More baggage that we can't afford (imho): blind faith in the Doctrine of Substitutability, which fails with thundering obviousness when it comes to resources like potable water, fish, bees, viable topsoil, and climatic stability. Blind faith in the Doctrine of Infinite Growth, which any microbiologist with access to a Petri dish can disprove in a week or so. And so on. We're going to have to throw some tired old ideas overboard pretty soon now; they are dragging us down.
But then there is the question of our consumption baggage, the real-world manifestation of our ideological baggage (much as a family of 12 children is the real-world manifestation of a patriarchal/natalist ideology). What about the 24 acres that it takes to support the lifestyle of the average American, when there are only about 4 viable acres of arable land, worldwide, per living human being? What about the 25 percent of annual fossil fuel "production" (i.e. liquidation) that N Americans consume while comprising 5 percent or less of the global population. And so on. Migeru and I had a productive conversation recently about what a "terron" is (one person's share of Terra's annual energy/food/water productivity) and rather than do a lengthy quote I've just linked back to it here.
It seems fairly obvious that (a) this level of TAWOLINN consumption cannot be continued without dire consequences in the form of resource exhaustion and environmental collapse; and (b) attempts to prolong it must presuppose the continued immiseration of a majority of the global population, who will never get a fair share of resources and whose (peripheral) countries are being pillaged, polluted, and generally expropriated to keep raw materials flowing into the industrial hoppers of the "First World". On either an ethical or a pragmatic plane, business-as-usual looks unacceptable. As the Yanks have been rediscovering in recent years, the cost of enforcing liquidationist colonial policy by armed might is disproportionately high. While it may enrich a generation of courtiers around the throne of crony capitalism, in the end it does not serve the national interest; it's a negative-sum game. All that results is an accelerated squandering of the very resources being squabbled over.
So, if we accept that we should be packing lighter for a long trip into the future -- not just a brief vacation of camping out, but an extended stay, an undiscovered country that we may have to settle in permanently -- we are faced with choices. What would it take to bring, say, my personal "lifestyle support budget" down to 4 acres? What could I give up without much regret, and what do I really need to feel happy, comfortable, etc.?
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
-- Charles Kingsley
How squalid and depressing would a post-Peak, low-energy-budget lifestyle be? Let's consider a recent essay by an American, called Living Mostly Off the Grid:
In many ways, my life is like that of any typical suburban homeowner of modest means.
Except that I make my own power for 11 months out of the year. It's only 11 months, because after the rains start in November, it still takes a month for the creek to rise high enough to run the small hydropower generator that gets me through the cloudy winter months. So there's a month of running the gas generator, at least part of the time. But from April to October, there's plenty of sunshine to keep my batteries charged. And my system is a relatively small one. I have 700 watts of solar power that cost me about $5,000 to purchase and install.My small power system is enough because I have taken several easy measures to keep my energy use within my means. Number one is to turn things off when they are not in use - this includes light bulbs as well as the plethora of electronics and appliances that sit around sucking up standby power. Seventy-five percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off. Across the US, this equals the annual output of 12 power plants and costs consumers over $1 billion each year. Buy some power strips so you can take back control over these "vampire loads."
Light bulbs are also crucial. Lighting is about 25 percent of US electricity use. Compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs use about one-third the energy of incandescent bulbs. I hear a lot of griping about compact fluorescents - the color is weird, they're not as bright, etc., and I don't understand it. I've been using them for ten years now and they have gotten so much better! The old ones were an awful blue color and they cost ten or fifteen bucks a piece. Now you can get them in a full spectrum of colors for less than two dollars. I don't miss incandescents a bit. Except for the sauna - don't put a CF bulb where it will get too hot, like a recessed lighting fixture. I'm going to get one of the LED bulbs for my wood-fired sauna.
My small power system won't allow me to run electric heat or air conditioning. I have a wood stove for heat that also supplies hot water in the winter, and I don't need air conditioning here in Oregon. I have a propane refrigerator, bought back before we added the backup gas generator. I may switch to a super-efficient, electric-powered refrigerator at some point. That leaves laundry. Luckily the other member of my household seems to enjoy the trip to the town laundromat. It's a chance to hang out at the bagel shop and socialize.
