Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A silver lining to this mess?

It’s evident to me and many others that the lifestyles we are accustomed to living are unsustainable and therefore will cease to exist. That is the definition of unsustainable, by the way, that which cannot be sustained. While a subject that creates much fretting, wailing and gnashing of teeth, there could be a silver lining to our excessive living arrangements.

We (Americans) enjoy excesses, far more than necessary to provide essential needs, unlike some others on this planet. We can afford to do without some of this shit and still live meaningful lives.

This is a subject I often ponder as I watch people drive endlessly, as planes crisscross the sky above, people text and talk on phones or stare blankly into the glare of computer screens. How much of this is actually necessary to sustain life?

The answer is one few want to hear: Very little.

I came across a most excellent interview today that addresses these issues. Chris Martenson interviews Nate Hagens, one of the great minds of our time in my less than humble opinion. A few excerpts from the transcript:


We now use more corn to create ethanol than we do for food. And we produce about a million barrels of ethanol a year. Each of those barrels, of course, has, because of the BTU content, a lot less energy than a barrel of oil, around 70%. So we’re using half of our corn supply to produce one million barrels of ethanol, when we use nineteen million barrels a day of oil.

I know that you are also a student of E.F. Schumacher. In Small is Beautiful, he talks about what real wealth is: Wealth is our primary capital; our trees and our rivers. And secondary capital is what we do with that; turn things into lumber and tractors, etc. And then tertiary capital is stocks and bonds and derivatives of that. So I think we have focused too much on the tertiary measures of our wealth, when they’re really just markers. And these financial markers have far outpaced our real capital. And that is kind of the elephant in the room, in our conversations about the economy in the future, that people are ignoring. They just assume that the dollars are the real markers.

...Well, look, we consume, the average American, around 230,000 kilocalories a day of energy. The body itself consumes about 2,500 to 3,000 of those, endosmotically, within the body. So exosmotically, outside of the body, we consume 99% of our energy footprint. So if Peak Oil is upon us, or any issue with coal or natural gas, or the main fossil pixie dust that has subsidized our lifestyle for the last century, if that stuff declines twenty or thirty or even forty percent, it’s not like we’re literally out of calorie availability. It’s just that our system is built on all this decadence and industry and trade and cross border transfers; it has all been built on a model that can’t continue. What’s going to break first is people’s expectations of what they own, the digits in the bank, and all of the financial claims. But those are just digits, they’re abstract digits. The day that a financial system would be disrupted, nothing happens physically.

So I think if we drop our energy consumption quite a bit, nothing has to change other than our supply chains and the way that goods and medicine and water and sanitation and all that get to the cities and towns and states. That has to be deeply thought about on a national level. But I’m optimistic - if we were sitting here and the average American used 10,000 calories a day of total energy, and we needed 3,000 for our bodily functions to continue, that would be a real problem, because there wasn’t much extra. But we have a huge amount of energy relative to what we need.

There’s much more in the Hagens’ interview. Take the time to listen or read it if you can.

Distilled, it comes down to this: Energy supplies and other natural resources are diminishing. Our economic system is based on perpetual growth, an impossiblity, and will fail. Continuing to live as we now do therefore is impossible. But we misallocate and waste the majority of energy and resources we use, so there’s room to change and survive, if we find the will to do so before change is forced upon us.

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