Wednesday, March 03, 2010

An Exergy Crisis

In last week’s Archdruid Report post, I discussed the difference between energy and exergy, or in slightly less jargon-laden terms, between the quantity of energy and the concentration of energy. It’s hard to think of a more critical difference to keep in mind if you’re trying to make sense of the predicament of modern industrial civilization, but it’s even harder to think of a point more often missed in the rising spiral of debates about that predicament.

The basic principle is simple enough, and bears repeating here: the amount of work you get out of a given energy source depends, not on the quantity of energy in the source, but on the difference in energy concentration between the energy source and the environment. That’s basic thermodynamics, of the sort that every high school student used to learn in physics class back in those far-off days when American high school students took physics classes worth the name. Put that principle to work, though, and the results are often highly counterintuitive; this probably has more than a little to do with the way that even professional scientists miss them, and fumble predictions as a result.

The current brouhaha over anthropogenic climate change offers a good example. There’s been a great deal of high-grade fertilizer heaped over the issues by propaganda factories on all sides of that debate, but beneath it all is the tolerably well documented fact that we’re in the middle of a significant shift in global climate, focused on the north polar region. The causes of that shift are by no means entirely settled, but it seems a little silly to insist, as some people do, that the mass dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by humanity can’t have anything to do with it – or, for that matter, that it’s a good idea to keep on dumping those gases into an atmospheric system that may already be dangerously unstable for reasons of its own.

Still, for the next decade or more, that bad idea is very likely to remain standard practice around the world, and one reason for that is that climate change activists have shot themselves in the foot. No, I’m not talking about the recent flurry of revelations that some IPCC scientists diddled the facts to make a good but undramatic case more mediagenic. Nor am I talking about the awkward detail that the IPCC scenarios assume, in the teeth of all geological evidence, that the world can keep increasing the amount of fossil fuels it extracts and burns straight through to 2100. The problem goes deeper than that, down to the decision to define the crisis as “global warming.” That seems sensible enough – after all, we’re talking about an increase in the total quantity of heat in the Earth’s atmosphere – but here as elsewhere, the fixation on quantity misses the crucial point at issue.

I’m not generally a fan of Thomas Friedman, but he scored a bullseye in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded when he pointed out that what we’re facing isn’t global warming but “global weirding:” not a simple increase in temperature, but an increase in unexpected and disruptive weather events. As the atmosphere heats up, the most important effect of that shift isn’t the raw increase in temperature; rather, it’s the increase in the difference in energy concentration between the atmosphere and the oceans. The thermal properties of water make the seas warm up much more slowly than the air and the Earth’s land surface, and so even a fairly modest change in the quantity of heat causes a much more significant change in exergy. Again, it’s exergy rather than energy that determines how much work a system can do, and the work that the Earth’s atmosphere does is called “weather.” Thus the most visible result of a relatively rapid rise in the heat concentration of the atmosphere isn’t a generalized warming. Rather, it’s an increase in extreme weather conditions on both ends of the temperature scale.

This isn’t a new point. It has been made repeatedly by a number of scientists and, interestingly enough, by large insurance companies as well. Munich Re, for example, pointed out a few years back that at the current rate of increase, the annual cost of natural disasters caused by global climate change would equal the gross domestic product of the world well before the end of the 21st century. Had climate advocates taken that as their central theme, this winter’s abnormally harsh storms in the eastern half of the US would have provided plenty of grist for their mills; even hardcore skeptics, as they shoveled snow off their driveways for the fourth or fifth time in a row, might have started to wonder if there was something to the claim that greenhouse-gas dumping was causing the weather to go wild. Instead, seduced by our culture’s fixation on quantity, climate advocates defined the problem purely as a future of too much heat, and those same skeptics, shoveling those same driveways, are rolling their eyes and wishing that a little of that global warming would show up to help them out.

It’s probably too late for climate change activists to switch their talking points from global warming to global weirding and be believed by anybody who isn’t already convinced, and so we’ll likely have to wait until the first really major global climate disaster before any significant steps get taken. (Given the latest reports from the Greenland ice cap, that may not be too many decades in the future, and any of my readers who live within fifty feet or so of sea level might find it advisable to relocate to higher ground.) Still, the same confusion between energy and exergy impacts the crisis of our time in other ways, and some of those are central to the themes this blog has been exploring in recent months.

One of the common ways to avoid thinking about our predicament, as I mentioned last week, is to cite the quantity of energy that arrives on Earth by way of sunlight every day, and note that it’s vastly greater than the quantity of energy our civilization uses in a year. That’s true enough, but it misses the point, which is that the energy in that sunlight has very modest amounts of exergy by the time it crosses 93 million miles of space to get to us, and it can therefore do only modest amounts of work. Strictly speaking, we don’t face an energy crisis as fossil fuels run short; what we face is an exergy crisis – a serious shortage of energy in highly concentrated forms. That’s a problem, because nearly every detail of daily life in a modern industrial society depends on using highly concentrated energy sources.

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that calling something a problem has certain definite implications. A problem, at least potentially, has a solution; that’s what differentiates it from a predicament, which cannot be solved and simply has to be lived with. The depletion and eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels, and the absence of any sign of an abundant high-exergy replacement for them in this small corner of the cosmos, is a predicament. The dependence on these fuels of most of the activities of daily life in the industrial world is a problem, because a great many of those activities don’t actually need anything like the amount of exergy we put into them.

Here’s an example. Nearly every home in the industrial world has hot water on tap. That’s by no means a pointless luxury; the contemporary habit of washing dishes, clothes, and bodies with ample amounts of hot water and soap has eliminated whole categories of illnesses that plagued our ancestors not that long ago. A very large fraction of those homes get that hot water by burning fossil fuels, either right there at the hot water heater, or at a power plant that uses the heat to generate the electricity that does the heating. A society that has ample supplies of high-exergy fossil fuels can afford to do that; a society running out of exergy is likely to face increasing troubles doing so.

There’s a crucial point not often recognized, though, which is that it doesn’t take that much exergy to heat a tank full of water from ambient temperature to 120° or so. The same thing can be done very effectively by energy sources that aren’t very concentrated, such as sunlight.

Enter the solar hot water heater.

This is arguably the most mature and successful solar technology we’ve got right now. The process is simple: one of several different kinds of collectors gather heat from the sun and transmit it either to water, in places that don’t get freezing temperatures, or to an antifreeze solution in places that do. In a water system, the hot water goes from the collector to an insulated tank, and eventually to the hot water faucet; in an antifreeze system, the antifreeze circulates through a heat exchanger that passes the heat to water, which then goes into an insulated tank to wait for its moment of glory. In most parts of the United States, a well-designed solar hot water system will cut a home’s energy use to heat water by 70%; in the Sun Belt, it’s not at all uncommon for a system of this sort to render any other hot water heater unnecessary.

Now it will doubtless already have occurred to my readers that installing a solar hot water system in their homes will not save the world. What it will do, on the other hand, is take part of the work now done by highly concentrated energy sources – most of which are rapidly depleting, and can be expected to become more expensive in real terms over the decades to come – and hand it over to a readily available energy source of lower concentration that, among other things, happens to be free. That’s an obvious practical gain for the residents of the house, and it’s also a collective gain for the community and society, since remaining supplies of high-exergy fossil fuels can be freed up for more necessary uses or, just possibly, left in the ground where they arguably belong.

It’s curious, to use no stronger word, that so eminently practical a step as installing solar hot water systems has received so little attention in the peak oil and climate change communities. It’s all the more curious because the US government, which so often seems incapable of encountering a problem without doing its level best to make it worse, has actually done something helpful for a change: there are very substantial federal income tax benefits for installing a residential solar hot water system. Why, then, haven’t solar hot water heaters blossomed like daisies atop homes across the country? Why haven’t activists made a push to define this proven technology as one part of a meaningful response to the crisis of our time?

It’s an interesting question to which I don’t have a definite answer. Partly, I think it ties into the weird disconnect between belief and action that pervades the apocalyptic end of contemporary culture. Of the sizable number of people in today’s America who say they believe that the world is coming to an end in 2012, for example, how many have stopped putting money into their retirement accounts? To judge by what little evidence I’ve been able to gather, not very many. In the same way, of the people who say they recognize that today’s extravagant habits of energy use are only possible because of a glut of cheap abundant fossil fuels, and will go away as fossil fuels deplete, those who are taking even basic steps to prepare themselves for a future of scarcity and socioeconomic disruption make up an uncomfortably small fraction. It’s hard to imagine passengers on a sinking ship glancing over the side to see the water rising, and going back to their game of shuffleboard on the deck, but a similar behavior pattern is far from rare these days.

Still, I think part of the issue is the same fixation on quantity I’ve discussed already. Solar hot water heaters don’t produce, or save, a great quantity of energy. Water heating uses around 15 per cent of an average home’s energy bill, and so a solar hot water system that replaces 70% of that will account for a bit more than 10% of home energy use. (This is still enough to pay for most professionally installed solar hot water systems in 3 to 7 years, mind you.) If every home in America put a solar hot water heater on its roof, the impact on our total national energy consumption would be noticeable, but in terms of raw quantity, it wouldn’t be huge.

Still, this misses at least three important points. First, of course, installing a solar hot water system can very easily be one piece of a broader program of energy conservation with a much larger impact. Knock 10% off household energy use with a solar hot water system, another 10% by insulating, weatherstripping, and the like, another 10% with an assortment of other simple energy-saving technologies (any halfway decent book on energy conservation from the Seventies has plenty of suggestions), and another 20% with lifestyle changes, and your home will be getting by with half the concentrated energy it uses right now. If even a large minority of homes in America took these steps, or others with similar effects, the effect on national exergy use would be very substantial indeed.

Second, there’s a very large and underappreciated difference between essential and nonessential energy uses, and it’s one that many of us will learn to recognize in the challenging years ahead. A great deal of energy use in America today is nonessential – think for a moment of all the energy currently devoted to the tourism industry, which is a very sizable sector of the US economy these days, and could be shut down tomorrow without impacting much of anything but the unemployment rolls – and a very large amount of that will go away as America slides down the curve of energy descent toward its near-future status as a Third World country. Whether or not hot water is strictly essential, its direct practical benefits in terms of health and comfort put it a good deal closer to the core, and that makes finding low-exergy ways to provide it particularly important.

Third, as I’ve already suggested, we face an exergy shortage rather than an energy shortage. That doesn’t make our predicament any less severe, mind you. A strong case can be made that available exergy places a hard upper limit on the human population of the planet; as our supplies of exergy diminish, so will the human population, and at this point it’s all too likely that most of that reduction will happen in the traditional manner, via those four unwelcome guys on horseback. It does mean, though, that individuals, families, and communities that take steps to meet as many of their energy needs as possible using relatively low-exergy energy sources can have a disproportionate impact on the way that the future unfolds.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Jevons’ Paradox – the rule that gains in the efficiency with which a resource is used tend to increase the use of the resource – only applies when cost is the only restriction to the use of the resource. When use of a resource is declining due to factors external to the economy, such as geological limits, gains in efficiency lessen the economic and social impact of shortages and buy time for a more gradual decline. Solar water heating is one example of a technology that can help our communities and societies make constructive use of that effect, and it’s also a technology that can be put to use by individuals right now. I’ll be discussing other options of the same kind in the next few posts.


G said...

Regarding climate change and shifting/weirder weather, it's been my impression that this has actually been one of the major messaging points of the movement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

It just so happens that they have very poor messaging overall, and are handicapped in having a very complex subject to convey. Not to mention that their message is opposed by many vested interests.

Meaning that, though they will tell people to expecting shifting weather and more extreme weather, they still think that somehow a blizzard disproves global warming.

But I strongly disagree that they don't emphasize it. It's just that people are very unclear about ALL elements of their message.

Glenn said...

A bright young man in near by Port Townsend hosts a bicycle clinic on Saturday afternoons. He offers free advice, assistance, use of tools and both new and low cost used parts. I attend on a regular basis and upgrade my family's bikes, with the goal of making them so easy, convenient and comfortable to use that we _will_ use them.
Small steps. In the long descent, the solutions too, are in small steps.


Steve said...

Why, then, haven’t solar hot water heaters blossomed like daisies atop homes across the country?

I know a guy who installs SHW systems, and around 1/2 his work these days is fixing (or removing) "orphan" systems from the 70s. The sloppy construction of those days seemed to have left a foul taste in a lot of mouths around here.

Also, based on how frequently people move houses and how cheap fossil energy still is, most people I've asked don't think a 3-7 year payback is worth the headache of dealing with a contractor and learning about a new system. Besides, solar hot water isn't nearly as sexy as PV or fuel cells or what-have-you.

