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The tyranny of the temporary

For just short of a year now, my posts here have focused on exploring one extensive set of options for dealing with the crisis of industrial civilization – the toolkit that came to maturity in the organic gardening and appropriate technology movements of the Seventies, and has been more or less sitting on a shelf since that time, being roundly ignored even by those people who thought they were pursuing every available response to peak oil. The process of hauling those tools down off the shelf and handing them out isn’t quite finished yet, but before we go on to the last round of unpacking, I want to talk about another side of the social process that put them on the shelf in the first place.

That dimension of our predicament was pointed up by a commenter who responded to part of last week’s post by suggesting, among other things, that people would still be getting their food from supermarkets for long enough that anyone alive today doesn’t need to worry about other options. It’s not an example that gets brought up often; still, the same assumption that current ways of doing things will remain in place indefinitely is an important reason why so many otherwise prudent and intelligent people to ignore the signs that their lifestyle is getting ready to terminate itself with extreme prejudice. A hard look at the logic behind it is certainly in order.

Supermarkets, as it happens, make a good example. The first supermarket in America, Ralphs Grocery Store, opened for business in 1929 in Los Angeles, California. Until the boomtime that followed the Second World War, supermarkets were found only in a very few urban centers; most Americans bought meat from a nearby butcher shop, had milk delivered by a neighborhood dairy, and parceled out the rest of their food and sundries budget among other local shops, most of them independently owned and nearly all of them getting the bulk of their supplies from local and regional producers.

It took billions of barrels of cheap petroleum, the massive suburbanization of postwar America, the building of the National Defense Highway System, federal policies that tilted the playing field in favor of big producers and long-haul trucking firms, and decades of highly aggressive and dubiously legal monopolistic practices on the part of national chains, among other things, to steamroller the once diverse landscape of American food production and turn supermarkets selling national brands into the only option that’s still available to most Americans on grocery day. Only if those factors are ignored is it possible to think of supermarkets as the natural and inevitable form of a modern food distribution system, or to assume that it will remain frozen in place as all the factors that made it possible dissolve beneath incoming waves of change.

The same thing is true, doubled, quadrupled, and in spades, of the “global economy” that was so widely ballyhooed a decade or two ago. Its proponents liked to portray it as the unstoppable wave of a new and prosperous future, but it’s become increasingly clear that it was nothing of the kind. It was only economically feasible in the first place because the final blowoff of the age of cheap oil dropped fuel prices so low that transportation costs basically no longer mattered, and it was only politically feasible because the American middle class was quite willing to see the working class here and abroad sold down the river to force down the price of consumer goods, one of several short term gimmicks meant to prop up a facade of prosperity that was already visibly cracking.

It was inevitably temporary, too. The handful of Third World nations that figured out how to cash in on the process proceeded to use the influx of dollars to build their own industrial economies behind trade barriers identical to the ones America used a century earlier to do the same thing at Great Britain’s expense. Today they are busily outcompeting the United States for the fossil fuels and resources that made our lifestyles of the recent past possible in the first place. The countries that have prospered most from globalized free trade, in other words, are those that never allowed their own markets to be held hostage to foreign producers, and treated globalization as the temporary blip it was. Meanwhile the American middle class is discovering, to its considerable chagrin, that the same strategies of offshoring and disinvestment that gutted the working class in the 1970s and 1980s are now being turned on them, in an attempt to prop up the lifestyles of a far narrower circle that we may as well call the investor class. While globalism remains firmly in place in the investment world, as a result, the ability of American consumers to make themselves feel rich by profiting off the low cost of sweatshop labor overseas is going away as incomes evaporate and prices creep implacably upwards.

A third example of the same phenomenon is very much a live issue in the peak oil scene just now, and since the aftermath hasn’t shown up yet, it’s worth tracking. The figures for total liquid fuel production worldwide, which dropped after the housing crash, have risen with the recovery in oil prices and topped their 2008 record this year; a number of peak oil observers – here’s one example – have argued on that basis that we may be able to count on a long-term plateau or even a successful transition to alternatives. Still, there’s a fly in the ointment, and it’s the way that total fuel production figures permit the double-counting of fuel.

Unlike conventional crude oil, after all, much alternative fuel production requires very large energy inputs, and nearly all of this comes from existing fossil fuels. It takes a great deal of diesel fuel to grow corn for ethanol production, for example, and a fair amount of natural gas or electricity (the latter mostly generated by coal or natural gas) to run the plants that turn the corn into ethanol. Oilseed production and refining for biodiesel is subject to similar constraints, while the Canadian tar sands that have received so much attention in recent years yield a usable crude substitute only with the help of prodigious amounts of natural gas. A meaningful measure of liquid fuels production should at least subtract the total amount of liquid fuels that has to be cycled back in to the process of producing more liquid fuels, and might reasonably subtract the value of nonliquid fuel energy consumed in the process of production, for much the same reason that a company’s balance sheet has to subtract expenses from income when it comes time to figure profits.

