In 1945, a young Arthur C. Clarke first publicly suggested to the world the idea of geostationary communication satellites. At the time, this was quite a conceptual leap. The state of the art in electronics at the time made such a device something fairly difficult to achieve and make practical. Even before that issue was considered, there was the substantial technical challenge of the matter of getting such a device into orbit. The state of rocket technology at the time was basically what had been developed by the Germans for the purpose of lobbing explosives across the English Channel.
[In the early days of the NASA space program, with Wernher von Braun acting in a central role in the enterprise, a biographical film about von Braun was made, called “I Aim at the Stars”. Stories have it that some people around NASA, with perhaps some mixed feelings about von Braun, made jokes appending the title with “-but sometimes I hit London”. I digress.]
Clarke’s idea was a great example of creative imagination.
Back in the mid nineties, I was in a rehearsal with a band I was playing with for a little while. I don’t even remember what we were talking about that led to this story, but something came up in a break between tunes.
There were two guitar players in this band. I knew these guys, one of them both good musicians, bright guys, but technically clueless. At some point in God knows what chatter during a pause in the proceedings, I found myself with a couple of musicians there in the room with me who were quite insistent: “The Beatles recorded in 24 track digital!”. No. They didn’t.
I thought they obviously had to be joking. Then after a minute or so, it became apparent. They really weren’t kidding.
To those guys in the rehearsal room, there was some idea in their minds that The Beatles were at the top of the heap in the world of music. To them, since The Beatles were in that sort of position, then, whatever was around, the best, the most amazing, most advanced, of anything, was made available to them, because they were The Beatles, by God, so they demanded, and so they had it.
A few years ago, I had a different conversation. I was talking with a couple of people who both drove big pickup trucks, as daily driver personal transportation. I talked a bit about our general petroleum situation, and how that was going to deteriorate in the future. I tried to gently suggest that given the circumstances the best thing was perhaps not to drive some big heavy truck for personal transportation, when a heavy duty working vehicle was not needed. The reply from one of them, that sticks in memory; “they’ll think of something“.
The thing about “they’ll think of something”, about the problems with petroleum resources and consumption, is that people already have thought of things. Like, for example, if you need to get your ass around using a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine burning petroleum fuel, use the lightest, most efficient car you can, burning the least amount of fuel necessary to do the work.
It’s not a new, complex, or extraordinary idea. Don’t drive miles and miles in some big heavy lumbering behemoth that isn’t needed. Don’t live 30 miles away from where you work, or go to school, or whatever. On a larger, general societal scale, don’t spread out all the places we need to go to do what we do in daily life so miles of travel in some petroleum burning vehicle is necessary to do anything.
We can do things in building that make better use of energy, as suggested in the article The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels.
I think it’s extremely unfortunate that there seems to be a state of affairs that has ideas stuck under the umbrella headings of terms like “green” and “sustainable” as some sort of lifestyle fashion buzzword cliches. Then, some people almost automatically reject anything that they think fits into that.
Now there’s a tough nut to crack. Status quo. Human inertia.
There’s some kind of dilemma of human behavior here. Some things are, essentially, exotic and expensive, just by the circumstances of being something that is not common, normal practice, status quo, it is out of the ordinary. “We don’t do things like that.”
Something is outside of the ordinary, the usual norm, so a majority of people regard it as exotic, that keeps it expensive because there isn’t enough business in that, people reject it as exotic and expensive and go with the status quo, and that keeps the things in question out in some domain of the exotic and expensive and extraordinary.
Say you’re building a house. Decide that you want your typical contemporary sealed box with a natural gas burning furnace and large central air conditioning system, and the hardware is available all over, typical off the shelf house plans have that all laid out, and you can pick up a phone and have any one of a batch of local HVAC operations out to the site with the stuff in a truck with people who do the same stuff every day and off you go.
Decide that you want to regulate the temperature of your new house using a geothermal system and well thought out ventilation, and it’s a whole different game.
How much is influenced, or just completely ruled, by “well, my kind of people don’t do things that way“?
Dmitri Orlov hit a root of a large collection of crazy problems in his recent piece The Strange Logic of Dreams. Too many people are just really not thinking straight, and people who are too focused on trying to fit into what they think of as “my group” can find themselves being so obsessed with fitting in to some thing, some group, some club, some convention, some something, that they fail to see some things and recognize them as being anywhere from seriously mistaken to completely fucking crazy.
You can turn around and look elsewhere and find a whole different variety of questionable thinking.
Let me review something I already wrote a while back in Revising the Future:
I was struck by something while reading Bill McKibben’s book “Eaarth”. Talking about something written by Thomas Friedman in one of his books, there was an item that McKibben noted, as an example of one particular kind of fault in thinking, and I agree with McKibben.
Freidman was apparently talking about the wonders of new technology of the “green” sort, saying something about having solar and wind driven electrical power generation, with new “smart” digital electronics controllers that would, as he put it, be smart enough to start the laundry drying when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. This, essentially, is the “we got technology, dude” kind of attitude, the “new technological innovation will save us!” idea.
The point lost, somewhere, was another idea; how about a human being smart enough to know when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and then hanging the laundry on a clothesline and letting the sunshine and wind dry the stuff?
The Freidman example is probably an almost perfect case example of something.
There’s no question in my mind that there is a serious degree of some sort of fetishism about technology around today. James Kunstler has a book coming out soon on this general subject, a phenomenon of behavior which he has been referring to with terms like “techno-narcissism” or “techno-grandiosity”.