Of course, you already know all this, and everyone here knows better than to expect the masses - enthralled as they are in the religion of progress - to respond to our predicament sensibly. I know plenty of people doing what they can with the low-exergy future in sight, but the eco-yuppies have all the money around here, and they'd rather spend it on Hybrid SUVs and carbon offsets for their overseas vacations.

My plan is to scavenge the parts for a SHW system when the eco-yuppies go broke, and save my money now for another row of potatoes - the Ides of March being just around the corner, and all. Thanks for another great post!

John Michael Greer said...

G, that's interesting. Most of what I've seen for mass distribution -- as distinct from the more scientifically literate stuff for people who already get it -- has hammered almost exclusively on heat, heat, heat. That's the miscalculation I had in mind. It's unlikely to be accidental that this winter here in the Appalachians, as we all dug out of one snowstorm after another, nearly everybody was making global warming jokes.

Glenn, that's another very good example of the productive use of low-concentration energy. I'll be talking about it more in a later post.

Steve, that's interesting. I know there were fly-by-night outfits and ineptly homebuilt solar hot water systems in the Seventies, but I hadn't heard that they'd had that kind of impact. Still, given the tax breaks and the incentives that many states have for solar hot water systems, it seems like a natural for transition-oriented people and groups to pursue.

Richard said...

Certain extreme weather events have increased and are expected to increase more with global warming but not all, some have in fact been decreasing. Extreme low temperatures are examples of the latter category. At least in the USA, this can be shown by the plant hardiness zone map. which is based on the average annual low temperature (the lowest of the entire year). Compare the USDA map released in 1990 with the arbor day map using the same criteria but more recent years released in 2006, and it shows that the coldest cold snaps of the year have gotten significantly warmer than they used to be.

This year has been colder in many places than recent trends because the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) has been the most negative on record, and the negative phase favors cold in the USA (and Europe). Natural variability is still significantly larger than the observed warming so far, so there are still oddities in a general warming pattern. Even with the extreme weather patterns, only a few areas such as Florida actually set records. Here in southern Missouri the coldest cold snap didn't even make it below zero, and historically it has gotten down to at least 15 below in this location, just not for a number of years.

A while back I saw a posting at realclimate where one of the the scientists there was trying to correct the popular conception that "All extremes will increase" with global warming. Some certainly will. Extreme rainfall events will in most places, warmer air can hold more moisture, the pattern holds true for existing climates, hence the term "tropical downpours." Extreme droughts will likely increase in some places nut not others. Some studies have found increase in hurricane intensity.

Even snowstorms have increases in some areas, but that's more due to more moisture in the system. I recently ran acress a report that in the USA, large snowstorms have been generally decreasing in the south but increasing in the north (again this year is an exception with all the southern snow). It's been warming in both places but also there is increased moisture. In northern areas it's still been cold enough for snow enough of the time that the excess moisture in the system translates into more large snowstorms, even though the warming trend means snow cover isn't as consistent due to melting events. About temperatures however, the point the realclimate folks wanted to make is that as far as temperatures go, there is no evidence that the variation from the mean temperature has or will increase, at least as a global trend (it may increase in some areas but also may decrease in others). Since the mean itself has increased, that means more extreme heat but as the zone map example showed, less extreme cold.

As a sidenote, the impacts of certain cold events may increase even if it's not unusually cold by historical standards. Spring freezes are one example. Freezes that nip back growing plants and fruit blossoms are much more common where I live now in Missouri than where I used to in Minnesota, simply because there's similar day-to-day variability but a smaller seasonal change. In Missouri, there is much more likely to be a several week-long warm spell in early spring which triggers plants to break dormancy followed by a hard freeze, while farther north early spring is much too cold for plant growth, spring is later but it more rapid. So global warming will likely increase damaging spring freezes in the northern half of the country by warming it up earlier in the spring.

G said...

In fairness to you, I don't watch any television news, or read many promotional materials from scientific groups. I do read mainstream, scientifically literate newspaper articles.

So it's possible we just looked at different sources. I may be too informed on the issue to know what the main thrust of the mass campaign is. I haven't paid much attention to anything the Democrats have said on the matter for example (they seem to be mostly focussing on green jobs, from what I can tell).

However, from the little TV I have seen, I had the nagging impression that extreme weather is sometimes taken for evidence of global warming. In fact, those who don't believe in global warming often deride those who view single extreme weather events as evidence of global warming (they're correct on the narrow point, that a single event isn't evidence of anything in terms of trends.)

In the sources you see, do they say anything about the consequences of "heat, heat, heat!"? I can't imagine how warmer days alone could seem all that threatening, if they didn't mention weather, agriculture and all the rest of the associated problems.

Bill Pulliam said...

Back in the early 1990's my academic career landed me in Colorado, working with people from the Nat'l Center for Atmospheric Research and other similar sorts of institutions. I learned very quickly that we did not talk about "global warming," but "global climate change." Some of the earlier attempt to predict trends, not just steady-state solutions, showed that it was likely to be a very bumpy and uneven ride, with different places having quite different experiences. Interestingly, and probably coincidentally, some predicted that the eastern U.S. would actually cool for a decade or so before then shifting to rapid warming. The unexpected emergence of the new Arctic Dipole circulation pattern over the last decade, that seems to be teaming up with the regularly-scheduled El Niño to create the festival of snow we've seen here this year, was "unexpected" only in detail; no climate scientist worth his or her salt is surprised to see something strange, novel, and unanticipated emerging at the high latitudes. In the spirit of "expect the unexpected," back then 18 years ago we were careful with our language.

I was greatly dismayed in the last decade when "global warming" became the tag line for pretty much everything environmental in the mainstream media. All that cautious language from the 1990s went out the window in the Aughts. Focus your movement on one dubious catch phrase, and you male it SOOO much easier for those who seek to preserve and promote the status quo to debunk you.

There are MANY good reasons to move away from the fossil fuel foundation of the global economy regardless of what the climate might or might not do, from public health to global geopolitical stability and everything in between. All the rest of these are rarely discussed in the mainstream media anymore. Didn't there used to be some widely used expression involving eggs and baskets that addressed this?

Richard said...

To add to my earlier comment, after seeing your response to G, I think the main reason for the global warming jokes is the misunderstanding of weather and climate in the general population. Since the global warming observed so far is a lot less than the normal variability, it still gets cold despite a clear warming trend, and a single season (or even cold snap) convinces some people that global warming is a hoax despite all the evidence of temperature records, ice caps melting, species migration, spring events coming earlier which have been studied extensively. Some people just seem incapable of taking any sort of long term view. Compounding that is the fact people get spoiled after many mild winters, and so even though the low temperatures in many areas this winter were far short of records, the intervening warm years changed people's perception. Just as a day that wouldn't seem too cold in February would be seem frigid two month later, the same can be said for years. Even as global warming increases, a winter that's colder than any in the previous 10-15 years will lead to many global warming jokes.

The other thing I think is wrong with popular perception of global warming is that people keep looking for ways the future climate will be "worse" than the present one. Many of the examples will prove true, but it leads to selective reporting that emphasizes "bad" changes such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, etc. As you've pointed out in earlier posts, the Earth has been in many different climate states before, and many of the much warmer states of the climate have been favorable to life, so a warmer state isn't inherently worse. The big issue id that both the present natural ecosystems and human societies are adapted to the climate state as it is, and so the change is going to be a major disruption, even if the climate state we're headed to isn't "bad" in and of itself.

Blagroll said...

I recently had a discussion with a person who thinks the whole global warming issue is left-wing bunk. His most telling statement was that human made contributions to atmospheric warming "are miniscule"! I agreed that propoganda on all sides of the debate distorts the picture.

In order to get him to think about the issue from a different angle, we agreed that human made contributions to CO2 emmissions were at least on the order of 3% (miniscule by his standards) of the total CO2 existing in the atmosphere. I then stated if an auto was going in a circular motion at full speed that a mere .5% increase in momentum would likely result in a crash. He didn't buy the argument and retorted we just don't have any historical evidence that human C02 contributions will change anything.

Fair enough. Since humanity never had the ability to affect the atmosphere on an industrial scale before, we don't have the data to prove or disprove our impact. It seems many/most people are content to let the regime run its course, and we'll have to find out the hard way if our CO2 emmissions make a difference.

Given the second law the thermodynamics, has anyone come up with examples, especially metaphorical/allegorical, when they discuss the topic that highlight the principles of law 2? Simple quantity examples, as these two recent posts highlight, just don't get through to most people, and it's my belief that a wee story is the best way to make a point with the vast majority of people.

[ps. I do recycle turf ashes into my veggie beds along with my own compost. h/e, we also use about 15-25 kgs of coal per week during the height of winter as we have a back boiler that heats all water and radiators in the home (all pipes and boiler very well lagged). I'm loathe to let coal ashes anywhere near my purdies and veg.]


Cherokee Organics said...

In South Eastern Australia we live with what can only be described as a challenging and dynamic climate. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting David Holmgren's permaculture farm in Central Victoria. He stated that the weather patterns that we have to live with in SE Australia are a foretaste of what the rest of the world will soon be dealing with. The variability in our climate has unexpected consequences.

Take for example our summer of 2009 (January and February). Over the entire state we received less than 10mm of rain. Up in Cherokee we received 7mm (this year we've had almost 200mm). Melbourne recorded it's hottest day on record of 46.4 degrees celsius. With the drying out of the forests and the high speed hot winds coming from central Australia it was inevitable that there was going to be a big fire (Black Saturday). Compare that with this summer. We had a heatwave in November 09 for two weeks and the rest of the summer has been one of the mildest on record.

In terms of agriculture this was a bad thing as most of the fruit trees dropped their flowers from heat stress at this critical time. Right across the state there has been reduced crops of fruit. Subsistence living could make you very hungry and vulnerable indeed.

Agriculture has evolved to cope with a more or less stable climate pattern and may not be upto dealing with the vagaries of an unstable biosphere.

Solar hot water heaters are a great idea. A good system can also include a wood stove with a wet back so that water can be heated using wood over winter. It's great for people who have access to lots of wood. A really good system can also include hydronic radiators in other rooms and a cooking oven and stove top. We're installing one of these. The technology is pretty simple and the multiple useage of the energy increases efficiency in the useage of the fuel.

Good luck!

denisaf said...

Quality of energy is important, as brought out in the article. However, energy flow is necessary but not sufficient for the materialistic operations in nature and in the systems of our civilization. Energy is an attribute of materials. Energy flow to do work ends up as waste heat. The associated material also end up as waste. Focusing on energy alone leads to the type of misunderstanding that led to climate change.

xhmko said...

Global wierding is the best I've heard yet. I mean Climate change is pretty much an exact description but it seems to be interchangable with global warming in most peoples minds without much thought on the difference in meaning.

Activists, as you have previously pointed out and as is obvious once you get involved in meeting after meeting about strategy and funding, opt for the phrasing and factoids that most strenuously back up their claims and passions. That goes for skeptics too. Nobody likes to be treated like a mushroom, ie. kept in the dark and fed night soil, and they don't like it whether it comes from government, big business or big activism.

I'll take this opportunity to plug the work of Jean Pain, since we're on the topic of water heating and low concentration energy, for his work on composting, methane production, water heating, organic gardening and bushfire remedies. His compost heated his water and produced methane which he harvested for running his converted vehicles, cooking and his chipping machines which he used for shredding branches for the compost. The heated water was used for cooking and minimized the amount of methane needed to be burnt to heat it. I think he may have also run some of the heating into greenhouses. He and his wife produced bumper crops from this technique in a hardy climate. He should be considered a saint for his hermit like service to humanity. A practical intelligent approach to local circumstance with subsistence and comforts achieved through hard work and creativity. This sort of enterprising ingenuity will be our only saving grace as the fossils stop crawling out.

Another note on water heating, while my brother was working in Tanzania they used to coil up a long length of black polypipe on the rooftoop of the shower room and let the sun heat up the water so that in the cool desert night they had enough heated water for showers.

It is crucial to remember that harnessing solar energy does not necessarily involve photovoltaic cells.

And one more little piece of No-Tech that made my day when I first heard about it is the "water in a bottle sticking halfway through your rooftop" lightbulb technique. Check it out here:

Of course its usefulness will depend on your local environment and such, but that goes without saying, so I don't why I feel like I have to keep saying it like some disclaimer whenever I mention ideas like these.

Doctor Doomlove said...

