The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Change the Focus of How We Use Technology

An excerpt from Thom's book, "The Lasts Hours of Ancient Sunlight".

Change the Focus of How We Use Technology

We cannot cheat on DNA. We cannot get round photosynthesis. We cannot say, "I am not going to give a damn about phytoplankton."All these tiny mechanisms provide the preconditions of our planetary life. To say we do not care is to say in the most literal sense that "we choose death."-- Barbara Ward (1914-81), Who Speaks for Earth?

In the opening chapters of this book, I pointed out how our lifestyle and, indeed, our entire worldwide modern civilization, is possible only because we're rapidly using up a 300-million-year-old non-renewable resource: ancient sunlight, principally in the form of oil, but also coal and gas. I also cited figures which indicated that this resource -- at current rates of consumption -- will run out in our or our children's lifetimes. The way it'll most likely play out, though, is nowhere near that simple. We won't just one day suddenly wake up to a world of dry gas pumps and grounded jetliners.

Instead, as oil becomes progressively less available, its price will rise. This rise in price will affect the price of everything made from or with oil -- from plastics to manufactured goods to the food we eat produced by oil-powered farm machinery and transported in oil-powered trucks and trains. As it did during the oil crisis of the early 1970s when oil prices temporarily shot up, this will produce economic crises, exacerbate the gap between rich and poor, and stress the social fabric of countries worldwide. A return of conditions such as prevailed during the Great Depression is not inconceivable and, given that the world now has three times more people on it than it did in 1930, the situation may even be far worse than it was at that time. Some futurists are predicting "oil wars" and global conflicts over the ownership of energy

Whatever the details of the way increasing oil scarcity will affect the world, one thing is certain: people will be forced to use less oil. Because of this, the 40-year-and-we're-out prediction is unrealistic. Instead, sometime in the next decade or two, as oil wells begin to run dry around the world or countries decide to hoard the reserves they still have, rising oil prices will force consumers and nations into less oil-intensive ways of living.

Use our oil to not use oil. While we still have a chance, let's use what energy resources we have to develop renewable alternatives.

Oil currently fires the furnace of industry and government. But we're using it in a "once-through" fashion -- we burn it, and that's that: the resource is gone, never to produce another benefit. That's precisely the kind of mistake Dwight Eisenhower meant when he said that the building of war machinery represented a theft from our children: he was referring to the "once-through" nature of military spending. If the government uses tax dollars to build a bullet (or tank or missile), there is a short-term stimulation of the economy as the result of that expenditure. Somebody is hired to manufacture the bullet, somebody else mined and smelted the lead, and so on. Over the short term, it stimulates the economy as it increases employment and consumes materials extracted, refined, and manufactured by industry. We've seen this in the short-term economic benefits of military spending during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the trillions of dollars spent during the Reagan administration on the Star Wars program.

The problem, however, is that once that money is spent and those jobs are finished, we hit a wall. The only thing military armaments can be used for (economically, not politically) is their own destruction. When a bullet is fired, it's gone. No more productive use can be put to the gunpowder that burned, or the lead slug that's now buried in somebody's body. When a tank or a bomber or a missile are used they produce no secondary gain to the overall economy. (Of course, there is the ripple effect through the economy of the workers who built the bomb spending their pay, but that is minor compared to the multiple ripples that would be produced if the bomb itself were "productive.")

On the other hand, when the same money and resources are used to build a commercial long-haul truck, that truck participates in the economy for its useful life-span, facilitating commerce and contributing value to the economy every day. It's no longer a once-through expenditure; it's become something that works with the rest of the system to produce further value. Building a bomber is a one-time expenditure, as if the money were poured into a hole and buried; building a commercial jetliner creates an economic tool which then can provide employment and transportation for thousands of people for decades.

Particularly important are the products which, when used, capture current sunlight energy and transform it into a form which can replace fossil fuels. Such products have an ongoing useful and productive life, and they also reduce the future amounts of fossil-fuels we'll need.

As such, they could be viewed as putting capital into our energy bank, rather than simply removing energy from it. Solar panels, wind power systems, hydro power systems, hydrogen production and storage systems: all of these represent ways that current oil can be used as an investment rather than an expenditure.

If we as a society begin to wisely use our fossil-fuel resources to wean ourselves off the need to use fossil-fuels for heat and electricity production, then the impact of "the end of oil" can be softened. At the same time, we'd be reducing our consumption of oil as these alternative-energy systems come

While ultimately this will have to happen nation- and world-wide, it's already beginning on a small-scale basis in homes and rural communities all over the world.

Here in Vermont, electricity is pretty cheap. It costs us about nine cents for a thousand watts of electricity for an hour, so having ten 100-watt bulbs fully illuminating different rooms in the house at the same time costs less than a dime an hour. But that can't last very much longer.

Living "off the grid"

There's a growing movement in the United States to generate one's own power. It started a few decades ago, mostly by people living in extremely remote areas where bringing in power from the local utility grid was impractical or costly. Over the past twenty years or so, with the development of efficient and inexpensive wind, water, and solar generators that are practical for home use, it has spread to people who value their independence, have concerns about the reliability or cost of future electric supplies, or are cautious about the ecological impact of "big electric."

