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 Chasm between Environmental Theory and Human Imagination

Reading [and writing] about climate disruption and social change is disturbing enough. But the unabated climate-disrupting and society-disrupting economy of extractive wealth concentration, keeps me wondering whether we have much chance at all. Lately, I have a growing sense that something very fundamental is missing in the discussions of most environmentalists. Well, maybe more than ‘something’ – some things.

For one thing, too many environmentalists are too tuned to simplistic solutions, most of which are tied to some profitable enterprise. Another thing, most of the solutions that dominate the public discussion are about competing methods of energy production. Little is said about reducing energy use – something the Europeans are far better at than we are. A third missing element is that discussions of climate change almost entirely exclude consideration of emerging social chaos.

Chaos Ignored

Various forms of chaos related to climate disruption and social breakdown seem to be rapidly accelerating. Most analyses of the situation continue down a multi-lane road of refining conceptual understandings and defending tightly held misunderstandings. But the discussions, however insightful, provide little “on the ground” development of lines of action that reflect the urgency of the human condition.

Having a better understanding of the collision course of the extractive-growth economy with the earth systems it disrupts is more and more important. But movement toward viable science-based and practical counter measures is not merely imperative, it is urgent. Every imaginable countermeasure would likely involve such major social change that avoiding chaos seems unlikely.

Discussions of climate action tend to be global in scope and vague on specifics. Yes, it’s a global problem, but actions must be taken in concrete ways in particular places – both geographic and institutional places. That can only happen when urgency aligns specific carbon emissions suppressing actions with practicality to yield optimum effects.

Some emissions-reducing actions are theoretically great, until all the “overlooked” energy inputs and risk factors are considered. But such strategies are often far too lengthy in implementation. Even if adding nuclear power plants were a viable option, it would simply take too long to accomplish. With nuclear power, the theory has worn very thin and honest total-cost and ongoing risks vs. benefit calculations yield very negative results. But time makes it irrelevant anyway. Climate chaos will already have caused economic and social chaos.

Imaginative Practicality

The time it would take to implement an action and the magnitude of its relative impact are critical variables in any attempt to determine priorities. For the most part, actions that can be taken quickly will also require less energy inputs to accomplish. That is a good thing. For example, a comprehensive program to retro-fit insulation and weather stripping in homes, office buildings, and factories could significantly reduce carbon emissions. The “built environment” consumes 40% of all energy produced in the U.S. A program to reduce that could be implemented quickly.

Production of insulation materials would of course need to be ramped up. Needed materials will have to be produced in much greater volume in existing factories and begun in new or previously abandoned factories. Training of new employees could be accomplished fairly quickly. Much of the work is not all that complex. Energy-efficiency evaluators could be fully trained in a few months. Unemployment, of course, would plummet if such a program were nationally implemented.

Here – and in many other examples of potentially quick and feasible carbon emissions suppression programs – is where human imagination seems to falter. I hate to use the term, “political will,” but there it is. The political-economic forces that dominate our society, polity, and media, do not have the imagination to recognize the potential of the most important strategies for carbon-emissions suppression. A program of massive reduction in emissions from the “built environment” alone presents huge business opportunities.

Dangerous Distractions vs. The Real Deal

Total social mobilization is required for many of the less sexy but more effective actions to suppress carbon emissions to very low levels. Whatever the net benefits of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, their levels of reduced carbon emissions are far too insufficient in the short run. “Winning too slowly is the same as losing…” as Bill McKibben put it.

The production of ethanol as an “alternative fuel,” for example, is driven almost entirely by dominant political and economic forces – special interests – not by any motivation to reduce carbon emissions. It is not a viable climate stabilization strategy; it is a good strategy for agri-business to make a lot of money. Ethanol production will never contribute to carbon emissions suppression, but it will suppress food production. It is a dangerous distraction, the exact opposite of an evidence based rational priority.

If we expect to get anywhere in the attempt to restraint global warming and the catastrophic consequences of planetary thermal overload, somehow a societal cost-benefit based comprehensive strategy must be implemented. Good grief! That would require large-scale science driven setting of carbon-emissions suppression priorities and their implementation at scale.

The current political climate leaves little room for wide-eyed hope. Necessity demands collective creativity. It seems that only a broad and committed social movement demanding the most effective actions can actually force a comprehensive carbon emissions reduction strategy to be undertaken.