Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Master Conservers

For those of us who have been watching the energy scene for the last few decades, there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from the daily fare on the peak oil newsblogs. Once the conservation and appropriate tech movements of the 1970s collapsed beneath the weight of the falling oil prices of the 1980s, it became highly unfashionable to question the theory that the market economy could extract infinite resources from a finite planet.

During the quarter century of extravagant waste that followed, conventional wisdom across the industrial world’s political and cultural spectrum insisted that turning sows' ears into silk purses was not merely possible, but a great investment opportunity that would drive a bigger and shinier global economy than the one we already had. A very short time ago, it bears remembering, the suggestion that crude oil might cost more than $60 a barrel within this decade was roundly dismissed as preposterous alarmism, while the grim prospects of economic decline and global famine raised by concerned voices in the Seventies were so far off the radar screens that nobody even bothered to denounce them.

A glance down the leading stories on Energy Bulletin or The Oil Drum makes a tolerably good indicator of how far we’ve come from that comfortable consensus. Today a widely used measure of crude oil prices broke $111, after recovering from a sharp selloff a few weeks back that took it down all the way to the upper $90s. Meanwhile the energy sources and technological breakthroughs that were supposed to come on line once oil hit $30, or $40, or $50 a barrel are still nowhere to be seen.

The wider picture is no more encouraging. Crippling electricity shortages outside the industrial world are starting to play hob with a global economy that depends on Third World factories to produce First World amenities. Likewise, the blowback from US energy policies that poured a fifth of the American corn harvest into ethanol is sending grain prices soaring worldwide, raising the unwelcome prospect that millions of the poor around the planet may not be able to buy enough food to survive the coming months. Barring some improbable deus ex machina that comes along in time to bail us out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves, it’s fair to say, the limits to growth are back.

Up to this point the political leaders of the world’s industrial nations have had very little to offer in response to all this. Most seem to think that the advice allegedly given to Victorian brides on their wedding nights – “Close your eyes and think of England” – counts as a proactive energy policy. Eventually they will have to think of a better response, if only because political survival does have its appeal. Food riots in Haiti and Egypt are one thing, but when the price of food and gasoline starts putting serious pressure on the American and European middle classes, expect politicians to trip over one another in the rush to respond to the crisis.

Many of the resulting policies and programs will be counterproductive, and even more of them will be useless. In most of the nations of the industrial world, politics has long since devolved into a spoils system whereby different factions of the political class buy the loyalty of pressure groups among the electorate by a combination of ideological handwaving and unearned largesse. As long as that remains in place – and it has proven enormously durable, surviving wars, revolutions, and massive economic changes – a very large fraction of the responses proposed to this or any other crisis will be aimed at pushing ideological agendas or rewarding voting blocs rather than actually doing anything about the crisis.

Still, it’s by no means impossible that some constructive changes might come out of the approaching mess. We have, after all, a resource at hand that, while rarely recognized, has a great deal to offer: we have been here before, during the energy crises and resource shortages of the Seventies. Some of the projects launched in those days turned out to be expensive flops, but others have more to offer. I’d like to talk a bit about one of these.

I have no idea how common this is outside the West Coast, but out here state and county agricultural extension services launched Master Gardener programs some years ago. Staffed by volunteers, many of them retirees with a lifetime of gardening experience, and run on a shoestring budget, these programs train and certify people to field gardening questions that would otherwise clutter up the ag extension phone lines. In the small Oregon town where I live, you can find a Master Gardener’s booth at the local farmers market every Tuesday, staffed by a brace of volunteers who will happily help you figure out what’s chewing on your cabbages or what soil amendments your blueberries need.

Soaring garbage disposal costs a while back led to the birth of a second project on the same lines, the Master Composter program. Less visible than the Master Gardeners, the Master Composters have mostly concentrated on teaching people how to set up backyard compost bins and take their yard waste and kitchen scraps out of the waste stream. When I lived in Seattle in the years right around the turn of the millennium, the city government helped the Master Composters out to the extent of giving away free compost bins to anybody who attended their classes; the reduction in garbage disposal costs was substantial enough that this made economic sense.

The late Seventies and early Eighties, though, saw the birth and abandonment of another project of the same sort: the Master Conserver program. I was one of some hundreds of people, ranging from teenagers to retirees, who attended weekly classes in the auditorium of the old downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. We studied everything from basic thermodynamics to the fine details of storm window installation. Those who completed the curriculum took an exam, then put in at least a minimum number of hours of volunteer work helping schools, churches, nonprofits, and elderly and poor homeowners retrofit for energy conservation, to receive their Master Conserver certificate. I still have mine, tucked away in a drawer, much the way old soldiers I’ve known kept medals from the wars of their youth.