It's now technologically possible for most suburban and rural dwellers in the industrialized world to generate their own electricity for their own home. Sanyo of Japan manufactures roofing tiles and window panes which are solar-electric generators, and in many parts of the world roof- or yard-mounted wind generators can power a home. The cost of solar-cell-produced electricity has dropped from over $30/kilowatt-hour in 1975 to less than thirty cents per kilowatt-hour in 1996, a 100-fold decrease that is expected to drop tenfold again over the next five years. Storage batteries and inverters are dropping in price, and the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell (currently used only in space programs) holds great promise for power storage, since hydrogen can be easily produced by running electric current through water.

Similarly, in a pinch, most homes could grow their own food. An acre of prime land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes or 40,000 pounds of potatoes in one year. In many parts of the world (particularly in small towns of many European nations), it's fashionable to turn the front lawn or back yard (or both) from grass production into a huge vegetable garden, which often supplies a significant portion of the family's food needs. Many Americans alive today remember that this was also common in this country during the Depression and up until the end of World War II (these plots were referred to as
"Victory Gardens").

Water purification systems have come a long way, too, with hand-powered reverse-osmosis filters capable of detoxifying rain- and groundwater virtually anywhere.

The idea of moving "off the grid" is a popular one in rural areas and among the political fringe who see the government as a malevolent force. As such, it's very much a minority way of life.

However, decentralization of power, food, and water production may well hold one key to how we can come through the coming changes in world oil availability without collapsing into chaos and tragedy.

This holds promise because according to a 1990 US government study, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, water, biomass) could supply over 70% of the power requirements of this nation. In California alone, for example, over 15,000 wind generators now produce enough electricity to theoretically light the city of San Francisco.

Government subsidies for the production of renewable energy, however, are largely limited to the huge oil- and coal-based power generating companies with enough campaign donation dollars to sway legislation. Concerned about future generations' dependence on dwindling oil supplies, Jimmy Carter introduced subsidies for small-scale electricity production, which jump-started an industry, but under pressure from big oil campaign contributors Ronald Reagan eliminated them as one of his first acts of office, causing the embryonic small-scale solar industry to die a sudden death.

Nonetheless, a small remnant of that industry has struggled back to life, and increasingly people are experimenting with small-scale solar, wind, and hydro power.

While large-scale centralization may seem economical, ultimately it's not Centralized, hierarchical structures are inherently less stable than decentralized, grassroots ones. Monolithic systems richly benefit those who control them, but often offer only a form of ongoing dependence to their customers.

In a story reminiscent of how American companies are now removing natural resources from third-world countries and then selling back to those countries finished goods (and controlling agribusiness while wiping out family farms), Mahatma Gandhi put pictures of the simple spinning wheel, a hand-made tool to convert wool or cotton into thread, as the symbol of his nationalist movement against the British. At that time, the British had ordered the shutdown of all clothing manufacturing facilities in India, and shipped cheap Indian cotton to England to be made into clothing by British workers. While this provided work for the English citizenry -- something popular in the English countryside, hugely profitable for the owners of the clothing factories, and politically helpful to the British government -- it impoverished the Indians, who were now forced to pay high prices for clothing imported from England which they, themselves, had been inexpensively manufacturing only years earlier.

Gandhi argued for a return of local economies rather than centralized ones, and suggested that families or, at the largest end of the scale of practicality, villages should grow their own cotton, spin their own thread, and make their own clothing. He did this himself, making his own simple clothes by hand, and soon the logo of the spinning-wheel was a powerful emblem of change all across India, as well as the unofficial logo of his independence movement.

As Gandhi well knew, when people produce their own food, heat, and light, they are more free and independent. Even more important, they are usually more efficient in their use of these resources, because they're so familiar with them and close to their sources. Looking at their own light, eating their own food, and feeling their own heat, they have an intimate knowledge of the significance and importance of these essentials to human life that many people living "on the grid" lack. And out of that knowledge, they become more frugal in the use of the resources they have so carefully extracted from their own direct environment.


When we moved to Vermont in May of 1997, we quickly discovered one of the unique aspects of living out in the country on the side of a mountain: power outages.

In our first month here, we had three days with no power. The locals say that it's not usually this bad -- the weather has been unusually severe -- but nonetheless we quickly learned how to use an emergency generator, to light a house with candles and oil lamps, and the value of battery-operated radios and computers.

Which led me to discover how really wasteful my consumption of electricity is -- and how relatively easy conservation is.

Since conservation lowers how much electricity we need to generate, it has the further benefit of making it easier to live off the grid.

Take lighting, for example. It's only in the past 100 years or so that we've had the idea that an entire room need be lit for occupancy. For all the rest of human history, we used "area lighting": a whale- or vegetable-oil lamp to read by, or a beeswax candle for conversation. These forms of lighting consumed insignificant amounts of fuel -- the equivalent of a 10 or 20 watt bulb, at best.

Similarly, many people are discovering that it feels very satisfying to live efficiently. Driving a bicycle instead of a car; saving and reusing food packages; recycling table scraps into a compost pile; buying second-hand clothes and repairing the old ones we've kept; superinsulating the house so it uses less fuel; maintaining the car so it can reach 200,000 miles and still run well.

There's a sense of accomplishment in living frugally, a feeling of independence. In recent years, frugality has even been touted in consumer and women's magazines as a fashionable way to live.

Nonetheless, there's a nagging voice in the backs of many peoples' heads, perhaps an echo of the Reagan years, that to voluntarily not consume, to not grow and compete and acquire and dominate, is somehow an admission of failure. Could it be? On the contrary, it's an act of self-preservation and qualifies as highly successful behavior.

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