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Commentary: Of coal stoves and vicious circles

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

In 2007-8, when oil prices shot up to $148 barrel, and most of the rest of the US struggled to get to work the question of what to do was at the center of discussion where I live in rural upstate NY. While the vast majority of US households are heated by natural gas or coal fired electricity, heating oil is the main source of winter heat in most of upstate NY and a good portion of New England – no natural gas pipelines were ever run in many areas. While nationally the percentage of people using heating oil is only about 8%, it is nearly half in northern New England and in rural parts of New York. 3 out of 4 people use fuel oil for heat near me.

That spring and early summer 2008, when most people had forgotten winter, how to stay warm was the single biggest discussion point all over my region. Not only are we more dependent on fuel oil than anyone else in the US, but our housing stock is older, and often poorly insulated, and, of course, it gets cold. Governors in New England states declared states of emergency over the summer, and heating subsidy programs were deluged.

There was already an extant "heat or eat" crisis among the poor, where already struggling families skip meals because an ever larger percentage of their income goes to heating, and the emergent dual and inter-related specter of freezing and starving felt very real. Fortunately or unfortunately (and probably both) the price of oil crashed in the fall of 2008, before the heating season, and most people were able to keep warm.

But what's most interesting about this brush with crisis is that two solutions for rural dwellers outside the gas lines emerged - and both of them are vicious circles, in that the consequences may be worse than the original problem. The first is the classic woodstove, a common sight in rural parts of the Northeast. Almost everyone out here has one, at least for backup or supplemental heat - and it makes a lot of sense. The Northeast is heavily forested, and wood doesn’t have to be transported long distances. You can generally take a cord a year off per acre without doing any noticeable harm to the forest. Not only is a fire a cozy and wonderful thing, but power outages are common in cold places that get heavy ice and snow accumulation. Most rural dwellers who rely mostly on wood heat are comfortable with localized heating – you spend your time in the warm spaces and sleep in cold rooms, cozy under wool and down.

The key to all these woodstoves is that they operate as secondary heat sources for the most part, or as primary sources for people who are accustomed to limited heating. Replacing wood heat with oil and natural gas has permitted the great Eastern Forests to be one of the single largest unified biomes in the world. That forest makes corridors that allow moose to travel from Maine to Boston or coyotes from the Adirondacks to New York City.

All that forestation is a product primarily of fossil fuel usage – during past centuries when people relied heavily on wood in this area, most of the land was open. Vastly more people, not accustomed to limited heating, but trained to expect a uniformly warm house using wood is a recipe for the loss of a great deal of forest.

The other alternative that emerged was coal. When the fear of cold began to pervade households, stores hung out banners that read "we sell coal!" and local dealers began advertising the merits of coal stoves. They were many virtues in some senses - coal stoves are cheaper than wood stoves, and for people without woodlots, coal is often cheaper than wood. It gives out more heat, and can be stored more easily than wood. The coal stove offered more than even the woodstove - a reliable and cheap source of heat to replace oil, assurance that you would not freeze.

Why not simply re-insulate, and do with less heat? For most people, particularly in older housing stock, re-insulation is a vastly more expensive project than replacing one winter's heating fuel with a cheaper one. The people most worried about this are the ones who always struggle to pay the heating bills. Investing money in reinsulation projects *and* in heating fuel isn't possible, and they can’t go the winter without heat. Some may have qualified for subsidized insulation programs through state subsidies or limited assistance low income energy programs (LHEAP), but the demand for those exceeded the supply.

The logical outcome of an oil crisis in the Northeast *ought* to have been the use of less fuel and fewer emissions. And in some ways, it almost certainly would have been. Middle class households and some businesses would have turned down the thermostat. Some people who had used oil rather than natural gas from habit rather than lack of gas lines converted. Some people with the money who had been saying they really should insulate did so.

On the other hand, some people who might have insulated didn't - because they had to use that money to buy a wood or coal stove and install it. Other people converted to electric space heaters - that mostly use coal-fired electricity. Other folk had already committed to their old method of heating at high locked-in rates and couldn't afford to go back and insulate because the money was already gone.

Oil prices fell fast enough that, in the end, it is hard to tell what the longer term effects would be - but I saw enough of them to believe that in a world of consistently high oil prices - and the economic costs of those prices, we'd see a higher rate of emissions from winter heating, not lower, along with much greater deforestation. Millions of personal coal and wood stoves are a potential ecological disaster - and yet they are the logical outcome of individual choices and enormous pressures that make adaptation difficult.

I've often heard people wonder with Jared Diamond, what the last person, cutting down the last tree on Easter Island thought. My guess is this - "I have no choice." The reality of vicious circles is this - once you are in one, it is very hard to get out. The infrastructure to get you out may not exist - or if it does, you can no more get ahold of it than you can fly.

Our challenge, then, in facing a world of complex and intersecting disasters is measured not in "how well we avoid inconvenience or difficulty" but in "finding solutions that don't make things worse." This is difficult, because essentially it requires that we ask people to choose between two short term solutions - the first offers less inconvenience, less immediate struggle, and seems more like what's gone before. This is the coal stove solution. The second seems harder, and may seem to have a higher initial investment. It is more radically different, and thus seems speculative. Its advantage is that it offers long term solutions - that is, you get less upfront, but more in the long term.

The long term solutions that work are the ones that are low enough in cost to be viable for most people, offer enough longevity for a people of declining wealth to pass down something to their children and grandchildren, and don't make things worse. They are mostly powered by human beings, by renewable energy, and most of them require collective self-regulation and a degree of willingness to defer wants.

There are ways out of the vicious circle. They involve hardship for people already facing unaccustomed hardship, and they involve radical changes in narrative - because the first myth of hardship is that the end is always just around the corner. Convincing people it may go on awhile is perhaps the hardest part. Convincing modern Americans that they will have to endure austerity measures - that they may have to go back to older ways - won't be easy. Other battles may not even be possible.

Interim choices have consequences. Sometime they make it easier for us to transition - sometimes they make it possible for us to smooth over our shift. The Prius may make it easier to get to work until we can car share or arrange public transport. At the same time the costs of paying for the transitional solution and its consequences can leave us vulnerable when even the transitional options fail, can preclude a truly long term answer.

Moving sooner to the longer term and more complex solutions - a smaller, more efficient radiant heat source with high mass, better insulation, a different relationship to heating, a change in the culture - is hard. It requires that you let go of the dream of normalcy. It requires that you fight off the overwhelming gravity of the vicious circle, and that will be one of our pre-eminent challenges.

Sharon Astyk is a writer, teacher and science blogger (www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook) and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA.

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