Friday, April 27, 2007

Jevons' Redux

Peak Oil Law Center: Jevons’ Redux & Efficiency Policy

Yesterday my article on Jevons’ Paradox was posted at The Oil Drum, and it led to quite a lively debate. Due to the complexity of the issue, I make no claims that I’m “right” on the topic, but by taking a position and defending it I certainly enhanced my understanding—hopefully others at TOD learned as well. Probably the greatest conclusion that I draw from the debate is that Jevons’ Paradox, like all other “real-world” economic phenomena, is incredibly complex and interconnected, and cannot easily be reduced to a “this is a good idea” or “this is a bad idea” dichotomy. Not coincidentally, this was exactly the point that I was trying to make by highlighting the “shadow rebound effect” caused by Jevon’s Paradox, but I ended up learning about several additional unanticipated effects as well.

So what are my conclusions about the validity of efficiency policy in light of a full consideration of Jevons’ Paradox? My ultimate conclusions—though this is a bit out in left field—is that our economic system has grown too complex for us to accurately implement policy with a full understanding of all effects of that policy. The system is simply too complex, too non-linear, and as a result I have to question the rationality of economic policy in the first place. Anyone who says that they understand how the economy works is flat-out lying. We have lots of theories. They work sometimes. But as the debate on Jevons’ Paradox, and the nesting Matryoshka dolls of paradoxes that spin off from Jevons’, we are not capable of identifying and accounting for all the ramifications of any economic policy. We are often unable to even predict the big-picture direction or impact that will be the result of a policy. What to do? The only proposal that seems rational at this point is to advocate a reduction in societal complexity. That is, unfortunately, the very policy choice that stands the least chance of ever being implemented in our current political system.

So from a policy perspective, what do we do? Does efficiency legislation or rule promulgation make sense? To reduce energy consumption, probably not. To enhance resiliency to systemic shocks, probably not. To reduce the vulnerability of critical sectors of our national, social, or personal economies—probably. This seems to be the most valid rational to back efficiency. If we, as individuals, enhance our energy efficiency in core areas of energy use (areas we can least afford to do without), we are more resilient to future scarcity. The same is true on a larger scale—this is probably the most valid reason to support electrified rail, for example.

The ultimate take-away that I hope most people gained from the essay on Jevons’ Paradox is that simplistic answers or solutions, and simplistic models of our predicament in the face of Peak Oil, are the most likely to be wildly inaccurate. Our predicament is highly complex, but that in no way justifies ignoring the complexity and arriving at policy choices based on simplified, and inaccurate, economic models.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Five Geopolitical Feedback-Loops in Peak Oil

Energy Intelligence Note: April 23, 2007

It is quite common to hear “experts” explain that the current tight oil markets are due to “above-ground factors,” and not a result of a global peaking in oil production. It seems more likely that it is geological peaking that is driving the geopolitical events that constitute the most significant “above-ground factors” such as the chaos in Iraq and Nigeria, the nationalization in Venezuela and Bolivia, etc. Geological peaking spawns positive feedback loops within the geopolitical system. Critically, these loops are not separable from the geological events—they are part of the broader “system” of Peak Oil.

Existing peaking models are based on the logistics curves demonstrated by past peaking in individual fields or oil producing regions. Global peaking is an entirely different phenomenon—the geology behind the logistics curves is the same, but global peaking will create far greater geopolitical side-effects, even in regions with stable or rising oil production. As a result, these geopolitical side-effects of peaking global production will accelerate the rate of production decline, as well as increase the impact of that production decline by simultaneously increasing marginal demand pressures. The result: the right side of the global oil production curve will not look like the left…whatever logistics curve is fit to the left side of the curve (where historical production increased), actual declines in the future will be sharper than that curve would predict.

Here are five geopolitical processes, each a positive-feedback loop, and each an accelerant of declining oil production:

1. Return on Investment: Increased scarcity of energy, as well as increased prices, increase the return on investment for attacks that target energy infrastructure. Whether the actor is an ideologically driven group (al-Qa’ida), or a privateer (youth gangs in the Niger Delta), the geologically-driven declines increase the ROI for attacks on energy, which will drive both decisions to act, as well as targeting decisions for that action. This is a positive feedback-loop because attacks on energy infrastructure and supply drive up the price, which further increases the ROI for such attacks. John Robb's analysis of the September attacks on Mexican oil and natural gas pipelines suggest an ROI as high as 1.4 million percent.

