Friday, June 25, 2010

Towards an Ecotechnic Future I: The Basics

As oil continues to erupt into the Gulf of Mexico and we wait for hurricane season with crossed fingers, European governments and American states struggle to stay solvent, and the global economy continues to teeter on the brink of collapse with Peak Oil and climate change looming ever larger, it's becoming more apparent that Business as Usual (BAU) cannot continue for much longer.

What happens when BAU fails? What comes next?

John Michael Greer on his blog, The Archdruid Report makes the point that people imagine one of two possible futures: BAU continues onward into The Future, where we finally get our flying cars, jetpacks, and the Singularity...or, a sudden, catastrophic collective entry into a Mad Max theme park. He rejects these two poles, predicting a future far more dismal than The Future, but lacking the cinematic thrills of a doomer porn Zombie Apocalypse.

To over-simplify his vision for purposes of summary, he basically expects the Great Depression (only worse), followed by grinding Third World poverty, followed by horses-and-swords...forever, with perhaps a few pitiful techno-remnants like slide rules and crystal radio surviving into the new age. Rather than an abrupt, sweeping End of the World, his Long Descent will take place over a period of several centuries, with lots of wars, starvation, desperation, refugee movements and the like taking place before a much smaller world population returns to the eternal verities of life before the Industrial Revolution.

He has developed his arguments in considerable detail over a long series of posts, which are well-written and worth reading whether one agrees with him or not. The human failure mode he predicts is certainly possible, and any attempt to prevent it ought to take into account the reasons he offers for why he considers it inevitable. As I understand his position, the keystone of his collapse scenario, explained in detail here and here, is that quality of energy matters much more than quantity of energy. It doesn't matter that Earth's daily intake of solar energy greatly exceeds the requirements of modern civilization because solar energy is diffuse, whereas technological society requires concentrated energy.

In order for energy to do useful work, there has to be an entropy gradient between the energy source and the environment. The principles of thermodynamics explain how energy's natural tendency is to flow from higher concentration to lower concentration. The concentrated heat in a cup of coffee will flow out to disperse into a cool room. The coffee cannot accumulate greater energy concentration by sucking energy out of the room. To heat the coffee, you need to spend more energy, such as the electricity that feeds your coffeepot. It doesn't matter if the total heat energy in the room is a hundred times the heat energy in the coffee, it can't add to the heat energy of the coffee unless it can be concentrated somehow, and that takes energy, such as electricity to power a heat-pump. That energy itself must be sufficiently concentrated. You can't win, you can't break even.

Consider the challenge of trying to run a tractor with solar energy. The solar energy is too diffuse for a solar cell or parabolic mirror mounted on the tractor to collect enough to power the tractor. The tractor requires highly concentrated energy to give it lots of power in a small space. So maybe you could put batteries in the tractor and build a solar array to generate electricity for it. But the batteries and the solar array require lots of concentrated energy to build, so you're back to square one. Finding the concentrated energy to run a tractor isn't difficult if fossil fuels like gas and diesel are available and cheap. Those fuels represent many millions of years of biological and geological accumulation and concentration of solar energy through the photosynthesis of ancient plants.

What happens when, in the wake of Peak Oil, those fuels become increasingly scarce? Our present society, with its mega-freeways and suburbs built around cars and mechanized agriculture--all dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy fossil fuels provide--starts to look like a certain ill-fated passenger ship on its way to an appointment with an iceberg.

Another key concept is Energy Return on Energy Input (EROEI). Any proposed energy source must put out more energy than it requires to run. For example, corn ethanol cannot replace fossil fuels because the inputs of fossil fuel energy (diesel for the tractors, harvesters, chemical fertilizers etc. to grow the corn, the processing equipment that makes ethanol from corn, the trucks that ship the ethanol to gas stations, etc.) is greater than the energy output of the ethanol. In energy terms, corn ethanol is like trading a $10.00 bill for a five and three ones.

Since renewables like solar and wind are more diffuse energy sources than fossil fuels, and they have significantly lower EROEI than fossil fuels (until fossil fuels cease to be plentiful), they cannot be simply substituted for oil to keep BAU running. BAU simply requires too much concentrated energy to be sustainable without plentiful, cheap oil. And, since post-fossil fuel societies will have to operate on the same energy budget as societies before fossil fuel use (i.e., pre-industrial societies), they will only be able to support populations, lifestyles, and technology levels pre-industrial societies would have been capable of. The Pharaohs, Caesars, and Tokogawa Shoguns might have been able to produce slide rules and crystal radios if they'd had the know-how, but without fossil fuels they could not have produced the Internet or supersonic fighter jets no matter what technical information they possessed.

