How Do We Establish Feasible Sustainable Living?
The peaking of oil extraction and refining appears to be upon humanity. The evidence is quite strong (if you want to follow this story I recommend you regularly read The Oil Drum for news and updates as well as technical reports). Because the cost of oil reflects to a large degree the imbalance between supply and demand, and has been pushing higher for the last several years, this has had a dampening effect on demand and a depressing effect on the economy. Thus, instead of an actual peak due to geophysical issues alone (the basis of the original peak oil theories) and subsequent decline, we are witnessing a bumpy plateau. Demand destruction leads to lower production in response and that means some oil is not being pumped out of the ground that would have been otherwise. But the overall trend is basically the same. Oil production will go down leading to upward pressure on the price we pay for each unit that is pumped. The feedback between the economy and oil production will mean that the process of decline will be stretched out a bit longer.
Nevertheless, oil is now on a depleting slope and however long it takes there is only one direction it can go. Just as problematic for civilization is that oil is the “king pin” energy source for modern industrial society. It takes oil to produce diesel fuel and gasoline, both needed to drive the equipment required for the extraction of other fossil fuels and all other natural resources. Oil is required for agriculture, transportation, and some heating. Natural gas, methane, comes closest to oil in terms of being able to replace oil derivatives for these purposes, but not without extensive retrofitting of the prime movers. That probably isn’t going to happen overnight simply because it will take a significant amount of oil-based energy and materials (lubricants and plastics) to produce the retrofits.
The crux of humanity’s predicament is this: as oil depletes we will find it increasingly necessary to reduce and abandon most of our economic activities as time goes on. Let me be clear about one thing in particular: Even though solar energy and wind, and even nuclear may be ramped up to diversify our energy portfolio, the fact is that none of these can begin to replace fossil fuels as primary energy sources to the degree needed to serve modern society. And that will even be true after we have cut back on all the wastage, discretionary consumption and made the most gains physically possible for efficiency. I realize that the political parties, the pundits, the general press, and just about everybody in the “green” movement (environmentalists and businesses) believe this is possible but they are guilty of wishful thinking. They do not begin to understand the scale of the problem, nor do they grasp that our current fossil fuel basis for industrialization would be needed to subsidize the build-out of all the alternative infrastructure needed. In order to accomplish this in a short enough time frame to make a difference we would have to devote as much as 10-20% of our net energy flow toward that end, not to mention the redirection of other resources and labor. We would more or less have to suspend many of our current economic activities to mount a WWII+ effort in that direction. One has to honestly ask how realistic or feasible is that? Not that we might not try it, when it is obvious that TSHHTF (has hit). But I rather suspect we will probably bring too little, too late, to the effort and end up failing even as we use up precious resources for naught.
Unless some miracle breakthrough in fusion (or some obscure way to do fission without the technical hassles — like radioactive wastes!) comes very soon, the likelihood that humanity will have an energy rich future is practically nil. And here is the real trouble. The current population of humanity on this planet is possible only because of the abundant availability of oil and other fossil fuels. Nothing else can enable so much high powered work to be accomplished in order to produce the abundant food and conveniences of life that OECD countries have been enjoying and developing countries have benefited from secondarily. An end to the flow of oil is an end to modern society. And the decline of the flow of oil is the decline of modern society over the same time scale. It is even possible that social collapse will come sooner due to human’s, who have been spoiled by the riches of oil, freaking out and doing something stupid. What are the chances of that, one might ask?
The simple truth of life is that it takes energy to do work and it takes high powered energy to do work quickly. And it takes a lot of it to do the amount of work we’ve grown used to. It is the work that we have done over the ages when energy flows were increasing that has given us this high-tech society in the OECD nations and that oozes into the developing countries. No energy, no work, no riches. Pretty simple really.
So what will we do? How will we adapt? What kind of society will we be able to have as the energy depletes and work slows down? Those are extraordinarily difficult questions to ponder. More difficult still to answer.
What I propose is to work backward from what an actually sustainable society might look like in some distant time after the adaptation has proceeded. What I will do is start with what we might call a ‘base case’ in which a tribe (village) subsists with non-mechanical technology in a reasonably comfortable life using ancient wisdom to achieve sustainability. Then we will start adding in other forms of energy subsidies from what many people believe, today, will be the salvation of humanity — wind and solar energies.
