The Asian Miracles: Free renewables made it all possible

By Tom Abel

I recently visited China for the first time. I saw that scholars are still trying to understand the China economic miracle and predict its future growth / stagnation / decline. Some time ago I considered this issue in the context of the previous Asian miracles and from the view of economy as ultimately a product of ecology. With a simple model that focuses on the need of households to provision family members, an answer becomes clear.

In the 1970s-1980s it was Japan, in the 1980s it was Taiwan (and others), and in the 1990s-2000s it has been China (and Vietnam). Each of these countries urbanized quickly as rural migrants streamed into new factories for the manufacturing of first simple products and later high-tech. In the case of Japan and Taiwan, growth peaked and has since stagnated. China’s growth may be slowing.

Abelrural
A rural farm in Guilin, China (source)

Something that connects them is this. Previously rural countrysides supported large populations in each country. That meant that much, if not most of the energy/emergy that supported the households was from free, renewable sources, primarily household gardens, but also the other free natural resources of the countryside that process human waste, clean drinking water, and cool households. Continue reading The Asian Miracles: Free renewables made it all possible

Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

By Mary Logan

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that  problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (Drunkard.com, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology. Continue reading Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

Net Energy-what Captain Cook didn’t know

By Mary Logan

In June of 1778, Captain Cook’s search for the Northwest Passage brought him to the later-named Cook inlet near my home, Anchorage, Alaska. As he sailed up the arm (fjord) and reached the end, he discovered that there was no outlet. After days of being stuck due to wind and fog, he had to TurnAgain, hence the name of the arm. Captain Cook never found the Northwest passage, and he never saw England again. He died the following year in the Hawaiian islands after picking a fight with Hawaiian Islanders.

We are not quite out of gas yet in the United States. But we keep steaming down fjords without outlets, turning randomly from one blind alley to the next in trying to adapt to our energy quandary. In Captain Cook’s case, he was exploring with zero information, so there was a good chance of failure. But when it comes to energy alternatives, we can avoid dead ends, since we have what Captain Cook didn’t have, information on the best alternatives. This post is about the science of net energy regarding those options.

We are now trialling many unworkable alternative energy sources, as a response to government subsidies and agendas promoted by various energy lobbies, often in pursuit of short-term profits for private companies. Should we be letting private energy companies with vested interests dictate future energy policy which could make the difference in continuing to exist as a country? Which so-called renewable energy sources have yielded practical returns on investment, withstanding the test of time? There is a 50-year body of research on the subject of net energy. Shouldn’t we be using science and not vested corporate interests to set energy policy?

In the last post, I suggested that if one doesn’t understand the problem of declining net energy (empower basis), then growth is not viewed as a problem. Even our oil companies now openly advertise that we have produced the easy half of the oil available to the planet, and we will be producing less in the future since we have peaked. Less oil and other resources means that our economy will have to contract in the future, since renewable energy suffers from lower energy density and quality. Since we are entering energy descent, practical energy sources are beginning to sort from the impractical. Because “the true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what is left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted,” we must decide net yield to make proactive choices about the future (Odum, 1973). Odum developed the concept of net energy and then refined the idea over the span of 50 years. The name of the analysis changed several times beginning with the term net energy then to embodied energy and finally to the term emergy yield or net empower to account for more inclusive changes in method, so many don’t recognize that the terms were developed over time from the thinking of the same community of scientists.

The primary goal of this post is to suggest that many purported energy source predictions of net yield are overly optimistic dead ends–many of our current efforts won’t work. The second goal is to suggest more reasonable net empower estimates, and to briefly check the performance of renewables from the proving ground of time. How did these experiments in energy work out for us? Continue reading Net Energy-what Captain Cook didn’t know

Renewable Power Rhythm

The Rhythm of Power Availability in the Post-Prosperous Way Down World

by David Tilley, University of Maryland

Dr. H.T. Odum and his wife Betty spent much of their careers developing thoughts on what became the book, A Prosperous Way Down (PWD). Others, like Richard Heinberg, have been successful at bringing the seriousness and reality of a PWD to a larger audience. There is a small and growing amount of thinking and talking about doomsday or armageddon scenarios that many think will prevail as fossil fuels become scarce.

Hunger Games Capitol City (Collins, Ross, Lionsgate) http://thecapitoltour.pn/

National Geographic has given us the TV reality program Doomsday Preppers. Its presence and popularity reflects the public’s perception that change is on its way. I think the success and impetus for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is a response to the reality of a PWD. Rather than cover what the way down will be like in this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on what one important aspect of life might be like once we reach “down”. That is, the time after decline is finished, when the fossil fuels are gone and society is running almost completely on renewably sourced energies. I explore how peoples’ behaviors may change once they are driven by flow-limited energy sources rather than storage-driven sources in the post carbon world? Flow-limited sources cannot be controlled and stored easily so society will be more effective if it adapts to the rhythm and availability of energy. Continue reading Renewable Power Rhythm