears.

    Sharon

  39. Anonymouson 05 Jun 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I feel we can blind ourselves from seeing valuable/atypical options if we leave unvetted assumptions in our thought processes.

    Assuming that we cannot support our current population unless we engage in petroleum intensive agriculture; or that we cannot switch to other forms of energy fairly quickly; or that there is no such thing as free energy, are really only beliefs and not facts. Beliefs that can prevent us even examining various lines of thoughts if we accept them unchallenged. (what can we prove is true and what are we assuming?)

    For example, we have a new power plant running on turkey manure. http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/199905/17_herzogk_turkeys-m/
    Rather than create massive pools of toxic manure which are insured and managed at the farmers expense, we get energy from refuse.

    The refuse from ethanol production makes wonderful high protein animal feed or pellets for heating. We may not be able to make enough biodeisel for cars out of used fryer oil or other products, but we could run the trains on biodesiel or barges.

    no matter what.. conservation has got to become a popular issue. (How do we motivate…?)

    When the experts tell us we can’t make this transition in only 10-15 years, it means we need to find new experts, since we don’t have ten years.

    Just an opinion, but I feel it would help to step back and debug the flawed thinking that got us here, before we start creating the new.

    signed: pheasant-peasant

  40. Anonymouson 16 Jun 2007 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Sharon and others,

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I just finished Eric Bende’s book _Better Off_ which is a thoughtful examination of the question of just how much technology is needed to improve quality of life, working conditions, community cohesion, etc., and just when it becomes detrimental. It’s a practical consideration, too, since he and his wife spent a year and a half in a strict (e.g. motor-less) off-shot of the Amish community (farming, having a child, making a living, building community, etc.) and then tried to bring his insights into the “English” world and to create a balanced, sustainable, low-tech/high-happiness way of life out in world. You might enjoy it.

    -E

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