Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Bridge to Somewhere

Last week’s discussion of the twilight of the electrical grid in an age after abundance turned out to be timely, in an ironic sort of way. Whatever conversations it might have set in motion in the peak oil blogosphere were all but drowned out by a flurry of proclamations that some energy resource or other would keep the grid up and running for the foreseeable future.

Mind you, some of that flurry could have been lifted straight from equivalent discussions in the alternative energy field three decades ago. Fans of nuclear power were busy promoting their glow-in-the-dark solutions, of course, though for some reason fusion didn’t get dragged into the discussion; the folks at Livermore must have been busy doing something else this week. Meanwhile a longish essay posted on The Oil Drum, and widely cited elsewhere, insisted that satellite based solar power was the solution to the future’s energy problems. For connoisseurs of energy vaporware, this essay was a treat – a Dagwood sandwich of untried technologies, enthusiastic assumptions, and more than Panglossian optimism concerning the potential costs and downsides of pursuing a wholly untested and dizzyingly grandiose technological project at a time when the industrial world is so far into bankruptcy that it’s scrambling to keep its existing infrastructure from crumbling under its collective feet.

Still, the chief focus of the discussion was less dated, though attentive observers will have seen it coming some time ago. "Fracking" technology – more properly, "hydrofracturing," but only engineers call it that these days – is part of the toolkit that’s used to extract fossil fuels, and it’s become all the rage among those who want to believe that the age of cheap abundant energy isn’t dead yet. Thus there’s been a great many claims insisting either that natural gas will fuel our current lifestyles for the foreseeable future, or that it will provide a bridge to a future of renewable energy that will, again, keep our current lifestyles supplied with all the power we think we need.

Now of course fracking is a reality, and one that’s had a significant impact on natural gas production in the US already. Those of my readers who, in their younger days, shook up a bottle of soda pop good and hard, and then opened the cap, already know a good deal about the fracking process. Instead of shaking gas-bearing rock, fracking pumps in a mixture of water and toxic chemicals under high pressure, but the result is the same: bubbles of gas that were trapped in the rock (or the soda pop) come bubbling out all at once. If you want a sudden fountain, it’s not a bad approach, but anyone who’s tasted soda out of a thoroughly shaken bottle knows part of the downside: you get most of the gas in that first big splash, and very little is left behind

That’s one of the two big problems with fracking. (The other comes from the toxic chemicals just mentioned, which inevitably get into the local water supply with predictably ugly consequences.) Natural gas wells treated with fracking technology produce a lot of gas at first, but production slows to a trickle within a year or so. The same thing is true, interestingly enough, of petroleum wells treated the same way; the drop in production there can be anything up to 80% in the first year. Thus fracking isn’t the answer to our energy future, unless "future" in this case means the next five years at most.

Nor, it probably has to be said, is it a bridge to a future of mighty solar and wind plants that will keep millions of electric cars rolling down America’s highways. Even if that energy scenario was possible, and the evidence suggests that it’s not, it’s a safe bet that the energy made available by fracking won’t be used for that purpose. Those of us who were paying attention to energy issues back in the 1970s will recall claims that the Alaska North Slope would provide just such a bridge to just such a future.

Of course it did nothing of the kind. Instead, it enabled Americans to postpone the energy crisis for a few decades, and take the thirty-year vacation from reality that threw away our chances of a less than traumatic transition to the Age of Scarcity. The relatively brief gas and petroleum boom that we can expect from fracking might well permit a speeded-up replay of the same wretched spectacle: a few years of low energy costs, during which no provision will be made for the inevitable exhaustion of the stranded gas and oil reserves that fracking wells can effectively exploit, followed by a plunge into renewed crisis made even more severe by the ongoing depletion of other fossil fuel reserves. If it’s a bridge at all, it’s a bridge to nowhere.

Fueling a set of unsustainable lifestyles via unsustainable resource extraction, in other words, is not going to get us to sustainability. Of course the term "sustainability" has seen heavy service as a rhetorical weapon in recent years, and has come through the experience with a fair number of dents and scratches, but it’s not actually that difficult a concept to grasp – or, for that matter to define.

To be sustainable, something – a technology, a lifestyle, or what have you – has to be able to keep going indefinitely despite whatever limits the future will throw at it. Two categories of limits deserve particular attention here. The first, ecosystem limits, sums up the relation between whatever you’re considering and the nonhuman world. If something considered sustainable depends on using nonrenewable resources, for example, or on using otherwise renewable resources at a rate that exceeds the biosphere’s ability to renew them, it’s just flunked its sustainability test. Equally, if a technology or lifestyle or what have you puts things into the biosphere that disrupt the natural cycles of matter, energy, and information that keep the biosphere going, it’s not sustainable no matter how much green spraypaint you apply to it.

The role of ecosystem limits in sustainability is tolerably well understood. Less often grasped, because of its unwelcome implications, is the second category of limits that has to be addressed, which might best be called complexity limits. This category sums up the relation between a supposedly sustainable technology, lifestyle, etc., and the social, economic, and technological dimensions of human society, now and in the future. If those systems have a significant chance of dropping below the level of complexity at which your supposedly sustainable item can keep running, no matter how green it looks or how enduring it might be in the abstract, it’s not sustainable.

This is why, for example, I’ve suggested here that the internet is not going to make it very far into the post-abundance future. To keep the internet up and running takes a vastly complex technological structure, ranging from gigawatts of electricity from centralized power plants, through silicon chip factories and their supporting industries and supply chains, to universities that can train people in the wide range of exotic specialties that keep the net functioning. It also requires an economic system complex and rich enough, that the internet can pay its bills and outcompete other ways of providing the services that net users actually use. None of those are guaranteed, and in a world facing energy shortages, economic contraction, and attendant social and political disruption, the chances that today’s faltering industrial societies can maintain the technological and economic foundation for the internet look uncomfortably like those of a snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard.

The electricity grid, as suggested last week, suffers from much the same set of limits. Its ability to deal with ecosystem limits is open to question, since none of the alternatives to fossil fuels seem at all likely to provide a large enough amount of electricity, reliably enough, at a low enough cost to make the grid economically viable. Its ability to deal with complexity limits is at least as doubtful, since national or regional grids as currently constituted depend on an equally sprawling technological infrastructure and an equally complex set of economic arrangements.

It seems quite possible that local grids – for example, the size of a small city or a group of neighboring towns – could keep going over the long term, given a stable source of electricity close at hand. There were plenty of grids on that scale across America in the first half of the twentieth century, a point that suggests that the second half of the twenty-first century could see the reemergence of at least a few. Outside localities where this is an option, though, the only electricity that’s likely to be available to families and communities in the deindustrial future is whatever they can generate themselves.

Fortunately, home generation of electricity in modest but useful amounts is an option, and it’s one that those of my readers who are getting into the green wizardry discussed on this blog can start to explore in their own lives right now. What makes it a complex option, however, is the awkward fact that most of the options for home-generated electricity available right now fail the sustainability test in one way or another.

Photovoltaic (PV) power might as well be the poster child for this effect. PV chips are made by a variant of the same process that produces computer chips, and face the same problems with complexity limits as the economic and technological basis for fab plants and worldwide supply chains comes unglued. Though silicon, the raw material of most PV chips, is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, many of the other substances used in manufacturing solar panel systems are noticeably scarcer, and there are also issues with toxic wastes and other pollutants, so there are significant ecosystem limits to the technology as well.

All things considered, it’s probably a safe bet that within fifty years or so, PV cells will no longer be manufactured – not least because a technology we’ve already discussed, solar thermoelectric power, can produce electricity from sunlight using devices that a reasonably enterprising medieval alchemist could have put together. (Given that medieval alchemists pioneered the use of solar energy for distillation, using polished copper reflectors, this isn’t as strange a suggestion as it might seem.) Does this mean that PV panels should be off the list for green wizards today?

That depends on what your PV panels are intended to do, for there are two sides to the challenge that green wizardry is intended to meet. The first and most obvious task before us is to begin the process of creating and deploying prototype versions of sustainable lifestyles, homes, and communities, on a scale small and local enough that the inevitable mistakes and mischances can be managed. The second, which is too often neglected in discussions of the subject, is to meet the needs and reasonable wants of the people who are doing all this creating and deploying, during an age of economic contraction and technological unraveling when relying on the continued functioning of today’s massive and centralized systems could at any moment turn out to be a sucker’s bet.

Down the road, solar thermoelectric generators are likely to become one of the standard ways that households and small businesses provide themselves with a modest supply of electricity, while PV panels will be an exotic legacy from the industrial past where they’ve survived at all. There’s a fair amount of road to be covered between now and then, however, and during much of that time, those solar thermoelectric generators will be making the journey that runs from handbuilt prototypes in the backyards of basement-workshop inventors, through balky first-generation models of many different designs turned out by green entrepreneurs on shoestring budgets, to the shaking-out process from which the standard, sturdy, widely available models of the future will finally emerge.

During that time, those of my readers who don’t happen to have a talent for nonferrous metallurgy and electrical engineering may find PV panels a useful investment. The fact that those panels won’t be available fifty years from now doesn’t make them useless today, and someone whose main efforts are directed toward organic gardening, say, or some other dimension of the Green Wizard project, could do a lot worse than to cut her electricity use down to size and then provide the current she needs from a bank of solar panels and a stack of batteries. For that matter, even someone who’s hard at work in the basement lab assembling bimetallic strips and a parabolic reflector into a prototype thermoelectric generator might choose to retool his lifestyle in the meantime to work off a hundred watts or so of 12 volt power, and put up a few PV panels to provide that power while tinkering with the generator and getting it through the teething pains every experimental project gets to enjoy.

That is to say, PV panels can be used as a bridge. Unlike the natural gas being pumped out of the ground so frantically by fracking operations just now, it’s a bridge that leads somewhere – or, more precisely, it has the potential to be a bridge that leads somewhere, though it can also be used in less productive ways. The sort of grid-tied PV panel system that’s designed to feed 110 volts of alternating current into the grid, and can’t be used at all when the grid goes down – and yes, there are plenty of PV installations like that these days – is another bridge to nowhere; it’s designed to prop up a way of life with no future, or more precisely to go through the motions of propping up that way of life, and as often as not serving primarily as a status symbol in the meantime.

The land on the other side of the bridge, to extend the metaphor a bit further, will inevitably be a place where the inhabitants use a lot less electricity than people in the industrial world do today. Just as you need to weatherize before you solarize, to quote the appropriate tech motto from the Seventies, you thus need to make very serious cuts in your electricity use before you can realistically turn to renewable sources to meet the modest power needs that remain. Here again, any response to the predicament of our time that doesn’t start out with using much less – less energy, stuff, and stimulation – simply isn’t serious; it’s yet another bridge to nowhere.

There are quite a few potential bridges that lead somewhere, just as there are other technologies that aren’t bridges at all but fully sustainable options that will still be running long after the last PV cell stops working. In a world where the industrial nations didn’t take a thirty-year break from reality, it probably wouldn’t be necessary to use the bridges at all; in such a world, entrepreneurs would long since have followed up on the intriguing chapter on solar thermoelectric generators in Farrington Daniels’ Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy, and you’d be able to pick up neatly packaged systems with parabolic dishes on sturdy sun-tracking mounts at the better grade of hardware store, right next to the solar water heaters, the fireless cookers, and the racks of 12 volt household light bulbs.

Still, that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is one in which a small minority of people are belatedly waking up to the ghastly predicament into which the misguided choices of recent decades have backed us, while most others are squeezing their eyes shut and covering their ears with their hands in a desperate attempt to keep from noticing the mess we’re in. In that kind of world, saving much of anything at all is going to involve quite a bit of last-minute scrambling and a fair number of temporary expedients and jerry-rigged makeshifts, and one feature that will likely be common to a great many of those latter is the use of resources extracted in one way or another from the disintegrating mass of our current industrial system.

Quite a few of our bridges to somewhere, in other words, are going to depend on a strategy that makes calculated use of the process of catabolic collapse now beginning to pick up speed in industrial America and elsewhere. I’ve got a few posts more worth of things to say about energy, and then we’ll begin talking in earnest about the third of the core elements of Green Wizardry, which is also the third great legacy from the alternative movement of the Seventies. Most people nowadays call it recycling, and that’s not a bad term at all, but it’s come to mean little more than putting out bins once a week so that diesel-powered trucks can come haul a fraction of your waste products back into the industrial system. The work we’ll be discussing is both more robust and more personal, and so it needs a different name; we’ll be calling it salvage.


gordon said...

Another great post JMG. It made me look again at my list of plans. Specificaly, Plan No.1: Plan to change your plans. I am going to investigate solar thermoelectric as a backup for those few months here when micro hydro won't work for me.

Robo said...

Surprisingly, this evening the lead story on the ABC nightly news actually proposed that the extreme weather the world has been experiencing recently might actually have something to do with climate change. I suppose this could be the start of a truthful trend in the mainstream media, but it's far more likely that the most profitable effect will be the continued elevation of public fear levels, which are already very high. Terrified people are far more likely to do what they are told than those who have their wits about them.

Meanwhile, here in New York State, there has been a slight pause in the march towards hydrofracking of the Marcellus shale in order to study environmental issues. This exercise is strictly for the benefit of the Democratic governors' most liberal constituents. Soon it will be on with the show and business as usual, since there's jobs at stake and money to be made.

Perhaps the quick burst of shale gas will give us a few years to develop practical solar thermoelectric technology. More likely we will be encouraged to buy more automobiles. American made, of course.

I participated in that Oil Drum discussion you mention. There was clearly a sharp divide of opinion between those who might be described as 'stoic' and resigned to systemic collapse, and those who were proudly and determinedly 'optimistic' and pushing towards a bright technological future.

Twas ever thus. Do these two poles of opinion simply cancel each other out in a zero-sum?

John Michael Greer said...

Gordon, that sounds like a good plan! Seriously, I'd like to see a bunch of people get to work on solar thermoelectrics; engineering isn't my strong suit, but I may give it a try down the road a bit myself. The sheer technical simplicity of the concept makes it look like a good option.

Robo, that's fascinating. I've been noting a lot of other straws in the wind suggesting that the strident anti-environmentalism of recent years may not have as long a shelf life as many of us had feared. As for opinions canceling each other out, well, for every expert there's an equal and opposite expert -- but some of those experts are quite simply wrong, and those who believe them may end up in a world of hurt sooner than they expect.

Tracy G said...

We're still working on the weatherization which precedes solarization. We've scheduled a professional energy audit for this coming Monday.

Our electrical usage has averaged 375 kWh monthly for the past year. That's a fraction of the typical American household usage, but it's nowhere near as low as I'd like. Our refrigerator accounts for about 215 kWh of that amount. I've often thought about replacing our fridge with an identically sized Sun Frost RF-16, which would consume a mere tenth of the energy. Alas, at our current electric rates of just under 7¢ per kWh, it'd take 19 years for the Sun Frost to pay for itself.

Plus, we're probably moving in a few years. Sigh. That makes it difficult to judge what's best to do.

If I was sure we were staying here, I'd put up PV panels in a heartbeat and also install an alternate heat source, since we presently rely on a natural gas furnace that's governed by an electrically powered thermostat. I think we could afford to do several good things like that for one home, but not for two. So for now, we might have to settle for just beefing up the insulation and sealing the leaks on the present place. I'm pretty sure the auditor will confirm that's something we ought to do. I'm going to follow the auditor around and take careful notes, as I'm extremely interested in the nitty-gritty of those assessments.

I look forward to reading more about salvage here. It feels good to engage both my head and my hands in creative work, and I enjoy crafting useful stuff out of odds and ends whenever I get the chance. I'd like to do more. More with LESS.

GHung said...

Space based solar; fracking; drill, baby, drill; renewed growth. Our society is deeply into the bargaining stage, here in the globalsphere. Clean coal, abundant natural gas, and inovation will come riding in on their white horses to save the day: This, per the Chomskyescent, pervasive mob programming machine. While many readers here have steeled themselves to these not so subliminal messages through intentionally selective media filering, these are the stories being told, being heard.

JMG, Today: Still, that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is one in which a small minority of people are belatedly waking up to the ghastly predicament into which the misguided choices of recent decades have backed us, while most others are squeezing their eyes shut and covering their ears with their hands in a desperate attempt to keep from noticing the mess we’re in.

This week especially, I've noticed that the facade, the shell, is beginning to crack a bit.

Today, from the usually bland CNN, Cafferty File
For the first time maybe since the Vietnam War or certainly since the civil rights movement, there are some darkening storm clouds on the civility horizon. A growing number of voices are continuing to suggest that if this economy doesn't turn around, and people can't start feeling optimistic about their futures again, we could be headed for some ugly scenarios. A new CNN poll says 48 percent of Americans think the country is headed for another Great Depression in the next twelve months. That is a stunning number.

The comments were decidedly angry, suggesting violent uprising. And today's TAE post by Ilargi:

So I guess that's sort of a mission statement after all. And don't worry, I’m easily smart enough to understand that that will rub some people the wrong way. I just don't see another way out anymore, it’s all just about analysis and pattern recognition from where I’m sitting. I’m temporarily lodged in France, to work on the new Automatic Earth website. People here say that if austerity measures like those in Greece and Spain and Portugal would ever reach here, you ain't seen nothing yet. The French know protest, and proudly so. Me, I’m wondering what's going to happen when police start shooting live ammo in the EU periphery. And how far away that moment could be.

We've handed the financial elites absolute powers over our economies, and thereby our lives and well being, as well as our childrens' futures. We’ll have to wrestle it back from their cold dead hands. And that's not going to be an easy one.

While this small, remarkable community is discussing its options going forward, accepting change, society-at-large seems to see itself as running out of options. One wonders how to take this into account. What good are one's best laid plans in an environment of desperation and insecurity?

JMG concludes: The work we’ll be discussing is both more robust and more personal, and so it needs a different name; we’ll be calling it salvage.

While in the Navy on a small, old ship, my shop had a saying: We have been doing so much for so long with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

So I urge folks to pay close attention to what I consider the most important aspect of Green Wizardry: Salvage, Retasking, Recycling, Reusing and Improvising. Learn to make the most of what's at hand, even when what you've considered yours has been taken away. In this you may find the power and self-worth to persevere. Without these skills you'll just be part of the mob. There's a world of junk out there. Make the best of it!

Steve said...

PV systems are abundant where I live, and cars are as well. Between the two, I think there'll be a market for salvaged energy systems and parts to build them for years. In Colorado, when the sun's not shining, the odds are good that the wind's blowing to beat the band. All that's missing is a homebuilt windmill geared to a salvaged alternator and voila: post-abundance wind power.

I think it's time to start exploring RV junkyards for working 12 volt refrigerators, lights, and whatnot. The best time to buy is when no one else is in line...

Thanks for putting signs on some of the bridges, JMG.

Don Mason said...

The article on The Oil Drum was breathtaking: "So at least from the physics of rocket planes, laser propulsion, and the energy economics of power satellites, it seems to be possible to have a world with plenty of low cost energy."

Well, let's review the physics of rocket planes: The article's author admits that he doesn't know how to "get sub orbital Skylons back to their runway."

It may be instructive to recall that even after huge financial expenditures on R & D, half of America's four original space shuttles either blew up on launch or burned up on re-entry, killing everyone on board.

Let's review laser propulsion: the article's author admits, "Can we really heat hydrogen with a laser to 3000 deg K?"

No one has any idea if it's even possible to heat hydrogen to those temperatures under the proposed circumstances without melting everything in sight.

Let's review the energy economics of power satellites: in his most optimistic economic analysis, the article's author says that the project would cost about as much as the Chunnel or the Three Gorges Dam.

And this is in a country that cannot scrape up enough cash to keep its simple steel bridges from falling down and its earthen levees from breaking.

So we're heading into "a world with plenty of low cost energy?".

I'm not holding my breath.

17bbrown87 said...