Could such a program be put back to work by local governments in the face of the approaching energy crisis? You bet. A quarter century of further experience with the Master Gardener and Master Composter programs on county and state levels would make it child’s play to organize; the information isn’t hard to find, and the dismal level of energy efficiency common in recently built houses and the like could make a Master Conserver program a very useful asset as energy prices climb and the human cost rises accordingly.

For that matter, I can’t be the only Master Conserver from those days who still has all the class handouts from the program in a battered three-ring binder, or who keeps part of a bookshelf weighed down with classic conservation books – The Integral Urban House, The Book of the New Alchemists, Rainbook, and the like. I don’t quite remember anybody in the last days of the program saying “Keep your Whole Earth catalogs, boys, the price of oil will rise again!” Still, the sentiment was there.

More generally, of course, the experiences of any of the 20th century’s more difficult periods can be put to work constructively as we move deeper into the 21st century’s first major crisis. The victory gardens and ingenious substitutions that kept the home front functioning during the Second World War are another potential source of ideas and inspiration well worth a sustained look. Still, the experiences of the Seventies offer a particularly rich resource in this regard. Close enough to the present to be part of living memory for many people, and faced with the same basic challenge of too little energy, too few resources, and too much economic instability for an overheated and overextended industrial world, it parallels our present predicament too closely to be neglected.

One crucial lesson from that decade may be particularly worth keeping in mind. In the depths of the Seventies energy crisis, the conventional wisdom had it that energy would just keep on getting more costly as a lasting Age of Scarcity dawned over the industrial world. That didn’t happen, of course. I’ve suggested elsewhere, based on the way other civilizations have fallen in the past, that the end of the industrial age will trace out a stairstep decline, with periods of crisis and breakdown punctuated by periods of partial recovery.

This has its drawbacks, but it also offers the hope of breathing spaces in which the lessons of each time of crisis can be assessed and put to use in dealing with the next. By the time we start on the downward arc following the one we’re approaching just now, with any luck, the Master Conservers of that time will have the accumulated knowledge of a second round of crises to draw on, and may be able to make the transition to lower energy use a little less rough than the one that looms before us today.


jjglick said...


I'm worried that the next period of partial recovery may be closer than you imply. I haven't noticed this addressed yet here, but I assume you've seen the recently-hyped reports about the Bakken formation, which is supposed to solve all our problems and give us energy independence through an extra ~700,000 barrels of oil. Buys us more time to get our heads straight, right? Right?

It seems to me that, on the off-chance that this does come online quickly enough to push the price of oil down, it may stave off the energy crunch for just long enough--say, a few decades--for the lessons which you are now pushing to be forgotten, again. Do you (or does anybody here) have a sense of how this is likely to impact the near-to-medium term situation? The hype apart, is this formation likely to be a productive energy source, quickly enough and for long enough to impact the situation?

greenengineer said...

Is Conservation a "solution" or does it just allow the underlying problems to fester and compound delaying the Fall but making the Fall a more precipitous and painful Collapse?

Please don’t think I oppose Conservation - Waste that can be reduced, recycled, reused, etc is valid economic logic.

In the 1970s the oil shortage problem was aggressed in the US by massively increasing oil imports from less and less stable points across the globe. These 'new' fields are now into the Decline side of Hubbert's Curve. Most of the environmental and ecological projects need a prosperous economy to fund them; a declining tax base will shrink existing .gov projects and thwart many new efforts when they are needed most.

Richard heinberg has offered four strategies:

1. Last Man Standing with increased competition for the last drops of oil.

2. Powerdown with voluntary simplicity and adaptation to lower per capita energy usage.

3. Technofix with massive investment of declining real wealth in long shot technologies like cold fusion or zero point energy or other esoteric technology.

4. Build Lifeboats with small groups of people coming together to devise methods to maintain what can be maintained of civilization.

To this list I would add a third - Cull the Herd with humane reduction of populations by such means as delaying child birth, having fewer children (our tax incentives could be reduced as a function of increasing children, etc.

It is interesting to me that Heinberg doesnt identify Conservation as a major strategy. Amory Lovins and others do identify conservation as a major strategy so it could be that Conservation is an auxiliary strategy that will buy time to allow one of the other major strategies to be implemented.

For sure, these strategies are not mutually exclusive. But each carry trade offs that may be unacceptable to large populations:

Last Man Standing will no doubt increase the likelihood of Resource Wars and accelerate the Decline as depleting oil is channeled into .mil consumption.

Powerdown may put the populations that switch to lower energy at a Darwinian disadvantage versus those pursuing a local Last Man Standing strategy.

Technofix is in my mind a long shot Hail Mary pass likely to produce little if any meaningful results.

So that for me leaves Lifeboats. A lifeboat community is an area of great interest to me. I would appreciate your thoughts on structure, appropriate technology, funding issues etc. For me - I think a community must be anchored around a prosperous and profitable enterprise. The optimum organizational structure may be the Employee Stock Ownership Program where the members pool assets to buy shares and the members own the enterprise.

