Saturday, January 05, 2008

The services we seek

It is now almost de rigueur for any self-respecting peak oil activist engaged in a conversation about energy to announce that the automobile era will soon be over; that cheap air travel and cheap food will soon be a thing of the past; and that life as we know it will generally disappear.

If anybody--most probably someone already in the know--is still listening at that point, the conversation may continue. But just as often those who are out of the peak oil loop will ask to talk about something else, as if the peak oil activist has made some thoughtless remark about one of his listeners lacking an arm. Perhaps a different approach would yield better results.

Economists tell us that it is not goods which people seek, but the services which goods provide. We would have scant use for cars if they didn't provide transportation. Air-conditioners would be of little import if they didn't produce cool homes and offices. Processed foods would be of no interest if they did not satisfy our hunger and our need for pleasurable tastes. Unfortunately, most people, especially those in North America, equate their cars with transportation. They may also equate air-conditioners with a cool environment in summer. And, they may unconsciously think of grocery store shelves as the point of origin for their food. To simply tell them that all of this is coming to an end because it is unsustainable seems to imply that every service they depend on for mobility, comfort and nutrition will abruptly disappear. People either won't believe it or they'll say that the situation as described seems hopeless.

But neither the need for these services nor the means to provide them will disappear. Rather the mode in which they are offered and the cleverness and amount of effort needed to get them will change. The challenge then is to get people to think not about such notions as electric cars, but rather about how to get the mobility they want, say, through public transportation, passenger rail, cycling and even walking. They need to be led to contemplate how they can keep their homes and offices and themselves cool in ways other than turning on their air-conditioners. They need to be encouraged to think about alternatives to getting the food they need such as farmers' markets, local farms, and home or community gardens. In short, they need to participate in the response. All of this seems plainly obvious. The point then is this: It is only half a discussion to talk about the things we'll have to give up after peak oil and not about the ways in which we'll obtain the services those things represent.

It is precisely this "thing" orientation which has to date prevented us from thinking clearly about organizing our lives and our societies. Instead of building beautiful, densely populated, pedestrian-friendly cities, we have sprawled out into the countryside because cheap energy and inexpensive private automobiles made it possible. The result has been that the distance between the services we need everyday has gotten much greater--because it could. We think we've gained mobility and saved time. All we've really done is swap the cheap, easy, low-energy mobility of walking, cycling and public transportation, for the privatized, high-energy, high-maintenance mobility of the car. This thing called the car which was supposed to liberate us ends up only isolating us and degrading our social and physical health as well as the health of the planet.

Admittedly, it is difficult to convince people that a different way of doing something will provide satisfactory results. But as long as the emphasis remains on an energy transition that for example, simply replaces one kind of car with another, the real work of adjusting to a low-energy society will be unfinished. Rather, we need a thorough-going inventory and analysis of the services we seek and new ways to obtain them with a lot less energy.

Much of that thinking is already being done, and many experiments are underway. The task is to introduce the "services" way of thinking into peak oil discourse so that 1) we are not inadvertantly promoting the idea that gadgets and products that are "greener" are always the best route to adaptation and 2) people can have confidence that there are, in fact, ways--perhaps many good ways--to get the everyday services we seek.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt, it's been a while since I stopped by with a dissenting opinion.

My caution is that words like these might put off right thinking and rational people:

the automobile era will soon be over; that cheap air travel and cheap food will soon be a thing of the past; and that life as we know it will generally disappear.

... because of course you didn't say "in some scenarios."

Your scenarios have gotten away from you if "soon" is the only prediction.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I think it is a much simpler argument to say "bicycles are good," and perhaps plug the League of American Bicyclists.

... because, you know, bicycles are good in a wide range of scenarios.

Anonymous said...

Your ideas are good, but sometimes beside the point. In reference to not having a car, well, it's terrifying. Remember New Oreleans. Most people do. Most of us remember the vulnerability of the people who depended on public transportation. Does anyone still believe that public anything will be there when some emergency occurs? For that, we need a car and a driver. It's not possible to drive 20 miles with pets, infants, and survival necessities on a bicycle, especially if we're already stressed and the route is through danger. How do we save ourselves and our loved ones in a hurricane, tornado, fire, etc if we don't have something to put ourselves in?

