What is energy good for?

A little background: simply put, energy performs work, which underlies all economic activity. From a human perspective, work (in the physics sense of the word) is relevant because it produces quality of life.

Technology is nothing more than a design for converting work into a product, which may or may not be associated with quality of life. Finally, the harnessing of concentrated energy — energy that, from a human perspective, produces more directed work output than total human work input (e.g. an EROEI of greater than 1) — facilitates the existence of complex society.

Allow me now to suggest a new term, borrowing (loosely) from Jacques Ellul: Technics. While “technology” converts work into any product, “technics” is a more specific term that I am using to denote the design process of converting work into human quality of life.

It seems axiomatic that the goal of humanity is to optimize quality of life. There are nearly endless debates that can begin here — how is quality of life defined, do we measure the mean, median, mode, or selfish-individual level, etc. — but I think that we can all agree that IF we can answer the question “what is quality of life,” then we all share the goal of optimizing it.

This leaves us with a simple equation:

Quality of Life = Work * Technics

In pursuing the goal of optimizing quality of life, there are two (non mutually-exclusive) options: improve the availability of work, or improve technics.

Option 1: Improving the Availability of Work

The availability of work is a function of our ability to harness concentrated energy. Concentrated energy takes many forms: food, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Civilization has become progressively more complex as the ability to harness increasingly concentrated energy sources has made more work available. Work is the building block of complex civilization.

Today, however, there is mounting evidence that diminishing marginal returns on our use of concentrated energy is decreasing the availability of work that can be applied toward creating quality of life. Aspects of this phenomena are often called “Peak Oil,” “Peak Coal,” or “Peak Energy.” A peaking in world energy production — without a concomitant reduction in human population — suggests that humanity will be challenged to maintain, let alone increase, quality of life in the future.

What about improvements in efficiency? There are two reasons why improvements in efficiency will not solve this problem. First, Jevon’s Paradox tells us that at least some of any improvement in efficiency will be self-negating, as improvements in efficiency free up some of the energy resource, decreasing demand, which lowers its price, which increases consumption.

Second, efficiency (per second law of thermodynamics) can never reach 100%, so there is a strict limit on how much we can improve efficiency. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the global average for efficiency for conversion of energy to work is 30%. If one accepts the second law of thermodynamics, then it is impossible to improve this number to 100%. It seems highly unlikely that this number will ever approach anything close to 100%, leaving us with well less than 70% to work with. While that may seem like a huge jump, consider this example: what if we could convert our automobile fleet from averaging 30 mpg to averaging 95 mpg? Would this eliminate the problem of peak energy?

Even IF automobiles were the only relevant energy users, this would only have a short term effect — much of the gain would be negated by Jevon’s Paradox, and even without Jevon’s Paradox it would, at best, triple the time that our resources last. Efficiency will not save us. That isn’t to say that improving efficiency has no place in solving our problems, but rather to put it in its correct place: efficiency buys us time to treat the problem.

What about “alternative” energy sources?

First of all, for any alternative energy source to be part of the solution (a true “alternative”), rather than part of the problem, it must have an EROEI of greater than 1. This will be highly controversial, but I’m not convinced that such a resource exists. I have written elsewhere about the difficulties of calculating EROEI, but it is my opinion that most EROEI numbers today are artificially high because of a “bootstrap effect” of using high-EROEI fossil fuels in process of bringing “alternative” energy to market. There do seem to be some renewable, “alternative” energy sources that have an EROEI greater than 1 — wind and hydro come to mind — but they face severe limitations.

Regardless of the exact EROEI of the various “alternatives” currently being proposed, there is little debate that these will provide an EROEI in excess of that once enjoyed in oil and gas production. If externalities such as climate change, topsoil depletion, and water use are accounted for, it seems (to me, at least) likely that our aggregate societal EROEI will continue to decline until it reaches some point of stasis slightly over 1. If I am right — and there is no place that I would rather be proven wrong — then “alternative” energy will not keep us living in our “happy motoring utopia,” and certainly won’t allow the rest of the world to rise to that standard of energy consumption (note that I’m not equating this directly with quality of life…).

Overall, when faced with these challenges in the areas of efficiency and declining EROEI of “alternatives,” it is my conclusion that the solution to our energy problems will not come from the “improving the availability of work” portion of the quality of life equation. Rather, I think that, to the extent that our energy problems are “solvable,” the solution will come from improving technics — improving how we use the energy that we do have to create quality of life. I think that reasonable people can disagree with my conclusion regarding efficiency and EROEI. The bottom line is, we just don’t know — anyone who claims to KNOW the answer is discussion theology, not science.

But regardless of the answer to the energy question, it seems very likely that there is ample room to improve our technics. IF we accept this latter proposition — that we can improve our utilization of energy to create quality of life — then doesn’t it make the most sense to focus our mitigation efforts there?

