review: Power

Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.

The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:

“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]

This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.

Breaking Boundaries

Time is running out. The decade we have just stepped into – the roaring 2020s – will be decisive for humanity. It is the moment to catalyze the most remarkable transition in history to become effective stewards of Earth. The scale of the challenge is immense. In the same way that the 1960s had the moonshot, the 2020s has the Earthshot. The goal of the Earthshot is nothing less than stabilizing our planet’s life-support system. But compared with landing men on the moon, the stakes are far higher.

Johan Rockström and Owen Gaffney (2021, p.13)

This quotation is from Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet (published by DK/Penguin Random House). Netflix is currently featuring two documentary productions based on the work of these authors and their colleagues. One has the same title as the book, and can be viewed at https://www.netflix.com/watch/81336476. The other is an 8-part series. Both are highly recommended and feature narration by David Attenborough. The book, of course, gives much more detailed information about the boundaries we are breaking – global heating is only one of nine – and how we could still stabilize the planet’s life-support systems, if we took the trouble to do so.

Zero Carbon

New resource recommendation: Zero Carbon, an excellent weekly newsletter in which climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the kaleidoscope of news, ideas, politics and culture to figure out what’s working in the race against climate change. You can subscribe at the National Observer link above.

This week’s issue begins with a focus on the new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which says that on the “narrow path” to net zero, “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.” Needless to say, the fossil fuel industries are not welcoming the news. The newsletter covers some other responses to it and the data behind it.

Forthcoming works

My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)

In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.

Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.

I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.

more community resources

Thanks to my friend Hugh Smiley for posting an informative comment on my “Social Transformation” post. I’ve added a couple of links to it, including one to the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO representing the international level of the Bahá’í emphasis on community building. There’s also a Canadian Bahá’í website on building community.

In connection with the point about “tackling the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises”, i can also recommend the current series of Crazy Town podcasts, which focus on the “hidden drivers” of the rush to consume the planet which is threatening all of us Earthlings.

Consensuality

Once again Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute has given us a concise overview of the situation we’re in (“we” being the whole Earth community) and what we could do to improve it. He outlines four broadly defined approaches to the transformation – choose one (or more) that appeals to you. I recommend it highly as a contribution to the global conversation.

As for my own contribution, i’m now revisiting Chapter 8, on Consensus and Community; Chapters 1 through 7 of Turning Signs 2 are complete as far as they go, and are available both online and in the downloadable version. Comments welcome as always.

Energy crisis

The “energy crisis” of the 1970s was all about the supply (and the price) of fossil fuels. Looking back on it half a century later, it’s clear that the real crisis was (and is) the human addiction to fossil fuels, which we in the “developed” world have been unable to shake off. Now the “climate emergency” is forcing us – those of us who are not mired in denial – to see that we have become dependent not only on the use and abuse of oil, but also on the infrastructure which it made possible.

The only cure for this chronic disease is to build a new infrastructure, and adopt a new “lifestyle”, that can be powered mostly by renewable energy sources. Nothing less can mitigate the fourfold crisis (of ecology, economy and equity as well as energy) which now threatens the viability of life on earth. This has to be part of the “Green New Deal”, but we aren’t always realistic about the challenge of actually doing it at this stage of the game.

A recent article on the Uneven Earth site explains it all quite succinctly. I recommend it, especially to proponents of a Green New Deal or equivalent policy.

On the matter of “lifestyles” (as we used to call them back in the 20th century), I will close with a reflection from Bill McKibben, in his book Falter. He says that of all the lives on Earth, the most curious

are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.

Creation Evolving and other stories

I’ve been busy exploring some of the information about the transition accessible on the Net now, especially from the Post Carbon Institute – more on that below – and looking into ways to enhance the resilience of my local community here on Manitoulin Island. But i’ve also been busy revising the last chapter (19) of my book Turning Signs.

I’ve been growing more dissatisfied with that chapter since i first published it in 2015, but not until now have i come up with a version that seems to work as a culmination of my whole 19-chapter argument. It’s called ‘Creation Evolving’, it’s online now, and i’d appreciate any comments on it from critical readers. (Since it frequently refers back to previous parts of the book, i’ve included lots of links back to the key concepts, but i don’t claim that it’s an easy read!)

This reflects my habit of going back and forth from a local focus on current practice to a more global contemplation of “deep time” and the deeper practices of nature and cultures. It’s like my other habit of alternating between silent walks in the woods and spells of wrestling with words. (The photo below was taken by Pam during one of our November strolls. Note the rare patch of blue sky reflected in the puddle.) I feel that the two practices enhance one another by alternating, somewhat like sleeping and waking. (After all, how can you wake up if you haven’t been sleeping?)

Anyway, this sort of back-and-forth seems to help me keep my balance in this Era of Upheaval. I’ve lifted that phrase from the title of a Post Carbon Institute book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. You can buy this book from the usual sources, or you can get access to it online for free by registering with the PCI.

Another relevant book you can get for free, thanks to the generosity of the authors, is Your Post has been Removed: Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech, by Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen. This new book delves into the roles of the ‘tech giants’ (especially Google and Facebook) in the current cultural/political upheaval. I’m halfway through it now, and although its main focus is ‘freedom of speech,’ it also throws light on the role of social media in the ecological/economic crisis.

As Stjernfelt and Lauritzen point out, ‘freedom of speech’ includes freedom of access to information, so it’s appropriate as well as fortunate that they’ve allowed open access to it. Like Turning Signs, it comes with a Creative Commons license. At this traditionally hyperconsumptive time of year, it’s good to see the Commons growing!

