Master Conservers

For those of us who have been watching the energy scene for the last few decades, there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from the daily fare on the peak oil newsblogs. Once the conservation and appropriate tech movements of the 1970s collapsed beneath the weight of the falling oil prices of the 1980s, it became highly unfashionable to question the theory that the market economy could extract infinite resources from a finite planet.

During the quarter century of extravagant waste that followed, conventional wisdom across the industrial world’s political and cultural spectrum insisted that turning sows' ears into silk purses was not merely possible, but a great investment opportunity that would drive a bigger and shinier global economy than the one we already had. A very short time ago, it bears remembering, the suggestion that crude oil might cost more than $60 a barrel within this decade was roundly dismissed as preposterous alarmism, while the grim prospects of economic decline and global famine raised by concerned voices in the Seventies were so far off the radar screens that nobody even bothered to denounce them.

A glance down the leading stories on Energy Bulletin or The Oil Drum makes a tolerably good indicator of how far we’ve come from that comfortable consensus. Today a widely used measure of crude oil prices broke $111, after recovering from a sharp selloff a few weeks back that took it down all the way to the upper $90s. Meanwhile the energy sources and technological breakthroughs that were supposed to come on line once oil hit $30, or $40, or $50 a barrel are still nowhere to be seen.

The wider picture is no more encouraging. Crippling electricity shortages outside the industrial world are starting to play hob with a global economy that depends on Third World factories to produce First World amenities. Likewise, the blowback from US energy policies that poured a fifth of the American corn harvest into ethanol is sending grain prices soaring worldwide, raising the unwelcome prospect that millions of the poor around the planet may not be able to buy enough food to survive the coming months. Barring some improbable deus ex machina that comes along in time to bail us out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves, it’s fair to say, the limits to growth are back.

Up to this point the political leaders of the world’s industrial nations have had very little to offer in response to all this. Most seem to think that the advice allegedly given to Victorian brides on their wedding nights – “Close your eyes and think of England” – counts as a proactive energy policy. Eventually they will have to think of a better response, if only because political survival does have its appeal. Food riots in Haiti and Egypt are one thing, but when the price of food and gasoline starts putting serious pressure on the American and European middle classes, expect politicians to trip over one another in the rush to respond to the crisis.

Many of the resulting policies and programs will be counterproductive, and even more of them will be useless. In most of the nations of the industrial world, politics has long since devolved into a spoils system whereby different factions of the political class buy the loyalty of pressure groups among the electorate by a combination of ideological handwaving and unearned largesse. As long as that remains in place – and it has proven enormously durable, surviving wars, revolutions, and massive economic changes – a very large fraction of the responses proposed to this or any other crisis will be aimed at pushing ideological agendas or rewarding voting blocs rather than actually doing anything about the crisis.

Still, it’s by no means impossible that some constructive changes might come out of the approaching mess. We have, after all, a resource at hand that, while rarely recognized, has a great deal to offer: we have been here before, during the energy crises and resource shortages of the Seventies. Some of the projects launched in those days turned out to be expensive flops, but others have more to offer. I’d like to talk a bit about one of these.

I have no idea how common this is outside the West Coast, but out here state and county agricultural extension services launched Master Gardener programs some years ago. Staffed by volunteers, many of them retirees with a lifetime of gardening experience, and run on a shoestring budget, these programs train and certify people to field gardening questions that would otherwise clutter up the ag extension phone lines. In the small Oregon town where I live, you can find a Master Gardener’s booth at the local farmers market every Tuesday, staffed by a brace of volunteers who will happily help you figure out what’s chewing on your cabbages or what soil amendments your blueberries need.

Soaring garbage disposal costs a while back led to the birth of a second project on the same lines, the Master Composter program. Less visible than the Master Gardeners, the Master Composters have mostly concentrated on teaching people how to set up backyard compost bins and take their yard waste and kitchen scraps out of the waste stream. When I lived in Seattle in the years right around the turn of the millennium, the city government helped the Master Composters out to the extent of giving away free compost bins to anybody who attended their classes; the reduction in garbage disposal costs was substantial enough that this made economic sense.

The late Seventies and early Eighties, though, saw the birth and abandonment of another project of the same sort: the Master Conserver program. I was one of some hundreds of people, ranging from teenagers to retirees, who attended weekly classes in the auditorium of the old downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. We studied everything from basic thermodynamics to the fine details of storm window installation. Those who completed the curriculum took an exam, then put in at least a minimum number of hours of volunteer work helping schools, churches, nonprofits, and elderly and poor homeowners retrofit for energy conservation, to receive their Master Conserver certificate. I still have mine, tucked away in a drawer, much the way old soldiers I’ve known kept medals from the wars of their youth.

Could such a program be put back to work by local governments in the face of the approaching energy crisis? You bet. A quarter century of further experience with the Master Gardener and Master Composter programs on county and state levels would make it child’s play to organize; the information isn’t hard to find, and the dismal level of energy efficiency common in recently built houses and the like could make a Master Conserver program a very useful asset as energy prices climb and the human cost rises accordingly.

For that matter, I can’t be the only Master Conserver from those days who still has all the class handouts from the program in a battered three-ring binder, or who keeps part of a bookshelf weighed down with classic conservation books – The Integral Urban House, The Book of the New Alchemists, Rainbook, and the like. I don’t quite remember anybody in the last days of the program saying “Keep your Whole Earth catalogs, boys, the price of oil will rise again!” Still, the sentiment was there.

More generally, of course, the experiences of any of the 20th century’s more difficult periods can be put to work constructively as we move deeper into the 21st century’s first major crisis. The victory gardens and ingenious substitutions that kept the home front functioning during the Second World War are another potential source of ideas and inspiration well worth a sustained look. Still, the experiences of the Seventies offer a particularly rich resource in this regard. Close enough to the present to be part of living memory for many people, and faced with the same basic challenge of too little energy, too few resources, and too much economic instability for an overheated and overextended industrial world, it parallels our present predicament too closely to be neglected.

One crucial lesson from that decade may be particularly worth keeping in mind. In the depths of the Seventies energy crisis, the conventional wisdom had it that energy would just keep on getting more costly as a lasting Age of Scarcity dawned over the industrial world. That didn’t happen, of course. I’ve suggested elsewhere, based on the way other civilizations have fallen in the past, that the end of the industrial age will trace out a stairstep decline, with periods of crisis and breakdown punctuated by periods of partial recovery.

This has its drawbacks, but it also offers the hope of breathing spaces in which the lessons of each time of crisis can be assessed and put to use in dealing with the next. By the time we start on the downward arc following the one we’re approaching just now, with any luck, the Master Conservers of that time will have the accumulated knowledge of a second round of crises to draw on, and may be able to make the transition to lower energy use a little less rough than the one that looms before us today.