Another technology along these lines that also fits into your scavenger paradigm are the wide variety of solar ovens, dehydrators, coffee roasters, etc. that people are building out of spare parts. Here are some examples:

This technology seems like a no-brainer to me; in fact transitioning to mostly off-grid homes that use solar power, rainwater, gardens, earth sheltering, recycled waste, etc. (google earthships) is a no-brainer. If civilization doesn’t collapse (or maybe more so if it does), I think eco-neighborhoods based on these technologies will be the new suburbs of the 21st century. Basically we have to undo the insanity of the past hundred years of energy abundance, and get back to arrangements that make ecological sense. The main problem I see is that the population may be too large to be supported in this way, so it will have to be scaled back along with everything else, and that’s going to be unpleasant. Do you have any thoughts on this "die-off problem"?

On a related note, have you seen the documentary "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa"? This Mad Max version of off-grid living might turn out to be a more realistic vision of where things are headed for a lot of us.

AutonomyAcres said...

A simple approriate technology. That is right up there with rain barrels and wood burning stoves. Ideas like this are not going to save the world, but like you said, those that choose to embrace this predicament and make changes in their own lives, will have a higher success and survival rate. Nice post!

Mark from Colorado said...

Time to put my two cents in. JMG, reading your latest book “The Ecotechnic Future”, very well done.
As for the SHW issue, fossil fuel makes it way too easy to heat water, and anything other just looks funny to people that have been convinced that that is the only way to go. I worked for a solar installer and I will concur that half of the work was taking old systems off roofs. Not those systems were bad, just not working for lack of poor maintenance, or a dead $10.00 sensor. A lot has been learned since the seventy’s in solar hot water, but solar still gets a bad rap by the boiler and installers of so-called conventional systems, and most codes require a back-up system installed on new construction that raises the cost of the system by quite a bit. Bad press, fossil fuel lobby, and ignorance have made DSHW the ugly step child of the energy field, in my opinion.
Also, somehow, DSHW has gotten the bad rap of being kind of hippy-dippy, something that only a pot smoking trust funder would put on a home. I will add that one of the biggest systems I helped put in was on a retired oil executives Colorado get-a- way home. This thing was 12 10’x4’ panels and heated all of the place and the hot water too. He buys very little propane.

Glenn said...

I installed an anti-freeze vacuum tube solar DHW system three years ago on my house in Maine (an undeniably cold climate) and have been delighted with the results. There’s no reason why every suitable roof in the country shouldn’t have one. It’s a question of priorities. With heating oil still cheap at $2.50/gallon, there’s little incentive for anyone to fork over $6,000 on something that won’t payback for at least 10 years. Shortsightedness and complacency are the issue here, as in so many other aspects of the response to the long descent.

Our solar DHW system is only a part of our approach, which is loosely based on the Integral Urban House book from the ‘70s (still have my copy) and includes public transport commuting (we’re a single car household), grid-tied PV electric, wood boiler heating, greenhouse gardening, backyard chickens and honeybees. We participated in the Riot 4 Austerity that Sharon Astyk and friends put together and discovered that we use about a quarter to a third the overall energy than the average American family. I elaborate because the critical point is this: we’ve achieved these results just in the past 5 years with no decrease in comfort and no impact on our lifestyle, which seems to be the one thing that puts most people off (images of hippies living in yurts only bathing seasonally and all that seem to predominate in the minds of most people). It’s a matter of choice, in location, amenities and systems.

Torrey said...

Regarding the lack of energy / exergy and our upcoming shortage of it: The USA has massive supplies of coal. Coal can be gasified and liquified to manufacture gasoline, and all the other hydrocarbons our culture is so addicted to. There is sufficient exergy in coal to make this all economically and energetically feasible.

Why won't we do that, rather than shivering in the dark?

Of course, I think that actually doing this will result in utter disaster w.r.t. pollution and climate impacts. But given the alternatives, and the general mindset of Americans, I don't see any avoiding it. And therefore I think our electricity and fuel supplies will not run short for some time yet.

You seem to disagree, can you explain why?

c57asey said...

Minor point; significant or not? You can evaluate.
Re: atmospheric heating. Sun heats surface; surface heats air.

Baxter said...

I've been using solar water heaters on my houses (the third one, now) since the '80s and I have to say I have been mystified myself by the reluctance of Americans to use them. The technology is simple, relatively inexpensive, and effective. That ought to make it a no-brainer. In the summer months, the sun provides all the hot water we need with no fossil fuel inputs. In the winter, the water going into our standard electric tank is between 70 and 80 degrees, requiring much less energy to bring it up to 110 or 120 degrees.

There are a couple of reasons I can identify for Americans' reluctance, however.

One is the bass-ackwards system of tax incentives used in the U.S. Here, a homeowner must front the cost of a solar water heating system -- somewhere around $5k-$6k -- and the tax incentives kick in up to a year later. In countries like Germany, for instance, the government employs what are called "feed-in tariffs." In this scheme the government lends the homeowner the up-front money, which then gets paid back with the energy savings. After the loan is repaid, the savings go into the owner's pocket. So the homeowner doesn't have to front any cost. Maybe this is why, when you take the train through Bavaria, it seems that every barn, farmhouse and chicken coop is covered with solar collectors. And why Germany is so far ahead of the U.S. in deploying (and manufacturing -- hello, Obama?) solar technology.

Another less obvious reason is cultural. I think America is so desperately clinging to the illusion that our consumer lifestyle of high energy consumption can go on forever that investing in any solar technology is an implicit message that the party's over. I think the same impulse, in part, drove the fuel-hog orgy of SUV culture over the last couple of decades.

The easiest way to jump-start the deployment of solar water heating technology would be to change the building codes in the U.S. Much like improved (but still mediocre) insulation standards migrated into the building codes after the '70s, the same could occur with solar water heating. Imagine what it would do to the domestic solar industry if every new house was required by building codes to 1, maximize south orientation, and 2, employ a solar water heater.

It's also important to realize that, before cheap oil was widely used in the U.S. solar energy was thought to be the wave of the future. I once saw an aerial photo of Los Angeles taken in the early 1920s, before the oil fields were widely exploited in Southern California. Nearly every roof had a solar water collector on it.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, I didn't say that every category of extreme weather would increase -- just that extreme weather events on both ends of the scale (for example, snowstorms as well as hurricanes) would become more common. Beyond that, though, thanks for the details -- worth knowing.

Bill, that's been exactly my concern with efforts (which have been fairly common recently) to try to subsume the peak oil issue. among others, into the "global warming" brouhaha. A complex world requires a more nuanced approach.

G, I've seen the potential effects of "heat, heat, heat" played on every stop and key -- drought, lethal heat waves, water shortages, desertification, and so on, up to and including claims that the Earth will turn into a duplicate of Venus due to a runaway greenhouse effect.

Blagroll, I've had similar discussions with people on both sides of the fence -- those on the right who insist that global climate change is liberal horseradish, and those on the left who insist that we're all going to die because of it. As with so many ideologically polarized issues, you get about two inches below the apparently reasoned arguments and you hit a brick wall of emotion. This is one of the reasons I don't put much hope in a political solution.

Cherokee, given that the Earth's ecosystems couldn't support seven billion hunter-gatherers even if they weren't already under serious strain, we'd better hope that some form of agriculture can adapt to a variable climate!

Denisaf, I never said energy was the only issue that needed to be considered. Remember that each of these posts is a 2000-word essay, not a 60,000-word book!

Xhmko, thanks for the reference! I'll look into Jean Pain.

Doctor, I'll be getting to solar ovens shortly! No, I haven't seen the Mesa documentary; I'll look for it. As for dieoff, well, I've discussed that at length elsewhere; the short form is that declining societies have declining populations, for a range of standard reasons -- malnutrition, collapsing public health, increased violence and drug use, the rising economic burden of raising a family, and much more. Since we're facing a long and ragged decline rather than a sudden collapse -- another point I've made elsewhere -- there's plenty of time for these factors to bring our population back down.

Autonomy, thank you! Yes, I'll be mentioning rain barrels as well.

Mark, I'm hoping that that can be changed. There are a lot of excellent solar hot water systems available these days, and with a bit of favorable publicity, solar panels on the roof could become a green status symbol.

Glenn, I'm delighted to hear that you've got The Integral Urban House! So do I, and it's one of the main sources my spouse and I are using as we begin the green retrofitting of our "new" (i.e., new to us -- built in 1925) house. I'll be talking about that down the road a bit, too.

John Michael Greer said...

Torrey, there are three issues that don't get enough discussion when coal's being considered. First, the US is turning out to have a lot less coal than optimistic estimates suggested. Second, a great deal of what's left is low-grade "brown coal" with relatively low energy content. Third, the economics of coal have been skewed by the simple fact that coal these days is excavated by machines that run on diesel -- this is one example of the "energy subsidy" effect, whereby one high-exergy fuel can make other low-exergy fuels look more economical than they are.

Right now, due to the confluence of these factors, the US is on track to hit peak coal by 2040. Given a big push for coal-to-liquids production, that date will move closer in a hurry.

c57asey, granted. The effect is the same either way -- a larger differential in temperature between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Baxter, all those are good points. Some US states, for what it's worth cover part of the cost of a solar hot water system up front; a feed-in tariff program, though, would be even more sensible.

DIYer said...

Couple of comments ...
First, the thermodynamic engine of climate runs between solar irradiance and the four or five degrees Kelvin of the cosmic background. (not so much the oceans)
Second, it's global warming, or greenhouse warming, because the atmosphere really does retain more heat as its chemical makeup shifts. And the scientists (the ones I take seriously) are predicting a several-degree temperature _rise_.
But of course, that doesn't necessarily mean warm winters in Cleveland. It does mean that there will be more energy to push around the great currents in the atmosphere, and that there will be shifts in ocean circulation patterns which affect local weather everywhere.
One favorite tactic of the denialist crowd is to talk about the weather on Neptune, or about evidence of ice ages (periodic or random), and to make claims about Antarctica which can't easily be verified. Meanwhile, actual measurements of temperature (averaged over the entire globe) continue to climb.
Myself, I'm trying to figure out whether to stay in the south or move to Maine. Or to move to a higher altitude.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Speaking of weird weather and being passed the tipping point, I have begun reading Bill McKibben's new book, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." Basically, it's really too late. It's past the tipping point. We had better start adapting now. He likens us to being like unruly teens craving excitement and escape from boredom. It's time to grow up. Mature. The time for boyfriends has passed; now is a time of the husband, in the oldest and best sense (as in husbandry). Sure a thoroughbred race horse is sleek and fast, can't go faster. But hit rough track, hit some bad mud, and accidents happen, those slender legs get broken. Now is a time for Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales. Steady as she goes, endure, adapt.

dZed said...

A few points on Solar Hot Water, some of which having been mentioned already...

First, there are two types of SHW systems that can be installed in climates where freezing temperatures are often reached. Systems that contain a percentage of an antifreeze, as John mentioned, and drainback systems, which keep no water inside the collectors (and therefore no water outside, where it's cold) when they're not running. A drainback system, as its called, typically has a larger pump than an antifreeze system, but has the advantage of using only water as a heat exchange fluid. Antifreeze can/will degrade over time, and needs to be replaced.

Second, regarding the high up front cost of solar hot water systems, many banks are happy to fold the cost of such a system into a home mortgage, as long as you're approved for that sort of loan in the first place. At least, I've heard that is true.

I believe SHW to be the most appropriate of the renewable energy technologies currently available. The maintenance can be taken care of by a reasonably attentive homeowner or for a small fee from a serviceman. They're simple, and have only one or two parts anyone who's ever lived on a well wouldn't be familiar with. Good quality flat panel units can be made in a surprisingly simple machine shop using commonly available materials. It's well suited to industrial, single home, and apartment building use. The best solar electric panels on the market are only around 18% efficient (they collect 18% of the sun's energy that hits their surface), while good solar thermal systems are around 50% efficient! Thanks, JMG, for championing an amazing technology that more people should use.


Ruben said...

@Torrey...and anybody else who hasn't seen this fabulous video.

This is Dr. Albert Bartlett. He discusses coal in some depth, through the mathematical function of growth.

Not only is he awesome, but he uses an overhead projector! That really took me back...

And, of course, JMG has explained how coal-to-liquids is likely net energy negative, and others have explained in great detail how cola has much less net energy than oil. ....I don't know why I am writing all this, it is so well covered on so many blogs and websites. Let's all just watch the Bartlett video together...

jagged ben said...

It doesn't seem to me you are using the term exergy correctly, from a strict technical standpoint. Exergy applies to systems and not merely sources of energy. Thus the exergy of a roof with solar collectors on it is greater than the exergy of a roof without them, even though the concentration of energy arriving via sunlight does not change. (To elaborate, they are two different closed systems with the same reservoir, the sun.)

I can see that "concentrated energy crisis" doesn't seem to have the same sexiness as "exergy crisis." So I can understand you're reasons for wanting to popularize the term "exergy" as a shorthand for understanding energy concentration and entropy. But this usage may run into a certain amount of objection from physics teachers and engineers. (Not that such objections by themselves have ever before stopped anyone in America from popularizing an idea...).

jagged ben said...


