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The distant sound of hoofbeats

There are moments when the things nobody wants to talk about brush the surface, like deepwater fish rising briefly to catch the sun on their backs before plunging again into the underwater shadows. Two of those moments happened in the last few days, and I’d like to discuss them briefly before we get back into the practicalities of life in an age of declining energy availability.

One of those moments was set in motion by something that was almost certainly meant to have the opposite effect. This was the recent pronouncement from umpty-billionaire Warren Buffett, who clambered into the media pulpit last week to insist that the United States is not in decline, and indeed that its best days are still ahead of it. A man with Buffett’s income can be forgiven for believing this; the last few decades, after all, have been inordinately good for umpty-billionaires, though they’ve been rather noticeably less so for the other 99-plus per cent of the American people. As long as the current order of affairs remains welded in place in Washington DC and elsewhere, it’s entirely possible that the days of billion-dollar bonuses for the guys at the top are not quite over yet.

Still, from any other perspective, Buffett’s utterance bears an uncanny similarity to the fine art of whistling past the graveyard. Nations in the rising curve of their history do not need to hear platitudes from obscenely rich pundits to recognize that better days are ahead. Empires on the way down, on the other hand, can count on hearing plenty of pronouncements of this sort, from plenty of people of Buffett’s kind; the British media was brimfull of such utterances by titled statesmen and overpaid financiers all through the period when the British empire was coming apart at the seams. There’s also more than a little echo of the organized reassurance John Kenneth Galbraith chronicled so gleefully in The Great Crash 1929, the efforts by the very rich in the wake of the 1929 crash to insist that the market and the economy were just fine when, by every objective measure, they weren’t.

The second moment I’d like to mention may have helped to cause the first. This was a quiet little article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal commenting, in measured tones, that for the first time in living memory an international crisis has sent investment money running away from US dollar-denominated investments rather than toward them. For decades now, as most of my readers will doubtless be aware, the US dollar has had the reputation of a safe haven for investments, and wars, revolutions, and financial crises overseas have reliably sparked flows of money into investments denominated in dollars, most of them here in the United States. That’s one of the factors that have kept America’s interest rates down and its trade deficit manageable, at least so far, in the face of the federal government’s epic mismanagement of the public purse.

Those days may just be over. The article just mentioned notes that since the current round of troubles hit North Africa and the Middle East, money has been flowing away from the dollar, heading toward other relatively stable currencies such as the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen. Even the euro, which has its own drastic problems, has benefited noticeably from the flight from the dollar. It’s hard to be sure exactly what’s behind this epochal shift, but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that what currently carries the engagingly timid moniker “quantitative easing” – that is, the United States government’s current practice of paying for its deficit spending by having the Federal Reserve print money to buy treasury bills nobody else is willing to take – has started to spook overseas investors.

If so, they’re right to be spooked. When a nation starts funding deficit spending via the printing press, its currency’s days are numbered. It’s true, of course, as plenty of thoughtful people have pointed out in the peak oil blogosphere, that the US money supply in its broadest sense – including all forms of debt, which count as money in our current hallucinatory economy – has contracted sharply in the wake of the 2008 housing-bubble crash, and would have contracted a great deal more if the government hadn’t basically encouraged banks to pretend that the mountains of worthless mortgage-backed securities in their vaults still had the value credited to them, at least in the delusions of real estate promoters, circa 2006. Still, it’s not often remembered that the value of a currency isn’t a function of the money supply alone; like every other measure of value, it’s a function of the relationship between supply and demand, and a currency that’s contracting can still tip over into inflation, even hyperinflation, if the demand for it drops faster than the supply.

For what it’s worth, my best guess at the moment – which is all that any observer of the economy can offer – is that we’re headed for what I’ve called hyperstagflation, more or less 1970s-style stagflation on steroids, complete with a bad case of ‘roid rage. The ingredients for that are already in place: soaring commodity prices, a US economy in freefall, and interruptions in the free flow of petroleum caused, to make the sense of deja vu complete, by troubles in the Middle East. Still, a good deal depends on just how hyperactive the Fed’s printing presses get in the months ahead. If the current shift away from dollar-denominated investments turns into a panic, as it might, and the stock market crashes in response, as it could, and the Obama administration decides to respond with yet another "quantitative easing" program to prop up the market with a flood of freshly printed money, as recent experience suggests it very likely would – well, you can do the math for yourself.

One way or another, though, whatever income my readers happen to have coming their way in the months and years ahead is likely to buy quite a bit less energy than the same amount of money buys at present. That makes finding ways to make less energy do more work crucial just now – and that, in turn, leads to windows.

If you’ve caulked and weatherstripped your home, and have a decently thick layer of insulation in the attic, your windows are where the largest fraction of your remaining heating bills go dancing out into the great outdoors. Window glass has an R-value (R means resistance to heat flow, remember?) right around 1 per layer of glass, so a double-pane window has an R-value of 2, or maybe a bit more: that is to say, not much. Interestingly, this is true no matter how fancy or expensive the windows happen to be: you get an R-value of 2 or so from an old-fashioned single-pane window with storm windows slapped on the outside, and you also get an R-value right around 2 from a very expensive vinyl-framed double-pane window with the space between the panes pumped full of inert gas, or what have you. If you want a higher R-value, glass is not going to give it to you.

