Water Wells and Appropriate Technology

When my well failed a while back, I had just begun re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a remarkable book, even more relevant today than in 1973, and available in many newer editions. Schumacher’s perspective of “Buddhist Economics” emerged from his experience as an economic development expert in Burma and his time spent in a Buddhist monastery there. The viewpoint he expressed was more profound than recent, though valuable, critiques of neo-classical economics and the endless-growth economic ideology.

5e47df09c0fca445cf795801139960aa--water-well-drilling-rigsI watched Daniel and his helper set up the big well-repair rig with its crane and other equipment required for such jobs. The engine was running, supplying the power for the hoist and crane. Several other mechanical devises allowed them to raise then secure the pipe, wiring, and connectors, holding them in place. That allowed them to disassemble the wellhead components to make their repairs. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be an intermittent short in a wire not adequately secured, allowing friction to produce a sporadic failure of the pump to maintain water pressure. The fix was relatively cheap, far better than having to deal with an exhausted well.

Work and Energy

It was interesting to watch the merging of manual labor with fossil-fueled powered equipment. I started thinking of how they might accomplish such work without burning so much fossil fuel. Clearly, the men needed a lot of power to leverage their work with the manual tools. Electrical motors powered by lead-acid batteries recharged by the truck’s engine drove the equipment.

If an electric motor drove the truck itself, powered by its own batteries, the whole operation would have been relatively free of carbon emissions. However, if the battery charging system back at the shop got its electricity from the grid, powered mostly by coal-fired and nuclear power plants, such a system would still contribute carbon to global warming.

If an array of photovoltaic solar panels charged all the batteries, however, the whole system would be mostly free of carbon emissions. All of the necessary technology for such a setup exists today. Like any system, it would require new investment. As far as I know, nobody has set up such configuration yet although the technology is available.

In order to achieve a low carbon footprint, we do not need to give up the necessities of modern life, though we will have to curtail significantly our profligate “consumer lifestyle”. After decades of delay in taking significant climate action, recent research findings demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where only radical societal transformation can constrain the most severe climate chaos, ecosystem collapse, and species extinction.

Transforming Energy and Society

No minor “ecomodernist” tweaks of green consumer products will be enough. Nor can risky illusions of geoengineering the atmosphere address the deeper problem of the “technosphere” overshooting the Earth System’s capacity to carry its destruction. We must redirect current massive investments of capital into the doomed financialized globalized economy of growth toward replacing it with appropriate technology locally applied.

We need to convert our power generation to emissions-free technologies that are available today, and not waste energy on the pursuit of high-tech trivia. We have the knowledge; we need the action, now. We will have to give up the excessive consumerism and the reckless waste of the growth-at-any-cost global economy. Fewer ephemeral consumer products, replaced by carbon neutral, higher quality necessities, and a refocusing on human values as their measure, are all necessary. That will mean that society will have to run the economy, not the other way around. For more on carbon emissions, ecological overshoot, and the costs of affluence, see other posts at www.thehopefulrealist.com.

Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

After a few days and a couple of back-and-forths with Seff Ramirez, locating a source of Huanacaxtle near La Peñita didn’t work out, so I tried another tack. I’d seen what appeared to be a tiny carpinteria in Los Ayalas, a small nearby beach town dominated by hotels and condos. I went to the carpinteria on a back street and asked to buy some wood. “No, no tenemos ninguno para vender; debe hablar con Martín en La Peñita.” He described the location of Martín’s Carpenteria y Maderaria (carpentry shop and lumber yard). I got the general area, but graphics always beat language for me.

“Tiene una mapa?” I asked. He drew me one on a scrap of wood. It was accurate to less than a half city block. What I saw there when I found Martín’s shop, the uninformed might consider a wood junkyard – they would have been oh so wrong.

I think that Martín the carpintero, has something, maybe a lot of things, to teach us post-modern corporatized professionals and entrepreneurial elitists in a world gone industrially mad. For now, I’ll just scratch the surface.

Despite my marginal Spanish conversation skills, Martín and I talked for over an hour as he showed me his dirt-floored shop, minimal machinery, and the wood he had stacked everywhere. We discussed wood and life at length.

I lusted for some exquisite 2-inch thick planks of Huanacaxtle more than two feet wide and maybe 15 feet long – absolutely beautiful. But I had no way to transport such a long

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My Huanacaxtle

piece – woodworker’s rule of thumb: never cut a piece of wood unless you need to for what you are making. So I looked for pieces I could fit into the bed of my pickup truck. I picked out a couple of boards that had exceptionally interesting grain patterns. They were a bit longer than my six-foot truck bed, but we were able to fit them in diagonally. I later packed all our stuff on top of those boards for the trip home to Santa Fe.

