Energy: Preparations and Possibilities

Last week’s Archdruid Report post sketched out the future that the shortsighted choices and missed opportunities of the last thirty years have made inevitable: a future in which energy of all kinds will be less available, more expensive, and increasingly uncertain with each passing year. At this point in history, that can’t be prevented, and today’s governments are so blinkered by the myth of progress and so beholden to the existing economic order that the chance they’ll pursue a constructive response to our predicament is slim at best. The one remaining option is preparation on the personal, family, and community level.

This offers more possibilities than a casual glance might suggest. One of the many ironies of our present situation is that today’s energy-squandering lifestyles actually give us more room for maneuver as energy supplies decline. Especially in the United States, we waste so much energy on nonessentials that a large fraction of our energy use can be conserved without severely impacting our lives. Consider the suburbanite who mows his lawn with a gasoline-powered mower, and then hops in a car to drive down to the gym to get the exercise he didn’t get mowing his lawn! From Christmas lights and video games to three-hour commutes and Caribbean vacations, most of the absurd extravagance that characterizes energy use in America and other industrial countries only happens because fossil fuel energy has been so cheap so long.

It’s been pointed out many times that the average American uses between two and four times as much energy each year (depending on your choice of estimate) as the average European. It’s much more rarely noted that the standard of living Americans buy with this extravagance isn’t significantly better than the one Europeans enjoy at a quarter of the energy cost. This means the average American could theoretically cut her energy use by up to three-quarters without seriously affecting her standard of living. Most European countries have infrastructure and urban design that supports relatively low-energy lifestyles, while most of America lacks these, so that theoretical possibility isn’t a practical option for most people. Major cuts, though, are well within reach.

Mature technologies and proven lifestyle changes already exist that can save half or more of the energy the average American family uses in the course of a year. Nearly all of them were already on the shelf by the late 1970s. At this point it’s simply a matter of putting them to work. Since most of them require modest investment, and prices for many of the materials involved are likely to soar once energy prices shoot up and conservation becomes a matter of economic survival for all but the very rich, getting them in place as soon as possible is essential.

Let’s start with transportation, the largest single energy use for most Americans. Commuting by private car swallows a majority of most people’s gasoline budget and a very large fraction of their total energy use. Few aspects of today’s American lifestyle are as dysfunctional in a deindustrial world as our habit of driving long distances between home, work, and access to goods and services. After fifty years of car-centered land use planning, getting out of the commuting lifestyle takes careful planning and a willingness to do without certain amenities, but it can certainly be done.

If your present job uses local materials and labor to produce goods or services people need, and thus will still be viable in a deindustrializing world, you need to live within walking or, at most, bicycling distance of your workplace. Otherwise you won’t have a job once shortages hit and commuting becomes impossible. (You won’t be able to rely on public transit, since millions of other people will be trying to use it at the same time you are.) If your present job is like most American employment and produces nothing people actually need, you need to switch to a career producing necessary goods and services, and so you need to live within walking distance of your future workplace and the people who will patronize you—and in either case, you need to be within walking distance of other people who can provide you with goods and services you need.

The best way to manage this is to live in an old-fashioned mixed-use neighborhood that includes homes, small businesses, and public facilities such as schools and libraries, all within easy reach of one another. The neighborhood can be in a rural area, a town, or a small or middle-sized city. It can even be in the sort of old-fashioned suburb that surrounds a small business district or retail core. Moving to such a neighborhood can involve giving up amenities many Americans prefer, but to be frank, you’ll just have to live with that. A lifeboat is more cramped and less comfortable than an ocean liner, but if the liner’s sinking the lifeboat is still a better option.