This is an awful thing to say, but I don't think that there is any way to prepare for what is ahead. Though I am a Christian of the Anglican/Episcopalian flock there doesn't seem to be much being done to assure a transition to a low energy future. I fear mass starvation and die-off. When the government shrinks the only group that seems likely to fill the vacuum is the drug cartels - think Mexico. God help us! Some smaller cities and towns, and the surrounding countryside might be able to moderate the collapse. Good luck trying to preserve any technology in such a world. I am old enough that I might be dead at that point. Sorry to be such a pessimist but society here in the Ohio River Valley has declined rapidly here in the last few years and I don't like the idea of being here within just a few years time.

Martin said...

The metaphor of a bridge is an interesting one, especially in the context of the term "sustainability". Michael hints at possible problems of defining sustainability. If he would go a bit further down that route, his bridge metaphor would fall apart, though.

Michael says: "[for something to be sustainable, it] has to be able to keep going indefinitely despite whatever limits the future will throw at it." That's a tall order. Will there be oxygen in the atmosphere, or water raining down, or intelligent people on the planet, in the future? A definition of sustainability needs to be relative to a baseline of available resources (material, social, intellectual etc). As this baseline changes, so does sustainability. The example of PV panels is good. They are sustainable now (I just installed a couple on my small sailing boat, to trickle-charge its 12V battery). How long will they be sustainable? 15, 30, 60 years? The answer makes a great deal of practical difference to me.

I think the metaphor of a bridge is flawed. Agreed: some of the mentioned resources will become scarce or disappear, but which ones and how fast is hard to gauge in some cases. And to assume an end-point in that process, the point at which we "have arrived at the other end of the bridge" is a romantic notion (I imagine a "reaching California" frontier movie moment).

Let's not get carried away by our own metaphors, try to properly pace our descent into the future, and also have some fun along the way (on our sailing boats or what have you).

LewisLucanBooks said...

Interesting bit of news from out here in the Pacific Northwest. I couldn't find the link again, but the jist is that the Columbia River is running so high that there's too much electricity. They're shutting down the wind plants, overnight, when demand is low.

In our county (Lewis, half-way between Portland and Seattle) there's going to be a good-sized wind farm out in the west county. Looks like a pretty "done" deal. Permits and financing seem to be all in place.

Personally, since I'm older and have no progeny, when I move to a place next year where I have more control over ... how I relate to energy, I think it will be wood heat, solar hot water heater, solar oven and bits and pieces of other solar technology (last week I mentioned small solar fans to optimize my food dryer) as back-up to the electricity I will have.

I want it in place and functional in for when my electric goes down, or becomes too expensive.

J9 said...

I'm enjoying this thread of posts, and of course learning all the time! When I first started reading your blog a few years ago, I was so depressed by the outlook and angry with how stupid we've been, that I couldn't find a way forward, but you've really inspired me to do what I can, and influence the people I can. I wanted to share with you that you're being a marvellous force for positive inspiration, and your wry humour has reminded me that life and learning is fun, so I've added that component into my approach. I wanted to learn some simple manual skills, so I've signed up to a course to build a Pennyfarthing from scratch. I don't think it will be the best transport option, but it has already made me friends with the hardware store, a hacksaw, a bench vise and given me a new social network and some great laughs! Long live tinkering in sheds!
I'm not great at the food growing thing yet, but I'm getting there, and the worm farm, knitting and cooking are all going well. Thank you again for exposing the things that should be obvious, but aren't (server farms really need that much energy?! Wow. How can people think the internet is robust in that form?).
If you get a chance, at some point could you please explain a little more about the mechanical power electricity is put to use for in the home? I'm thinking that might be fans, coffee grinders, maybe washing machines - those kinds of things. Would that be right? What are some appropriate tech models for these things? All I can think of is a bike/pedal setup with geared cogs. Oh, maybe waterwheels. I feel stupid asking this question, but I'm trying to re-learn looking at our world. Trying to see it without the gushing power we're used to.
Warm regards, and I hope you're enjoying the summer in your new home.

Kieran O'Neill said...

On the topic of recycling, I think the modern trend (when it's thought about at all) is towards the waste hierarchy, captured in the "reduce, reuse, recycle" slogan.

I'll grant that to a lot of people it does just mean the coloured box plus diesel van (sometimes with hydraulic bin-lifter), but to some of us it means buying leSs stuff that needs recycling in the first place and reusing the packaging of items that are difficult to buy any other way (for an example). Some (especially plastics) aren't ideal to reuse, but others (e.g. polypropylene -- code 5) are pretty safe.

Anyway, my point is that some of us still view recycling in a wider framework. In fact, in Vancouver there are adverts on the public transit from the municipal waste disposal, as well as full page features by local newspapers, all encouraging reuse and waste reduction.

Baby steps, but steps in the right direction. I'll be looking forward to your take on it.

sawbonessurio said...

You've been in rare form since your train journeys (and excellent descriptions of trains in those thereof ;-) ) But I've been hardpressed for time to offer any words of appreciation. May I request that you take a few more train trips before the Summer ends? ;-)

Anyway, This comment is in connection with the last few articles you've been writing, but most notably, "In The World After Abundance".... The "fad of auterity" seems to have picked on by many as you have suggested.

I spied this recent article on this topic that all the regular readers might also like.

The Death of the American Dream II. A link to Part-I is present right at the beginning of the artle.

The points he makes are those readers will most likely empathise. Sample this paragraph:

"In many farm households, Mom was a teacher as well as a parent. In a time when population density was low and people mostly got around on foot, many kids lived too far from school to get there on a regular basis. Home schooling wasn’t an oddity, and even when kids went to school, most of their real learning took place on the farm. Children on the American family farm were growing up to be farmers themselves. Learning to help Mom and Dad around the homeplace wasn’t an obstacle to their education; learning the myriad skills that farming required, from animal husbandry to market strategies to folk doctoring to weather forecasting to making clothes to building a barn was what education was all about. The Three R’s that you studied in school (readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic) were special and useful skills, but learning skills like making soap and folk doctoring took more energy and time. School was not where life’s most important learning went on.

In any case, to work was to learn, to learn was to work. In Audrey’s suburban paradise, learning is only a vestigial part of what kids do around the house. Home is where the family watches television together."


Cherokee Organics said...


I read the article at the Oil Drum and was floored by the audacity of it. My issue with it was that I'm highly disappointed that they conceded that we are not going to get a space elevator as this would have been rather useful and certainly would have made for an interesting tourist trip! At the very least the view would have been pretty.

Not sure any governments have the money or willpower for such a project. Do they not understand how much debt the first world is in relative to it's capacity to repay that debt? The US is devaluing it's currency in order to allievate the pain of servicing it's debt obligations. The bankers of the US are offloading US dollars in order to finance the purchase of real world commodities such as gold, iron ore, coal, LNG, wheat etc. Devaluing is a good strategy if you hold off on further borrowing, however this is not the case and I can't see what the end game of this will be - probably default at some point?

The other thing that stands out from the article, is that energy outputs in terms of gigawatts roll off the tongue nicely, but are actually pretty hard for us to supply now, let alone at some unspecified time in the future.

Me thinks someone is looking for a fat research grant.

Fracking is an environmental and geological disaster. There are reports that companies are considering starting this process over here in New South Wales and Queensland. Scary and short term thinking.

The other thing that's been in the business news here recently: You know that the low hanging fruit of fossil fuels has been used up when Shell is commencing building a multi billion dollar mobile off shore LNG processing ship. The reason for it's construction is to tap into previously small, known but unexploited natural gas deposits off shore in NW Australia.

I love solar PV technology, however it is not sustainable (thanks for a definition of this much misused word too). Still, it will keep me going for a while yet. Current use is a bit below 3kWh per day, with a fall back plan if there is a problem to reduce it further to 2kWh per day. There are further savings to be had, but it involves considerable changes in my useage patterns. Still it is all possible, it just requires a bit of effort.

Who knows where it will all go. I look forward to your articles of sanity every week.



tOM said...

No internet? Horrors! Still, as long as electrons are available and some phone wires (tho fibre is much more economical), and existing electronics continue to last nearly forever if they aren't broken right near the start, and as long the Internet Protocol continues to route around gaps, some form of internet will be available long after newspaper presses stop running.

As for energy, We have enough coal to last us for a hundred years or so of continuous rising energy requirements even if no more coal is ever discovered, and it is possible to turn coal into oil or plastic for our water wings. Now that would be a LONG bridge. We might need more bridges if the water level increases 20 metres. And the US has substantially more coal reserves than any other country.

Still, none of this addresses the underlying economic problems of the US - but the declining US dollar may adjust consumption of many things downwards in a gradual fashion. One can only hope it is a GRADUAL decline.


Cherokee Organics said...

As to last weeks comments:

Hi Lloyd,

The dogs from the Lost Dogs Home are always the most grateful for their new home on this farm. It's my plan and I will say no more on this subject.

Hi Matt,

I can't argue with you about carrying capacity as we have exceeded it here by a factor of at least two - although studies on this vary widely (two is about the average though). Most of the continent here is arid lands (which is not quite desert, but not very pleasant all the same). Still with global wierding it seems to be getting wetter here especially across the north and central areas which is resulting in inland lakes refilling and a more generally humid climate. I'm feeling the effects of all of this and I'm in a pretty wet area to begin with.

I'd be a bit nervous of stating that the North American population is below the current carrying capacity (albeit with a much lower ecological footprint per capita than at present as you stated).

My reason for this is that although you have far more productive soils than we will ever have, the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides has the unfortunate effect of destroying the biology of those soils. You can repair this situation, but it will take at minimum three years to transition from a chemical based agricultural process to an organic one. You have to feed a lot of people in that time.

It would also require a complete rethink of the current systems of nutrient disposal which I'm not sure people have the will power to do. I've noticed that in disaster scenario's people for some reason always dig pit toilets, but there are much better options which recycle the nutrients. Pit toilets end up polluting the ground water, unless you prepare a small hole and plant a tree in that hole shortly thereafter.

I've noticed a lot of people also point to Cuba to show what can be achieved with transitions, but they also tend to gloss over the fact that it is a totalitarian state and any dissenting voices were probably quietly dragged away somewhere to have a good think about their opinions. They also have a more co-operative culture to begin with and this is no small thing. It's not for no reason that farmers are some of the highest remunerated people in Cuba.

Also in North America, you need to think about your aquifers. They are being depleted at a huge rate. I often read here in comments that people use wells for drinking water. Over here they use water tanks to capture rainwater (I have around 90,000 litres at present). Those wells in North America are being sucked dry or polluted. This has far reaching impacts and it needs to be considered. Over here we call wells, bores and it's a touchy subject between neighbours I can assure you. Fortunately here our aquifers are very deep (and so are the local trees tap roots) so people have difficulty sucking them dry as it uses a lot of power which they can't afford.

Look at the process of fracking and ask yourself, what is this doing to the water table? Do we produce food in this area? Will that food be contaminated?

I dunno, who can tell?



Antony said...

Regarding hydrofracking, I've heard some cynics say that if the water table becomes polluted by 'fracking fluids, then it would create more money for the bottled water industry, as well as new industries for cleaning up the damage. I know local politicians are in love with the idea, because the gas companies plan on paying us to run truckloads of used fracking fluids through our municipal sewage treatment plant. By their logic, being anti-hydrofracking means being anti-jobs, so they refuse to even listen to anything their opposition has to say.

Andy Brown said...

As a communications researcher a few years ago I was involved in a study looking at how well people could comprehend sustainability. One thing that was clear was that people could readily understand the depletion of finite, non-renewable resources. What they had much more trouble grasping was the notion of the other kinds of generative foundations that could be measured, managed, nurtured, increased, lived within, etc. What's remarkable is that if you only understand the first part, your only possible response is to use less or discover more (or find alternatives when you use it up - or die if it was crucial). A set of unhappy insights at best. If you understand the second, as a Green Wizard should, then there open up horizons for creativity, potential and engagement with your world that are of a qualitatively different kind. Unfortunately, it is exactly that wisdom which is such short supply.

Evan said...

This is very much how I treat the electric fence around my orchard. Powered by a small solar generator, this barrier protects my fruit trees from the very healthy deer population. I expect this unit to keep going for a few years, it's well-made for such things and the critical components are rated to last at least 10 years (we'll see how that holds up). But in that 10 year window I should have time to plant and let grow a hedge of willow, hazel, eleagnus, osage, siberian pea shrub and locust. The fruit trees will also reach mature size by then, well above the browse line and some salvaged window screen wrapped around the trunks should discourage deer and other critters from scratching or gnawing at the bark.

So when this unit of Technology falls apart and replacements will be too difficult to maintain, I will have no need for them. I hope too to develop some tricks for field planting trees without fencing or physical barriers that will deter browse...


Wandering Sage said...

thanks for another great post.
It gets a bit discouraging when even people who have a clue of the difficulties we face get caught up in the distractions of the modern world.

As for the Oil Drum article...and all the other vaporware technologies...

In theory, practice and theory are the same, in practice they are not.

Siani said...

I've quietly acquired the materials necessary for thermoelectric generation. Best I can do at the moment is tinker for experience given our situation, but that is worth much.

I've made small parabolic dishes before..with my hammer and planishing ball. They work, although of course they aren't what a true shop could produce.

Being a smith has its benefits..beyond the usual.

Good post.

One of the Remnant said...

"Less often grasped, because of its unwelcome implications, is the second category of limits that has to be addressed, which might best be called complexity limits."

I'm really pleased you addressed this crucial aspect explicitly, JMG.

In my view, the complexity limits will be what bite us first and these bid fair to precipitate cascading crises rapidly once one piece goes down, as that will drag the others with it, the order and time lags between depending on the (poorly understood) reinforcing feedback loops operating between the various interdependent pieces of the puzzle: credit markets, functioning monetary systems, IT and digital infrastructure, transport and supply chains, health and agricultural systems, and all the rest.

I see no institutions in the global landscape today which could provide a stabilizing force sufficient to avoid being swamped by the force of those positive feedbacks, once they begin to accelerate in earnest.

As we saw in 2008, the transient stabilization that was effectuated was only achieved by transferring ownership of massive banking losses from private entities to the the public sector - allowing too-big-to-fail entities to grow even bigger and more prone to failure, while simultaneously spawning sovereign debt crises which call into serious question the viability of the final backstops: governments and central banks. You really can't make this stuff up.

And in fact, the breakdown of functioning credit markets and monetary systems (and by extension, the rest of the hyper-complex and heavily interconnected global financial system) seems more or less imminent, which would immediately disrupt supply chains and transport (as we saw in 2008 when letters of credit virtually disappeared), and those aspects of life depending on them. Which, in an importation nation like America, is just about everything. Ain't globalization grand.

In fact, it is this notion of complexity limits that seems likeliest to me to drive a rapid descent initially, in the form of food and job shortages, first, as a result of the contraction (or perhaps outright collapse) of trade and commerce, with attendant constrictions in agricultural inputs, followed at some point down the road by electricity or internet shortages, once hastily contrived social and political 'quick fixes' prove untenable in the face of the facts on the ground, and we begin to be forced to grapple with reality.

In light of this, the garden remains my top priority, but I will admit that the concept of thermoelectric has really grabbed my imagination. I'm an engineer by training, and while I have little ability at the moment to conduct hands-on research, I do have Farrington's book and am doing my best to come up to speed on the theory.

At this point, from where I stand, it looks like a race against time. She could blow at any time, really...

- Oz

Planner said...

"The world we live in is one in which a small minority of people are belatedly waking up to the ghastly predicament into which the misguided choices of recent decades have backed us, while most others are squeezing their eyes shut and covering their ears with their hands in a desperate attempt to keep from noticing the mess we’re in."


It occurred to me from your post this week that the anti-LESS sentiment of our culture is a take on Pascal's Wager that goes something like this: "a rational person should wager as though fracking/PV/hamster wheels will 'save us', because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose." In this way, LESS is perceived as tantamount to throwing in the towel; a necessary result of failure rather than a goal to be pursued. LESS will always be waiting for us, so why embrace it earlier than necessary?

The supporting logic of this, though flawed - is undeniably saccharine. Belief is not purely a logical process. High technology will fail the sustainability test,so the central challenge of our time is communicating that fact and emphasizing that there are in fact real world consequences to wagering incorrectly.

Thanks for doing what you do JMG. You're having an enormous influence on me and others who are trying to move the needle on some of these issues.

GHung said...

Our county waste/recycling center has adopted a policy of not allowing anything to be removed for reuse. I have a habit of always leaving with something useful. I wanted to take a large water heater last week to make a smoker but was told it was against policy. The county makes money (I doubt it's much) selling the scrap, so I offered to pay a few dollars. No joy.

There was also a small, belt-driven refrigeration compressor, looked to be in fine shape, but alas, it is bound for the smelter. I've been toying with the idea of a wind driven refrigeration unit, a pipe dream perhaps, but sounds like fun.

Other things I salvage:

Plastic pipe, great for all sorts of stuff: hose guides and stakes in the garden; sometimes fittings can be reused; short sections can be cut for projects; etc.

Wood, lumber, used masonry.

Metal roofing: great for chicken coops, sheds, covering a wood pile.

Old rope, cable and wire.

Plastic shoping bags: great for tying tomato plants and at harvest time. Also can be twisted and woven into net style bags for hanging onions, etc.

Old fencing and reinforcement wire: coop/fence repair; tomato cages, etc.

Any nuts, bolts, nails, hardware, fittings, valves that are still usable.

Old satellite dishes/mounts: solar trackers, concentrators; frame for chicken coop/shed roofs or cold frame; rotary clothes dryer.

Broken tools, especially garden tools with broken handles.

Small 12vdc fans from computers: one is cooling my irrigation pump.

RV/auto electrical parts: 12vdc lights, switches, fuse boxes.

Old medical stuff: Scalpels, clamps/hemostats, etc. I scored some unused stuff, sterile bandages, tape, suture kit, more, that was being discarded as out of date. I also got a like-new blood pressure set from the dump. Look for medical kits at military surplus.

Of course, glass jars and containers.

I admitt to still sneaking a few items from the dump, despite the policy. I plan to challenge this new rule, claiming salvage rights or somesuch. One man's trash ....

Yupped said...

Just a quick comment to thank you for this string of posts – your relentlessly practical and pragmatic attitude is just what is needed at the moment, even if a lot of people don’t know it. Its certainly been helpful for me. In most walks of life there are idealistic people who lean towards transformative schemes, and pragmatic/gradualist people who lean towards what can be done today. My working life suggests that the latter group generally pick up the pieces after the former have crashed and burned, and I don’t see the future being much different. We had our first solar-cooked meal yesterday – bit chewy but edible. And the solar shower is up and running – putting the thermo-siphon rig in the greenhouse is producing a very hot shower indeed. Latest book was great, by the way – reminded me of reading Schumacher back in high school economics in the late 70s. We really did take a detour from reality, didn’t we?

One of the Remnant said...

@ TOm

"No internet? Horrors! Still, as long as electrons are available and some phone wires (tho fibre is much more economical), and existing electronics continue to last nearly forever if they aren't broken right near the start, and as long the Internet Protocol continues to route around gaps, some form of internet will be available long after newspaper presses stop running."

I don't think you grasp the full contours of the situation. The business model of the internet is this: the highly discretionary uses of the internet - things like facebook - subsidize the aspects of it which are less discretionary - things like banking and business ops. The former uses rely on a large number of users to keep cost per use low. In other words, increasing economies of scale have created the internet as we know it. What we are now facing, going forward, will be *decreasing* economies of scale - fewer discretionary users will be able to afford it, and so the cost per user will rise. This is a death knell.

Your argument is a purely technical one which does not factor in the social and economic factors which form the constraints under which technology must per force operate.

That being the case, you have it precisely backwards: newspaper presses will undoubtedly outlast the internet by millennia.

"As for energy, We have enough coal to last us for a hundred years or so of continuous rising energy requirements even if no more coal is ever discovered, and it is possible to turn coal into oil or plastic for our water wings."