The stories I mentioned earlier show examples of a kind of very common, pervasive notion people have about some magic technology either being already invented, but hidden, or on the way, any time now, to wonderfully and easily solve any problem or do anything we wish.
The Friedman example acts as a demonstration of a slightly different kind of mental glitch, people so wrapped up in fantasy notions, of some coming new wonder technology, that they somehow completely miss the simplest thoughts of using the very simplest “technology” that humans had figured out a long time ago. Why? I suppose that just isn’t flashy and impressive and just generally nifty enough for some people.
I suppose that can take us into considering the whole fantasy of how “The Market” will cure all and make all needed and good things happen. Nobody is going to make an enormous pile of cash with an IPO taking their new clever enterprise into the stock market with their new wonder technology of the clothesline.
For a little side reading, let me point you to elsewhere on the interwebs for a really staggering example of really not having a realistic handle on things. Asteroid mining? Seriously? I mean, there are some things that would be interesting thought exercises, but at some point you have to stop and say “alright, that was fun to think about, but that’s not happening”.
I think “flying car syndrome” when I read or hear anything about ideas of “the hydrogen economy” or hydrogen as a new energy resource wonder. Forget that. People have written elsewhere about all the problems with that idea. [ 1, 2, 3, 4 ]
In one of the linked articles, The Hydrogen Myth, the writer points out something that I’ve been noticing for years, long before I started paying more attention to circumstances of energy supplies and use.
Let me quote from the beginning of that piece:
Hydrogen has been the fuel of the future for the past fifty years….. and will continue to be so for at least the next fifty years. It’s like Al Gore saying he used to be the next president of the United States. Hydrogen’s reality is a future that has never come to be. There is also a realistically strong possibility it never will.
The list of technological, economic and political barriers standing in the way of achieving the hydrogen dream is still prohibitively long. Nearly forty years after a 1969 report predicting Americans would be driving fuel cell vehicles in 10 years nearly every report examining the hydrogen potential is replete with words and phrases such as “could”, “might”, “may”, “in theory”, “predict”, “assuming that”, “need to”, “must” the ubiquitous “if”, and “if all things were perfect”. Of course, they have not been and never will be perfect. Those interest which conveniently hide behind such a qualifier know it.
It’s a non starter. The general subject of hydrogen in the context of the general subject of “energy” gets complicated. The things written on the subject that I’ve linked in the previous paragraph spell it out pretty well.
One standard riff you hear from people who are enthusiastic and optimistic about hydrogen as an energy source miracle is “it’s the most abundant substance in the universe, so we’ll never run out!”. Sounds great on its own. Falls apart quickly when you start to examine things and think it through.
Alright, the universe is full of hydrogen. Get some. Go gather up a supply of hydrogen. Do it.
The reality is that the hydrogen that is so plentiful is all around us; it’s bound up in all sorts of compounds. To get yourself a hydrogen supply, you have to go through some process of breaking molecular bonds and stripping away the hydrogen and collecting it. That gets into the whole issue of energy return on energy invested (EROEI), and of course in considering that matter, you have to look at everything, from beginning to end, up to and including getting the stuff to the end user.
The subject of EROEI seems to be a much neglected item in a lot of thinking about things under the subject heading of “energy”, like some child or hopelessly naïve and ignorant older human with some sort of ideas about how much some sort of business enterprise makes, with no thought given to what might be under the “expense” side of an accounting ledger.
Hydrogen can’t be realistically considered to be an energy source, any more than you can consider a grocery store as a food source by ignoring everything that eventually leads up to food being delivered to the store.
To actually get any hydrogen, you have to start with some compound and extract the hydrogen. That compound is your actual energy source.
Then there’s some form of energy input needed for the process, and the source of that energy requires accounting in the overall picture. Apparently there are a few different ways very bright, educated, clever people have devised to gather hydrogen, but they all require some starting substance containing hydrogen, and input of energy, and the bottom line is that you end up putting more energy into the system/process than you can get in the end from using the hydrogen. It’s a net energy loss.
Something with these factors is not an energy source, it’s effectively a form of energy storage, as you turn some form of energy into potential energy stored in chemical form, and the laws of thermodynamics get into play in energy losses along the way.
Even if you put that aside and pretend that none of that is an issue, and you have as much hydrogen as you might ever want without limits, then you get into all the serious issues in handling and using it.
Read something that probably represents the thoughts of quite a few people, about the thoughts of, guess what, a fund manager.
Techno fetish, techno-grandiosity, techno-hubris; you could call some things by a few names, pick your favorite.
You can see some of the problem when we go back to Thomas Friedman and his thinking of sophisticated automated controllers being “smart” enough to operate the laundry machines powered by wind or solar power generation, when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining. Never mind that “clothesline in the sun on a breezy day” technology.
I read a very good article recently, The Last Sip, where the author of the article, Chris Nelder, goes into some detail about the sort of energy resource problems we have, the overall theme being not just the situation of the actual reality of resources and consumption, but the larger kind of meta-theme of how much of a problem we have with people not wanting to face it, and opting, instead, for fantasy and other exercises in general reality distortion. So, what do you find if you finish the article and keep going into the following reader comments section? You find some character responding to this piece with comments like “there’s the delusion….. there’s the crazy talk”.
It seems reasonable to me to presume that somebody would actually read an article before writing and posting public comments. If that happened, God only knows what could be going on inside this guy’s head to enable him to comment as he did. I mean, here’s a clue. The article was entirely about petroleum, and the commenting reader in question starts chattering about natural gas, and apparently thinking he’s making some sort of a point. In the process, he responds to a fairly detailed and specific account of some of the delusions about the present and future of petroleum, and calls that “delusion” and “crazy talk”.
