Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Sustainable Empire

I was brooding the other day about how easily technology becomes normative. Self-interested or irrational decisions within a technological system, once implemented, become impersonal demands of that system. They become self-justifying givens that actually limit human possibilities. We cede authority to them, and allow them to make moral decisions for us. Technology regulates ethics, instead of vice versa, by means of our alleged moral obligation not to obstruct "progress."

What got me thinking about all this was the above illustration (taken from Susan Buck-Morss' The Dialectic of Seeing) of Abel Pifre's solar-powered printing press, which he built in 1880 and used to print 500 copies per hour of a periodical called Journal Soleil.

Though it's not widely known today, the 1800s were actually a boom time for solar energy, not merely in terms of inventions, but in terms of actual use. The main reason for the era's frantic research into solar power was the fear that coal would be depleted - like timber before it - leaving Europe with no source of cheap energy. One of the pioneers of solar power was Augustin-Bernard Mouchot, who argued that "peak coal" was imminent: "Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion....Coal will undoubtedly be used up."

Mouchot's various solar-powered inventions won government support, and solar-powered desalinators and stoves were accordingly built in the colonial outposts of Algeria. This indicates that alternative forms of energy - while not so productive of superstitious awe as those concealed batteries with which the explorer Henry Stanley used to shock African chieftans whose hands he shook - shouldn't necessarily be despised by the imperialist imagination. The term "revolutionary," in the technological context, far too often means a new way of making the same mistakes, or committing the same crimes.

In any case, it was the ever-more-powerful natural gas, oil, and electric companies that sank the nascent solar industry, largely through the use of subsidies that allowed them to sell power - and electric devices like water heaters - at or below cost.

Now, WorldChanging notes that ChevronTexaco has issued a reasonably honest assessment of peak oil, and is asking - in all humility, natch - for public input into possible solutions.

Needless to say, any energy shortage we face is largely the result of industry's ruthless promotion of the cornucopian myth that oil was bountiful, and could be squandered at will. This went along with an equally ruthless devaluing of solar power and other energy sources, and a concerted effort to coax consumers in California and Florida off solar power and onto natural gas or electricity (a goal that was pretty well achieved by the 1940s). After that point, natural gas became something that "normal" people used to heat their homes and swimming pools and what have you. Solar power suddenly seemed disreputable and shabby; it was something of interest only to hollow-eyed health-food faddists who fed exclusively on blackstrap molasses...people who had, through ignorance or stubbornness, chosen to creep along a thorny dead-end path instead of parading down the golden thoroughfare of Progress with everyone else.

Today, of course, there are plenty of Americans who see the ongoing death and destruction in Iraq as an acceptable trade-off for the petroleum-based "necessities" of life. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is that companies like ChevronTexaco devoted themselves to the pretence that their shortsighted, greed-addled whims were somehow synonymous with social and economic progress.

All this being the case, talking with an oil company about peak-oil solutions is a bit like going over the blueprints for your new home with the arsonist who burned your old one down. One wouldn't welcome the solicitude of such a person, and one shouldn't welcome it from ChevronTexaco, either. The goal of such firms is the continuity of profitable operations; there's nothing they're less interested in than the democratization of energy or energy policy.

In an earlier, satirical post on our Dark Green Future, I discussed the "greening" of internment camps and torture chambers. The French government's use of solar power in Algeria - as well as the use of solar power by colonial explorers and the military in the 1800s - is a good example of how seemingly laudable advances in technology can leave unconscionable political and economic structures intact, or strengthen them. No matter how environmentally beneficial they may be, alternative sources of energy must lead to a greater decentralization of power to be really revolutionary. Otherwise, we're liable to end up with nothing more than a sustainable empire, in which ChevronTexaco plays much the same role that it does today.


Rmj said...

I had something at Adventus about this (too lazy to dredge up the link. Wait; no, I'm not! Here it is!

Which I will let stand for most of what I have to say on the topic. Bottom line: "cheap energy" has been a fluke, not a birthright. We burned (no pun intended, but....!) through oil even faster than wood or coal, but the (not saying you had this notion) idea that "another energy source" will be found to continue us on our way of transmuting energy into technology (what is most of what we call "technology" now except ways to convert energy to our convenience?) is, well, it's Pollyannaish.

At best. At worst, it's willful ignorance.

More and more, I'm convinced that we're simply whistling past the graveyard on this one. Solar power may do some things, but it's not gonna power bulldozers.

Just sayin'.....

