Seven Sustainable Technologies

Last week’s post on the contemporary culture of apocalypse fandom was also, more broadly, about the increasingly frantic attempts being made to ignore the future that’s looming ahead of us. Believing that the world as we know it is about to crash into ruin, popular as it is, is only one of several strategies put to work in those attempts. There’s also the claim that we can keep industrial civilization going on renewable energy sources, the claim that a finite planet can somehow contain an infinite supply of cheap fossil fuel—well, those of my readers who know their way around today’s nonconversation about energy and the future will be all too familiar with the thirty-one flavors of denial.
It’s ironic, though predictable, that these claims have been repeated ever more loudly as the evidence for a less comfortable view of things has mounted up. Most recently, for example, a thorough study of the Spanish solar energy program by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall has worked out the net energy of large-scale solar photovoltaic systems on the basis of real-world data. It’s not pleasant reading if you happen to believe that today’s lifestyles can be supported on sunlight; they calculate that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of Spain’s solar energy sector works out to 2.48—about a third of the figure suggested by less comprehensive estimates.

The Prieto/Hall study has already come in for criticism, some of it reasonable, some of it less so. A crucial point, though, has been left out of most of the resulting discussions. According to best current estimates, the EROEI needed to sustain an industrial civilization of any kind is somewhere between 10 and 12; according to most other calculations—leaving out the optimistic estimates being circulated by solar promoters as sales pitches—the EROEI of large scale solar photovoltaic systems comes in between 8 and 9. Even if Prieto and Hall are dead wrong, in other words, the energy return from solar PV isn’t high enough to support the kind of industrial system needed to manufacture and maintain solar PV.  If they’re right, or if the actual figure falls between their estimate and those of the optimists, the point’s even harder to dodge.

Similar challenges face every other attempt to turn renewable energy into a replacement for fossil fuels. I’m thinking especially of the study published a few years back that showed, on solid thermodynamic grounds, that the total energy that can be taken from the planet’s winds is a small fraction of what windpower advocates think they can get. The logic here is irrefutable:  there’s a finite amount of energy in wind, and what you extract in one place won’t turn the blades of another wind turbine somewhere else. Thus there’s a hard upper limit to how much energy windpower can put into the grid—and it’s not enough to provide more than a small fraction of the power needed by an industrial civilization; furthermore, estimates of the EROEI of windpower cluster around 9, which again is too little to support a society that can build and maintain wind turbines.

Point such details out to people in the contemporary green movement, and you can count on fielding an angry insistence that there’s got to be some way to run industrial civilization on renewables, since we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  I’m not at all sure how many of the people who make this sort of statement realize just how odd it is. It’s as though they think some good fairy promised them that there would always be enough energy to support their current lifestyles, and the only challenge is figuring out where she hid it. Not so; the question at issue is not how we’re going to keep industrial fueled, but whether we can do it at all, and the answer emerging from the data is not one that they want to hear: nothing—no resource or combination of resources available to humanity at this turning of history’s wheel—can support industrial civilization once we finish using up the half a billion years of fossil sunlight that made industrial civilization briefly possible in the first place.

Green activists are quite right, though, that we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  We can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels because fossil fuels are a finite resource, we’ve already burnt through most of what’s economically viable to extract, and the EROEI of what’s left is dropping steadily as quality declines and costs rise. Back in the day when most petroleum on the market was light sweet crude from shallow onshore wells, its EROEI could be as high as 200; nowadays, a large and growing fraction of liquid fuels comes from deep offshore fields, fracked shales, tar sands, and other energy- and resource-intensive places, so the average for petroleum as a whole is down somewhere around 30 and sinking.

A common bad habit of contemporary thought assumes that gradual changes don’t mean anything until some threshold slips past, at which point things go boom in one way or another. Some processes in the real world happen that way, but it’s far more common for gradual shifts to have gradual impacts all along the trajectory of change. A good case can be made that EROEI decline is one such process.  For more than a decade now, the world’s economies have stumbled from one crisis to another, creaking and groaning through what would likely have been visible contraction if the mass production of paper wealth out of thin air hadn’t been been cranked into overdrive to produce the illusion of normality. 

Plenty of explanations have been proposed for the current era of economic unraveling, but I’d like to suggest that the most important factor is the overall decline in the “energy profit” that makes modern economies possible at all. EROEI is to a civilization what gross profit is to a business, the source of the surplus that supports the entire enterprise.  As the overall EROEI of industrial civilization contracts, habits that were affordable in an era of abundance profit stop being viable, and decline sets in. Long before that figure drops to the point that an industrial system can no longer be supported at all, most of us will have long since lost access to the products of that system, because every drop of liquid fuel and every scrap of most other industrial resources will long since have been commandeered for critical needs or reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

The twilight of the industrial age, in other words, isn’t somewhere conveniently far off in the future; it’s happening now, in the slow, ragged, uneven, but inexorable manner that’s normal for great historical transformations. Trying to insist that this can’t be happening, that there has to be some way to keep up our extravagant lifestyles when the energetic and material basis of that extravagance is rapidly depleting away from beneath us, may be emotionally comforting but it doesn’t change, or even address, the hard facts of our predicament.  Like the fashionable apocalypticism discussed last week, it simply provides an excuse for inaction at a time when action is necessary but difficult. 