I don't even know where to start on this bit of pure fantasy. There are so many flawed assumptions underpinning these assertions that I'm not even going to try.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ Siani

"I've quietly acquired the materials necessary for thermoelectric generation. Best I can do at the moment is tinker for experience given our situation, but that is worth much."

Could you give us would-be tinkerers any pointers (outside of the Farrington book mentioned by JMG) toward documentation or other resources which would be useful? I dont have the capacity to tinker right now, but I do want to start trying to work with the concepts intellectually.

- Oz

John said...

You're right when you say that PV technology isn't sustainable, but there is another aspect of it that isn't as well noticed - it's extremely long lasting. The local PV dealer in my area has some panels made in the 60's mounted behind his shop, still producing as much energy as when new. There are very few industrial products we make these days that can be expected to last 50 years or more.

That being the case, PV would seem to make a great retirement investment. It has a much better chance of being there for you in a few decades than any stocks or bonds you could buy. And after retirement you can hand them down to your kids!

You're also correct in saying that energy use has to be looked at very closely before installing any alternative power systems. I recommend a kind of energy 'triage', separating your appliances into 'essential' (for me, well pump and refrigerator), 'near essential' (e.g. hot water and clothes washer) and 'luxury' (lights, computer, TV and everything else.

You don't need electricity for all of these, of course. A solar hot water heater will provide most of the hot water you need, for example. For the rest, a PV or other system will do the trick.

For myself, I'm concentrating on the first two categories. If I can generate electricity for anything in the third category, I'll consider that a luxury.

Avery said...

Fracking is one of the few power innovations I've had the pleasure of seeing firsthand. It requires installing fracking devices every few square miles throughout the wilderness. It literally chops up America's last frontiers, just to get a little extension on the free energy loan that gets closer to demanding payback every year. At least we're not clear cutting in the fracking zones, yet.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Andy

"One thing that was clear was that people could readily understand the depletion of finite, non-renewable resources. What they had much more trouble grasping was the notion of the other kinds of generative foundations that could be measured, managed, nurtured, increased, lived within, etc."

Could you say more about the latter? Perhaps some examples? Maybe I'm just more brain dead than normal this morning, but it's not clear to me what you mean. :)

- Oz

rakesprogress said...

This is the best discussion of solar energy I've ever read.

Your use of the word salvage—an unpalatable word that reminds us of calamity and destruction, and makes the mind shudder and turn away—is inspired. It resonated immediately with me in an unexpected way.

Having recently joined our small town's volunteer fire department, I went through an excellent state-run course of primary firefighter training. When discussing the various activities and priorities at a fire scene, we were taught the acronym RECEOVS to remember the priorities in order: Rescue, Exposure protection, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul, Ventilation, and Salvage.

Our instructor recommended that we consider Salvage not as the last step, but as a consideration during all phases of the operation in support of our primary role: mitigating losses.

This philosophy is perfectly suited to our current state of affairs within a failing civilization.

Brad K. said...

"last-minute scrambling".

I am distressed that currently we here in rural Oklahoma are seeing the scramble of the future being foiled by today's thieves and short-sighted folk.

Theft of copper, from standing and occupied buildings to savaged transmission lines, goes on apace.

At the local scrap metal yards, tons of older-era farming implements and tractors are hauled from storage or the back grove, to begin a new journey as salvaged scrap on it's way to China. The waste of the energy used to extract that iron, to be essentially donated to the Chinese, appalls me. The draft horse lover in me cringes at the number of still useable implements relegated to "I haven't used it in the last six months, so I better sell it" mantra to make room to accumulate more stuff. Regardless of the market price of the iron content, the energy expended in cheaper times won't be nearly as cheap to repeat today, to replace the resources now being sold as scrap. Certainly the Chinese recognize the economic value of shipping scrap iron from Oklahoma, as opposed to mining new metal ore and processing it.

Odin's Raven said...

After insulating the house, tending the vegetable garden and generating some electricity, maybe the next task, if you follow Otlov's advice,

would be to start making your junk rigged ferrocement sailboat, if you want some long distance transport.

It might prove useful to escape the ravaging hordes, the spread of disease, evade climate change and bad weather that kill your vegetables, and get beyond the reach of the predatory power of what will be left of government and the new crime-based aristocracies. It might also enable you to partipicate in what's left of a regional if not global economy, once you recruit a dozen friends as crew.

What would make high value, low volume cargoes? My guess would be drugs, and booze. There's also the Viking option.

Isis said...

JMG, since you're again mentioning the Internet (and its likely demise), I thought I'd make a related point, which I haven't seen made before (at least not explicitly). It is that the usefulness of the Internet to its users is proportional to the number of people who have access to it. As Internet access gets more expensive (and I can't imagine how it could fail to do so), the number of people able and/or willing to pay for it will go down. But now the usefulness of the web to those who still have access to it declines because suddenly, a lot of their favorite web pages are down, a lot of people with whom they used to exchange e-mails can no longer be reached that way, and so on. And I see a feedback loop developing: people who might, in principle, be willing and able to make financial sacrifices in order to preserve their Internet access might decide that those sacrifices are not worth it if the utility of the Internet is substantially diminished. And now that these people abandon the Internet, it becomes even less useful. Rinse and repeat until the web disappears altogether.

One of the Remnant said...

@ GHung

Immensely useful and detailed comment, dude. I'm going to check into the local ordinances regarding reuse and landfills, and will be taking the list you've provided with me once I'm in a position to do so.

Very much appreciated as I am finding that shifting the mindset is tricky, but is the necessary first step along that journey of 1000 miles...

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Tracy, it's normally possible to remove a PV system and take it with you -- still, cutting losses should always come before adding in new energy sources, so you're doing things in the right order.

GHung, "Chomskyescent" is going to be my word of the day. Thank you!

Steve, bingo. Now's the time; five years from now, you won't have to wait in line, and you'll have five years of experience to share.

Don, I wasn't kidding when I labeled it a treat for connoisseurs of vaporware! it's been a long time since I've seen that extreme an example of techno-triumphalist handwaving.

Bbrown, since you're a religious person, I'd like to remind you that theologians back a ways recognized that despair is one form of the sin of sloth. "Everything's so dreadful so why bother" is simply another way of saying "Why bother?" A lot of people these days are basically hoping that they'll die before their privileged lifestyles go away -- and I'd encourage you to reflect a bit on what the founder of your faith would have said about that attitude.

Martin, nitpicking over metaphors may not be the most useful habit in the world, you know. (I don't go by "Michael," by the way.)

Lewis, I'd heard about that! As for your plans, they sound good. A solar and wind-powered bookstore ought to be well suited for the future ahead of us.

J9, thank you! The summmer's doing the hot and humid thing right at the moment, but the garden's loving it -- today's harvest included snow peas, sugar snap peas, radishes, and lettuce, and the tomatoes and zucchini are busily setting fruit. I'll be covering mechanical energy and its uses in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.

Kieran, indeed there are. Nor do I want to dismiss the benefits of plain old ordinary recycling -- it's a major step in the right direction. More on this soon.

Surio, many thanks for the links! I won't be going anywhere by train for a few months now, but I'm looking forward to the upcoming trips.

Chris, bingo. At this point a lot of marginally employed scientists and engineers have got to be looking at alternative energy as the last big gravy train.

tOm, what is it about internet junkies? Mention that the web has to pay for itself, and compete for resources with other modes of communication, and they squeeze their eyes shut, put their hands over their ears, and say "La, la, la, I can't hear you" as loud as they can -- though, as in your case, it usually comes out in the form of irrelevant points about hardware. As for all that imaginary coal, you need to do some research and not just parrot the habitual jabber of popular media.

George said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

August Johnson said...

@Ghung, Steve - Salvage is something that I don't think many people understand. It's something I've been doing for years, I have lots of things and sheds built out of scraps found on the side of the road. Ghung lists everything that I've also found, it's amazing what someone will discard that's still useful! I even found a whole bunch of drip watering system parts discarded, they're now watering my garden after some cleanup.

For those who want to tinker with Thermoelectric Generation, you'll find there are two flavors of devices, both work on the same principle. The first is the old-fashoned Thermocouple, built out of two different metals. The second is made out of a semiconductor, usually P or N doped Bismuth Telluride. This second type is what is now commonly used for Thermoelectric Cooling and Russian Thermoelectric Lamp for powering a radio used the former type. Anyone can build the older type, just make a series array of the two correct metal wires. See the Thermocouple Sensitivity table at the bottom of this Thermocouple Theory page.

The advantage of the newer semiconductor type is that it makes a much larger voltage per individual junction. The advantage of the older type is that you don't need to make the correctly doped Bismuth telluride semiconductor.

Each junction of the old thermocouple will generate around 0.00005 volts per °C temperature difference between the Hot and Cold junctions. It takes a lot of junctions in series to make a usable voltage. I haven't yet tried the semiconductor devices I have sitting here to see how much voltage the 256 junction pair cooler I have sitting here makes as a generator. It was designed to run on 12V as a cooler.

The devices sold as coolers have a maximum operating temperature of around 200 °C, any higher and they will be damaged. You can buy some that have a max of 400 °C for power generation, but they cost more. The old thermocouples can handle much, much higher temperatures.

Here's a link to a DIY Solar Heated Thermocouple. One thing I do differently from the article when making my own thermocouples is to just weld the tips of the thermocouples by heating them in a hot flame until they melt together. Soldering is not the way when you're heating them with the sun. This is a very basic article but it gives you an idea what's involved. Ideally you will heat one end of the junctions and keep the other end cool.


RPC said...

Brad K.,

I'm with you, sir. I'm sitting on a pile of aluminum and copper (courtesy of three decades of dumpster-diving as an electrical engineer), but I find myself loath to run it over to the scrap yard since the owner told me it all gets snapped up by buyers for the Chinese and put in containers bound for the mother country.

As to metaphors, I think of our present civilization as an airplane running out of fuel. You can either hang on for the crash, jump off, or try to keep 'er flying. If you jump off, you'll need two things: some gear to survive in the wilderness below and a parachite to safely get you there. If you forget the latter, you'll be in big trouble after that first step!

Andy Brown said...


It's relatively easy for people to grasp the idea that oil will run out, for example. That's a finite, non-renewable resources. A good example of what I mean by "generative foundation" could be something like a "fishery". (Your local ecosystem, a renewable energy system, arable soil, could be other examples.) It is a challenge for average people to understand that by taking fewer fish, by nurturing wetlands and estuaries, by eschewing certain kinds of harvests, we can actually create a sustainable and bounteous fishery that sustains many more fish than we now have access to. (And the fishery example, by the way, was the easiest to convey, by far.)

My point was that most people do not really understand sustainability because they tend to think that it just means "using stuff up more slowly", which strikes people as static, as cautious and pessimistic. (It also isn't really sustainability, of course.) Working at sustainability from the point of view of generative foundations, on the other hand, is something else entirely. and is something that good fishery scientists understand. And Green Wizards, I think.

Matthew Heins said...

To Chris,

Was posting in a rush yesterday and am doing it again today, so excuse the abruptness once more, sil vous plait. ;)

I'd say you hit the Big Three in Ag problems for the U.S.:

1. Aquifer depletion.
2. Soil depletion.
3. Wasted "waste".

Some points:

All of these stem largely from the Green Revolution, which is all about crazy yield to "feed the world". Lot of the pressure for these bad practices is coming not to support N. America, but other, more heavily populated places (and the Money Boys, of course) is my point. Remove the pressure for exports, and we can change this stuff more readily.

Not that I'm saying it'll be easy, or even get done at all. What I'm saying is that the Americas are beyond carrying capacity now like everywhere else. But here, the Waste Society / Pollution Production and global trade are the stars of the show, whereas in other places like Australia, South Asia, and East Asia, the straight human numbers are beyond capacity before we even get into lifestyle.

So, I don't know if the theoretical capacity of the Americas will hold true in the face of stupid resource use and emigration from the truly overpopulated places.

But I DO know that if we are talking about the choice to have kids in the face of global overpopulation, we need to keep continental/regional/local capacity in mind while deciding whether the "choice" (ain't always a choice, is it? ;) ) was a morally good or bad one.

Fun facts about the Americas:

Pre-Columbian pop.- as much as 100 million mostly stone tool users.

Local pop. densities in today's Mexico and Central America were found to be often above the densest localities in contemporary Europe by the Conquistadors.

N. America has as much watered, forested wilderness area as the total area of Australia populated or not (IIRC, its a bit more actually). No good for the planet, but that's a lot of room for expansion. (I don't mean to be picking on Australia ;) )

I'll try to have more coherent thoughts on this later if you like.


I have something to say about the actual topic, I swear! ;) Just no time now.


ChrisH said...

Good post overall and I understand the point you are trying to make however I do have a few comments:

First on hydrofracking/shale gas: While I agree that it is overhyped and there are issues I believe it will have a larger impact than you imply. While the single well decline rates are quite high and the economics are not as great as the stock pushers would have you believe it is a resource that will be with us for a good while to come. The reason for that is that it is more similar to tar sands than conventional natural gas in it is a large but rate limited resource. That is bad news for those looking to rapidly increase production to very high levels to maintain the status quo, but it is great news for people interested in sustainability and use as a bridge fuel and to cushion and extend the transition period. Furthermore, all those gas wells, even after reaching the end of their economic life from an international oil company's perspective, may provide individuals in areas where drilling has been prevalent a useful trickle of energy for many decades after the drill rigs stop running (most gas wells are shut down not because they stop producing gas, but because they don't produce enough to hassle with relative to ongoing liability and regulatory compliance costs).

Also a more general comment on your recent posts on the impending "long decent" and the green wizard project. It may very well be that I have been misinterpreting you, but it seems like you envision a somewhat homogeneous loss of complexity throughout society, when in fact it is quite likely that there will be vast inequity in what impacts are felt by who (both globally and domestically). In the current stage I see society re-stratifying into a more traditional pyramid distribution of wealth and power. While the strategies you have laid out in your green wizard project are quite useful adaptation strategies for those of us who are likely to be expelled from the bloated privileged class in this country, I also find it hard to believe that there will not be a fairly significant elite class that manages to hold onto a large portion of what we consider to be a comfortable modern lifestyle. I would think it would make sense to look at the social and economic structure of other nations we consider to be "third world" as an appropriate parallel for certain stages along the decent. Even in the poorest nations there is a wealthy class that lives comfortable modern lifestyles. It is this elite class that may be far more successful than you think at maintaining and stewarding a large portion of technology and knowledge far into the future. That is of course assuming they are able to keep the masses and their pitchforks at bay.

Karim said...

Great post!

High time I bought off some PV panels whilst there are still some off the shelf. High time I resumed by solar cooking experiments too!

I agree entirely that exotic technologies that rely on exotic materials and processes wont be that sustainable very long. Whereas technologies that rely on common materials using fairly straight forward manufacturing processes will make it far into the future.
On a side note I like the following definition of sustainability: ability to continue an action without the risk of collapse or failure.

Twilight said...

Lately I have been trying to envision how things will play out in the near term, and the issue of complexity limits is one I've been thinking about. If one could figure out the major complexity vulnerabilities then perhaps one might imagine how they would be solved, and by that method come up with a picture of what is coming.

One potential is in regard to the real estate debacle presently unfolding. Recently there has been a lot of difficulty in producing clear title to properties, with some feeling that maybe the law will stand up for the little guy in opposition to the banks. What happens when the electronic data systems associated begin to fail for any number of reasons? What if the bureaucratic machinations are just too complex to unwind? We've discussed previously that at some point society may be arranged on more of a feudal structure, which would be a reduction in complexity compared to the present situation, and I could well imagine that eventually the issue of ownership might be dealt with by simply assigning ownership of blocks to “worthy” individuals or organizations.

The electric grid is another, and I do expect an uneven breakup with some smaller islands that still have power, some marginal areas that have intermittent power for a while, and many rural areas that simply cannot maintain enough infrastructure to get power through. It is not trivial to keep a small island powered and stable though. You must have sufficient sources and loads reasonably matched to maintain stability. If a large load suddenly turn off, how fast can the generator respond? Conversely if a large load turns on, is there sufficient excess generation capacity to maintain voltage and frequency?

I wonder sometimes if those “excess claims to real wealth” Nicole Foss discusses will be extinguished simply by the loss of records and data. “Sorry, we have no record of that account”. But the thing is, this would seem to benefit those who owe the money, not the banks who are owed, and so it is unlikely to be the way it happens – so if the data is lost, how does it play out such that the little guy still loses?

I guess I do believe that in spite of the massive amounts of data that are gathered on all of us and all we do, that ultimately this will become irrelevant as the complexity required to use and maintain that data fails, or is overwhelmed by chaos.

Andy Brown said...


I think you intuitions are right that outcomes that favor the little guy over the banks are likely to be "selected against". I'm sure their lawyers and allies can come up with something if they wanted.

The literature in anthropology and history is replete with examples of all the various ways that the powerful can take things from the less powerful, with or without a patina of legality; and with or without a local social consensus. Divesting others is a rich tradition and one to which humans have devoted great invention, persistence, and creativity.

Just one more reason to be well-rooted in your local community.

John Michael Greer said...

Antony, of course -- you could probably talk people into selling their own backsides by insisting that there'd be jobs running the rendering plants.

Andy, that's one of the reasons I asked everybody in the Green Wizards project to pick up a book on basic ecology. It's when you stop thinking of resources as a pile of stuff sitting somewhere, and start thinking of flows and cycles, that the doors start opening up.

Evan, that's quite a workable strategy. And of course there's also the possibility that you might develop a taste for venison ;-)

Sage, nicely phrased.

Siani, that's good to hear. I'm not sure what those medieval alchemists used to make their cylindrical copper reflectors, but it should be replicable -- and I'm working on a design for a solar thermoelectric device that uses a conical reflector rather than a parabolic one, anyway, which would be a piece of cake to make.

Remnant, it's already coming apart, at the usual pace for a crisis of overcomplexity. Remember that even the faster collapses that history has on display seem fairly slow when you're living through them!

Planner, well put. I'd argue instead that an equivalent to Pascal's wager ought to run the other way -- in fact, I may do a post on that sometime soon.

GHung, nice! You're well ahead of the game.

Yupped, glad to hear it. Like most things solar, solar cooking takes a knack, but a little practice will do it.

John, that's what makes PV potentially such a valuable bridge -- all the energy needed to make it and use it is invested up front, and then you get the energy payoff for decades thereafter. Since energy is relatively cheap now, and will be much more expensive later, it's a way of leveraging energy costs across time.

Avery, all in good time. I've long thought that by the time all this is over, they'll be strip mining the national parks, with the enthusiastic support of people who used to call themselves environmentalists.

Rake, I'm glad to hear it resonates with you! It's really a crucial part of the package. More on this soon.

August Johnson said...

Sorry for the messed up link to the Russian Thermoelectric Lamp

Mary said...

JMG, is there room in the transition for tesla coil technology? Not an engineer myself, but I have a vague recollection from a few decades ago of a party held by an engineer co-worker who demonstrated for us one of his prize possessions: a tesla coil. I don't remember anything about how it works; only a vague recollection that we could have had low-cost electricity without the physical grid. Or something to that effect.

Houyhnhnm, going back to our discussion of horse "technology," while I've found the humidity knocks my arabs back a bit, it certainly doesn't knock them out. Of course here in Maine we don't have tropical temperatures...yet. Also, there was a herd of spanish barbs from the original imports that survived and thrived on a Caribbean island (forget which one), living in the woods there. Their descendants are still there hundreds of years later, or at least were a few years back. They ran into trouble when their forest burned and they were driven into the plantations. The rich grass, sedentary life and lack of wear and tear left them foundering, and the hoof person I trained with was hired to try to save them. Interesting video of trimming loose feral horses restrained only by a tranquilizer dart, surrounded by a ring of people...

That brings me to my main worry about arabs. Sparse vegetation and coarse sand keeps their feet in balance in the desert. Constant maintenance is the rule with rich grass and soft terrain.