And so, according to Mr. Greer, humanity is inevitably foreordained to return to muscle-power--human labor and draft animals, occasionally supplemented with hand-built water-wheels and windmills. Judging by previous history, these will mostly be god-king empires and feudalisms, with a small handful of kings, lords, and priests living in relative comfort on the backs of slaves and serfs. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the next killer asteroid comes along or the Sun leaves the Main Sequence, whichever comes first. Or, as he summarizes it into a pocket maxim: There is no brighter future ahead.[1]

To counter this gloomy scenario, there is the fact that increased scientific and technological knowledge can and does make it possible to do more with a given energy budget. Imperial China had the same available solar energy budget as Peking Man (Homo Erectus). Imperial China was able to do a great deal more with it because they possessed a far greater store of technical knowledge. Of course the principles of physics and ecology set limits on what ingenuity can accomplish. If there's not enough usable energy to power billions of automobiles through a built environment designed to make them necessary, then we won't be able to just stuff batteries into our Hummers in place of gas tanks and call it a day no matter how much R&D we put to the task.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm avoiding any appeal to handwavium technologies of The Future like nuclear fusion. If some sort of safe, cheap, non-polluting nuclear fusion is developed, then great. But it's not something we should be betting our civilization on. Instead, we should plan to live within the energy budget that can be harvested from renewable sources with technology that already exists and is based on known principles.

Can we maintain a relatively modern standard of living and a progressive culture (i.e. no return of slavery, serfdom, women as chattel, etc.) within the lower energy budget of a post-fossil fuel age?

I think we can. Nathan Lewis at has made a persuasive and wittily-argued case for a non-medieval alternative to BAU. I've added a few elements to his proposal to sketch out what I think an ecotechnic civilization could look like:

1) Walkable, carfree Traditional Cities: These are cities built the way all cities were built before the Industrial Revolution--Really Narrow Streets meant for people rather than cars, and buildings a few stories high.

2) Build To Last: In the post-Peak Oil world, we have access to more convenient, high energy density liquid fuels now that we will in the future. This means that if we build something now, it's easier and cheaper than building something similar in the future. If we Build To Last, so that our grandchildren can build on our infrastructure instead of having to constantly refurbish stuff built to endure for a few decades at most, we do them an enormous favor. The EROEI for a city that provides a comfortable place to live, trade, create art, goods, and services for 2,000 years is tremendous.

3) Proven ecotechnic design: Passive solar, rooftop solar water heaters and/or gardens, Living Machine water treatment systems, etc..

4) Renewable energy: Though they are still at the prototype stage, I do not know of any physics that would prevent Kitegen kite-powered high-altitude wind generators or Magenn dirigible wind turbines from working. Operating at higher altitude, and without the massive towers and blades needed to make large-scale conventional wind turbines, these should have significantly higher EROEI.

5) Permaculture/Fukoka-style "no-till" farming: Areas around the cities and villages can be dedicated to high-yield Permaculture farming and/or real wilderness producing wild game hunted sustainably.

6) Trains: A decent electric train system to tie it all together.

7) A new concept of "quality of life:" Measure "quality of life" by different (and less energy-intensive/more sustainable) standards than the size of our SUV's and televisions and freeway overpasses. Example 1. Example 2.

In order to get some citokate,[2] I posted this brief summary plan into a comment thread on one of Mr. Greer's posts for which it was on topic, to let him and his crew of intelligent and well-informed collapsitarians have at it.

Next: The Debate!


1. Greer is not quite so pessimistic in his book The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. In it, he proposes that, after the Dark Age has run its course, centuries in the future, there could be "...a new form of human civilization--an ecotechnic society--that will support a relatively complex technology while sustaining rich and sustainable relations with the rest of the biosphere." I think the odds of creating such a society are much greater if we start now when we have a vast pool of scientific knowledge and highly-intelligent, technically-trained people to do it with, rather than hoping that illiterate peasants living in terror of feudal overlords and roving barbarians will be able to pull it off.

2. Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.


  1. Although it's true that fossil fuels have a reasonably high EROEI if all you want to do is burn them to keep warm, if you want to use that concentrated energy to make electricity then the EROEI is much lower.

    I did a review of the available literature for a recent report[1] with several hundred data-points and found that the EROEI of wind and other renewable electricity (other than liquid biofuels) is much higher than fossil fuelled electricity [2].

    In terms of a less pessimistic view of the future, under the two constraints of Peak Oil and climate change, with a maintained quality of life you could take a look at the recent Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report from the Centre for Alternative Technology[3].

    1. The Offshore Valuation
    2. EROEI of electricity generation
    3. Zero Carbon Britain 2030

  2. Thanks, 0carbon, I'll look into that. Unfortunately, I don't live in Britain. ;)

  3. Well still worth checking out. A lot of the things in ZCB still apply across the pond. In some ways the USA is lucky in that the population is less dense (more room for renewables like wind and solar), but on the other hand that distributed population makes things like transport and electricity distribution much harder.

    The EROEI research is from global data so as applicable in the USA as in the UK.

  4. I've downloaded the ZCB info and started reading it. By "Unfortunately, I don't live in Britain" I meant that I wish I was in a country where this stuff was being taken seriously as it seems to be across the Pond. I'm sure the principles will apply about as well over here. Thanks again for the links!