Wednesday, January 20, 2010

out of sight (or why we don't really know where our water comes from)

On the list of universal humans needs shelter ranks right up there. But in fact the home that keeps the rain off our heads is also important because it serves as an interface with some of the systems that help provide our our most basic needs.

Clean water comes ultimately from the natural cycles that make it available via our watersheds- the creeks, stream and rivers, ponds and lakes as well as the underground waterways that drains away our rain) but for most of us it arrives in a glass after being poured from a facet in the kitchen or bathroom.

For most of us, the electricity we use to power our refrigerator is generated by coal, natural gas, nuclear or hydroelectric power plants but is delivered to a particular appliance in our house only after we flip a switch. In the case of both water and electricity, these resources are made available to us because of a connection between our homes (or apartments, condos, town homes, duplexes- you get it) and centralized systems that make these resources available to paying customers throughout our community.

Because we don't go down to the spring house and bring back a bucket of water or actually burn the coal that heats the water that turns to steam that spins the turbine that generates the electricity that powers the light bulb, there is a disconnect between the resources we use and the realities that underpin their availability. We're not so worried about where these resources come from or how much is left because every time- without fail- that we turn on the facet or flip the switch we get the resources we need.

97% of transportation fuel worldwide comes from oil and yet despite the fact that global oil production is peaking and will not be available to us in the ever-increasing amount we've come to expect, the vast majority of people in the US continue doing as they please, buying big cars with crappy fuel efficiency ratings and generally driving everywhere and anywhere we please. Gasoline, while it has increased in price over the last 5 years, is still readily available and cheaper than bottled water.

Think about that a minute, the amount of energy needed to propel a Hummer 10 miles at a speed of 1 mile a minute costs less than $3. Try pushing a Hummer for 10 miles and then tell me gas is expensive.

It's about expectation not reality. We are used to having unlimited amounts of resources, especially energy, at our disposal at very little cost relatively speaking. It's really not hard to understand why Americans and others in the over developed world are so slow to recognize the need for changing the way we use resources. It's not justifiable but it's become our reality and I'm guessing that we won't really change our relationship to resources until shortfalls become the new reality.

I saw this first hand when Hurricane Ike knocked down fuel delivery to region where I live.

It was when people couldn't get gas that they started doing things like sleeping in their cars and organizing to generate lists of fuel stations with inventory on hand. When the gasoline was freely flowing again- the real shortage lasted only a little more than a week- behavior went back to normal.

So what does this mean for our inability to have ever-increasing amounts of resources in the future? I think it means that most people aren't going to plan ahead and make changes in advance that would make living with less easier. Most people will adapt after the fact. Humans actually do it quite well. I'm not suggesting it will be pretty. Adaptive strategies might including sleeping in cars (for more reasons than one) or they might look like kids siphoning gas and selling it on the black market to make money to buy food. Adaptation isn't always clean.

I think there is an opportunity for people who are aware of our vulnerabilities to put in place strategies that will prove helpful moving forward. Not only are some of those strategies likely to make life easier for the early adopters but they might make the early adopters very popular in the future. It's one thing to have access to electricity during rolling brownouts or blackouts because you have a PV system tied into your home. It's something else entirely to be able to help other people install similar systems as those people wake up to the realities of the 21st century.

Water is another great example. Having a backup source of water is an excellent idea in case of supply interruption or contamination. It's also a marketable skill to understand how to design and build such a system for others. In this way the changes made by early adopters can also be future forms of income for them. More on that perhaps in a future post.

Most of us talking about resource depletion, energy descent and climate change failed to understand the economic implications and the speed with which the financial fallout would change our situation. It's likely we'll be too poor for a vast build out of renewable energy even if it could power all the switches we've become accustom to flipping (and it can't). It's likely that even the mega projects promised to provide more oil will likely go un or underfunded. The centralized systems that provide us with resources on demand and at a low cost are incredibly vulnerable to the economic tremors stemming from the very energy intense system we've created and our inability to feed it. Less money = less energy. Less energy = less money.

But back to our homes. I think this is where most of us can make the greatest difference. On a household or neighborhood level we can make changes that do the work of providing our resources in a decentralized way. At first these new systems can run parallel to those centralized ones already in place. There's no need to turn off the tap once you've built your rainwater collection system. For the time being it can serve as a back up or a way for you to reduce the amount of money needed to pay your water bill. Over time as centralized systems fail further, the decentralized alternatives can fill more of the need.

I'd like to end with some actionable items. It makes me feel useful so for those of you reading recreationally just bear with me.

Steps toward taking responsibility for your resource and energy use by creating decentralized alternatives in your home.

1. Understand where your resources come from. For example, where does your electricity come from and how does it get to you? Given what you know how vulnerable is that system? You probably don't have unlimited time or resources so think about what work will return the most for your investment. Some changes, like switching to responsibly harvested wood for home heating could be fairly simple and relatively inexpensive. Others, like a full PV electric system, might be more expensive. Then ther are really low cost alternatives like just learning to use way less. Which brings us to number two.

2. Understand how much you use. I wrote something about this in a previous post where I asked,
How much electricity does your entertainment center use when it's "off". How many gallons of water does your family use each month? Do you know how many natural gas therms it takes to heat your house during the month of January?

Your utility bills will show you how much you're using. For $23 you can buy the Kill A Watt Electric Usage Meter and it will tell you exactly how much electricity your appliances are using. Or you can use the high tech version, Google's PowerMeter. Once you know how much you're using you can get to work reducing the amount of energy and resources you use.
This will also help you understand what sort of decentralized system will be needed to provide for your own needs. It might also prompt you to think about how much you really need.

3. Create a plan for building alternative systems for your home and include a timeline. Start by thinking in terms of the basic physical needs: water, food, shelter, energy, health care, transportation, communication and others. It's going to take time. Move with urgency but don't rush or mistakes will be made.

4. Include the entire household. Telling you wife she has to start using a composting toilet is very different from coming to that decision as a family. ;-) These changes won't be successful unless everyone buys in to a certain extent.

5. Document your changes. This will be helpful to others. It might also help you in the future to develop your new skills into sources of income. It will also be fun.

Enough actionable items. Best of luck to all those early adopters out there building tomorrow today.



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Anonymous said...

I worry about building up a "survival sanctuary" to only have it raided and destroyed by desperate thieves when things do get bad. I would not dare be an early adopter of expensive PV panels or windmills or other clearly visible stuff that will be impossible to protect. That stuff won't last in the long run anyway. Better to just get used to living like the Amish.

Chris said...

Spammers can't spell! hahaha

Anyway, this blog post took the words from my mouth (except you had statistics to back up your claims). Just in my household, I feel terribly alone in trying to curb wasteful consumption of water and electricity. And there's peer pressure too. I feel kinda silly for wanting a fuel efficient car (there's a 0.8 liter car I'm interested in) when everyone else is driving a more stylish, bigger car.

And what is a composting toilet? I should research on that.