Does all this amount to a hair shirt? Am I suffering or do I feel deprived? No. When I need light, I have light. I've got a computer, phone and home entertainment whenever I want it. I stay warm and I eat good food. I have friends and neighbors who share my values. We eat home-grown vegetables, play home-grown music and celebrate life. [emphasis mine -- DeA] We eat (gasp!) granola.
That last paragraph I find very suggestive and thought-provoking indeed. When I need light, I have a light. (So much for shivering in the dark) I have a computer, phone, and home entertainment whenever I want it. (luxurious really, but also offers a connectedness that most of us would miss if we had to forgo it involuntarily). I stay warm and I eat good food is more than many/most of the urban poor could boast -- in fact the 'good food' part is more than perhaps a majority of inhabitants of N Am could boast, at this dismal point in food history. And I have friends and neighbours who share my values -- millions of apparently well-off people live in suburban cul-de-sacs where they don't even know the names of their neighbours, let alone what their values are or might be. This person has clearly got "something to be enthusiastic about," as well as the baseline of creature comforts.
When I consider what makes life enjoyable and worth living, or what hardships would make life tedious, enervating, and difficult, I find myself not far from this list; I would like light to read by, books to read, some kind of telecommunications (even if it is only a reliable paper mail service, but preferably phone and internet), perhaps some way of watching a movie or listening to some recorded music now and then. I'd like decent fresh food from a source I can trust. Clean drinking water. A safe place to sleep that is warm and dry in wet weather, and not too stifling in hot weather. A musical instrument or two. Some friends to hang out with. Decent clothing. A bicycle to extend the range of my mobility. Preferably some kind of mass transport network to which I could connect via my bicycle -- long haul rail, canal/river/ocean transport, etc. And of course, no matter how pleasant the neighbours and friends, I'd add to my list of "necessities" for a happy life three essentials: privacy, solitude, and quiet when I want them (though billions of people in this world never get to enjoy any of those three and some are dismayed by them).
If pressed harder I would admit to being a bit spoilt -- I'd like the materials to pursue hobbies and artistic interests -- paint and paper and brushes, ink and pens, some yarn to knit with. I'd like enough technology to keep my (mechanical) sewing machine going. I'd like guitar strings. These I think are luxuries, but modest luxuries compared to what we have become accustomed to. When I think about the consequences of attempting to maintain the resource-liquidating hyperconsumer lifestyle, the kind of world/regime which this implies or suggests strikes me as far less palatable than the modest and convivial affluence described above.
When I (among many others) suggest that downsizing our demands, being contented with less than the American Dream, is a better solution, I'm not asking anyone to freeze or starve -- or indeed to do anything I'm not willing to do (or already doing) myself. I sold my last car over 6 years ago iirc :-) I'm asking myself, every day, what I can put aside (or throw over the side) that I don't really need on this journey.
Settling In -- Living with Energy Lite
DeAnander asked What would it take to bring, say, my personal "lifestyle support budget" down to 4 acres?
As I outlined in the previous dialogue, the African Dream is really not that different than the American Dream. I concluded that the white community are in general blind to the unsustainability of their lifestyle - even when the SA interest in environmentalism is huge - and that black communities, still poverty-stricken, in their justified attempt to get to a higher rung on the economic ladder use the same-old unsustainable methods.
And I just recently learned that Johannesburg has suffered the same fate as Los Angeles, in respect that a perfectly fine tram system was uprooted to make space for bigger roads. But I wanted to stop despairing for a moment because the discussion really turned me to look inward - we can talk a lot about this, but as asiegel constantly reminds us: am I doing my part?
For the past weeks, I have been on the move again (living up to my handle) and was confronted similarly to my experience in Sweden: what are the bare bones in today's society? So I drew up a shopping list. It is not that different than DeAnander's list, and I used my South African experience to re-evaluate and Africanise my nomadic wish-list from Sweden.
(What I realized only later is that this is an exercise in breaking up the consumption components in sub-components - which strikes me for now as the most convenient/applicable approach for direct comparisons.)
- Potable water - for washing and drinking
So far, so good. I will ignore the source of my tap water for now (potable water is a genuine and increasing concern for the monstrous metropolis that is Johannesburg, and a diariable (I think that should be word) subject on its own).