The Base Case: Low Tech
What might be the minimal requirements for human life that reflects some semblance of civil society and individual dignity? The reason for this question is that we need to start with some minimal acceptable condition as a base case. If we can establish a truly sustainable situation with this base case, we can then start to ask what else, especially in the way of adding back technologically-based conveniences, we can add to the mix. A year ago I wrote a post, “Our Energy Cocoon“, in which I described the exosomatic work that gets done in making our modern lives what they are in terms of a set of concentric rings of energy transformations. The inner ring involved the energies we use individually such as gasoline and home heating. As we progress outward the energies are used by others to provide the infrastructures of our lives, our work places, our grocery stores, etc. Further out still we find the hidden energy flows, the things that happen behind the scenes that we don’t tend to give much thought to but use considerable energies to keep our lives safe and untroubled (generally) by things like the Second Law of Thermodynamics! In the current approach I will start from the very core of the cocoon model and then see what can be added outward from that core.
What does an individual need to live? Certainly adequate food and water intake. A person needs to maintain a fairly narrow band of body temperature, so for any but the equatorial tropics, this means shelter and clothing. These constitute what Abraham Maslow calls the physiological needs (see: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). But next up on the hierarchy comes ‘safety’, that is the security of knowing where sustenance is coming from, of having others around to provide backup and help provision where the individual might not be able to do for himself. So basic needs involve more than eating and drinking. Something like a tribe is needed to provide a social framework. Well that is exactly the situation that Homo sapiens evolved within so it isn’t surprising to learn that “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe…” (John Donne, Meditation XVII).
Maslow’s hierarchy continues upward with ‘love and belonging’ needs. It isn’t enough that we are surrounded by other competent humans that can help us out. We need to have feelings for them and know that they have feelings for us. Perhaps this is a more evolved version of safety, but it is a definite felt need. Next above love comes ‘esteem’. We need to feel good about ourselves. We need to think that we are worthy and that others see us as worthy. We need to see ourselves as contributing usefully to our social group. We need to be needed. And at the apex of the hierarchy we find the need to ‘self-actualize’, to realize a sense of freedom to create and explore, a spiritual wholeness that is the basis for happiness.
So if we are to construct a base case in which human needs are fulfilled, where life is worth living, we must start with these as the minimum requirements.
Note that nowhere in this description of human needs do we see something like the need for Monday Night Football, or a Mercedes. We don’t find caviar in the list. Nor, importantly, do we run into iPodsTM or iPadsTM. You won’t even find the Internet or the World Wide Web in this hierarchy. In other words, we humans can actually achieve self-actualization without these things. There is no question that all of these kinds of things have made life for many more enjoyable, at times. But then, the other side of the coin is that many of those same people found themselves working harder and longer hours at less than satisfying jobs so as to be able to afford them. In the long run, probably not a great trade-off.
Thus we arrive at a basis for starting our analysis. Tribes, in prehistoric times, may have generally consisted of between 100 and 150 individuals in extended families (perhaps several somewhat related families). Later villages may have extended this number to around 300 to 400 but rarely more than that. It becomes impossible for an individual to have close personal relations (good or bad) with a large number of other individuals. It wasn’t until the advent of agriculture that we start seeing larger villages, say over 1,000 in population. So let us assume that a workable base case would be to support 500 individuals, each of whom has the opportunity to reach self-actualization for an extended period of life. Like good physicists we will ignore extraneous factors for the moment. We will hold climate reasonably constant for this analysis.
What will it take to sustain 500 individuals in a manner that will allow them to achieve self-actualization, to fulfill their basic human needs?
Life is based on the influx of solar energy over an extended area of land. The food chain (of which we will assume humans to be the top consumer) is based on photosynthesis at the base. Assuming a moderate climate, adequate water, soils rich in nutrients, and a reasonable growing season, with photosynthesis generally running around not much more than 3-6% efficient the total amount of biomass produced per unit of time, the net primary productivity (NPP), will be the constraining factor in determining land requirements at local levels of solar insolation. In order to provide a diversity of NPP forms, food, wood, fiber, etc. the territory will need to be large and varied in composition.
As indicated above, the principal form of energy influx will be real-time solar energy. By real-time I mean the daily insolation that contributes to primary productivity. Humans have to eat daily to keep living and acting in the world, but plants grow slowly and not all biomass is edible. Therefore, large territorial regions are needed to support even small populations of humans without degrading the environment. Trees, a source of building materials as well as extrasomatic fuel are required in the territory to supplement heating needs. The basic problem is to trace the conversion of sunlight into usable food and other biomass resources for a specific locale to work backward to see how much land is needed to collect that much solar energy for five hundred, or so, people.
But it isn’t just the cultivated land area that we have to consider. Humans need to have water in a regularly flowing, cleansed form. This is accomplished in nature through the hydrological cycle powered by the sun producing rain in highland areas that are covered with trees and understory plants. An ideal human settlement will be at the base of an elevated region acting as a watershed and providing cleansed water flow. Moreover, the flow of a stream or river from elevation is another source of energy that might be used directly for human purposes. More later on this.