I don't know whether the German government is or is not providing loans for homeowners to install solar hot water, but I do know that "feed-in-tariffs" are something else. Feed-in-tariffs guarantee that people who install solar electricity generation can sell that electricity to the utility operating the grid for a higher price than the market average; that is, a price commensurate with the cost of solar electricity. This makes solar electricity "competitive", and is a way of subsidizing it, but not through the tax system.

quaker gardener said...

Nice post. When I read it I'd just been designing an exercise for my students that requires them to:

1. list everything in their lives that relies on fossil fuels (of course they'll miss a lot and hopefully will learn much during the subsequent discussion).

2. to list all activities in their lives that could be done without using power--which relates directly to your point about overuse of exergy. Even such simple ones as using a hand beater instead of an electric mixer will count, or trimming a hedge with hand tools.

3. Finally I'll have them list their practical skills, and encourage them to learn some!

By and large they are so culturally immersed that, though they are aware of global warming/peak oil/environmental destruction, they don't know how to go about questioning assumptions and values in order to take useful steps, not to mention what steps would be useful.

Re SWH:In China, many peasants who didn't previously have hot water now have SHW at extremely reasonable prices (and I think subsidized by the government). I'd love to put in SHW, but unlike a Chinese peasant, can't afford it at the moment. Price is a huge issue.

Re GW: Here in the Midwest I've heard that it's not so much daytime temps that are rising, but that overnight temps are not as low as they used to be.

Justin said...

@jagged ben

A quick internet search seems to support JMG's definition of exergy:

"In thermodynamics, the exergy of a system is the maximum useful work possible during a process that brings the system into equilibrium with a heat reservoir.[1] When the surroundings are the reservoir, exergy is the potential of a system to cause a change as it achieves equilibrium with its environment. Exergy is then the energy that is available to be used. After the system and surroundings reach equilibrium, the exergy is zero. Determining exergy was also the first goal of thermodynamics."

The reservoir in your example would be the surrounding atmosphere, not the sun.

Glenn said...

DIYer, all the predictions I’ve seen indicate that Maine will be getting warmer and wetter as global warming takes hold. The line continues to move north it seems, and so far this has proven the case. Anecdotally the evidence supports such findings as well. For example, the Thanksgiving day tradition for my grandmother in the 1920s was to go to the HS football game in the morning, then home for turkey dinner, then downtown to skate on the frozen pond in the park by the bonfire. It’s never frozen by Thanksgiving anymore, usually not until at least two weeks later now (this is in Portland). Ice-out is getting earlier too, the shrimp are migrating north sooner and the maple sap is running already (has been for two weeks or more, which is early). I’ve recently completed reading the entire set of Thoreau’s journals, and I find there are more similarities to Concord’s climate of the 1830s and 40s, and that’s 100 miles as the crow flies. It’s actually a really good place to be from a post-cheap oil standpoint in a lot of other ways however, many of which JMG has written about in this blog and his books. One reason we’re settling in to adapt in place.

andrewbwatt said...

Steve reports in comment #3 that the systems in the 1970s were poorly built, designed and run. My parents installed such a system, and what with its finicky behavior, weather difficulties, and a misalignment of the solar collectors on the roof, it wasn't going to pay for itself in 3-7 years. My dad figured that with the necessary changes to the system, and the uncertainty of the continuation of the tax breaks, it would have taken 37 years to pay off. It wound up being much less expensive, in fact, for him to pull the system off the hot water heater and off the roof after it had been in place for only two years.

A colleague of mine at school just handed off his annual copy of The Economist's Pocket Guide To The World in Figures. The energy production and energy consumption tables only cover the top 30 producers and consumers, but I note that the top 30 consumers use about 376 million tonnes oil equivalent more than the top 30 producers create. And that was in 2006. Make of that what you will, JMG. It made a great blog post for me.

marielar said...

Early on in my career, a collegue told me that we dont own the land, we borrow it from our children. That really shaped and informed my general attitude and I guess that is why I have a hard time understanding the general apathy. The lack of concerns of the boomers for what will happen to their children strikes me as quite irresponsible. I dont think they care about what kind of mess will be left behind. All the capital and resources are locked down by that generation and is invested in insuring them a comfortable retirement. The priority is the next vacation in Europe, not installing a water heater on a house that could be passed on to their kids. Combined to that attitude, the concentration of the democraphic and economic power in the hands of people over 50 plays very much against investing in the best interest of young adults and children. It seems to me that there is lack of historical precedents for this attitude. The main concern of my grand-mother generation was to build a better future for the posterity. They sacrificed and fought all kind of battles, the civil rights, the labour rights etc.. with little hope of return of investment for themselves. I am not sure when and why the shift happened, but it seems to me that now the culture is profondly self-centered and short-sighted. Maybe those are the signs of a declining civilization.

Mark from Colorado said...

My earlier comment showed some of my dismay at the lack of some for not seeing the forest for the trees so to speak. I too have a DSHW system on my roof, (some of those panels were removed from clients’ homes sad to say), and it saves a good portion of money.
I can’t get over how farmer dumb it is to heat with solar, and store that heat in some very conventional ways. I think in some ways it’s too simple and some people just can’t get that, “if it was so simple why everybody isn’t doing it”. The short answer is that it’s almost too simple to understand in a complex world. That is why PV’s are so much sexier, complexity. Maybe I’m off here?
However, I do know that it used to get bad press, that is changing some, and I do my part to give good, reliable and truthful info on solar hot water. There was an article in “Home Power” magazine, showing that over the life time of a DSHW system, that one would still replace conventional water heaters to the tune of one DSHW system, (1) Solar domestic hot water system = (3-4) fossil fuel water heaters, and the labor to put them in, and this is also not adding the fuel to the equitation. It is however, a matter of coming up with the cash or skills to put one in. But as you have said, there are a lot of incentives out there to do so, even an un-incentivized DYI system are also good. I just don’t get it that everyone is not jumping on to solar hot water. It kills three birds with one stone, one it lowers your fuel costs, two it lowers a families carbon footprint, three it increases the value of a home, and the icing on the cake, the first shower or bath one takes in that hot water, it just feels better, really.
Something else I wanted to get a crossed, is that, even an ex oil man is putting in solar, so one it’s not as hippy as some would say (if one lives in a pretty red part of the state). It gets one to thinking if someone that gets it about oil and that has been in the business, why would he put in solar panels? I don’t think it’s because he is just cheap.
One more comment, I like your perverse proposal to start or join a service club or organization. In this case one that supports installing solar panels and other home energy improvements?

Ariel55 said...

Trying to do my homework, I turned to Wikipedia and found that if you destroy "exergy" you'd get "anergy". And I thought you were making this up! :)

Odog said...

I'm totally behind you on Solar Hot Water. To encourage your readers that they, personally, CAN DO something about it, I thought I'd give you a link to my personal web page which pictures and describes in detail one of the Solar Hot Water Heaters that I have built. Check it out, I think you'll like it. Also, I am available for ideas, troubleshooting, questions and the like. Cheers! ~Ocean

aluramia said...

Love your blog, I learn something new every time.

Our family is doing our best, like many other aware folks, to shift our focus to using less energy as well as going local for most of our household goods.

Recently we've started our chicken coop with 4 hens and added in a few pygmy goats for interest and weed noshing (they are male). We grow tons of veggies in our garden boxes and are learning how to cope with desert weeds without toxic poisons (at the moment they are up to my waist).

However, the one thing I didn't notice anyone mentioning, and I believe it relates, is the huge foreclosure issues the west coast has had. Unfortunately, we were among them. So, for the foreseeable future, we are "renters" of our nice little farm.

As such, we cannot force our landlord to install solar anything. So, we are in a tenuous

Last summer, between a leaky watering system (a must in desert climates) and an old 70's air conditioning unit, our total utility expenditures were over $1000 a month. We did everything we could to lower that number (raised the temp, turned off the watering system as frequently as we could without killing 50 year old trees) but found that by the end of our heat season, we were definitely strained financially.

Yes, we could move. But with our large family, animals, and now shoddy credit rating due to foreclosure, we are staying put till we come up with a better "idea" than moving to a suburban home (most likely damaged by exiting angry homeowners) where we can even begin to live a sustainable life.

At least here, with 2 acres, we have the right to have animals, raise some small crops and be agricultural within the bounds of a city horse farm area. I consider us lucky to have found our current home space. Living without solar assistance seems ridiculous when you live in the southwest, but it's not our choice (ie we have no say in it) nor will it be for some time.

In regards to the climate weirdness, we have seen some very odd weather changes here as well. Our springs have been wet and cold and our summer was brutally long and completely without monsoon rains. We are having to use more sun-shielding techniques than we ever did before and the sun itself is eating through all the wood and plastic type products. So when you plan out anything using them, you have to see the 2-3 year end point of having to replace them. I think all of us, Planet-wide will continue to face some very interesting challenges in the coming years.

Thanks again for the deep, thoughtful blogging.

Michael said...

Thank you brother Greer for your carefully considered thoughts about this subject. A solar hot water heater is one of the next items on my list of infrastructure elements. it matters not weather one is dwelling in palaces or cottages, it behooves us to work at understanding these issues. My house is situated east and west because the sun rises in the east and travels toward the west. I gain all of that useful low volume energy all day long as the sun shines. I am looking into filtering rain water to drink, presently our two 350 gallon rain barrels are what we use for the garden, we started with potatoes last year this year we will expand that. it is because of reading comments by yourself, and many books by authors who seem to understand that the way we live needs to change, that I undertook to retire early and build a passive solar house with my own hands. It is a wonderful and interesting journey.

Steve in Colorado said...

Congrats on focusing on SHW, one of my favorite energy topics. A few thoughts I have not heard mentioned yet on the topic:

Many folks who remove SHW system from their roofs, are doing so because they are uninformed. They bought the house with it up there, never really understood what it does or even knew if it worked. So when the roofers give them an estimate with an added cost for re-installing the solar panels, they take them down.

It is unfortunate, because many of those systems would be fully functional, even after all these years, with some minor maintenance. I've repaired many where a failed $10 sensor or repairing rodent chewed wires was all that they needed. Still many folks facing a new roof don't investigate what they have and what it could save them in energy.

I'd also disagree with the comments about poor quality on older SHW systems (at least the components not necessarily how they were put up). I find that older flat panel collectors are every bit as good as the modern ones. If they have been cared for or at least benignly neglected, most damage can be repaired for minimal costs (new glass, etc) compared to new units. Proof of this is there remains a good resale market for used SHW systems and parts in my locale.

I recently put a SHW system on my home, composed entirely of used parts I collected over a couple of years. It saves ~75% of our hot water heating. Not bad for a bunch of 40 year old junk that others were throwing away.

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, unless they've changed their minds pretty drastically since my meteorology classes, temperature differentials between ocean and land play a very large role in driving weather in the troposphere; the ultimate heat sink is deep space, granted, but that pesky greenhouse effect keeps heat from flowing that way too fast.

Lance, I'll check the new McKibben book out. Of course he's quite right; we missed what was very probably our last chance to dodge this at the end of the 70s, and now it's a matter of facing the music.

Matt, thanks for the info! It's good to know that I'm not the only fan of SHW systems.

Ruben, thanks for the link! Very solid stuff -- of course that's to be expected from Bartlett.

Ben, I was about to cite the same quote Justin did a bit further down. I don't claim to be a physicist, but I did look up the definition of exergy before using it.

Gardener, that's a great exercise!

Justin, thanks. Yes, exactly: the ambient environment is the reservoir.

Glenn, all the old guys at my Masonic lodge here in Cumberland were talking about how this winter's snows were the sort of thing they used to see a long time ago, but haven't seen for years, so I think they agree with you.

Andrew, no question, there were some bad systems enthusiastically marketed in the 70s, and some do-it-yourself books that produced very poor end results. These days, though, most of what's available is of a much better quality.

Marielar, you get today's gold star. Yes, those are precisely the signs of a declining civilization. When people stop trying to build a better future for their children, it's a good bet that there won't be one.

Mark, I don't know of a service organization with that focus. Maybe it's time that somebody founded one!

Ariel, nah, if I'd made the word up I would have 'fessed up to it. This time, some physicists got there first!

Ocean, thanks for the link! Very nice work; it's good to see that kind of handicraft approach. I gather it's basically a souped-up breadbox heater? Not a bad idea at all, if that's the case -- a simple and sturdy technology, that.

Aluramia, the foreclosure mess is a real problem, no question. I'm not at all sure how it will end up working out -- and yes, it's an additional challenge for the people who got caught in it.