Kind regards,
Bill P

Robin said...

When seen from a third world perspective, the conservation effort in this country can do a lot of good with a little effort.

When one considers how appliances, apparel / just about everything is trashed rather than repaired, that would be a significant opportunity for conservation.

Lance Michael Foster said...

In a quick Googleglance, I note that most states have a Master Gardener program. It seems the program had its origin in Washington state. There seems to be free and even distribution of this knowledge set as distributed by various state agricultural extension offices. For those interested in becoming a Master Gardener, it may be as simple as contacting the local ag extension office and signing up for the next session.

As to the Master Composter knowledge set, a smaller list of states have a Master Composter program, including California, Vermont, Colorado, and of course Washington state, among others. There has been one effort to privatize/commercialize/assert copyright over the the public monies-developed Master Composter process, at
Whereas the knowledge distribution channels for Master Gardener programs is through the state agriculture extension offices in general, the Master Composter knowledge set is really dependent on county or city-level organizations and is often tied into landfill and waste management programs (which are local rather than state-level in operations). So the Composter is more hit-and-miss as to its availability as a certification program. But certainly the info is available in various places for those municipalities/counties interested in starting a program up in their area.

Finally I did a Googleglance (I just made that up lol) and saw only a mention or two for Master Conserver programs (actually in my googleglance I only saw one mentioned in a 1983 report-- Oregon). Perhaps that was a primarily northwest region thing? Anyways the Master Conserver program seems to not exist anymore, under that label, though various places do have energy conservation programs under different names, mostly focused on low income households. Most energy utilities also have various water and energy conservation audits available for the homeowner. My folks did that here in Montana. You might have something very valuable in those old three-ring binders, JMG!

It also seems to me that any effort to create a Master Conserver program locally, might be wise to create a co-program or expand the effort to create a Master Recycler/Salvager program as well. Not just the usual stuff on aluminum cans and newspaper (raw materials) but also on salvaging building materials, re-use/re-purposing of older items, retrofitting living spaces, refurbishing old tools etc.

Great post, JMG! I have to ironically notice one thing your past posts that are mostly academic and rhetorical, such as your posts on energy policies and prices, and where our culture may be heading, it seems to me you get a lot more comments and debate. When you post on practicalities of composting or conserving, getting off our collective butts and acting, when the rubber hits the road, fewer people seem to get as excited and there are fewer responses. Is this an indication of our rhetoric-heavy and action-lite Net culture, ...or are people just turning off their computers to do some actual work? Whaddaya think?

yooper said...

Hello John, I think "Master Conservers" will become highly fashionable for those able to put this into practice. I might add that our billing cycle has ended with Waste Management (our garbage pick-up) and we're on our way with recycling and starting the compost pile.

I read an article the other day that suggested the recent spike on oil prices was brought on due to electrical shortages in the field. We'll be more and more dependent on Third World countries producung a First World amenity, that amenity being oil.

Your suggestion that limits to growth are back, is especially scary when this could mean terminal decline. That is, we may have reached a global peak in growth. If this is the case, then this "crisis" is actually a transition into the other side of the slope. Put another way, we have lost our foward gear and only have reverse gear left. Naturally, I'm suggesting that we've peaked in our industrail society and are just now making a transition into some other kind of society. Of course, this will have consenquences, possibly seeing starvation ramp upwards in countries all over the world, not just Third World. China and India, leap to mind.....

I'm looking foward to supporting the local 4-H club, in a big way this year. I hope we can make it fashionable in rewarding these boys and girls, in their effort towards a sustainable way of life.

More later.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

JJ, I'm not a petroleum engineer and I don't even play one on TV, but the people whose grasp of the subject seems most solid to me are saying that it's pure hype. Expect more of the same. Last year it was going to be ethanol that would save us; the year before that, the Caspian oil fields, and so on.

Greenengineer, my take is that conservation is a parachute -- a way of dealing with decline that allows us to do it in a somewhat less disastrous way. It's an essential part of Heinberg's powerdown strategy, and also of any viable lifeboat strategy.

Robin, absolutely. People in the industrial world have forgotten the old maxim "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" -- we need to relearn it in a hurry.

Lance, yes, I've noticed the way that discussing practicalities makes for fewer comments. I'm not sure what causes it, but the practical details need to be aired -- it's those, not the highfalutin' intellectual themes, that will get as many people through the approaching mess with as much of their humanity intact as possible.

Yooper, good for you! We have a big 4-H program here in southern Oregon, and a lot of the local organic farmers came out of it. That's another of the neglected resources that could use support and involvement just now.

eboy said...

