Monday, December 5, 2011
All About the Trend
Joel Salatin once said, in his typical no-holds-barred style, that no one gives birth to a hundred pound baby. Put back into context, he was decrying the suite of USDA regulations which all but guarantee that small producers can’t get into the food game. No room to test an idea, to grow organically, incrementally, to see if it’s a winner before investing the farm in getting that first item to market. Daily bacteria culture tests whose $300 price tag is no problem for a Tyson or Hormel processing facility to absorb would ruin a small local producer processing 50 free range chickens a day; file drawers full of required permits can (and do) employ corporate lawyers full-time. What start-up has the means to meet these obligations from the jump? It would be like giving birth to Salatin’s proverbial hundred pound baby: painful, and risky. The consumer advocacy groups that initiated these regulatory control structures probably meant well with their attempt at oversight for the mega-processors shielded by their federal rubber stamps, but in the end it only managed to keep the little guys out and the industrial mills spinning ever more defiantly, their bland, cookie-cutter products protected by corporate largesse from what would probably prove to be very tasty competition.
This trend toward gigantism worked when the world was expanding, confident in the growth of tomorrow, secure in its ability to repay the debt it was taking out to fund it. It makes sense to centralize, and economize, and push efficiency limits when energy prices are low, supporting the consolidation of national and global economic structures, running supply chains thousands of miles long, because the cost of the energy required to make it happen is virtually negligible.
When former US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz uttered his famous warning to farmers, “Get Big, or Get Out,” he was absolutely right. That’s what the trend of the day demanded. When the United States government set up the Social Security Administration back in the 1930s, the Ponzi scheme required to make it work – the perpetual growth of the work force and its income – seemed like a given. When the United States dropped the gold standard it was right to do so, because economic growth was outpacing the country’s ability to put the necessary physical gold and silver coinage into circulation, and that inability to balance the money supply with the production of goods and services was responsible for deflationary cycle after deflationary cycle in the nineteenth century. During an explosive growth phase, fiat currency that could be printed on demand fixed that problem. What’s that, you say? Economic productivity is a billion dollars higher than the available money supply? Loan the billion necessary to balance it out (and circumvent deflation) into being! That works in an expansionary pattern. Since WWII, the “overdeveloped countries” of the world have, with only sporadic exceptions, consistently enjoyed the sort of energy growth that underwrites these trends. Coupled with the fact that very few people alive today remember anything but the increasingly-affluent post-WWII period of our history, one might sympathize with the general resistance of the population to the novel trends developing in our world today.
But developing they are, nonetheless, with or without the permission of the industrial cadre. Global oil supply peaked in 2005/2006, effectively marking the beginning of a tidal shift in the world’s economic trajectory. Petroleum is the most energy dense and most useful fuel source we’ve ever exploited, and there is no replacement waiting to pick up its slack. When oil peaks it all peaks. Comparing other energy sources to oil is, as John Michael Greer so wryly points out, not so much like comparing apples to oranges as it is like comparing apples to orangutans. It’s that different. At a vastly smaller scale, PV solar and wind might replace some coal use (with enough foresight), but oil is responsible for virtually ALL of the world’s transportation, and the “replacement technologies” on offer, if we should give them even that much credit, are highly dependent on oil to arrive in the market in the first place. Imagine the global economy without transportation fuel, or even with $20/gallon fuel. How long would it take for it all to come to a grinding halt? Minutes? Hours? In his counter-cultural economic masterpiece “Small Is Beautiful,” E.F. Schumacher offered this explanation:
“It is impossible to overemphasize [the energy problem’s] centrality…As long as there is enough primary energy – at tolerable prices – there is no reason to believe that bottlenecks in any other primary materials cannot be either broken or circumvented. On the other hand, a shortage of primary energy would mean that the demand for most other primary products would be so curtailed that a question of shortage with regard to them would be unlikely to arise.”
The industrial mind is predisposed to view alternative energy technologies as the peers of fossil fuels. How else could they offer an “alternative”? But if you have studied Schumacher or Greer at all, it should be easy enough to recognize solar PV panels and wind turbines as “secondary” goods, belonging to the human-created sector of the economy, completely dependent upon the primary goods and services provided by Nature, free of charge, in the primary economy. The energy that powers the industrial economy is a primary good provided by Nature, and not just A primary good, but THE primary good, the keyhole resource, as its availability is the only thing that makes the production of all other primary goods possible. And the very primary energy-dependent harvest and refinement of primary goods is what makes a human-produced secondary economy possible at all. Modern economics doesn’t even recognize the primary economy, but it’s been calculated, conservatively, that Nature is directly responsible for at least 75 cents of every dollar circulating in the global market. So the opening line of Adam Smith’s treatise, “The Wealth of Nations,” the foundation document upon which western economics rests, is at least 75% wrong. When Smith says that the wealth of a nation is comprised of the annual total of its human labor, he completely overlooks the 75% that really matters – the topsoil, forests, hydrologic cycle, benign climate, pollinators, etc. And what’s more, without the 75% provided by Nature, the human-produced 25% couldn’t exist at all. Nor would the humans themselves, for that matter.