Instead, I'll focus on those needs that will have immediate implications for my use of energy:
Hot water - for my shower and my shave
For the living room:
* for lighting
* charging my cell phone
* charging my laptop and powering my small portable set of sound-boxes
And sadly I've recently added:
* My electric heater
Nomad's only source of heat
Insulation in South Africa is practically unheard of. Single glass pane is everywhere. Doors and windows always suffer draughts. The roof is generally an escape route for heat. A central heating system is a rarity even for the houses that are better off. Heated floors are very tentatively appearing but ever so scantly. So what can one really do as long as one is renting? Johannesburg is situated at 1700 meters above sealevel and it is winter. Temperatures drop off at the lower (Celsius) digits during the night - and that is without a major cold front blowing in from the Antarctic. Suffering stubbornly for 1.5 weeks in my 10 square meters room through the evenings was more than I could bear.
For the kitchen:
* Electric stove
* Washing Machine
Again, this is not researched, but I'd risk betting that the above list is the current median household of South Africa. What else could be there:
Apparently, Eskom, the national energy giant, is now broadcasting commercials that dishwashers are more environmentally friendly than washing up by hand. I think there should have been done some math on that which should be made available in public... [DeA sez: I kinda doubt that, unless they compare to the US-style dishwashing where the person washing up just turns the hot tap on and lets it run during the entire operation, washing and rinsing each dish under the stream of hot water. I fill a tub with hot water and soap, wash all the dishes, then rinse them with cold in the other sink. Total water about 1.5 gal of hot and 1.5 gal of cold, and I could do it with less if I were really tryin'.]
Thrown overboard are televisions, playstations, tumble-dryers, vacuum-cleaners (and in potentia also dish-washers) as long as my household doesn't drastically expand.
Two notes, the first on vacuum-cleaners. Even after over hundred years into their existence, most vacuum-cleaners are disturbingly loud to my taste. A good broom and mop actually clean more effectively because I pay more attention to what I am doing. Note, of course, that my current housing (without kitchen) is about 20 square meters.
Also some extra words on television: public news can be followed through the internet more and more, movies and television series can be spun as DVDs and the purchase of series episodes over the internet is on the march. Television is dead for all I care. But just for kicks, I want to know:
Two more crucial items have been ignored for my current lifestyle: Transportation and Foodware. I may want to spend some time there later, but especially foodware is the trickiest one to properly unravel energy costs for as they are more hidden. A second follow-up, I think, should be on Energy from the Ground Up: how much energy does it take to build a average house nowadays in SA? What is the energy needed to produce bricks, for example? But that's for later.
I have one guilty pleasure to confess: I miss driving - because that's the only way to currently see the country here, and the clarion call of the mountains and countryside beckon me constantly. And the past week I caved and rented a car and had the immense satisfaction to briefly visit the Cradle of Humankind.
While my list narrowed, the question then rose whether even these "bare bones" in South Africa fits into the four acres of ecological footprint. So I first tested it at: www.myfootprint.org. This was not as helpful as I expected it to be, as the questions are not precise enough to carve out my exact lifestyle or put an exact energy figure on it. I also think the quiz is too limited in its scope to gauge the use of foodware. But taking that all into account I end up using 1.5 earths for my current lifestyle - disregarding my airplane use to get here.
So I visited Michael Bluejay (also regularly promoted by asiegel) and was able to fill in the following table:
|Toaster per time||??|
|Kettle per time per litre||2|
There are still values missing which I could not locate on Bluejay's site, but it already seems the kitchen and the heating are the larger energy vampires. Note, this is for the winter months in SA. I should better run this list for every season. I also should get myself a watt meter.
Question that stands: is there a site with estimates of energy use for your standard household electrical devices? It should not be hard to draw up a spreadsheet for comparative analysis between brands and year of origin for any electrical apparatus, especially now watt meters are around reasonably cheap.
For the most of Africa, I remain convinced the practical problem to address is to attain that median lifestyle with smart sustainable energy. To my mind, this is entirely feasible but the priorities of a country like South Africa are seemingly dedicated to completely other things.