I really like your writing style John. This is prescient council imo that of running as fast as possible towards conservation. This conservation will no doubt be wasted effort in the sense that fuel saved for example will be allocated elsewhere. War in Iran? Is this 'Jevons paradox' at play?

Those whose efforts, made in the 70's, to conserve energy retrofitting to address the seemingly new realities around the corner are to be commended for putting their money where their mouths were and to be thanked for the knowledge aquired and now shared with us. Perhaps fuel will be found to mitigate the decline, postponing some consequences, perhaps pandemics will achieve short term demand destruction, financial collapse in a phoney economic system doesn't seem likely, only when the system rubs up with the truth of the environment will it be shown for the game that it is I suspect. The myriad of variables that exist help to explain why economists for example are more frequently wrong than right when predicting the future. And why we should understand that our lives are much more vulnerable than perhaps realized.

The cause of the bubonic plague wasn't understood until much later. As key species fail due to environmental deterioration for example we can face problems with unforseen consequences. The honeybee's for example. How many people realize the connection between their pollinating efforts and the price of fodder? (They pollinate clover and alfalfa which fix nitrogen hence boosting yields).

It seems apparent to me that the upcoming energy shortages help to illustrate many of the short comings of our societies values and beliefs. So that finding a 'new' cheap energy would not address other problems -climate change or toxic buildup in the environment and the solution of more energy translates currently to more of the same. Bruce Cockburn had a song with lyrics: 'The trouble with normal is it always gets worse' that sums up in part my point.

In catabolic collapse, if the periods of stability or less free fall,if you will, translate to wars of rhetoric where the commercial interests that advocated CONSUME and be happy succeed in masking the true nature of the predicament faced (it seems that this should be expected) then those efforts to increase knowledge and hence resilience for those willing to hear will be rewarded, as we have been rewarded by the knowledge gained from efforts made in the 70's

Dwig said...

So that for me leaves Lifeboats. A lifeboat community is an area of great interest to me. I would appreciate your thoughts on structure, appropriate technology, funding issues etc.
For a variation of the Lifeboat idea, see Jeff Vail's Rhizome concept, elaborated on his blog, here and here.

Also, I'm working on an exploration of the internal factors that determine how well communities work; you can browse it here.

When you post on practicalities of composting or conserving, getting off our collective butts and acting, when the rubber hits the road, fewer people seem to get as excited and there are fewer responses. Is this an indication of our rhetoric-heavy and action-lite Net culture, ...or are people just turning off their computers to do some actual work?
In my case, I just read in fascination and took notes. I simply didn't have much to add to the conversation. On the other hand, there didn't seem to me to be any lack of people with good things to say about the topics, but maybe that's just my impression due to the quality of information presented by folks with hands-on experience.

DeadBeat Dad said...

I hope you didn't just buy oil futures today. That might have been a bad BET. Here's an excerpt on a new gasoline substitute:

"...They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline....The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used "as is" for a high octane gasoline blend...
...Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and DOES NOT INCUR the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel," said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research...

In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce..."

Don't rush to trade in your tractor for a draft horse just yet

Panidaho said...

Is this an indication of our rhetoric-heavy and action-lite Net culture, ...or are people just turning off their computers to do some actual work? Whaddaya think?

I think sometimes it's more fun to comment when you can play "ain't it awful?" than when discussion is more practically oriented. I have to watch myself on that.

But, in my case, I've been getting the last of my garden starts going, preparing the main garden beds, digging out the rampant raspberry canes that are invading the pathway and the herb garden, finishing up a challenging senior-level semester at the university, spending a lot of time every week looking for full-time work (found it, too! As of this week I now have a somewhat recession proof job that's less than one mile from the house and I can commute by foot or on bike nearly all year long! woohooo!) and dealing with family issues.

Btw, I had other job options in the works, but I deliberately chose the one that I could walk to every work day that it's not blizzard-ing. Some of the others offered more money, but required more driving. So I'm trying to do more than just talk about this stuff.

John Michael Greer said...

Eboy, you might want to glance at last week's post, which discusses the way Jevons' paradox plays out in an environment of resource scarcity.

Dwig, thanks for the links!

DeadBeat, you might want to look past the hype a bit. It's easy to promote this week's miracle technology -- and lucrative, too, if you have stock for sale. Still, there are hard thermodynamic reasons why nothing will produce the volumes and concentrations of energy needed to maintain business as usual.

Remember when ethanol was going to save us? Ethanol plants are going bankrupt right and left just now, because there are no free resources left -- turn the corn crop into fuel, and the price of corn soars; turn anything else into fuel, the economic consequences circle back around. So I wouldn't be too quick to sink your life savings into this latest round of energy-tech hype.

Teresa, good for you! It's when people take practical action in their own lives to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels that something real has been accomplished.

John Michael Greer said...