I don't expect to find the useful arabs in the barns of the big halter-breeders. They can, however, be found in the small, backyard breeder barns. There are still likely plenty of davenports around these parts at least. There was a davenport breeder in Massachusetts a couple decades ago, so their influence can be found here. My mare's damline while mostly crabbet, has multiple davenports in her background. The sireline is polish and old egyptian (Bask and Hillany Mistany). The CMK breeders are another source of the original desert type that are round, muscular and tough.

As for the riders that aren't competent even in climate-controlled indoors, well, I won't be losing sleep over them. The adult amateurs did a lot of damage to horses and the horse world in general, in my experience. In the real world, they'll either give up (if they haven't already) or learn respect for those of us who learned the hard way...after they've eaten some dirt, of course.

Finally, I think there's a bit of a difference between riding unknown terrain in the dark and plowing a fairly flat field or walking along a gravel road.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, I'm quite convinced that the Chinese realize what's coming and are doing whatever it takes to be sure they have ample resources on hand. All those empty shopping malls and buildings? What better way to stash resources, so that you can hire people to dismantle and strip them ten or twenty years from now!

Raven, if you're going to build the boat, don't bother with the garden, insulation, etc., because while you're on the ocean someone else will occupy what used to be your property. As for cargoes, how much do you think most Americans would pay for coffee beans in a future in which they're no longer being shipped here by the industrial system?

Isis, that's an extremely good point. Thank you.

George, er, this is all that came through. You might want to resend.

August, the Russian lantern-powered thermoelectric generators, which produced enough power to run tube-based radios, used alternating strips of zinc-antimony and constantan, which is a copper-nickel alloy. I'd probably start with that as a first try.

Chris, I think you're overestimating the long- or even middle-term impact of fracking; the ferocious decline rates and the way that fracking is being used as yet another excuse to put off conservation, my guess is that it's going to be a bubble-and-bust phenomenon on the grand scale. As for your second comment, er, I have no idea how you got that from my writing; I've been saying all along that the Long Descent is going to be a very ragged process, proceeding at different rates in different areas, and affecting different groups of people in very different ways.

The current holders of wealth and influence, though, will likely be among those who lose biggest; their wealth and power depend on their mastery of systems that are going to bits around them, and if they withdraw to gated communities with armed guards, well, you might look up the phrase "Praetorian guard" for a glimpse at who will actually have the goodies once the dust settles.

Karim, exactly! A sustainable technology, by and large, will rely on things you'd have to hand anyway. The more complex the process of getting it, the less likely it is to be around for long.

Twilight, all good points. As far as the data is concerned, I expect to see holes opening up in the information society in the not too distant future -- "I'm sorry, sir, we can't find any record of that" will become a very commonly heard sentence, as will garbled and inaccurate data. It takes a lot of money and other resources to keep data up to date and accurate, and corners are already being cut in a big way.

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, a Tesla coil's an interesting device, but it doesn't make electricity out of thin air; you put current into it, and you get very high voltage, high frequency alternating current out of it. There might be uses for it in a postabundance technology, but it's not an energy source. Horses are likely to be a much more important energy source!

One of the Remnant said...

@ ChrisH

"First on hydrofracking/shale gas..."

You may be interested in this report out of the Post Carbon Institute. It's pretty comprehensive, and author'd by a credible figure.

As for the 'elites' - an alternate view:

IMO, their power depends on their ability to access the levers of power over large institutions: the federal government, the Fed, the media, etc. That ability, and those institutions, are both at risk of being overwhelmed and fragmented due to the sheer mind-boggling scale of onrushing change. I don't think these entities - which have never had to learn to adapt - will even see it coming. Denial and delusion runs deep in America, nowhere deeper than at the top.

Further, the wealth of those elites tends to be based upon their positions as senior bondholders in the larger corporations - which also are enormously dependent upon those same institutions. Most people don't realize that the huge corporations could not survive (or even have come into existence) absent their friend and protector, government. When the latter becomes truly besieged, politicians being the opportunists they are, much of that system of supplication and back-scratching will likely disintegrate, stress-cracked. Thieves and villains make for poor allies during times of real stress.

Further, none of those actors understand that the strengths which have made the current arrangements possible come with attendant and large vulnerabilities. They have put their eggs into one basket, never realizing the underlying fragility of that basket.

Thus, what they consider to be their greatest strength will betray them, in the blink of an eye becoming their Achilles heel, their most lethal weakness.

I think the elites, as a class, are going down as a result.

- Oz

Michael Tweiten said...

Will the catchy jingle
"Reduce -Reuse - Recycle"
"Simplify - Salvage - Save" ?

I believe it requires three words all starting with the same letter to really catch on ;)

I'm not sure about the use of the word "save". I mean it in terms of seed saving, or saving money but it might be confused with "saving the earth" or "saving civilization" which would be the wrong implication. I think it is the wrong implication because it switches the scale of action from the bottom-up and the personal to the top-down and the impersonal which at this point I feel is very dis-empowering and counter-productive.

"Storage" is not a catchy word. Anyone have any ideas?

Lynford1933 said...

Two weeks ago I mentioned Coronal Mass Ejection. Ironically two days ago the sun erupted with the worst CME in five years which will hit later this afternoon and into Friday with a glancing blow.

The person(s) that is not at least somewhat prepared for catastrophic events will die in a few days so all the Green Wizardry in the world will not help.

It seems Gaia is really PO’ed with us; weather weirdness like too much water in Columbia River and next may be massive methane release in the tundra if it warms up much more. Green Wizardry and salvage is the answer here if one lives far enough away from the rising sea. Ultimately (couple hundred years) we are clueless to predict except that it probably will not be like now. IMHO if you have to guess, what you and Andre came up with is a reasonable senerio. Cheers, Lynford

idiotgrrl said...

Could you recommend some good books on basic ecology? I'm not even sure about college textbooks, being dead ignorant of both biology (had it in community college 50 years ago) and systems theory (except for "Thinking In Systems".

And from owning 2 of Paul Colinveaux' books.

George said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

I have purchased 5 books:
The Wealth of Nature.
1 for me and the others for friends and relatives.
Thank you for writing this book !

Bill Pulliam said...

Lynford -- Oh, please. Coronal mass ejections are routine, ordinary, weekly events during solar maxima. They hit the earth all the time. They give us pretty displays of the aurora. They can mess with satellites, communication, and power grids when they are really big. So can a thunderstorm or a squirrel chewing on a power line. The reason this is the "biggest in 5 years" is that we have been in a solar minimum (a perfectly ordinary 11 year cycle) from which we are emerging in a perfectly ordinary and normal manner. Cell phones, the power grid, the internet, all that stuff have endured HUNDREDS of CMEs already in their lifetimes. And they are still here.

Sorrym but you "Gaia is pissed and she's gonna whack us" stuff is just talking out your posterior. There are no more earthquakes and solar flares and what not now than in the past. It is still unclear whether or not severe weather is increasing, but even if it is the change is still small and of borderline significance.

What there are many many many more of now are reporters and websites amd cable channels and doomsayers and loud electronic media to whip up absurd frenzies about incredibly UNremarkable natural events like this.

The catastrophic event you need to be most prepared for is either a serious illness or your house catching fire. Plus boring old floods and windstorms. Forget doomsday, plan for the normal well-known hazards of everyday. Don't be whipped into a distracted frenzy by apocalyptic media and their tales of death raining from the heavens.

Andy Brown said...

@Michael T

Simplify, Salvage, Sustain

One of the Remnant said...

@ August

Great links, thanks!

I find myself wondering what the most economical way of producing constantan from salvaged materials might be...??

- Oz

nisarga1 said...

Mr Greer,

I am putting together a gaianomicon per your suggestions.
I have not found much on solar thermogenerators, though. Can you recommend any good reading?
Speaking of good reading, I did enjoy "Wealth of Nature.."


One of the Remnant said...

@ Lynford

"Two weeks ago I mentioned Coronal Mass Ejection... two days ago the sun erupted with the worst CME in five years which will hit later this afternoon and into Friday with a glancing blow."

I can only hope you choose to use your terrifying powers for goodness and niceness rather than for evil. ;-)

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all --

A friend, Kevin K., tried to post the following here, and got caught by some detail of Googleware. Here's his comment:

"I remain very interested in the thermoelectric generators which you are the first to have told me of. I'd be very pleased if someone could point me to a good web source dealing with "sturdy sun-tracking mounts." I wonder how feasible it is to make ones that operate mechanically like a watch or a clock? It seems a shame to waste scant electrical energy on something that could be handled by spring power or the like

"I'm still working on a rather fancy design for a solar cooker, involving a parabolic dish whose face is not perpendicular to its axis. It's designed to be placed in a window. I'm discovering ways of conveniently locating the hot spot and extending the period of the reflector's solar exposure, even without a sun-tracking mount or indeed any movement at all, by playing certain geometric tricks with dish design.

"I've never liked the way that PV panels are typically hooked into the grid as you've described, even when I didn't know that this makes them dependent upon it and useless when it's down. The whole approach with which that technology is handled commercially rather grates upon me. This past Earth Day at an eco-festival I heard a speaker who runs a PV business describe how homeowners can get a big system with no money down due to government subsidy, which is a great deal if you own your home - but if you're a tenant and request such a thing, your landlord gets the break and you in all likelihood due to the improvement will get to pay higher rent, doing your landlord a favor at your own expense. Talk about a disincentive!

"What I'd like are little PV panels I can stick in my windows according to the time of day. The small amount of juice from them might power a little laptop or radio, or be decanted into a battery for later use in high-efficiency electric lighting. And they can't be stolen so easily as from a back yard, which would be my other alternative. People will want freestanding photovoltaics ever more as the grid disintegrates, I fancy.

"Unless you say otherwise, I'm assuming that salvaging is one of the tactics you refer to which deliberately take advantage of the process of deindustrialization, conservationally metabolizing the detritus of catabolic collapse. Or something like that."

Edward said...

The discussion about hydrofracking hits close to home for me. I live in north central Pennsylvania where there is a lot of gas drilling activity going on.

The sheer amount of truck traffic associated with the gas drilling boggles my mind. A lot of it is tanker trucks carrying water to and from the wells. But there are many other trucks carrying machinery and supplies, and quite a number of Halliburton mobile cementing rigs. Add to this the drill rigs, generators, and support equipment at the well pads. Then, there is an amazing number of large white pickup trucks with Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado plates crisscrossing our rural roads. Now we're seeing passenger cars from these places as a sign that the gas people are bringing their families.

Here's the thing that really gives me a headache: They are using immense amounts of petroleum to extract natural gas from the shale. Meanwhile in Canada, they're using immense amounts of natural gas to extract petroleum from the tar sands.

What's wrong with this picture? It reminds me of a vortex going down the drain.

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, good. This is the kind of thinking I wish more people were doing right now!

Lynford, green wizardry will do a lot more than you realize. All this stuff is about not being dependent on massive, brittle systems that can be disabled by nature's little hiccups. Mind you, a CME of the size just launched, won't do much more than give us some lovely auroras!

Grrl, the one I normally recommend, if you can find it, is Basic Ecology by Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum. Other short and sweet introductions are Concepts of Ecology by Edward Kormondy and Ecology by Eugene Odum. For that matter, the old Life Nature Series volume Ecology by Peter Farb isn't bad -- that was my first introduction to the subject (we had a full set of the series in my home when I was growing up), and it gives a nice overview. One of these days I may talk to New Society about writing an introductory book on ecology for today's green movement, but that's a ways off if it ever happens.

George, thank you!

Remnant, all you need is copper and nickel, so there are plenty of options.

Mac, Farrington Daniels' Direct Use of the Sun's Energy has a chapter on the subject. Not much has been done with it since then. There's a nice survey of thermoelectric technology downloadable as a PDF from this site.

John Michael Greer said...

Edward, well put. It is indeed a vortex, produced by our industrial civilization as it circles the drain.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Kevin K

"What I'd like are little PV panels I can stick in my windows according to the time of day. The small amount of juice from them might power a little laptop or radio, or be decanted into a battery for later use in high-efficiency electric lighting."

You might look into thin film modules - @ 10 in x 3 in, you could tie a few of these together in parallel and you've got a trickle charger for a battery. Could not power a laptop or radio directly unless it accepted DC voltage, of course.

- Oz

Michael Tweiten said...

@ Andy Brown
Thanks Sustain sounds better than Save to me!

However -- One of the intriguing ideas in The Ecotechnic Future is the long-time frame insight that none of us alive today will ever be "sustainable". It is precisely because we have the capacity to salvage the embodied energy in the material culture around us that we will be reliant on the products of past fossil fuel energy use. We also will be exposed to embodied energy in the biophysical systems, especially climate change but also centennial scale ecosystem succession, that will take hundreds of years to dissipate.

David Holmgren makes the same point in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; a book I recommend to you all if you havn't read it. He says we should embrace our culture's recent experience with recent constant technological change as we move into a "descent" culture. So even Holmgren is moving beyond the "Permanent" in Permaculture.

Are there principles to descent-culture salvage or are we just "coping ugly"? What do you learn from the first experiences of salvage when you go out the second time and there is less embodied energy to work with than before?

Ventriloquist said...

Time is running out.

Much more quickly than we can all imagine.

The population is getting restless; there are now great crowds of youth being organized by social networks which are concentrated into areas for wilding mobs that attack innocent businesses and citizens.

The middle class has been decimated and the poorer classes have been gutted. This is resulting in a great unwinding of the social cohesion of American society.

Within then next 12 - 24 months we will all witness the complete breakdown of the social contract that has held America together since 1776.

Prepare accordingly.


Matt and Jess said...

I've been devouring the posts and comments from the last couple of weeks. I think that what you've been describing is like a patchwork quilt of small-scale energy...anyway, I'm really interested in the small mechanical tinkering things, like diy thermoelectric power, but I only have an 11th-grade physics background and haven't done much with it since then. I was wondering if you or any readers could recommend some very basic resources/books on the basic theory and background of that. I hope that hasn't been mentioned already.

Alchemyguy said...

@Mary: Tesla had a number of theories on tweaking energy from the Earth. He worked on developing a method to harness the 'Telluric Currents' that naturally flow through the body of the planet, but nobody to date has been able to take this very diffuse electricity and concentrate it into a useful form. I would imagine if somebody were to do it successfully (and it seems possible although unlikely), it would be much like a solar oven or solar hot water rather than a steam turbine; a concentration of heat energy to do relatively modest heat energy things, like heat other stuff up. So a successful telluric current collector would likely be very, very large and generate a modest current to do modest things.

He also had some theories on over-unity electricity generation using the earth as a type of battery or dynamo to regenerate and reinforce the system. These have been latched onto by the over-unity dreamers and remain in just that place; a dream and a wish but nevertheless a failure under our old friend thermodynamics.

Don Mason said...

Chris @ Cherokee Organics

Like you, I was heartbroken to read that they appear to have given up on building the space elevator.

It would have been the perfect solution: simple, cheap, easy to finance, readily-available off-the-shelf parts, no major technological obstacles to overcome - what could possibly go wrong? ;-)

Don Mason said...

Oz @ One of the Remnant wrote: "I see no institutions in the global landscape today which could provide a stabilizing force sufficient to avoid being swamped by the force of those positive feedbacks, once they begin to accelerate in earnest."

I hate to mention it, but I do see one force that could emerge to slow down (although not prevent) catabolic collapse: the upper echelons of the American military.

They are the only institutional force in America that really seems to have an understanding of peak oil and its economic/political ramifications; and they've been forced to deal with those bloody ramifications for years (which is why they now wear desert camo instead of the jungle camo of the 1960's.)

The lower levels of the military may believe that they are fighting in MENA (Middle East/North Africa) for freedom or democracy, but the top brass understands that it's all about maintaining our access to oil to run the military-industrial complex.

I doubt that we would ever see a full-fledged coup-'d-etat, but I could easily see that an acute crisis compounded by a politically ineffective Congress could force a President to declare martial law.

American troops have extensive training in pacifying hostile civilian populations; that was essentially what happened in urban ghetto areas and college campuses in the late '60's and early '70's.

I was on a college campus back then, and the shooting of unarmed young American civilians definitely had a chilling effect on a heated-up situation.

In his paper on Catabolic Collapse, JMG wrote "...nonproductive capital may be diverted to production to raise C(p) or preferentially converted to waste to bring down M(p), forcing C(p) and M(p) temporarily into balance in order to buy time for a transition to a steady state. A society in which depletion is advanced and M(p) rapidly increasing relative to C(p), though, may not be able to escape catabolic collapse even if such steps are taken. Cultural and political factors may also make efforts to avoid catabolic collapse difficult to accomplish, or indeed to contemplate."

If JMG's theory of catabolic collapse is correct, then perhaps the imposition of military rule might represent a preferential conversion of nonproductive capital (the social capital of a failed democratic civilian government) to waste, which would have a simplifying effect.

Less resources and capital would be squandered on the maintenance of what may have become nonproductive social capital: expensive political campaigns pitting virtually indistinguishable Demopublicans against Republicrats; and layer upon layer of an increasingly inefficient, counter-productive, self-serving bureaucracy.

This would free up capital and resources for more productive uses, such as the military’s requisitioning of shrinking energy resources to grow food to feed foreclosed, bankrupted, jobless American families starving in the streets.

Not pleasant to consider, and even less pleasant to experience. But overwhelming military power could provide a stabilizing force - although at a high cost, and only temporarily.

Jason Heppenstall said...

There is currently quite a fuss in the UK because the government has decided to radically slash the feed in subsidies paid out to (nascent) large solar facilities. This has caused much constentaion among environmentalists, but on reflection I think it might be a good thing. The money, as I understand it, was there to support individual users who want to put panels on their houses. However, much of it was ending up being diverted to fields of panels run by businesses and communitity groups, feeding the power into the grid.

I can understand people's frustration with the decision but perhaps it is a blessing in disguise if it stops further centralisation of energy production.

On a (semi) related note - gas fracking activities have been blamed for a small earthquake that hit Blackpool in NW England recently. I don't know if it really was the cause but I can't imagine that turning bedrock into a fizzy drink is the wisest thing to do, seismically speaking.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I am reading the Wealth of Nature at the moment and just wanted to say 'thank you' for writing it. It really is like someone turning on a (12v solar powered) light in a dark room where most of us have been crawling around blindly for years.

Ironically, at the start, you say you're not sure how qualified you are to write a book about economics as you don't possess a degree in it. Well, perhaps that's the reason you *are* qualified. I have a degree in economics and can honestly say that I left university more clueless than when I started.


BTW this could just be my sense of humour but the verification word below is 'titsup'? Perhaps Google has developed artificial intelligence ...

Tom Gaspick said...

I'm not sure whether my idea of 'salvage' is the same as yours, but I recently did a blog post titled "Salvage". See what you think.

nisarga1 said...

Mr Greer and all,

a good site for Gaianomicon buying is ABE books. I found "Basic Ecology" and "Rainbook" there. You were right, they are pretty cheap these days, given their importance for the coming years.


GHung said...

@ Kevin K's question:

I'd be very pleased if someone could point me to a good web source dealing with "sturdy sun-tracking mounts." I wonder how feasible it is to make ones that operate mechanically like a watch or a clock? It seems a shame to waste scant electrical energy on something that could be handled by spring power or the like.

The closest and most elegant solution I know of are the Zomeworks passive trackers:

"Track Racks™ are cost-effective, reliable single axis Trackers that use no external power to target the sun."

They use two tanks of freon, one east, one west, connected by a tube and shaded on the sides. If the mount is misaligned, one tank will get warmer, pushing freon to the other tank until the mount balances, facing the sun when both tanks are the same temperature. Unfortunately, they tend to rock back and forth a bit when the wind blows. I use one for our small (160 watt) water pumping system. I found it in a junk pile behind a woodstove shop. The owner wasn't sure what it was; left behind by the previous owner. Gave him 20 bucks. Most days it works really well. Whatever is mounted on a Zomeworks needs to be balanced above the pivot point.