Michael, passive solar heating is another of those mature solar technologies that deserve a lot more attention than they get these days. My spouse and I chose to get an existing home and do a green retrofit one step at a time, which didn't leave much room for passive solar; for those who can do it, though, it's an excellent choice, and my guess is that in the future it will be standard. Thanks for the encouraging account!

DIYer said...

Thanks Glenn, for the note on Maine.

I wanted to expand on that last post, but didn't have time before work to do so.

This little blue marble we live on sits between the fierce radiance of the sun and the near-absolute-zero deep freeze of the cosmos. Its surface tends to average about 300°K as a result of this combination. In thermodynamics it is convenient to state temperature in Kelvins, because absolute temperature is directly proportional to energy.

An interesting consequence of expressing temperature on an absolute scale is that it makes for easy calculations to dispel some of the mythology on both sides of the AGW "debate".

For example, Venus sits at about half the distance of Earth from the Sun. This means that it receives four times the sunlight of Earth, and we might expect its temperature to be about 1200°K just as a first approximation.

I think that figure is about right for the Venusian surface, so it clearly didn't get that way as a result of a minor alteration of its atmospheric makeup. Although its atmosphere is mostly CO2, it wouldn't be much cooler if it were N2.

On the other hand if the Earth, at 300°K, develops an atmospheric blanket that retains 1% more heat we might expect (as a crude approximation) that its temperature would rise by 3°, a dramatic climate shift. The difference between ice and water is less than one degree, for example.

As for its effect on us, I believe we are in for an extremely exciting joyride as large swaths of our agricultural breadbasket transition to dustbowl or desert. It probably won't exterminate all life as long as the Sun remains on the main sequence, but looks like it might be another P-Tr extinction event.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- as I'm sure you know, one of the better options for retrofit of passive solar is to add a south-facing sunroom, or enclose an existing porch to make this. Dark-colored tile floors, cleverly disguised thermal masses, etc. can be incorporated. But really, the very easiest passive solar retrofit for an older house is simply the existing windows -- make basic tight-fighting wood-frame storm windows for the outside and nice warm multilayer curtains for the inside, and use a state of the art biotechnological thermostatic regulator to modulate the influx of daytime shortwave radiation while minimizing radiative and conductive heat losses during nightime and cloudy periods: in other words, just open and close the curtains as needed to let in the sun and keep out the cold. Custom-made wood-frame storm windows are within the carpentry skills of most weekend woodworkers, and when fitted and sealed well you get a reduction in heat loss almost as good as with a modern modular window (sometimes better), at a small fraction of the cost and waste of replacing the existing windows, all while preserving the house's historical character (if it has any...).

On the climate variability theme... I have thought for decades (yes, many people have been concerned about anthropogenic climate change since the 1970s and even earlier, this is no new idea) that the real test for the reality of the phenomenon would be the appearance of the unprecedented. As an example of this, for a couple of decades I said "we'll know global warming is for real when we start getting hurricanes in the South Atlantic." There had never been a hurricane observed in the Atlantic south of the equator, the only major non-polar ocean that was without them. Until 2004, when the first South Atlantic hurricane ever documented made landfall in southern Brazil. Once-in-500-years fluke, or sign of the times? Hard to say at this point; but if there is another one, then that would seem to settle it. You can't even blame this one on the satellite monitoring of the previously unseen oceans; this one made landfall and caused damage, it would have been noticed and recorded even in the 19th Century.

The eastern snows of this winter may be another case. But again it'll take a recurrence before we know whether it's a 1-in-500 year happenstance or a sign of the new normal. Katrina, on the other hand, was not at all unprecedented. Its storm surge was similar to Camille, and the flooding of New Orleans strongly echoed what happened from Hurricane Betsy, both less than 50 years previous. Nor have the recent summer droughts been unprecedented; they are much like the dust bowl years, and it is only thanks to improved soil conservation practices that we have not had another dust bowl because of them.

SO.. when a hurricane makes landfall in Southern California, we will REALLY know we've moved into uncharted territory.

Kieran said...

I thought I would point out, in the IPCC's defence, that one book (of three) of the 2007 report was entirely about "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability", or, as you beautifully put it, "global weirding".

Thank-you for a great blog post (and blog). It's refreshing to find deep and thoughtful writing on the Internet. I'll definitely be reading you more regularly.

James Bromfield said...

Dear Sir

Your post is right on the button, but if we look at reality, we find that private enterprise is not bringing solar heating to the market en masse, and neither is the government creating conditions for mass distribution of solar water heating.

I tried to get 'qualified' to install solar water systems, it costs thousands of pounds, which most average people cannot afford. It forces two or three years of education to be allowed to install such systems, then there is a handful of firms that actually do it, limiting your job opportunities.

There is no incentive provided for business or the individual to obtain solar water heating. I wonder if instead of banks being bailed out, a few billion went to every household in the U.S to get solar heating installed? Sorry i forgot, the utilities won't allow that so no.

In all honesty, water usage is too high in modern homes anyway. If you use a basin of water to have a body scrub each day, you remain perfectly clean, and just need to heat the water in some hind of container, but thats too 'primitive' for us isn't it. We just can't simplify, and it is becoming obvious that our time to simplify is fast running out.

My answer - Wood stove for cooking and heating, using hemp stalks for fuel, grown locally (if legal)use hemp fibre for insulation and evacuated tubes for heating a water tank. Lights, TV and playstation are powered by wind turbine (300w - cost £500). It could be done tomorrow.


xhmko said...

Actually I expected that you would already have known of Jean Pain. I was posting it coz I thought everyone else should too. His wife wrote the book with him and it is available in French and English. Actually I have a copy of the E-book I could send to you in which I have edited out all the crappy backround images.

Along the line of Cherokee Organics comments about the climate change in Australia. A few years ago there were farmers complaining about subtle shifts in weather patterns in South West Western Australia. Usually a mediterranean dry summer and wet winter; the crops are all starting to have to deal with drier winters. But this could change from year to year. Variation in waether is the rule, not the exception. It's just that farmers have, and our ancestors as a whole had, to deal with with these variations in the most direct way. Respond or starve. Of course they weren't eating Californian oranges in winter in Norway either. But everybody who jumped on the bandwagon to claim that Black Sunday is because of climate change seem to be overlooking some of the other crucial factors in Australia's history of bush management. The lack of burn off's which the First People's had been so effective at using has led to excess underbrush and and tinder on the ground. And that some of the most devastating fires around Australia are either deliberately or recklessly lit. Bushfires were also a problem in Asutralia long before the amount of greenhouse gases needed to have an effect were floating around.

Don't get me wrong, I see human contribution (pollution, deforestation) as being major factors in our current situation, but they are just factors in a very complex and chameleon equation. Giving them the starring role in the show doesn't take away from the efforts of the other players in this feature.

DIYer said...

In brief, it is a matter of where you set the boundaries of your thermodynamic system. By considering the planet as a whole, we have "global" warming.

But of course, the ocean is a heat sink/source for many local weather patterns. And this function is in serious jeopardy as the ice caps shrink and the thermohaline conveyor belt is interrupted.

PSW said...

With the release of the study today by the NSF (National Science Foundation) that Methane is beginning to leach out of the Siberian Arctic Shelf may speed the effects of climate change and get us to a catastrophic event much sooner. It may also bring the onset of warming so quickly we have no real time to react....

Dan Olner said...

"... some IPCC scientists diddled the facts to make a good but undramatic case more mediagenic"

No, they didn't. None of the errors in the report were in the main science document (AR1), and none were in the public-facing policy documents. They were somewhere else in the several-thousand page document, so hidden from view no "skeptic" ever found them. It eventually took a glaciologist to pick up on it, and it didn't matter anyway since there were 50 pages of actual science on ice in AR1.

At the moment, watching climate change politics, for anyone following it closely, is heartbreaking: many people I respect repeating demonstrably false talking points echoed out by a craven media. Bah.

dg said...


Great point. I've never thought of it in terms of decline.

I've always thought that any species that can't sacrifice for its young is by definition pretty much extinct, but your point is much more satisfying.

Dan Olner said...

"One of the common ways to avoid thinking about our predicament, as I mentioned last week, is to cite the quantity of energy that arrives on Earth by way of sunlight every day, and note that it’s vastly greater than the quantity of energy our civilization uses in a year. That’s true enough, but it misses the point, which is that the energy in that sunlight has very modest amounts of exergy by the time it crosses 93 million miles of space to get to us, and it can therefore do only modest amounts of work."

Average insolation at the Earth's surface is 250 watts per square metre -

I can't quite see how to apply the concept of exergy at that stage. Once it's been converted to some form that can do work, yes - but not as electromagnetic radiation. It's a concept we use to help think about energy, not an actual property of photons as they travel those 93 million miles.

The question's then, how much can you convert to doing useful work? Answer: an amount one shouldn't dismiss.

This brings us back to an old argument we keep on having about how renewables float on a bed of oil. I'm trying to actually model that because a lot rests on it, and currently we both seem to only have our common sense accounts to go on. A lot rides on it: a world running on 5% of our current energy use would still be much better than one running on 0.5%.

Sixbears said...

When the propane burner on my water tank failed, I salvaged the water tank. With scrap lumber, reused glass, and about $75 in new parts I had solar hot water. Felt bad about the $75. Payback took about 10 weeks.

It's in use about half the year. It's drained for the winter. (easy twist off connectors) Took a cheap electric tank heater, hooked it up to the woodstove. Spent about $50 in new parts. Built a sort of zig zag copper coil that rests on the back of the stove.

Wired the tank to a relay (salvaged from an electric kiln) on a switch so that I can use grid power to heat the tank during those times when solar or wood aren't doing the job. After the water is hot the tank electric is shut down.

The point here is that with a little self education and basic tool skills, heating hot water can be done on the cheap. I had a big financial set back at the time and could not afford to just replace the propane water heater.

Solar hot water is much better than no hot water at all.

I did things the way I did them because of the materials on hand.

Will probably tweak the system this summer to make it better as I'm going off grid.

Yes, some of us live as if this stuff is real.

jagged ben said...


The definition you posted corroborates what I said: exergy is a property of a thermodynamic system (rather than a measure of energy concentration).

The reservoir/surroundings for an SWH system would actually be both the atmosphere and the sun (and, somewhat insignificantly, the rest of the universe outside the SWH system). My fault for being too brief before.


In your first sentence of the post you rather clearly defined exergy as "concentration of energy". Although I'm sure there is a relationship between the two (and I admit I'm not expert enough to explain it with math), it doesn't seem to me they are the same thing. Last week you were more clear that exergy is the capacity to do work.

Definitional quibbles aside, I'm totally in favor of more people understanding why both of these concepts are important. So thanks for this post. :-)

Ruben said...

Another link, very relevant to this week's post and supportive of your use of exergy,

This is by Robert Ayres, who I venerate for his study of the Industrial Metabolism.

Brian said...

Where goes CO2, so goes mercury, arsenic, aluminum, flourides, etc - aka pollution. "Global warming" is turning out to be a marketing nightmare for further curbing of global pollution.

The average person understands that global warming is a natural process that has been in flux since the birth of our planet. It only stands to reason that "they" should become suspicious and apathetic to the pleas of gov't bureaucrats, tainted scientists, and greedy monolithic banks who stand to profit by the proposed efforts to rectify said climate change.

Earth has been a much warmer place for most of its history. From my understanding, recent climate events of the last few thousand years suggests that we are in long cooling cycle, and techno-driven increases in CO2 may just be keeping us from heading in a direction that could be more apocalyptic than the warming scenario. But who knows? Therein lies the rub.

The high level of pollution that we find in our atmosphere is definitely of man-made origins, and will ultimately result in biological degradations of unknown, and possibly catastrophic proportions. I thereby support the general scientific consensus of CO2 restrictions, but only because of the pollution aspect.

Mark said...

Solar hot water heaters are also very simple to construct from spare pieces of wood, tubing and glass windows.

On another note, I came across this article and study claiming most states in the US could ~potentially~ produce more than the nations energy requirement. I thought you would find it interesting to look through, at least as food for thought. Makes me wonder if they only mean energy and have forgotten to imagine exergy and emergy into those studies...

mageprof said...

@ Marielar, who write:

"I am not sure when and why the shift happened, but it seems to me that now the culture is profoundly self-centered and short-sighted. Maybe those are the signs of a declining civilization."

Before my retirement I taught at an ivy-league university. Since about 1995 most of my undergraduates were children of baby boomers. About 100 of these undergraduates talked with me at very great length throughout their four years there.

One of the most striking things about these undergraduates was how disconnected they were from their own extended families.