2. Mercantilism: To avoid the dawning “bidding cycles” between crude oil price increases and demand destruction, Nation-States are increasingly returning to a mercantilist paradigm on energy. This is the attitude of “there isn’t enough of it to go around, and we can’t afford to pay the market price, so we need to lock up our own supply.” Whether it’s the direction of a pipeline flow out of Central Asia, defending only specified sea lanes, or influencing an occupied nation’s laws on Production Sharing Agreements, there are signs of a “new energy mercantilism” all around us. This is a positive feedback-loop because, like an iterated “prisoner’s dilemma” game, once one power adopts or intensifies a mercantilist attitude all others must follow suit or lose energy share. It will act to accelerate oil production declines because mercantilism prevents the most economically efficient production of a resource, accelerating the underlying problem of diminishing marginal returns. The rise of mercantilism is highlighted by the recent coverage of the race to control the Arctic, and its potentially vast hydrocarbon reserves.

3. “Export-Land” Model: Jeffrey Brown, a commentator at The Oil Drum, has proposed a geopolitical feedback loop that he calls the “export-land” model. In a regime of high or rising prices, a state’s existing oil exports brings in great revenues, which trickles into the state’s economy, and leads to increasing domestic oil consumption. This is exactly what is happening in most oil exporting states. The result, however, is that growth in domestic consumption reduces oil available for export. In states, such as Mexico, where oil production is also in decline, the “export-land” model predicts that oil exports will decline much faster than oil production—and this is exactly what is happening, with the latest PEMEX report showing 5% production decline year-on-year, but 11% export decline. Ultimately, the effects of the “export-land” model itself suffers from diminishing marginal returns—when exports shrink sufficiently, the oil-export revenue per capita will actually begin to decline (eventually reaching zero, no matter how fast prices rise), at which time the force behind rising domestic consumption will be eliminated. The likely unwillingness of governments to allow their valued oil export revenues to be totally consumed by rising domestic consumption will create pressure for domestic rationing, price-hikes, or uneven distribution of oil and gas domestically. We are already seeing this as many oil exporting countries are scaling back the subsidized pricing of domestic gasoline. The inequalities that will arise out of domestic rationing will act as a catalyst and accelerant to the last two feedback loops...

4. Nationalism: Because our Westphalian system is fundamentally broken, the territories of nations and states are rarely contiguous. As a result, it is often the case that a nation is cut out of the benefits from its host state’s oil exports. This will be especially apparent when the “export-land” effect reduces the total size of the pie to be divided, or as domestic rationing is introduced to maintain export revenues. As a result, nations or sectarian groups within states will increasingly agitate for a larger share of the pie. We see this already within Iraq, Iran (Khuzestan), Nigeria (Delta State), Bolivia (indigenous groups), etc. This process will develop local variants on the tactics of infrastructure disruption, as well as desensitize energy firms to ever greater rents for the security of their facilities and personnel—both of which will drive the next loop…

5. Privateering: Nationalist insurgencies and economies ruined by the downslide of the “export-land” effect will leave huge populations with no conventional economic prospects. High oil prices, and the willingness to make high protection payments, will drive those people to become energy privateers. We are seeing exactly this effect in Nigeria, where a substantial portion of the infrastructure disruption is no longer carried out by politically-motivated insurgents, but by profit-motivated gangs. This is the ultimate positive feedback-loop: infrastructure disruption further degrades any remnants of a legitimate economy, increasing the incentive to engage in energy Privateering, and compensating for any diminishing marginal returns in Privateering caused by enhanced security or competition from other privateers.

We may see some or all of these effects in any given area, and are already seeing this in some trouble spots. Some states, like Iraq, have been thrown into full-fledged “Nationalism” and “Privateering”-driven geopolitical disruption by the actions of an outside power—in this case, the US invasion was itself largely the byproduct of a shift towards energy mercantilism. This is just one illustration of the synergistic interrelationship among these feedback loops. The important take-aways are these:

1. So-called “above-ground factors” are driven by the geological reality

2. These geopolitical processes are positive feedback-loops

3. They will accelerate the decline in global oil production beyond that predicted by models derived from logistics curves.

Geologically driven decline follows a classic logistics curve, with a "long tail" of declining production continuing indefinitely. Geopolitical positive feedback-loops not only have the potential to accellerate that rate of decline, but can potentially drive it to zero in short order. Oil production requires certain threshold levels of economic functioning, security, and rule of law to proceed. These positive feedback-loops have the potential to cut off the "long tail" of declining production abruptly. It practically dogma in peak oil circles that peak oil doesn't mean the end of oil production, just the beginning of inexorable declines. In light of the potential impact of geopolitical feedback-loops, it may be time to reassess that idea, at least on a regional basis.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Social Networking & “Small-Worlds” Theory

“Social Networking” is more than just a virtual party-coordination-system. It’s big business, and the rapid success of profession-networking site LinkedIn is leading the way. As a long-time writer on the theory of non-hierarchal networks, what I call "rhizome," I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring and join LinkedIn. So now that I’m there, what do I do? Conventional wisdom says to add your close associates to your network, and then expand outward in some logical manner by leveraging their network connections, gradually building a large and powerful network of contacts.