Set aside all those excuses, and the hard question that remains is what to do about it all.

Any answer to that question has to start by taking seriously the limits imposed by our situation, and by choices made in the decades already past. Proposing some grand project to get the entire world ready for the end of the age of abundance, for example, is wasted breath; even if the political will could be found—and it’s been missing in action since 1980 or so—the resources that might have made such a project possible were burned to fuel three decades of unsustainable extravagance. While new systems are being built, remember, the old ones have to stay functional long enough to keep people fed, housed, and supplied with other necessities of life, and we’ve passed the point at which the resources still exist to do both on any large scale. As the Hirsch report pointed out back in 2005, a meaningful response to the peaking of petroleum production had to begin at least twenty years in advance of the peak to avoid catastrophic disruptions; that didn’t happen in time, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Any response to the twilight of the industrial age, in other words, will have to function within the constraints of a society already in the early stages of the Long Descent—a society in which energy and resources are increasingly hard for most people to obtain, in which the infrastructure that supports current lifestyles are becoming ever more brittle and prone to dysfunction, and in which most people will have to contend with the consequences of economic contraction, political turmoil, and social disintegration. As time passes, furthermore, all these pressures can be counted on to increase, and any improvement in conditions that takes place will be temporary.

All this places harsh constraints on any attempt to do anything constructive in response to the end of industrial civilization. Still, there are still options available, and I want to talk about one of those here:  an option that could make the decline a little less bitter, the dark age that will follow it a little less dark, and the recovery afterwards a little easier. Compared to grand plans to save the world in a single leap, that may not sound like much—but it certainly beats sitting one one’s backside daydreaming about future societies powered by green vaporware, on the one hand, or imaginary cataclysms that will relieve us of our responsibility toward the future on the other.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the invincibility of progress that useful technologies can never be lost. History shows the same thing with painful clarity:  over and over again, technologies in common use during the peak years of a civilization have been lost during the dark age that followed, and had to be brought in again from some other society or reinvented from scratch once the dark age was over and rebuilding could begin. It’s a commonplace of history, though, that if useful technologies can be preserved during the declining years of a society, they can spread relatively rapidly through the successor states of the dark age period and become core elements of the new civilization that follows. A relatively small number of people can preserve a technology, furthermore, by the simple acts of learning it, practicing it, and passing it on to the next generation.

Not every technology is well suited for this sort of project, though. The more complex a technology is, the more dependent it is on exotic materials or concentrated energy sources, and the more infrastructure it requires, the less the chance that it can be preserved in the face of a society in crisis. Furthermore, if the technology doesn’t provide goods or services that will be useful to people during the era of decline or the dark age that follows, its chances of being preserved at all are not good at a time when resources are too scarce to divert into unproductive uses.

Those are tight constraints, but I’ve identified seven technological suites that can be sustained on a very limited resource base, produce goods or services of value even under dark age conditions, and could contribute mightily to the process of rebuilding if they get through the next five centuries or so.

1. Organic intensive gardening.  I’ve commented before that when future historians look back on the twentieth century, the achievement of ours that they’ll consider most important is the creation of food growing methods that build soil fertility rather than depleting it and are sustainable on a time scale of millennia. The best of the current systems of organic intensive gardening require no resource inputs other than locally available biomass, hand tools, and muscle power, and produce a great deal of food from a relatively small piece of ground. Among the technologies included in this suite, other than the basics of soil enhancement and intensive plant and animal raising, are composting, food storage and preservation, and solar-powered season extenders such as cold frames and greenhouses.

2. Solar thermal technologies.  Most of the attention given to solar energy these days focuses on turning sunlight into electricity, but electricity isn’t actually that useful in terms of meeting basic human needs. Far more useful is heat, and sunlight can be used forheat with vastly greater efficiencies than it can be turned into electrical current. Water heating, space heating, cooking, food preservation, and many other useful activities can all be done by concentrating the rays of the sun or collecting solar heat in an insulated space. Doing these things with sunlight rather than wood heat or some other fuel source will take significant stress off damaged ecosystems while meeting a great many human needs.

3. Sustainable wood heating.  In the Earth’s temperate zones, solar thermal technologies can’t stand alone, and a sustainable way to produce fuel is thus high up on the list of necessities. Coppicing, a process that allows repeated harvesting of fuel wood from the same tree, and other methods of producing flammable biomass without burdening local ecosystems belong to this technological suite; so do rocket stoves and other high-efficiency means of converting wood fuel into heat.

