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It’s probably unfair to finger Rocky Twyman as the architect of the global recession, for a variety of reasons. All Twyman did was lead a mass movement to pray for lower oil prices. But as Ian Ayres asks so succinctly, “Did God reduce prices on the demand side or the supply side?” Apparently Twyman and his followers didn’t specify, and God in his wisdom chose the demand side, in the form of a global recession.
Out of the many lessons to be learned here, let’s focus on this: Twyman’s blithe request illustrates the danger we’re in if we don’t look at the full relationship of oil prices, supply, demand, and the oil production pipeline. This was taught really well by players in the World Without Oil game: at game’s end, when the crisis was apparently “over” and gas prices had stabilized once again (at $5.50/gal US), many players were horrified to see their neighbors fall right back into their old fuel-dependent habits. Which is what I see now all around: people believing that after a period of “false high prices” driven by “speculation,” fuel prices are now declining to their “natural levels” where they will remain, apparently, until the Second Coming.
What has actually happened is that the credit crisis has removed uncertainty from the oil market. Earlier this year, the oil market didn’t know if the oil coming out of the ground would be able to satisfy demand, so prices for oil futures went up. Now, however, it’s clear to the market that a global recession is here, and since the recession will precipitate a sudden drop in demand, it’s also clear that for the short term oil suppliers have too much oil in the pipeline. Thus the tumble in prices.
What this does NOT mean is that we have a lot of oil, or that uncertainty is gone from our oil future. Uncertainty is an indelible part of oil – for one thing, the people who control certainty are the same people that profit from uncertainty. Add to that the tendency for oil to create and maintain non-democratic nations, and the growing strategic importance of energy, and you’ve got an enduring situation where the only certainty is uncertainty.
Plus… as I’ve noted before, success in energy independence means lower oil prices. The people who buy hybrids and use alternate transit drive down the demand for oil, which drives down its price for a while. But the only way to keep the price down long term is to actively pursue alternatives, and not to be seduced by a low price today. As we all know all too well by now, that can change, and astonishingly quickly. Photo by ursonate via Flickr.
Responding to the crisis of the World War I and II years, people planted Victory Gardens. By raising their own food, citizens cut the demand for outside food and saved the fuel that would otherwise be needed to bring food to them. More important, they increased the resilience of the economy (by decentralizing food production, by being able to make their own decisions about distribution, and so on). And most important of all, they thus became an active part of the war effort – “Food is Fighting!” as several government posters succinctly put it. One result: an extraordinarily unified country.
Now we fast-forward to 2008. Whether or not the government chooses to acknowledge it, there’s another crisis going on – or more precisely, a concatenating and synergistic series of crises with feet already in the door. And many people are responding appropriately: by planting the Victory Gardens of 2008, by riding bicycles and taking transit, by driving efficient cars and hybrids, by eating locally, by building green, by cutting waste, by building communities and debating solutions, and so on.
The differences between then and now are notable – and to my mind, ominous. Then, these citizen actions were actively encouraged by The Powers That Be, which tallied their contributions and recognized them as important. Then, the White House boasted its own Victory Garden. Today, however, these citizen actions are actively discouraged by the government in favor of Consumerism As Usual, and the contributions these citizens are making are not recognized or even tabulated. Instead, we hear the “drill!” mantra, even though the citizen conservation approach has the potential to produce (via saving) more than 10 times the energy that drilling would net, in a quarter of the time. And once again the potential to unify the country, not divide it further.
In the World Without Oil project, we simulated the first 32 weeks of an global oil shortage. In the simulation, the government did very little and it was up to the people to crowdsource their own solutions to the crisis. Unfortunately, as with many other revelations from World Without Oil, government inaction seems to be coming true. Will it be up to the people to crowdsource their way into a viable and better way of life? The good news is, we’ve already started.
Inspiration this morning in a national press release from Germany:
Stuttgart to Launch Electric Bike Share
With gas prices climbing and the threats associated with global warming becoming more apparent, more and more commuters think two wheels look better than four…
The city of Stuttgart has announced plans to rent electric scooters from locations around the city. The idea injects an electric jolt into the bike-sharing programs like Paris’ popular Vélib’.
The city’s government has inked a deal with British firm Ultra Motor to provide the moped-like vehicles. It hopes to have around 1,200 such vehicles ready for rental and covered charging stations located every 500-600 feet around the city in about less than a year.
The LEVs can travel up to 37 miles before needing a charge – which takes about 15 minutes – and have been especially engineered to travel up steep hills.
