Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Do Less

In most respects, "green" energy is no better than the fossil energy it replaces, and serves primarily as a fossil fuel extender. As with the smoker who opts for light cigarettes, or the horribly misguided popularity of diet soda, the easiest solution is rarely the right solution.

Now that faith in the Cornucopia of Technology (what cool toy will Apple make for us next?) has moved into first place as the #1 global religion, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that so many people are convinced technology will solve the very problems it's created (climate change and peak oil / energy depletion come to mind). Never mind the fact that all of this technology rests upon a crumbling pedestal of fossil energy.

A recent case in point is the much touted new Tesla "Powerwall" home battery. It's a lithium-ion battery, with a 7 or 10 kWh capacity, the latter of which will be selling for $3500. Maybe Tesla has made a dramatic improvement in the lifespan of lithium ion batteries, but I doubt it (they promise a 10 year warranty -- which is about the expected lifespan of a well treated lead-acid battery).

The larger 10kWh battery (with 1/3rd the capacity to run the typical 30kWh household's daily consumption) is roughly equivalent in capacity to 3.3 8D series deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, which I see retailing for $330 apiece. But, because lead-acid batteries don't last well when regularly drawn below 50%, you'll want to double the number of conventional batteries for equivalence, so that's 6.6 batteries. You can't buy .6 batteries, so we'll round up to 7. Total cost for 7 - 8D batteries is $2,310, vs $3500 for the Tesla battery. The Tesla battery will be smaller and lighter. That's a big deal in a car, but not so much in a house. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I fail to see the breakthrough here.

Though people seem to be figuring this out as their sales wane, electric cars aren't really any more environmentally friendly than their gasoline counterparts. "Clean burning natural gas", if you include the environmental costs and emissions of the full life cycle, isn't really any better than coal. Then there's nuclear energy, which we can't afford to get rid of (and will be decreasingly able to get rid of as energy depletion bites ever further into our economies). Did I mention contamination that lasts longer than human civilization has been in existence? I suspect that there are some folks in Tokyo who might take issue with its green image.  Have you read about the latest greatest source of CO2 emissions (accounting for about 30% of all human caused emissions)?  It's the draining of peat bogs in Indonesia for oil-palm plantations to meet the demand for "green" biodiesel.

No matter where you peek behind the curtain on green energy, you find problems which reveal it to be the wrong answer for offering a chance at continued human survival.

The problem is, to a large extent, that we opened the pandora's box of fossil energy, fell in love with all it had to offer, and are now willing to commit mass murder in order to keep it. We've insisted that we could reproduce without limits, fly anywhere on a whim, build homes as big as we like, and fill them with manufactured goods shipped from around the world. As it turns out, we've made what currently looks to be a fatal mistake.

The answer is not "green" energy any more than it is "light" cigarettes.  The answer is to reset our expectations. Mother nature and her pesky laws of thermodynamics will take care of our numbers issue in her own less-pleasant ways, because we refused to do it ourselves. Those who remain, if any, will certainly appreciate us making their world a little less bad by making ourselves a little less harmful. That means doing less than we've become accustomed to. Travel should be within walking or perhaps biking distance, not across continents or oceans. Food should (for a million different reasons) be produced (or preferably foraged) locally, by ourselves and our neighbors, as should our modest homes, clothing and tools. I think you'll find that the life we're returning toas a matter of necessity is in many ways much better than the one which we're all clinging to now.  I know that my movements in this direction would suggest exactly that.

When the future we're headed towards turns out not to include us or anything we value, it's probably a good idea to return to the past that does.


Anonymous said...

Catching up reading your blog after a long break, I wanted to say thank you for continuing to write :)

The path that's calling out for us is really that of an entirely different culture.

I'm in my thirties now and I remember well when I began to realize how little difference there is between the so-called choices we have at our "disposal" and how most of everything becomes waste quite soonm, including everything we (well, really the capitalist industrialist system) supposedly build and create for future generations' wellbeing. A related realization was how apparently satisfied people were, by far, to prevaricate and settle between choices even after it was pointed out to them either by experience, a person (sometimes myself), or both, that there was little to no difference between the choices and that they'd been essentially cheated. Rather people would get angry not at being cheated and at living a lie, but at the realization it indeed had happened and in fact seemed to be the norm, which they'd reject out of hand.

I think part of a different culture is a certain refusal to rebuild. For a long time I blamed myself for typically not wanting to rebuild something that seemed to be decaying, not finding the motivation and the drive to establish a kind of (false) permanence and order. Yet I'm not difficult to motivate by nature and I can motivate myself fairly well, too, so long as it's not about upholding what to me doesn't want to be upheld. There's some recognition of the cultural wrongheadedness of built environments and the culture's naive, compulsive and destructive drive to seek safety as this culture does, denying reality. I'm glad to say in that repudiation's place I have not filled with hedonism, indifference and laziness either :) It's just that the whole world and every one of our neighbors here live differently and by example try to teach us how. And we, as a culture, usually don't even wish to put the grief of our having distanced ourselves by our way of life from our home and our neighbors at the center of our life's attempt to remember (put together) our origins and through grief live a life of collective celebration in service to those whom we separated ourselves from and who continue to bear our arrogance and weight remembering their own origins and our past union intact.

Maybe I'm wrong or projecting, but it seems in the past year or so since I last read your posts you've grieved and grown :)

David Veale said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments and insight, much of which I can certainly relate to. I'd certainly like to think I've grieved and grown, and perhaps I have, but the news that keeps coming in makes me wonder if I'm past the "grieved" stage. Every so often I think I've reached the acceptance stage of Kubler-Ross, but I don't seem to stay there too long.

Anonymous said...

By grieving I didn't so much mean sadness or something to get done and get past. Definitely we live through tremendous losses that can immobilize, overwhelm and numb us, at least myself, but as I've begun to understand it and meant it, grief becomes work in praise and in help of life. Grief helps to maintain connection with what's lost and helps in trying to "recall" the lost around us and among us, including natural communities, human communities, individual humans, our part of the deal as well as our home, that sort of thing. Trying to become ancestors worth descending from no matter how the world will survive. At least to me most "acceptance" feels entirely appalling, cowardly, self-centered, lazy and wholly unimaginative--really not very far from just another iteration of denial. :) What's acceptance if we don't grow through it into more mature, response-able adults? Not trying to sound too lofty for its own sake, but a part of becoming able to turn the losses into grief and that grief into work comes from finding a language that doesn't leave us with individual survival, individual losses, ourselves alone with the separation.