Salvaging Energy

The peak oil blogosphere this year seems to have decided that the Fourth of July needed a Grinch of its own to compete with Christmas, and a fair number of blogs duly went up denouncing the day and its entertainments. I can’t say that these added much to the peak oil dialogue or, really, to much of anything. It’s hardly a secret, for instance, that intellectuals on the two coasts like to belittle working class people who live in between, nor that it’s still quite fashionable on both ends of the political spectrum to characterize our system of government in terms that would get those who do so dragged away by a death squad if their rhetoric had any relationship to reality.

Me, I enjoyed the Fourth; I usually do. My wife and I spent a quiet day gardening, dined on chicken fried tofu – hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it – and walked down to the city park that runs along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, where we met friends, munched watermelon, and watched the annual fireworks display. The Fourth of July is one of the high points of any small town American summer, and I’m also sufficiently old-fashioned to celebrate the ideals that sent this country along its historical trajectory all those years ago. Since the United States is a country inhabited and governed by people rather than abstract ideological mannequins, those ideals got put into practice no more consistently than any other country’s, but they’ve lost none of their relevance, and I’d be a good deal less worried about the future of my country if I saw more people paying attention to them and fewer people waving them aside as obstacles to the pursuit of some allegedly glorious future.

The theme of this week’s post isn’t primarily about the future, glorious or otherwise. Strictly speaking, it’s a response to circumstances that will almost certainly go away within the lifetimes of people now living, and only exist today in those few nations that can afford the overblown consumer economy that budded, bloomed, and went to seed in the second half of the twentieth century. That response, curiously enough, has more than a little to do with the theme of independence central to the holiday just past, but the easiest way to make sense of it is to start with the nearly complete state of dependence expressed by another fashionable topic under discussion in the peak oil scene.

That topic is the return of electric cars to American roads. A dozen large and small automakers are in the process of bringing out battery-powered cars of various kinds, ranging from generic compacts like the Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf to more exotic items like the Aptera and the GEM. Most of them are pricey, and all of them have their share of drawbacks, mostly in terms of range and reliability, but a significant fraction of people on the green end of things are hailing their appearance as a great step forward. As things stand, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, since almost all the electricity these vehicles use will be generated by burning coal and natural gas, and the easy insistence that the grid can easily be switched over to solar and wind power has already been critiqued at some length in this blog. Still, there are a couple of other points that would be well worth making here.

First of all, of course, the best way to reduce your ecological footprint isn’t to replace a petroleum-powered car with an electric car, it’s to replace it with a bicycle, a public transit ticket, or a good pair of walking shoes. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned that option, and I know I can expect to be belabored by commenters who are bursting with reasons why they can’t possibly do without a car, or even leave the car parked in the driveway most of the time. Granted, the built geography of much of rural and suburban North America makes it a little challenging to do without a car, but something close to a hundred million people in the United States live in places where a car is a luxury most or all of the time, and a significant fraction of the others choose to live in places where that’s not the case. Still, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that the one energy-related bumper sticker that might actually make a difference these days would belong on the back of a bicycle, and would say MY OTHER CAR IS A PAIR OF SHOES. For those Americans who actually do find themselves in need of a car, how about the new electric vehicles? Will they really decrease your carbon footprint and your fossil fuel use, as so much current verbiage claims?

The answer is unfortunately no. First of all, as already mentioned, the vast majority of electricity in America and elsewhere comes from coal and natural gas, and so choosing an electric car simply means that the carbon dioxide you generate comes out of a smokestack at a power plant rather than the tailpipe of your car. The internal combustion engine is an inefficient way of turning fuel into motion – around 3/4 of the energy in a gallon of gas becomes low-grade heat dumped into the atmosphere via the radiator, leaving only a quarter to keep you rolling down the road – but the processes of turning fossil fuel into heat and heat into electricity, storing the electricity in a battery and extracting it again, and then turning the electricity into motion is less efficient still, so you’re getting less of the original fossil fuel energy turned into distance traveled than you would in an ordinary car. This means that you’d be burning more fossil fuel to power your car even if the power plant was burning petroleum, and since it isn’t – and coal and natural gas contain much less energy per unit of volume than petroleum distillates do – you’re burning quite a bit more fossil fuel, and dumping quite a bit more carbon in the atmosphere, than a petroleum-powered car would do.