Interested users will be able to buy a monthly LEV subscription for 15 euros ($24), which will provide them with rides up to 30 minutes, a fraction of the price for a monthly Stuttgart train pass.
I believe the LEVs are combination pedal-electric: that is, you can pedal yourself as much or as little as you want.
More info on the LEV Share program here – coming soon to more cities in Europe. We need to welcome initiatives like these and consider them for American cities, which take oil-burning vehicles off the road and help us make the transition into a more electric-powered and efficiency-oriented (i.e., more sustainable) transportation mindset. First, of course, we have to start making riding two-wheelers safer by cutting back on the car-first design of almost all our streets… Europe has a 30-year or so head start on us on this. Photo by JS North via Flickr.
David Kirsch, an oil analyst at PFC Energy, said that if the most promising areas off Florida and California were opened for drilling, their peak production in a decade could be as little as 250,000 barrels a day — less than a quarter of what the gulf produces now. “It’s almost a desperate attempt to take advantage of the political climate brought on by high energy prices to steamroll through legislation that won’t fundamentally address those high energy prices,” Mr. Kirsch said. (As reported in the New York Times)
250,000 barrels a day – to put this number in perspective, it’s the amount that the Cantarell oilfield in Mexico declined in the last six months (and its decline will continue).
It’s the amount that North Sea oil fields declined in the last year (and their decline will continue). It’s the amount taken offline recently when rebels in speedboats attacked an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria. It’s a little over 1% of our current oil consumption and maybe a third of a percent of the world’s. It’s spit in the bucket.
Meanwhile, conservation methods offer us a way to reduce our dependence on oil by as much as one-third. That would be 28 times as great an effect. Twenty-eight times. We wouldn’t have to spend anything, or spoil anything, to do it. We could start right away, rather than waiting 10 years. And perhaps most tellingly, it would be a benefit that actually accrued to squeezed U.S. citizens, rather than a benefit that accrued to oil companies and whoever will bid the highest for the offshore oil.
It’s what the other developed nations of the world have done. Maybe we should take advantage of the research they’ve done in this area? Or must we live through the World Without Oil scenario first?
In the public forums you often hear concern expressed about “the economy” – what will we do to “the economy” if we take measures about changing our energy systems, if we take action about climate change, etc. And to measure what’s happening to “the economy” people invariably use the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
But as Jonathan Rowe spells out in a speech to Congress, the GDP was never intended to be used in this way, and actually the guy who developed it warned – nay, begged – government never to do so. But that warning went unheeded and now here we are: as Jonathan shows, the hero of “the economy” is someone with a heart condition going through a bitter divorce, and the villains are people who conserve, grow their own food and share with others, care for their own children, and so on.
Where GDP really gets it wrong, however, is when it tries to assess a resource such as oil. Its accounting is unable to apprehend the idea of limit or depletion, so again in Jonathan’s able phrase, it’s like a fuel gauge that reads fuller and fuller as it empties. I can’t help but think of the historical lessons in Collapse, the book by Jared Diamond, in which this sort of negative feedback loop spells doom for previous human civilizations.
Take a few minutes and read the transcript of Jonathan Rowe’s speech (pdf). And thanks to Harper’s Magazine, which published the speech in its June issue (subscription needed). Photo by wallyg via Flickr.
Circumstances have conspired to create an explosion in backyard gardens. I heard this first anecdotally about a month ago from my friends in New York City, who reported that the nurseries near their farm in Vermont were just about out of everything. And now it’s hitting the newswires.
The backyard garden may conjure up patriotic memories of the Victory Gardens of World War II, but as the article notes, the last time that Americans really got serious about gardening was the Oil Shock of 1975. And sure enough, backyard and urban gardens were a central theme in the World Without Oil game – and local food and guerrilla gardening  , too.
It’s easy to see why – A garden turns some dirt, some water, some seeds, some weeding and some sun into food – the most efficient solar power device known to man. And as many WWO players cautioned, it’s good to start now: gardening is a skill that takes years to acquire – best not to count on a lifesaving bounty your first (or second) time out. Photo of the Farmers Market in Union Square, June 2008.
