Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Love of Money

Or the trading of human quality for human quantity.

A paper monetary note - US dollar, Japanese yen, German deutschemark - is, for all practical purposes, a unit of energy. And not just ONE unit of energy either, but a brand new unit of energy every time it changes hands. Doesn't matter much what it's traded for, a unit of energy is expended every time it moves. Unless you put that dollar under the mattress and sleep on it, that is. Then it basically ceases to exist.

But that's not what the majority of first-world humans do, is it? We buy groceries, go to concerts, and invest in big tobacco companies. Or maybe in so-called "green" or "socially responsible" investment vehicles, if we lean that way. Doesn't pencil out any differently though. A dollar spent in the economic machine is still a dollar. Even in a venture as seemingly innocent as the Nature Conservancy, where dollars are traded for valuable natural real estate, more money donated translates into more people working on that conservation. More plane flights hither and yon. More mortgages. More investment firms to handle the retirement funds for those employees. More dinners out. And the formal economy keeps on spinning, and by "spinning" I mean destroying the planet.

What about Heifer International? I used to subscribe to their "good works". Their business model revolves around taking first world donations to provide livestock and training to the "unfortunate" third-world poor. But those poor people are alive, and have been for millenia, quietly living sustainably, not reproducing more than they could feed. They were hunter-gatherers, or horticulturalists, living very local, low-impact lives. Now they are aspiring agriculturalists, and entrepreneurs. Ideas based on expansion of market share, and an "ethic" of size equaling self-worth. You were nothing until we gave you that water buffalo, and you'll be nothing again if you don't expand your holdings with it.

But how can 7 billion people expand their holdings? How can we all be agriculturalists, steadily clearing virgin land to convert into more humans? (Literal and metaphorical virgin land.) The simplest answer is that we can't. The physical world has physical limits. It's that easy. Modern industrial humans don't like the idea of limits. Not something we've ever had to tolerate much of. Up until now. I don't have much else to say on the matter beyond that we have to stop. Just stop moving, stop doing, stop consuming. I'm only aware of a couple of people who travel extensively yet manage to live carbon negative lives. And no, Al Gore is not one of them. Could be, but I don't know that for sure.

OK, so what about a kind of green tech stability? Can't we just replace our conventional systems with lower-energy alternatives? Of course we could! If that was what we were doing. But does it really make sense that an alternative power system for every individual property in the developed world would be cheaper energetically than a regional power grid? Should we just overlook that solar panels require the mining of rare earth elements like Indium and Hafnium? Metals that are near their peak supplies already? They are called rare earth elements for a reason. How exactly will we create a solar revolution when we've barely begun the task and we're already running low on the required materials? Same for wind. You're just not getting the same bang for the energetic buck that you get out of oil and coal, and that is a physical limit that matters.

Now Tripp, are you saying that you endorse oil and coal use for power production? Yep. Until we wrap our heads around the idea that the only way to use less energy is to actually use less energy! The point is, it's the behavioral modification that matters, not the technological. The primary fallacy of the supposed "green tech" movement is the severe disconnect from reality embedded in the idea that we can keep doing what we're doing after a brief equipment change. That is, as soon as we can get all those old incandescent bulbs switched out for CFLs, or better yet, LEDs, and get everybody recycling their trash, we'll be able to continue this grand expansionary experiment unabated. Never mind the mercury in the CFLs that no one recycles, or the production costs of these technologies - the R&D, the new or retrofitted factories and supply chains, the mining, and the billion dollar chemistry labs, not to mention the average everyday lives of the people involved, buying their groceries, attending their concerts, and investing in their big tobacco companies. Or Green Mountain Coffee, or whatever, doesn't matter.

It all requires energy. The only difference is who is benefitting from that spent energy, that is, which of the 2 aristocratic parties in this country can gain the upper hand by acquiring slightly more energy than the other. The people who think alt energy is the way of the future, and thus vote for Democrats to bring that to fruition, are just as culpable for destroying Earth as the Republicans who want things to continue like they are. Maybe even more so. I was recently sent an article about an off-grid grass-based agricultural operation, which at first glance made me happy. After all, grass-fed beef is without a doubt the lowest input meat available, and done properly can even sequester atmospheric carbon. But the article went on to say that this ranch had just installed 50 kW of solar capacity at a cost of $320,000, that will supply over 1/3 of the power for their abbatoir! A whole one third! Just for the abbatoir! And they were bragging about it! I don't care what "they" say about recovery time on a solar investment, there's no such thing. Not when one does a full environmental accounting anyway.

Nothing will change until WE change. There's no such thing as free energy, because even if you found it, the additional humans it would create still need to be fed, clothed, and housed, at a bare minimum, and increasingly they "require" a computer and ISP, a cell phone, a car, ....

The Green Tech revolution is nothing of the sort. It's business as usual in a pretty green wrapper. The only chance we have of persisting on planet Earth lies in our ability to drop our hubris a notch or three, and start asking how, rather than finding a better way to accomplish a given task, how we can manage to get by without bothering to accomplish that task at all.
That's where our biggest trouble lies. The idea of stopping, slowing down, or avoiding doing a task is tantamount to laziness in the eyes of the growth culture. Prosperity comes from hard work, right? Wrong. OK, maybe in the shortest of terms, but ultimately, prosperity comes from sustainability. Anything else is just selfish, no matter how noble the motive. What good does it do to acquire the wealth of the planet and leave no trees for the children? Will that stack of paper fed notes taste good? Do they burn slow and long for warmth in winter? Would it even matter if there is no rain to water food crops following a deforestation threshold?

