What would your life be like if it all suddenly went acoustic? I’m sitting down stairs trying to pick out a new tune before next Tuesday’s music circle at Castle Creek Music. What I mean to say is if that cozy, convenient petrochemical wrapping that protects, feeds, waters, shelters, transports, and entertains us suddenly vanished how would you cope? Even if it vanished and but did so slowly, could you adapt? How much of a adjustment would it be? Do you need to plug in your guitar?
I’ve lived for long periods of time with no more energy input than I could generate with my own body (see Wilderness Guard in the early 90’s). Or did I? I’ve seriously started to question my abilities in this area when I started to trace the supply lines of the basic things that kept me going way out there in the Flat Tops Wilderness for so long. And my situation is now complicated by my need to keep my family running as well.
All industrialized society is predicated on the idea that there will be a stable and constant supply of cheap, dense fossil fuel energy. There is a threshold that your and my society will cross sometime this century which at first will make doing the things we need to do to stay alive more expensive, exclusive, and difficult and eventually nearly impossible for most of us. These behaviors, however, are just habits to which we’ve become accustomed. Knowing that the threshold is out there, I think, should give sufficient motivation to learn new methods and habits. An ounce of prevention and all that.
Defining the Problem
In his new book “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation” James Howard Kunstler outlines three separate problems which all industrialized nations face. These are capital formation, energy limits, and, as if the first two weren’t enough, climate change.
In summary, the formation of capital in an complex industrialized nation always requires growth. Growth is the promise used to leverage credit (and thus creates capital/money). Growth also requires a constant energy inputs to achieve, or as JHK would put it, you can’t get something for nothing. If there is no or less available energy there will subsequently be less growth and equally less capital. The machine itself is a feedback loop which is completely dependent, in the case of industrialized societies, on fossil fuels.
The threshold all of us will eventually pass over happens because as extraction of fossil fuels becomes more difficult there will be less capital around to pay for that extraction. The whole equation falls apart at the moment extraction costs more than anyone has to pay for the activity.
That whole mess is complicated by the Theory of Climate Change which postulated that as levels of atmospheric carbon increase so too will the instance of extreme weather events. Extreme weather events ultimately impact industrialized infrastructures and unfortunately this is happening at about the same time that energy becomes more expensive to produce and thus capital becomes more scarce. Does anyone see a problem here?
The Response Model Review
So what does it really mean to learn new habits of living in response to peak-energy and eventual fossil fuels shortages? I’ve been looking into what a lot of other people do and think on the topic. There are varying levels of response and different methods intent on achieving the same thing.
The Survivalist Response
Let me preface this section by saying that this is a pretty diverse, independent, and Anarchic collection of individuals and families. Getting consensus on just about anything is about as likely as coast-to-coast High Speed Rail and as much fun as shaving your head with a cheese grater.
Generally, however, these people tend to plan for change by stockpiling supplies (food, water, ammunition), militarizing to some degree, planing escape routes (BOR), building bunkers (BOL), and honing their hunter/gatherer skills.
Their response reaction tends to be focused on short term interruptions to their status quo. Often they build and prepare in order to maintain their current set of living habits until normalcy returns. This means that they’re more resilient than someone who does nothing at all, but ultimately limited by the level of their ability to stock pile and protect that stock pile.
Beyond forays into hunter/gatherer habits of living they are very focused on continuing to live as they always have. This is their Achilles’s heal in my opinion. A 5-ton military truck with 1000 gallons of diesel fuel, an A/C unit, a big screen TV with x-box, and a refrigerator is still very dependent on the idea that fossil fuels will flow freely and cheaply forever. Ultimately, the problems that these folks see in their future make maintaining these kinds of living habits impossible. More often than not, they fail to make this crucial connection believing instead that a well equipped war machine will be able to pillage the necessary supplies after the stockpile runs out.
Development as Solution
The technology we experience, and often take for granted, every day is pretty cool stuff. Often it saves us labor or time or both. It may even allow us to off-load the thinking humanity used to have to do in the past (think about your grocery list on your Smart Phone™ and how you’re Mother used to do it for example).
While all this is really great, and don’t get me wrong I really like it too, its ultimately dependent on cheap, easy fossil fuel energy. This contingent of society often believes that the development of some new kind of technology will allow life to continue as if the 20th century never ended, Star Trek like. Much to everyone’s chagrin none of that stuff exists today nor do I believe that it will ever exist. Essentially it comes down to the problem of mistaking technology for energy.