As an addendum, I need to profess what kilos I did not bring to Africa and regretted: My travel journals. Photo-albums. My mediocre collection/assembly of rocks and fossils. Books. Other CDs. Correspondence with friends, those still present and those long faded into the wilds of this world. Or, in other words: History in the shape of personal effects and heirlooms and my library, small as it is. I have already seen several comments on this forum expressing the same sentiment. What can one say when one is white and nerdy?
In conclusion, the challenges I now see for (South) Africa:
* Re-fitting houses with floor heating from solar heat.
* Switching to more energy friendly apparatus.
* Mobile and fast internet with satellite and WiFi, leapfrogging landlines.
* Integrating VoIP and Internet Conferencing into the African business
* Public transport needs development as well as a focus on high intensity energy cars. Not counting the fascinating taxi-system, public transport is short of miserable in Joburg, but as with anything in SA, in transition. The Gautrain is being dug as I type and as you read. There are plans for a monorail connecting Soweto with the Business District for the Gauteng province - but this was was apparently torpedoed by the minister of transport.
* The embracement of Going Green in SA.
The question unanswered: is the above table (when complete) less or more than the 4 acres input for energy use? And secondly: what is the time frame needed in this modern world to actually get yourself sustainable?
Where I am now, where I'd like to be a year from now
I've been worried about peak oil and industrial pollution for a very long time, it seems -- from way back when it was a cranky outsider obsession, in fact it all really goes back to the 1970s, but that's too long a story... So let's start with where I am now: I live in a 1100 sf home built about 100 years ago -- not very solidly -- of wood. It is two storeys and was insulated in the 70s. The only heat is an old Night&Day wall heater (nat gas). The dryer is nat gas, as are the water heater and stove. The dryer and washing machine are electric (and ancient -- they were 2nd hand when I bought them in 1980 or so). The fridge is about 8 years old and allegedly "energy efficient" but if I had my druthers (and were staying in this house) it would be a Sunfrost. I have one small electric ceramic heater which is only used in the coldest winter days to heat up the bathroom. For many years I had a wasteful 50 gal hot water tank heater (most Americans still consider these primitive and profligate gizmos "normal") but when it finally died I shouted Hooray and replaced it with a Swedish-made on-demand nat gas heater, what in the UK we used to call a "geyser" -- unlimited hot water on demand, no tank -- basically a tame blowtorch pretending to be a kitchen appliance.
When I did the global footprint quiz, with my lifestyle at its current notch on the energymeter -- and that is without car ownership, which I should discuss in a separate diary, and flying less than 3 hrs per annum -- I was about at the 1.5 - 2 terron level. Not good enough!
However, my medium term plan (which has for 6 or more years been a long term plan, and is finally coming to fruition) is to quit the day job, move aboard my boat (a traditional junk rig design built in steel), and very sharply curtail my energy consumption and global footprint. How will this work?
Here's what life on the boat looks like as compared to life in a suburban home (albeit an old one).
Electricity: 2 200 Ah 12v batteries. 1 75w solar panel for routine charging, plus some miscellaneous other panels I've collected (flexible and waterproof, by UniSolar and other mfrs) totalling about another 100w. 1 KW (overkill!) inverter for running power tools. The batteries are now about 2 years old and should last another 5-6 years if not abused. Then they will need replacement -- perhaps with something a bit less filthy than lead/acid technology? In the meantime they are about as clean as you can get -- sealed AGM (glass mat). There is AC power at the dock via extension cord but I plan to use it as little as possible even though it is not metered and is included in the slip fees (how much longer can that go on?)...
Water: 2 100 gal tanks. One foot pump in the galley. Hot water is made by heating it in a pan (I am considering a passive coil for the woodstove chimney). I do not have a power watermaker and am not interested in owning such an energy-intensive, high-tech, frail gadget; I do plan to make or buy some kind of distiller for making fresh water from salt water, and possibly a solar still for summer use. When at the dock, I have potable water courtesy of the State (hey, government works).
Sanitary: one composting toilet (I tried this out at home for 2 years in order to familiarise myself with the idea and it was quite a success - if there is any interest I would be happy to write a diary about maintaining a clean and useable loo and a happy garden without a flush toilet).
Laundry: two options. pay per load at the marina laundromat if I am at the dock, or else wash by hand on board -- I own a washboard and have been selecting any new clothes with a view to quick drying :-) Laundry at the 'mat costs about $3 CAN for wash/dry, one load. I suspect this is below true energy cost.
