A couple days ago I blogged about my current book. It's easily the most thought provoking book I've read this year. In case you missed it, The Leap, How to survive and thrive in the sustainable economy, by Chris Turner.
He makes (and remakes) the point that our current economy is based on some faulty assumptions, those faults are coming back to bite us big time. Our economy is built around oil as a compact supply of energy. Did you know that one barrel of oil contains about 6 gigajoules of energy? The formal definition of joule doesn't mean much to me, but a real life example is lifting a medium sized tomato of 100 g vertically up from the surface of the earth 1 m.
Now if you put an average man on a treadmill and hooked it up to a generator, he could light up a 100 watt bulb as long as he kept going. To generate the amount of energy in a barrel of oil, he'd have to run for about 8.6 years, running a regular work week, week in and week out. (Think of what awesome condition he'd be in at the end, if he survived!)
That's a lot of energy in a small package, and our economy is addicted to it. It's costing more and more energy to get each barrel of oil, and we're going through increasingly more improbable hoops to do it. Like the Northern Gateway pipeline. Extract the oily sand buried deep underground in Northern Canada, transform it into a substance that will flow through a pipeline, run that pipeline over several mountain ranges through pristine ecosystems to a port at the end of a small twisty turny inlet battered by some of the most ferocious storms on the planet, then send those ships across the ocean if they make it in and out of the inlet. What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately it seems to be dead.
Or drilling for oil deep below the ocean floor. BP Horizon, anyone?
It's only in an insane world that these sound like a good idea.
I'm not saying, and he's not saying we need to stop extracting oil. It's an incredibly useful substance in making the many materials in the world around us. It's so incredibly useful that we've got to stop burning it for energy. There are other, cleaner sources, and we can be smarter about how much energy it takes to live.
He goes through a number of examples of how solar and wind power are more and more widely used in spite of the opposition to them by established industries that love their corporate welfare. It's getting cheaper to manufacture solar panels, and it's getting easier to hook them up to the electric grid. Wind turbines are getting more efficient.
I grew up in a world where gas was cheap. I was a grownup driving my own car when milage started to be a concern. Going for a Sunday drive was something to do for fun. Nobody cared about the emissions coming out of the tail pipe. It was only later people started wondering about smog.
My grandparents were born in a world without widespread electricity, and the corporations creating the electrical industries wanted people to use as much power as possible, so they could build more generating capacity. Now we're stuck with these old coal fired plants that are poisoning us.
As a quick side note, it's been a long hot summer here. We've been working on the lawn and garden more, and have been watering it more regularly. The water bill is to hand here. Potable water costs us $1.7474 / m3. That's 1000 of those handy little one litre bottles you can buy at events for $2. Of course what flows in must flow out, so there is an additional sewer charge of $1.3956 / m3. Plus some monthly basic fees for water and sewer that don't change on consumption. So all up last month, we paid $4.70 / m3 of water, or about one half of a cent per litre.
Now we are getting into a world where oil is getting more expensive, which means gasoline and electricity generated from natural gas are getting more expensive. The supply of fresh water is limited, and the cost to desalinate is prohibitive.
Or is it?
Turner talks about making a leap to a world where we make different assumptions. The leap is hard, no doubt about it. He points to several examples, the Erie Canal, the packet ships that sailed on a schedule full or not full, the German feed-in tariff, that produced synergistic results that were far beyond the scope of the project proposers. Each idea was confidently predicted to not just fail, but ruin anyone involved. The Erie Canal lowered transportation costs by 95%. Why wouldn't that have an impact on the economy?
One of the new assumptions is that there are better ways to generate energy than by burning fossil fuels. We can be smarter about how we use energy. Nay-sayers say that renewable sources won't work because the sun doesn't shine at night and the wind doesn't always blow. This is true, and why there are are batteries, and other ways of storing energy, and teaching people to be smarter about when and how they use energy.
One of the examples is how places like India are bypassing the 20th century. They are going straight from no electricity and no phones, to a world with locally generated solar power and cell phones. Look Ma, no wires!
It's a more human scale, and that's his final point. Many of these changes lead towards a world that is smaller and more local in scale. Where one walks to local shops and services, and chats to neighbours along the way. Where a bike is an efficient way of getting around because you don't need to be afraid of cars. Where removing cars from a street, or slowing them down, brings a street back to life. Many store owners are locked into the world where they need to provide parking, and fear change. Again and again, going to a more local scale brings more people into the shop.
Even if you're deep in the current world, and get nervous at the thought of doing without your car, this is an interesting read. There are alternatives, and they can lead to a better world for everyone, not just the rich that are comfortable in this world. If we're smart, we can make a leap that's good for everyone.
I'm getting behind on flower shots. Since the post above talks of solar, I thought I'd include some photos of flowers backlit or side lit by the sun.