We have to sort out our priorities, and we have to do it now. This is the only problem before us. It's the biggest problem ever faced by Homo sapiens, and it will be THE defining moment for all of humanity. Doesn't matter what our parents and grandparents tell us is right, or noble, or responsible. Their experience was nothing like our experience.

Ever heard of the "Punctuated Equilibrium Theory"? Makes a lot of sense to me. Basically, it suggests that there are long periods of slow steady building of resources and infrastructure, followed by very short, rapid bursts of consumption. Repeat cycle ad infinitum. In a human context, the groundwork was laid for our parents and grandparents by their predecessors - the telephone system, the interstate highway system, social safety nets, intellectual property laws, and so on - and then they burst out to exceptional material wealth by utilizing these resources to their fullest potential. But in the process of creating massive paper wealth they consumed the REAL capital reserves - the forests, the freshwater, the soil's fertility- and now the long slow rebuilding process must begin anew. That is our next task.

But before the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or your face turns red, or even one "How dare you!" is uttered, let me quickly add that what we've done for the past 70 years, and in the larger sense the past 10,000 years, is completely natural. I don't think for one second that my grandparents intended to leave me and my cohorts destitute ecologically. We did what any biological population in our shoes would have done. The energy was there, it was easy, and we expanded to take advantage of it. That's how natural populations work! But the dark side of being a regular old part of nature is that we face the same consequences that, say, yeast in a barrel of grape juice face. Once the available energy in the system is used up the population crashes. What's worse is that in a population that arranges its affairs around growth specifically, even borrowing from future growth that may or may not exist, that crash will come even sooner. As soon as the growth phase is over that is. So unless there really is some benevolent deity that really does think our activities are worth rewarding, a population keyhole event is precisely what we can expect following peak global energy.

How long we have is anyone's guess, but I think the past 3 years have been the opening act of more or less permanent energy descent and economic contraction. Whether or not I'm right about that is somewhat irrelevant, because it will come sooner or later. By predicting it in the near term I'm actually tossing out a best case scenario. As soon as we begin to descend from the great energy mountain the biosphere begins to recover. (Good news, I'm seeing that happen already in many ways.) Which is good news for all biology, including humans. Hard to see sometimes, through the cloud of paper money blurring our vision from the peak, but the sooner this stolen season at the summit ends the sooner we recover our humanity.

The love of money is not the root of all evil. Money itself is. We're enamored by it, we always want more, and why wouldn't we! Money lets us travel, and eat better, buy land, and help our friends and family. For a while. Then it's just paper again. And the view from the ash pile will be surprisingly bleak I'm afraid. Seven billion or so humans surrounded by clear-cuts, impoverished farmland, toxic water, and a whole lot of disbelief.


  1. [ enAMORed = love ] other than a simple contradiction, great article!

  2. Thanks, MD! You're absolutely right. This post is longer than my standard entry, so I was running on fumes by the end!

  3. Really enjoyed this post! Glad I stumbled into your space!

  4. Hi Tripp,

    SoylentgreenAU here from CFN. Nice blog - keep it going :)

    I have used the yeast analogy myself trying to explain the coming keyhole event to people. Let's just say I don't make many friends and have lost a few.

    At least my wife is on board. We just hope we can get out of the city soon.

    What do you think of this idea?:
    http://www.greensteamengine.com/ used with a solar collector for steam? Should work well in my part of the world.

  5. I see that you "get it" Tripp. Good ole' full environmental accounting - most people just cannot get their heads around that concept. You are right, Priority Number One needs to be conservation and reduction: we must learn to stop consuming so much; learn to live on less. Even people who reuse and recycle often forget about the first "R" in the concept: Reduce. We must learn to transform our lives and our households from being units of consumption, to units of production: food, water, shelter, love, community.

  6. Great post. Really enjoyed reading this. Keep them coming!

  7. Vamp - I'm glad you stumbled in here too!

    Soylent Oz - I've certainly lost my share of friends that way! Stupid realism. I'll check out that steam engine. One of my biggest issues with the green tech crowd is that they think we need something NEW every time we have a problem that needs an answer. We have so much wonderful junk on this planet already that we should all have hot water and some sense of comfort for generations to come.

    Sarah - Happy to have you back! I like your take on the world. Seems like you're familiar with permaculture, and so you might know the OTHER 2 Rs as well: repair and refuse, the latter being the one that Americans are absolutely no good at. Moving from consumption to production is definitely the order of business for our generation!

    Mila - Thanks for stopping by! Always welcome.

  8. well to step back from being a consumer is a revolutionary act, isnt it? Listen to the language of MSM. who are we to them? voters and consumers. never citizens. never human beings. nothing beyond how we can serve them. Money is something i still work for, but only in that i can exchange it for critical needs for me to be as self sufficient as i can get as quickly as i can get. when it becomes zimbabwe paper - i wont be holding much. -mean dovey cooledge

  9. Dovey, by George, I think you've got it! I'm done being referred to as a "consumer unit," but ol' demon cash is still necessary, in small quantities, until we figure out how to do this without it. Which requires a cooperating community, and I assure you Macon ain't there yet. In Spokane we were beginning work on a local currency - Selkirk Notes - and I had several local businesses lined up to accept them. Maybe we'll get back there soon.

    One of the most interesting times ever to be alive, don't you think?!