What we have here is what I like to call a facepalm moment. Unfortunately, something like that example is not rare. It’s not even unusual. Knuckleheads like that coughing up mental hairballs are all over the net.
One of the constant recurring themes among characters like this one involves chattering about how, according to somebody, we have no petroleum problem (or problems with any finite underground hydrocarbon fuel resources), because “we got new technology!”, that is in the process of riding in to the rescue, and providing us with all of these resources we need or want. Wishing something to be does not make it so.
There are plenty of people making those kinds of noises, with plenty of propaganda selling the notion to people. That’s basically the main theme of Nelder’s article.
“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
You can find enormous wealth of information via the web. You can also find way too much confusion and noise and just flat out lying.
What you don’t hear so much is the thought of addressing technology and what we do with it to use less energy resources.
How hard is it to get this across to people?
Somebody once put part of this kind of thing into perspective:
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
Getting more people to generally wake up is a tough nut to crack, yes indeed, and just a couple of days ago a blog entry elsewhere, A Sudden Crisis Makes All The Difference, on the Decline of the Empire blog, hit something with the spotlight. We’re into a big messy knot of human perception and perspective problems here. To quote from this:
Instead we’ve got all these slow-motion crises, a “new normal” as some people refer to it. But the “new normal” is not normal in any sense, at least when we compare it to the recent past before the Housing Bubble imploded. In the shorter term, we’ve got slow-moving crises in the fragile, corrupt banking and political systems, in the exploding Federal debt, in incomes for ordinary people, in lack of opportunity, in health care, in education & student loans, and a hundred other things. In the longer term, we’ve got slow-moving crises in the crude oil supply, the climate and our degraded oceans. But none of this appears to be happening right now. We are the boiled frogs.
And 2012 is distinguished by the fact that we’ve got an unusually large pile of bullshit to deal with, mostly around the inconsequential political elections.
Go read the full blog piece, because it really nails something essential on the head. You can try your best to point at some things and explain the problems that can be seen there, if you are actually able to see them as they are, but that often encounters big problems.
In that blog piece, writer Dave Cohen refers to a reader comment to an earlier entry, offered by another blog writer known by the pseudonym “Bill Hicks”:
Most people who still have their jobs are complacent right now, and those who don’t are too busy just trying to survive.
Another dead center bullseye.
I’ve occasionally come across some televised documentary or an article about some aircraft disaster that attempts to sort out what happened, where there was a particular kind of problem. Somebody flying an airplane, in conditions with no visual references, got into a fatal problem when they had no idea that they were actually gradually flying the plane into the ground, or maybe an ocean. Worse yet, they might have actually had some instrument indications that this was exactly what was happening, and for whatever reasons, they decided not to believe it. The story ends with a large group of dead people.
We have an ongoing saga of people putting great effort into convincing themselves, and other people, that “new technologies” in extraction of petroleum (and other finite hydrocarbons) are going to somehow miraculously void all limits of finite resources.
The phenomenon since World War II of expanding suburban sprawl in America was made possible entirely by cheap petroleum fuel, and as the reality of limits of petroleum becomes more and more avoidable, despite all the noisy and determined to make it not so by refusing to believe it, that project will come to an end.
It really already has. There are signs of it gradually peeking through (find more commentary on it from “Bill Hicks” in The Exurbs Are Slowly Dying), even if what is driving the shift might be a reflection of no more awareness of the overall situation than people looking at the immediate factor of looking at the price on a gasoline pump.
A quote from the USA Today article I just linked:
“I’m not sure we’re going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues,” he says. “Counties are getting to the point that they don’t have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. … This is a century of urbanization.”
Yes. Now we’re on to something.
I’ve already told the story, in previous blog posts, of somebody making misguided criticism of the Chevy Volt, incorrectly based on GM’s estimate of operating range using only battery power, ignoring the onboard gasoline powered electrical generator system. The comments were intended to mock the Volt because of limited operating range, while ignoring the more fundamental problem in their hypothetical scenario. In that scenario, the numbers worked out that, in that story, the poor stranded Volt driver lived about 27 miles away from where they worked.
Incidentally, I recall that the same person also was found arguing, later on, that developing hydrogen energy was a good way to go into the future to solve our energy problems, that it was just a matter of time and human ingenuity.
So, here we are. We have a whole array of substantial problems. One of the bigger problems is how much trouble there is in any particular area even getting a handle on what the problem.
I’m not sure there has ever been an era in human history where a larger mass of humanity has been so tangled up in such an assortment of delusions, confusion, oblivion, sheer idiocy, narcissistic hubris, and every variety in madness, while thinking themselves awesomely informed and clever and advanced and generally in some high level advanced enlightened state of being.
Phrased a little more simply; have we all just gone completely fucking nuts?
PBS has just shown an extended episode of Frontline: Money, Power and Wall Street. This ran over the past two weeks, a total of four hours, and this was about as good as you are likely to get in terms of a reasonably concise summary guide to the epic clusterfuck of what has happened to not just the US economy, but the economy of the world, over the past few years. Four hours of television documentary might seem like a massive epic, but it’s a story complex enough that even this seems like just barely a surface glance at everything involved.
What we have experienced, what we’re still experiencing, is both massive and almost incomprehensively complex. We’re living with the repercussions of the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, and all the insane complex casino gambling games of assorted players, playing with other people’s money, rather than risking their own, even flat out banditry and fraud. Many of us are suffering all the inevitable crashing disaster that has come along with lingo like “financial engineering”, “financial innovations”, and “new financial products”, all the assorted games that were cooked up by people who thought they could make money for nothing, and not just that, but massive amounts of money for nothing.
