I want to talk, once again, about the things that we use up. Last week we discussed the over–or more appropriately–mis-consumption of food. This week we'll take a closer look at energy, all the ways we misuse it, and the ways we could, potentially, create something new and better.
To start us off, a gross over-simplification: most of us live in large boxes to keep out the cold, or heat. We then use smaller boxes to heat up, or cool, our large boxes. Other small boxes keep our food cold, until we use still other boxes of varying sizes to heat up the food. It's a joke, and not a very funny one, but think about that for a minute. For the sake of convenience and comfort we will create chamber on chamber of varying temperatures that are at odds with one another, and they all expend energy. I say this, by the way, as the coldest of cold-blooded mammals you've ever seen, so I'm not shaming anyone for where their thermostat is set. But, if we all were just a little more amenable to taking a few extra steps, we could create more energy-efficient homes and lifestyles.
Energy Inefficiency Begins at Home
I hope it doesn't shock you that American homes are, by and large, crap. They're built fast and loose with cheap lumber, plywood, and not a lot of insulation. This trend is not new, but it's definitely reaching something of a zenith in new construction. If you've ever lived in a booming town, you'll find that, around downtown, old buildings are getting bulldozed so that condos and apartments can go up, and all these damn buildings look exactly alike. They all look fancy and sturdy from the outside, often enough sporting brick or steel, but it's fascia–ornamentation. They're made of popsicle sticks and balsa wood (basically). While high population density is good for the environment, cheap mass construction is not. And even though we are making some strides in energy efficiency, we're outpacing those strides by continuing to build bigger homes with bigger footprints.
Across Europe, you'll notice something immediately; the buildings are real damn old. Some of them have longer histories than the United States. Standards across the Atlantic mean that new construction, like the old, is built sturdy–brick or stone walls, none of this plywood stuff. The reason you don't often find a building in the US that's old without it leaking straw insulation in the wintertime is probably because they literally used straw insulation. And that's not to knock straw–salt of the earth material right there, use it myself. But we have simply let capitalism take the wheel on construction, and that means that cheap materials and cheap labor rule the day.
It stands to reason, then, that energy efficiency is bought at a premium. It's not a great time to buy a home, let alone build one, and doing so with efficiency in mind means that you're purchasing far more expensive materials from the bottom up. And, crucially, construction companies must have skilled laborers to work with those materials, whereas a new Nashville apartment complex is (relatively) easy to put together.
Were You Born in a Barn? and Other Excuses
Beyond the energy that is wasted because we've built our homes from material thinner than your grandma's stack of Christmas scratch-offs, there is the energy that we waste by leaving on lights, running the heater/air conditioner too high/low, and by the inefficiencies in those various technologies–like lightbulbs giving off heat. According to that link, Americans waste 58% of the energy we produce, and it's estimated that we spend $130 billion on that wasted energy every year.
Now, again, I don't say this to pin blame on individuals. We will not endeavor to turn all our lights off in order to save the planet, because that won't work. I mention our waste because eventually that's going to matter very much to you, if it doesn't now. When you're sucking gasoline out of your car to run the commune generator through a cold snap, you'll be sorry that the day before you decided to fire up your TV for four hours of movies while you scrolled through archives of Twitter on your phone. These decisions of comfort matter because they can help form the habits of tomorrow–a far greater impact on your personal life than on the world's CO2 output. We'll need to be smart about how we spend our electricity because it will become a scarce, expensive, and labor-intensive resource.
Contrariwise, I will hear arguments for living a life of comfort while one can. We may not have all the luxuries that we do today in the near future, and we'll miss them when they're gone. That doesn't mean, however, that we should be flamboyantly wasteful. Just, you know, enjoy WiFi while it's here. Be mindful of the joy that is falling down a SwiftTok hole.
High Technology is Not the Answer
A year ago was a different time. A simpler time. A time when I thought my electric car was something other than a personally convenient method of transportation. But after a fairly minor accident while we're stuck in our supply chain quagmire, I realized just how precarious my situation was with this vehicle. I am stuck (or, to look at it another way, extremely privileged) with a vehicle that requires a lithium-ion battery and a pretty complex array of electronics. It took me over three weeks to get a minor part replaced, simply because the part couldn't be located, then couldn't be shipped. In the event of a disaster or collapse, the odds that I can get my car repaired–in whatever way you can imagine–drop toward zero.
This is the ultimate problem with the technological salvation of society in the face of collapse. Because collapse is inevitable, there will come a time and environment in which highly complex technology cannot be repaired or replaced. While innovations may occur in the field, solar panels, for example, have a lifespan of 25-30 years–meaning that even if they were never damaged, eventually your solar-powered apartment building would have to figure out something else. Another wrinkle you'll fast run into is battery storage, which we've spoken a bit about before. Once you're done building your potato clock, you'll see that lighting your home isn't as simple as you might have hoped.
While we won't be able to live in a Horizon: Zero Dawn-style post-civilizational tech wonderland, this doesn't mean that we can't have technology or complexity in our lives; we just have to find our equilibrium. The world can only afford so much, and therefore we can only do so much. There is a future, I think, in which we still have electric light and movie nights and even, in places, WiFi and an internet, of a sort. But that world is powered by the vagaries of nature and will be, literally, impossible to take for granted.
What Does the Future Look Like?
First of all, I don't know, I'm just some guy.
But what I think it could look like, what we could aspire to, is a future in which we have found that equilibrium between complexity and resilience. It's a world in which we are not so divorced from our food, where our electricity comes from, how our roads stay (or stop being) paved, that we can't imagine how it all happened. It's a world in which community is so vitally important to our survival that we almost forget it was ever another way, that there existed a world in which the labor of farmers thousands of miles away gifted us our food, that miners dug up precious minerals to provide us with light. We will know who grew the food on our plates. We'll know who assembled the windmill that lets you read at night. We'll know who installed the mesh network that lets you share memes with your neighbor down the block. If we don't know them personally, we'll know someone who does. Our immediate world will be much smaller than it is today, but it will be richer for the fact that we cherish what we do have.
I don't need to tell you to turn off your lamp, close your fridge, buy better windows. While these are all decent ideas, they're ones you've heard before and either implement or not. In order to bring about a future in which we aren't working our hands to the bone, a future of darkness, scarcity, and pollution, we need to be thinking not simply bigger, but beyond ourselves. We need to be thinking about what we can do to work in our communities, what we can establish together and how we will behave together to keep in equilibrium with the world around us.