I've just had the delightful experience of watching one of my personal heroes -- sociologist William R. Catton Jr., author of Overshoot -- lecturing on peak oil, prosthetic technologies, and the impact of carrying capacity on history. His lecture is available free online here -- you'll need to allow popups to see it, but it's worth a half hour or so to watch.

DeadBeat Dad said...

JMG said:
"...So I wouldn't be too quick to sink your life savings into this latest round of energy-tech hype."

No worries there, mate. Several years ago my ex-wife, the courts, and the government took my life savings, ( also my parents' life savings), and my future earnings.

So I won't be investing in the latest hype. More likely, 5 years from now I'll be the guy who shows up at a farm with the shirt on his back and a sign that says "Will work for food"

I think that the decline in comments on your posts on composting is that your average reader has no background in agriculture, although it's beginning to seep in that we'll need it. Your typical reader is a college-educated white collar slob sitting in front of his computer in an apt or office high-rise drinking a Starbucks.

In the next 10 years the people who go to the countryside will be growing numbers of dirt poor ( the leading edge), and the very, very rich who want to grab vanishing & precious fertile land. The new lords of the manor.

Bilbo said...

The master conserver is a wonderful idea. I think it will work as people becomes more concerned about energy. Right now I am teaching a college level physics course where we have just started the units on energy. The students have been so conditioned by the education system that when I discuss peak oil and the need to conserve energy, the students attitude is "We don't care about this stuff. Just tell us what we need to know to pass the test." Our current education system how extensively I can go into extraneous material outside the prescribed curriculum. I am becoming more convinced that our formal education system is failing us and any effective education on how things will change must be outside this system.

The master conserver idea is a good way to start. How can we get started. Please let me know!

dZed said...

Re: The comment that JMG's posts on practicalities garner less comments, it might be that such discussions are a little more dry, a little more based in science and hard fact, and a little harder to debate. Not to say these things don't happen -- last week's discussion of terra preta, a topic I've been doing a good bit of reading on, was very elucidating, for instance.

Thing is, if you want to discuss the intricacies of composting techniques or biochar or soil microorganism health, you'll need a little more of a science background, or a fair bit of experience. While I know for a fact a good many of the readers of this blog do have this knowledge, it's probably not what brought a lot of people here to begin with.

I, for one, though, love the heck out of those discussions. And this week's topic, frankly, thrilled me to the core. As an Appropriate Tech grad student, one who (If the next meeting/interview goes well) will hopefully be doing an internship this summer at my county Extension Office, I can say right now that Master Composter and Master Conserver programs will be a suggestion I plan on slipping into the conversation (With proper credit given, of course) at some point.

Speaking of the Cooperative Extension Service, by the way, I've really gained a new respect for the whole organization. A quick wikipedia read will get you up to date if you're not familiar with their work. And while I was in 4-H for a number of years in my youth, and new my County Extension Agent, I never really understood that their mandate is much broader than "just agriculture." (True, they still recommend petro-chemical applications for fertilization and pests at many points, but my local org., for instance, offers a number of workshops on organic gardening, and they have people on staff who do just that)

Their main role of getting science and research into communities seems to me to be extremely valuable NOW and has the potential to be even more valuable in the future. Think about it -- most counties in all of the states already have an office that offers free advice from scientists to the people in a community, and that's all they're there for! It's tailor made for easing transitions to any number of the things JMG and others talk about, whether backyard gardens, composting, rain barrels, or energy conservation, all things that my local office, at least, deals with already, though not as much as they should be doing. Make us of, and attempt to influence these folks! Work with them!

I'm always teetering between McDonough and Braungart's industrial optimism and Kunstler's civilation-shaking pessimism, but you're always showing me the middle way, John, and I appreciate that.

Dougald Hine said...

Hi John,

Very interested to read about the Master Gardeners, Composters and Conservers. I don't know of an equivalent official programme here in the UK - maybe other readers do?

My impression is that - both in the 70s and today - the spread of these skills in the UK has happened mainly through grassroots networks. (The WW2 victory gardens, etc, must have been more of a top-down programme, though.)

I know the Transition Towns movement emphasises the need to reverse the "great deskilling" - and specifically to learn from those who lived through the war. ("Honour the Elders" is step 10 of their 12 step plan for communities.) Rob Hopkins has a phrase, which I think came from Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute, about building a "parallel public infrastructure" - ways of doing things that will still work when the ones we're currently encouraged to depend on stop working.

There's similar thinking in the background of the project I've been working on, School of Everything. Even leaving aside the need for the spread of particular skills, it seems to me that the more people who have the experience that it's possible to organise learning (and healthcare and food production and so on) outside of big corporate or state structures, the better prepared we'll be for the coming changes.

Anyway, thanks for your consistently fascinating blog, which I've been following for months. (The practical posts may not provoke as much debate, but they can draw lurkers out of the woodwork...)

