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Closing the circle

A couple of weeks ago, Energy Bulletin revisited some predictions made in 2000 by Amory Lovins, then as now one of the most vocal proponents of technological solutions to the crisis of industrial society. Under prodding by energy analyst Steve Andrews, Lovins insisted among other things that by the year 2010, hybrid and fuel cell cars would account for between half and two thirds of the cars on the road in the United States.

Lovins was completely wrong, as we now know – hybrid cars account for maybe 5% of the current US automobile fleet, and you can look through every automobile showroom in North America for a car powered by fuel cells and not find one – and it’s to Andrews’ credit that he pointed this out to Lovins at the time. What makes Lovins’ failed prediction all the more fascinating is that there was never any significant chance that it would pan out, for reasons as predictable as they were pragmatic. Hybrid cars may cost less to operate but they’re much more expensive to build than ordinary cars; fuel cell cars, while they could probably have been made for a more competitive price, could only compete in any other way if somebody had invested the trillions of dollars in infrastructure to provide them with their hydrogen fuel. In both cases economics made it impossible for either kind of car to account for more than a token fraction of the US car fleet by this year, and it makes their chances of being much more popular by 2020, or 2030, or any subsequent year not much better.

Those specific reasons can be usefully subordinated to a more general point, which is that airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is not a useful response to an imminent crisis in the real world. This is a point worth keeping in mind, because airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is flying thick and fast just now, especially but not only in the peak oil scene. Mention that industrial society is in deep trouble as a result of its total dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels, in particular, and you can count on a flurry of claims that Bussard reactors, or algal biodiesel, or fourth generation fission plants, or whatever the currently popular deus ex machina happens to be, will inevitably show up in time and save the day.

One of the things that has to be grasped to make sense of our predicament is that this isn’t going to happen. Some of the reasons that it’s not going to happen differ from case to case, though all of the examples I’ve just given happen to share the common difficulty of crippling problems with net energy. Any attempt at a large-scale solution at this point in the curve of decline faces another predictable problem, though, which was discussed back in 1973 in The Limits to Growth: once industrial civilization runs up against hard planetary limits, as it now has, the surplus of resources that might have permitted a large-scale solution are already fully committed to meeting existing urgent needs, and can’t be diverted to new projects on any scale without imposing crippling dislocations on an economy and a society that are already under severe strain.

The green wizardry being developed in these posts thus seeks to craft responses to the crisis of our time that don’t ignore the predictable impacts of that crisis. For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days. Instead, the curriculum I have in mind starts with a sufficiently solid grasp of ecology to understand the context of the wizardry that follows, and then moves to practical techniques that have been proven in the real world and can be put to use without lots of money or complicated technology. That may seem dowdy and uninteresting, but that’s a risk this archdruid is willing to run; if your ship has already hit a rock and is taking on water, to shift to a familiar metaphor, passing out life jackets and launching lifeboats is far less innovative and exciting than sitting around talking about some brilliantly creative new way to rescue people from a sinking boat, but it’s a good deal more likely to save lives.

All this makes a useful prologue to the subject of this week’s post. Last week we talked about energy, and explored the way that the laws of thermodynamics shape what you can and can’t do with the energy that surges through every natural system. It’s easy to make energy interesting, since there’s always the passionate hope we all retain from childhood that something might suddenly blow itself to smithereens. Even when it doesn’t, watching energy make its way down the levels of concentration toward waste heat is exciting, for most of the same reasons that watching the silver ball bouncing off the bumpers of a pinball machine is exciting.

This week is different. This week we’re going to talk about matter, the second of the three factors that move through every natural system, and matter appeals to a different childhood passion, one that most of us somehow manage to outgrow: the passion for mud. Matter is muddy. It does not behave itself. It does not do what it’s told. As you found out around the age of two, to your ineffable delight and your mother’s weary annoyance, it gets all over everything, especially when stomped. Most people discover this in childhood and then spend the rest of their lives trying to forget it, and one of the ways they forget it in modern industrial cultures is by pretending that matter acts like energy.