It just boggles my tiny little mind that we can have all this happen, and some people still, somehow, still claim that everything that led to this epic disaster is a good thing, that it’s “wealth creation”, by “job creators”, and there are many people who actually still believe this lunacy.
People thought they were all kinds of clever, and with all the collection of things that came to be called “derivatives”, apparently thought you could get something, lots, for nothing, essentially, and they blew the place up.
All that is almost impossible to comprehend in terms of the damage, never mind sorting out how the hell it happened. With all the crazy convoluted games of bundled mortages sold as securities, another supposed bright idea somebody had to make money out of nothing just by the transactions flying around, just one part of the mess is now having God knows how many houses there a property sits, often in default, and nobody can sort out who actually owns the place.
It’s beyond me to really be able to tell how much supposed “wealth” disappeared because, in reality, it was some sort of convoluted impossibly complex shared mutual hallucinated illusion of “wealth” in some account records only, and never really existed, or how much simply was sucked into various accounts in investment banks and trading operations of various kinds, and was blown out into endless massive salaries and bonuses to people who never really gave any value to the world, having been counted as “profit”, and then gone when things didn’t go according to people’s clever plans and they had massive obligations to pay out.
In any case, it’s apparent that an awful lot of suppositions about “wealth” and capital are now understood, at least by reality based humans, to be not what they were cracked up to be for quite a stretch of recent history, and this changes a lot of things, if I might be forgiven for gross understatement.
Stack that up alongside not just facing the reality of limits in finite natural resources, but the problem compounded and complicated by, in short, all the people not facing the reality of limits in finite natural resources, even being fiercely determined to not just ignore it, but actively thrash around claiming things are just peachy.
The tangled mass of assorted obfuscation, confusion, and deception around petroleum, and finite underground hydrocarbons in general, is getting more severe as time rolls on. It seems to intensify, even as more people gradually get the news about what the real situation is, including some understanding of the phenomenon of peak and then diminishing returns, getting a grasp on the idea that it’s not about “running out”. The more attention it gets, the more intensely the fantasy sales efforts kick in. The dog and pony shows can be found all over.
That leads us back again to Orlov’s piece The Strange Logic of Dreams. People are wriggling around in every concievable mental contortion to convince themselves that, somehow, in the realm of finite resources, that the answer to the problem of depleting them is to think up new and better ways to devour the stuff even faster. Just that one simple thought alone should be enough to make it easily apparent how bonkers people are becoming about this.
We’re overrun by people who will scramble and thrash around for any way to convince themselves and other people that we have no limits in resources that we’ve always known were a one time windfall, that we can and will have as much as we want, just because we wish and demand.
This is happening even as we have laid out right in front of our eyes in news on the subject, all kinds of activity in literally scraping the dregs.
People are going for petroleum substitutes like tar sands (bitumen), oil shale (kerogen trapped in porous shale like a sponge). They’re going after difficult scattered pockets of petroleum (in confusion, with different terms of “tight oil” or “shale oil”). They’re going further into increasing risks of deep ocean oil extraction.
There is even talk about going after petroleum under the Arctic Ocean, as changing climate melts the ice around the North Pole, a whole other nightmare.
I’m getting sick of talking about it.
I haven’t even gotten to the latest news of the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, and that is just grim beyond belief. That might be something for another time.
Imagine a catastrophe like the BP Deepwater Horizon well blowout and resulting underwater hydrocarbon volcano, but in the polar region in the Arctic.
Really ponder that. I set that single thought alone in its own lone paragraph for a reason. What do you think about that possiblility? This might be going so far as to regard this as a kind of sanity test. There are already people badly and publicly, even aggressively failing that sanity test, demonstrated by things like discussions about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil operations, even going as far as mocking concerns about this by saying that it doesn’t matter, because it would involve, they say, so little territory, and besides, there’s nothing there.
Recent news brought accounts of an administrative type human in the US Environmental Protection Agency talking to people in the EPA and being a hair melodramatic in putting forth the idea of the the Environmental Protection Agency, you know, the US government authority charged with enforcing law to protect the Earth from damage and destruction by people and organizations acting in the United States, coming down forcefully on people breaking the relevant laws and polluting the country and the planet.
Grotesquely hyperbolic, manipulative, devious, and yet completely predictable responses came flying into the public realm from a batch of political creatures, uniformly of the Republican party membership species, in great theatrical indignation talking about how this was supposedly damning evidence of that nasty Big Gummint tyranny and oppression of “job creators”.
All that happens as we have news about shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico being halted and people examining deep sea coral in the Gulf find severe disturbing problems, as the repercussions of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster stare us in the face. Worse, these horror stories don’t seem to be getting very much attention.
Orwell would be saying “hey, I’ve warned you about that kind of thing”. Actually both George Orwell in “1984” and Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” created broad cautionary tales in fictional novels, and I think that most people (especially those who never actually read the books) have missed the broad warning theme common to both of these books, which both show very different fictional future dystopian worlds. The broad common theme of both, different as they are, is a future that turns very ugly and dysfunctional because people have accepted insanity as normal.
Scanning around online I find an interesting entry in the Early Warning blog. The topic there, how natural gas used to fuel electrical generators is shutting down coal burning power plants. At first glance, in general, this seems very reasonably acceptable as a very good thing, even a great thing.
The most obvious thought; burning natural gas to create heat energy to drive electrical generators is one hell of a lot cleaner activity than burning coal. Absolutely!