Iconoclast421 said...

There is endless amounts of evidence that shows they knew damn well even in the 1970s what was going to happen. Hundreds of publications quoted experts who made statements such as "we've got 500 years worth of coal". Those statements were based on flawed math that any high school educated person could recognize. But few did recognize, because the repeated errors were so pervasive, and those errors were being made by so-called experts. Why question the so called experts? How can someone with multiple degrees make such horrible math errors? Simple... to protect their own asses. To protect their own cushy jobs. At the expense of our whole civilization.

What were they protecting themselves from? The eugenicists, who want to see the most horrible collapse imaginable come to fruition. The CFR, the trilaterals, the Bilderbergers, etc. 30 years ago, too many people made the mistake of thinking that this was a free and open society. Free and open societies do not show such fear of the truth. And fear is the ONLY thing that can possibly explain why so many experts were so wrong in all those "500 years of coal", "200 years of oil" etc statements.

The question you need to ask yourself is simply: how many times, in how many publications, do you have to hear the so-called EXPERTS say that we've got 500 years worth of coal before you accept the fact that there really is a global nazi-style conspiracy meant not just to kill jews, but to kill nearly everyone?

mem from somerville said...

I love the idea of Master Conservers program, too. I would sign up in a millisecond if I saw that offered locally.

John Michael Greer said...

Deadbeat, there's a third category who will be headed back to the land -- those who learn how to grow food with hand tools and organic inputs now, while there's still time to learn to do it well. Competence in any field relevant to the deindustrial world is likely to pay off in a very big way.

Bilbo and Mem, I'd encourage you to contact your local governments, utilities, and county ag extension agencies, introduce them to the idea of a Master Conserver program, and if you can, offer to volunteer some time to help make it happen. In the meantime, you can also gather conservation info -- there's a lot of it on the internet -- and put as much of it as possible to work in your own homes and lives. It'll take a lot of work to build the sort of program that was taken apart so foolishly in the Eighties, but it's work that needs to be done.

Dzed, excellent! I hope you get that internship; one way or another, though, I expect to see appropriate tech rise from the ashes of the 1980s like a phoenix.

Dougald, the idea of a parallel infrastructure is vitally important, and so is picking up skills that will be needed in the near future. I plan on doing a post on that shortly. Thanks for the links!

Iconoclast, hunting for scapegoats has got to be one of the most useless of all human activities. A lot of people in our society have taken up conspiracy thinking, with all its burden of hatred and blame; it's emotionally a lot easier to insist that the coming deindustrial transition is the fault of some malign conspiracy than to accept the fact that nearly all of us, by using cheap abundant energy without a thought for the long term consequences, have robbed our own grandchildren. Nonetheless, the sort of conspiracy theory you're promoting is part of the problem, not part of a solution.

mem from somerville said...

Already started, John. I looked for some literature and found a reference to a study about it. I have ordered it from my state library. The article is here (if the link will work):

In case it doesn't work, search for report ORNL-5984.

However, I think that shared resources are the way to go here. I will try to track it down in my state (MA), but if we can resurrect the remnants of the old one we should. Sounds like Oregon was the poster child.

I'm already insulated, solar hot watered, and way down on electrical use. I'm an amateur, though. Have a program to get people to listen to the strategies in an organized way would be great.

I know the Master Gardener folks around here, maybe I'll ask them if they know of this.

Matt said...

At 42 I still have memories of my grandparents and their friends who lived through the Depression and the Second World War. The enforced frugality of those years never really wore off. They all still darned socks, canned vegetables and fruit, and rarely bought anything new, even though they could have. Leaving an electric light on in an unoccupied room was unheard of. Thrift was a highly regarded virtue, and I'm not sure that is the case today.

At any rate, I think the citizens, with proper encouragement and education could become "conservers" instead of "consumers", but we won't see it so long as we have a government whose plan to end a recession is to send folks a $600 check to buy more stuff.

Well thats my editorial comment. I would note that listening to old folks talk about the Depression is not at all depressing. I think the fact that everyone was in the same boat (at least in rural Maine) instilled a kind of goodwill and solidarity in those people that we lack now. Maybe I'm being romantic, who knows.

stream47 said...

Here’s a reference to the article Deadbeat_Dad was writing about:

Breakthrough In Biofuel Production Process

ScienceDaily (Apr. 8, 2008) — Researchers (George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute) have made a breakthrough in the development of "green gasoline," a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used "as is" for a high octane gasoline blend.

"Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel," said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research.