Okay, I'll go back and finish reading your excellent post now. This topic has just been much on my mind of late, as the light at the end of the energy tunnel is the tracks running out of the side of the mountain....

....into the valley, far, far below.

Phila said...

Terrific post, RMJ, which I wish I'd read before writing this one!

You're correct that I don't see solar power as a solution, per se. I do suspect that if we'd devoted real money and time to it over the last century, it'd quite possibly be very far along now. And if we'd built according to passive solar principles, and used active solar power for certain things, we'd have a lot more oil in the ground than we do now. In 1897, 30% of the homes in Pasadena, CA had solar water heating. By the early 1940s, more than half the population of Florida used solar water heaters. If we'd kept on that path, and refined the technology over the intervening decades, I think it could've made a real difference. Of course, not fighting in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq could've made a huge difference, too.

But at this point, I suspect that it wouldn't buy us much more time even if we switched everything we could over to renewable energy. That said, I think a sane culture would be obliged to make the attempt regardless of its likely outcome.

In this post, though, I'm much more concerned about what it means to change technology without changing attitudes. I'm afraid that a lot of people see green power as something that is itself inimical to tyranny or bad governance. I don't think there's a whole lot of evidence for that position. More likely, any new energy source we come up with will be turned to the same reprehensible ends for which we squandered thousands of millions of barrels of oil.

Engineer-Poet said...

I'm sorry, I must be missing something here.  How exactly do you squander an energy resource like the sunlight falling on your roof?

The latest is that plastic PV cells with a lifespan of 30 months can now be made for $15/m^2.  The report stated efficiency from 0.2% to 5%, with no specifics stated.  However, at the 5% efficiency and that price those cells would generate electricity at much less than peak electric rates in most of the USA, and less than the average in California.

It looks to me like not using this is squandering it.

Phila said...


I think you are indeed missing something. No one here said anything about squandering sunlight. I'm not sure where you got that idea.

For the record, I agree with you. We ought to convert everything we can to solar power and other forms of renewable energy. That's a given.

The topic of this post is whether doing so is likely to change America's global and domestic misuse of political and military power, or simply make it more energy-efficient.

Engineer-Poet said...

Ah, I misread that.

On the other hand, new sources of energy would get rid of many of the reasons we support things we'd rather not.  This is true for many resources; if carbon nanotubes get cheap enough, we won't need much copper for wires nor aluminum for light structures.  Had copper been marginally relevant, we wouldn't have cared about Allende.

We wouldn't have to support any inimical ME governments or protect shipping if we didn't need oil.  I'm sure that Bush & Co. see their role as protecting American society from the damage an energy cutoff would do to it, but we are so close to being able to replace those sources and making those regimes irrelevant that it's a sin not to do so.

The aftermath is something else again.  When oil becomes a low-value commodity in shrinking supply, will Saudi Arabia come to resemble Singapore, or Zimbabwe?  If it falls apart in tribal violence, I doubt that we will put ourselves in the middle no matter how many people are dying.  In a way, our self-interest is their salvation.

Phila said...


I don't disagree. Again, I'm not by any means arguing against alternative energy. On the contrary, arguing for it is one of the main reasons I'm here!

You make a good, plausible case. I'm not quite as optimistic, because I see too many other potential conflicts for people whose entire raison d'etre is conflict. And I do still think that any source of alternative energy must be as decentralized as possible. But we seem to agree on the main points here.

I'm just wary of the assumption that if the petroleum-based economy has led to global exploitation, an alternative energy economy will turn things around simply by not being petroleum-based. That may be the end result - I hope it will! - but I'm not sure it'll just happen naturally, without considerable grassroots pressure.

Anyway, thanks for your comments! I don't know of any discussion that couldn't benefit from the views of an engineer-poet!

Engineer-Poet said...

I'm glad you liked the post
But praise won't get you any more
My head swelled LONG ago. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I believe that Solar energy is the source of all energy on the earth (excepting volcanic geothermal). Wind, wave and fossil fuels all get their energy from the sun. Fossil fuels are only a battery which will eventually run out. The sooner we can exploit all forms of Solar energy (cost effectively or not against dubiously cheap FFs) the better off we will all be. If the battery runs out first, the survivors will all be living like in the 18th century again.And I think that this is a good start for the idea of a technology that can be improved with an excellent promising future. Because if we can use the sun as a source of energy for a cleaner and healthier environment why not use it. And by the way the entire earth will thank to those innovative people.