The “Small-Worlds” theory of networks, however, suggests a very different approach. According to this theory of organization, which I first wrote about in my 2004 book “A Theory of Power,” the true leverage in tying together a vast network lies in weak and distant connections. Borrowing an example from Mark Buchanan’s “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks,” I stated:

“If…ten students had started some rumor that moved only between the best friends, it would have infected their own social group, but not much more. In contrast, a rumor moving along weaker links would go much farther (to more diverse social groupings). As in the case of people seeking jobs, information spreading along weak ties has a better chance to reach a large number of people.

Figure 1: Network topology graphic demonstrating the power of “weak” connections

From a social networking perspective, effort spent cultivating “near” connections online may be a waste—that is more properly the province of “real-world” connections, and doesn’t leverage the power of social networking systems (though capturing these existing “near” connections in a virtual context is critical). Effort spent cultivating “distant” contacts may yield the greatest reward. Perhaps the best measure of value from a “small-worlds” perspective is how FEW second or third-level connections two people share--a few distant contacts can span network space more efficiently, as fewer signal-distorting relays are required to connect any two nodes. Of course, just connecting to some random and “distant” person is of little value, as there is little weight behind recommendations or introductions, nor much incentive to provide the same. However, when the opportunity arises to make a “distant” connection, effort spent maintaining and deepening that connection is time well spent.

My Linkedin Profile

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Has Russian Natural Gas Peaked?

Energy Intelligence Note: April 19, 2007

The US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR)
reports that Gazprom Chairman (and Russia's Deputy Vice President) Dmitriy Medvedev is demanding Russia’s electric monopoly UES substitute coal-generation for gas generation. This is a reversal of the “gasification” policy of the ‘70s that attempted to reduce the environmental damage and transportation costs of coal-fired power plants. The obvious rationale for reducing domestic consumption is to make more natural gas available for export to Europe and elsewhere. Is this intended to obscure production declines, evidence that Russian natural gas production has peaked?

Gazprom’s existing fields are currently in decline:

The most realistic strategy to offset the sharp decline in production from existing fields is to bring production online from new fields at Yamal, Shtokman, and Sakhalin. These mega-projects, however, have experienced repeated delays and complications. Gazprom is bridging the gap by acquiring producing fields, masking the decline of existing fields. This may preserve the appearance of normalcy, but it doesn’t actually replace declining gas production.

Gazprom’s demands that UES shift to coal-generation can also be explained by simple profit maximization—more gas to sell on the foreign market, where it commands a higher price than under domestic price controls. This explanation, however, fails to explain the timing of Gazprom’s demand. It seems logical that if profit maximization was sufficient rationale to switch back to coal-generation, we would have heard of these demands years ago when this rationale would have been equally valid. Is the more reasonable rationale that Gazprom is scrambling to compensate for plummeting production, under the realization that their mega-projects will not live up to expectations? Europe may have an answer to this question next Winter.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Peak Oil Law Center: Surveying the Future Landscape

The peaking of global oil production, or Peak Oil, will cause major changes in every facet of society, to include changes to the legal environment. As a brainstorming exercise, here is a survey of probable legal ramifications of Peak Oil:

Corruption Competition: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prevents US businessmen from bribing foreign government officials. Chinese businesses have no such burden. Will a scarce energy environment force modifications to the FCPA out of recognition of the need to compete with unrestrained actors such as China and India?

Infrastructure Attacks and Private Military Corporations: Peak Oil will increase the ROI for energy infrastructure attacks. While this will increase cost and risk to energy exploration and production companies, it will also increase the willingness to take on these costs and risks. One result will be an increase in demand for the services of Private Military Corporations (PMCs). The laws governing PMCs are ill-defined and changing quickly.

Regulation Juxtaposition – Peak Oil vs. Global Warming: In the broadest terms, the regulatory response to global warming will be to increase regulatory burden on energy exploration & production, whereas the response to Peak Oil will be to loosen the reigns. Which will win out? The one area that seems to win under either scenario is “efficiency,” though Jevon’s Paradox suggests that may not be a wise response.

Exploration in the Arctic, Antarctica, and Beyond-Continental-Shelf Regions: International-law issues surrounding newly joined contests for scraps of rock in the arctic will heat up, as will the debate surrounding resource extraction from Antarctica. Did you know that Canadian and Danish warships came face-to-face over this issue a few years back? And what law governs beyond-continental-shelf oil reserves, anyway?

Nationalist Energy Subsidies and “Free-Trade”: Can Mexico’s protectionist constitutional clause that grants PEMEX a monopoly withstand a WTO challenge? Does US selective protection of sea lanes, or re-denomination of Iraqi oil in dollars represent a non-tariff barrier to trade? What about “diplomatic” and “political” pressures that end up piping oil or gas toward one market, and away from another? What about bio-fuel subsidies, or Venezuela’s increasing moves towards nationalization? What about Chinese development aid in Africa or US subsidy of an LNG terminal? The phrase “non-tariff barrier to trade” is a potentially malleable legal tool. Peak-Oil is an inherently mercantilist phenomena, and it will spawn legal conflict with free-trade treaties and policies.