"In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce," Regalbuto said. "Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel."
It looks like they have a “proof of concept” apparatus behind them in the picture that appears with the article, and they might have made as much as a quart of the new fuel with this apparatus. There is no mention of the efficiency or yield of this new process, or of the energy input required for rapidly heating the cellulose, or for making the catalyst. In addition, to make this an industrially viable process, they’ll have to scale up the process, and difficulties may arise at this point which doom the work to failure. Besides which, they still have to grow the switchgrass and poplar trees, which requires food, water, and in the case of the trees, years of time, and then process the switchgrass and trees. Perhaps by converting the trees into sawdust and the grass into similarly sized particles, the process will be viable - but it still takes energy to make trees into sawdust... and on and on. There’s really no such thing as a free lunch, by the time they get done, I’ll bet the EROEI for this process is no different than for cellulosic ethanol, even accounting for the 30% energy loss with ethanol as opposed to gasoline.

Some of Prof. Huber’s articles are:

Selected Publications

1. Huber, G.W.; Chheda, J.; Barrett, C.B.; and Dumesic, J.A.; "Production of Liquid Alkanes by Aqueous-Phase Processing of Biomass-Derived Carbohydrates", Science, 308, 1446-1450 (2005).
2. Huber, G.W.; Cortright, R.D.; and Dumesic, J.A.; "Renewable Alkanes by Aqueous-Phase Reforming of Biomass Derived Oxygenates", Angewandte Chemie International Edition , 43 , 1549-1551 (2004).
3. Huber, G.W.; Shabaker, J.W.; and Dumesic. J.A.; "Raney Ni-Sn Catalyst for H2 from Biomass-Derived Hydrocarbons" Science , 300 , 2075-2077 (2003).
4. Davda, R.R.; Shabaker, J.W.; Huber, G.W.; Cortright, R.D.; and Dumesic, J.A.; "Aqueous-phase reforming of ethylene glycol on silica-supported metal catalysts", Applied Catalysis B: Environmental , 43 , 13-26 (2003)

Here’s the abstract from the first article:

Science 3 June 2005:
Vol. 308. no. 5727, pp. 1446 - 1450
DOI: 10.1126/science.1111166

Production of Liquid Alkanes by Aqueous-Phase Processing of Biomass-Derived Carbohydrates
George W. Huber, Juben N. Chheda, Christopher J. Barrett, James A. Dumesic*

Liquid alkanes with the number of carbon atoms ranging from C7 to C15 were selectively produced from biomass-derived carbohydrates by acid-catalyzed dehydration, which was followed by aldol condensation over solid base catalysts to form large organic compounds. These molecules were then converted into alkanes by dehydration/hydrogenation over bifunctional catalysts that contained acid and metal sites in a four-phase reactor, in which the aqueous organic reactant becomes more hydrophobic and a hexadecane alkane stream removes hydrophobic species from the catalyst before they go on further to form coke. These liquid alkanes are of the appropriate molecular weight to be used as transportation fuel components, and they contain 90% of the energy of the carbohydrate and H2 feeds.

Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Danby said...

Well, I tried to post a very long comment on parallel infrastructures, drawing an analogy with Russian military design doctrine, but my network crashed and I lost it. Rather than try to re-create my brilliant and, scintillating discourse (Oh, how I love me!), I'll skip that and post some more recent thoughts.

I was on my way to Raymond, WA yesterday to pick up a draft horse (Jewel, 6yr old Belgian mare, sorrel with flaxen main and tail, 17.2 hands, 1750lbs,). To get there I drove out Highway 6, which follows the Chehalis river for about half the way.

The Chehalis was the local river that flooded so badly last December, killing thousands of cattle and several people, doing about 1/2 billion $ damage. It took road crews about 5 weeks to clear the mudslides and repair the washouts to open the highway again. The rail line may never be re-opened. Some residents were stranded in their ruined homes for 2+ weeks, with food and water being flown in by the Coast Guard.

Highway 6 follows the river for about 30 miles, and there are (naturally) many bridges in the highway and on sideroads that branch from it. Fortunately none of the bridges the highway itself runs on were seriously damaged. Side bridges however were. In particular the bridge to Rainbow Falls state Park and the bridge to Doty were completely missing. I saw the Doty bridge about 1/2 mile downstream broken into a dozen pieces and thrown 15 feet up on the riverbank.

The residents of Doty now have to go 20 miles out of their way to go east to Chehalis or south, and 50+ miles out of their way to go west to Raymond.

The pre-petroleum infrastructure is a lot like that highway was after the flood. Most of it is still out there in good usable shape. In some places the road's been covered by a thousand yards of mud. In others, the grade has washed out from under the railroad tracks, leaving the rails in place, but unable to support any traffic. In a few places the bridge is gone and it will take time, hard work and money to replace it.

We don't have to build a new infrastructure, we just have to find what's already out there and work out ways to link it together. For a long time, much of it will be a kluge and parts of it will not work at all, but given time and use, that will be alleviated.

yooper said...

