Whenever I talk about going to lower energy usage, a percentage of people shout out something like “But that would mean going back to the stone age, to lepers walking the streets and people throwing their feces out the window on our heads!!!” I think it is fair to say that variations on the “without power, life would be intolerable” is a common assumption.
Part of the thing that bothers me about it is that I don’t think it is true. I’ve spent a lot of time studying history, and I don’t think the lives of all of those in human history who preceeded us were intolerable. I am extraordinarily fond of useful things like antibiotics and nutritional knowledge, but those are things that can be had in societies where *individuals* don’t necessarily have access to high technologies.
I’ve met a lot of people who lived all or much of their lives with very little power, and seen their homes, and I have ample visual evidence that often life can be quite graciously lived with little or no gas, electricity, and other inputs. The critical difference between a life lived graciously with little, and one without is the realm of how resources – whether land or fossil fuels or whatever – are used collectively. Thus, I’d like to propose what I think is an important and useful distinction – between public use of energy and resources and private use of energy resources. The former, I would argue, is essential to maintaining a good life, the latter is not.
People who have access to neither private resource nor public resources tend to be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of significant quality of life issues. Without public energy for things like clinics, the transport of food and goods, the importation of medicines, etc… life can be highly functional, but often is very vulnerable to disaster, either personal (disease, injury, loss of land or income), or public.
On the other hand, people who have few private energy, technonogy or natural resources, but have access to public ones often have extremely high quality of life, assuming that natural resources enable them to feed themselves and produce some tradable extras. There are parts of India, Cuba, Georgia, etc… where there is power for public buildings (some schools, hospitals, etc…), collective transportation (buses, trains, communally owned cars and taxis) and where energy is expended wisely on importing or making certain energy intensive goods that require (or are much eased by) the use of fossil fuels – but only on the ones that are demonstrably and significantly a public good. For example, money and energy are spent on power to pump water for the community well, or on vaccinations, but not the subsidy of personal transport or private electrification, generally speaking.
It is no accident that the places where a high quality of life and low levels of personal energy consumption coexist are often former or present Marxist cultures and economies, with strong cultural incentives towards the creation of a collective good. That said, however, it is not impossible for capitalist economies to also determine that personal good and collective good are the same – we have done so in time of exigency in the US, for example. What is required to do so is a fundamental belief in the value of cooperation – the idea that enriching your neighbor, even at the cost of one’s private wealth, makes you richer, not poorer. And of course, this is true, although we rarely believe it as a first thought.
It is lovely, of course, to have private energy resources, assuming that they are sustainable, but it generally isn’t necessary for high quality of life. In quality of life evaluations, people in Kerala or Vanuatu were generally about as happy with their status, possessions and lifestyle than most Americans were, even though most of the people of Kerala or Vanuatu many lived at extremely low levels of consumption. There are some exceptions, of course, but neither life-span nor happiness seem to correlate all that closely with private energy consumption – that is, we know that we can be both happy and live decent lives with very low levels of personal energy consumption. We also know that radically lowered levels of energy and resource consumption can be terribly stressful – if there are no public supports to prevent people from being cast onto their own resources.
The last century has represented the vast degradation and abandonment of the commons and of public resources in the developed world in favor of private resources. While theorists like Garrett Hardin have attempted to portray this as natural and inevitable, other social critics have argued that in fact this is a consequence of intensive natural resource consumption and the privatization of most resources – as Vandana Shiva points out, the tragedy of the commons is in many ways the tragedy of private property. Only when most people rely on their own, private resources, and only the poorest people are left to make use of the commons does no one have an investment in managing and protecting the commons.
Fossil fuels and the notion of infinite resources have done more to damage the public sphere than anything else. The laundromat, the water fountain, the public library and the idea that cold beer lives at the pub down the road have been, in many respects, abandoned – and are now held in contempt. But the future of reduced energy consumption involves a radical reconsideration of what must be held privately – because we will lack the time, energy and resources to provide every household with private renewable energy sources – this has been established. We cannot survive on a planet where everyone has a private car – we know this.
The distinction between public and private is important because we have limited resources, and limited time. If we put our resources primarily into lifeboat building (as Richard Heinberg puts it), building independent, free-standing households in which everyone has one of everything they need, we may not have enough resources remaining to be able to afford to build public structures that would fulfill the needs of many more people. If, on the other hand, we begin to think in terms of public requirements and private requirements, we have another tool to help us distinguish between what is necessary and what is pleasant to have. We have a lot of trouble with this distinction.
Given limited time and resources for most of us, the critical question becomes “how can we make our need for X” resolvable in some communal or public way, rather than leaving each of us to find personal solutions. For example, the American model is already pretty much “everyone has their own private water source from a well or resevoir.” In rural areas, where houses are far apart, this may make some sense. In towns and cities, however, much of Africa and Asia gets its water from public wells, pumped with electricity. Doing so is obviously somewhat less convenient than having running water in your house, but a public well in your neighborhood obviates the great problem of power loss in many communities. Even if we aren’t willing to give up the private water supply immediately, the community manual well means you are not waterless in a crisis. One or several communal wells can be pumped by stand alone solar units, and even in hard times, water will be available. Not everyone can afford a solar pump for their well – but most towns can afford one for their public school and at other critical junctures where people could get water in a crisis.
We may not be able to afford to reinsulate all buildings – but we could super-insulate community shelters that would serve people in periods of intense heat and cold when the power was out – and that could also have solar panels or wind generators to allow people to do laundry, have lights, and get together for community activities all the time.
It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs – everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars – even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don’t share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different – they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense – that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can’t afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.
We’re all going to build our lifeboats to some degree. But thinking in terms of how you can soften the blow by creating public resources, and public energy sources, means prioritizing community based resources that enable both personal conservation and collective security. Public resources provide a safety net, potentially a better, richer community, allow us to allocate scarce resources towards other things. They encourage inclusion, and keep the poor and the disabled, the elderly and the especially vulnerable from being deprived of their most basic needs. Since peak oil means that almost any of us could join the poor, that only makse sense.
Thinking in terms of public energy also enables us to do more, if our governments will not cooperate. In most cases, I suspect those public resources are going to have to come out of our own pockets. And that’s another argument in favor of public resources – 20 of us can put that well pump in, 50 can arrange to have the physician’s assistant come to town one day a week, 150 can fund the volunteer ambulance corp, and can probably continue to do so even if things get rough.
We probably will not be able to do these things if we’re stretching our personal and economic resources thin by trying to maintain our private consumption *and* build public resources – that is, if you are still trying to maintain the personal car, you may not be able to afford to help create the taxi service. While there are exceptions, I think it would behoove most of us, in most cases, to choose public resources over private, even at the expense of some inconvenience to ourselves, and when we think about the importance of power and resources, to distinguish between the two.