Get a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll show you how that works. At the top of the paper, draw a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh, surrounded by an enormous pile of gifts, and label it "infinite material resources." In the middle, draw a picture of yourself sitting on heaps of consumer goodies; put in some twinkle dust, too, because we’ll pretend (as modern industrial societies do) that the goodies somehow got there without anybody having to work sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop to produce them. Down at the bottom of the paper, draw some really exotic architecture, with a sign out in front, put up by the local Chamber of Commerce, saying "Welcome to Away." You know, Away – the mysterious place where no one’s ever been, but where stuff goes when you don’t want it around any more. Now draw one arrow going from Santa to you, and another from you to Away.

Does this picture look familiar? It should. It has the same pattern as a very simple energy flow diagram, of the sort you sketched out last week, with Santa as the energy source and Away as the diffuse background heat where all energy ends up. That sort of diagram works perfectly well with energy. It doesn’t work worth beans with any material substance, but it’s how people in modern industrial societies are taught to think about matter.

As an antidote to that habit of thinking, after you’ve drawn this diagram, I’d like to encourage you to crumple it up with extreme prejudice and throw it across the room. It would be particularly helpful if Fido is in the room with you, decides that you’ve thrown a ball for him to chase, and comes trotting eagerly back to you with the diagram in his mouth, having gnawed it playfully first and reduced it to a drool-soaked mess. At that moment, as you meet Fido’s trusting gaze and try to decide whether it’s more bother to go get a real ball for him to play with or to take the oozing object that was once your drawing and then wipe a couple of tablespoons of dog slobber off your hand, you will have learned one of the great secrets of green wizardry: matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to.

That secret is crucial to keep in mind. Back in my schooldays, corporate flacks trying to head off the rising tide of popular unhappiness with what was being done to the American environment had a neat little slogan: "The solution to pollution is dilution." They were dead wrong, and because this slogan got put into practice far too often, some people and a much greater number of other living things ended up just plain dead. Dilute an environmental toxin all you want, and it’s a safe bet that a food chain somewhere will concentrate it right back up for you and serve it on your plate for breakfast. It’s hard to think of anything more dilute than the strontium-90 dust that was blasted into the upper atmosphere by nuclear testing and scattered around the globe by high-level winds; that didn’t keep it from building up to dangerous levels in cow’s milk, and shortly thereafter, in children’s bones.

A similar difficulty afflicts the delusion that we can put something completely outside the biosphere and make it stay there. Proponents of nuclear power who don’t simply dodge the issue of radioactive waste altogether treat this as a minor issue. It’s not a minor issue; it’s the most critical of half a dozen disastrous flaws in the shopworn 1950s-era fantasy of limitless nuclear power still being retailed by a minority among us. A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years – that’s fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering. In theory, containing high-level nuclear waste is possible; in theory, it’s equally possible to drill for oil in deep waters without blowing your drilling platform and eleven men to kingdom come and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with tens of millions of gallons of crude oil.

In the real world, by contrast, it’s as certain as anything can be that sooner or later, things go wrong. Despite the best intentions and the most optimistic handwaving, in a hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand, by accident or malice or the sheer cussedness of nature, that waste is going to leak out into the biosphere, and once that happens, anyone and anything that comes into contact with even a few milligrams of it will suffer a painful and lingering death. The more nuclear power we generate, the more of this ghastly gift we’ll be stockpiling up for the people of the future. If one of the basic concepts of morality is that each of us ought to leave the world a better place for those that come after us, there must be some sort of gold medal for selfish malignity in store for the notion that, to power our current civilization a little longer, we’re justified in making life shorter and more miserable for people whose distant ancestors haven’t even been born yet.

This extreme case illustrates a basic rule of green wizardry: there is no such place as Away. You can throw matter out the front door all you want, but it will inevitably circle around while you’re not looking and come trotting up the back stairs. There’s a great deal of Mysticism Lite these days that talks about how wonderful it is that the universe moves in circles; it’s true enough that matter moves in circles, though energy and information generally don’t, but it’s not always wonderful. If you recognize matter’s habits and work with them, you can get it to do some impressive things as it follows its rounds, but if you aren’t watching it closely, it can just as easily sneak up behind you and clobber you.