Onward And Upward said...

Advertisers have ruined sustainability. The words “Sustainable” and “Green” have been wiped clean of value, and the new chic trend will be in smart people fighting tooth and nail to keep playing the “Survival” game in the current economic system setup.

Imagine our economy is running Capiltalist Computer Operating System 1.0. Right now, our collective hard drive is crashing, and there are too many things breaking for the system to hold it together. That Click Click Click sound your hard drive makes before it poops out on you is growing louder day by day in terms of our global economic situation.

But let’s concentrate right here in the US for right now. As more people have to deal with the stresses of financial survival, let’s focus on what is really wrong here.

We are consuming so much that the earth can’t take it anymore, and our present money system is tied to consumption. Duh. And we all know that under this present capitalist system, just about every business can’t make a profit unless it is are still sucking up from the earth, and the Web 2.0 promise of a technological communications rescue has failed to deliver in time to not experience a massive wipeout.

What do I mean by that?

If you or your business advertises products and services, in some way you are contributing to the present growth economy. Sustainability is usually defined as a method to make sure there is a planet for future generations, and the market is crashing because our Capitalist Operating System has failed. It is now so broken that America has passed the point when as many people can live.

It means the bill has come due for America’s addictive appetite.

We are broke, and the stresses of having to scramble for money to survive is going to keep on getting worse. The good news is that when the system breaks too much, we can rebuild from the ashes of the old economy, but until it completely falls, many people are going to be experiencing a great suffering.

If you are wealthy, no problem - just keep on partying away. You have time, society still has its shit together. But know that there is a critical mass of stress before anything breaks. There is always a breaking point, and it will be the shittiest time of many people’s lives.

When you lose a loved one, it tears at your soul. Many people love their possessions, and are enduring physically and mentally demanding jobs to hang onto a paycheck, a health plan, or an IRA. That’s because they still offer hope, and you can still rest in comfort with those. Keeping enough money coming in to sustain an existence is becoming too painful of an affair for too many Americans, adding stress to relationships as well as everyone’s own mental well being.

We are a sick society, and like any addict running out of a drug, we are going to be going through major withdrawal symptoms as a people. Healing yourself is hard, demanding work. If you have lived through fighting addiction and survived, you already know what it is like to traipse through hell. For anyone experiencing the worst time of their life right now, if you have never felt so bad before, know that it does get better if you face your fears of loss.

Everyone needs help right now, and there are no easy solutions to appease the pain. You have to face your fear and jump off the cliff to believe in hope. It all begins when we grow a set of balls as a country and allow ourselves to each die and rise as a new spirit.

- Randy,

Anonymous said...

Randy, I'm sure we live in a post-capitalist society of one sort or another. It certainly has flaws but they are often different that the flaws of traditional (19th century) capitalism.

Lots of good thoughts here about "consumer capitalism" and "managerial capitalism."

In fact it's interesting that the current credit crisis is about the interaction between consumers (their debt) and managers (people who shuffle the loans).

So I don't know, are we on capitalism 4.0? Higher?

Such evolutions make it hard to predict where an energy-scarce future might lead, because it might also shift the landscape ... state-centered social engineering was big in the 30's. I don't doubt that with a big enough crisis it could return again.

On the other hand, should cheap batteries an solar cells fulfill their promise, it could be a sort of tech-boom capitalism.

Anonymous said...

Kurt, I like to look in on your blog as there often are some insights to be found. I'm not sure I find any solutions here - or not ones that will appeal to the mainstream. That the mainstream view has at it's base an unsustainable ethos, and is in large part blind to it's own flaws and limitations is largely irrelevant - it has a momentum that won't be turned aside by people pointing out the flaws. It relies on a lack of thinking in many people and on that deep division that exists - between what we know to be right and true and what we do - in the ones that do think deeply. The strength of the societal inertia that carries people along with it is very strong and even smart, thoughtful, clear sighted people struggle to change the way they live in any fundamental way.