The more subtle, yet still pretty obvious problem, is the basic fundamental fact that we’re still talking about a substance that has energy from ancient sunlight locked in as potential energy stored underground in chemical form, and it’s a finite quantity. How much of the stuff is there?
Look around, and you can find different camps on soapboxes.
One bunch bellow that we have all the finite hydrocarbon wealthy goodness of petroleum, natural gas, coal, that we could ever wish or desire, if only those mean meddling environment people and nasty Big Gummint were out of the way, including having them in political power instead of those guys. That couples tightly with assorted cheerleading PR telling people the above “it’s all good, if only..” with the provision that it’s all limitless wonder and prosperity if you all put your money into their particular business enterprise, of course. You get political critters into the business chatter of this kind wandering into that area, offering their noises, in the course of doing what their job for the people they represent, and in “the people they represent”, that often means “corporations”, because part of their contribution to American politics and government is the concept “corporations are people, too, my friend”.
Which nudges things right back to the problems of people accepting insanity as normal.
Another group will proclaim their cases that “green energy” will save us in a variety of ways, although almost nobody shows signs of, not just figuratively, but quite literally, having not done the math.
At some point other people will chime into the noise with their proclamations, intended to appear as the voice of sensible reason, that we need “All of The Above energy policy and entrepreneurship”.
You can turn on a television and have good odds of finding all of this in people chattering noisily in front of cameras and microphones.
All of these bunches appear to act on the same premise; that we can just roll right along doing everything we’ve been doing in recent decades, but even more (“growing the economy”, dontcha know), if only we do the right thngs.
Lost in the noise is anybody looking at actual reality and saying, no, in fact, the universe does not conform to what we would like to believe just because we really want it to be true, and our big task is to figure out how to change what we’re doing and how we’re going about doing it to use much less energy.
That’s our problem to solve, our task to address, and that is going to be that whether anybody wants to believe it or not.
The Tom Friedman story, of solar and wind power with clever digital electronic controllers to dry the laundry, really is just a stellar example of the misguided and even absurd presented as ingenuity in problem solving. The very obvious and very old idea of using your basic dead simple clothesline and using the heat energy of sunlight and the flow of moving air to dry your wet laundry seems lost. Even consider this and raise the idea among some people, and it can really get interesting.
There, you can find yourself, more likely than not, into a whole area of social convention and conformity and even politics that I find completely bizarre.
It’s not unusual at all in contemporary America, very likely even more so in places where the locals will make the most noise about being The Land of the Free (there’s irony for you), to run into settings where the simple process of putting up a clothesline, and hanging wet laundry on it, will run into immediate drama based on either some suburban development private pseudo-government “homeowners association”, or even actual government municipal ordinances, forbidding this.
Why? Apparently, this is just considered aesthetically distasteful for a bunch of people. For some large number of contemporary Americans, hanging up a load of wet laundry to dry in the sun and wind in a yard is apparently something roughly equivalent to having the rusting hulk of a dead 1978 Chevy Impala sitting without wheels on cinder blocks in the middle of a front yard. You’ll probably get some sort of message from somebody with words to the effect of we don’t do things like that around here, mister.
Things like this are no help at all facing the questions of what we do and how we do it and what needs to be rethought. I think a fundamental part of this general task ahead of us is getting a sensible grip on how much that we should do is not a matter of some clever new technical magic, it’s a matter of getting back to a little simpler in some things.
So many people have lost perspective on technology in general that I think there’s a pretty broad problem. People forget the idea that you have it to do something. There’s a purpose, of doing something, doing something better, not as some kind of toy, a thing unto itself.
I think people get so caught up in something almost like an addiction to be dazzled by things, they lose grip on perspective about whether something is a good way of going about something, or whether that something is even something that anybody should do.
Many people have become so used to some ideas and assumptions, they just expect things. The guitar players in the rehearsal room just assumed that The Beatles were people in some rarified special world, so of course they had whatever could be imagined. Guys driving rolling gasoline disposal drains in the form of pickup trucks assume it’s no problem, because somebody will just find or invent some miracle.
There’s a difference between creative imagination and fantasy.
One particular blog I recommend is Do the Math. Topics are addressed very clearly, very straightforward and to the point, carefully analyzing things, no surprise given the title, usually literally doing the math. It’s pretty direct and practically realistic. That one is written by an associate professor of physics.
Another excellent, really great ongoing blog, Our Finite World, is written by an insurance actuary, Gail Tverberg (AKA Gail the Actuary), another professional whose work requires, shall we say, a certain kind of clear objective realistic grounding in reality.
It’s interesting to read people like these, and consider what they say compared to a whole parade of people who are basically in the propaganda business, whether it’s for their purposes of political power, or public relations promotion of what they see as their own financial and business interests, or people just locked firmly into some mode of social conformity.
If I may quote from the foreword written by Jerry Mander for Richard Heinberg’s report Searching For A Miracle-“Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society:
Okay, we know that some technological “progress” is useful, especially among renewable energy alternatives. Systemic transformations toward a highly touted new complex mix of “renewable” energy systems such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, wave and several others, will certainly be positive, and together they could make meaningful contributions, free of many of the negative environmental impacts that fossil fuels have brought.
But, as this report exquisitely explains, as beneficial as those shifts may be, they will inevitably fall far short. They will never reach the scale or capacity to substitute for a fossil fuel system that, because of its (temporary) abundance and cheapness, has addicted industrial nations to a 20th century production and consumption spree that landed us, and the whole world, into this dire situation. As Richard Heinberg has so eloquently said before, and used as the title of one his very important books, “the party’s over.”