Take the primary good aluminum as an example. In its natural form it rests in the Earth’s crust as bauxite ore, completely worthless to humans. In order to make it valuable to the human economy humans must use a measure of primary energy – originally coal or charcoal most likely – to mine, refine, and create a metal tool to help them mine, refine, and create a larger metal tool, and so on. In this case we’re talking about both the mining tools themselves and the refining machinery needed to make them. After several generations, each with an increasing quantity of primary energy and raw materials required to obtain a more useful new product, we arrive at a tool set large enough to mine, refine, and create pure aluminum products at a scale that is economically important. (We also get fluoride as a by-product and scratch our heads wondering what in the world we should do with all of this waste…) So, logically, humans contributed the science and technology, improved upon gradually as the relevant tool set improved, but otherwise the whole shebang was Nature’s doing. Nature created, through geologic processes, the bauxite to be refined, the ferrous ore to purify into iron, for refining and mining machinery, and the immense supply of primary energy required to do all of that. In my opinion claiming a 25% share for humans in the value of the resultant aluminum products is, er, a bit of a stretch. I assure you we will never smelt iron with solar panels.
And so we can see the logic in Schumacher’s argument. Without the primary energy – at tolerable prices – the bauxite would simply remain bauxite, and refined aluminum would, well, simply cease to exist. This is obviously a much bigger problem to those of us who are familiar with the conveniences of aluminum, and poses no real issue for those who don’t. Again, energy descent is primarily an industrial world problem.
With solar and wind power technologies now comfortably categorized as “secondary goods” instead of “primary energy” – and secondary goods that are not merely reliant on actual primary energy (notably oil) and other primary goods like refined indium for their production, but on a variety of other components, each of which are secondary goods in their own right, all necessary for their manufacture as well – it should become considerably easier to understand why peak oil matters as much as it does. And coupling the shrinking global supply of the stuff with a rapidly rising global demand for it should give you the absolute willies. Alt-energy will be a luxury for those with foresight, not the basis of an emerging energy economy. And even then it will only be a transitional nicety. In the end, it’s likely that electricity will once again be a novelty, reserved for clever basement tinkerers, or those who have really valuable goods to trade for it. But then, if nobody is manufacturing food processors or replacement parts for your washing machine, what’s the point really?
So what trends can we adopt in our personal lives to minimize the impact of this inevitability? For my part, now four years into my own energy descent pattern, I can report that the general consumption of goods and services in our household has, mostly by choice, declined radically – roughly in the ballpark of 80%. We still drive our car a good bit, and the truck when necessary, but we do it at the expense of plenty of other activities considered normal in American culture (at least for the time being). Four years ago, when my wife and I both commuted to the office, drove company vehicles, and wore blackberries on our hips, our lives were pretty average for Americans. We had a mortgage, a car payment, a second vehicle, retirement accounts, a small fishing boat, cable television, internet service, HVAC, a clothes dryer, dishwasher, microwave, and a fully-stocked wine cooler and liquor cabinet. Today we have none of those things, except the one we consider most important: a second vehicle, a pickup truck. After all, we do live on a farm, and heat our house with wood! It would be tough to bring in firewood from the remote woodlots on the farm in the Camry, and even harder to bring home loads of compost from the cotton gin. A pickup truck is a very useful thing. Cable television is not.
As energy descent progresses in your corner of the world, the value you place on different goods and services will be called into question. You may wish to cash in retirement accounts to buy some land and livestock, since you now view such things as more enduring, less vulnerable forms of wealth; sell the second vehicle; maybe move to or build a smaller, more affordable house, or work out some sort of lease agreement in exchange for labor as we have done. You might decide that it’s finally time to give up cigarettes (best decision I ever made), alcohol, cable, or any other mind-numbing addictions in your life. But you should do it slowly. Cosmetic surgery, where everything is changed abruptly, all at once, requires no discipline, and isn’t the best option. It’s set up for failure from the beginning, and requires too many deep-seated behavioral patterns to change simultaneously. The reason we’re doing this now, before we are absolutely forced by reality to make these modifications, is because we understand that big changes are easier to swallow one at a time. It’s like eating an elephant. It can be done, but not all at once. It’s all about the trend. If the world is moving in a contractionary direction, and you have some realistic idea of what that means for industrial culture, you will understand the need to alter your behavior patterns, probably radically.
But radical behavioral innovation usually comes in pieces. Compared to four years ago, my life today is radically different, but at no time in that process did I do anything insane. Living without AC this past summer, in this climate, was probably the most radical thing we’ve attempted, but the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t all that different from how we lived last summer. It was just the next step. We went deep into the heat of summer without AC last year, before finally caving and turning it on. This year we just didn’t cave. And instead of spending $250 on electricity to run the AC, we spent it on a solar-powered attic fan. See the trend? At the expense of one month’s AC, we purchased an appliance that will help keep us tolerably cooler for decades to come and at no further cost to our energy budget.