Geo-Political Risk Insurance: Energy scarcity and rising energy prices will drive exploration and production in increasingly unstable environments. Geo-political risk insurance is emerging as a result, but the legal issues involved are often novel and always complex. Force Majeure clause, anyone?

Futures & Derivatives Markets: There is a huge, untapped domestic & international market for “consumer derivatives”--combinations of traditional energy futures bundled together and then sliced into very small packages to be sold to individual consumers to hedge against personal or small-business exposure to energy price changes. Want to lock in $3.00-a-gallon gasoline for your Suburban until 2012? Or heating oil, natural gas, even electricity? This may be the next financial instrument phenomenon along the lines of the “sub-prime mortgage” revolution, complete with all the legal issues of selling complex financial instruments to “Joe Commuter.”

Is the legal community prepared for the changes that Peak Oil will bring? I don’t think so. In a quick survey of all 11 law review articles every written (at least according to LexisNexis) containing the phrase “Peak Oil,” two have earnest discussions of Peak Oil (but don’t discuss any legal ramifications), five have off-hand references, and four only mention the term in a footnote. Peak Oil will change the legal landscape… expect a regular stream of “Peak Oil Law Center” articles in the future.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lessons from Nigeria on US Copper Thefts

Energy Intelligence Note: 16 April, 2007

A month ago I reported on the escalation of infrastructure disruption in Nigeria for The Oil Drum. The key trend that I identified was the shift from measured, politically-motivated attacks under the leadership of MEND (a negative feedback loop) to the financially motivated attacks carried out by a patchwork of profit-driven youth gangs (a positive feedback loop). As part of my conclusion—and probably the part that was taken least seriously—I noted that there is great potential for this same kind of profit-driven infrastructure attack within the US. Increasingly, it appears that this is exactly what is happening with the rising occurrence of copper theft from US utilities. How are these two situations similar, and what lessons from Nigeria are applicable to US infrastructure security?

In the past year, 7 people have been electrocuted while attempting to steal copper from active power lines within the US. In Chandler, Arizona alone, police have reported over 200 calls reported to copper theft, and the local Salt River Project, a water utility, suffered up to $400,000 in damage to their system from theft of copper “backflow-preventer” valves in their water pipes. Just last week, thieves broke in to an electrical substation in Calhoun, Georgia and stole copper components, resulting in a power outage to 1500 people. With the price of copper on the rise—currently over $3 per pound—the rate of copper theft from utilities is likely to continue increasing. Is this similar in any way to the disruption to the oil infrastructure in Nigeria, and what lessons can we learn from that situation?

In Nigeria, politically motivated attacks were previously controlled by two factors. First, they were a means to a political end, and the government could reign in these attacks by offer political concessions. Second, the political organization behind the attacks, MEND, had a vested interest in maintaining the long-term viability of Nigeria’s oil exporting capacity, creating a self-imposed limitation on their attacks. The shift to decentralized, profit-motivated youth gangs has removed these two limiting factors, and the problem is spiraling out of control. Similarly, US copper thefts are neither limited by political concerns nor an awareness of actors’ vested interest in the viability of US utility grids. Finally, just as Nigerian violence creates a positive feedback loop that increases the price of oil, further incentivising profit-oriented attacks in Nigeria, the spate of US copper thefts is a potential positive feedback loop. If authorities attempt to crack down on copper thefts by instituting new controls over the sale of scrap copper, they will increase the cost of legitimate scrap copper sales and drive up the black market price of scrap copper, increasing the incentive to copper thieves.

What lessons can we learn from the infrastructure attacks in Nigeria? While the comparison provides no obvious solutions to the problem of copper thefts, it does provide insight into certain aggravating factors. Nigerian youth in the Delta region are particularly vulnerable to the lure of profit-motivated attacks because of the dire economic situation there. Likewise, while further increases in copper price will drive copper thefts, a recession or other economic factors such as inflation will similarly increase the return on investment for copper thieves. As with the situation in Nigeria, as utilities upgrade facility security in response to copper theft, utility personnel risk becoming the most accessible target—either as a means of gaining access to copper stores, or when they are caught in the crossfire as copper thieves escalate their tactics and violence in response to greater security. Finally, as the return on investment for copper thefts increases, it is also likely that issue-oriented groups such as the Earth Liberation Front will choose copper theft as a way to simultaneously finance their operations and inflict damage on specific industrial utilities or consumers.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Well, the discussion on the potential for inflation in response to Peak Oil over at The Oil Drum went pretty well. I'd say there is a general consensus that inflation is the most likely policy response to impending economic troubles, as well as general economic result, of Peak Oil.