Refrigeration: none. I am still dithering about this; in the last 3 years I have learned how to can (water bath and pressure), to pickle (both vinegar and lactofermentation), and various tricks for keeping produce fresh w/o a fridge. I may compromise by having an insulated cooler and buying ice in the summer; in the winter, with frost on the docks, all I need for a cooler is some space on deck :-) [Note to self: energy slaves substitute for knowledge and skill as well as time: you have to have more skills to live with less energy consumption.]
Cooking: presently a propane tank and an old RV stove (most of the interior of this boat is recycled, which is one of the things I love about her). I am seriously considering converting to pressurised alcohol... cooking times are nearly as quick and it's a much less scary fuel, if more costly. A few years from now the price difference may not be so great. I have a Primus-type kerosene burner w/gimbal mount for backup and for cooking at sea, and one other option (to be mentioned in a moment). I have a hankering to own a solar oven, but the really efficient kinds are rather bulky (a big insulated box) and the folding ones are not very efficient, so there's an inherent conflict between the maritime requirement of minimal stowage space and the design params of a solar oven.
Heating (important at lat 48!): one diesel "drip pot" stove, one of the simplest combustion chambers known to industrial humanity; one tiny woodstove; one Petromax style kero lantern/stove. I plan to add an additional wood-burning stove in the forward cabin and am tempted to invest in a Tiny Tot coal-burner, but they are heavy and who really wants to carry anthracite on board? The vessel is 40 ft LOA and 11 ft max beam with 2 to 3 inches of insulation throughout, so only a very modest heat source is needed to keep the main cabin very toasty indeed. One substantial chunk of driftwood, say about 15 inches long by 4 inches diam, when properly smouldering in the stove, will keep me nice and warm all night even on a cold and stormy evening. The main woodstove also doubles as a slow cooker in winter, being quite hot enough when stoked up a bit to cook soup, warm up leftovers, make toast, etc. I have a vague notion of installing a soapstone slab on the top to make it a functioning grille as well :-)
Lighting: Taz (the boat) came with incandescent (car-type) bayonet mount bulbs throughout, but I have replaced them with LED bulbs one by one. These have been a mixed bag -- some are simply not bright enough and I will replace them again with multi-LED flat panels with Luxeon emitters. They should have a good long lifetime and are far brighter than the first generation. My goal is to have no incandescents on the boat anywhere, including nav lights, by year's end.
Entertainment: you can't fit much onto a boat of this size, but I plan to have a laptop with a dvd drive (so I can rent or borrow and watch movies, or enjoy some from my own collection), and a tiny mp3 player, and battery-powered speakers of reasonable fidelity. Whether my full size guitar will survive in a maritime environment I don't know; I plan to keep a travel guitar on board for a year or so and see if it self-destructs before risking a good one. An internet connection is absolutely necessary (says this spoilt child of the computer cusp generation) and there is an informal WiFi network at the marina that should meet my needs; there are also internet cafes and WiFi for free at the local library. [I paid a fair amt of money recently to have my entire audio cd collection reduced to mp3s, to fit on one small disc drive. Wish I could afford to have my entire library converted to ebooks!]
Connectivity: cell phone and internet.
I plan to run all my electronics either directly off the house batteries, or off standard cells [as noted in some previous thread I never buy electronic gizmos that use custom proprietary battery packs, except the damn laptops where there is no choice]; I have a universal battery charger that charges and conditions every type of cell and runs off 12v, either from the house pack or a 15v solar panel (tested in mid summer I could recharge 20 NIMH AAs in the course of one long hot day, which is a lot of runtime for my camera, mp3 player, handheld VHF, etc.). I have a large collection of standard cells (NIMH).
Boats this size mostly have motors (though some notable exceptions can be found in the literature) and despite Taz' massive sailplan and pretty good hull form I am not brave enough to go out on the rolling main w/o some kind of motive force in the absence of wind. Presently she has a wonderful museum piece, a Hercules D1X twin, date of mfr about 1944, with a Kermath crashbox that has already given me considerable grief. As diesels go it is a great engine, nearly bombproof and fairly conservative of fuel for its torque; but parts are made of unobtainium at this point and I don't really wish to be the curator of a floating museum. It is presently sulking, having eaten an injector which I can't replace despite much effort and research, so I face the problem of repowering in the greenest way I can.
