Monday, June 09, 2008

Crash Course

This week I'll be reviewing the book "Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil" by Zachary Nowak. The book has a concise introduction to the concept of Peak Oil, followed by what I see as the strength of the book: an interesting discussion on scenario planning, rounded out by an extensive guide to the skills and knowledge that will be necessary to make the best of a less-than-ideal future.

Scenario planning is something that I think is vitally important for everyone to perform on an ongoing basis. I wrote about the concept last week, but in reality it's something that we should all be doing continuously for all manner of life decisions. In "Crash Course," Nowak outlines four separate future scenarios for planning purposes (setting aside "Status Quo" and "Total Armageddon" as either too remote or pointless to plan for): The New Green Revolution (most optimistic), Powerdown USA, the Great Energy Depression, and The Crash (most pessimistic).

He then discusses the merits of planning for the future via a "refuge" or through fostering "community." He discusses the merits of these various approaches, and suggests that alternatives such as the rhizome model for communities that I've suggested may offer a viable compromise between the two. I increasingly think that the our future plans must be seen as a continuum--resilient community is the goal but cannot be just set up like a lego set; personal refuges are immediately implementable for many because they are under individual control but are not desirable long term solutions; the answer seems to lie in planting seeds of personal refuges that, from the outset, are intended to anchor the networks of sustainable community, knowledge sharing, and local solution development that will one day grow into resilient local communities. While certainly an imperfect historical parallel, I think that the monasteries of Dark Age Europe serve as a valuable example of how "refuges" can survive tough times, carry knowledge forward from past civilizations, develop newly appropriate skills and techniques, and later serve as the physical and intellectual framework for the construction of a new society. Nowak points out exactly this--that refuge and community are not mutually exclusive paths--but I would like to see this point developed in more depth. That might be asking too much, however--it's something I'd like to do, as well, but have not been able to put together satisfactory principles and rules for how it can be best accomplished. Perhaps this is because the transition plan between refuge and community is necessarily one customized to a cultural set, to a geographic area, and to an unknown future.

Nowak then discusses "the house." He goes through a variety of alternative techniques and discusses several books on the topic. Some, such as "Shelter" by Lloyd Khan are outstanding, and I second the recommendation. Others, such as Earthships, are not among my favorites (I think the Earthship design places too much emphasis on aesthetic homogeneity, and does a poor job balancing insulation and thermal mass for all but a few climactic zones--a proper mix of insulation (e.g straw bale) and thermal mass inside the insulating barrier (e.g. adobe, cob, etc.) seems like a better rule of thumb). Nowak also covers rainwater harvesting and greywater (I like his recommendations) and discusses passive annual heat storage concepts that I think are critical (though I prefer Don Steven's take to the recommendation Nowak provides, and I'm currently working to adapt these same principles to create a passive annual solar COOLING system...). I've also heard of the rocket stoves that Nowak discusses for home heating, but his recommendation made me finally purchase Ianto Evans' book on the topic. I also appreciate that Nowak points out that the "back to the land" movement of the '60s and '70s did not fail, per se, but rather helped to perpetuate knowledge of old sustainability techniques and develop new ones so they will be available when the current generation actually NEEDS them (I'd say one cause for the failure of the prior movement was it wasn't immediately necessary, in the minds of many, and lost out to the allure of moving back to the suburbs and living during the last decades of the economic "good life" in America).

Next, Nowak discusses food production and storage. Nowak points out--rightly I think--that 1) it isn't that easy to garden, and 2) that even if you're a great gardener and have a large garden, it's not always possible to count on only your own garden to meet all your food requirements due to drought, pestilence, etc. One solution to this is to diversify beyond mere raised bed gardening into perennials vegetables and forest gardens (I heartily concur with his recommendation to read Eric Toensmeir's "Perennial Vegetables" as well as David Jacke and Toensmeier's "Edible Forest Gardens."). I've discussed this very topic in "Creating Resiliency in Horticulture." I like that Nowak discusses the need to augment the yields of a garden with wild harvest from surrounding fields, woods, etc. I think this is a critical component of any resilient scheme--both skills and the access to suitable environments to ensure that when garden yields fail, natural yields pick up the slack. This is an integral part of my own planning--the need to acquire land not only sufficient to grow an intensive garden and less intensive forest garden, but sufficient to create a natural buffer (lightly "guided" with planing, rainwater harvesting earthworks, etc.) that will serve as a back up. In fact, my choice of location is largely driven by the ready availability of forageable foods--especially those that are consistent in times of drought and not readily recognized as food by most people (for me, mesquite trees). Nowak also deals with the essential skill of preserving foods--no matter how well planned and successful one's garden harvest, it's unlikely that the right food will always be available for the picking!