Today--of course as a direct result of the TOD discussion--treasury rates hit various periodic records and the Euro now costs more than $1.35. And, following up on a recent post, Sen. Schumer is demonstrating his unusual brilliance by proposing a $120 Billion bail out of sub-prime borrowers (OK, he didn't quantify that dollar figure, but only the nature of the government assistance--$120 Billion is an industry estimate). Now that's how you inflate the currency, Chuck! Silly me, thinking that the Fed would have to engage in open-market operations. This kind of idea will have two effects: it will inflate the currency as we'll probably engage in some form of printing money to foot the bill, and it will prevent the very structural reform in the credit markets that is the only potential silver lining in the mortgage default cloud.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"MeFab" Open Architecture Project

In response to my recent post, The Design Imperative, Bob Rohatensky gave me some inspiration with an introduction to his open-source, renewable energy project I’ve been toying for years now with various designs for a sustainable house. I have lofty goals—I want it to exemplify elegant simplicity, I want it to be based on vernacular technology & materials, I want it to be adaptable to many sites, many different sizes, needs, etc., I want it to be energy autonomous and incorporate low embodied-energy materials, and I want it be such a sexy design that all of that goes completely unnoticed.

What better way to pursue these goals than through the open-source design process?

For the time being at least, I’m calling this “MeFab,” to signify its use of vernacular technology and materials, and to place it in juxtaposition with the latest trend toward high-design, pre-fab housing (which tends to exemplify the anti-vernacular, proprietary, “high-tech to the rescue” approach to architecture).

My starting point design is for an 800 square foot, one bedroom, one bath residence that can seamlessly, and in phases, expand to a three bedroom + office, two bath residence of 1600 square feet. My conception is for a Southern Arizona environment such as Tucson, but I think that with minor adaptation this design will be broadly applicable to locations with temperate climate and moderate to high solar exposure. Here it is:

Figure 1: Overview. The basic design is of two, parallel rammed earth walls defining a rectangular residence. While my initial design calls for exposed, rammed earth walls, any high thermal mass wall would work: cob, adobe, brick, concrete, cord-wood masonry, etc. At the left end is the bedroom, with a semi-exposed closet bracketed by full-height closet on the right and a half-height dresser behind the bed platform on the left. The central bathroom incorporates a composting toilet. The bathroom and the kitchen share a single water-wall containing all plumbing, and facilitating an elegant process of taking water from the holding cistern and returning it via a graywater outlet (blue arrow) to the garden. The kitchen is bounded on the right by an island/bar eating area, and then opens into the main living area, which includes bookshelves and a high-efficiency wood burning fireplace I the top wall. The left and right ends of the building consist of large window-walls. The exact configuration is flexible, but I am envisioning something of like the Nana Wall (though this particular brand solution is, admittedly, not very vernacular).

Elevation & Climate Control System: The shed-roof maximizes the simplicity of the rainwater catchment system (into cistern marked “C”), as well as maximizing the roof space available for solar hot water, solar chimneys, and photovoltaics. I have struggled quite a bit over how to produce an elegantly simple climate control system for the house. This illustration reflects where my design is at the moment: a flexible solar/geothermal air system maintains a consistent, moderate temperature of the thermal mass walls and slab, keeping the house comfortable at all times with a minimal of reliance on the stove for supplementary heating. Tubes running under the earth (denoted “1”) cool or warm air to the average annual temperature, and then transfer that heat/cool to the thermal mass before being drawn out by a roof-mounted solar chimney. At some times of year, it may be advantageous in the early morning hours to draw outside air, which would be significantly cooler than the annual average from the earth tubes, through the system (this intake marked “2”), however, I am not sure that this added complexity is worth while in most climates. During more extreme cold, pre-heated air (from a roof-mounted solar air heating array, marked “3”) is drawn through the thermal mass walls.

Figure 2: This graphic shows the potential for this design to be expanded in phases as necessary to meet the needs of individual residents. My theory is that many people can afford to build an 800 square foot, 1 bed/1bath residence, but that if economic conditions permit, and especially if they have a family, they will eventually want something bigger. By designing in this expandability, I think it enhances the likelihood that people will build the smaller structure sooner (and hence be more prepared for an uncertain future) because they know that they can expand it later (as opposed to waiting until they have saved enough to build the entire 1600sf structure).

COLLABORATE! If you'd like the PowerPoint file used to produce the above graphics (I didn’t use AutoCad, though that is the architectural standard, because I’d rather this be a vernacular effort, not one constrained to architects…), then type this into your browser URL field: (linking doesn't seem to work because I named the file with upper and lower case, sorry, so you need to type it that way). If this kind of thing interest you to any degree, please participate! Feel free to modify these graphics, or produce your own, and I’ll post them here for discussion. Or take them and do what you want with them anywhere else... If you’d prefer to simply post comments, critiques, or recommendations, go right ahead. If you have suggestions about improving this open-source design process, please let me know as well.

