Sunday, 18 July 2010

Musing on sustainability

Today is quite cold outside.  It is raining gently,  and I hope some finds its way into the tank,  not that there's any great rush of water...  but it's all welcome, nevertheless.  This kind of weather does make the house cold though.  I have lit both fires and, while we are comfortable,  it's easy to see how seductive heating that works at the "flick of a switch" can be.  However,  there is the feeling of a trap also.
I have bought two loads of wood for this winter (though the smaller bits will last into the summer for the kitchen stove.)  Despite this, and the fact that all I need to do is to carry the wood inside and maintain the fire, I know as well how easy it is to turn on an electric heater.

In recent days,  I have been a part of several conversations in which "alternative energy"  is seen as one of the most important priorities for the planet.  I have some doubts about some of the ideas that I've heard.
Peak oil has probably passed already and coal has no clean option, so my community and others need to wean themselves from the cheap oil/coal energy options.   In fact this is going to happen, one way or another,  whether we like it or not.   This will either be fast or gradual, and taking into account the changing climate that might also be either fast or slow,  David Holmgren (of permaculture fame) has suggested four possible scenarios for the future.  These four scenarios are
  • Brown tech - slow oil decline and fast climate change 
  • Green tech - both slow oil decline and climate change, allowing the development of "green energy" and less change in lifestyle
  • Earth steward - fast oil decline and slow climate change,  requiring a "bottom up" re-build of infrastructure to support human civilisation
  • lifeboat - both changes happening fast
In all cases,  fast climate change would lead to scarier options than the slower change allowing some time for accomodation to the change.
It is in the scenario of "Green Tech" that discussion seems to be happening now.  How are we to produce sufficient energy to maintain our current lifestyles and even improve the lives of many who don't have the "benefit" of our level of energy consumption.
While there are many elegant theories and ideas about electricity production and wonderful energy conservation measures,  I can't imagine where the resources will come from the make the hardware to support these changes.  How much embodied energy is present in the windfarms, solar panels and batteries and electric cars that are intended to replace the infrastructure that we are currently using?  and what kinds of specialised materials are required for production of those energy producing or storing items?
We have used more than a million years worth of stored solar energy (captured and stored by ancient plants and animals) within about one hundred and fifty years.  The rate of this exploitation has increased annually for all of that time.  This exponential increase in energy use that we have come to rely upon to support our profligate lifestyle, let alone our precarious economy, cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet.  We are "between a rock and a hard place" and there is really no easy way out.

"Sustainable" seems to be the word of the year!  We need a sustainable population in sustainable communities using sustainable energy and sustainable water supplies and then there is the oxymoron...  sustainable development.  In our culture,  development refers to increasing infrastructure and/or use of the natural world.  In order to be sustainable, there can be no "annual increase" of any percentage,  however small, as, in the same way that compound interest increases exponentially, this is completely impossible unless we live in an infinite environment.  But we have only one habitable and accessable planet, and we are fast running out of unused resources.

This "exponential increase" that requires infinite resources first occurred to me some years ago when I read about the requirement for the "economy" to increase by at least a small percentage every year. (There is a very good description of exponential functions here.)  I'd watched the "law of diminishing returns" in real life as I lived in Newfoundland before and during the collapse of the cod fishery...  the amount of energy, money and fuel and hours spent on fishing for cod increased exponentially while the catch gradually reduced.  This was a very graphic demonstration of just how quickly the actual collapse of an exponential function might happen.  The economy cannot increase by any percentage forever on a finite planet, and neither can energy production, of any kind. And neither can the biota of the planet, including humans.

While I am certain that there will be some wonderful innovations in energy production and conservation, I am just as certain that the amount of energy, whatever its source,  that each of us is able to use will be reduced in the future.  Green Tech will not enable us to retain our "standard of living."

There are many people on our earth who use very little.  To reduce their consumption of electricity by, say,  half  will make much less difference than to many of my friends (or me) who might need to reduce their consumption by half.  There are already many people in the world who have electricity available for only a part of the day.  I wonder how some of us would manage with only a few hours of electricity daily.  A "one off"  blackout seems to cause quite some consternation.  

This brings me back to my own kitchen and my own thoughts on the matter.  I wouldn't like the loss of access to the internet,  radio and news of the world.  I wouldn't like the inconvenience of little light after the sun goes down...  it's hard to read by candle or firelight.   As I look at my kitchen fire burning, heating the oven for dinner,  I sometimes think about the woman (for I am sure that it was a woman) who stood there in her full length dress tending the fire in relative silence (no iPod for her) and her trips with a bucket to the hand pump out by the tank for water, or to the woodheap to stoke the fire (as I do regularly.)  
There is an old lilac bush (almost a tree) growing in the forest that is the front yard of the house.  Perhaps she liked the colour or perfume and watered that plant with the dishwater during the summer to enable it to survive, as I do with some of my garden favourites.

The house was built for the Church of England as a manse, though it was also used for Sunday services (there must have been quite a small congregation!) until Christchurch was built and commissioned in 1857.  Reverend Strickland lived here until 1859.

“How amiable are Thy tabernacles O Lord of hosts!”  So began the first sermon in the new Kapunda Church of England by the incumbent. the Revd F.P. Strickland, on Sunday 11 October 1857.
 (Holy Bible, King James Version, Psalm 84 verse 1)  The evening text came from the 48th verse of Acts, Chapter 7 “Howbeit the most high dwelleth not in temples made with hands; saith the prophet”  Incidentally Strickland lived in the house that became the home of William John Moyle Oats, bootmaker and uncle to W.N. Oats who later became principal of King’s College and then The Friends School, Hobart. 

It is this house of William Oats, bootmaker, that I am living in now.  I even wonder whether anyone in Kapunda would be able to make shoes if it were necessary.  Mainly though,  I wonder how sustainable is the way that people live,  not only in Kapunda,  but further afield as well.


Sustainability implies a much longer term than I believe our community is thinking.  It means using only the amount of resources that are replaced continuously.  Since the only source of energy arriving on our planet is solar we need to use energy that is renewable at the rate that it can be produced or collected as has always happened in the past;  even taking into account that embedded energy used in producing the infrastructure to collect the energy and the "depreciation" in efficiency on that infrastructure.  It is only over the last relatively short few hundred years that we have been able to make use of energy that was collected over millions of years and that can't continue for much longer.


Many people in the world are already living sustainably.  They have no choice.  


We will either make that choice voluntarily or we'll be pushed into one of those scenarios so well described by David Holmgren.

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