I have great confidence in the power of human ingenuity to solve our problems. However, when human ingenuity meets the laws of physics and thermodynamics, I don’t think they will bend to our will. Design of technics, on the other hand, seems to be an area where human ingenuity has unending room for advancement.

Option 2: Improving Technics, or “The Design Imperative”

My hypothesis is that our quality of life, both collectively and individually, is more dependent on how we use our energy than on how much of it we use. This hypothesis continues that we can better influence our quality of life through improving technics than through increasing energy consumption.

Povero o Rico?

Is this a picture of a “poor” fishing village or one of the world’s most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it’s both: the idyllic island of Panarea (just north of Sicily), taken while sailing away aboard the 38’ catamaran Fandango.

What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village? These are often held up as the ideals of quality of life, yet they are certainly not exemplars of conspicuous energy consumption. Sure, the visiting tourists may be expending copious quantities of energy, but the locals — the objects of our jealousy — are generally not. Powerdown concepts such as localized farming, vernacular architecture, and strong community ties are on display. These features are, generally, not the result of conscious design, but does that mean that they cannot be consciously designed? This seems to me to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving technics as a means of addressing quality of life after peak energy.

If we choose to pursue technics as a means of maintaining or improving our quality of life, how should we organize this pursuit? I have three suggestions: decentralized, open source, and vernacular.

All this may seem very abstract and theoretical…what does it actually mean? I’ve discussed the issue at length in several articles, which can be accessed via my Rhizome Theory Directory, but let me illustrate here by way of example.

Let’s start by taking discrete examples of places that produce a quality of life seemingly disproportionate to their energy consumption. There are countless examples, but because it has a long tradition in this area in American popular culture, I’ll choose the Tuscan village.

Decentralized, open source, and vernacular

How is the Tuscan village decentralized? Production is localized. Admittedly, everything isn’t local. Not by a long shot. But compared to American suburbia, a great percentage of food and building materials are produced and consumed in a highly local network. A high percentage of people garden and shop at local farmer’s markets.

How is the Tuscan village open source? Tuscan culture historically taps into a shared community pool of technics in recognition that a sustainable society is a non-zero-sum game. Most farming communities are this way — advice, knowledge, and innovation is shared, not guarded. Beyond a certain threshold of size and centralization, the motivation to protect and exploit intellectual property seems to take over (another argument for decentralization. There is no reason why we cannot share innovation in technics globally, while acting locally — in fact, the internet now truly makes this possible, leveraging our opportunity to use technics to improve quality of life.

How is the Tuscan village vernacular? You don’t see many “Colonial-Style” houses in Tuscany. Yet strangely, in Denver I’m surrounded by them. Why? They make no more sense in Denver than in Tuscany. The difference is that the Tuscans recognize (mostly) that locally-appropriate, locally-sourced architecture improves quality of life. The architecture is suited to their climate and culture, and the materials are available locally.

Same thing with their food — they celebrate what is available locally, and what is in season. Nearly every Tuscan with the space has a vegetable garden. And finally (though the pressures of globalization are challenging this), their culture is vernacular. They celebrate local festivals, local harvests, and don’t rely on manufactured, mass-marketed, and global trends for their culture nearly as much as disassociated suburbanites — their strong sense of community gives prominence to whatever “their” celebration is over what the global economy tells them it should be.

Improving technics is, of course, the flip side of the conservation coin. If our quality of life is dependent on levels of energy consumption, then conservation must decrease quality of life. For that reason, the conservation measures that work are those that are based on technics — ways of using energy more efficiently to achieve the same quality of life.

Low energy, high quality of life

All of these technics — localized food production, increased self-sufficiency, vernacular architecture, strong sense of community — seem to improve quality of life. Per David Hume, causation can never be proven, but my anecdotal experience tells me that the correlation between these factors and seemingly disproportionate quality of life to energy use is very high. High enough to infer causation, in my opinion.

These factors — borrowed from extant examples — are only the tip of the iceberg in the field of possible ways to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. There seem to be infinite possibilities — most of which do not have historical exemplars — for new and exciting technics. The resurgence and development of ideas such as Permaculture, Vernacular Architecture, and Slow Food seem to support the possibilities here.

This is what I’m calling the “Design Imperative”: a globally cooperative, open-source effort to create and continuously improve a library of technics to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. I’m quite aware that I haven’t presented any concrete solutions in this essay. Even the notion of focusing on technics, not energy availability, is not new — see Richard Heinberg’s “Powerdown,” the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, or Transition Town Totnes for just a few examples of pioneers in this area. I don’t lay claim to this idea — it must be open source, just like the solutions it may provide. What I do hope is that I have helped, in some small way, to convince people to consider this as a worthwhile method of addressing our energy crisis.

It seems unlikely that the “way of thinking” that got us into this crisis will also get us out. That old “way of thinking” is the same one that is currently trying to solve the energy crisis through efficiency and “alternatives.” The Design Imperative is the suggestion that we should focus instead on the conscious development of technics — a new way of thinking.