NOTE: This is by no means the first “open architecture project” (see, e.g. the Open Architecture Network), but it is the only one to my knowledge that is not carried away with non-vernacular, high-technology, happy-motoring-utopia architecture.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Self-Sufficient Gourmand (On 1/3 Acre!)

I’m pretty confident that you could drop me in most any climate and I could survive. I attended the Air Force’s Combat Survival Training course, learned that many things are quite edible, even if they do taste like crap (most notably: boiled thistle stalk!). It’s tough to “find” table salt in the wild, but ants are surprisingly tasty, full of protein, and practically everywhere (and the scent trails that they leave on fresh greens tastes like Italian dressing… sort of). Food self-sufficiency doesn’t seem that tough. Likewise, people can meet their basic nutritional requirements quite easily through gardening in a very small space—though endless boiled potatoes and roasted turnips doesn’t sound very appetizing. Never the less, the potential for food self-sufficiency is critical for my theory of rhizome society, as it is broadly predicated upon the notion of “minimal self-sufficiency.”

But that’s where I draw the line. I know that I can “get by,” but that doesn’t mean I want to give up fine foods. So what are the prospects of combining food self-sufficiency and a gourmet diet? I laid out the kinds of food I would like to “survive” on—those things that I usually cook at home: a wide assortment of ultra-thin-crust pizzas, Spanish tapas, Mediterranean appetizers, hearty salads, fresh fruit, occasional Thai or Indian curries, etc. Fortunately (and perhaps not coincidentally), the climate constraints that I am dealing with (in this case, Southern Arizona) work fairly well for these food crops. How much land will it take to keep one person “in curry” with these lofty culinary goals? My answer may surprise you: about 1/3 of an acre.

Here are my calculations:

Olive Oil: ¼ cup/person/day (360 calories) = 30 cups/year = 2 gallons/year. @ 2 tons per acre olives yielding 30 gallons/ton = 60 gallons per acre. 2 gallons/year requires 1/30th acre = 1500 square feet.

Flour…sacrilege, I know, but I’m not foregoing my pizza :) ½ cup/person/day (200 calories) = 180 cups per year = 50 lbs/year. @ 17 lbs yield per 100 sqft = 300 square feet.

Eggs: 2 / person/day (150 calories) requires roughly 4 chickens per person. 100% forage on ¼ acre (11,000 square feet), shared with goats.

Goat Cheese (5 oz) OR Yogurt (1 cup)/person/day (500 calories). One goat producing 200 gallons of milk per year = 120 lbs cheese & 400 pints yogurt/year, providing 1 pint yogurt AND 5 oz cheese per day. ½ goat per person provides either one daily. 100% forage on ½ acre per goat requires ¼ acre per person (11,000 square feet) shared with chickens.

2-3 pieces of seasonal fresh fruit and ¼ cup almonds daily (350 calories). Roughly 2000 square feet orchard per person (grapefruit, blood orange, cherries, apricots, almonds, lemons, etc.).

Fresh vegetables & herbs (300 calories): additional 500 square feet of intensive beds per person: culinary & medicinal herbs, artichokes, eggplant, peppers, chilies, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, capers, zucchini, cucumber, onions, garlic, etc.

That totals to 15,300 square feet per person (just over 1/3 acre), providing roughly 1860 calories per day, and allowing me to cook most everything that I like. There is no meat in this diet, as the chickens and goats are viewed more as a “perennial crop,” but they would certainly provide meat on an occasional basis.

So, with the regional and practical limitations on meat and seafood taken into consideration, this 1/3 acre would still allow me to grow enough of the right kinds of food so support one person with my favorite pizzas, tapas, fruit, and salads. Sure, goats don’t divide in half very well—this system is really intended to work on one or two acres supporting 3-6 people, where the labor could be divided more efficiently but remain within a single family unit, thereby not creating external dependencies. At only 800 square feet of intensive garden beds per person, with the remainder coming from livestock on perennial forage and olive/fruit arboriculture, this system would actually be fairly labor-efficient. I’m sure there are some spices and such that wouldn’t be worth the effort to grow (saffron?), there are rainwater harvesting considerations to be incorporated in my chosen climate, and it would be nice to have some cured meats and fish, but this is really intended as a thought experiment: self-sufficiency does not have to reflect a dramatic decrease in standard of living. I’m confident that this would adapt well to other diets and other climates. If I look at the kind of food I want to eat, and the climate I will possibly be in, the “self-sufficient gourmand” is probably realistic. Certainly beats ants and boiled thistle stalk, but that's just my opinion...

