Many people have the misguided belief that cities are energy efficient. Cities compared to other environments are often more efficient with respect to transportation, because fuel use actually drops off in city centers due to the availability of mass transit. But the embodied emergy as a whole in the infrastructure, people, and information in cities suggests the opposite. Cities are actually energy hogs, that concentrate energy. In a future of waning energy, are our biggest cities too big to fail? What size city is sustainable?
This post is a follow-up to last week’s post about our dialogue about big cities and descent. Examples are everywhere this week of people projecting their fears on long-deferred retribution by Mother Nature and the need to wield war using our technological tools to maintain our cities. Sandy is evidence of a heating world, with bigger swings in weather and a hurricane one week, a northeaster the next. There have been a flood of victorious articles suggesting that I told you so about climate change. Even though Sandy was only category 1 or 2 storm, it was over a very broad area with a very high total kinetic energy because of a hot ocean, even very late in hurricane season in a season with many storms. But the impacts of Sandy were complicated by the population density in the northeast. Perhaps The Weather Channel needs to make up a new metric for landfall in complex, urban settings. The more high-tech complexity we have, the more widespread, serious, and long-term the impacts. These scenarios will be increasingly frequent in the future, as we turn the lights out in a room with too many people. Continue reading →
My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization. Continue reading →
Folks in the Anchorage bowl woke Wednesday morning to widespread power outages, trees down, traffic lights out, and closed schools and businesses. An early September winter storm created hurricane force winds. The power at the house was out for about eight hours, and we have a tree down in the yard. Much of Anchorage is in the same boat. Score one for Mother Nature in man’s apparent battle for control over nature. Fortunately this power outage came in early September and not the dead of winter, serving as a good consciousness-raising event and needs assessment for future power outages. So this post is both pragmatic and fanciful, covering personal, pragmatic issues related to sudden loss of complexity events and some “what if” questions about the future of digitization. I’m typing this during brownouts and occasional triggers of the generator, which got its first real test last night. We are near a trunk line, with underground power, so our power came back quickly. But close neighbors are not so lucky. Today is woodcutting day, for us and our friends, whether we need the wood or not. So this post may ramble a bit, like my thoughts, between the impacts of events at the larger scale like windstorms and regional blackouts, and personal preparation at the local scale. Continue reading →
Summer is rapidly coming to an end. Long summer nights are waning, and I notice that I need to turn on lights in the morning now. Berries are ripe for the picking, and there is a slight chill in the air. The Alaska State Fair is coming. It is time to take stock, examining our progress in making ourselves more self-sufficient. Continue reading →
Two prominent energetic systems principles that drive our complex economy are hierarchy and autocatalysis. Earlier posts highlighted the concepts of energy transformity and hierarchy. The concept of autocatalysis can be seen in many circular loops in our current society, such as current proposals for geoengineering technology to fix the problems that industrial and post-industrial technology have wrought. Autocatalysis is also known as the positive feedback loop, and it is the engine for our growth economy. Continue reading →
How do cities concentrate energy and materials spatially? What is the relative emergy basis for modern cities, agrarian towns, and rural spaces? Do city dwellers use more or fewer resources than suburban or rural dwellers? Are big cities more sustainable in descent, as some propose, and how do we maximize empower in the future for our cities? Continue reading →