One guy who posted an article in Homepower years ago used a spring and a tank of water. During the day, water would be slowly added to the tank, adding weight and pulling against the spring, slowly rotating the mount. I think he used a drip irrigation timer to add water several times a day, giving the array several positions, but if one did the math, one could use pressure compensating drippers to constantly add water, slowly increasing the weight of the tank and rotating the mount.
In the evening, a small valve is opened, slowly releasing the water (watering his fruit trees), allowing the spring to slowly pull the mount back to the east. If one had a good source of gravity water, activated the system in the morning, opened the drain in the evening, and spent some time calibrating the system, this would be a neat solution, until things get cold :-/

As I've posted, I use old satellite dish mounts and control electronics from Uses much less power to actively track than is gained, though this is PV, not thermoelectric. Hope this helps a bit :-)

ChrisH said...


I have read the PCI report (along with just about every other major report on the topic) and I don't disagree with all of it. However, as with most things I believe both the optimists are far too optimistic and the pessimists are far too pessimistic. I have actually been on two wellpads in PA in the past year and have had frank discussions with engineers and operators working in these plays.

Most of the propaganda about shale gas does indeed underestimate both the costs and decline curves of individual wells. However, the resource is quite large and somewhat (although not completely) homogeneous. Basically anywhere you drill a hole into one of these shale formations you are going to get a great deal of gas out. It may not be quite the exact same amount, but it's WAY more uniform and less "risky" than conventional natural gas. The scale up problem is that you only have so much equipment to drill and frack so many holes. This limits the ultimate rate at which the total resource can be extracted, but also extends the life of that resource (at least from the perspective of the whole play).

This is ultimately a good thing from a sustainability of the resource standpoint. We aren't going to maintain the status quo on shale gas, but we may be able to get something like 10-20% of what we currently use for well over 100 years as long as society doesn't completely break down. Given that quite a few countries currently survive on vastly lower energy demand than we do, I believe it has the potential to act as useful backstop or at least "long ledge" on the way down the long decent.

We will have to disagree on the "elites" however. I find many of the arguments that they are going to fare worse than the rest of us "normal but prepared" to be more aspirational than logical. Sure I'd love to see rich wallstreet bankers starving in the streets and begging at the door of some liberal's organic farm, but I just don't see it happening. Yes many of the current elites may in fact lose much of what they have and certainly many current institutions will crumble or lose influence over time. However, my point was not about specific elites, only that there will always be an elite class. Exactly who inhabits that class may change many times over the course of the decent (as it has throughout history), but there will always be the rich and powerful and those with money and power will seek to maintain as much of current modern technology and comfort as they can afford.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Michael, Andy,

Simplify, Salvage, Stash, Sustain?

Kate said...

Simplify, Salvage, Stash, Sustain?

I really like this. I think I'm going to incorporate it into a little project I'm picking up from where other's have left off.

I believe the last person ended with the word: smile

Cameron said...

Hello JMG, another top notch post. I think the idea of complexity limits is particularly useful. Last year I had an article published titled "A paradox of military technology" (, from p. 44). The paradox is that "the advantage provided by the increased complexity of a military capability increases
the vulnerability of that same capability to systemic collapse due to its reliance on complex
supply chains." Whilst focused on the military it is relevant to all modern technology. I have displayed this as a diagram on p. 50. Adding a complexity threshold or limit to this diagram would suggest that virtually all modern technologies are beyond that threshold as you so eloquently describe.


Cam from Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ ChrisH

Regarding shale gas, you may be right. I could see it happening that way.

But I think the key to the way things will play out is gong to be what David Korowicz calls the 'operational fabric' of our society - which has nothing to do with the technical aspects of oil or gas extraction.

In order for any of that extraction to persist, for example, we need functioning credit and equity markets (and either commodity markets or some substitute such as multi-lateral arrangements), a functioning transportation system, access to those proprietary chemicals used in the process (which implies a functional chemical engineering system), relatively stable governance and social structures (at least regionally), etc.

It is these things that I think put shale gas at risk, because of the level of inter-connectedness between them - meaning when one goes down it will tend to drag the others down (aka counter-party risk).

It's the feedback loops that will rip the system apart, and impact downstream technologies like shale gas extraction in ways impossible to predict.

Remember what happened to the Baltic Dry Index during the '08/'09 crisis? It dropped by 94% - to the point where they were parking hundreds of merchant ships in the middle of the ocean and just leaving them there. The Daily Mail did a fascinating piece on this in 2009.

This is what it looks like when the operational fabric begins to fray. It affects everything, and I think it becomes impossible to make sensible predictions based on technical aspects that may appear to have merit in current circumstances.

We'll just have to see. :)

" point was not about specific elites, only that there will always be an elite class. Exactly who inhabits that class may change many times over the course of the decent (as it has throughout history), but there will always be the rich and powerful and those with money and power will seek to maintain as much of current modern technology and comfort as they can afford."

I certainly lean toward agreeing with this - I had misunderstood you to be saying the current elite class would ride the waves of crisis out and remain on top. Any reading of the history of most (though not necessarily all) civilizations would support the statement you've made above. Crisis = danger + opportunity, right? And some will find themselves in a position to leverage such opportunity.

That said, I am, I have to admit, fond of pointing to potlatch based societies, which have flourished in the past (especially in low energy use cultures), in which status was achieved by giving valuables away, rather than by accumulating them. So in this sense, I think the absolute nature of your statement - 'there will always be' - may not be appropriate. It does, though, seem likely that this mode of being will persist for some time, and in may areas.

I can always hope, though, for some revival of the potlatch sensibilities in some areas and among some communities. I won't count on it, but I would do what I could to encourage and participate in that.

- Oz

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

As one who is firmly in the camp of those whose efforts are mostly geared towards the organic gardening/livestock management aspect of green wizardry, your posts on alternative energy always resonate with me and force me to reevaluate my plans. Thank you.

This past year my wife and I made a useful exercise of cataloging all of the items in our house that utilize electricity, figuring out exactly how much these items use, and then using this data as a baseline, we undertook a process of unplugging and replacing energy-reliant appliances with items that do not require power. It is amazing to see how much better some of the old hand-cranked items in the kitchen, for example, work as compared to their electricity-draining counterparts. The purpose of this exercise was to see how much we could cut our usage by and the results have been fairly impressive. The most rewarding part of this has been learning to live with less energy through trial and error.

It has been a slow process at times, and we are definitely still learning, but with each passing month I think we learn ways to get by with a lot less power. This was always the key to thinking about alternative energy sources for us because, as you stated, no alternative energy source is sustainable enough in the long run to power the typical American home. I learned this lesson quickly when I started to look into how many solar panels would be needed to power our old electric baseboard heating system -- let's just say that those plans did not get very far off the drawing board. I quickly learned that a solar system of the scale that we could afford could only power a few essential items, a refrigerator and freezer being some of the most important on our small farm.

With these efforts to power down firmly in place, the next step is to invest in some self-installed PV panels so that we can begin generating our own power. I am glad to see that my plans for this type of thing are still valid, however, I would love to learn more about solar thermoelectric generators but I fear that my engineering skills are nowhere near up to par for this type of activity.

Ruben said...

@Andy Brown,

Could you link to the report you did communications research on?

Timo said...

Hi everybody,

I'm a long time reader of the blog but never yet had a need to comment anything. But now, as the recent post was of the right subject and just about technical enough, I'd like to openly wonder about an idea I've had about electricity-generation for some time now.

I live in Finland, that is 60 degrees latitude, which means long seasons of scant sunlight and also heavy heating of the living spaces for a big part of the year. Now I've come to wonder wouldn't it be a reasonable idea to try converting the heating energy we get from wood first to something else, namely electricity, compared to just burning the stuff for the heat only? As long as the electricity is used and batteries are stored inside, the heat is not going anywhere anyway. When I think of a well burning fireplace I have to say I can't help but to think it could generate a nice amount of electricity, just in the season it's most needed and most difficult to get from wind, solar or any other source.

So, I wonder if anybody knew of anything like this? Some fireplace-boiler-turbine stuff or whatever you could have? Or if there's some serious pitfalls on this? Since I'm no engineer I can only guess what there could be. But so far I can only see the fireplace-powerplant as an obvious choice. I mean there is really concentrated heat roaming around that fireplace for the whole winter so why not try to refine it first and let it dissipate from there?

PhilJ said...

@tOM, "as long as electrons are available and some phone wires (tho fibre is much more economical)"
Twice this week, my friend's train commute from London was delayed many hours because different sets of copper signal wires had been stolen, (Fibre gets stolen too, as the thieves can't tell the difference until they try to melt it!) It made the main news here, so bad were the delays.
Your hope for phone wires may be a forlorn one.

Evan said...

Oh, don't worry JMG, I already have a taste for venison, I just have not the skill to hunt... yet.

Cherokee Organics said...


It's great hearing about the bounty of your garden. It sounds like you're getting a more diverse range of vegies which is a good thing. Out of interest, do you keep the seeds from these or let them go wild? The reason I ask this is because I'm doing both and it's quite interesting to see wild vegies popping up in strange places. I'm not sure which is the better way to go.

Back in winter land though, we had snow here last week, although you guys probably wouldn't get excited about it like we do. It blanketed the ground for a few hours at most. It killed off some of the new growth on the citrus trees which are fruiting nicely. There's less fruit this year though because of all the rain (710mm already this year). Still it's better than a drought.

Strangely enough, I've had wild rocket seedlings germinate last week. Go figure that out? The wild rocket seedlings have a stronger taste than the original seedling stock, which is no bad thing.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Matt,

I enjoyed your response, but am a bit troubled because you are referring to carrying capacities from several hundred years ago.

There are a few points about this that concern me:
- Back then the fruits and vegetables grown would have been specifically adapted over many generations to those areas.
- Nowadays the selection of available seeds is very limited in both number and genetic quality. It would take a lot of years of trials to reverse this situation.
- Back then the organic matter in the soil would have been very high as nutrient loops were often closed or not as leaky as today. Current agriculture is akin to strip mining. This is not the case today and growing vegetables in a forested area as you suggested makes no sense. Fruit trees yes, but vegetables no. I'm happy to expand on this if you'd like as the answer relates to soil biology.
- The reliance and supply on oil, fertilisers and pesticides cannot be guaranteed.
- The reliance on heavy machinery in agriculture means that there is little to no skills in the current population. This is no small issue. Look at what happened in Cambodia, when the crazy Pol Pott regime moved everyone out of the cities to create some rural ideal (which the actual purpose was to grow rice for export so they could buy weapons and luxuries). Not good.

I look forward to your response.



dltrammel said...

Love the look of the old Soviet lamp generator. I can so envision a more modern set up around the chimney of a rocket stove or winter wood burning indoor heater.

Ideally you would build it with a common inside diameter of flue, and make then stackable and with some sort of connective wire to a battery bank. That way you could move them around as the season changed and you used different pieces of equipment. I assume as long as there is a temperature difference between hot and cool sides you would continue to generate electricity, so some sort of heat absorbing mass insulating the flue with the wires going thru it would keep electrical output going even when the stove wasn't actively burning fuel.

gordon said...

Timo, you can generate electricity directly from a wood heat source with a thermo electric generator. There are some manufacturers of such devices. Look up among others. It is quite exciting stuff. Good luck.

sofistek said...

I'm glad you pointed out the ecosystem limits to define sustainability. I've been trying to do this for years, after coming across Richard Heinberg's Five Axioms of Sustainability. It hardly ever seems to get through to people. I sum them up this way. Consumption of any resource beyond its renewal rate (for non-renewable resources this is zero) is unsustainable and damage to our environment is unsustainable.

I think the implications of this are huge but it rarely dawns on people.

I hadn't come across the notion of complexity limits but won't that, in a significant way, overlap with ecosystem limits? I think the ecosystem limits are the prime consideration with regard to sustainability.

Sometimes, in such discussion, what comes back is the idea that nothing can be sustained for ever, which is true. I think that kind of response misses the point. Of course, some natural event will wipe us out eventually but my take is that our lives should be lived by those sustainability axioms so that we do not, by our own behaviour, bring about our own demise.

idiotgrrl said...

Here's a book that sounds like it's worth looking into. Tim Walker has been posting excerpts from it on the Fourth Turning Forum. Here is the book and here is the latest excerpt, straight out of Green Wizardry:

The Ultimate Surburban Survivalist Guide by Martin D. Weiss

Get Your Downloads Before the Internet Goes Dark

"The Internet uses an insane amount of power. If we're headed into a global, long-term energy crisis, the Internet could run into an energy crisis of its own. The power plants that keep the server farms of the Internet alive don't run on gasoline, but they do use a lot of power.

"For example, the two big server farms that keep Yahoo!'s grop of Web services online use more electricity than all the televisions on Earth put together. Some estimates put Internet electricity demand at 9.4% of U.S. energy usage and 5.3% of global electricity usage.

"The Internet exists because of cheap, easily available energy. When energy becomes scarce and expensive, big parts of the Internet may become unaffordable, and could go dark.

"...I can think of several scenarios - a terrorist Electro-Magnetic pulse bomb, destruction of orbital satellites, or a power-down scenario that would either block your access to the Internet or destroy the World Wide Web itself."

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, there are probably all kinds of principles to the fine art of decline and fall, but I don't know of any source for them besides trial and error guided by the experiences of the past.

Ventriloquist, that same rhetoric has been trotted out every few years for the last three millennia. Maybe it's time to give it a rest.

Matt and Jess, that's an excellent question to which I don't have a ready answer. Can anybody else recommend some basic books on the physics of energy?

Jason, thank you! Ironically enough, I have much the same education as Adam Smith -- he took a clergyman's degree, which at that time meant a lot of classics, a lot of classical philosophy in particular, and a fair amount of old-fashioned theology and metaphysics, which is not too far from my own training.

Tom, thanks for the link to the post; the only difference I can see is that my concept covers a very, very wide range of potential things to salvage, not all of them as tangible as wood.

Mac, glad to hear it!

Cam, good. Very good. You're on top of an issue very few people have noticed yet. I've got some points to make on that same theme, though it'll be a while -- I need to finish up the sequence of posts on green wizardry before it'll be time to start talking in detail about the end of American empire, in which military issues of that kind will likely play a significant role.

Troubador, excellent! Don't worry about the thermoelectric generators right yet -- cutting your energy use has to come first anyway, and there are many good ways to get the modest amount of power you'll need once you do that. Right now, a few PV panels on the roof are likely as good an option as any -- and by the time those aren't available any more, I'm hoping that the mad scientists will have worked out the bugs on solar thermoelectronic devices.

Timo, welcome to the conversation! There are certainly ways of turning heat into electricity; just remember that the electricity isn't free. You'll have to burn more fuel to heat your home and generate electricity than you would need just to heat your home, due to the laws of thermodynamics. That said, if you've got plenty of fuel and can use either a thermoelectric generator or a heat engine of some kind hooked up to a generator, you can probably make it work.

Evan, good. Hunting skills are worth having, for more reasons than one.

Chris, I save seeds and plant deliberately. My garden is small and very intensively worked (think double-dug raised beds with all the compost and organic matter I can get worked into them each spring), and I rotate crops so that the same plants don't grow in the same bed two years running, to keep pests down. Mind you, I still got two volunteer tomato plants coming up in the middle of a radish and parsnip bed; the radishes have already been eaten and the parsnips can handle the competition, so they'll stay.

Dltrammel, that ought to work!

Sofistek, that's a good way of putting it. The distinction between ecosystem limits and complexity limits, though, is important, since a lot of people lose track of the fact that our ability to maintain any given level of technology over the long term -- whether or not that technology is ecologically harmless -- also has to be assessed.

Timo said...


Hmm, now I'm a bit puzzled! How can it be so that I have to burn more fuel in order to get both the electricity & the heat than to just get the heat? I mean, if my house is reasonably well insulated, shouldn't it in principle act like a closed system? Doesn't all the energy "lost" in the process of converting heat to electricity just, well, remain as heat anyway? And when I then go on using the stored energy with my light bulb or my radio, isn't it, in the long run, once again converted back to heat? Am I missing something obvious here? I don't see, at least in principle, where a major escape route would lie?

This is why I originally started to wonder about the stove generation. I thought that heat is such a nice thing to want, because as long as you had a reasonably closed system at hand, you could basically play around with the energy with no real losses, since heat, the simple stuff to which it all anyway would degrade to, was the primary objective in the first place.

And gordon, thanks a lot for the link!

One of the Remnant said...

@ sofistek

"I hadn't come across the notion of complexity limits but won't that, in a significant way, overlap with ecosystem limits? I think the ecosystem limits are the prime consideration with regard to sustainability."

I think that's right - but the important thing to note is that, as JMG makes clear in 'The EcoTechnic Society,' a truly sustainable society is way off in the dim future, and will not be something that any of us now alive will see. We can't get there in one step.

So while sustainability is certainly a key issue, the more immediate concern is survivability, and the near term crises will come from the collapse of complexity.

I do not think it is possible to understand our present circumstances without a sound understanding of the notion of complexity, and the only tool we have for really grasping complex systems in any sort of rigorous way is systems dynamics.

Two articles I strongly recommend reading for those who have not yet grappled with complexity and its role in our current coterie of convergent crises:

The theory: Complexity: It's not that simple


The implications: In the world, at the limits to growth

A more fully developed version of the latter thesis can be found here:

The Tipping Point

And, a good primer on systems theory is here:

Systems thinking for problem solvers

- Oz

yooper said...

"Talk" about adding it up! Simply excellent John, your last two installments really define what the "modern" is and what it is not.

The waning of "modern man".

Thanks, yooper

Andy Brown said...


Here's a link to some of the research we did. This one is about the UK, though it built on work we did in the US and France. The gist of it is exploring the cognitive and cultural models that interfere with understanding sustainability, and looking for ways to overcome that. (Talking about "Life Support Systems" was a good shorthand for average people.) Sys UK_SM_4-07.pdf

Don Mason said...

@ Timo asked:

"How can it be so that I have to burn more fuel in order to get both the electricity & the heat than to just get the heat? I mean, if my house is reasonably well insulated, shouldn't it in principle act like a closed system?"

From Wikipedia:

"The thermoelectric effect is the direct conversion of temperature differences to electric voltage and vice-versa. A thermoelectric device creates a voltage when there is a different temperature on each side. Conversely, when a voltage is applied to it, it creates a temperature difference."

You need to have an open system with a cold side to make thermoelectric work - and the bigger the temperature differential, the better.

So up north where you are, you should have no problem finding a cold side to work with - it's right on the other side of your frosty window.

One of the Remnant said...

@ timo

"Doesn't all the energy "lost" in the process of converting heat to electricity just, well, remain as heat anyway? And when I then go on using the stored energy with my light bulb or my radio, isn't it, in the long run, once again converted back to heat? Am I missing something obvious here?"

I may be wrong, but I think what you are missing is the notion of entropy - embodied in one of the peskier of the physical laws of the universe: the second law of thermodynamics. Basically, this says that there is no such thing as the 'closed system' as you are thinking of it. The energy lost during conversion becomes diffuse heat (this is the tendency toward maximizing entropy that ius embodied in the second law) which is so high entropy that it becomes useless to 'do work' - it takes a considerable infrastructure to increase the efficiency of such a process, and even then, you will lose much if not most of the energy in the conversion. I think most conversion processes are only about 30 - 40% efficient (the rest is lost) - there may be ways to increase that by recapturing at least some of the 'waste' heat, but I think you are still going to wind up losing most of it.

Hopefully, someone here with a better practical knowledge of thermodynamics as applied to home conversion systems will respond if I've steered you wrong! :)

A couple of essays you may find interesting:

The Thermodynamics of an Intelligent Living Universe

Entropy, peak oil, and Stoic philosophy

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Grrl, thanks for the reference! That sounds worth reading.

Timo, you can't get something for nothing. If you're converting heat into electricity, the energy in that heat isn't heating your house any more -- it's in your batteries instead -- and the house will be colder as a result. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, remember.