If I could point to one weakness in Nowak's book, it is that the book consists largely of a series of book reviews. That is also one of its greatest strengths. Any book that proclaims to provide all the knowledge that you'll need to deal effectively with Peak Oil should be dismissed as bunk at the outset. Instead, what most people (myself included) really need is a pathway to gain the knowledge necessary to succeed in a variety of future scenarios--both topical knowledge AND the analytical framework for future scenario planning to apply that knowledge. In that respect, "Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil" excels. "Crash Course" is like a knowledge map, outlining a concise path through the myriad of useless, incorrect, or irrelevant books, and taking you directly to those books that really should be on your shelf. I highly recommend the book for those interested in learning how to better prepare self and family for whatever future scenario you envision.


bryant said...


The link to Don Stevens' annualized solar storage info. leads to a 404.

Jeff Vail said...

Thanks, I've fixed the link, somehow I managed to get an extra address lumped in there.

In case my error dissuaded anyone from visiting that site, it's a very interesting and brief .pdf on annualized passive solar heating...

Theo_musher said...

I guess I'm a "Roddenberry" now. But anyway, I don't think its inevitable that there will be any type of crash.

I think its more likely that entrapreneurs are going to get rich, building big housing developments of more energy efficient sustainable housing, then the liklihood of people making their own homes into bunkers.

I also think its quite likely that China and then the developing world will overtake the West in the designing of Green and sustainable high standard of living.

But in a way, it comes down to having a degree of faith. But I mean, how much faith does it take to believe a tadpole will eventually become a frog rather than simply dying as a tadpole?

I mean sure some tadpoles die but eventually most become frogs.

Humanity is in the tadpole stage.

Theo_musher said...

Here is a "worst case scenario"

1. Nobody starts any Green tech start ups related to alternative energy like "nanosolar" All graduates with engineering degrees, simply decide not to.

2. Everyone decides not to have food co-ops. All organic farmers quit and get jobs flipping burgers. "Slow food" becomes dead.

3. No architects or architectural students persue "new Urbanism" "environmental design" "sustainable development" etc. They all decide to build strip malls instead.

4. All entrapreneurs, bussinesses, corporations give up on all green ideas. Like using recycled materials, "service and flow" and "cradle to cradle deign" etc.

5. All building contractors give up on developing "brownfeilds." using low VOC materials. They all decide to only pollute and exploit even if the "triple bottom line" is more profitible.

6. The public in general stops caring about the environment or social issues. All funding for non profit organizations ends.

Animal Planet and National Geographic explorer go off the air and are replaced with "Beverly Hillbillies" reruns.

7. Bad things happen because of all of the above but no one anywhewere in the world sees these bad things as an opportunity for positive change. No one has the capacity for initiative or ingenuity.

James Kielland said...

I generally concur with Theo Musher, I only disagree with him with regards to China beating us to a greener lifestyle.

One of the big mistakes many peak oil theorists make is assuming that our economic well-being somehow depends on our oil consumption. But the fact is that a huge amount of oil consumption in our country is largely unessential.

As prices rise, behavior changes, demand shrinks somewhat. It will go in waves, but slowly people will buy increasingly efficient vehicles, move closer to where they work, and make a number of other choices.

Many have fretted over all the SUVs sold in the 1990s, describing us as "Up a cul-de-sac in a concrete SUV without gas." But the fact is that we are not. Automobiles have an incredibly short service life; in 5-10 years the average MPG of the average vehicle can increase enormously.

Doom and gloom scenarios are always based on a notion of thinking that is deeply deterministic, insisting that A leads to B leads to C, with seemingly no appreciation that there are a lot of people out there who are considerably more clever than we are. Simply put, a reduction in the flow of oil will not lead to a commensurate reduction in wealth.

For all of these reasons and more, I think what we will witness what appears to be a slow transition into increased urbanism and efficiency.

But there will be pain. Pain is nature's way of telling us to do something different. And we will. Until the next pain arises.

Zachary Nowak said...

I guess this is more for Theo... I think it's important to remember that hope is a luxury, and progress is an idea. China is currently putting in a coal-burning power plant every three days, and is one of the most polluted countries in the world. I don't think Green is around any corners for them.

Why don't you think a crash is possible? I guess it's always a tough job predicting the future (I've done a pretty bad job of it during my life) but it seems like a decent bet, maybe a 15 to 1.

