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The Last Viridian Note

Bruce Sterling, WorldChanging
Recent events have clearly established that the character of the times has changed. The Viridian Design Movement was founded in distant 1999. After the years transpiring – various disasters, wars, financial collapses and a major change in political tone – the world has become a different place.

It remains only to close the Viridian episode gracefully, and to conclude with a few meditative suggestions.

As I explained in the first Viridian speech, any design movement – social movements of any kind, really – should be designed with an explicit expiration date. The year 2012 would have been the extreme to which Viridian could have persisted. Since the course of history has grown quite jittery, this longer term was spared us.

Some Viridian principles can be lightly re-phrased, buffed-up and likely made of practical use in days to come. Others are period notions to be gently tossed into the cultural compost. I could try to describe which are which – but that’s a proper job for someone younger.

… Another major change came through my consumption habits. It pains me to see certain people still trying to live in hairshirt-green fashion – purportedly mindful, and thrifty and modest. I used to tolerate this eccentricity, but now that panicked bankers and venture capitalists are also trying to cling like leeches to every last shred of their wealth, I can finally see it as actively pernicious.

Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.

My personal relations to goods and services – especially goods – have been revolutionized since 1999. Let me try your patience by describing this change in some detail, because it really is a different mode of being in the world.

… What is “sustainability?” Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.

In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It’s not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.
(19 November 2008)
Compare to Sharon Astyk’s essay on Stuff. -BA

Finite Resources Explain the Financial Crisis

Gail Tverberg, The Oil Drum

Recently, two major actuarial organizations asked members to submit essays on the financial crisis. The only limitation was that the papers had to be very short–they should fit on two typewritten sheets of paper.

Since I have written in the past on the financial crisis, I took the opportunity to respond. This was my summary of the current financial situation, its connection to our limited resources, and what we need to do to solve the crisis. I never actually use the words “peak oil” and, in fact, the precise timing of peak oil is irrelevant. The issue is really the financial squeeze that occurs when resources starts to become expensive to deliver, and that doesn’t really require peak oil.

Our World Is Finite

We all know the world isn’t flat. Any of us would be laughed out of the room if we built a model with a flat earth as one of its major assumptions.

We also know that the world isn’t infinite. There are a finite number of atoms in the earth and its atmosphere. The ability of our atmosphere to absorb pollutants is limited. The ability of our soil to withstand repeated mistreatment is limited. The amount of our non-renewable resources is limited.

Fossil fuels, especially oil, are a particular problem. Even though the amount of resources seems huge, the cost of extraction (in terms of fossil fuel resources, man-hours, and fresh water) increases greatly after we have extracted the easy-to-extract oil, natural gas, and even coal. Substitutes (such as ethanol and solar voltaic) are expensive in terms of fossil fuel use, man-hours, and fresh water. It is also difficult to ramp up quantities to the level needed to substitute for fossil fuels.

Finite Resources but Unending Growth

In spite of the clear issue of a finite world, the financial community has taken as one of its central beliefs that Economic Growth is Good, and is in fact to be expected. A close corollary is that Leverage is Good. Our monetary system is very closely tied to debt, and would come to a screeching halt if lending stopped. Our banks and insurance companies depend on lending, with banks using lending as their primary source of revenue, and insurance companies using bonds for much of the asset side of their balance sheets.

How did we come to believe that never ending growth was possible? One way was a simple look backward. Growth has continued since the industrial revolution. There was a tie-in with energy resources all along. The industrial revolution brought coal to make creation of goods easier. We later added oil, natural gas, and uranium as additional energy sources. The world’s use of energy has ramped up over a long period, practically without interruption.
(20 November 2008)
Gail Tverberg has often before for Energy Bulletin. She is one of the clearest writers in the peak oil movement. -BA

Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion

Vaclav Smil, The American
… And now Al Gore is telling us that the United States can completely repower its electricity generation in a single decade! Gore has succumbed to what I call “Moore’s curse.” Moore’s Law describes a long-standing trend in computer processing power, observed by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, whereby a computer’s power doubles every year and a half. This led Gore to claim that since “the price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months, year after year,” something similar can happen with energy systems.

But the doubling of microprocessor performance every 18 months is an atypically rapid case of technical innovation. It does not represent—as the above examples of prime mover diffusion make clear—the norm of technical advances as far as new energy sources and new prime movers are concerned, and it completely ignores the massive infrastructural needs of new modes of electricity generation.

The historical verdict is unassailable: because of the requisite technical and infrastructural imperatives and because of numerous (and often entirely unforeseen) socio-economic adjustments, energy transitions in large economies and on a global scale are inherently protracted affairs. That is why, barring some extraordinary commitments and actions, none of the promises for greatly accelerated energy transitions will be realized, and during the next decade none of the new energy sources and prime movers will make a major difference by capturing 20 percent to 25 percent of its respective market. A world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable and, to be optimistic, our collective determination, commitment, and persistence could accelerate its arrival—but getting there will demand not only high cost but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will unfold across decades, not years.

Vaclav Smil is the author of Energy at the Crossroads and Energy in Nature and Society (MIT Press). He is Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.
(19 November 2008)
Commentary from E. Swanson at The Oil Drum’s Nov 19 DrumBeat:
I too found Vaclav Smil’s commentary to be rather poor.

Dr. Smil conflates facts about energy supply from many periods as if they are equal. He also ignores demand modification and conservation efforts. Comparing the wood to coal transition with what we are facing is silly, as there has also been a massive gain in engineering know-how during the 20th century. He also ignores the fact that hydro power is a renewable source of electricity when he lists renewables, thus understating the amount of renewables already on line.

He also ignores the impact of the Reagan administration’s destruction of the renewable energy R&D efforts, along with their decision not to renew the tax credits for solar energy. Coupled with the Saudi flooding of the oil market, which pushed the price of oil down to about $10 a barrel, these actions practically killed the solar energy industry, which has only recently begun to recover as oil prices have risen. And, he insists that the only source of solar PV will be from lands in the southwestern desert regions, which makes it difficult to supply the eastern half of the U.S. where the majority of the people live. He also ignores the fact that the investment in energy supply which has been made over many years will eventually need to be replaced as all of it will wear out, especially the thermal power generating plants fueled with fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

Looking at the early 1970’s, before the OPEC/Arab Oil Embargo, the growth rate in the U.S. electric demand/supply was about 7% a year. Had that rate of growth continued, the entire U.S. electric system would have been duplicated over the next 10 years. There were projections that this rate of growth would continue and that some 1000 new power plants would be required by the year 2000, many of them to be nukes. The reason for that rapid growth was cheap prices for energy and the addition of AC systems to the countries buildings. When the price of electricity increased, the rate of growth slowed considerably.