This is a lot like the guy who wanted to put a wind turbine on his car to harvest the energy from the air rushing past -- it never occurred to him that the car would have to work that much harder to counter the drag of the wind turbine. The "drag" in this case is the conversion of heat to electricity, which will absorb heat and cool the house.

Yooper, thank you!

One of the Remnant said...

For those looking into thermoelectric devices, some interesting experiments ongoing in the industrial high-tech realm:

- Oz

Houyhnhnm said...

I'm looking forward to the post on salvage.

I grew up in a family where reuse, recycle, repurpose was a way of life before it was a slogan. As a child, I thought everyone stopped along roads to see what someone else had (foolishly) tossed out. In the 50s, Dad had boxes in the shop for copper and other metals. Mom had storage boxes in the attic, the garage, everywhere. It was a Depression-era game and my parents played it even after they had the money to buy things new.

Since I view it as a challenging game, I never lost my enthusiasm for it. Buying things new never interested me. Where’s the sport, the imagination? One doesn’t often say, “What can we do with this?” when picking up a package with a price tag on it.

One of our best scores was a trove of cobblestones (actually Belgian blocks or setts) tossed away by the city of Tacoma. I was quite young, but, if memory serves, in the late 50s or so, Tacoma ripped up lovely streets made from stone which Europeans had earlier ripped up to use as ballast when ships were sent over for loads of cement back in the late 19th C and early 20th C. We spent a summer bringing home load after load of these exquisite, discarded blocks. From European streets to ballast to American streets to American family garden walls—talk about international recycling.

I love salvage. Come to think of it, I salvaged my best horses.


Andy Brown said...


The comment system broke the link. I guess I have to post it in a couple of sections:
sites/default/files/Food Sys UK_SM_4-07.pdf

hopefully that will work.

Houyhnhnm said...

@JMG said, “Horses are likely to be a much more important energy source!”

Once more onto my soap box.

This is why anyone who thinks he or she might someday need to work with this energy source should start home study now. While long term, hands on work with an expert is essential, reading can speed shorten the process. Short courses can be helpful, but many just instill false confidence or avoidable frustration.

It takes years to learn to use horses in a manner that’s safe and without suffering—for horse or human. As Kunstler noted in one of his books, cruelty to horses (and other draft stock) will likely be much more common in the future.

Too many of us push buttons and expect an immediate, uniform response. Unfortunately, horses are not machines. “Pushbutton” horses exist, but it takes a long time to learn how to push those buttons, so often even the best trained horses are unwittingly abused.

For example, in his teens, my father worked with a forest logger. One day he and a friend hitched Ben and Frank, the logger’s team, to an over-sized load and soon had a pair of frantic drafters, jumping around, hitting their collars individually rather than together. Seeing this, the team’s owner way up the hill bellowed a deep, rumbling “WHOA!” and the team froze. (The boys had been calling “WHOA!” too, but, as with most novices, their inexperience induced a nervous upward inflection that horses hear as “GO!!”) Once the horses and the boys were quiet, the owner called out each horse’s name to bring him to attention and then yelled, “PULL!” Both horses hit their collars at the same time and the load moved. Fifty years later, Dad said he still remembered almost every word of the lecture they got from the owner when he scrambled down off the hill.

Most people are ignorant of horse physiology too. I’ll admit to being shocked by this article on,, a great source of veterinary news: “Summer Riding: When the Rider is Hot, the Horse is Hotter."

Here are a couple of significant passages:

“Horses also rely to a significant extent on sweating to cool them off. They can sweat 15 to 20 litres per hour in cool, dry conditions and up to 30 litres per hour in hot, humid conditions, but only 25-30% of the sweat produced is effective in cooling the horse by evaporation.”

“It only takes 17 minutes of moderate intensity exercise in hot, humid weather to raise a horse's temperature to dangerous levels. That's three to 10 times faster than in humans. Horses feel the heat much worse than we do."

So a humid climate in the midst of a serious drought is pretty much a worst case scenario for a horse.

And that brings me to the current drought in Cuba, the model of sustainability for so many:
“Rainy Season Off to a Poor Start"

Water is being trucked into cities, and many cattle and horses are starving. No spring grass.


P.S. Mary--I’m already pushing 2000 words in response, so I’m posting my reply on my horse blog: Swift Horse

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ One of the Remnant - The Ghost Fleet.

That was truly a spooky article! Thanks for posting it.

Here is what we see in the Pacific NW since the "downturn." Between Portland and Seattle, on every available siding, is rolling stock. Boxcars. You can see quit a few of them from Interstate 5. Hundreds and thousands of boxcars. Mile after mile of them.

Many of them bear heavy graffiti. Some of it is quit beautiful.

Timo said...

I'm sorry to insist but I have to say I am still not following you on the inefficiency/"loss" note, or on the critique of trying to get something out of nothing.

Ok, granted, the kind of thermoelectric system that requires connection to the outside air is supposedly out of question since it involves (as I understood) a degradation in the insulation capacity of the space compared to the original situation with no electricity generation whatsoever. But some kind of generator working with physical movement would be ok. This original situation, my reasonably well insulated house with my reasonably efficient wood burning device we could call a "closed enough system", for practical purposes anyway. Let's say that it is a system inside of which it doesn't matter if a higher form of energy converts to heat.

So, now I carry a nice pile of wood inside, close the door and proceed to burn it. Once it's gone up in smoke I'm left with x-amount of heat from the wood's stored energy in the house.

Then, the next day, I've put some kind of a generator, a closed steam powered system for example, one that doesn't leak the heat outside any more than the original system without the electricity generator would. I once again proceed to burn the wood, wait for it to be gone and realise I am now left with x MINUS the electricity generated -amount of heat in my house. So far so good. But this, I think, is not the end of the story. The reality is cyclical rather than linear.

The way I see it, and trust others to see it too, is that I have lost no greater amount of energy compared to the situation with the stove only here, just temporarily put some on a kind of a "savings account". Ok, so I have my batteries stored up in the same heated space and so are the regularly used electronic appliances too. Now how I see it is that if I manage to use all that electricity inside the house (let's even close the curtains for the light not being able to escape) before I burn the next load of wood, I should be left with the original x-amount of heat, with the added benefit of having been able to recycle some of it through my lamp and my radio first, making them in essence the extensions of my wood burning stove, radiating heat into their surroundings as they were used. I mean, to me, this is thermodynamics as simple as it gets. As long as I have emptied the batteries before the heating season is over, I've lost nothing that I wouldn't have lost anyway in the first place, and have been able to meanwhile enjoy the benefits of a modest amount of electricity at my service.

Of course there might be some practical issues with this, some loss due to some strange quirks of creation, but in principle I cannot see anything wrong with converting some of your self-generated heat into electricity given that you don't compromise your insulating capacity/heating efficiency in the process ie, keep the system as closed as it was and that you store and use the electricity in the same space that requires the heating.

Thanks for everyone on their time, I hope (for my sanity, since this seems to me so fundamentally clear) that we are getting into an agreement here...


John Michael Greer said...

Remnant, thanks for the link.

Houyhnhnm, not just one post -- it's the third core theme of the Green Wizards package, right up there with growing your own food and managing energy. More on this soon. As for the learning curve for horses -- good gods, of course! People who know how to work with horses, and can teach other people how to do so, will be at a premium in the years to come; I'd encourage anyone who's interested to get to work learning about that now. As in yesterday, if not sooner.

Lewis, that does sound spooky. Here in Cumberland we're on a busy rail line, and the boxcars we see are rolling east or west; the pileup on your end of the continent suggests that the import economy may be in worse trouble than anybody's admitting yet.

Timo, heat won't do work unless you have a differential between hot and cold, and in the process of doing work, that differential is decreased. If your system is closed, there's no differential and the heat can't be made to do work. Please do some reading on thermodynamics; better still, try to make your scheme work, and when you discover that it won't -- any more than hooking a generator and a motor to the same shaft, connecting the terminals of the one to the other, and giving it a spin will produce perpetual motion -- you might find it easier to understand why.

DIYer said...


I think you are selling silicon short. And PV, for that matter. Or perhaps selling long the Seebeck / Peltier effect.

When I read the Wikipedia article on thermoelectric materials, I see some not-so-pedestrian nonferrous metals like Ytterbium Trialuminide and Constantan, which will be pretty difficult to achieve for the backyard metallurgist.

On the other hand, you don't need semiconductor grade silicon for a PV cell. For semiconductor grade, the silicon has been completely converted to chlorosilane, distilled, then reconstituted to get the impurity level down to one part in 10^11 or better. It takes some high tech, and a lot of energy. On the other hand, PV silicon works at one part in 10^6 or so, which can be achieved without the expensive purification step.

The PV effect has been known since 1839 (per Wikipedia). It can be observed in that galena crystal you use for your catwhisker diode. Selenium cells were made long before silicon became the material of choice.

So what I'm saying is that both of these power generation techniques require some nonferrous metallurgy and other technology unknown prior to the 19th century or so. And I'm inclined to think they will be similarly achievable in a post-industrial world.


On another energy-saving topic, I'm sort of curious why CHP (Combined Heat and Power) has not come back into vogue in the cooler climates.

An apartment I once lived in was built in 1910, according to the cornerstone. It had the remnants of some large steam pipes in the basement, which I understand came from the (defunct in 1970) electric power station across the street. The oversized pipes had been reconnected to a gas fired steam boiler, reflecting the energy profligacy of that time.

Timo said...

No, no, I will make it as simple as I possibly can:

A man has in his room, which is not a true closed system but a typical room, two stoves. They are identical, except that the other has a small thermoelectric generator attached to the side of it, working on the heat difference of the side of the stove and the room around it, which always remains cooler than the side of the stove. The generator is connected to a small radio and is capable of producing just enough electricity for the radio to play music on a silent volume. The radio always plays the man's favourite tune.

Now I would like to know why would the man in any situation in which he feels chilly enough to feel the need to fire up one of the stoves choose the one that will not allow him the added pleasure of his favourite tune?

Only thing I'm arguing here is that the man is, on the whole, not losing anything when he chooses to use the stove with the radio attached, but only gaining the small enjoyment of listening to his favourite song for a while. The reading on the room's thermometer after using any of these two stoves cannot have any difference to it. If it did, it would itself be breaking the laws of thermodynamics.

Matthew Heins said...

To Chris,

I think we're talking past each other a bit and the rest of the thread more. ;)


1.(&2) I not sure about this. Many common N. American staples are introductions from Eurasia, yet thrived here. Heirloom varieties are the minority now, but they're still around. The interest in local Ag and gardening is ever growing and this just leads to more local adaptation and fitness. It'll take time to get back to the quantity and quality of the early 20th Century, for sure. But we do have some time. I'd bet that with the Descent upon us now, the only way the Americas will be required to support the current numbers will be as populations begin to migrate back toward the richest resource areas. Even a fast version of this should take decades.

3. Oh, I don't see anybody getting very far with current industrial Ag practices! If they listened to me, my State and Federal Representatives would be working themselves to the bone to enact a rolling changeover to industrial organic as a legal baseline with subsidies or incentives for "beyond organic" practices of local, urban, permaculture, biointensive, etc. They're not listening so far. ;) As to the other, I'm not actually suggesting growing the vegetables in the forest, I'm suggesting that if population pressures continue to rise, the forest will be cleared for agriculture. Much of the successful agriculture in the U.S., even before fossil fuel use, has been on cleared land. Done the wrong way this will be an ecological disaster and reek havoc. Done right it might change things a lot but still provide a liveable world for many, many people. Last, silviculture, and "forest gardening" have a big role in the future of feeding people. Check out "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" for a gloss of the recent research on pre-Columbian food forests in Amazonia and beyond. Once again, a big, unlikely course change would be involved, but such practices would seem tailor made for feeding the rising populations of the tropical regions.

4. (&5) No question about it, industrial Ag is done for. Dead. It's just that the giant is so damned big, he's taking forever to hit the floor! Time is needed for skill-building, for sure. But skill-building becomes the goal of more and more people everyday. Is there time enough for a switch to be made with out nasty nastiness ahead? I'd say no, along with JMG. But I'm not sure that we're going to get out of the population problem just because of some seriously rough times. IIRC, JMG and many others do. They envision a general decline of "civilization" with some places declining slower and others faster. They may well be right. Six days out of seven I envision that same thing. But on the seventh day I rest from that and see instead a future where the bumpy ride down for fossil fuels and the globalized corporate capitalist system and the U.S Empire, shakes enough people awake fast enough that the future may well be both much lower energy-consuming, and MORE "civilized". And in some places -just as populous.

What can I say? It's a hobby. ;)

But keeping in mind that the original subject was the morality of choosing to reproduce (or really the moral authority of lamenting over-population when one has reproduced) when population pressures are pushing current techno-social systems of utilizing resources past their limits. I say that if most folks would just wise up and then use their power to get things changing even with some people still being fools, we could still transition fairly comfortably to an ecotechnic system. So why should I look to the continued foolishness of the majority instead of the growing size of the wise minority as a guide for my choices?


Matthew Heins said...

Satellite Solar "beamed" to earth!

How needlessly complex.

Let's have the Satellite Solar, sure. But let's save the transmission costs and just hook the things to Space Colonies!

That sounds much more efficient. ;)

Seriously though. Are outlandish schemes just to keep the Soccer Moms chauffeuring and the Pizza Pockets microwaved a sign of stunted imaginations struggling to break free or what?


provo said...

I'm not sure if this is what Timo is driving at, but there is certainly a lot of heat from a wood stove that is simply lost up the chimney.

That heat could theoretically be used to run a thermopile without cooling the house. Even better would be to capture some of that heat to preheat the domestic hot water.

Cherokee Organics said...


Your garden sounds quite productive. Wild vegies are one of nature's bonuses so I hope the tomatoes work out - if nothing else they'll probably be pretty tough if not moved or disturbed. Our summer was quite cool and wet which meant that my tomatoes didn't really ripen until May (which may be like November for you?). You never know what you are going to get with agriculture.

You mentioned double dug garden beds. I had to look up what this meant. Sounds like an excellent way to start a vegie bed. I'm jealous of the productive soils you guys have over there!

I run 12 raised vegie beds 300mm to 500mm deep (made out of old leaky water tanks which are a waste product and people seem to want to get rid of) so only add compost on the top as the soil level drops. I can't really afford to dig much as it upsets the soil structure too much - just keep top dressing and when I'm finished top dress some more. Our soils here are biologically pretty sad, people don't appreciate this. Oh well.

PS: I bought your book so as to say thanks for all the work that you do here with your regular posts and responding to comments. It's a huge amount of work and I respect it.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG / Lewis,

I've noticed comments referring to the survival of the wealthy people etc. etc... If the economy tanks, then everyone goes down in the sinking ship together.

Well, it occurs to me that if the US currency is devalued by 10% which it pretty much has, then your wealth is actually that much proportionately lower. Now this wouldn't be a problem, if say you were sufficient in energy, raw materials, labour and manufacturing. But well, this is the case no longer and you will note that the US is a larger importer of all of these items.

So, if someone had a large quantity of paper funds (ie. they were wealthy) then they are faced with the choice of either:

- converting it into real wealth (think gold, property, raw materials etc)

- sending it off shore (which is quite risky in itself) to say an appreciating currency (ie. one with mineral or energy wealth)

- watch it slowly devalue as it's real world purchasing power is reduced

The only thing that has allowed the US economy to continue on it's merry way is that US dollars are utilised as a worldwide form of wealth in international transactions.

However, with the devaluation and US debt levels, countries are going to start looking elsewhere and I'll note that within the last week or so, I've started seeing articles about the Chinese government considering relaxing it's rules about international trading of the yuan.

Interesting times.



Don Mason said...


If I'm reading your question correctly (at first I thought that you were thinking about thermoelectric):

Essentially, you would be setting up a steam-driven turbine in your house, and then producing electricity with it and also heating the house with the waste heat. This is certainly feasible, but what is the mechanical efficiency of the steam turbine? How much fuel does it consume compared to how much work it performs?

If you heat your house with a highly efficient wood-burning furnace, would it consume less fuel than a combined steam turbine electrical generator/house heater?

You always need an open system to make any heat-to-electric system work, because that's the only way any sort of work is accomplished.

Somehow, somewhere there has to be an opening in the system where something useful (high potential energy) is being brought in and something less useful (low potential energy) is being tossed out.

What are the openings in your system?

1) Bringing in firewood.

2) Cracks (or a vent) letting in cold outside air.

3) Your chimney exhausting hot waste gases to the outside.

4) Ashes from the firebox that you eventually take outside.

You carry in firewood. Oxygen from the outside air is fed into the firebox, which combines with the C’s and H's in the cellulose of the wood (high potential energy) to produce heat, and CO2 and H2O wastes (low potential energy) go up the chimney to the outside. Then you carry out the ashes.

If you don't supply the firewood and O2 from outside the envelope, then work doesn't get done.

If you don't allow the CO2 and H20 to escape the envelope, then work doesn't get done.

If you don't carry out the ashes - well, then you're probably going to get yelled at until you do. :-)

So you're not just bringing firewood into the house - you also have to bring in outside air, and you have to let the waste products out so that you can exploit the difference in the potential energy. And the wastes have to move from hot to cold.

From a heat loss standpoint (at least when it's cold outside) it certainly would make a lot more sense to put the steam turbine inside the building envelope than outside in a shed where it's directly heating the great outdoors.

But a machine designed for one purpose only (to heat a house) is probably going to lose less heat up the chimney than a machine designed for two purposes (to heat a house and to produce heat-embedded-in-electricity), particularly when one of those purposes is producing “smart” high end electricity as opposed to just “dumb” low end heat. Or the machine may incorporate a lot of energy in its manufacture to minimize those efficiency losses. Or it may use a lot of energy while it’s running to minimize those efficiency losses.

Due to the efficiency losses of the steam turbine (even though the vast majority of those losses would be heat losses which you would be recapturing), I suspect that you would have to burn more wood (or somebody somewhere had to input more energy into the system)to get the same amount of house heat plus heat-embedded-in-electricity. More waste heat would probably be lost up the chimney.

But your idea still makes a lot more sense than putting the steam turbine outdoors in a shed. You would be recapturing the main efficiency losses (low grade heat) that occur when electricity is generated, and are normally dumped directly into the air. So it would definitely minimize (although not eliminate) whole system heat losses.

(By the way, thermoelectric would work well in your climate because of the big indoor/outdoor temperature differential during most of the year.)

LEO said...

Three words begining with S

Simplify, Salvage, Store


John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, you can actually get the thermoelectric effect off strips of copper and tin, and there are plenty of fairly simple alloys that produce decent voltages. What I'd heard is that the simpler photovoltaic materials don't produce enough current to bother with -- if that's wrong, I'd be glad to hear it.

Timo, by all means give it a try.

Matt, there are plenty of people who insist that we've got to have the space colonies, too, so we can go zooming off to our grand and imaginary destiny among the stars. Combine the idolatrous worship of progress with stark panic of having to live within our means, and you get a bumper crop of delusions.

Provo, there's certainly ways to use the heat; we'll be talking about some of them.

Chris, the soil I started with was not much better than what you have over there -- clay and decayed rock with visible streaks of coal and coal ash (this is old coal mining country). The point to the double dug beds is that you literally build soil from scratch, working in as much organic matter as you can, so that the living things in the soil have what they need to produce a nice rich humus, and also give you good drainage and tilth. Thank you for picking up the book!

As for the dollar and the vast amount of basically hallucinatory wealth that gives the American upper and middle classes their illusion of prosperity, well, the whole mess of it is not long for this world. Exactly what's going to pop the bubble is a good question, but something will.

SophieGale said...

Recapturing heat from a furnace: a while back I posted over on GW a description of the Fred Francis House in Kewanee, IL.