Thanks, Zach

Theo_musher said...

No one is a passive observer.

Spend all your time dreaming of a crash and that's what you will get.

What it really means is you want a crash.
I don't know if it can work out that crash obsessed people can get their wish without making everyone else have it to. That would be nice though. People who want a crash really bad can get their wish and everyone else can move on with their lives.

Its probably related to some type of critical mass thing though. But anyway, waiting around for it and doing nothing, or maybe building a bunker, while obsessively thinking about it is the least constructive thing to do.

But there is a noosphere that effects reality. How people see reality effects life on Earth. Its tangible thing.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff,

Any idea as to when we'll see another Rhizome-related post?

Zhou Haiming said...

Comment from a Chinese netizen:
I thingk we really should not put too much hope on those so called "alternativ energy".I do not think any of those alternative energy can operate without the aid of fossil fuel,even if some of them could produce postivie net-energy-output.Because all of those alternatvies are based on our currenty industrial complex and infrastructure.Yet our current industrial base and infrastructure is so intimately connected with fossil fuel,that if you want some stuff to be really independent of fossil fuel,you must be sure they can be designed ,manufactured ,transported and serviced without the aid of modern industry and infrastructure .
To illustrate the above point,I just want to make two example to show that even if an alternative energy can generate postive net-energy-output,it may still not be able to replace fossil fuel.
First,fossil fuel not only functions as fuel ,it also is vital to modern chemical industry.Trouble is,some petrochemicals are essential to the machinery equipment we use to colletc those alternative energy,be it wind,solar or something else.The most obvious example is plastic,we cannot produce plastic without fossil fuel,yet plastic acts as insulator for circuit.So without plastic ,which is made from fossil fuel,our ability to transmit and utilize electricity will be severely curtailed,if not destroyed altogether.Those alternative energy all produce electricity(except biomass,which hardly produces a postive net energy),and if we do not have enough plastic,we will really have trouble handling those electricity generated,and those alternatives will not be meaningful energy sources to us.
Second,our transportation system depends on fossil fuel,our trucks ships ,freighters and aircrafts all run on fossil fuel.They can in theory be electrified, but were they to run by electricity,the amount of energy needed would be formidable This is because electricity cannot be readily stored,so we must transform electricity to some form of energy that can be stored( e.g. by batteries) ,and energy loss is inherent in this process of transformation,as indicated by the law of thermodynamic.Since modern industry cannot function without modern transportation facility----raw materials and machine parts must literally travel half way around the globe to be assembled to become the final product ,the energy provided by those alternatives must suffice to power our current transportation system,after taking the energy loss inherent in the transformation process into account.I can think of no alternative energy that satisfies this criteria.Moreover, the building of transportation facilities that can operate without fossil fuel (assuming of cource that one can be built) also takes a lot of energy,so if we were sensible,we should really use the remaining fossil fuel to build it.But of course this is not happening, and even if it were happening,perhaps it would be too late, but now it is still worth a try.After fossil fuel production begin to fall drastically,we will not have enough energy to build a infrastructure which is independent of fossil fuel,and which nevertheless is a sine qua non for the production of things we hope to replace fossil fuel.
Some digression:
I recently found this blog searching informations about ERoEI of solar panels.But now I find solar panels cannot do, because many scarce metals it uses now also appear to peak.Indium and gallium,two elements which are essential to the production of semiconducts ,new generation solar panels (including solar panels produced by the much-touted nanosolar company) and control rods for nuclear reactors,now appear to have peaked,and may be depleted within 10 years.Unlike copper and iron,these elements are very rare in the earth crust,its amount used in a solar panel is also very tiny,as such it cannot be recycled.So,if we use them up,which seems pretty soon,we will not have materials to build solar panels,computer chips,nuclear reactors,et cetera.
Hence,the only reallistic alternative energy now seems to me to be nuclear fusion.Unfortuantely,it is very unlikely to materialize before the shortage fossil fuel causes serious crisis and social upheaval,which will make its developement and implementation all but impossible.

Zhou Haiming,Beijing,China

stream47 said...

with respect to Zhou Haiming's comments about solar panels requiring rare earths such as indium and gallium, both of which may be at peak, there should be some awareness of research carried on by various groups with regard to dye-sensitized solar cells which do not use rare earths, namely:
Scientists Create Breakthrough “Stable” Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells
“Defective” Nanotubes Improve Dye-Sensitive Solar Cell Film by 10x:
University Students Create Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells From Fruit:

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