Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Energy self-sufficiency and externalities

This post was inspired by three inputs.

1. A couple of weeks ago--just a week and a half after we returned from southeast Asia--Sarita and I went out to Virginia to visit our daughter and son-in-law and listen to a man who has been pursuing a practical life philosophy of (what I have learned is called) Permaculture.

I actually first heard Mark Shepard back in early December when I attended the Acres USA 2010 Conference in Indianapolis. He advocated an approach to agriculture that resonated with me. Being somewhat of a marketer/editor, I proposed a slight reordering of the four words that captured my attention and offered him an acronym for how he summarizes his philosophy.

He said he tries to follow a policy of STUN: Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect. Once he has planted a perennial tree, shrub or bush, he wants it to survive on its own with minimal or, preferably, no further inputs or involvement on his or anyone else's part . . . except to harvest whatever crop it may produce.

Two months before I attended his lecture, I had mentioned to an apple tree nurseryman that that was my goal and he told me it was impossible. "John," he wrote to me, "farming, especially fruit-farming, requires heavy investment of oneself--commitment to the task and to the lifestyle. In all my years, I have known of only two operations that depended on 'part-time staff' that were successful. Growing fruit [successfully] requires attention throughout the year -- spraying, pruning, mowing, marketing, etc."

And here was Mark telling me how he has sought--at massive personal sacrifice, I might add!--to break that cycle.

I imagine I will say more about Mark, his philosophy, and, most importantly, his practice, in days to come.

What I want to mention here is his pursuit of energy and water independence. He and his wife have been living off-grid for 23-some years--8 years on their homesteads in Alaska, and for the last 15 years on a farm in Wisconsin. Last year, for the first time, in order to meet government requirements for a food processing plant they wanted to build on their farm, they hooked up the food processing plant to the grid. But for their own use, in their home, they work off of solar and wind energy. And, I imagine--though we didn't discuss it--some wood burning as well.

As I say, that was a couple of weeks ago.

2. About four days ago, a friend of ours, knowing of our interest in and movement toward a more "natural," farm-oriented life, gave us a copy of a special Mother Earth News Guide to Country Skills.

Inside, there was a fascinating/disturbing story called "Choosing Renewable Energy" by a couple who determined to make their home in Ontario, Canada, energy self-sufficient.

I was stunned by a couple of the things they said. Especially what he said about a significant mistake they made--he made--when they first started down the path.

"[M]y focus was on generating our own electricity at least partly because I was interested in the technologies," he said.
I resisted advice that the first thing we should do is analyze our electrical consumption, a task I found boring and unrewarding. I wanted to be the builder of an exotic system, not a parsimonious bean-counter with clipboard and calculator. This urge to obsess about electrical generating equipment rather than first changing our energy patterns was a mistake.

I console myself with the knowledge that it is a near-universal trait of home energy newbies. Any solar and wind power dealer will tell you that the first task with new clients is to talk them out of their preconceived and wildly incorrect impressions about living with renewables.

His wife explains:
Conventional energy is ever-present, so easy and relatively cheap as to render it almost invisible. It takes no more effort than flipping a switch, spinning a dial or turning an ignition key. The upshot is that energy use has remained a largely unexamined activity in our everyday lives.
By contrast, when this couple switched to renewable energy, they found themselves
spending a lot of time thinking about energy, which seems to be the way of life for most renewable energy users. We check meters, adjust our tasks to the available energy and negotiate with each other whose task is more worthy of the power.

And then this last item.

3. Last night I began watching A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash.

Early in the film--about five minutes in--one of the interviewees comments,
One barrel of oil, the refined product of which--42 gallons of gasoline--you can buy for a little over $100, will produce as much energy, as much work, as you will get from 12 people working all year for you.
Put another way, by another interviewee:
It would take an average man, performing physical labor for 25,000 hours, to produce the amount of energy that is contained in that one barrel of oil. That barrel of oil, if it is pulled out of the ground in Iraq, can be pulled out of the ground for $1. You invest $1 and you get back 25,000 hours of human labor! That energy source is so dense, it's essentially free energy.
Yeah. That's the way it appears. Except it's clearly not.

There are massive "external costs" or "externalities," as economists like to call them.

Conclusion. The problem with most modern agriculture--and all annual agriculture, according to Mark Shepard--is the externalities. Societies throughout history have consistently ignored them . . . to their own eventual destruction.

Look at all the great civilizations of the past, Shepard urges us. Take a look at the hulks of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, North Africa, the Mediterranean. You see these remains of massive buildings sitting in the midst of deserts. Perhaps those hulks should serve as warnings to us.

Those buildings used to sit in the midst of the most verdant, fruitful places on earth.

What happened?

The soils became depleted. They became salted. They could no longer support the intensive agriculture that had been placed upon them. Why? Because no one was counting the full costs.

The same is happening today.

And it just struck me: What the couple in the Mother Earth News Guide to Country Skills say makes perfect sense. As a society, we need to begin spending a lot more time thinking about our food and energy. We need to begin "checking our meters," adjust our tasks and eating habits to match the real requirements, the real costs, internal and external, short- and long-term.
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