Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Searching, But For What?

I subscribe to a mailing list on the subject of peak oil, well a couple actually, but one in particular. In general the mail sent to these lists is passing on news relevant to the realm of peak oil debate and discussing that news. There are the occasional digressions as with all such lists, and then there are the questions on solutions, and debate over those. There is no general thread of looking for solutions, just reactive comment on solutions presented in the media.

A number of peak oil focussed forae suffer from a similar problem. They are news filters, which serves a purpose, but that seems to be their entire rationale for existence. Occasionally someone comes along and asks about the feasibility of some alternate source of energy, and is generally given the bad news. I wonder to myself, what is the point of trawling through all this stuff if the best that can be offered is essentially “there is no hope”?

There are of course no solutions to peak oil, as such. There are only responses. These responses can occur at a number of levels in society, and as many prominent thinkers have pointed out, the best responses are at the local and personal level. The effects of change at these levels will ultimately filter up through all other levels of society.

Accepting the realities of EROEI as a limiting factor in all debates over responses, along with the realities of finite resources, we are presented with a very simple set of possible responses. Well, it seems simple to my mind, perhaps I'm missing something.

There is one possible positive response. Reduction. Plain and simple. We don't use as much “stuff”. We reduce our population to sustainable levels, and at the same time reduce our consumption to sustainable levels. We live off the natural increase of the environment whilst allowing enough for the other species of the Earth and leaving the capital as an investment.

There are a raft of negative responses. There's no point detailing them, a look over some of the main peak oil sites will readily illustrate the general themes.

Given that there is only one plausible positive response, in what light do we consider suggestions for alternatives within our various ways of life?

Questions on the feasibility of alternative energies are invariably met with the response, “if we converted X% of our output of Y product to Z fuel then it would only replace a squillionth of our current demand.” and the discussion comes to a halt there.

Yes, this is an honest appraisal of the thermodynamic realities we are faced with. Still, it seems to miss a valuable point. In light of our single positive response what impact would such an alternative energy have? How can it be used within the context of a world that has embraced that single positive response? The respondents to the original questions only seem to consider the question in terms of preserving the status quo. What if the question were couched in terms of a new worldview, where we have taken the necessary steps under the positive plan? What gains may we see from it?

We need to give up on the idea of having lives like they are today. Our lives tomorrow will be nothing like they are today. Once we can do that, we can consider options in a new light. Biodiesel will not fuel a future that's like today. If the future is one where we have reduced population, reduced consumption, where 90% of the population walks to where they need to go, produces vegetables in their back yards, collects rain water off their rooves, then biodiesel could well allow farmers to continue producing bulk grain crops. It wont allow us to motor to the corner store 500m down the road, but it might allow us to get grain after that 500m walk, and have bread for lunch after the walk back again.

A lot of peak oil discussion is still operating from basis of attempting to preserve our current way of life, it is innate to the mindset of the people considering options for the future. We will not get ahead, we will have no meaningful discussion with respect to alternative energies, until we accept the condition of reduction in the first instance and from there go on to consider their feasibility. A future 1kWhr per day per household lifestyle is a much greater possibility than a 20kWhr per day per household lifestyle. The possibility of achieving that are orders of magnitude greater. If we throw our hands in the air and give up because we cannot achieve the 20kWhr lifestyle then we are shooting ourselves in the foot, cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

While ever we are wasting out time and energy searching for ways to escape the unavoidable realities we are missing many valuable chances to take opportunities and courses of action that will lead to our ultimate benefit in the future, a future markedly different than our current state, but at the least possessing a rational balance of modernity and sustainability.

Above are some Chinese Tallow Tree (Sapium sebiferum) cuttings. These guys will produce the most oil per hectare of any crop short of algae, according to some sources, and the infrastructure required is going to be a lot less.


Ilya said...

I am doing a biofuel project right now in California. Any ideas on how I could get my hands on some Chinese Tallow Tree seed oil? Would be great to run some tests on that for biodiesel yields and quality.

Thanks in advance.


Geoff said...

Hi Ilya,

I'm afraid I've got no idea where you might source the oil from. I know it's called "Ting-yu" in Asia where the products of the tree are a valuable commodity, but I've no idea whether it's used or produced outside of there on a commercial scale.

There is a lot of indicators on a quick search on Google that the tree is present in California and is an invasive species. HERE

There is a thread on BiodieselNow about it that may give you some useful starting points to go on with:HERE

I know it's classed as a weed, but they're only weeds when they're not useful...

green with a gun said...

Yep, more talk of solutions. In that "reduce, reuse, recycle" people really like to forget about the first one...