Somewhere between a third and a half of them could not tell me very much at all about even one of their grandparents -- what sort of people they were, what they liked and disliked, what they had done with their lives. Though they may have met a grandparent of two when they were very young, they had no sense of even one of their grandparents as a person at all.

And about one in ten of them did not know even so much as the first and last name of just one grandparent!

One of them -- an extremely gregarious young woman -- remarked that she was the only one among all her many friends whose parents were still married to one another. (She also knew a lot about all of her grandparents.)

Coming from the "silent generation" myself, this was so alien to my own experience of my family and the families of my childhood friends that I could hardly believe it at first, and so I made a point of asking other undergraduates. But it turned out to be so.

All this speaks volumes about the boomer parents of these undergraduates, and supports Marielar's observations. They seem to have had as little interest in the past that came before them as in the future that would come after them: neither their ancestors nor their descendants mattered much to them.

The rot seems to me to have reached the heartwood of the tree already.

dltrammel said...

JMG thanks for the recent posts. I think I'm finally beginning to understand the problem.

Lance said:
I have begun reading Bill McKibben's new book, "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."

I don't see that book on Amazon, nor McKibben's website. Do you have a link to that?

Cherokee Organics said...

XHMKO - I'm with you. Black Saturday was purely a result of poor or no forest management over a long period of time, arson, poor electrical infrastructure and rainfall variability. The reality is forest management is very expensive and it's also simply hard work and as such gets a low priority from consecutive governments.

The fires in 1939 were much bigger again. The fires in 1851 however covered more than 11 times the area of the 2009 fires (a quarter of the state).

Eucalypts are an opportunistic species which have only really dominated the environment here in the past 40,000 or so years.

The rainforest species would make better substitutes as most Australian rainforest species are tolerant of both droughts and poor soils. They've even become weeds in places like South Africa.

The number of animals per acre in a well managed nutrient rich food forest far exceeds that in the natural eucalypt forest.

The real problem with warmer weather though that many people haven't yet confronted is transpiration of water from the soil and leaves.

The only effective method I have read about is either a permaculture food forest or of planting in groves to maximise shade. The basic aim of both is to reproduce a rainforest environment.

Anyone interested in this should read Jackie French's book "The Wilderness Garden" as it may be very relevant to all of us in the future.

The environment Jackie lives in, in the South of New South Wales has had periods of no rain for 11 months and occasionally 3 months with maximum temperatures over 40 degrees celsius. It can also get down to minus 9 degrees celsius. There is no town water or bore (well) either as all water is collected via rain water tanks.

I have visited this garden twice and it is nothing short of an oasis. It also allows crops for native animals which form part of the whole system.

As a side note SHW systems form part of the building code here in Victoria and new dwellings have to choose between installation of a rain water tank or a SHW system. It should be mandatory though.

Good luck!

Lance Michael Foster said...


It's not "Earth" but "Eaarth" with TWO a's.
Go to Amazon and type in Eaarth with two a's

greatblue said...


It's the spelling of earth with two a's > eaarth that threw you off, no doubt.

Title: _Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet_


abliss426 said...

We have been reading your blog and reading your books for the last year or so and appreciate your ability to connect big picture global concerns and practical actions people can take in their local community.

We in Seacoast NH and Southern Maine recognize that “climate weirding” is here and agree with you that communities need to focus on renewable energy resources. We founded Seacoast Renewable Energy Initiative, (SEAREI, pronounced SEA RAY) in Portsmouth NH in 2009, a not for profit offspring of the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI), a non-profit organization in Plymouth, NH. We saw this as a community based response to peak oil and climate change.

Solar hot water is relatively easy to install and with the new cost incentives and tax breaks, worth installing especially because it is the right thing to do. We as an organization are using the old fashion “barn-raising” concept morphed to an “energy-raiser” to increase cost savings and create a community network. SEAREI is able to purchase materials at reduced cost, companies interested in being corporate or small business members offer generous discounts to the membership, trades-people are educated about installation of renewable systems and gain devoted customers from members for other work that may need doing when the membership see these trades people joining the volunteer “energy raiser” work team. We are a “pay-it-forward” group, so if you are scheduled for a raiser, you are expected to help 3 other families “raise” their system and so on.

Solar systems work best when a home is well insulated and buttoned-up so to speak. We are sponsoring weatherization education programs and will be implementing weatherization “raisings.” We are a young organization, not yet a year old and have raised 7 systems – 3 solar hot water and 4 photovoltaic systems. PAREI has been around now for over 4 years and have installed well over 100 systems in their area. What we have done here can be replicated anywhere. PAREI offers a DVD and consultation about how to start a renewable energy initiative. Check out or

DIYer said...

@Dan Olner,
"Average insolation at the Earth's surface is 250 watts per square metre -

"I can't quite see how to apply the concept of exergy at that stage. Once it's been converted to some form that can do work, yes - but not as electromagnetic radiation. It's a concept we use to help think about energy, not an actual property of photons as they travel those 93 million miles.

"The question's then, how much can you convert to doing useful work? Answer: an amount one shouldn't dismiss."

Dan, it's my impression that what JMG means by "exergy" is roughly equivalent to Gibbs Free Energy:

I'd be hard pressed to explain all the greek letters in that article, but it is the formulation used in physical chemistry.

As for the photons, you're basically correct about them -- although the inverse square law renders them much more diffuse (and we need them that way to keep from overheating), the spectrum of the Sun's photons still roughly match its surface temperature when they get here.

And the theoretical work you could extract from these solar photons would be the difference between that temperature and our ambient earthly temperature ~(5000°K - 300°K)... theoretically; nothing is 100% efficient.

Photovoltaic panels can be about 10-15% efficient, and chlorophyll is about 1 or 2% efficient on that scale. Concentrated solar power, where you use mirrors or lenses converging on a hot spot, can -theoretically- be more efficient, but it suffers from greater complexity. More plumbing and parts, and the mirrors have to be maintained all shiny and smooth.

The bottom line however, is that it's not going to be easy, in fact we will not, replace the bulk of our industrial energy consumption with solar. We humans have not learned the lessons of the '70s and weaned ourselves off of fossil hydrocarbons - and the reasons for this are many, as our illustrious host has so skillfully explained over the last few years.

Joan said...

Even at the height of the subprime mortgage boom, home ownership in the U.S. barely reached fifty percent. A tax break that would really make SHW widespread would be for landlords. At things stand now, the economics are the same that keep cheap inefficient window air conditioners on the market: the landlord doesn't pay the electric bill, so he doesn't care how much juice the appliances drink up.

As for the decline in concern for our descendants, I remember noticing, starting in the Seventies but especially gathering steam in the Eighties, an enormous propaganda effort via the Establishment media to promote individual upward mobility and money-making as good things. This effort has not slacked yet. I think the Powers That Be were deeply frightened by the collectivizing impulse of the Sixties, so they set out to push the culture in a more individualistic direction. That in the process they would kill the family never occurred to them.

strang LA said...

dl -- the book "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" is spelled with "Eaarth" which I didn't notice at first either -- type that into amazon and you'll find a hardvover and CD version of it.

Ekkar said...

This could hint at some of the problems with certain folks outlook on life...? Unfortunately this kind of nonsense is which a lot of my own loved ones subscribe to.
I think it has to do with that it is an idea that tells people that they don't have to do anything. That everything that is needing care taken is being taken care of.

Ric said...

On solar hot water: My wife and I spent a few days cruising the eastern Mediterranean in spring of 2008. In Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, every building has what appeared to be thermosiphon solar hot water systems. Both business and residential buildings, rich or poor areas; everyone used them. Even the fancy hotels right had their roofs covered with them. From the street, these all looked like identical units made to a standard size. If you needed more hot water, your roof had multiple units. I remember playing with homebrew thermosiphon systems in high school physics class and wanting to put one on the family home. My parents were more concerned with looking like hippies. (sigh)

On climate change/global warming: From what I've been able to tell from a strictly amateur reading, the climate is a series of overlapping sine waves driven largely by natural processes. I have always doubted humanity's ability to change that significantly. Having said that, there is far more significant and immediate ecological damage caused by the extraction and use of fossil fuel which should be of much more concern. The problem is that global warming is sucking up all the oxygen in the room. Not that any of it matters; as you say, humanity never makes a change until the collapse is well under way. We will stop burning fossil fuel, only now it appears that we will do so in an uncontrolled and destructive way.

On nuclear energy: For an outline of why current practice is so inefficient and one possible alternative, see:
We made a choice decades in the past that put us on the path we are on. Again, there are many things we could do, but we won't.

My wife and I tried the homesteading thing from 2000 to 2006. We made a few mistakes, like choosing a location based on emotional attachment rather than practicality, and had to abandon ship to save our finances and our marriage. We are now renters and gypsies, focusing on shedding as much 21st century detritus as we can, constantly on the move waiting for economic stability and the right place to do it again. I love reading the efforts of others here in the comments and am taking copious notes. Thanks to all who contribute, and a huge thanks to you, JMG, for your essays and the wonderful company you allow into your virtual living room.

Ekkar said...

what the holy homogenates is a troll anyways?

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, the transition to desert and dustbowl will be temporary at best. More heat in the atmosphere means more water evaporating from the oceans; remember that during the Hypsithermal 6000 years ago, when global temperature was around 3 degrees C. higher, the Sahara was one big savanna with big pluvial lakes.

Bill, 2004 was a weird year for climate; the question is whether it was a foretaste of things to come or not. Time will tell. As for sunrooms and enclosed porches, no kidding -- simple, effective, and well within the range of most homeowners.

Kieran, thanks for the link.

James, if you install a solar hot water system anywhere in the US you can treat 30% of the cost as a tax credit; many states also either give you a tax credit or actually cover some of the cost up front. The incentives are there; people simply need to wake up and start taking advantage of them.

Xhmko, I'd welcome a copy in either language, or both! Info (at) aoda (dot) com will get it to me.

DIYer, since weather and climate are functions of the troposphere, I look at tropospheric circulation, and iirc the oceans are the main heat sink for that. Of course on a wider scale, the sun and deep space are the source and sink respectively of the energy that keeps us all alive.

PSW, the interesting thing there is that that's not news -- it's been being reported now for three or four years, as I recall. Is it a serious issue? You bet -- thus my suggestion in the post that people who live close to sea level might want to head for higher ground; I'm by no means confident that the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet will happen as slowly as current models suggest.

Dan, I'd point to the "hockey stick" graph (which was definitely diddled -- neither the postglacial hypsithermal nor the early medieval warm period show up on it) and the claims that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2050 or thereabouts as evidence to the contrary.

As for the exergy in solar energy, though -- yes, there's quite a bit of it, thus my comments on solar water heating, passive solar space heating, and other useful technologies. Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines are another example of something I'd love to see somebody rebuild -- I'd do it myself if I had the time to learn steam engineering. Estimates that I've seen suggest that we could count on getting maybe 15% of current energy supply from renewables, and even if that's all we've got in the future, 15% is one heck of a lot more than nothing at all.

Sixbears, seriously cool. It's those who are doing this sort of thing -- making appropriate tech from available materials -- who give me hope that something positive may yet come out of the current mess.

John Michael Greer said...

Ben, granted, I could have been more precise; exergy is specifically the difference in energy concentration between the energy source and the local energy sink, and that's what measures the capacity to do work.

Ruben, thanks for the link!

Brian, that's an interesting viewpoint, and by no means unreasonable. My working assumption is that the world's industrial and industrializing nations are going to do as they've done heretofore, and give lip service to pollution control exactly as far as they can do it without cutting into short term profitability -- meaning that we're going to get all the other crud you've listed, as well as excess CO2. You're right that the Earth has been much warmer for most of its long history than it is today; claims that 6 degrees of warming means the end of life on Earth are frankly absurd -- but a jump of that scale will almost certainly bring our civilization to its knees, so it's not exactly a minor issue.

Mark, since you didn't attach a link to the study, I can't say for sure, but most such proposals deal only with energy and never factor in the exergy issue.

Mageprof, I see a lot of that as well. It's definitely a sign worth noting; those who live as though there isn't a future eventually don't have one.

Abliss, this is very promising. That sort of community activism -- and of course there are other groups doing similar things -- is likely to accomplish more good, given the narrow limits of time and resources that we've got, than most other options. Thanks for the link!

DIYer, nicely put. The one thing I'd point out is that photosynthesis looks inefficient, at 1%, because it includes the energy cost of manufacturing its own "solar cells." Subtract the amount of energy needed to make a solar panel, and to make the factory that makes the solar panel, from the lifetime output of the solar panel, and I doubt you're going to see a figure as high as it is with those "externalities" left out.