The trick of making matter circle in a way that’s helpful to you is twofold. The first half is figuring out every possible way it might circle; the second is to make sure that as it follows each of those pathways, it goes through transformations significant enough to make it harmless. I hope I won’t offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities here by using human feces as an example. The way we handle our feces in most American communities is frankly bizarre; we defecate in fresh drinking water, for heaven’s sake, and then flush it down a pipe without the least thought of where it’s going. Where it’s going, most of the time, is into a river, a lake, or the ocean, and even after sewage treatment, you can be sure that most of what’s in your bowel movements is going to land in the biosphere as is, because mushing feces up in water and then dumping some chlorine into the resulting mess doesn’t change them enough to matter.

Consider the alternative of a composting toilet and a backyard garden. Instead of dumping feces into drinking water, you feed them to hungry thermophilic bacteria. When the bacteria get through with the result, you put the compost into the middle of your main compost pile, where it feeds a more diverse ecosystem of microbes, worms, insects, fungi, and the like. When they’re done with it, you dig the completely transformed compost into your garden, and soil organisms and the roots of your garden plants have at it. When you pick an ear of corn from your garden, some of the nutrients in the corn got there by way of your toilet, but you don’t have to worry about that. The pathogenic bacteria that make feces dangerous to human beings, having grown up in the sheltered setting of your bowels, don’t survive long in the Darwinian environment of a composting toilet, and any last stragglers get mopped up in the even more ruthless ecosystem of the compost pile.

In the same way, the inedible parts of garden vegetables can be put into the compost pile or, better still, fed to chickens or rabbits, whose feces can be added to the compost pile, so that plant parasites and diseases have less opportunity to ride the cycle back to the plants in the garden. You can cycle other parts of your household waste stream into the same cycle; alternatively, if you need to isolate some part of the waste stream from the rest of it – for example, if somebody in the house is ill and you don’t want to cycle their wastes into your garden soil, or if you want to collect and concentrate urine as a rich source of fertilizer – you can construct a separate cycle that takes the separate waste stream in a different direction, and subject it to different transformations, so that whatever cycles back around to you is a resource rather than a problem.

This logic can be applied to every part of the Green Wizard’s work. Not everything can be transformed in this way; one of the essential boundaries of appropriate tech, in fact, is the boundary between the kinds of matter you can change with the tools you have on hand, and the kinds you can’t, and if you can’t change it into something safe, it’s a bad idea to produce it in the first place. It really is that simple. So, my apprentice wizards, you have three mystic maxims to contemplate:

Matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to;

There is no such place as Away;

If you can’t transform it, don’t produce it.

Aside from that, for this week’s homework, I’d like to ask those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to replace the pulpy mass Fido’s been chewing for the last fifteen minutes with something less soggy and more accurate. Take one material item or substance you currently get rid of, and figure out, as exactly as you can, where it actually goes once it leaves your possession. Don’t cheat yourself by choosing something you already know about, and don’t settle for abstractions; with the internet at your fingertips, it takes only a modest amount of work to find out which landfill gets your garbage, which river has to cope with your sewage, and so on. Your ultimate goal is to trace your chosen item or substance all the way back around to your own front door – for example, by tracing your plastic bottles to a particular landfill, the polymerizers in the bottles to the groundwater in a particular valley, the groundwater to a particular river, and the river to the particular coastal waters where the local fishing fleet caught the fresh cod you’re about to have for dinner.

This may be an unsettling experience. I apologize for that, but it can’t be helped. One of the few effective immunizations against the sort of airy optimism critiqued toward the beginning of this post, and in another way a little later on, is to spend time wrestling with the muddy, material details of our collective predicament. If your wizardry is going to amount to more than incantations that make people feel better about themselves while their society consumes its own future, it needs to get into the nitty gritty of the work – first with the mind, then with the hands. We’ll pursue one more piece of basic theory next week before proceeding to the first hands-on projects.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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