This isn’t something you’ll see discussed very often in e-car websites and sales flyers. It’s even less likely that you’ll find any mention there of the second factor that needs to be discussed, which is the energy cost of manufacture. An automobile, petroleum-powered or electric, is a very complicated piece of hardware, and every part of it comes into being through a process of manufacture that starts at an assortment of mines, oil wells, and the like, and proceeds through refineries, factories, warehouses, and assembly plants, linked together by long supply chains via train, truck or ship. All this costs energy. Working out the exact energy cost per car would be a huge project, since it would involve tracking the energy used to produce and distribute every last screw, drop of solvent, etc., but it’s probably safe to say that a large fraction of the total energy used in a car’s lifespan is used up before the car reaches the dealer. Electric cars are as subject to this rule as petroleum-powered ones.

The energy cost of manufacture has generally been downplayed in discussions of energy issues, where it hasn’t been banished altogether to whichever corner of the outer darkness it is that provides a home for unwanted facts. (I’ve long suspected that this is not too far from “Away,” the place where pollution goes in the parallel universe that cornucopians apparently inhabit.) Promoters of the more grandiose end of alternative-energy projects – the solar power satellites and Nevada-sized algae farms that crop up so regularly when people are trying to ignore the reality of ecological limits – are particularly prone to brush aside the energy cost of manufacture with high-grade handwaving, but the same sort of evasion pervades nearly all thinking about energy these days. I’ve mentioned before that three centuries of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy have imposed lasting distortions on the modern mind; this is an example.

Still, factor in the energy cost of manufacture, and there actually is an answer to the question we’ve just been considering. If you really feel you have to have a car, what kind involves the smallest carbon footprint and the least overall energy use? A used one.

I suppose it’s just possible that one or two of the readers of this blog will remember a strange and politically edgy comic strip from the Sixties named Odd Bodkins. The rest of you will just have to forgive a bit of relevant reminiscence here. Somewhere between an encounter with the dreaded Were-Chicken of Petaluma and a journey to Mars with Five Dollar Bill, I think it was, the Norton-riding main character, Hugh, and his sidekick Fred the Bird had a run-in with General Injuns – the resemblance to the name of a certain large American automotive corporation was not accidental. I forget what it was that inspired Fred the Bird to shout “Buy a used car!” but the General’s response – “BLASPHEMY!!!” – was memorably rendered, and will probably be duplicated in a good many of the responses to this week’s blog. Most people in the industrial world nowadays are so used to thinking of the best option as new and shiny by definition, that the homely option of picking up a cheap used car as a way of saving energy is likely to offend them at a cellular level.

Still, the energy cost of manufacture needs to be taken into account. If you buy a used car – let’s say, for the sake of argument, a ten-year-old compact with decent gas mileage – instead of a new electric car, you’ve just salvaged the energy cost of manufacture that went into the used car, most of which would otherwise have been wasted, and saved all the energy that would have been spent to produce, ship, and assemble every part of the new car. Since it’s a ten-year-old compact rather than a brand new e-car, furthermore, you’re not going to be tempted to drive it all over the place to show everyone how ecologically conscious you are; in fact, you may just be embarrassed enough to leave it in your driveway when you don’t actually need it, thus saving another good-sized chunk of energy. Finally, of course, the price difference between a brand new Nissan Leaf and a ten-year-old compact will buy you a solar water heating system, installation included, with enough left over to completely weatherize an average American home. It’s a win-win situation for everything but your ego.

The same principle can be applied much more broadly. Very few people, for example, actually need a new computer. I’ve never owned one; I need a computer to make my living – publishers these days require book manuscripts to be submitted electronically – but I get my computers used, free or at a tiny fraction of their original price, and run them until they drop. One consequence is that I’ve salvaged the energy used in manufacturing the old computer, rather than burdening the planet with the energy cost of manufacturing a new one; another is that I’m keeping a small but measurable amount of toxic e-waste out of the waste stream; still another, of course, is that I save quite a bit of money that can then be directed to other purposes, such as insulation and garden tools.

Most Americans buy most of the things they used new, and dump a great many perfectly useful items into the trash; the more conscientious package them up and donate them to thrift stores, which is at least a step in the right direction. As a society, we have been able to afford this fixation and its attendant costs – new houses, new cars, new computers, new everything – because we’ve been surfing a tidal wave of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy. As we get further into the territory on the far side of peak oil, and as peak coal and peak natural gas come within sight, that state of affairs is rapidly coming to an end. One option, as I suggested in last week’s post, is to plunge into the emerging reality of scarcity industrialism, which centers on an increasingly savage competition for access to a shrinking pool of new and shiny things produced by what’s left of the world’s fossil fuel stocks.