The cultivatable areas require soils of a high quality capable of sustained permaculture practices. To maintain soil in its optimal state requires either the import of organic and nutrient materials (e.g. nitrogen in a form that can be taken up by plants) or recycling of these systemically. Soil management is one of the first forms of technology and knowledge that needs to be understood and used. The most conservative approach is to assume the need for recylcling of nutrients locally. This is not easy to accomplish in practice so careful thought is required to ensure its achievement.
Climate and Rainfall
As noted, the territory must be situated in a region with stable climate and adequate rainfall in the watershed. The former requirement is being complicated by the fact of climate change due to global warming. I have some thoughts on how to enjoy some stability but it will need further research to realize. The latter requirement is, of course, complicated by the former situation. To some degree these unknown variables might be mitigated by adjustment of the territory size, assuming the other considerations (requirements) have been met.
Building Materials and Fibers
To live comfortably means adequate shelter and protection from the elements. The local natural (endemic) species of trees and grasses will need to supply these. They will need to be endemic because support for non-native species often requires extensive artificial inputs because those species are not well adapted to the local conditions.
Building materials will also include local clays and rocks. This is another reason for locating a territory at the base of a mountainous region.
As a complement to and backup for permaculture-based food production, the territory should have a relatively high biodiversity in animal life
This figure summarizes some of the above considerations for the conditions needed to support a small society sustainably. It represents what amounts to necessary and sufficient conditions for life that provides opportunities for all members of the community to achieve self-actualization (and meet all of the lower needs) and is sustainable for an indefinite period (until the environment shifts so badly as to make life difficult or invaders arrive).
That is, life will be sustainable as long as the population is maintained at the relatively constant average of, say, 500 individuals. This is the most difficult condition. We humans, as constituted, are not very good at exercising controls over our sexual and, hence, reproductive urges. And unless we were to learn to do so, this potential for long-term sustainability will remain elusive.
Primitive (but more “advanced”) Technologies
By primitive I mean that the principles come from very ancient times. That does not mean that the technologies have to be primitive in form, they may be updated in realization based on our more advanced knowledge. For example, I indicate in the figure that there is a built reservoir of water by assuming that a dam structure has been built downstream from a more elevated watershed. We know a lot about effective dam building these days. We also know how to use materials more effectively. I suspect that a very effective dam could be built to contain a reservoir of water for many purposes, including running water in the homes and “factories”, perhaps even flushing toilets!
One of the earliest technologies of agriculture was water management, not just the irrigation canals themselves, but the organization of how they should be laid out, constructed, and maintained. Management is a form of technology, knowledge as technology. We know a lot about what needs to be done and how to do it, even without fossil fuels. Much of this knowledge is currently being implemented in developing countries to boost agricultural output.
Similarly we know a huge amount today about how to design a village of living quarters, shops, factories, and schools — a village. We can borrow a lot from many European and Asian villages. But we know a great deal today about sanitation and public health that could help develop livable communities near enough to all resources that transportation could be accomplished with animal and human resources alone. We know a tremendous amount about building construction and thermodynamics to produce optimal structures from local building materials as long as we are modest in our desires.
Regarding factories, the models are the early 19th century blacksmith shops and weaving factories (with a potter’s wheel thrown in for good measure). It is altogether likely that most of our material goods will need to be manufactured locally from locally obtained raw materials. The situation for blacksmithing is problematic. Where will the metals come from?
Metal is a problem. It is highly unlikely that every tribe will have access to metal ores. It is even unlikely that any tribe will! Therefore, I assume that a certain quantity of metal has been imported at the start from scavenges of metal products left over from our current metal-rich civilization. Metal is not verboten in the base case. But it must be recognized that whatever metal is available to a tribe at the outset pretty much constitutes its total allotment and must be recycled assiduously (more on this later).
The picture I am trying to develop here is one of a civilization not unlike some of our ancestral ones, before fossil fuels, but with the advantage of knowledge (both scientific and practical) that we have developed since those societies existed. We (in the US) may live like our pre-Columbian predecessors (I claim a 1/100 ancestry of Native American blood!) but with a lot of advantages of hard-won scientific knowledge. For example we know about climate shifts and their consequences. We know about soil health and how to maintain it. We know about metals and the principle of leverage in machines. Take the best of the Native American cultures, the pre-Industrial Revolution European cultures, the Asian cultures of wisdom, the ancient civilizations of the Mid-East, etc. and combine them along with modern scientific understanding and you have a formula for good living, in my opinion.
Those people were not unhappy! They may have been unsatisfied in some regards. They were constantly challenged by all sorts of factors from invaders to climate changes. But they lived. They were productive. Were it otherwise we would not be here. We need to learn from their experiences and shape our future based on their successes along with the reality of energy flow declines in our world.