Does the current statistic for total fuel production do so? Surely you jest. Thus the energy content of a growing fraction of our available liquid fuel supply is being counted twice. Furthermore, the diversion of increasing amounts of natural gas and food crops into liquid fuel production functions as a way of pushing costs off the books of the fuel industry and onto other economic sectors; fuel prices in the industrial world, in effect, are among other things being subsidized at the expense of poor families in the Third World who have seen the price of grain and oil jump in recent months. The political and economic consequences of this sort of malign offshoring of costs are considerable, and have already begun to circle back around to the industria lworld. Here again, a temporary process – the desperate attempt to pad out dwindling oil reserves with anything and everything that comes to hand, no matter what the energy cost or wider impact – is being mistaken for an enduring support for business as usual.

This habit of treating temporary phenomena as permanent conditions has many roots, to be sure. America’s bizarre relationship with its own history, compounded of equal parts popular mythology, nostalgic fascination, and a conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present, has a very large role in it. The contemporary religion of progress, with its dogmatic insistence that history is a one-way street and that what we have now is better than anything the past had to offer even when the evidence points the other way, also plays a substantial role. Equally, the deeply troubled national conscience I’ve discussed in past posts had a lot to do with it; if you’ve sold your soul to the devil, in effect, it’s profoundly human to talk yourself into believing that what you got in exchange was worth the price.

Whatever the sources of the tyranny of the temporary that dominates so much of contemporary thinking, though, it’s a luxury we can’t afford at this point, and we’ll be able to afford it even less as the crisis of industrial civilization unfolds and the available options narrow. An example from a different corner of the deindustrial landscape may help clarify the possibilities that open up once temporary conditions are recognized as such, and those of us who are minded to think about the future start making plans and launching projects on a more sturdy basis.

The example I have in mind showed up the other day while I was rereading Farrington Daniels’ classic Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Published in 1964, it’s still among the best surveys of potential ways to use solar energy, and though the technology is a little dated by modern standards, that’s not necessarily a disadvantage – most of the methods Daniels discusses, unlike most current equivalents, are well within the reach of the sort of basement-workshop mad scientists I’ve suggested we need in droves just now. Notably, too, Daniels covers a range of technologies that seem to have dropped out of the conversation concerning solar energy these days, and one of them is solar thermoelectric power.

No doubt the retired engineers among my readers know all about the Seebeck effect and can skip the next paragraph. For the rest, thermoelectric power is an interesting bit of physics. Imagine a zigzag of metal in which, so to speak, all the zigs are all of one kind of metal (say, copper), all the zags are another (say, zinc), and the two metals join at the angles. If you apply heat to the angles on one side of the zigzag and cool the angles on the other side, electric current starts flowing through the zigzag, and if you solder wires to the two ends and connect them to something that uses electricity, you’re good to go. On a small scale, it’s a surprisingly robust effect; back in the 1940s and 1950s, Russia used to manufacture sturdy little thermoelectric generators that put the heat from a kerosene lamp on one side of the zigzag and the Siberian climate on the other. Those proved quite adequate to power the tube-based radio receivers standard at the time, which weren’t exactly abstemious in their power needs.

In Daniels’ time, a certain amount of tinkering had been done on solar thermoelectric power – plate 8 of his book shows a modestly sized parabolic reflector heating a thermoelectric rig and charging a car battery – and it turned out to be very useful for satellites, since the heat differential between a lump of hot radioactive metal and the chill of interplanetary space produces a nice steady current suitable for deep space probes. Its possibilities on an industrial scale never amounted to much, though, as it proved to be difficult to scale up to any significant degree, and of course as long as we can count on a steady supply of cheap abundant fossil fuels, solar thermoelectric power is a non-starter.

Look past the tyranny of the temporary, though, and the possibilities are fascinating. To say that a solar thermoelectric generator is a simple device understates the case considerably. Benjamin Franklin could have knocked one together in a spare afternoon while waiting for the next thunderstorm to blow in; for that matter, it would not have posed a significant challenge to a skilled craftsperson in ancient Egypt. All you need is the ability to work nonferrous metals and the very basic geometry skills needed to shape a parabolic dish reflector. Strictly speaking, the efficiency of heat-to-electricity conversion isn’t that high, but given a more meaningful definition of efficiency – for example, labor and resources input to electricity output – it leaves many other options in the dust, and its sustainability is hard to match; we’re talking, ultimately, about a technology that could conceivably power radio communication and the like for as long as our species endures.

There are other technologies that are equally obscured by the tyranny of the temporary, and equally worth developing and preserving once a wider view of the situation is taken into account. Some of those may come within reach surprisingly soon; a recent study from India, for example, has shown that solar water heating systems can pay for themselves in two years via savings on fuel costs and yield a substantial net gain thereafter; as energy prices begin their next major upward movement – something that’s likely to happen in a big way once the market starts to pay attention to the tremendous depletion rates of shale gas – that figure is likely to turn even more sharply in a favorable direction. Get over the habit of assuming that today’s temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy is a permanent condition, and it becomes much easier to spot the opportunities for constructive action that remain open, even this late in the game.

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