A saner alternative, though, is to move directly into the stage that will follow scarcity industrialism – the stage of salvage economics. That’s what I’ve been discussing here, under a less threatening label. Right now, while the tidal wave of cheap energy has not yet receded very far, the beachscape of industrial society is still littered with the kind of high-quality salvage our descendants will dream of finding, and the only thing that has to be overcome in order to access most of it is the bit of currently fashionable arrogance that relegates used goods to the poor.

Now of course that’s not a small thing. One of the reasons that Thoreau’s concept of voluntary poverty got rebranded “voluntary simplicity,” and repackaged as a set of fashionable lifestyle choices that imitate authentic simplicity at a premium price, is the stark panic felt by so many middle class Americans at the thought of being mistaken for someone who’s actually poor. Those of my readers who decide that the advantages of voluntary poverty are worth pursuing are going to have to confront that panic, if they haven’t done so already. Like all supposedly classless societies, America makes up for its lack of formal caste barriers by raising caste prejudice to a fine art; the cheap shots at small town America mentioned toward the beginning of this blog are an expression of that, of course, and so is the peer pressure that keeps most Americans from doing the sensible thing, and buying cheap and sturdy used products in place of increasingly overpriced and slipshod new ones.

We are all going to be poor in the decades and centuries to come. Yes, I’m including today’s rich in that; the stark folly that leads today’s privileged classes to think they can prosper while gutting the society that alone guarantees them their wealth and status is nothing new, and will bring about the usual consequences in due time. Voluntarily embracing poverty in advance may seem like a strange tactic to take, at a time when a great many people will be clinging to every scrap of claim to the fading wealth of the industrial age, but it has certain important advantages. First, it offers a chance to get competent at getting by on less before sheer necessity forces the issue; second, it sidesteps the rising spiral of struggle that’s waiting for all those who commit themselves to holding on to an industrial-age standard of living; third, as I’ve already pointed out, buying cheap used items frees up money that can then be applied to something more useful.

It’s probably going to be necessary here to insert a response to what used to be the standard objection to the piece of advice I’ve just offered. No, buying used goods instead of new ones isn’t going to put any significant number of Americans out of work. Very little is actually manufactured in America these days, and most of what is, is produced and sold by conglomerates that pump money out of American communities and into the black hole of the financial economy. Nearly all used-goods stores, by contrast, are locally owned and circulate their earnings back into the community, where they generate jobs by way of the multiplier effect. The calculations would be fiendishly difficult, and you won’t find a mainstream economist willing to touch the project with a ten-foot pole, but I suspect that when the differences just listed are taken into account, buying used goods actually yields a larger number of jobs than buying new ones – and while thrift store clerks don’t make as much as corporate office fauna, to be sure, I have to admit to a suspicion that the former contribute a good deal more to the world as a whole than the latter.

For the time being, at least, the office fauna and their corporate sponsors are likely to continue to thrive after a fashion, lumbering through the jungles of deindustrializing America like so many dinosaurs, and the thrift store clerks and their customers will play the part of smart little mammals scurrying around in the underbrush. Still, like the mammals, those who opt out of scarcity industrialism to embrace the first stirrings of the salvage economies of the future will have certain advantages not available to their brontosaurian neighbors. One of them, as already suggested, will be a certain amount of spare room in the household budget, which can then be turned to other projects, or used to free up a family member to work in the household economy, or both.

Another will be the chance to learn skills that could well become income sources in the not too distant future; as I’ve suggested more than once here, salvage trades – that is, anything that involves taking the leftovers of industrial civilization and turning them into something that people need or want – will likely be among the major growth industries of the next century or two, and the ground floor is open for business right now. Still, the advantage that comes to mind just at the moment is the one suggested by the holiday fireworks I mentioned toward the beginning of this post. Not uncommonly in history, people face a choice between being comfortable and dependent, on the one hand, and poor and free on the other. It’s been a particularly important theme in American history, driving phenomena as different as the settling of the Appalachians and the counterculture of the Sixties, and I’ve come to think that it’s going to become a live issue again in the decades ahead of us.

In time to come, those who cling to the narrowing circle of scarcity industrialism will likely discover that most of the freedoms that remain to them are going to have to be handed over as part of the cost of admission; those who choose otherwise – and there will be a range of other options, though you won’t learn that from the mainstream media – will have to give up a great many expectations and privileges that are standard issue in the industrial world just now in order to preserve some degree of autonomy and individual choice. That’s the way the future looks to me, at least; if I’m right, the simple act of salvaging energy by buying used goods instead of new ones – a step that Ben Franklin would have appreciated, interestingly enough – might just turn out to be a useful step in the direction of the ideals that some of us, at least, were celebrating a few nights ago. We’ll talk more about this in the weeks ahead.