So, those limitless supplies turned out not to be limitless, or cheap, (or any longer efficient), and we are left with only one real option: to face the need for a thorough systemic transformation of our entire society to one that emphasizes less consumption of material resources and energy (conservation), less globalization (shipping resources and products back and forth wastefully across oceans and continents), and more localization which has inherent efficiencies and savings from the mere fact of local production and use, and far less processing and shipping. Such changes must be combined with achieving lower population in all global sectors, and the fostering of an evolution of personal, institutional and national values that recognize (even celebrate) the ultimate limits of the earth’s carrying capacities, presently being dramatically exceeded. None of that vision has infected the Copenhagen processes, nor those of the U.S. Congress, nor debates in national parliaments; anything short of that is just a self-protective, self-interested smoke screen, or, sheer denial of the realities at hand.
That covers a lot.
The assortment of stories I listed show some clues about widespread, common, pervasive attitudes. The musical rehearsal where I found bandmates utterly convinced that The Beatles has recording technology at their disposal that was years in the future, the gas guzzling pickup truck driver saying “they’ll think of something” in response to oil realities, the Tom Friedman wonder system, all show something. We can see some sort of variety of some kind of wishes for, and beliefs in some sort of magic wands.
The “hydrogen economy” promoters, ignoring the physical reality involved, fit this, convincing themselves that it’s just a matter of development and new innovations, as if this will change the physical properties of hydrogen and the laws of thermodynamics.
Even the financial madness has an aroma of some kind of common characteristic here, in people convinced that their own extreme cleverness, labeled as “new financial products” or “financial innovations” or “financial engineering”, could “create wealth” while providing no value in exchange for value, by contriving extreme complexity and deriving money for themselves from massive flow of transactions. They only succeeded in creating a disaster, although people involved in creating and taking part in this madness apparently gathered bunches of cash for themselves, and managed to create one of the greatest mass illusions in human history, for a while.
I’ve already written plenty, previously, about the topic of people being so caught in deluded hubris that they convince themselves that they, or somebody, is so clever that they can void physical reality and the limits of finite quantities of hydrocarbon fuels resources.
People realized, long ago, that activities like trying to concoct some formula to turn lead into gold, or design a perpetual motion machine, were simply not in accordance with reality, and it wasn’t a matter of not finding the right discovery or lack of cleverness, it was a matter of how the universe works.
As I’ve said before, and as alluded to by the quote above from the forward to “Searching For A Miracle”, our big technological challenge of the present and foreseeable future is how to live and function using much less energy. It’s that simple to define, even as the challenge might be pretty complex, it’s that basic.
Some of it, I think, as exemplified by the Friedman automated dryer story, is not so much a technological issue, at least as it is likely to be defined in this era, not so much a matter of some clever invention and development.
Sometimes it’s going to be a matter of just using the best technology for the task at hand, which is not necessarily what some people might think of because they’re losing sight of what the actual task is, and they’re focused on the newest or most dazzling, not the best function. Sometimes it’s going to be a matter of simply setting technology, or at least some varieties of it, aside when it isn’t actually necessary.
You know, like, hang the laundry on a clothesline in the sun and breeze. Not the digital automation controller for the wind generator and photovoltaic panel system.
Not new fracking processes to root out whatever natural gas is left beneath the surface of the Earth, no matter what disaster it causes.
A good adjustment to deal with excessive petroleum consumption driving an SUV 80 miles a day is maybe not to substitute a hybrid SUV to drive 80 miles a day. Maybe the better idea is to substitute a light car with an efficient motor and drive much less distance.
That gets into the theme that won’t go away, no matter how much no one wants to deal with it, the matter of just reducing how much petroleum fueled driving is necessary. Things must get more local, to put it in short form.
There are good simple reasons why petroleum consumption is lower in Europe and other places in the world that do use petroleum fueled motor vehicles, including the fact that they still have cities laid out in times before these things existed.
Here in the United States, we have had that, and it will be needed again, or things will function less and less as the petroleum situation proceeds. Much of what we’ve built in the US has been built since World War II as the United States charged ahead full steam in outward suburban expansion based on cheap petroleum fuel to move everybody and everything around, with people thinking and acting on a basis that the cheap petroleum would never end (or, they realized this, and just didn’t care, because they figured problems lay beyond their lifetime, so they didn’t give a shit).
One of my recent posts mentioned the recent absurd episode of a current US congressman making a public statement proclaiming “Obama’s energy policies” as just all wrong, and offering as evidence his complaint about how much money it cost him to top off the fuel tank on his Hummer. This is a pretty good example of part of the absurdity clogging the works.
I would suggest that there’s a whole subject of study in examining how contemporary American life in the last part of the 20th century and early 21st century managed to sprout and grow this whole strange foolish fashion phenomenon of using big lumbering light truck type vehicles as personal transportation, rather than their sensible practical function as working utilitarian vehicles. People driving a Hummer as personal transportation is probably a subset of its own as a social and psychological study.
One minor passing little event from probably a decade ago will probably stick in my head forever, a case example of this stuff. At work, in some trivial chatter going on around me, there was a woman sitting nearby chattering away with somebody about personal motor vehicles. The general conversation as I recall it was revolving around people yapping about their own vehicles and how wonderful they thought they were, and, naturally, the vehicles in this case were either an SUV or a big pickup truck. As you probably already guessed, the people involved, as far as I could tell, had absolutely zero need for the things they were driving.