Joan, the destruction of the family as an economic and social unit was a complex phenomenon, and the radicalism of the Sixties -- by redefining housework as a form of oppression, and defining employment outside the home as the only worthwhile economic activity -- played at least as large a part in that as the saturation advertising campaigns aimed at turning families into loose associations of independent consumers. More on that in a future post.

Ekkar, good. I'm convinced that the motivating factor behind a lot of the brick wall of denial so many people raise against the awareness that we are in deep trouble is exactly the hope that they won't have to do anything about it.

Ric, homesteading is a massive challenge, and one that most people in the industrial world are hopelessly unprepared to face. I've long argued that the better choice, for most people, is to find an existing community (as in, a small city or town) where you can settle down, make connections, get a garden growing and inexpensive green tech up and running, and do your best. That's certainly the strategy I'm pursuing!

Ekkar, "troll" is internet slang for a person who behaves in an insulting or deliberately annoying manner in discussion forums like this one. We get 'em here, but because all comments to this blog are moderated, their posts don't get through, and when somebody makes it good and clear that they're a troll and aren't willing to make any positive contribution, any further comments they try to make get deleted unread. Fair? Probably not, but it keeps the signal to noise ratio at a comfortable level.

By the way, "holy homogenates"? That's good -- though most homogenized things I know of are pretty definitely unholy, at least from a Druid perspective.

Draco TB said...

I'd point to the "hockey stick" graph (which was definitely diddled -- neither the postglacial hypsithermal nor the early medieval warm period show up on it)

No, it wasn't. The two points you mentioned don't show up on the "Hockey Stick" because, in global average temperatures you just won't see regional temperature changes.

and the claims that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2050 or thereabouts as evidence to the contrary.

Which is an admitted mistake. People make them but, in this case, it makes no difference to the underlying science.

You're right that the Earth has been much warmer for most of its long history than it is today; claims that 6 degrees of warming means the end of life on Earth are frankly absurd -- but a jump of that scale will almost certainly bring our civilization to its knees, so it's not exactly a minor issue.

The Earth has been much warmer before but not while most of the life that's on it now was alive. Almost none of what is here now could survive a global temperature increase of 6 degrees as it's just not evolved for that sort of temperature. And remember, that's an average - some places will easily be in the double digit increase. Most of the Northern Hemisphere in fact.

Dan Olner said...

"Dan, I'd point to the "hockey stick" graph (which was definitely diddled -- neither the postglacial hypsithermal nor the early medieval warm period show up on it) and the claims that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2050 or thereabouts as evidence to the contrary."

By the 'hockey stick graph', do you mean Mann's original paper? If so, a) it was not diddled - quite an accusation of fraud - and b) has been replicated in many other studies since. Summary; note especially the point about what's important in C20th warming:

Have you read the original Mann paper? It's linked to at that site - as you'll see, the whole point of the paper, from the abstract:

"We focus not just on the reconstructions, but the uncertainties therein, and important caveats. Though expanded uncertainties prevent decisive conclusions for the period prior to AD 1400, our results suggest that the latter 20th century is anomalous in the context of at least the past millennium."

Sounds like cautious science to me, which they were just starting to pioneer, in the hope of getting at what's happening to our world. The slander these people have had to suffer is appalling. It was followed by many years of other proxy studies; see last graph here:

IPCC: again, probably can't do better than going to Realclimate -

- where one discovers that, as I say, actual glacier-melting *science* was in Working Group 1, and the incorrect claim never got anywhere near the media. You say "some IPCC scientists diddled the facts to make a good but undramatic case more mediagenic". Sorry if I'm seeming shrill about this, but that's just not true, and it dismays me to think you'd continue to say it was, after reading around a little.

Kate said...

"Why, then, haven’t solar hot water heaters blossomed like daisies atop homes across the country?"

Surely you're not serious when you say you can't fathom why solar hot water heaters aren't more common. The answer seems far from mysterious to me: money, or more specifically, the scarcity of it.

We happen to be in the process of installing exactly such a system for heating alone (not domestic hot water, at least not yet) in our 130-year-old home. Overall, the entire project is going to cost more than $30,000, and additionally we spent a good fraction of that amount last year on an energy retrofit before committing to passive solar heat. Even with the maximum tax credit, that's a huge net outlay. No landlords or renters are going to contemplate such a system, nor is any homeowner currently underwater with their mortgage. So who's left that *might* contemplate it IF their awareness of energy issues is sufficiently high? A very lucky small minority that still has the money to spend on such projects. Believe me when I say I feel very lucky indeed to number among them.

DIYer said...

At the risk of being a complete pest this week, I'm posting again. With my microscopic attention span, this is the way I operate; little pips of inspiration in the compost heap of life.

In an earlier thought I made the connection between the color temperature of sunlight and the actual temperature of a thermodynamic source. This is, I believe, a valid connection -- although the 250 watts you'd collect from a square meter would represent a smallish fire, the temperature of that fire would be 5000°.

From a thermodynamic standpoint, that makes solar a very high-quality form of energy. We don't routinely attain anywhere near 5000° from any fuel-combustion process.

Therefore, I must conclude that the reason we haven't done much with solar is political, social, financial -- religious, really -- inertia.

hapibeli said...

We in the Southern Gulf Islands, British Columbia [and I can say in all of the Western North America], have experienced the opposite of the Eastern NA. It has been very little cold, and almost NO freezing temps. Our Spring arrived in the 2nd week of February!! We have late March and April plants budding and flowering! The bees are and bugs are out in increasing numbers. The most of us are concerned about late frosts, there is little we can do, but begin our growing season early. As I've understood for some years now, it IS about climate change, and not necessarily constant over all warming. More intense and shorter storms of ice, snow, wind, and/or rain. Longer periods of drought or rainfall where it hasn't happened for hundreds of years, etc..
Our ability to predict weather and therefore the crops we can grow will be made more difficult. That will result in poorer or better crop yields of different crops than we are used to. Oh my my! Stop the insanity! Or not...heh heh

das monde said...

It is smart to evoke exergy, though this is a relative and not directly measurable quantity. In particular, talking of sunlight exergy makes sense only if we compare spectra of incoming and outgoing radiation. Measurements above jungle and old forests show that mature biosphere uses up impressive portion of the energy potential in sun rays. This supports Schneider-Kay's extension of the second law of thermodynamics to biotic or complex systems, that non-equilibrium systems evolve to oppose external energy gradients and dissipate it more and more efficiently. Needless to say, industrial dissipation of Sun's spectral exergy is much less efficient. If it somehow should evolve more efficient in line with Schneider-Kay's formulation, boom and bust cycles should smoothen and select out self-destructive trends as today. There is still certain amount of faith and uncertainty in extending principles of thermodynamics either to complex systems or to spacetime fabric.

Effects of energy (or exergy?) capture by greenhouse gases depends on yet unknown specifics rather than general principles. In particular, hurricanes are fueled by warm sea temperatures and cool air, as this is the unstable thermodynamic configuration. What gets more energy concentration depends on many things, particularly clouds. Thermodynamically, more extreme effects of climate change do not look like deterioration of the Earth system. Rather contrarily, they support the possibility that Gaia revenge is a less laughable notion.

Dan Olner said...

On a different note, hope you can get to see this in some form, it looks amazing. 'Requiem for Detroit':

"Julien Temple's new film is a vivid evocation of an apocalyptic vision: a slow-motion Katrina that has had many more victims. Detroit was once America's fourth largest city.

"Built by the car for the car, with its groundbreaking suburbs, freeways and shopping centres, it was the embodiment of the American dream.

"But its intense race riots brought the army into the city. With violent union struggles against the fierce resistance of Henry Ford and the Big Three, it was also the scene of American nightmares.
Now it is truly a dystopic post-industrial city, in which 40 per cent of the land in the centre is returning to prairie. Greenery grows up through abandoned office blocks, houses and collapsing car plants, and swallows up street lights.

"Police stations and post offices have been left with papers on the desks like the Marie Celeste. There is no more rush hour on what were the first freeways in America. Crime, vandalism, arson and dog fighting are the main activities in once the largest building in North America. But it's also a source of hope.

"Streets are being turned to art. Farming is coming back to the centre of the city. Young people are flocking to help. The burgeoning urban agricultural movement is the fastest growing movement in the US. Detroit leads the way again but in a very different direction."

Gwendolyn said...

Bill Putnam,

Your comment about using "state of the art biotechnological thermostatic regulator to modulate the influx of daytime shortwave radiation while minimizing radiative and conductive heat losses during nightime and cloudy periods; in other words, just open and close the curtains as needed to let in the sun and keep out the cold. " made me laugh out loud.

I've saved lots of heating oil during New England winters by using double sets of curtains, and curtaining halls and stairways off from central high-use rooms.

One caveat to be aware of, pointed out to me by an architect friend, is that a curtained window can become a thermal pump; the air cooled by contact with the window sinks, and in doing so sucks warmer air into the space from the top of the curtain/window. To mitigate or at least lessen the effect,I tucked the inside curtain up onto the window sill (beware of permanent stains to light colored curtains from condensation mixed with unsealed wood treatments) and/or made or hung curtains low enough that the curtain pooled on the floor.

JMG, I am a huge admirer of you and your writing and sing your praises to whoever will listen. Have read Long Descent (am re-reading now) and EcoTecnic Future, and am enjoying Star's Reach, ever hungry for more. Also love reading all the comments where there are always golden nuggets, and a sense of comraderie with like-minded folks. I copy/paste your post and comments out weekly, and snuggle up in bed with them! Many thanks.

Ruben said...

All this talk of retrofitting and solar thermal, I thought the crowd would be interested in this efficiency hierarchy.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gwendolyn -- our solution to the thermal pump effect of the curtained windows is to make a piece of material (match to the curtains preferably) that rests horizontally on top of the curtain rod, blocking off air entry from the top. When the curtains are fully closed with the air block in place on the top, it stops most of the flow of cold air out the bottoms of the curtains. Even without that, though, I doubt you lose as much heat via the air circulating behind the curtains as you would lose to conduction and radiation via an uncovered window. It's just more noticeable because it is concentrated in that easily felt cold flow from the bottom. Air will circulate across an exposed window as well, but the flow is not channelized and hence harder to feel. It is amazing how much easier it is to heat a room after you put good warm curtains up!

Cherokee Organics said...

I came across this article today in our local paper about the downsizing of Detroit. Very prescient given your recent blogs.

jagged ben said...

I'm glad for Draco And Dan's responses on the hockey stick stuff. Expecting proxy data graphs to show warmer periods in the past is begging the question. Whether or not those periods were warmer than now is precisely what is at issue, and what we need the proxy data to find out. My own take is that given the uncertainties and paucity of proxy data, we will never know for sure whether global average temperatures were warmer 6000 years ago than at present. But our best guess seems to be that they were comparable, and not warmer than what the IPCC is forecasting for a hundred years out in a high-emissions scenario. (Granted, I don't know what to think of a high-emissions scenario given peak oil. But then there's coal...)

On comparing the efficiency of photosynthesis and photovoltaic cells:

I've read that photosynthesis is 6-8% efficient, and as far as I can tell that figure (unlike the 1% figure) includes the energy that goes back into building the plant. In other words it's a comparable figure to that of 10-15% for PV cells. If photosynthesis is only 1% efficient in the end, then the energy required to "manufacture" the plant is more than 80% of the energy gathered. By comparison optimistic estimates for PV cells are 25% or lower, and even the worst case "reality check" estimate using the "price-as-proxy" method suggests better than 80%.

John Michael Greer said...

Draco, it's pure hypothesis that the medieval optimum was regional -- given that its end corresponded to the onset of culture-ending droughts in the American Southwest, among other climatic shifts, I have my doubts. As for the impact of a 6 degree increase in temperature, that's less than the temperature spike at the end of the last ice age; yes, we lost a lot of megafauna in that transition, and we'll lose more in this one, but the basic integrity of the biosphere wasn't in question then and won't be in question this time either.

Dan, no, I don't mean the original paper, but the use that was made of it by people connected to the IPCC, who left out the uncertainties and used the hockey stick as a blunt instrument. Equally, the Himalayan glacier business wasn't in the original science, but in the distortions imposed on it.

Mind you, these days scientific fraud is pervasive enough that it's generally a good idea to ask to see the underlying data. (In my college years I saw half a dozen blatant examples going on in plain sight, not only not being punished but being actively supported by university officials whose sole interest was the influx of grant money to the universities in question. Everything I've seen suggests that things have gotten worse since then.) Thus I'm pleased that one of the results of this whole business is a proposal to make the whole range of climate data publicly available. That ought to make it a good deal easier to settle who's cooking which books.

Kate, if you're being billed $30K for a solar hot water system, you're probably being ripped off. Here in western Maryland, the cost of a complete system runs between $8000 and $12,000, with a 3 to 7 year payback time pretty standard.