Don’t let the first wave of crises find you living in a bedroom suburb miles from the nearest shopping or employment, or the sort of lone house or cabin far out in the backwoods that most of today’s survivalists fancy, unless you plan on meeting all your own needs for food, fuel, clothing, health care, police protection, and everything else. As I’ll show in next week’s post, all these things will still be available during the crisis years; supplies will be sporadic and shortages common, but local economies will emerge as the global economy comes apart, and barter and foreign currencies will come into use if the dollar becomes worthless. In the decaying suburbs and the rural periphery, though, none of these things will be within reach, and unless you’ve thoroughly practiced self-sufficiency skills and are willing to embrace a primitive lifestyle, trying to get by in isolation is a one-way ticket to starvation, exposure, and death.

Other aspects of transportation are easily handled, once you can get to essential goods and services on your own feet, and local economies will generate their own transport networks as supply and demand come back into balance. The great challenge will be getting through the first wave of crises, as the commuter economy grinds to a halt and the transitional economy that will replace it struggles to get going. Preparation is essential. For example, the sooner you start commuting on foot, as well as walking to the grocery store and bringing home your purchases in cloth bags or a backpack, the less difficulty you’ll have when this is the only option left.

So much for transportation. Household uses account for most of the remaining energy that people in today’s America actually need, and here the conservation techniques developed during the 20th century and perfected in the 1970s can be put to use. Few of today’s houses have adequate insulation, and little tricks like putting gaskets behind light switch plates and electrical outlets have been all but forgotten since the beginning of the Reagan years. Fixing these things – adding insulation, weatherstripping, storm windows, and the like – can save a great deal of energy. More ambitious steps such as solar hot water heating, passive solar retrofits, earth berms, and the like can also be put to good use. Sweaters, quilts, and other ways of conserving body heat also have their place. While you’re at it, learn to be comfortable with changes in temperature; your great-grandparents got along just fine without air conditioning and central heating, and so will you.

Having a backup source of heat for your home is essential in a future where blackouts and fuel shortages will be a common occurrence. In many cases, a wood stove or fireplace insert will be your best option here, since the fuel can be produced locally. Coppicing and other methods of producing firewood that don’t impact surviving forests will be essential, and a likely growth industry. Using wood as a heating fuel will increase the death rate from asthma, but not doing so will increase the death rate from hypothermia and infectious disease; in the future ahead of us, such bleak tradeoffs will be commonplace.

Other household issues can be dealt with similarly. You’ll need to have at least one backup method of cooking food, and you should be prepared to wash your clothes in the bathtub and take care of other necessities when the power is out or the price soars out of reach. Assess every appliance and amenity you have, and make sure that you can either do the equivalent by hand, using tools you own and know how to use and maintain, or do without it altogether. The time to do that assessment, of course, is now, while the tools you’ll need are readily available.

It’s important to recognize that the benefits of doing these things aren’t limited to the people who do them. The logic here is the same that makes airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else get theirs on; you’re not going to be able to help anyone else survive the crises of the approaching deindustrial age unless you’ve taken care of your own basic needs first. If you’ve already learned the skills and made the adjustments the end of abundant energy requires, you can show other people how to make the same changes. The experience of the 1970s shows that, in the presence of the sort of hard economic incentives rising energy prices bring, many more people will embrace necessary lifestyle changes than not.

The same principle works on a wider scale as well. Critics of conservation programs often point to the Jevons Paradox as an argument against trying to save energy. First described by the 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons, this holds that when new technology allows a resource to be used more efficiently, the amount of the resource being used goes up, not down, because the increased efficiency makes it cheaper compared to alternatives. This is only true, however, when the only limit on using the resource is how much it costs. When the resource itself is running short due to physical limits, increases in efficiency blunt the impact of the shortage by making up some of the shortfall, and prevent the price from rising as far and fast as would otherwise happen.

In the opening years of the deindustrial age, this will be crucial. The longer the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves can be stretched out and used to cushion the decline of industrial civilization, the less traumatic and chaotic the transition will be. Every gallon of gas and kilowatt of electricity that doesn’t have to be spent on household use will be available for trains that bring grain from farms to cities, factories that build wind turbines and solar panels, and a hundred other desperate necessities. The same factors that made gasoline rationing and victory gardens essential during the Second World War will play at least as vital a role in the forced transition to sustainability ahead of us.