I suppose I'm in that camp that sees technological solutions as being the front line. Not because that's entirely a solution to the problem of how a planet full of people can live peacefully, sustainably and well, but that it's a direction that can readily become part of the mainstream and can carry through to action within it. We need those important technological and analytic developments - the renewable energy systems, the energy storage systems, the technologies of reuse and recycling, the skills and knowledge of sustainable agriculture, the analytic capability to see and foresee the consequences of how we do things to live - and we need to be resourcing their development now, whilst there is that prosperity (even if it's ultimately illusory) to divert into such R&D - and before resource scarcity sees spare resources tied to resource warfare in a destructive downward spiral.That technological change will lose the race to provide to the whole world the exceptional level of prosperity the developed world has become accustomed to any time soon seems obvious to me, but it's still vital to develop those technologies, as they will be essential. Even when it's generally obvious that endless growth can't be sustained, even then I think the momentum of the mainstream will remain overwhelming to most people and I fear that the mainstream will devolve back to (if it has ever evolved past) a shortsighted "might is right and to the winner the spoils" attitude. Without those technologies as part of the mainstream I think that would be a sure bet. With them we may have a chance.

Anonymous said...

Ken Fabos: We need those important technological and analytic developments - the renewable energy systems, the energy storage systems, the technologies of reuse and recycling, the skills and knowledge of sustainable agriculture, the analytic capability to see and foresee the consequences of how we do things to live

No we don't!
Or rather, we only need these right now because we failed to care for another level of "regulation".
It may be little tricky to grasp so I will use a metaphor:
If you have ever lived very very downhill of a city water supply you probably have been bothered by excessive water pressure, splashing all around at the slightest opening of a tap.
Can you cure that by a throttle valve on the main water supply?
Nope, a valve controls the flow not the pressure, you have to install a pressure regulator, that is, a device where the throttle is dependent on the input pressure and the current flow such that after the throttle the output pressure has dropped.

Similarly, NO amount of technical wonders will cure the overshoot problems we currently encounter except for a very short while, "technical solutions" will only postpone the disaster and make it worse whenever it happens.
What is lacking is a regulation of our "pressure" to grow, no matter at which level of development (the "flow") it is the growth (the "pressure") which is detrimental, NOT the specific level of consumption, assuming it is at a sustainable steady state.
Alas, this goes against all principles of economy as well as against our ingrained monkey instincts for more, more food, more sex, more territory, more wild dreams...

Anonymous said...

Kevembuangga,I'm not convinced better cleaner technologies are going to significantly make things worse even in the sense of prolonging the pain, and may even reduce it significantly - I know I'd rather face prolonged economic recession with solar panels on my roof and an electric car with a battery that could keep the fridge going and maybe power a rototiller.

If it's economic collapse that temporarily brings the whole house of cards crashing down, it will be better to have renewable energy systems already worked out and working, to fall back on for essentials and to rebuild with. Post crunch/collapse (however that may play out) the kind of restraint and clear thinking to do things better is not any more likely to prevail than it does now.

In an age of scarcity we're more likely to see resource warfare, no matter that "restraint" is enforced by both overall scarcity and the "need" to resource that warfare. But oil will be scarcer than ever, coal may not be much better and unlikely to be any cleaner. Nuclear is likely to survive at the core of militarist regimes and add to their striving to reach and control the sources of nuclear fuels and other strategic materials. And people generally aren't likely to be eagerly embracing frugality as a lifestyle preference.

Given that the kind of thinking you advocate is not embraced at the fundamental level by the mainstream (and I do hope to see that economics and policy does seriously embrace sustainability - including the analytical tools I referred to), I really do think that those technologies are essential to humanity's future.

Anonymous said...

Ken Fabos: I'm not convinced better cleaner technologies are going to significantly make things worse even in the sense of prolonging the pain, and may even reduce it significantly

I have nothing per se against cleaner technologies, the problem with these is that they are just an excuse to try to keep going with business as (nearly) usual.
Witness the ethanol craze...
May be you should read Tainter if you haven't yet.