“VaderJets Executive Jet Charter
Hello Ken, My name is Darth Carbon, Aviation Specialist with VaderJets based out of New York City. We provide worldwide private air charters with offices located in New York, Dubai, and Tanzania. Please feel free to contact me with questions you may have. We appreciate your consideration and trust in VaderJets for your flight needs as they continually arise. Imperial Jets is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
(An email I got yesterday – some names have been corrected)
“Americans are angry about the economy, I’ve come to believe, in a new and profound way…. our anguished cries may be fueled by our unwillingness to accept an unmistakable message the economy is now sending us: We must fundamentally change our behavior.” From a column by Chris O’Brien in Sunday’s San Jose Mercury News. He goes on to prescribe the ‘casserole economy’: “Simplify. Have more discipline. Begin to do the things you’ve known all along you should be doing, but haven’t either out of denial or inertia or because cheap gas allowed you to avoid them.” He quotes Kit Yarrow, economic psychologist at Golden Gate University: “Oddly enough, I think there is a huge silver lining. I think people will be less wasteful.” And Chris calls for government leaders to restore our tattered social safety nets and to galvanize the Victory Gardens of the 21st century.
In short, he sounds just like the voice of experience talking about the lessons of World Without Oil.
This is the point, folks, where the World Without Oil game wants to cease being prophetic. We were supposed to play it first, then live it differently. As the next stage of the crisis looms ahead, let’s focus hard now on that “differently” part.
“We hear a lot of chatter about the price of gas these days. Most of it is just complaining and finger pointing. The few ‘solutions’ bandied around seem to have to do with biofuels and drilling for oil in new locations –- both problematic in their own ways. How can we get people to start thinking out of the box and looking at other alternatives? Seems like the following approach to involving and engaging people with important issues could be used in a lot of other educational contexts.” — The Education for Wellbeing site, talking about the World Without Oil game archive and our Lesson Plans for high school teachers.
I’m mulling this morning over the similarities between the subprime mortgage crisis and the high fuel price crisis. Both strike me as little garden paths that the unwary were led along, by people willing to make a buck over the inability of others to visualize the future.
In both cases, people were sold a dream of the unaffordable made affordable, and sold the products that go with it: big new homes in the suburbs and plush low-mpg vehicles to make their long commutes comfortable. Now however the payment rates are being radically readjusted and the balloon payments are coming due. The purveyors of this dream – the subprime lenders of U.S. energy policy, the oil and auto companies and others aided and abetted by a subprime administration – are escaping with their gains and leaving people made destitute by their deception.
What’s needed is action that materially reduces our dependence on oil forever – higher fuel efficiency, plug-in hybrids, alternative energy. Solutions such as drilling for more oil are merely a continuation of the cruel deception. For starters, it will take about 10 years for any new well to actually produce any oil – no help whatsoever to those being squeezed hard right now by high fuel prices. But the main point is: more oil, from any source, amounts to no more than taking out a second mortgage on a subprime energy policy, something that only puts the inevitable foreclosure off another year or two.
Thanks, John Thackara, for alerting me to the City Eco Lab being planned for November, in st. Etienne, France. City Eco Lab are “design steps to a one-planet economy”: by demonstrating a full range of projects that rethink a city’s consumption of fuel, food, energy, water, etc., CEL moves the focus beyond an individual’s choices to the systems that citizens depend on for their livelihood. It’s a really great idea and one that should be extended to cities in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Is it possible, however, that an oil crisis will strike St. Etienne even as the City Eco Lab gets underway? And citizens of St. Etienne will be phoning in reports live as the crisis progresses? It’s certainly possible, given the current state of fuel protests spreading like wildfire across Europe. And it’s possible in a WWO sense too (and maybe you can help). Stay tuned. Photo of St. Etienne tram by Michallon via Flickr
The Stockholm Challenge has brought together people using information technology for civic purposes from all over the globe. Naturally we’ve been networking like mad. In this quick video, the finalists in attendance from the Environment category list their partnership needs. Anybody know of a potential resource?
Everywhere I go in Sweden, I see messages about energy. Car ads list fuel types first, car names second. Car magazines splash “Diesel Sport!” on the cover. New buildings have huge banners on them touting their green designs.
Even the toilets have their message. I encountered one that has a Stop button – stop flushing, that is. Another had a dual flush button – one for a big flush, one for a small. Which may seem puzzling for a country that doesn’t have much of a water problem, until I remembered that moving water around is one of the prime energy drain (so to speak). Back in California, it is the state’s single biggest energy use, for example.
The Tunnelbana – the subway – works like a dream. It’s pleasant to ride and efficient. And it’s growing: the land around my hotel is all torn up for a new spur line to be added.
The thing is, Sweden has a plan – it wants to wean itself off petroenergy by 2015. And the first step is to make efficiency a priority. This bus advertisement (at right) really summed up the attitude: whereas in the US it would probably read “Get more X for less money!” here in Sweden it reads “Get more X for less energy!” That is a profoundly different mindset, and one that the World Without Oil game is helping to promote.