Sources & References: the calculations here are based primarily on the tables in John Jeavon’s “Grow More Vegetables,” and assume yields in the middle of the range given. Olive oil calculations are from a UC Davis report, and again use moderate values for yield. Forage estimates for chickens and goats are estimates roughly based on performance of a similar system designed by David Holmgren at his home.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Design Imperative

What is energy good for? A little background: simply put, energy performs work, which underlies all economic activity. From a human perspective, work (in the physics sense of the word) is relevant because it produces quality of life. Technology is nothing more than a design for converting work into a product, which may or may not be associated with quality of life. Finally, the harnessing of concentrated energy—energy that, from a human perspective, produces more directed work output than total human work input (e.g. an EROEI of greater than 1)—facilitates the existence of complex society.

Allow me now to suggest a new term, borrowing (loosely) from Jacques Ellul: Technics. While “technology” converts work into any product, “technics” is a more specific term that I am using to denote the design process of converting work into human quality of life.

It seems axiomatic that the goal of humanity is to optimize quality of life. There are nearly endless debates that can begin here—how is quality of life defined, do we measure the mean, median, mode, or selfish-individual level, etc.—but I think that we can all agree that IF we can answer the question “what is quality of life,” then we all share the goal of optimizing it.

This leaves us with a simple equation: Quality of Life = Work * Technics

In pursuing the goal of optimizing quality of life, there are two (non mutually-exclusive) options: improve the availability of work, or improve technics.

Option 1: Improving the Availability of Work

The availability of work is a function of our ability to harness concentrated energy. Concentrated energy takes many forms: food, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Civilization has become progressively more complex as the ability to harness increasingly concentrated energy sources has made more work available. Work is the building block of complex civilization. Today, however, there is mounting evidence that diminishing marginal returns on our use of concentrated energy is decreasing the availability of work that can be applied toward creating quality of life. Aspects of this phenomena are often called “Peak Oil,” “Peak Coal,” or “Peak Energy.” A peaking in world energy production—without a concomitant reduction in human population—suggests that humanity will be challenged to maintain, let alone increase, quality of life in the future.

What about improvements in efficiency? There are two reasons why improvements in efficiency will not solve this problem. First, Jevon’s Paradox tells us that at least some of any improvement in efficiency will be self-negating, as improvements in efficiency free up some of the energy resource, decreasing demand, which lowers its price, which increases consumption. Second, efficiency (per second law of thermodynamics) can never reach 100%, so there is a strict limit on how much we can improve efficiency. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the global average for efficiency for conversion of energy to work is 30%. If one accepts the second law of thermodynamics, then it is impossible to improve this number to 100%. It seems highly unlikely that this number will ever approach anything close to 100%, leaving us with well less than 70% to work with. While that may seem like a huge jump, consider this example: what if we could convert our automobile fleet from averaging 30 mpg to averaging 95 mpg? Would this eliminate the problem of peak energy? Even IF automobiles were the only relevant energy users, this would only have a short term effect—much of the gain would be negated by Jevon’s Paradox, and even without Jevon’s Paradox it would, at best, triple the time that our resources last. Efficiency will not save us. That isn’t to say that improving efficiency has no place in solving our problems, but rather to put it in its correct place: efficiency buys us time to treat the problem.

What about “alternative” energy sources? First of all, for any alternative energy source to be part of the solution (a true “alternative”), rather than part of the problem, it must have an EROEI of greater than 1. This will be highly controversial, but I’m not convinced that such a resource exists. I have written elsewhere about the difficulties of calculating EROEI, but it is my opinion that most EROEI numbers today are artificially high because of a “bootstrap effect” of using high-EROEI fossil fuels in process of bringing “alternative” energy to market. There do seem to be some renewable, “alternative” energy sources that have an EROEI greater than 1—wind and hydro come to mind—but they face severe limitations. Regardless of the exact EROEI of the various “alternatives” currently being proposed, there is little debate that these will provide an EROEI in excess of that once enjoyed in oil and gas production. If externalities such as climate change, topsoil depletion, and water use are accounted for, it seems (to me, at least) likely that our aggregate societal EROEI will continue to decline until it reaches some point of stasis slightly over 1. If I am right—and there is no place that I would rather be proven wrong—then “alternative” energy will not keep us living in our “happy motoring utopia,” and certainly won’t allow the rest of the world to rise to that standard of energy consumption (note that I’m not equating this directly with quality of life…).

Overall, when faced with these challenges in the areas of efficiency and declining EROEI of “alternatives,” it is my conclusion that the solution to our energy problems will not come from the “improving the availability of work” portion of the quality of life equation. Rather, I think that, to the extent that our energy problems are “solvable,” the solution will come from improving technics—improving how we use the energy that we do have to create quality of life. I think that reasonable people can disagree with my conclusion regarding efficiency and EROEI. The bottom line is, we just don’t know—anyone who claims to KNOW the answer is discussion theology, not science. But regardless of the answer to the energy question, it seems very likely that there is ample room to improve our technics. IF we accept this latter proposition—that we can improve our utilization of energy to create quality of life—then doesn’t it make the most sense to focus our mitigation efforts there? I have great confidence in the power of human ingenuity to solve our problems. However, when human ingenuity meets the laws of physics and thermodynamics, I don’t think they will bend to our will. Design of technics, on the other hand, seems to be an area where human ingenuity has unending room for advancement.