4. Sustainable health care. Health care as it’s practiced in the world’s industrial nations is hopelessly unsustainable, dependent as it is on concentrated energy and resource inputs and planetwide supply chains.  As industrial society disintegrates, current methods of health care will have to be replaced by methods that require much less energy and other resources, and can be put to use by family members and local practitioners. Plenty of work will have to go into identifying practices that belong in this suite, since the entire field is a minefield of conflicting claims issuing from the mainstream medical industry as well as alternative health care; the sooner the winnowing gets under way, the better.

5. Letterpress printing and its related technologies.  One crucial need in an age of decline is the ability to reproduce documents from before things fell apart. Because the monasteries of early medieval Europe had no method of copying faster than monks with pens, much of what survived the fall of Rome was lost during the following centuries as manuscripts rotted faster than they could be copied. In Asia, by contrast, hand-carved woodblock printing allowed documents to be mass produced during the same era; this helps explain why learning, science, and technology recovered more rapidly in post-Tang dynasty China and post-Heian Japan than in the post-Roman West.  Printing presses with movable type were made and used in the Middle Ages, and inkmaking, papermaking, and bookbinding are equally simple, so these are well within the range of craftspeople in the deindustrial dark ages ahead.

6. Low-tech shortwave radio.  The ability to communicate over long distances at a speed faster than a horse can ride is another of the significant achievements of the last two centuries, and deserves to be passed onto the future. While the scientific advances needed to work out the theory radio required nearly three hundred years of intensive study of physics, the technology itself is simple—an ordinarily enterprising medieval European or Chinese alchemist could easily have put together a working radio transmitter and receiver, along with the metal-acid batteries needed to power them, if he had known how.  The technical knowledge in the amateur radio community, which has begun to get interested in low-tech, low-power methods again after a long flirtation with high-end technologies, could become a springboard to handbuilt radio technologies that could keep going after the end of industrial society.

7. Computer-free mathematics.  Until recently, it didn’t take a computer to crunch the numbers needed to build a bridge, navigate a ship, balance profits against losses, or do any of ten thousand other basic or not-so-basic mathematical operations; slide rules, nomographs, tables of logarithms, or the art of double-entry bookkeeping did the job.  In the future, after computers stop being economically viable to maintain and replace, those same tasks will still need to be done, but the knowledge of how to do them without a computer is at high risk of being lost. If that knowledge can be gotten back into circulation and kept viable as the computer age winds down, a great many tasks that will need to be done in the deindustrial future will be much less problematic.

(It’s probably necessary to repeat here that the reasons our descendants a few generations from now won’t be surfing the internet or using computers at all are economic, not technical. If you want to build and maintain computers, you need an industrial infrastructure that can manufacture integrated circuits and other electronic components, and that requires an extraordinarily complex suite of technologies, sprawling supply chains, and a vast amount of energy—all of which has to be paid for. It’s unlikely that any society in the deindustrial dark ages will have that kind of wealth available; if any does, many other uses for that wealth will make more sense in a deindustrialized world; and in an age when human labor is again much cheaper than mechanical energy, it will be more affordable to hire people to do the routine secretarial, filing, and bookkeeping tasks currently done by computers than to find the resources to support the baroque industrial infrastructure needed to provide computers for those tasks.

(The reason it’s necessary to repeat this here is that whenever I point out that computers won’t be economically viable in a deindustrial world, I field a flurry of outraged comments pretending that I haven’t mentioned economic issues at all, and insisting that computers are so cool that the future can’t possibly do without them. Here again, it’s as though they think a good fairy promised them something—and they aren’t paying attention to all the legends about the way that fairy gifts turn into a handful of dry leaves the next morning. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Archdruid Report.)

Organic gardens, solar and wood heat, effective low-tech health care, printed books, shortwave radios and a facility with slide rules and logarithms:  those aren’t a recipe for the kind of civilization we have today, nor are they a recipe for a kind of civilization that’s existed in the past. It’s precisely the inability to imagine anything else that’s crippled our collective ability to think about the future. One of the lessons of history, as Arnold Toynbee pointed out, is that the decline and fall of every civilization follows the same track down but the journey back up to a new civilization almost always breaks new ground. It would be equally accurate to point out that the decline and fall of a civilization is driven by humanity in the mass, but the way back up is inevitably the work of some small creative minority with its own unique take on things.  The time of that minority is still far in the future, but plenty of things that can be done right now can give the creative minds of the future more options to work with.

Those of my readers who want to do something constructive about the harsh future ahead thus could do worse than to adopt one or more of the technologies I’ve outlined, and make a personal commitment to learning, practicing, preserving, and transmitting that technology into the future.  Those who decide that some technology I haven’t listed deserves the same treatment, and are willing to make an effort to get it into the waiting hands of the future, will get no argument from me.  The important thing is to get off the couch and do something, because the decline is already under way and time is getting short.