Francis, a mechanical engineer, worked on his house from 1890 till his death in 1926. He used wind power to operate several fans in the house. I can't adequately explain it, but exhaust from the furnace vented out through a pipe on the roof and heated air which was brought into the house and circulated below the floor boards. He had a 3000 gal. (?) cistern in the back yard which could be pumped through the same furnace and was directed into the bathroom and through the conservatory. He dug a tunnel from the house to his orchard and used another fan to air-cool the place in the summer.

He also designed automatic open/close doors and windows to keep out flies. All without electricity.

A modern da Vinci, he lived off the royalties from numerous patents--mostly for watches.

Simplify, Salvage, Share

Apple Jack Creek said...

TracyG (and others looking to 'downsize the electrical before plugging in PV'), have you looked into the ‘converted freezer fridges’? We have had two and are quite happy. The first iteration (optimal power usage but somewhat troublesome in day to day use) was a standard chest freezer with an external thermostat attached (they are sold as ‘kegerator’ thermostats, you just stick the temperature sensing end into the freezer, and then plug the freezer into the thermostat – it turns on the freezer when it needs to cool, which only needs a short burst, so it uses less power: Google is your friend, we got ours from somewhere or other online). The problem with the chest freezer was the condensation – we got a lot of water in the bottom, plus, it was hard to dig around in there for what you needed. We have ‘upgraded’ to an upright freezer – but with the same thermostat thingie. It still gets ice crystals or water droplets dangling off the top shelf, but we just wipe it off with a towel every so often and live with the drips – it uses very little power compared to a standard fridge and is WAY cheaper than a SunFrost! I had a conversation with some likeminded folks about it here:

Timo said...

@ Don Mason

First of all, I'm sorry to have brought up the idea of a closed system here, my bad. English is a foreign language to me and I wasn't fully aware how strong theoretical connotations it had.

Secondly, I suggest you to think about this matter in a bit more simple way. For example, imagining a small closed-loop steam generator, that looks like a small kettle, sitting on top of your usual stove, just generating a tiny bit of electricity. There is no need to consider efficiency here, for with a stove without the kettle generator the efficiency for electricity production is 0%. There is no change in the chimney fumes or any other property of the stove. There is no need for any changed structures to grasp this theoretically.

You could also think of this through an other type of a device. For example, a proverbial exercise-bicycle in your living room. You can just as well make it harder to pedal by pushing against the wheel with a simple physical object to induce drag, thus generating heat directly, or you could put a generator there to induce the same drag, to generate heat and electricity. The only difference, heatwise, is that the version with the generator makes the energy eventually dissipate into heat though a complex piece of electrical engineering and finally, maybe through a light bulb. But the point is, there is no difference in the final amount of heat generated/dissipated. If you are in a situation where the fact that all energy eventually degrades into heat does not matter to you, you are in a situation where you can play around with it as much as you want without any losses whatsoever. That electricity you generated will degenerate into heat before it leaves your house and thus give you warmth just as much as the energy that went straight away into heat. I promise.


I'm sorry I cannot at present circumstances test this, but actually I intended the question to be more of a question of logics than of practical measurement. I thought it to finally clear out that I was not making any extraordinary claims here, in fact, quite the opposite. As such, I'm a bit surprised by your answer.

Well, I think it's time to put this subject at rest now, at least from my part. Five posts arguing the same thing and not reaching agreement is just about the limit for civilised men and just a bit too heavy of an introduction from my part... Let's just all keep studying our physics and heating our homes when necessary, and maybe one day there forms a consensus!

Brad K. said...


Let me give this a try.

If you use 'waste' heat in the exhaust gases from your heating source, then you increase the efficiency of your heat generation scheme.

But then, there is the issue about draft, the air that enters the fire chamber to support combustion. If you trap a significant amount of heat before the exhaust gases finish escaping into the open environment -- you diminish the amount of air drawn up the chimney by the heated (and now not-quite-as-heated) air and combustion products.

Let us say that the effect of cooling the exhaust -- re-using the chimney contents -- is negligible.

Re-using the heat of chimney gases is not new. I am reminded of the oil burning stove of my childhood, and how the stove downstairs heated the chimney passing through the upstairs walls to take some of the chill off the upstairs rooms. Riley Stoves sells camping stoves with a water tank atop, so that you can cook breakfast and heat wash water conveniently.

How long will it be before you stoke the fire just a bit warmer, some day, for a bit more electricity? Or even start the fire at all, because you want the electricity and not the heat?

Dual purpose systems are by nature more complex, and meeting all purposes often sacrifices the efficiency of some of the others.

hawlkeye said...

After reading the posts on the decaying grid infrastructure, I was talking with a neighbor who needs to replace his irrigation pump. The power company told him he would have to pay for the replacement of not just one transformer, but both of them, in order to service the nearly identical replacemenmt pump. Also, if a switch above a transformer breaks, the property owner is liable for the automatic replacement of the transformer beneath it.

Sounds to us like the passing of maintenance costs on to the citizens. Who will run out of money first?

The whole party's just a game of musical chairs circling the drain. Drain? What drain? Ahhhhhhh....!

GHung said...

Since the dicussion here often turns to the art of claiming negawatts, and some folks are talking refrigeration, some may be interested in this DIY article on super insulating your existing fridge and making it more efficient. When I designed our home I took this into consideration, leaving the back of the refridgerator compartment open into the unheated utility area behind the kitchen for venting hot air in summer, bringing in cool air in winter. I also allowed a few inches on the sides and top to add more insulation, something I have yet to get to, though I have aquired the materials.
Read the article before attempting. The author caused condensation on the outside of the fridge on his first attempt, soaking the fiberglass insulation (telling in itself) and realised that he needed foam board applied and sealed directly to the fridge.

Most conventional refrigerators and freezers, water heaters as well, can be made more efficient. No sense paying for the same energy twice.

One of the Remnant said...


"Matt, there are plenty of people who insist that we've got to have the space colonies, too, so we can go zooming off to our grand and imaginary destiny among the stars. Combine the idolatrous worship of progress with stark panic of having to live within our means, and you get a bumper crop of delusions."

Agreed - escaping the responsibility for our actions by escaping to space (as though this were a welcoming and hospitable environment!) is as pure and obvious an example of delusion as can be found.

That said, I'm curious to know if you see some merit - as a general proposition - in the impetus to explore beyond the bounds of this world - to 'reach' for the 'stars' so to speak. ;-)

And if you think, at some point in the distant future, whether that would be possible:

It seems more an idea for a novel than a realistic thesis, but I am attracted to the notion of a far future where humans (or perhaps evolved dolphins :) living in an ecotechnic society hold a debate on whether or not the remaining fossil fuels - if they could be extracted without causing ecological harm - could be used for one purpose: to create a technology which would enable humans to do just that - reach for the stars. Like some others here, I find the notion of a space elevator appealing, the idea of a sensible 'space program' (if such a thing could ever exist) equally so.

After all, because fossil fuels are non-renewable means that we should not use them lightly, nor in a way that generates self-perpetuating societal dependency upon them, nor in a way that causes harm, as we have. But is the idea that what remains should lie there, undisturbed, for all time? This is the sense I get from folks who assert that sustainability means never again using non-renewable resources.

But IMO it's not that we've used them that is the problem, per se, but that we've used them so incredibly unwisely - we've not only damaged the biosphere in so doing, we've damaged the prospects for our own species' future, etc. We have allowed this unwise use to result in the creation of multiple systems which are wholly deleterious. But again, this is due to the lack of wisdom on our part in the ways in which we have chosen to use these resources.

So would it be reasonable to argue that future societies, having learned to truly live in balance, in harmony, with the rest of the natural world, would not be necessarily wrong (if the condition of harmlessness could be met) to use such resources wisely - and in so doing unlock the opportunities for exploration beyond this planet?

Curious about your thoughts on this subject...and the thoughts of others as well, of course.

- Oz

Tracy G said...


Yup, I heard about converted chest freezers back in '07, when we were participating in Sharon Astyk's Riot for Austerity. I also heard about significant condensation problems and so rejected the idea at the time.

I hadn't yet talked to anyone who's using a modified upright freezer, though. That sounds like a perfectly workable solution. Thanks for that great tip!

I've also considered the more radical option of eliminating the fridge altogether. However, I'm not sure that makes sense for a family of two adults, since we don't go through food very fast. For example, I typically fix up a big mess of beans in our 1950's-era pressure cooker once per week, dress it with vinegar and oil and spices, and stash it directly in the fridge, so we can help ourselves from the pot for several days running. We also freeze quite a bit of the produce from our garden in the fall. I'm planning to experiment with more dehydration this year, though.

If I could get rid of the fridge, or somehow seriously knock down that consumption, our household usage would drop to only 5 or 6 kWh daily. I see that's still twice what Chris is using, humph. I have to run the clothes dryer about five times per week to handle the laundry from my massage therapy office, which accounts for roughly another 3 kWh per load. So that's another major energy hogging appliance in our house. Without the fridge and the clothes dryer, I think we'd be quite close to a very respectable 3 kWh per day.

I'm nervous about our audit tomorrow. I feel like I'm back in school and have test anxiety. Having already done a self-assessment of our house, I'm aware of several things which are not up to snuff. We're going to do better after a few improvements, though, especially in the natural gas category (where we're currently consuming only slightly less than average).

One of the Remnant said...

@ Timo

At the risk of beating a dead horse...

"For example, imagining a small closed-loop steam generator, that looks like a small kettle, sitting on top of your usual stove, just generating a tiny bit of electricity. There is no need to consider efficiency here, for with a stove without the kettle generator the efficiency for electricity production is 0%."

While there may not be a need to consider efficiency in the smaller sense, but the broader sense of efficiency of the whole system still needs to be considered.

In the case of the kettle on the stove, generating a trickle of electricity, that process is consuming energy which would not then be consumed in the second case: the stove without a kettle generator. If you run the stove at the same level in both cases, in the first case, there will be a smaller addition to ambient heat, since some of the stove's heat will have been used to create electricity (and there will be losses in that situation - you cannot get around this).

At least, this is my understanding.

Perhaps the language barrier is getting in the way, but after reading your recent posts, I'm still not sure that you are incorporating the relevant concepts of thermodynamics which lie at the heart of your system model.

In one of the articles I suggested that you read in my last comment to you, the author - Ugo Bardi - boils down the 3 laws to these simplistic forms:

1. You can't win
2. You can't get even
3. You can't quit the game

My sense is that #2 is where you are running into difficulty - you seem to be thinking about how you can get even. This is simply not possible. At least, not in this universe. In fact, usually, you can come nowhere close to getting even.

Apologies if I am misunderstanding you, which may well be the case.

- Oz

j. schrier said...

Concerning the DIY thermoelectric thread, one can observe this effect using just U.S. penny and nickel coins, as pointed out in the
Mims Circuit Scrapbook.

Constantan is a 35-50% Nickel in Copper alloy; unfortunately, the U.S. Nickel coin is only 25% Nickel in Copper.

Cathy McGuire said...

I have been a salvager all my life; at each of my jobs, I acquired the reputation of “Don’t toss that! Cathy will want it!” ;-) It takes some practice to be able to balance off the opportunity to gather materials that might be useful, and the need to not bury yourself in stuff! I’m glad for places like Freecycle and Craig’s List for now, since I can pass things on and pick up things others don’t need. I can’t stand to waste things, and since my family is very wasteful, I can only guess it might be genetic. ;-) I don’t know enough about electricity to make my own PV… my solar oven is almost finished, and I might explore the simpler passive solar water heating… when I can get time from my garden! I did succeed in brewing my first batch of beer, and am now reusing bottles from myself and friends… I love when it turns into a cycle rather than a waste dead-end!

@ChrisH: most gas wells are shut down not because they stop producing gas, but because they don't produce enough to hassle with relative to ongoing liability and regulatory compliance costs.
And so your idea would be to open them w/o regulations to individuals? As if small groups couldn’t pollute as well as large? As a general comment, I object to fracking as much because it makes huge changes to huge areas underground with no research as to what consequences there are a decade or more down the road… we humans blithely think we can just rearrange stuff and not have any unexpected results. Enough of that!!

Oh, for those of you still catching up with all the themes/topics in this blog, Aiowekran has posted a list of the posts and the resources mentioned in them- over at! It’s a lot of work, and worth checking.

Don Mason said...

@ Timo:

Let's keep going. It gives me something interesting to think about while I’m sawing 2 x 4’s and digging post holes. :-)

We're agreed that the overwhelming majority of the energy will stay inside the envelope, and that it makes more sense than putting the device in a shed outdoors.

I haven't cracked open a physics text in almost forty years, but my gut has been telling me that converting the heat from a burning log to electricity and then back to heat has to be less efficient than just leaving heat as heat.

Every change in state will lead to a loss of energy – but most of those losses will be as heat, which is usable heat in this scenario.

But are all of those energy losses taking place inside the envelope?

What is coming in the door – entering the closed system - to produce the electricity that wouldn’t be needed if you just wanted heat alone?

You would bring in a generator to convert heat to electricity, wires, solder, batteries, a device that would covert the electricity into something you want (heat or light or sound), a switch, screws to hold it together, etc.

A lot of energy was used to manufacture and distribute these items, so they represent high potential energy.

But eventually, they will all wear out and leave the house as junk, and even more energy will be used to deal with this junk (low potential energy).

So their embedded energy of manufacture – and the energy of their demanufacture - has to be brought into the energy flow calculation.

Which is one of the questions about solar panels: how much energy is embodied in their manufacture, distribution, demanufacture/disposal compared to how much energy can solar panels produce over their expected working life?

Essentially, it’s like putting a solar panel in your living room and using your fireplace as the sun. How much net energy can you capture? Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).

This is becoming a civilization-killing issue: we’re forced to use more and more energy to make energy. The EROEI is starting to become insufficient to run an industrial economy.

Does this sound reasonable?

idiotgrrl said...

I talked to my neighbor across the street, who had solar panels put in back in February, a very nasty month in Albuquerque. They're photovoltaic and tied into the grid. They generate more energy than his household uses, and instead of paying PNM for electricity, they pay him. Plus (artificial in fact, but economically real), the renewable energy credits and the tax credit on the installation.

I'm nowhere near ready to solarize yet. I've just gotten started on the weatherizing, step by very slow step. [Though the walking-in-the-neighborhood program and the weaning-off-the-coffee program seem to be progressing quite nicely.]

But it was good data.

And if there's one thing Albuquerque has, it's sunshine.

Donal said...

One of the problems of considering PV or wind to power a 12 volt house system is the need for copper wire of large dimensions. I have wired our 38 foot wooden boat in which the longest run was about 20 feet (40 feet in the DC world). Even with LED lighting the wiring, the size demands are large, especially when connecting the battery bank. And where will the copper wiring come from? Old houses, I guess, for a while. At least in housing you can use solid wire. Perhaps that will bring back one of the very old metal working skills, making wire in small quantities. At any rate, the smaller the structure and the more centralized the "grid" of the house, the better. We've done that with the boat, keeping most high electrical use draws (ham and marine radio, GPS, refer compressor, computer, engine alternator, inverter) within a few feet of the battery bank. The wiring (a grueling job for the non-acrobat), made me realize how simple it would be, both for building and also long-term maintenance, to just have oil lamps and a marine wood stove (now several back on the market perfect for tiny houses as well). The smaller the "controlled environment" such as house or boat, the smaller the energy needs. But it will be back to the zen ideal of "chop wood, carry water."

LewisLucanBooks said...

Years ago I remember seeing in the Lehman's catalog a cast iron fan you sat on your wood stove to push hot air into cold corners. Rising heat from the stove surface turns the blades.

I just was over at their catalog, and they still carry them, but they're aluminum, now. I wonder if they could be adapted to produce a small trickle of electricity?

Work shop Tinkerers, start your engines! Or, fans.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Tracy G,

Keep up the good work! 5 to 6 is pretty good and about the best I managed too, in a modern house that I rented whilst building the place I'm in now. I built the current house myself specifically with low energy use in mind. Living in the housing estate was like some sort of purgatory for me - must have done something bad for sure!!! Strangely enough, I achieved better outcomes from a 1890's Victorian terrace double brick house. I suspect the neighbours where heating their houses and the bricks (there were 4 bricks between each adjoining house)transfered the heat into mine! It always stayed cool over summer too. One neighbour used to really pump the heat and I noticed a sharp downturn in the average temperature in my place after they moved out.

The refrigerator here is the single biggest user of power behind the solar system itself. You don't actually need a refrigerator, it's a luxury really you could preserve all your food stocks and have an in ground root cellar (or a dark well insulated cupboard). I've only just started preserving this year and the most successful method has been jam (blackberry and peach is my favourite). I'll open the bottles (we use a Fowlers Vacola which is an Australian thing) of fruit in the next week or so. If I disappear off the comments, you will know that bottling is harder than it first seems! (Lets hope that it's all OK - I'm a bit nervous though).

Hi Donal,

I'm writing about this as we speak. The next article in my series on solar is about wire and fuses. Bit boring really so I'm going to blow some stuff up to spice it up a bit. Should be fun. I leave a comment on this website as a shameless plug when it gets up on the web.



Don Mason said...


I ran across some data in an article on Mish's that confirms what you are seeing on the West Coast: lots and lots of railroad cars sitting idle on sidings.

Fasten seatbelts: Double dip ahead

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Don Mason

Thanks for the link, Don. Going to spread that one around, a bit.

I first noticed it, oh, a year and half, two years ago. And, there was an article in our local newspaper.

That's a lot of iron and steel just sitting around. Wonder how long before "they" start scrapping them out to China?

DeAnander said...

I have been lurking a long time and wanted to drop by and say thanks to JMG and the community for such an interesting discussion -- and so many fine lead articles. Consistently readable. I too participated (as a debunkster of course) in that amazingly silly TOD thread about orbital power-beaming satellites. Genuine technocornucopianism beggars any attempt to satirise it (it's also beggaring all of us, on a planetary scale, but I'm preaching to the choir here).

I live aboard my 40 ft junk rigged sailboat in the PNW and may report in later on my own "footprint reduction" project, energy usage etc. -- at the dock I do use BC Hydro power for the laptop/wireless-modem and a tiny fridge/freezer, but one 15 y-o PV panel takes care of all the (LED) lighting. A small and wicked-efficient wood stove provides more than ample heat in winter: learning how to moderate its output has been a challenge. Given the stove's overproduction of heat at the drop of a hat, I too have been wondering how to generate some DC off it. Diversify, diversify!

In the meantime, chiming in on the subject of shipping. Here in the Vancouver area we see lots of bulk carriers anchoring off Nanaimo -- possibly because Vancouver's rodestead is full? -- and waiting for (probably) grain or coal. Also we see the endless parade of log carriers (whole log exports, in other words clear cutting and sending the raw logs to China, Japan, etc -- no "jobs" in this deal except for a handful of mechanised logging operators). BC's sawmills are mostly moribund or shutting down. [The near shore fishery has collapsed in all but name. The smaller coastal communities are atrophying, people are concentrating in the urban centres. Whole 'nother story.]

The bulk carriers carry all kinds of flags, but about half of them are officially Chinese.

There's a local fishery -- to me an obscenity -- in herring roe. When the herring come to spawn, the roe boats selectively kill the female herring and strip the eggs for sale to affluent Japanese consumers (roe on kelp delicacy). You can see the cloud of milt in the water, and the boats gathering like vultures. This year the fishery was "a bust" due to Fukushima plus tsunami, depression of the Japanese economy etc. I find myself weeping for the Japanese while cheering for the fish: this is the dreadful position we are placed in, the predicament of our times... everything that is bad for money is good for the living world and vice versa, but humans have placed their bets (or been forced to join) on the side of money and hence suffer when money suffers.

And don't even get me started on "farmed" (CAFO) salmon...