Wishful thinking is not planning or learning. Waiting on some wonderful development from unknown scientists working tirelessly in white labs is the logical equivalent of waiting for elves in Santa’s workshop to build and bring you toys X-mass morning.
Community Transition Theory
Transitionestas are keenly aware of the problems outlined above and for much the same reasons I’m contemplating action they develop a community consensus plan known as an Energy Descent plan. At first glance, these are community based action plans for de-complicating life. These folks have a common goal, and a plan to work together to achieve a positive and equitable outcome, which, to my mind is a much better way to move forward. They clearly acknowledge that they’re looking into a crystal ball and that this kind of planning may not work for everyone or at all.
I see their cooperative, open-eyed planning as a realistic way of moving toward a common goal. After reading some of the many published transition plans I would point out three potential flaws or at any rate weaknesses in this model.
First, this only works in communities where consensus can be achieved. Where there are hold out contingencies (e.g. people who don’t “believe” in some failing of the current system as outlined above) you’ll never achieve consensus. Within that community then, I don’t see planning for dealing with those fall-out factions; these people just fall out of scope?
Second, there is a tendency for wide-eyed optimists who are happy with things they way they are to replace technology for energy. When science develops some new form of cheap, easy energy all our problems will be solved and we can go back to living like everyone did in the 20th century. Ultimately, you see this as attempts to tweak the system as it is rather than de-complicate and where a planning road map includes solutions like this I believe you’ll see failure.
Finally, some transition plans are extensive in scope. They include way too many people for all members of a metropolitan city (for instance) to be considered. Without consensus the plan cannot be effectively implemented (without authoritarian intervention I suppose). So where the planning process has been undertaken for an area much larger than a community or neighborhood those plans, I believe, are doomed.
These folks are rough, tough and don’t take shit from anybody. Well not always, but I’ve been told that it helps. While looking into this as a response mechanism to Peak-Energy what I’ve discovered is that not everyone who makes this kind of a change does so in response to Peak-Energy. More often than not, these are people who are just plain fed up with some part of our current social order they don’t agree with. They never will, and so, when they become too keenly aware of this social failure on a personal level they change and cut ties.
Ok, maybe they don’t cut ties completely because otherwise, getting to know about them would require me to have ridden out into the boonies of many locals to meet these people face-to-face. Sometimes they maintain at least a few trappings of pre-Peak existence like their ride into town, a cell phone, and in the case of the folks I’m learning from a computer with an internet connection.
However, unlike the Transitionestas, there is no consensus necessary to move forward with this kind of planning. They just decide to do it and then make it happen. And in fact, if done correctly, these folks will be some of the most well adjusted to living without the trappings of the 20th century or a fossil fuels dependency primarily because they’ve made it a practice now.
Low Energy Day
So, you’re wondering, what’s up with the title of this blog post? Well, I am interested in learning new habits which are not dependent on cheap, easy fossil fuels. I don’t currently own a little piece of land where I can build a grid-detached home and lifestyle, although I wouldn’t mind making this happen in my immediate future. Rather, today I live in a townhouse which is extremely dependent on fossil fuels and the continued smooth running of the status quo.
As my family has been forced by my broken head recently to economize, however, I’ve been running around looking for things to turn off. Ways to shave a couple of cents or miles off the food we eat. And looking for alternatives to meeting our basic living requirements which don’t cost anything. The velomobile and bicycles are a great example of this, once I’ve invested the energy into these devices I get a carbon-zero transportation solution which is completely independent of fossil fuel energy.
My two favorite options above are Transition Planning and Off-Grid living. I love my community, however, I pretty sure that gaining consensus in this community to plan and move toward independence (food, energy, water, etc.) would be short lived and probably mocked ruthlessly. There are too many people who either don’t care about these problems or just plain deny that they’re happening at all and frankly I don’t have the energy to convince them otherwise.
Off-griding it, it is then. And this is going to be something that we move toward slowly and with grace. We don’t just need land, we need the right piece of land that we don’t owe anyone anything on. Once we have the land we also have to have the wherewithal to sustain our food, water, shelter, and energy needs with systems that we can build and maintain locally. These two requirements put fulfillment out a bit.
That doesn’t mean we can’t start learning those changed habits on our own. What I propose is that we pick a day at least once per month where we limit the energy and distance of the things that make our current lifestyle possible. Turn off as much as possible in an effort to force the new behaviors and do this regularly to develop these behaviors as habits.
Low Energy Day starts soon, I’m thinking about the changes we’ll need to implement and how we’ll go about doing this. Simplicity is key!