DIYer, I'll be responding to that tomorrow. The short form is that you're confusing quantity and concentration again, though in a more creative way.

Hapibeli, definitely global weirding. Here in the Appalachians, we've had a string of warm sunny days, finally, so the snow has mostly released its grip.

Das Monde, good. Schneider-Kay's extension is very much the point here; Prigogine's theory of dissipative systems, which is a bit more general, is also relevant. More on this soon.

Dan, the case of Detroit is going to get a post of its own one of these days. Thanks for the link!

Gwendolyn, thank you! There'll be a new installment of Star's Reach in a couple of days -- stay tuned.

Ruben, thanks for the link!

Bill, good. There was an entire literature on insulated window coverings in the 70s; I recently found a big Rodale Press book on the subject for a couple of dollars at a used book store, and it had some tricks for preventing the chimney effect I hadn't seen before -- for example, stitch little magnets into the bottom hem of the curtain and put a strip of iron on the wall low down, where the magnets will hit.

Cherokee, thanks for the link!

Ben, the mismatch between the IPCC scenarios and the geological limits of fossil fuel production is actually the biggest joker in the deck, though I didn't focus on it this time. We're already past peak oil, we're about 20 years away from peak gas -- yes, including shale gas! -- and about 30 years out from peak coal. There's precisely no chance that fossil fuel emissions can keep climbing through 2100, as the high-end scenarios require.

Mind you, I'm still quite sure we're in for a very difficult time, and probably in a more sudden form than current models predict -- in a complex homeostatic system like the atmosphere, change rarely happens in a linear fashion. It's the extreme claims (for example, the folks who insist that the Earth is going to become a twin of Venus) that I find useless.

Ariel55 said...

Dear"Report" Board,
I had a lucky day today, as my fourth JMG book arrived in the mail from Amazon. This one had the most incredible endorsement/recommendation I had ever read.(Circles of Power. Now it's on to "Paths of Wisdom".) All this, and the blog too! It may be the influence of Facebook games, but I wish to "gift" wife, Sara, a whole box of hotel soaps, so she can take the day off, for sharing JMG with us! He's a great influence in my life. Best wishes!

Draco TB said...

but the basic integrity of the biosphere wasn't in question then and won't be in question this time either.

An interesting choice of words. Yes, the basic integrity of the biosphere won't be in question. It wasn't in question when a large rock eliminated the dinosaurs 65m years ago either but 90% of life on Earth still died. THAT is what I was getting at. All life won't die but a very large amount of it will.

We'll have to agree to disagree about the Medieval Warm Period.

the mismatch between the IPCC scenarios and the geological limits of fossil fuel production is actually the biggest joker in the deck, though I didn't focus on it this time.
This bugged me for awhile - until I decided the weight of evidence suggested that we were past the point of no return and that runaway climate change was going to happen pretty much no matter what we did.

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, Sara makes all our soap -- very high quality stuff, too. But she says thank you for the thought!

Draco, in the K-T transition the integrity of the biosphere was pretty thoroughly compromised, as shown by the fungal spore count at that point in the stratigraphy -- when nearly every piece of organic matter on the planet is rotting, the biosphere is far from intact. Fortunately its capacities for rebound are pretty high. Still, what we're facing is likely to be a lot closer to the end of the last ice age -- a period of drastic temperature instability, followed by stabilization at a warmer level, and a lot of reshuffling of ecosystems in which less resilient species will be at high risk of extinction.

But it's interesting that you say that the drastic mismatch between the IPCC scenarios and the amount of carbon needed to carry them out "bugged you." Are you perhaps one of the many people who want an apocalyptic future? If so, you might want to ask yourself why.

Dan Olner said...

Jagged ben: "whether or not those periods were warmer than now is precisely what is at issue, and what we need the proxy data to find out." It depends on why it was warmer. If it's 20 degrees next January (I'm in the UK, it should be winter) I'll know something's awry. 20 degrees in June is to be expected. Why? We know about radiative forcing due to the angle of the earth to the sun: seasons. The point there: finding a warm period in the past is interesting, but says little about warming now without accounting for causes. We need to consider all forcings (note the error bars and probabilities), to explain what's going on.

"it's pure hypothesis that the medieval optimum was regional -- given that its end corresponded to the onset of culture-ending droughts in the American Southwest, among other climatic shifts, I have my doubts." No disrespect, John, but I'm going with the climate scientists on this one. Everything is pure hypothesis, it's just some of them have more support than others. Besides which, as I say above, even if it turns out to be global, we still have to account for the known physical effects of climate forcings NOW.

I'd agree with you on the political use of the original hockey stick, though I don't know that it was the IPCC's doing. A highly dysfunctioal press seems to me the largest problem: they'll print "we're all going to die!" or "scientists are all shysters!" depending on what they think will sell the most papers at the time.

JMG: "In my college years I saw half a dozen blatant examples going on in plain sight, not only not being punished but being actively supported by university officials whose sole interest was the influx of grant money to the universities in question. Everything I've seen suggests that things have gotten worse since then."

Jesus, where were you working? Everything I've seen in my department, which is very data-heavy, points to people trying to tease out carefully what the data can tell them. You should have ratted them out: falsifying results is clearly a sackable offense. I'm sorry you worked somewhere so corrupt, but I doubt that's the norm (because people lose their careers over falsifying usually, they don't get more grants...)

On peak coal - 8 to 900 gigatons appear to remain left to burn. George Monbiot has a good article picking apart two Nature papers: to keep below 2 degrees we can burn less than 33% of the fossil fuels that are left.

"As for the impact of a 6 degree increase in temperature, that's less than the temperature spike at the end of the last ice age; yes, we lost a lot of megafauna in that transition, and we'll lose more in this one, but the basic integrity of the biosphere wasn't in question then and won't be in question this time either."

That's not true, is it? See e.g. this. The last time it was 5 degrees above now was about 55 million years ago - nice summary here. We do not want to go there.

If we burn what's left, we will, with a high probability, go there.

Honky said...

I have read a few of your essays and like a lot of the ideas contained within, including the value of the concept of the quality of energy. However, without wanting to sound rude, you need to recheck your understanding of the science. In particular generalising *thermo*dynamics (which is only applicable to heat energy) to all forms of energy. For example, light hitting black objects is converted to heat with roughtly 100% efficiency. This is completely irrespective of the "density" of light. The best solar panels convert light to electricity with something like 40% efficiency (again irrespective of "density"), this is because it is the quantised photon energy which is important, not the density of these photons.

The same priciple as the solar water heater is also used to generate electricity through a slightly roundabout route of heating oil, which in turn heats water, which in turn drives a turbine, which generates the electricity. Even after all these steps the efficiency is still a handy 10% or something like that.

Heat pumps are a good example of the importance of the "quality" of energy. Heat pumps run at efficiencies of well over 100% (when viewing only electricity consumed), using electricity to transport heat from source to target, despite the fact that the source is generally at the a similar temperature to the target (can even be colder, hence why fridges work).

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, according to proxy evidence from Greenland ice cores, the temperature spike at the end of the last ice age was more than 8 degrees C. and probably happened in less than a decade. Of course it didn't push things more than 5 degrees over where we are today -- things were a lot colder, coming off the Younger Dryas cold phase -- but it's the speed of the transition, rather than the absolute temperature value, that's the killer.

As for scientific fraud -- two different universities, most of a decade apart. At one, the junior profs and grad students had worked out a very nice racket; they ran their experiments, and handed the data over to a couple of computer geeks who ran statistical analyses on every possible combination until they got something that was significant to the .05 level. (Random data will do that one time in twenty, of course.) Then they wrote their papers claiming that the "significant" effect was the one they had predicted. It got a lot of junk science published.

At the other, there was a very large and well funded research program that got grant money by the truckload. The experiments they were running looked great on paper; it's just that they claimed to be double blind, and weren't. Lab techs had to make a judgment call at the crucial point; all the lab techs knew perfectly well what they were supposed to find, and their work-study funding gave them an incentive to find it. The result was more junk science.

Were these rare occurrences? I find that improbable, not least because there's plenty of evidence for the same sort of misbehavior whenever science gets tangled up with money or politics. (For one example out of many, see the recent fracas about drug studies, lots of them, whose "authors" were paid to put their name on papers ghostwritten by pharmaceutical company flacks.)

Honky, no solar panel on earth has a 40% efficiency, and the fact that individual photons transmit all their energy to a black body hardly makes density irrelevant -- it's the density of photons, not their individual energy, that determines how much work can be done by them. (This is why Pluto is colder than Mercury, even though the photons reaching them each have the same energy on average.) More generally, the laws of thermodynamics are the gold standard of physics, and they do apply to all energy interactions. It's because people lose track of this that so much nonsense gets generated in the energy field.

Draco TB said...

in the K-T transition the integrity of the biosphere was pretty thoroughly compromised,

I would dispute because of its capacities for rebound remained intact. Sure, a lot of things died but the biosphere was still living.

Still, what we're facing is likely to be a lot closer to the end of the last ice age -- a period of drastic temperature instability, followed by stabilization at a warmer level, and a lot of reshuffling of ecosystems in which less resilient species will be at high risk of extinction.

Yes, but what does that actually mean? Considering that there's a high probability that the entire centre of North America will be desert (already happening BTW) how many species will go extinct there? How much of the tropics will be uninhabitable? How much of our food growing regions will be left?

But it's interesting that you say that the drastic mismatch between the IPCC scenarios and the amount of carbon needed to carry them out "bugged you." Are you perhaps one of the many people who want an apocalyptic future? If so, you might want to ask yourself why.

No. It bugged me because it indicated that they weren't taking into account Peak Oil or any of the other approaching peaks in resource supply. That said, I don't think we can avoid some sort of die off. Peak Oil alone will bring one about. Combined with a high energy unstable climate from Anthropogenic Climate Change and things aren't looking too rosy.

BruceMcF said...

The problem with solar heating saving more than 70% of the hot water required of a house here in Northeastern Ohio is that, even with the new vacuum tube solar thermal collectors, the size of collector panel required to heat water in the winter time would collect so much more heat than required in the summer.

But wait a minute ... in the summer time here in NE Ohio is when massive amounts of energy is consumed to bring air temperatures down to the 70~75 degrees F that is comfortable at our high summer humidities.

If you had extra heat, why, you could use a dessicant dehumidifier ... use the heat to drive the humidity out of the dessicant into air being vented out of the house, then the dessicant circles around to the other side where it is used to dehumidify the air.

At lower humidity, the low 80's in the shade is quite comfortable, especially with a ceiling fan going.

The solar collector panels to both heat hot water and dehumidify the air in the summertime would then be the solar collector panels only used to heat hot water in the wintertime.

CSP solar is a fine thing for current peak electricity generation, and their real world energy return on investment is perfectly fine for long term sustainability as a part of a diverse energy resource portfolio ... not of course to sustain the present energy gluttony, but since the present system is destroying all life support systems on the planet, its not sustainable in any event.

But there are no silver bullets. Its necessary to move ahead on all fronts, mining our gross energy waste, and implementing the existing already mature and economically viable renewable energy sources, and find and deploy all the political wedges available against the suicide industries of oil, gas and coal.

JLG said...

Hey! As someone planning on being a stateswoman (hey, that's what this century needs), and generally having a decent political career that can bring Australia through the next 50 years (i'm 15) relatively peacefully into the low-energy future, i'd like it if you could give me examples of economic mechanisms that a government can do to incentivize a more sustainable lifestyle. i've already got some ideas for turning an entire city green instead of just houses and buildings and their gardens, but those aren't for now, they are for about 30 years in the future.
i would really appreciate it and so would those, i'm sure, who are aware like you all and don't think you have representation in the major parties. (Labor)
I've already decided i'm going to study Agriculture for my HSC. My mum things i'm mad.

Lynne said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

For superb statistics to support your thoughts on the economic bind of the two income household, please see Ms. Warren's talk here:


Rita said...

Others have commented that the real possibility of divorce may influence career choices, especially for women. It occurs to me that the prevalence of divorce is only part of a general loss of the concept of loyalty and commitment in our society. Neither employees nor employers are loyal to one another. Parents sacrifice their child's interests to enter or maintain a new love relationship. Children neglect elderly parents. Surrogate mothers renege on their contracts. The examples could go on.

This ties into the earlier discussion of the rewards and difficulties of community. If people cannot trust their nearest and dearest how can they trust a more loosely defined community? And how can a community influence the behavior of its members when the very idea of public disgrace seems to have been forgotten. There is no line left between infamy and fame, no idea of shaming people into proper behavior.

We know ideas of morality and propriety can go in cycles--will the future see a return to a society more willing to make judgments of this type and to enforce them by refusal to associate with the offending parties?