Monday, October 04, 2004

Energy, Society & Hierarchy

Energy drives all aspects of our lives... energy to fuel our bodies, energy to fuel our cars, energy to fuel our homes. One way of looking at the inputs to "price" is as a composite of all energies needed to place a product or service at in the hands of a consumer. But energy is not as simple as adding up the inputs to find a total -- there are a wide variety of energy types and systems available to any society, and how each society chooses to engage them largely determines their economics, politics and freedoms. Here I will focus specifically on how energy choices influence the formation of hierarchy within a society, and how an understanding of this relationship can be used to alter societal structure and hierarchy in general.

A quick review of economic relationships will demonstrate the central role of energy choices in an economy. Control over economic activity translates directly into political power (politics being generally defined as the decision process of how to distribute finite resources within a context of infinite desires). Similarly, control of certain energy resources needed to engage in economic activity translates directly into control over economic activity, which translates into political power.

Certain energy, for example small-scale wind turbines or solar-conscious home designs, are inherently decentralized. They are produced and controlled by the end consumer, and inherently focus political power and economic efficacy in the hands of the individual. Other energy resources, such as petroleum-derived energy, and especially nuclear power, do just the opposite -- they take that control away from the individual and focus it in the hands of large corporations and central governments.

Historically, patterns of energy useage can effectively predict, and are a useful tool in understanding societal structure and hierarchy. Ancient China and Egypt, home to the earliest and most centralized/despotic civilizations, can be explained in terms of an energy-dependence dynamic. The energy that drove both these systems was control of the periodic flooding of the nile and yellow rivers, used to irrigate the agricultural systems of the respective societies. The individual land control of farmers in both societies has mystified many historians as to why such despotic political systems were allowed to develop. This can, however, be easily explained by the fact that it required huge, often 100,000+ man work details to keep these "hydraulic" (see Wittfogel) agriculture systems functioning -- something that could only be accomplished by a powerful, centralized authority.

Conversely, tribal political structures, epitomized by autonomy and individual freedom (if not material wealth) are examples of highly de-centralized energy systems -- mainly firewood gathered by individuals at a sustainable rate.

Taking advantage of the distant mirror of history to examine our own society, it is clear that our dependence on petroleum-derived energy has led to a complete dependence on a despotic government-corporate complex that controls and ensures our supply of petroleum. Our society of "freedom and empowerment", our vaunted democracy might, to those in a removed vantage point, look like the same superficial good deal as the pharoh's providing and maintaining a complex hydraulic-irrigation network must have looked like a good deal to the ancient egyptian peasantry.

Tragically, both centralized energy systems lead, by necessity, to the same result: highly centralized, despotic political systems that re-shape every aspect of society in their favor and strip freedom from the people and concentrate it in the hands of those who control the system. This process remains hidden from the vast majority today, just as it remained hidden from the Egyptian and Chinese peasants until long after they had become slaves. Fortunately the study of how energy systems influenced past societies can provide a tool for the present, the ability to look at today through that same distant mirror of history.

If we wish to avoid the fate of past millenia of peasantry (I'm reminded of "Those who forget the past..."), then we must find a way to decentralize the energy we depend on. After all, energy dependence isn't bad... as long as one is only dependent on energy they control, and energy that is sustainable.

Sustainability of energy is our first concern, as energy independence that relies on non-sustainable forms of energy only keeps us living on borrowed time. All energy on earth, with three exceptions, is solar energy. Petroleum, coal, natural gas, firewood, etc. is all stored solar energy. Wind, direct-solar and water energies are also derivations of the sun's solar energy inputs to Earth. Our rapid depletion of this stored energy has been called by some "the last hours of ancient sunlight" (Hartmann), and promises to be rapidly extinguished (not to mention the related issues of centralized control). Solar energy that is used at a sustainable rate (i.e. as the sun's rays reach the earth) provides great promise, and can be used in a highly independent manner -- it is the energy that forms the core of my suggested solution.

The first of the three remaining types of energy available to us is geothermal. While this holds some promise, it also requires at least a moderate degree of centralized control, and is only available in limited parts of the planet.

Second, tidal-gravitational energy, holds great promise as a decentralized, sustainable resource. It, too, is part of my recommended solutions. Unfortunately, however, it has received very little attention and is at present not ready for our use (not unexpected that governments who will not be able to centralize control of a resource have thus-far ignored it).

Third, and most dangerous is atomic energy. While it is theoretically sustainable (if we ignore the inevitable safety issues), both fission and fusion energy are the worst possible choice in energy -- as they necessitate by far the most centralization of control, with all the accompanying issues. The utopian vision of cheap, clean fusion power is a pharoh-generator -- we must not hang our hopes on it.

Energy independence, then, is achievable, but must be pursued carefully. The step that must be taken -- the same step that has been carefully portrayed as anathema to our nations "values" by our own government -- is to end our dependence on petroleum-based energy. Unfortunately, we have become so completely dependent on petroleum for our very existence that we no longer have the option to simply stop using it. We must first localize our personal economic interactions, build greater individual self-sufficiency and create nodes of localized energy-independence. The most immediate and realistic way to achieve this is to increase our own control and production of energy -- in short, we must grow more of our own food at home and use intelligent design principles to ensure our homes provide for our energy and water needs. The techniques to do this effectively and economically have been developed already by pioneers such as Bill Mollison and Art Ludwig, but, understandably, have been supressed by our own government through building codes and subsidies of competing (petroleum-dependent) methods. Below are some excellent resources... explore them and see how you can apply them to your lives:

Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison
Create an Oasis with Greywater, by Art Ludwig
The New Independent Home (Free Online Edition), by Michael Potts


Anonymous said...

The link to The New Independent Home by Michael Potts (free online version) didn't work for me.

This is the url for the same book on Michael Potts' website.


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