Finally i’m really happy to see the website of Local Food Manitoulin. This is the kind of community initiative that can address all four sides of the current crisis: ecology, energy, economy and equity. It doesn’t ask you to indulge in either optimism or pessimism about the climate emergency, because it can work (locally, of course) toward both prevention and mitigation of the worst effects of global heating.

At our latitude, we’re sinking into the darkest part of the year (for those of us who are solar powered, at least). But we have the winter solstice coming up in less than two weeks, and things are bound to get brighter after that. In the meantime let us carry on with the upheaval, or transition, or whatever we call it. And keep in touch with the Earth.

Novemberpuddle
photo by Pam Jackson

Electric realism

William Rees, co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, recently published an article entitled ‘Don’t call me a pessimist on climate change, I am a realist.’ He outlines all the reasons why it is unlikely that humanity will achieve the transition to a just, healthy and sustainable way of occupying our planet. I’m inclined to agree with him on that. So i hope readers don’t think i’m an optimist on climate change just because i’m writing about ‘the transition’ and doing what little i can to further it. I’m not an optimist on living forever, either, but that only encourages me to live more deeply the little time i have.

The same applies to human civilization, as far as i’m concerned. If we are in the process of destroying ourselves, i’d really like to understand what it is about human-nature relations that pushes us in that direction. If we are in the process of making the transition to a civilization that respects the nature of ecosystems, i’d like to understand that too. Or at least contribute to somebody else’s understanding by reporting on our local experiments.

This meter in our kitchen is how we keep track of our solar energy supply. This Monday morning at 11 a.m. we have 9.7 amps more coming in than we are using.

One of those is our Chevy Bolt EV. Electric cars face special challenges in winter, because cold batteries don’t operate as efficiently. We do have an enclosed garage, but it’s not heated. The manual for ours recommends keeping it plugged in when temperatures fall below freezing. We can’t do that because we’re off the power grid and keeping the car plugged in would very quickly drain the batteries that power the whole house. To give you a rough idea, we need about 5 kilowatt-hours per day to power the household – more in the November-to-February stretch because the nights are longer. On an uncloudy day we can draw that much from the sun in 3 hours or less; but uncloudy days are rare this time of year, and 5 kwh will only power the car for about half an hour’s driving.

Of course we can’t just let the car sit unused for weeks at a time either. Since the cold weather started, Pam has been out driving three or four times a week. One weekly trip includes a charging session using the Level 2 charger we installed at our on-grid place in Little Current (15 km from home). She’s found that we can save energy by using the heated driver’s seat and steering wheel rather than heating the whole interior of the car. Of course we need the windshield defroster occasionally – but not very often (unless there’s too much conversation going on among passengers and driver!). Anyway, the risks of relying on an EV in winter are greatly outweighed by the benefits of low maintenance, zero emissions and very low “fuel” costs. We’ll see what happens when the temperature drops to -25 C.

November propanity

Remembrance Day is a good time to honor those who sacrificed so much in those 20th-century wars. It’s also a good time to reflect on our national and personal contributions to the 21st-century war against global heating.

Canada is lagging behind most other G20 countries in this respect, according to the latest Brown to Green Report from the Climate Transparency network. Part of the purpose of this blog is to help subscribers keep track of how the “Brown to Green” transition is going on the planetary scale – but in this post i’d like to focus more on our own household.

I should mention first that in my personal approach to “the transition,” i’m not trying to change the world. I am simply recognizing that the world is changing, that the impact of human actions on the ecosystem is increasing rapidly, and that my own actions affect that impact. So i am changing the world whether i like it or not. The fact that our household choices are too small to register on the global scale makes no difference on the psychological or spiritual level, if i may call it that. The life of the spirit is its presence to the moment we are living, and that moment is independent of scale. The Big Bang happened yesterday, and i started writing this paragraph eons ago. The time is now, as always.

So today i’m writing about propane, the one fossil fuel we rely on directly here at gnusystems. It’s relatively clean as fossil fuels go, but burning it still emits greenhouse gases, so we try to minimize our use of it. Our main year-round use is cooking. We made that choice because using electrical heating elements to cook is not practical for an off-grid solar-powered house, and cooking with a woodstove is not practical either for our situation. We do heat the house with a woodstove, but ours isn’t suitable for cooking.

Now that we are entering the darkest and coldest part of the year, we start using much more propane. We use a propane wall furnace to keep the plants in our greenhouse from freezing. In the picture, you can see it on the right, next to the sliding door to the outside. I just plugged it in today (it uses electrical power to light the flame and run the fan) because it was -10° C. outside this morning. But i’m hoping that this year i won’t have to leave it plugged in all winter.

We have it at the lowest possible setting, which is 5°, but when it’s running it actually keeps the temperature in there at 10°. But since the greenhouse is attached to our main house, there should be days, even in winter, when the added heat from the sun is enough to keep it above freezing. So i’m experimenting with shutting off that heater on some days, in order to reduce the amount of propane we use.

Our other main use of propane in winter is to fuel the generator which charges up our batteries on days when there’s not enough sun to do it. We’ve also taken steps to reduce propane consumption there too, by adding more solar panels this fall and increasing our battery capacity a couple of years ago. The more power we can get directly from the sun, and the more of it we can store, the less we have to rely on fossil fuels. We’ll see how these experiments go.

I don’t want to leave the impression that keeping track of our household energy consumption is an onerous chore, or a “sacrifice” we are making. On the contrary, knowing intimately where our food, water, energy and connectivity is coming from is one of the best features of living so far from the city. It’s our idea of a good time, infinitely more than flying down to Rio or the south of France for the winter. Of course we love the peace and quiet too …

Next time i’ll report on how our electric car is handling the onset of winter (another experiment in eco-living).