One point worth taking home from this last comment is that if you’ve got windows that don’t serve a useful purpose, getting rid of them, permanently or temporarily, may be your best option. It takes a certain amount of skill at carpentry to take out a window and seal up the opening so that the resulting wall is weathertight and well insulated; if you don’t happen to have the skills, your friendly local handyperson can do the job in a day or so, and it’s often money well worth spending. If you don’t feel confident in doing anything so drastic, get some rigid-board insulation from your local lumber store, cut it to fit exactly into the window opening from inside, and then cut a sheet of hardboard to fit the same opening, inside the insulation; glue the insulation to the hardboard, paint the hardboard to match the wall, weatherstrip the edges of the hardboard so that you’ve got a good tight seal around the sides, top, and bottom to prevent air leaks, slide it into place and you’re good to go. If you live in a place with cold winters, closing up half a dozen windows in this way during the cold season can save you quite a bit on your heating bills.

What if you want something more easily movable, so you can catch the rays of the winter sun when it’s out but close things up easily at night? Here we come to one of the great forgotten secrets of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, the fine art of insulated window coverings.

I had the chance to learn about those personally in my teen years. In 1977, my family moved from a rental house in a down-at-heels Seattle suburb to a larger and more comfortable place we actually owned – well, subject to mortgage and all that, but you get the idea. The one drawback was that the new place was expensive to heat, and that was mostly because most of the main floor’s walls facing southeast, toward a stunning view of the Cascade Mountains, consisted of single-pane windows. Insulated window coverings were much talked about in those days of high energy costs and state-funded conservation programs; my stepmother found a pattern, fired up her sewing machine, and made what amounted to a set of inexpensive quilts – faced inside and out with the ornately printed sheets popular in those days, and filled with polyester batting – rigged to slide up and down like Roman blinds. They went up in the morning and down with the sun, and the monthly heating bills dropped by a very noticeable fraction.

There are dozens of designs for insulated window coverings – or, more precisely, there were dozens of designs. It will take you a bit of searching to find them nowadays, as a result of the thirty-year vacation from reality American society took in 1980 or thereabouts. All the designs have certain things in common. The first, obviously enough, is that they put a bunch of additional insulation over the window. How much? A good rule of thumb is that your windows, with window coverings in place, should be as well insulated as the wall on either side – for an uninsulated wall of normal American housing construction, this means around R-5, and up from there as your level of insulation improves.

The second common feature is that the window covering should be sealed around the window, especially at top and bottom. Conventional curtains, open at top and bottom, can actually increase your heat loss by convection: air up against the window glass is chilled and flows out the bottom opening, making a draft across the floor, while warm air gets drawn in through the bottom opening and flows across the glass, cooling as it goes. Stop that "flue effect" and you instantly make the room more comfortable. The insulated shades my stepmother made were pressed right up against the wall above the windows, and had little magnets sewn in along the edges to hold them against metal strips in the wall beside and below the windows; there were many other tricks used to do the same thing.

The third common feature is that the window covering should contain a vapor barrier. Ours didn’t, which meant that the windows were thick with condensation when the shades went up in the morning, and often had to be mopped off with a rag. A layer of something waterproof, on the side of the insulation closest to the interior space, will prevent that, and avoid problems with mold, water damage, and the like.

Beyond these three points, the options are nearly unlimited. It’s entirely possible to use something like ordinary curtains to get the same effect, as long as they have something holding them tight against the wall on all sides of the window opening. Shades were a very common approach, and so were shutters of various kinds, hinged or sliding or even concealed within pockets built out from the walls. One of the most elegant examples I know involved built-in bookcases along a northern wall; there was a gap behind them just wide enough to make room for sliding shutters, and at night the homeowner simply pulled two inconspicuous handles together and turned the window into an R-12 wall.

These same techniques can be used in two additional ways to help save energy. The first is to use insulated coverings inside a solar greenhouse at night. The same clear surfaces that let sunlight into a greenhouse lose plenty of heat at night; equip your greenhouse with some sort of movable insulation to cover the glazing at night, and it becomes possible to run a solar greenhouse much more efficiently in cold weather. The other is the old medieval custom of using cloth hangings, a few inches out from the wall, to insulate an otherwise chilly space. That’s what all those tapestries were doing in medieval castles; insulated wall hangings can function exactly the same way in a modern house, so long as they extend from floor to ceiling on exterior walls, and have both a reasonable amount of insulation in them and a couple of inches of air space between the fabric and the wall.

None of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to make. If you have some basic facility with a sewing machine – and if you don’t, getting it might be a worthwhile project sometime very soon – you can knock together a good set of insulated window coverings for a couple of rooms in a couple of hours, using storebought sheets and some quilt batting as your raw materials. If you know how to handle a saw, a screwdriver, and a carpenter’s square – again, these are skills worth acquiring soon if you don’t have them already – it won’t take any longer to turn some lumber, hardboard, and rigid board insulation into good sturdy insulated shutters.

The time to get these skills, and get your window insulation in place, is now. Just as the inhabitants of dying empires in the past used to listen nervously for the distant sound of hoofbeats that told them the barbarians were on the way, those who are paying attention to the predicament of our own time need to get used to listening for the cracks and judderings of an overburdened system as it lurches down the slope of its own decline and fall. Those faint noises and brief glimpses may be the closest thing to a warning that we’ll get.

Resources

Once again, the Master Conservers papers at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website provide a good introduction; the paper you want for this week’s topic is titled, not surprisingly, "Insulated Window Coverings." There were also several very good books on the subject published back in the day; far and away my favorite is William K. Langdon’s Movable Insulation, but William Shurcliff’s Thermal Shades and Shutters and Judy Lindahl’s Energy Saving Decorating are also worth a look if you can find them.

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