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.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

Colorado Rocky Mountains_google.images

Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.

 

The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.

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?

Kern oilfield near Bakersfield,CA

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.