Back to topic: I'm seriously into salvage. One of the reasons I bought this boat -- there were many -- was that her interior was constructed out of used BC Ferry signboards. There is no finer marine ply on the market :-) and I rather liked the artfully random apprearance of NO, RKING, DETOU, PASSE and other fragments of exhortation and prohibition that decorate some of the unpainted surfaces. We have an interesting dumpster in the boat yard which I check every couple of days. It's amazing what people throw away! I realise that in exploiting this "waste" stream I'm just parasitising the gross wastefulness of the consumer economy -- being a flea on a rabid dog, as we might say. But heck, better than letting it go to the landfill. A lot of the stainless on board came from the scrap yard -- most of it old parts from decommissioned sawmills and pulp mills.

More discussions on salvage please... I see salvage and bricolage as our future, such as it is. In a way a satisfying future, while the stock of salvageable junk lasts (it should last my lifetime anyway): far more creative than the "go buy something" decades.

hawlkeye said...


"I find myself weeping for the Japanese while cheering for the fish: this is the dreadful position we are placed in, the predicament of our times... everything that is bad for money is good for the living world and vice versa, but humans have placed their bets (or been forced to join) on the side of money and hence suffer when money suffers."

Thanks for this, a keeper.

What is suffering are all the things that are truly valuable, that money was supposed to represent. Now that money represents so much empty value (derivative, atmospheric "appreciation" of worthlessness) it will suffer, too, as truly valuable things become re-cognized for what they are.

This is why sustainable farming will never become a foundation for a recovery miracle "green" industrial economy, because it would mean admitting that making lots of money on the unreal estate bubble was a scam that burned a few generations worth of true value.

Everyone will lose their jobs before they figure out something more useful to do with their time than ride out the wave of suffering put into motion by the efforts of our mutually blind consensus momentum.

Kunstler's right, it's a trance. Unlimited Growth is some dark magic, one spell that's tricky to shake off when all the other cogs think that's Who They Are.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Andy Brown

Thanks much for the pointer to the Cultural Logic piece - this was quite interesting, with obvious applicability well beyond food production systems alone.

One of the more frustrating aspects of our current set of predicaments comes from the difficulties in communicating them to 'ordinary' folk - and this study is clarifying, and thus quite helpful, IMO, in that regard.

For those who didn't read it, the key seems to be to establish, simply, the crucial linkages, shifting the perspective from consumption to production, coupled with introduction of the notion of our reliance upon the biosphere:

1. Human life depends on certain ecosystem services, aptly described in the paper as 'Life Support Systems.'

2. Modern methods of food production (farming, fishing) cause damage to these systems.

I have a few reservations about various aspects of the process and its outputs (such as the presumed appropriate locus of responsibility for resource management), but think this is a valuable analysis and laudatory approach.

- Oz

Zach said...


- Back then the fruits and vegetables grown would have been specifically adapted over many generations to those areas.
- Nowadays the selection of available seeds is very limited in both number and genetic quality. It would take a lot of years of trials to reverse this situation.

Well, then -- time to get started! Myself, I'm participating in a Slow Food-sponsored seed trial event this year (along with my personal seed trials and slow slogging towards becoming a seed-saving gardener).

It would seem to be time to revive the regional seed companies. There are still a few, and not all of them are in bed with Monsanto...


So, as I look for new house, can I chalk "with suitable horse facilities or room to create them" as a Green Wizardry hedge, and not just something to make my daughter happy? :)


TwyliteFlyer said...

Good day JMG,

Only mildly off topic, but should I assume you've seen this?

DIYer said...

You can take a sheet of copper, carefully bake it to get a coating of red cuprous oxide (Cu2O - if you bake it too hot you get black CuO), and paint an electrode on the surface to make a PV cell. I know this because my brother did it for a science fair project back in the '60s. This is a low-tech version of the CIGS thin film technology that's currently moving into production from the labs.

I don't know what efficiency can be obtained this way, it's probably pretty low. The science fair demo only had to swing a galvanometer needle. Also, copper is an expensive choice for a roofing material.

The point I was trying to make, with my hazy internet-shortened attention span, is that both the technique described above and amateur thermocouples, are likely to be similarly transitory (in agreement with your essay). Even with the 10-15% efficiency of refined silicon PV, it will not be feasible to run the "advanced" industries of the 20th century such as steel mills or shipyards.

On another note, we may soon see the catabolic effect of losing thirty or forty percent of our silicon chip technology as the Japanese industrial base crumbles. It saddens me that the people of Japan will have to suffer so, but perhaps they will show us the way toward a more balanced world. (come to think of it, another of your predictions -- the ragged refugees showing up in Oregon in derelict transport ships)

Ric said...

JMG: Can anybody else recommend some basic books on the physics of energy?

The best introduction to physics that isn't over-simplified into inaccuracy is Isaac Asimov's Understanding Physics. I believe it was still in print last I checked.

With Asimov as a foundation, one can go a bit deeper with Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. And for some serious skull sweat, try QED.

None are exclusively about energy, but they all hit on the topic in various ways. More importantly, they teach accurate definitions of words like "energy" and "work" and so on that prove very useful in shooting holes in poorly-written energy-related articles.

(Completely irrelevant aside: Written to Grateful Dead's Attics of My Life, probably the best bit of close harmony written in my lifetime.)

dragonfly said...

Just a quick chime in on thermoelectrics - the "EcoFan" sold by Lehman's and many others is in fact a thermoelectric powered fan. You place the device on top of your woodstove, where the heat from the stove warms a semiconductor thermoelectric pile. A large heatsink is affixed to the "cool" side of the pile, to allow for as great a temperature differential as possible. The thermopile generates enough current to drive the small motor+fan, which helps circulate warm air from the stove into the room.
While it might be tempting to take apart one of these fans to get at the thermoelectric pile, the piles alone are readily available from many dealers in surplus electronic components.
Also, such semiconductor piles can be permanently damaged if overheated, whereas old-school thermopiles made from dissimilar metals are not quite so touchy.
Finally, to JMG, I've been a long time reader of the Archdruid Report, and am so thankful for your depth of thought, your concise yet comfortable way with words, and your patience in taking on all comers in the comments. Reading the blog and the comments has consistently been a great learning experience, and not just about the topics at hand. Much gratitude to all.

gordon said...


Could you please encourage your readers to read "The Work of Local Culture". This is a very recent essay by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite writers and a very wise man.

Houyhnhnm said...

@Zach said, “So, as I look for new house, can I chalk ‘with suitable horse facilities or room to create them" as a Green Wizardry hedge, and not just something to make my daughter happy? :)’”

Sounds like a plan to me—or at least a good rationalization. LOL.

If your daughter hasn't already had a couple of years of riding/driving lessons, I'd use an empty paddock as incentive for her to become experienced before she gets her own horse.

Were I you, I'd be looking for a neighborhood with experienced horsemen nearby. A good many of us are aging and enjoy working with horsey kids in exchange for labor. For example, my students don't pay me; in return for lessons on riding, ground work, health care, handling, and just about everything, they clean runs, cart hay, repair fences, and groom trails and fields as well as horses.

While waiting to see if your daughter's interest holds, you can also start a propaganda campaign, (a) extorting the virtues of ride-drive horses and (b) the importance of learning how to school horses herself once she achieves basic competence with someone else's well-schooled animals. That'd not only help you avoid the immediate purchase of a horse for a couple of years, but it’d test her resolve.

Over 95% of all horse owners lose interest when they discover the effort and skill required, but if she sticks with it, she'll have a valuable skill. For example, one of my former students went to a posh college where many young women brought horses with them, but they were show riders who didn't know how to "tune up" their horses when the pushbuttons got sticky. Consequently, my student continued riding and was paid well to do so.

Delaying horse purchases has yet another advantage. If the daughter is still into horses after a couple of years working with neighbors or nearby folks, she should then know about what sort of temperament and type fits her to make a wise choice when you start shopping for her own horse, be it old time Morgan, Norwegian Fjord, Haflinger, Arab, or whatever. (And, if she's a teenager then, don’t let her sell you on her “need” for a Friesian or any other currently fashionable breed.)

Hey, worst case scenario will be that you might have to break up badly compacted soil in an old horse paddock for more garden space if the daughter fails to maintain interest long enough to justify buying her a horse.


LewisLucanBooks said...

@ dragonfly And here I though the fans worked just from the rising hot air. No, it's got thermoelectric piles hidden inside. Sigh, nothing is as simple as it seems.

No wonder the catalog entries had disclaimers, such as, "will not work below..." "should not be used above..."

But, I still think I saw something a lot simpler, years ago. Well, once I get a wood stove up and running, it will be something fun to play with.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ gordon - Here it is. Wendell Berry's essay, "The Work of Local Culture." It starts off with a little story about building soil and ends with a rumination on building community.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Bridges are one of the most useful and therefore important constructs that humans effect, enabling traverse of obstacles and adversity. But bridge building without decent foundation at either end is something of an exercise in futility. At this stage of predicament grand investments in hypercomplexity untethered to observable condition represent not so much a bridge as a punji pit. Sojourners on course to an ecotecnic stability will not all tread the same path, nor will the many crevasses between here and there be spanned by a single enterprise. Since only the general nature and direction of coming events is at all predictable, deployment of many small and simple constructs addressing in small and manageable parts the immensely daunting challenge ahead is the more flexible response. For most of us this of necessity means preparing for a much more frugal existence.

Last week I suggested that one way of building such a bridge was to practice for electric grid collapse contingency by purposefully shutting off the mains; running a drill, if you will. Since I've been thinking about how that concept might be applied to petrol dependence. Simply doing without the car for a few days or even a few weeks somehow just doesn't seem comparable, mostly because the car is essentially used for one thing - mobility, whereas the electric grid services multiple needs. Then again, the grid is a rather critical element of the petrol delivery infrastructure, as was and continues to be demonstrated in NE Japan. So, while sudden and permanent supply disruption is clearly a possibility, the hoped more probable and certainly more easily prepared for scenario is one of scarcity, intermittent supply and increased expense. What if gasoline were to cost eight or ten $ per gallon; what if electricity rates doubled? What about phone service, or cable TV? What about food, or water? And then suppose through job loss household income was cut in half.

How can such circumstance be prepared for? How to build that very local, very critical bridge? A little at a time. It is easy to double the cost of your vehicle fuel. Every time you buy some, take the same amount of $ and put it in a 'bridge building fund'. Try paying only cash. That way for a $30 fill up you will need $60 on hand. Do this for your utility bills as well and your bridge fund will grow pretty quickly. Eventually you will have enough to pay for that solar hot water system - another small local bridge that needs building. Also eventually, and perhaps even quite soon if you add food or mortgage interest to the scarcity practice, you will have to start using less, buying less - because there isn't enough $ to go around. But even if you only pay double for petrol, or for the electric bill, you will be the better able to consider realistically the prospects for your frugal future from the perspective of experience. It is not the whole bridge but it is the beginnings of a foundation.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

CO Chris, Coincidental that you should mention dogs. My old mutt probably won't see another winter and I've been conflicted about whether or not to offer shelter to one or more needy beasts, not least because of their value in deterring pests of both the two and four legged kind. How do you minimize the expense of keeping what I take to be multiple canine companions?

idiotgrrl said...

Well, I've turned into a Weakly Interacting Massive(25# extra) particle this summer. I was working on getting stronger, walking, using less energy, and building up my heat tolerance, when I had a series of upsets - let's just call June my Mensus Horribilus - climaxing in the discovery that my senior and best-beloved cat Dufus Claudius has had his notice to quit. The vet suspects bone cancer. It's a huge tumor on his left hip, and I just reverted to my old lazy energy-hog ways the past couple of days.

Sigh. If the program can't stand up to the slings and arrows of daily living, how can I stand up to whatever the Crisis Era we're in chooses to throw at me?

Donal said...

I look forward to your discussion about electrics.


The junk will once again come into its own especially when oil is too costly for sails. It is the ultimate low tech solution that I have contemplated as an eventual conversion for our traditional boat. We even have a grown stick in her, but the rig is Marconi with sails of Dacron and Nylon. With a junk rig's unique design that spreads the loads on the cloth using battens, you could probably use local skills and materials to make successful sails of cedar cloth (maybe not as strong as tradition flax, but more rot resistant). I once made a junk dinghy sail of an old bed sheet. Worked fine.

I love the BC Ferry sign image in the interior. Our boat is just north of Nanaimo, but I haven't been down to the "city" in a while to see the ships.

nuku said...

@One of the Remnant,
Re solar panels not being able to power radios and laptops which don’t run on DC:
In fact, All electronics run on DC, usually around 5 volts. All the ones that plug into the mains AC outlets have AC to DC converters (also known as “power supplies”) built into them to provide the required DC. If you know what you are doing, it is not too difficult to cut the converter out of the circut and run the electronic unit directly from a DC source such as a battery or solar panel. I did this years ago with a record player when I lived off grid. 12 volt solar panels and batteries just need a simple solid state voltage regulator to drop the 12 volts to whatever voltage the electronic units needs.

GHung said...

LLC: "My old mutt probably won't see another winter and I've been conflicted about whether or not to offer shelter to one or more needy beasts, not least because of their value in deterring pests of both the two and four legged kind."

Needy beasts.....I often find that it is I who is needy, and my dogs offering 'shelter'. We don't discuss our animals much here, chickens or beasts of utility perhaps, but I will always lie down with dogs, fleas be damned. As the first animals to choose us as companions, the relationship has evolved beyond domestication. She knows me as well as any human. Life without dogs is, for me, unthinkable.

GHung said...

LLC: "My old mutt probably won't see another winter and I've been conflicted about whether or not to offer shelter to one or more needy beasts, not least because of their value in deterring pests of both the two and four legged kind."

Needy beasts.....I often find that it is I who is needy, and my dogs offering 'shelter'. We don't discuss our animals much here, chickens or beasts of utility perhaps, but I will always lie down with dogs, fleas be damned. As the first animals to choose us as companions, the relationship has evolved beyond domestication. She knows me as well as any human. Life without dogs is, for me, unthinkable.

nisarga1 said...


the Gaianomicon is taking shape.
I just paid 54 bucks for a used copy of "Survival Gardening" by Freeman. But, at least there will be no tentacles from beyond or trips to Miskatonic U!


Tracy G said...

Before this weekly comment thread is altogether done, I'd like to thank Chris aka Cheorkee Organics for the kind words and also GHung for the pdf on super insulated fridges.

Our audit went very well, in the sense that I correctly pre-identified virtually every trouble spot in our home (JMG's master conserver worksheets really helped in this regard). The auditor jokingly offered me a job, hah!

We really do need professional help at this point, though, since we've already considerably reduced our energy consumption through behavioral awareness and are having trouble doing any better due to physical flaws in the house itself. And we have neither the equipment nor the knowhow for blowing insulation into the walls, which really must be done. The auditor was able to identify at immediate glance the types of materials already present in our home--asbestos around the ductwork (bad), but no vermiculite in the attic (good)--whereas my eye is completely uneducated in those matters.

For about $2,900 in retrofits, the projections are that our annual natural gas consumption will drop from 666 ccf to 167 ccf (yes, you read that correctly). Electricity will fall only slightly from 4,423 kWh to 4,192 kWh--the difference is small because we've already minimized our air conditioner usage, and the contractor's plan does not include a fridge replacement, which we'll do later on our own. Based on current utilities rates, we would expect to recoup the cost of this project in about six and half years.

I'll post more about it at Green Wizards after the work is completed next week.

idiotgrrl said...

Found a very useful website:

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

A real looker you got there G! My girl, she's not so sprightly anymore. In fact it is certain that her remaining days are few. Still, it is a real concern how we will care for these our dependents in times less flush, and this makes me reluctant to foster others. Any insight or advice is welcome.

GHung said...

@LLC: Thanks! All she really wants is for me to throw the ball one more time.

Advice? First off, forget all you've heard about not giving your dogs leftovers and scraps. They've been eating our scraps for thousands of years. Just watch the calories and salt. Since quality dog food is over a dollar a pound here, we supplement with raw chicken. We can get frozen leg quarters for $0.60/pound here, about half what their regular food costs. I also grind chicken (bones and all) and make frozen patties, adding oats, beans, whatever veggies are getting old in the fridge, a bit of garlic for fleas, some olive or fish oil. I'll also grind and add bream (small fish) from our pond sometimes.

Google human foods that dogs can't tolerate (onions, grapes, a few others), and make sure their regular food has no corn products. Keeping them healthy is a good start.

Since we have five dogs we do most of our own vet work. We're lucky, our Vet is an old college/frat buddy, and works with us on stuff. We give our own vaccinations (except rabies) and order medications online. We keep a good canine medical kit and have learned to use it. We still have some vet costs, but they are minimized, (and far cheaper than kids' medical care).

I do all grooming and bathing. Frequent 'hands on' builds a good relationship and lets you really assess the condition of the dog; catch any maladies early on.

Plenty of excercise and praise keeps their mental health good. My dogs take me for a walk every day, and they make sure I have a collection of balls to throw.

As for your Girl, thanks for the photo. She looks sweet and wise.
I know what you're going through, and someone sent me this a few years ago when we lost our little Terrier after 16 years. Not sure of its origin.

God summoned a beast from the fields and He said:

“Behold man, created in my image.

You shall protect him in the wilderness, shepherd his flocks, watch over his children, and
accompany him wherever he may go - even into harms way.

You shall be his companion, his ally, his slave.

I will endow you with these traits, uncommon to other beasts:

Faithfulness, Devotion, and Understanding, surpassing those of man, himself.

Lest it impair your courage, you shall never foresee your death.

Lest it impair your loyalty, you shall be blind to the faults of man.

Lest it impair your understanding, you are denied the power of words.
Your eyes shall convey the truth of your heart.

Lest man’s attachment to you grow too great, the span of your life shall be brief.

Walk by his side, sleep in his doorway, forage for him, and ward off his enemies.

Carry his burdens, share his afflictions, love him and comfort him.

And in return for this, man will fulfill your needs and wants –
Which shall be only sustenance, shelter and affection.

So, be silent and be a friend to man. Guide him through the perils along the way to the land that I have promised him.

This shall be your destiny and your immortality.”

So spoke the Lord; and the dog was content.

Malcolm Smith said...

I am sure you are aware of this, but if not:

"The energy returns for producing oil are plummeting too. In 1919 they hovered around 20 to one and then rose to 30 to one during the age of big oil field discoveries in the 1960s. Now they've declined to 10 to one. "Society is now living on old oil fields and we're spending more energy to find less and less energy," says Hall. Moreover North America has built a society dependent on energy returns higher than 10.

Given such grim declines, industry is exploiting ever more extreme and difficult resources (from the tar sands to Arctic oil). (Or it burns more oil to create ethanol from corn than ethanol's net return.) Yet these high-priced fuels deliver less and cost more in terms of water, land and capital. (Oil analyst Peter Tertzakian calculates that the energy-eating tar sands, for example, offer returns of seven to one for raw bitumen which drop to three to one once the junk crude has been upgraded and refined into gasoline.)

Neoclassical economists, of course, reply that technology and markets will magically overcome depletion and even resolve dramatic losses in energy gains, the heartbeat of every civilization.

But Hall says that's bunk. He argues that economics -- which is currently touted as a social science, is really about "stuff" and how people change the natural world to get stuff. Not surprisingly, he wants to reconnect economics with the reality of resource depletion, and has started a whole new school of thinking called biophysical economics. (He's even written a provocative book on the subject: Energy and the Wealth of Nations.)"

Zach said...


A belated "thank you!" for the advice.

We've sort of started down that path already (she's been cleaning stalls, etc. in exchange for lessons). I hadn't considered the "horsiness" of a neighborhood as a point to look for -- I will have to keep that in mind.

I think her current favorite breed is the Icelandic. That's because we have some friends who have some, and she's in love with their mare (who, as far as I can tell, is a rather special horse, personality-wise). But she's not dogmatic about it -- her last scheme was to try to sell me on a retiring police horse that was dirt-cheap to a good home.


phil harris said...

I read your comment on Cameron's post and his essay in the ADF Journal., from page 44

I am glad you are taking on the military issues, global reach etc.
Interesting essay by Cam. Will be interesting if as he suggests older satellites, for example, do not get replaced.
I guess retreat from the High Frontier could already be happening.