The woman, a middle aged divorced single mom, a little five-foot nothing lady who did nothing with her own vehicle except haul her own 100 pound or so being around from place to place, owned and drove, as her personal transportation, some gigantic behemoth Dodge pickup. What stuck, in all the inane nonsense that was being proclaimed as reasons for driving what the people drove, was a comment from the tiny lady with the giant truck. She said that her truck was great, a sensible vehicle choice, because, in the event of some sort of collision with another vehicle on a road, because she was driving this gigantic thing of gargantuan mass, as she worded it, “I’ll win!“.
I swear to God, I’m not kidding.
As a side note, I remember that another person in the conversation, who drove some SUV, said something about their SUV being not just a wonderful choice in their mind, but the only kind of thing they would ever want, because of the high altitude of what they called “the command seating position“. I remember thinking something like “yeah, how will that ‘command seating position’ perspective look when that fucker is upside down after you flip the thing?“. It was a fairly obvious thought, that I’m sure I probably had at the time, to silently translate in my own mind without commenting on the conversation, “yeah, or as we probably should call it, the ‘I’m King of the fucking Road’ seating position“, which puts it in more honest terms reflecting the attitude involved.
I don’t think it would be a risky wager to bet the farm that if I encountered these people again today, they would be driving the same kinds of vehicles, with the same kind of notions about them, and bitching up a storm about the price of gasoline as they fuel their respective wheeled monsters.
We swing around back to the pickup truck driver saying “they’ll think of something”. People thought of things, many things, a long time ago.
It’s not exactly some great breakthrough of insight to look back and notice that back in the times when, in Europe, people were building compact, nimble, light, efficient, basic functional cars like the original Fiat 500 and Cooper Mini, in America the car manufacturers were engrossed in building land yacht behemoths like Ford Galaxies and Chevy Impalas and Lincoln Continentals and various Cadillacs and so on. People bought masses of these things in some kind of wishes to have some kind of rolling living rooms that devoured fuel like there was simply no need to even consider the notion that the petroleum that fed them was anything less than an endless resource.
A few decades of that phenomenon, and next thing we knew, the United States reached its all time peak of oil production rate around 1970 and went into decline, even as it’s probably reasonable to suggest that even today, only a very small portion of the American population even knows about that fact, even as people bitch about the price of gasoline. Likewise, it’s not the stuff of great insight requiring an extensive research study to notice that in the four decades since then, the general program of intense outward suburban expansion continued anyway, with the ugly destructive repercussion effects of abandoning functioning cities and letting them decay, with all the variety pack of accompanying attitudes that developed about what “urban” means.
There was some glimmer of recognition of reality when the infamous OPEC Arab oil embargo of 1973 kicked in and the American population was smacked over its collective heads with the reality that the United States could no longer just sort of magically crank open the oil valves a little more to fill the lack of the oil from the Middle East region. Then oil from the North Sea started coming, petroleum crude started coming down the Alaskan pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, the Ronald Reagan “morning in America” delusions shoved aside the reality based observations of Jimmy Carter, and much of the population just forgot all the clues they had in this department.
This isn’t fundamentally about politics, which is a problem that arises in all sorts of different topics today. Jimmy Carter as President of the United States actually faced the American people and spoke directly to them about fairly simple reality in the domain of energy consumption and fuel resources, and much of the population basically responded as “oh, no, we don’t like that, tell us a happy story”, and turned to the mediocre B movie Hollywood showbiz version of things as presented by Ronald Reagan.
That still continues. The current Team A versus Team B sports smackdown showbiz has the dysfunctional and often detached from reality Democratic party versus the Republican party now dominated completely by lunatics, malevolent goons, and complete morons, with any reasonable people in that sect operating in what you might call “reality based thought” under full on attack within their party. Between the two, political contests, when it comes to the subject I’m talking about now, all seem to come down to arguments about “who will have the political policy to give us all the resources we want, just because we want it?”.
We’re not looking at just petroleum here. Natural gas is, of course, another item, and now it seems that we have had this meme taking hold of “100 years of natural gas supply in America”, when sniffing around for more reality based and honest people who know what they’re talking about and are actually honest about it appears to indicate that these kinds of wishes will prove to be severely disappointing, to put it gently.
We have to deal with some sort of mob psychosis of people demanding people who will tell them what they want to hear, not how things are and what we need to adjust to function in accordance with reality.
One of the worst things, from where I sit looking around at the world, is that all of this ends up finding a lot of problematic attitudes and presumptions among more than a few people who like to view themselves as being “green” and “eco friendly” and so on, at least superficially. Like I suggested earlier here, replacing the big heavy SUV in your outer suburban driveway, 30 miles from the center of the local metropolis, with a new hybrid SUV, is, shall we say, a little bit of indulgent self delusion that you’re really doing something.
The subject of hybrids is something on its own. I think it’s certainly an area of automotive technology that’s interesting, but I think there’s a certain degree, in this, of something that’s part of my theme of the moment here. There is some very impressive engineering in this, but I generally find myself looking at this and thinking, this is a bit misdirected. I look at hybrids and think that it might sound nice to a lot of people, a great advancement into a sensible future of automotive technology, but I just see additions of large amounts of added weight and complexity.
I think a better way to go is lighter, with gasoline fueled internal combustion engines, but better, more efficient use of fuel, or, as an alternative, pure electric vehicles as short range city vehicles.
People complain about the limited range of electric vehicles, which is a valid issue, while, as in the example of somebody mocking the Chevy Volt hybrid, overlooking a more general issue, of looking at why the range would be a problem. If an electric car doesn’t have a sufficent operating range on a full charge to get you to work and back because you live 30 miles away from where you work, maybe the fundamental issue there is not a matter of vehicle technology.