I think this greenest-way will be a diesel-electric drive system using one of the newfangled waterproof sealed pancake motors from Sweden (the Thoosa system it is called when packaged as a turnkey kit). A little 3KW diesel DC genny from Ample Power, a 48v batt bank, and a Thoosa type system should be quite adequate for putting in and out of the harbour under battery alone, or for much longer distances running the genny. All the components are commodity, all are light enough for 2 people to lift, or for me to manage alone with a hoist, and my initial research suggests that torque for torque and HP for HP, I can expect to get 30 percent better fuel economy with the diesel/electric setup than with the old "beast in the bilge". The capital outlay is not small -- painful in fact -- but amortised over a cruising period of 10 years it is not outrageous; and short of a miracle technology coming over the horizon in the next six months, I think minimising diesel consumption may be the least of an array of evil choices.
Fuel (diesel for heating and engine): 110 gallons in 2 55 gallon tanks.
When I feed my proposed lifestyle V2.0 into the footprint calculators, I get an encouraging result: down to 1 terron at last!! and without giving up anything that really matters very much to me. I enjoy living aboard, and it's not that hard to adapt to a lower energy consumption level (I already hang my clothes out to dry during all but the wettest part of the year, I wash dishes by hand and conserve water, etc). I am optimistic that the step from a 2 terron lifestyle to a 1 terron lifestyle will not be all that painful.
What will I miss most? Ummm, a large kitchen table (a large dry workspace, that is), and most of all... the luxury of a long hot bath. But I have a Hostel International membership and if I really, desperately want a long hot bath I can bike over to the local hostel, rent the cheapest possible room, and take a bath :-) [Note: there's a reason why public bath-houses were an institution in all pre-fossil-fuel advanced (urban) civilisations: the energy costs of long hot baths are too high to be borne by any but the most spectactularly wealthy individuals.]
However there are many unresolved energy conundrums (conundra??) : for how long will the high-tech components of boat maintenance remain affordable, such as oil-based sailcloth and cordage, oil-based bottom and topside paints, oil-based lubricants, diesel fuel, batteries, etc? What about the energy cost of aluminium, which I wish to use to replace old spars including the (rather large) masts? What if I need to run a small welder on board for minor repairs to the steel? Is my solar panel really adequate to the electric usage I plan? Should I buy a wind generator? If so, how do I size the wind generator, and how do I obtain one quiet enough not to drive my neighbours at the dock (and myself!) mad on windy nights? If I change the battery pack to 48v, what kind of stepdown and stepup transformers will I need to supply the house load and to charge from 12v sources, and how lossy are those transformers (how much energy will be wasted?) How much heat does it take to distill a gallon of potable water from seawater? To heat enough water for laundry? What if I want some kind of hot shower facility on my boat, what are my options and how energy-expensive would that be? Could I paint the bottom less often and hence conserve resources (yard time, crane time, toxic paints, power tools, hard labour) by diving frequently, and what is the energy cost of a small tethered dive setup like a Sea Breathe? And so on. At present I am too busy with the day job and preparations for the Big Move that I can't pursue the research and math to answer these questions, but I look forward to solving them one by one (and reporting on the results).
The above questions verge into breaking up the subcomponents of consumptions components and are another matter of scale. It perhaps ties into the question I set out above - Energy from the Ground Up - how much energy is needed to actually built a house/flat nowadays? What is the energy cost of one brick? Paint? Solar panels? This is a territory I have long wanted to exploit, but find it impossible to jump at those energy levels at such precise scale.
Babysteps are currently the only possible outcome that I can see, while nurturing a cultural change without being tainted as tree-hugging, bark eating environmental fundamentalists. As Jerome and others have consistently repeated - we are not approaching the end of oil, we are approaching the end of cheap oil. Oil-based sailcloth, lubricants, paints and aluminium will be around for a long while - but at higher prices and costs.
Babysteps seem the only manageable methods to kick the habit in a world that has dug itself into such a deep rut of oil usage. I'd propose a systematic and piecemeal analysis of those applications before we break down the subcomponents themselves.