Martín has a passion for his work like I cannot remember seeing in anyone else. “Madera es mi vida!” he smiled. He had been to many cities in the U.S. earlier in his life, but for the past 50 years, he had been working with wood in his home town, making beautiful furniture, windows, doors, and cabinets from Huanacaxtle and other tropical woods. Martín has definitely “followed his bliss” in La Peñita. He will die one day a contented man. How many of us can say that?

I have a hunch that if we of the industrial-consumer culture had been able to find our bliss, and then follow it, we would not be in the disastrous position we find ourselves in today. Instead, we have followed the ideology of everlasting economic growth, personal acquisitiveness, and national empire building, all at the expense of our humanity. It was a great ride in some ways, for some, while it lasted – and a heavy burden for many more. But it is nearly over now, except for the kicking and screaming.

Now we must figure out how to unwind the industrial leviathan and live at human scale again. This time we have the advantage, if we take it, of immense technical and scientific knowledge. We can even use some of that knowledge to develop new ways to live in harmony with the natural world we may again recognize ourselves as part of. We must construct a new human culture, extending the benefits of the old ways, in order to reintegrate with the living Earth System that once sustained us. To get it right we need to learn from those who still understand the old ways. To achieve that would not be unlike Martín’s life, at least in some very important ways.

Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

Doing Nothing to Get a Grip on Reality

“Johnny, why can’t you just sit still?” Well, Johnny is not the only hyperactive one. You might even conclude, just from watching any group anywhere in the world today that humanity as a whole is hyperactive. Where did all the patience go?

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Kern Oilfield near Bakersfield, CA. Source: YouTube.

These thoughts were triggered by my reading an article by Brian Tycangco, “Black gold isn’t going away…this is why,” in Asia Wealth Investment Daily, an investment newsletter offering various subscription services as well as general perspectives on the Asian investment markets. Mr. Tycangco waxed enthusiastically on the fact that oil consumption is increasing in Asia because that is where economic growth is strong and demand for energy is high. Consumption of oil in the U.S. is mostly flat, but also growing in Europe, according to Tycangco. The explosive growth in the number of cars in China and India is a big factor. Asia is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. mobility is a key factor in that growth.

Hyperactive Global Investment in Energy Consumption

Clearly, the world of investment and economic growth is oblivious to the accelerating destabilization of ecosystems, climate, and the whole Earth system under two hundred years of carbon-duress. Earth-systems destabilization is imposed by the global endless-growth corporate economy and the political and cultural systems that support it.  Dmitri Orlov calls it the Technosphere and argues forcefully that we must shrink it.

The political elites of nation states debate proportional responsibility for achieving a 2-degree C cap on global warming – without taking concrete policy steps to achieve their inadequate goals. Meanwhile, the engine of economic growth responds to the accelerator of capital investment and speeds us all toward the abyss. It is the biggest disconnect I can imagine.

Globalist economic culture exists in a cultural and scientific bubble, divorced from any sound knowledge of the planetary effects of human activity powered by fossil fuels. We might very well liken accelerating capital investment in fossil-fueled economic growth to a hyperactive child, oblivious to the admonitions of its parent (planet Earth) to calm down and stop banging around breaking everything in sight.

False Positives of Ecomodernism

The so-called “ecomodernists” want to solve the problems of climate destabilization and ecological destruction by advancing the techno-industrial systems that caused all the damage in the first place. You know, geo-engineering and all that. Over two-hundred plus years, the technosphere came to dominate Earth systems, causing their destabilization. Trying to accomplish something by repeating the method that has repeatedly not achieved the goal defines insanity. It’s nuts.

Here’s the thing. The investor class drives the global corporate economy and has no interest whatsoever in constraining the extraction and consumption of oil. Members of the global financial elite fully intend to squeeze all the profits out of fossil-fueled economic growth they can, while they still can. The catastrophic consequences for living Earth systems are simply not part of their culture, even when they are aware of them. At the same time, the global corporate elites have the upper hand in determining the policies of nations and they are doing everything in their power to continue down the path of hyperactive devastation of the planet.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the risks of human extinction appear to play out beyond the lifetimes of those making decisions today, or at least beyond the edge of their not so invisible shield of privilege. The hyperactive CEO simply does not care about a future beyond his own life. He assumes he can retreat into his mansion behind security gates as society collapses around him, or he simply continues to deny the rapidly growing evidence of immediate impacts of climate destabilization. After all, the first devastation occurs in places like Bangladesh or central African or island nations. Manhattan seems immune for now, but Miami, well, not so much.