Danby, for one I'd like to hear your thoughts about paralell infrastructures, drawing from a analogy of Russian military design.

I'm also interested what that pre-petroleum infrastructure might be, that you're referring to, that is like the highway after the flood. This is hard for me to believe. As pre-petroleum infrastucture is very hard to detect here (over grown with trees) or simply non-existent today. Perhaps, you're talking railway beds, waterways and such?

Oh btw, what a catch with Jewel!! I can visualize this! I'll bet you're mighty proud and she's damn lucky she's got you!

Thanks, yooper

FARfetched said...

Been lurking or vacationing the last couple of weeks. I like this idea of Master Conservers, and even much more Master Gardeners. Seems like the two would create some synergy working together though — composting, for example.

The "doing" part isn't even that difficult. Start small. If you live in an apartment or condo, or are stuck in some cookie-cutter housing development that would faint at the very idea of a backyard garden, use barrel halves to grow a little salad in containers. If you have some yard space that you can use, make a couple of 4'x8' beds and grow stuff in there. I started two last year & found them very easy to maintain because you can reach any part of it. I'll build a third this year using compost mixed with native soil.

I don't think we're in for a fast crash, at least not right away, so (if I'm right) beginners have some time to hone their skills and build their gardens. We can respond to rising food and oil prices by growing more of our own food. Closer to home, it looks like Planet Georgia also has a Master Gardener program. I'm going to see if I can get my mother-in-law interested in joining it; she got skillz. (Prayers and good thoughts for her would be appreciated, by the way, for a possible aneurysm — it would be terrible to lose her skills just when they're most needed.)

Danby said...

By pre-petroleum infrastructure, I don't just mean roads. I also mean things like:
draft horses,
saddle horses,
farmer's markets,
clubs and associations (Grange, Foresters, IOOF, etc),
machine shops,
oil lamps,
platen presses,
local grist mills,
sailing ships,
traveling craftsmen (cobblers, tinkers, etc)
loose (not baled) hay,
and I'm sure you could easily add to the list.

These are all things that will add greatly to the the ease and proseprity of a populace. Some of them, like grist mills are quite rare. I know of only one in Washington State, and that's a tourist trap.

Others are far more common than you would guess. Horses number some 6 million in the US. That's about 1/3 the number there were in 1900. And I doubt there's a county in the entire country without at least one amateur blacksmith, and most welders I've known (I once worked as a welder), have played with it as a hobby.

Jewel is quite a catch. I'm leasing her, as her owner needs the barn space for her horse-training business. I pay $200/month for the use of the horse and twice-monthly driving lessons. In 6 months, she will have a gelding, Jake, trained and ready for me to buy. Jake is 18.2 hands and (at 2 years old) 1900 lbs. He's probably not done growing. If anyone needs horse driving lessons in the Portland, Oregon area, I can introduce you.

Erik said...

Just catching up, and in digging around I see that my county does indeed have a Master Gardener program, and they will be represented at the big herb festival this weekend. I will try to learn if there is a Master Composter program as well!

Erik said...

We are fortunate here in our part of NC, in that we still have a fair bit of our pre-industrial infrastructure intact and functioning (I even have some corn meal and grits from the local grist mill in my fridge right now), even if we have to drive half an hour to get to it. This was predominantly a farming area until quite recently, and a lot of people still have an interest in "old-timey" ways of doing things (and, yes, the "old-timey" social attitudes that go along with that, for good and for bad).

I know one amateur blacksmith, and he says there are a couple of others in the area, but nobody's really teaching it.

yooper said...

Danby, conservering a culture, eh? Your last post here is the most important thought, I've read in awhile regarding localization. I thought this is what you might have been aiming at.

Ha! I know exactly what you mean, about tourists traps. The farm I've been describing is exactly that.... However, it will be much more than that in the future....

Thankfully, even though I live in one of the poorest counties in the State, it's also the home of the highest population of horses, especially draft horses. Even though most of the stupid hay boys still scoff at "hay burners", these people will be in for a big surprize. If not sooner than later, better to be safe than sorry. Btw, how many engines do you know of that don't need replacement parts and can stay continuously running for 20 to 25 years?

My hat is off to you, I have the deepest respect for horsemanship. As I've stated before, I really admire your lifestyle and only wish you the best.

I wish you could be part of the draft horse contests held in this county! These are truely spectacular events that draw teams from all over the mid-west.

Thanks, yooper

Karl J. Schmidt said...

Dear John,

Could you post the curriculum/topic outline to the Master Conserver program on your blog? I work at the land-grant university in South Dakota and have gone through the Master Gardener training here. I might be able to interest folks here in offering a Master Conserver program, if they knew what the curriculum looked like.



John Michael Greer said...

Karl, please contact me via info (at) aoda (dot) org -- I still have all my original lessons and other info, and would be glad to help.