You can’t go from the world I described for myself four years ago to where we are today all at once without losing it. That’s why people who are way behind you in the trend tend to get upset at your “unreasonableness.” It seems crazy when confronted all at once because it is! Try to envision giving up alcohol, cigarettes, television, the internet, air conditioning, and most of your appliances in the same day. (OMG!) But since we recognize that global energy peak and the subsequent descent now underway will eventually require most of these changes from everyone, the EASY way to do it, in my opinion, is slowly, and by choice. Move toward using less energy every year. It’s not a bad thing at all when done incrementally.
In fact, you might have noticed that the subtitle of my blog includes “the silver lining of energy descent.” This wasn’t haphazard, nor is it empty fluff. At first glance, indulging in fewer goods and services might seem like a buzz kill to a lot of people, but as you get going it becomes more fun, lighter, and more carefree. Each adaptation increases the simple joy of life. It almost becomes a game, seeing how little energy/consumption you can get by on. Everyone wants a smaller power bill, don’t they? Makes you feel proud. It’s the same with other aspects of life. Except that eventually you stop repurposing the money you saved through conservation towards other goods and services (a la Jevon’s paradox), and start accepting your new-found savings in units of free time in your life. Our total monthly bills are now under $250, including repaying a lingering family debt at the tune of $100/month! And we pay our taxes too! Not to mention carrying a million dollar liability policy on the farmhouse and land we’ve bartered for. Imagine the free time we enjoy, and get to spend with our children, with so little obligation to the formal economy.
Life doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. The unreasonable expectations of our culture have enslaved us all for far too long. Energy descent is as good an excuse to go ahead and set yourself free as there has ever been in human history. (And if you don’t do it slowly by choice you may have to do it quickly against your will instead.) It’s not about how much we don’t make, but rather how much we don’t have to spend. Because we’ve dismissed with most of the rest of society’s obligations, we eat better than just about anyone we know. We have time to read great books, work in the garden, and chase the children around the table before sitting down to lunch together on any given day of the week. It’s true that we accepted unemployment money during the transition from one M.O. to the next, but the important part of this is that we recognized the global energy trend that has now turned against business as usual, redefined our expectations accordingly, moved without hesitation into unfamiliar waters, invested our meager funds in a different model instead of swimming against the current, and found paradise in the process. To the commenter on my last post, it would take something a lot more meaningful than a BMW with heated seats to make me jealous of your situation. Material excess just seems dirty to me these days. In other words, if you could pick me up and stick me back in my comfy little life 4 years ago, when I thought shopping at the farmer’s market, buying grass-fed beef and raw milk was a radical act, it wouldn’t take nearly as long for me to get myself back to where I am today. My soul desperately wants to be here, to continue this journey. We do this slowly because it’s brand new territory, and because it’s natural to be cautious; but now that I know the lay of the land for four years behind me I would sprint full-speed back into the pattern I engaged so tentatively the first time around.
Your children don’t want your money, they want you. And you want them. I don’t want to go to office parties for my retiring cube mates; I want to throw birthday parties for my little ones. I don’t want to go out for lunch; I want to go out to the garden to harvest a bit of whatever is fresh on the planet’s local menu, maybe grab a hunk of local raw milk cheese that smells faintly like my neighborhood. And I don’t see the luxury in importing exotic treats at the expense of clean air and water for my grandchildren. That isn’t love. That’s confusion. And to drive that point home I’ll share a list of the most common dying wishes in American culture:
The top 5 death bed wishes, according to long-time Hospice worker Bronnie Ware, are:
1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2) I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5) I wish that I had let myself be happier.
That’s it. Nowhere in this list will you find any mention of money, or investments, or vacations, or big houses, or BMWs with heated seats. It’s all about being personally happy while we’re here on Earth, about sharing quality time with the people we care about. Personally I’m willing to buck a few societal norms to avoid having the same regrets myself. And, at 8:00 on a typical Monday morning, I just let both of my children know as much when they came into the office where I’m typing for hugs, kisses, knee bounces, and pre-breakfast bananas. From my desk I can see the chickens scratching around in the dewey compost of a misty morning, the horses grazing nearby, an amazing assortment of songbirds flitting around the kitchen garden, and a red-shouldered hawk perched on a fencepost eating something he just caught out in the orchard. I can also see that we need to keep eating the broccoli as the last of it finishes ripening over the next few days. There’s work to do - it’s time to breed the white doe rabbit, the next four oyster mushroom buckets need to be packed, and the garlic, onions, and shallots need to be planted – but there is also time to relax and focus, to study, write, and to contemplate the pattern emerging before us.
Where is my trend headed? Away from abstract representations of wealth – cash, gold, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, so-called “good debt” (as if), and BMWs with heated seats – and toward real ecological wealth like land, livestock, desirable seeds and spores, fertility, fruit trees, high-quality hand tools, strong communities and local economies, a comfortable, low-maintenance house, and a debt-free existence. And the more I follow this trend the better I feel. Peak oil or no.