We do have other matters in front of us under the heading of “energy” beyond motor vehicles and fuel resources.
It’s astonishing and more than a little disturbing to realize how much of what we call post-war America has been built up with some broad assumptions. I certainly am not the first person to look at things and come to a conclusion that there are places in the US that have, over time, become regarded as a “boom” locale, have some pretty serious problems ahead. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas do not have a future that quite fits ideas of what these places were all cracked up to be.
Part of that is the matter of transportation and how these places have become what they have become based on certain conditions. There’s more to it than just that. A lot revolves around what we build and how we build it, along with where we build it.
It became the norm to design and build new buildings, homes and assorted buildings for commerce, making a lot of assumptions about using natural gas to burn to heat places, and/or large amounts of electrical power. I am, again, not exactly going out on a limb here to point out the obvious; it has become the norm and been normal for decades to design and construct buildings that are big sealed boxes, all based in one form or another on using massive quantities of hydrocarbon fuel sources to keep the sealed boxes at 72 degrees F.
There are major clues being dropped on our heads every once in a while when there’s some combination of hot weather and some sort of electrical power disruption problem, and news reports are filled with a variety of tales of life threatening disaster high drama… because the air conditioning isn’t working.
I’m veering awfully close to territory of this being regarded as old fart rants and reminisces about yon olden days of yore, but, here’s a thought. I can remember the period when I was growing up, when air conditioning was certainly not some new and novel thing, but, in those days, it was something of a luxury item. Now, people can’t imagine not having it in most places where humans occupy buildings.
It’s strange to think about the idea that contemporary American ideas about building design and construction seem to generally, at the risk of broad over generalization, put the same basic building designs up whether they’re in Wisconsin, Oregon, Arizona, or Georgia. Build a sealed box, install central HVAC system, feed in energy.
There’s an area of human activity that could use some serious reality based creative imagination, like managing sunlight to keep a space either warm or cool as needed and utilizing ventilation well in the equation to keep places reasonably comfortable in hot weather.
Methinks a lot in this department could be well served by a great deal of creative imagination directed into environmental controls in buildings with minimal energy inputs, but a lot that could do well in improving matters in this might be a matter of recalling ways of doing things in the ways things were done in the past, before everybody started assuming availability of energy the way we’ve been using it in recent decades.
Some sharp observers might have noticed that I have said nothing about the topic of nuclear energy, and wondered about this. That’s a pretty reasonable thought, maybe even fair to call a dead obvious topic in a bit of writing where somebody is talking about thinking about the future and the place of technology in the future.
The lack of any mention of that subject so far would be a more obvious missing gap the older you are, since any of us in the dreaded “middle age” demographic of oncoming (or established) old fartitude remember all the excited talk and promotion of visions of nuclear power proving clean, shiny, boundless, incredibly cheap electrical power by using nuclear fission reactors to release heat and turn water to steam to drive turbines turning electrical generators. Yep. It was pretty standard stuff in the sixties when I was a wee child, and assorted “in the future of the 21st century…!” magazine articles, television programs, and educational and documentary films.
Years passing since then have seen that not totally work out as we heard it would.
The topic of nuclear energy is possibly a best example of something. This is an enterprise that certainly does hold out great possibilities, and required scientific advanced knowledge and engineering brilliance. The problem side of the ledger holds the fact that this is very dangerous territory, with severe consequences if something goes wrong and it isn’t all kept perfectly under control, and it’s apparent, now, a decade or so into the 21st century, that people seriously underestimated potential problems resulting from somewhat overestimating and being overly optimistic about ability to manage things.
The Japanese seem to be looking like bowing out of the nuclear power age, after the hellish nightmare of natural disaster (compounded) resulting in unexpected repercussions at the Fukushima plant.
As a companion to the blog piece I linked earlier, A Sudden Crisis Makes All The Difference, I came across some comments on the web that I thought made just a perfect metaphor for how most people in my country today are responding to an array of serious problems, that most people are not, at least in any sensible way, and it’s more a case of metaphorically hitting the snooze button on the alarm. “They’ll think of something” is a classic example of that. All the willingness of people to either convey, or believe, fatuous nonsense that says we have no real “energy problems” is another. The completely bizarre attitudes and beliefs about economic matters, despite all the wreckage around us from the “financial innovations” games, coupled with removal of government oversight and regulations instituted after the 1929 crash and Great Depression, are another.
While everything that’s happening goes on, lots of people seem to show signs of behaving like a cargo cult, thinking that things were pretty good at some particular period in the past, with a lack of grasp of why things were as they were at the time, and imagining that some particular conditions or behavior of the time can be repeated, and this will make the magic goodness appear again.
There’s probably a lot that could be described that way. The situation of hydrocarbon fuel resources certainly gets into this. People look back at a stretch of American history and see “prosperity and growth”, maybe or maybe not fully realizing how much of a windfall of fortune came from a past availability of what seemed like boundless natural resources, including what seemed like having more petroleum than people knew what to do with it. Hitting the limits of that, some people seem to think that we’ll just explore some more and apply new wonder oil technologies and find more just because we really want it, with no small amount of believing that “government regulation” is the problem obstacle getting in the way. Others believe that if we have gone into decline in petroleum extraction, well, then, we’ll just find some replacement boundless cheap energy resource and swap.
It just doesn’t work that way.
We need to adjust to how the universe does work.
In the meantime, among other things, we’ve had loads of useful people tossed overboard, and as we face the need to get a hell of a lot of readjustment work done, including getting more local, being functional again closer to home, we have things like this interesting short little article in USA Today, Tool and die makers desperately casting for workers.