I was notified via Facebook that the band: Lazy Habits, we booked for Sheep Music Festival 2012 has a hit in the download charts. But this post is more about energy futures than band bookings. [Although I would add Sheep Music Festival has a talent to get bands before they end up on distant stages at prices I can’t afford]. Sorry Lazy Habit fans if you wandered in to this blog under false pretentions.
Whilst contemplating this post it was the bands name which sums up my thoughts. Fellow bloggers here and here have been hosting a debate concerning our energy future, triggered in part in the UK with the Governments draft paper Energy Bill. Now, I don’t want to repeat the arguments of whether the future is carbon capture, nuclear or alternative and neither do I have much to offer with regards to the proposed Energy Bill. My thoughts have turned instead to, well, alternative thoughts rather than alternatives to fossil fuels.
The US elections were notable for being the first $6 billion election campaign, given that inflation and wealth constantly drive US presidential elections I presume all elections break spending records. As outrageous as $6 billion is to spend on adverts a BBC correspondent pointed out that the US spend about the same amount on Halloween celebrations. It puts the UK’s foreign aid budget for international development of £7.8 into context, which will be the subject of future blog and one relevant to my posting as an aid worker in the coming two years. I digress, being able and willing to spend $6 billion on face masks or political advertising demonstrates that the US has plenty of money and money outside of the parallel world of financial markets is a reflection of power.
Power in this context is energy, the availability of energy to build products, harvest crops, mine resources and run the cities. That energy has been cheap and easy and as we tip over into a world of less and expensive energy the rich nations are having an all night binge of final excess. Sensible party goers will already consider when they should head off home, drink plenty of water, take a vitamin tablet, an aspirin and get a good nights sleep. But how many of you are planning to do that?
Abundance has brought its own problems: cheap food has made us over weight, prone to modern diseases and in some cases meant parents out live their children. Cheap food has been driven by abundant energy. Agriculture has over 60 years gone from a high labour to a labour efficient industry, with energy use replacing the man power. Likewise the car has had a physical impact on our evolution turning us from fit savannah smart apes avoiding being catfood to seated dumb apes moving from couch to car – car to couch.
I am not advocating a return to rural poverty or believe there was ever some lost golden age, likewise I like my tech and the washing machine and old tech like sewers and piped drinking water. Nonetheless abundance has meant we have drifted into lazy habits. It would be less of an issue if the robots and mechanisation that were promised to the children and teenagers of 70s [me] as the future had delivered more interesting jobs and more free time yet I look around at that future and see people bound to the slavery of their mortgage, dull job and overtime.
Of course not every one has a dull job but it still occupies most of the week…most of the year….most of one’s life.
The end of abundance and the transition to alternatives brings a huge challenge. One view is calculating how much solar or nuclear or wind turbines is required. Yet there is another, and one that we only skirt around: part of the new energy future is that we use less through insulating our homes and becoming more efficient but it is viewed in the same abundance thinking way we have lived the last 80 odd years. Allow me to explain.
The first thing that springs to mind is the story of how NASA spent $ millions developing a ball point pen that didn’t require gravity to write, where as the poverty striken Russians faced with the same problem used a pencil. To elaborate further I might ask you [or a least the home-improvements you] why you are buying that electric drill? You are not actually buying a drill! You think you are but actually you are buying a hole, which is nothing. So by buying a nothing machine we are able to then go on and fill it with rawplugs and screws that fix a bracket that hold a shelf to put something on. All of this would be a complete waste of energy if the shelf was to hold an electric drill, bits, screws, and some spare brackets. Perhaps the shelf is for CDs – but now your record collection is on your iPod- or books, but perhaps we could have a central community store where 1000s of books could be stored and we could just borrow them and completely negate us from having a huge collection amassing dust and taking up valuable wall space.
I don’t want to take the shelf analogy to extremes, it is a thought experiment, but the same could be said for why we work 5 days a week. One answer is that we need the money, and for many it will be just enough to get by, but a lot of what we do earn goes to substitute the life we cannot have because we work all the time. Some ‘time-saving’ gadgets are great like washing machines which freed women from the drudgery of house work and eventually on to equality and some ‘time-saving’ gadgets simply don’t replace the energy they consumed in their manufacture. If there is to be a good thing about expensive energy it will be challenge for us to use it sparingly.
The despairing thing about abundance is that it can make us wasteful and in turn lazy and unimaginative. Currently we not only throw away the very useful chemical of CH4N2O by the gallon everyday but also spend a small fortune disposing of it and then use valuable fossil fuels to manufacture new stuff. I don’t want to sound like I am taking the piss but this stuff is great, it can make plastics, other chemicals, feed plants and there is even the possibility of using Urea [piss] in a fuel cell to make electricity.
The festival I mentioned: Sheep Music, has its origins in this kind of alternative thinking as did the original festival scene. They were DIY affairs put together by enthusiasts but as they became bigger and complex more skills are needed to be brought in and thus push up the costs; to the point where eventually more money is spent on toilets than entertainment. We usurped that, and by ‘we’ I mean a community of hundreds of people, not only did we learn new skills our collective children were empowered to choose those skills as a career and then return as professionals and make the festival happen for the love of it.
Lazy habits lead to lazy thoughts which lack innovation and enterprise. Humans are at their best when we are challenged and have to solve a problem, with abundance and consumerism we fulfil that need with games on our mobile phones. Whilst politicians wrangle over who to serve and how to ensure our energy future we can choose to empower ourselves at home and at work reassessing the waste in our lives and correcting it.