The real trick is to find a satisfying existence with knowledge of what is possible, what is feasible, and what is good for us in the long run. That, unfortunately is a real trick because the majority of humans today are incompetent when it comes to good judgements (see my series on sapience, Series Index, to get my thoughts on why this is so). Ergo, the kind of living situation I have been describing is not necessarily available to the average human today. Ah well, that is perhaps left to a future blog post.
In Harmony With the Ecos
The key will be understanding the Ecos as a system and our place in it. This is not easy. We have a heritage of belief that we humans have somehow transcended ordinary physics and biology. This is deeply engrained within our psyches and so it won’t be easy to expunge. But it is essential to do so for there to be any future for something we would recognize as humanity.
How should we think about so-called “advanced technology” and its role in our societies in post-fossil fuel powering of our future? Consider the village described above. What would it take to support something like hydroelectric power? Clearly, if the society in this scenario has built a dam they have the potential to include hydroelectric generation. Say, for example, that such a community, before the rest of civilization broke down, had the presence of mind to install a small hydro-driven turbine and generator. Then after civilization collapsed how would they maintain the generator and replace it when it finally gave up the ghost? They would have to have some capacity for metallurgy, for shaping and forming metals, for constructing other electric components, etc. A blacksmith shop is not going to fill the bill.
This raises the main problem with keeping an extrasomatic technology going after fossil fuels are no longer available. Rebuilding a hydro-turbine and generator (not to mention the general infrastructure for distribution) at some future time is not a trivial problem. We might be able to preserve the knowledge of how to do it, but keeping the capabilities for doing so is another thing. Such capabilities will require maintaining metallurgics that are, themselves, complex and need dedicated skills and facilities. What are the possibilities for having more advanced technologies?
Here we meet the real conundrum for humanity. We have defined ourselves in terms of our capacity to solve problems with ever increasing technologies. For the majority of our existence this has been our experience and has come to represent our deepest beliefs about ourselves. Unfortunately, this belief is based on something entirely different from our cleverness at the root. We have been the unsuspecting recipients of the benefits of the increasing flow of high powered energy from fossil fuels. We are beneficiaries of expanding energy flow, not from some magical ability to conquer the universe with cleverness. But being basically self-indulgent beings, we told ourselves the story of progress based on our own superior intelligence. We were kind of dumb as it turns out.
What technology is possible with no real extrasomatic energies than water power and solar energy? That is a real problem for us. Suppose we were to introduce wind power into our model community. Suppose that we install wind turbines that can take advantage of the prevailing winds (see figure). Suppose we install electricity distribution infrastructure (based on DC current to be very efficient). How will our community produce the needed materials for repairs of those generators (and turbines)? More importantly, how will they provide for replacements? That is the crux of technological capabilities. It requires energy flux to support maintenance and replacement. If our model society were to install a hydroelectric generator how would it maintain and replace it when the time came, as it would? The support for technology requires high powered energy flows. That is what we have enjoyed for most of humanity’s experience. But that is not what we are going to have in the near future.
The fact that it might be impossible for future societies as conceived above to actually take advantage of technology as it has been developed by modern high-energy society doesn’t mean that such technological knowledge is worthless for all time. In fact, one of the critical purposes of society after the decline and loss of fossil fuels will be to preserve knowledge of what is possible with high through-put energy fluxes. We have fought hard to acquire this knowledge and I don’t want to believe it was in vain.
The world of humanity is a history of advancement and decline. Golden ages followed by Dark Ages in which some seed of enlightenment was preserved by diligence. I hope the future will have that same characteristic. Those of us who see what needs to be done in terms of preserving some kind of civilized culture (even if not high tech in nature) have a duty to future generations of what I think will be a more sapient form of humanity. We need to transmit knowledge that was gained by our kind. Even if life seemingly devolves to more primitive social forms we need to fulfill the role of the monks in the Dark Ages, faithfully copying the understanding of this age to some future eusapient generation able to pick up where we left off, but without the weaknesses that we have displayed. Let’s prepare and hope.
More Complex Societies and the Future of Mankind
It is nearly certain that the time of complex societies is at an end, at least for a long time into the future. Until there is some form of energy flux that can replace fossil fuels in such a way as to replace the high power and support a technologially advanced civilization again, I think we should have the wisdom to accept simpler and more sustainable societies along the lines described above. It is possible that if humans can achieve a more eusapient future and survive the coming challenges, then we might yet produce a high technology civiilization, complete with travel to space and the stars and all the dreams that we have given voice to over the last milenium. There is nothing wrong with those dreams. The only problem is with our eagerness to achieve them and the consequent loss of understanding of what it takes to do so. There are energies that we, as a species, have yet to tap into. The universe is still full of promise. But all things in their own time and ways. It is not yet our genus’ time. We have lessons yet to learn. If we succeed the future species evolved from our seed may yet reach the stars.
See also Sapience and Three Books That Could Save Your Life