Option 2: Improving Technics, or “The Design Imperative”

My hypothesis is that our quality of life, both collectively and individually, is more dependent on how we use our energy than on how much of it we use. This hypothesis continues that we can better influence our quality of life through improving technics than through increasing energy consumption.

Povero o Rico? Is this a picture of a “poor” fishing village or one of the world’s most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it’s both: the idyllic island of Panarea (just north of Sicily), taken while sailing away aboard the 38’ catamaran Fandango.

What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village? These are often held up as the ideals of quality of life, yet they are certainly not exemplars of conspicuous energy consumption. Sure, the visiting tourists may be expending copious quantities of energy, but the locals—the objects of our jealousy—are generally not. Powerdown concepts such as localized farming, vernacular architecture, and strong community ties are on display. These features are, generally, not the result of conscious design, but does that mean that they cannot be consciously designed? This seems to me to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving technics as a means of addressing quality of life after peak energy.

If we choose to pursue technics as a means of maintaining or improving our quality of life, how should we organize this pursuit? I have three suggestions: decentralized, open source, and vernacular.

All this may seem very abstract and theoretical…what does it actually mean? I’ve discussed the issue at length in several articles, which can be accessed via my Rhizome Theory Directory, but let me illustrate here by way of example. Let’s start by taking discrete examples of places that produce a quality of life seemingly disproportionate to their energy consumption. There are countless examples, but because it has a long tradition in this area in American popular culture, I’ll choose the Tuscan village.

How is the Tuscan village decentralized? Production is localized. Admittedly, everything isn’t local. Not by a long shot. But compared to American suburbia, a great percentage of food and building materials are produced and consumed in a highly local network. A high percentage of people garden and shop at local farmer’s markets.

How is the Tuscan village open source? Tuscan culture historically taps into a shared community pool of technics in recognition that a sustainable society is a non-zero-sum game. Most farming communities are this way—advice, knowledge, and innovation is shared, not guarded. Beyond a certain threshold of size and centralization, the motivation to protect and exploit intellectual property seems to take over (another argument for decentralization). There is no reason why we cannot share innovation in technics globally, while acting locally—in fact, the internet now truly makes this possible, leveraging our opportunity to use technics to improve quality of life.

How is the Tuscan village vernacular? You don’t see many “Colonial-Style” houses in Tuscany. Yet strangely, in Denver I’m surrounded by them. Why? They make no more sense in Denver than in Tuscany. The difference is that the Tuscans recognize (mostly) that locally-appropriate, locally-sourced architecture improves quality of life. The architecture is suited to their climate and culture, and the materials are available locally. Same thing with their food—they celebrate what is available locally, and what is in season. Nearly every Tuscan with the space has a vegetable garden. And finally (though the pressures of globalization are challenging this), their culture is vernacular. They celebrate local festivals, local harvests, and don’t rely on manufactured, mass-marketed, and global trends for their culture nearly as much as disassociated suburbanites—their strong sense of community gives prominence to whatever “their” celebration is over what the global economy tells them it should be.

Improving technics is, of course, the flip side of the conservation coin. If our quality of life is dependent on levels of energy consumption, then conservation must decrease quality of life. For that reason, the conservation measures that work are those that are based on technics—ways of using energy more efficiently to achieve the same quality of life.

All of these technics—localized food production, increased self-sufficiency, vernacular architecture, strong sense of community—seem to improve quality of life. Per David Hume, causation can never be proven, but my anecdotal experience tells me that the correlation between these factors and seemingly disproportionate quality of life to energy use is very high. High enough to infer causation, in my opinion.

These factors—borrowed from extant examples—are only the tip of the iceberg in the field of possible ways to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. There seem to be infinite possibilities—most of which do not have historical exemplars—for new and exciting technics. The resurgence and development of ideas such as Permaculture, Vernacular Architecture, and Slow Food seem to support the possibilities here. This is what I’m calling the “Design Imperative”: a globally cooperative, open-source effort to create and continuously improve a library of technics to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. I’m quite aware that I haven’t presented any concrete solutions in this essay. Even the notion of focusing on technics, not energy availability, is not new—see Richard Heinberg’s “Powerdown,” the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, or Transition Town Totnes for just a few examples of pioneers in this area. I don’t lay claim to this idea—it must be open source, just like the solutions it may provide. What I do hope is that I have helped, in some small way, to convince people to consider this as a worthwhile method of addressing our energy crisis. It seems unlikely that the “way of thinking” that got us into this crisis will also get us out. That old “way of thinking” is the same one that is currently trying to solve the energy crisis through efficiency and “alternatives.” The Design Imperative is the suggestion that we should focus instead on the conscious development of technics—a new way of thinking.