Doing Nothing Now

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Mindfulness requires Doing Nothing. Image: Pinterest.

As Asian economies boom and hyperactive economic growth consumes more oil and devastates the planet, it strikes me as ironic that the great cultures of contemplation – Zen, yoga, Taoism, and related practices – all have Asian origins. Some Americans try to get a grip on reality in the hectic world of working and living in the industrial era by taking up some variants of these practices, all of which involve doing nothing. However, that does not stop them from rushing to Whole Foods after Yoga class for the latest international treats to sustain their total consumer “lifestyle.” The disconnect between everyday life and making peace with planet Earth remains strong.

A New Great Transformation of both the whole Earth system itself and the role of humans on the planet is well underway, as the geologic era of the Holocene succumbs to that of the Anthropocene. Humanity has already severely influenced the trajectory of Earth history. Most of what we do with the profligate energy consumption and waste is unnecessary. How much fossil fuel is required to build a violin? How much fossil fuel do we need to expend in reading a book, raising our garden, building a house, restoring a local ecosystem, or playing a game of volleyball?

Our future role in Earth’s evolution is, it seems, entirely up for grabs. Most of those fossil-fueled “labor saving” automated devices that destroy jobs are no longer viable from the perspective of human self-interest in survival. If humans are to carve out a meaningful and viable place in the planet’s future, we had better start doing nothing now.

On the Urgency of Abandoning Lifestyle

I never liked the term, “lifestyle.” It reflects an extreme version of the American obsession with personal individualistic consumerism, which ultimately is at odds with the hard facts of life on planet Earth. The unattainable “lifestyles of the rich and famous” promoted and enthusiastically accepted in the industrial era are built on illusion and propel humanity toward the abyss of climate collapse and social chaos.

The denizens of industrial-consumer societies sustain their illusions of achieving high-status “lifestyles” at the cost of terminating social and ecological stability, contrary to the public good. But words often have a life of their own and will even transform their own meaning with continued use. The choices we make in life are not so much a matter of “style,” even when driven by stylistic considerations. Instead, above all they reflect a species’ survival strategy or its failure even to have no less execute a survival strategy.

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Shopping mall ~ Mallorca

So, on the one hand, “lifestyle” implies no strategy at all, just some form of “personal expression” of consumer values oblivious to the requirements of survival on planet Earth. In its denial of nature, the consumer lifestyle sustains a cultural bubble that excludes consciousness of the place of humanity in nature. That cannot end well.

On the other hand, “lifestyle” is completely inadequate to express the essence of a life of conscious choice to align personal living decisions, political action, and economic behavior, with an effort to save humanity from extinction. The trajectory of industrial-consumer society, with its illusions of perpetual technological control over nature and endless economic growth on a finite planet, drives us all in exactly that direction.

I do hesitate to bring up the idea of extinction – it seems so extreme that its possibility appears implausible. As the politicians always say in a crisis, “We don’t want to alarm the public.” Yet, today public alarm is exactly what is needed. If we look at the history of biological systems on this planet, extinction has been an integral part of their evolution. At the same time, the history of industrialized humanity has generated a certain false sense of security and permanence. Chris Hedges pops that bubble in his recent Truthdig article.

The myth of perpetual economic growth and material abundance on a finite planet persists in the face of imminent climate catastrophe as well as resource depletion. A “big picture” perspective, such as that of astrophysicist Adam Frank easily exposes the naïve hubris of the human illusion of perpetual progress.

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Arundhati Roy contemplates the worst flooding ever in Kerala, India. Photo: Onmanorama

Well, that was a mouthful…but the science is clear. Climate destabilization is accelerating. Every IPCC report since the ill-fated Kyoto accords has underestimated the rates of change. The climate models still have not fully taken into account emerging feedback loops that are accelerating the greenhouse effects. Urgency is the right word; complacency is the political norm. The Defiant Earth will not be broken by self-indulgent ecomodernists.

Living a life of planetary consciousness is not the complete answer; it cannot stop climate chaos alone. But it can help directly by contributing to a broad “climate of opinion” that must exist in order to force the political and economic elites to act in the human interest rather than in the unsustainable and deadly interest in “business as usual.” A rough road lies ahead.