Sunday, June 29, 2008

Simple Living the Easy Way, Part II*

Someone brought up an interesting point about guilt in a comment: "I for one would have no guilt from having machines to help me conserve time, especially if I was able to get off the national electrical grid.... With enough solar panels, a wind machine, and a couple good banks of batteries, you could get off the grid and rid yourself of any guilt you might be feeling."

I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, that one might identify what I'm talking about as "guilt" as well as the psychology of that interpretation, and second, it nicely illustrates the paradox I was getting at in the first part of this series: that we are dependent in our very independence.

And really, those two points of interest are intertwined, for it's that sense of guilt, I think, that perpetuates the insistent denial of our own dependence, that willful erasure of our dependence in romanticized notions of self-reliance.

Sure, it goes back to that whole "no man is an island" kind of thing, but I think there's a complexity here that's worth exploring a bit to see why Donne's words resonate even today. What does it mean to be self-reliant? Is there such thing as an independent self or is that a myth, a story we tell ourselves? And if it's a story, then why is it such an important story?

And to come back around to the guilt for a minute, why is it that we associate using one kind of machine with guilt, but then turn around and believe that our guilt would be expiated if the same thing were powered by something made by different machines? I'm not trying to pick on Tim here; rather, I think he reveals a sticking point of trying to think through these tough issues: that is, the moral attachment to a particular kind of machine use.

Why is one machine better than another? I think, too, this is what folks are getting at when they try to get us to think more critically about embedded energy costs of things like solar and wind and even buying local. Solar is far from zero carbon, so why should a machine powered by solar be inherently better than one powered by connection to the grid?

In large part, it's the moral value we attach to solar, which I would argue has an awful lot to do with the difficulty of calculating the embedded energy of photovoltaics. Some figures place the embedded energy payback for solar at 4 years: in other words, it takes 4 years for a solar panel to produce as much energy as it cost to produce the panel itself. So 1/5th of the energy produced during the solar panel warranty period (generally 20 years, some are 25) comes from fossil fuels. One can't even make the argument that this is a one-time energy input for a lifetime of energy independence, what with the batteries and inverters required for an on-demand system, most of which have a lifespan of 5-10 years. In fact, the embedded energy costs of those aren't even factored into the 4 year recovery period for the silicon cell panels themselves, best I can tell.

See how this all becomes very complex very quickly? Once we factor in the embedded costs of batteries and inverters, not to mention the waste issue once they're done and the ecological impact of that, the equation becomes far more difficult. Solar, wind, hydro, coal, nuclear, natural gas—they all have their advantages and pitfalls. And it all depends on how we use them and to what extent. None is a free ride.

This kind of complexity is the problem with all those online carbon footprint calculators or with the kinds of calculations out there about what a meat-based meal, for instance, costs in terms of carbon. All burgers are not created equal, just as all lifestyles are not created equal. Is my use of a bread machine more or less justifiable than some urban socialite's use of one? If so, why?

Because of the whole lifestyle picture or not at all. But how does one calculate an entire lifestyle?

By the same token, however, that urban socialite could still have a lower carbon impact than I, depending upon how one wanted to calculate it. Living in a small apartment, not being home much of the day due to work and running in fashionable circles, being able to walk to all the great restaurants where cooking is being done on a mass scale, which arguably conserves resources, she might have an ostensibly lower carbon footprint than my meat-raising, meat-eating, rural, homeschooling, homesteading household. So, how does one account for that? Is it more eco-friendly to be a single urban dweller?

Maybe I need to just keep planting a boat-load of trees every year to offset my household's usage? Do I get carbon credits for farming organically and sustainably, for having carbon-sequestering pastures, for having self-sustaining garden inputs? Do I get carbon credits for feeding more families than just mine? Do I get carbon credits for all those institutions we avoid like school and doctors and pharmaceuticals? Is my electrical usage even comparable to a childless urban apartment dwelling couple, and how do they calculate the embedded energy costs that make their low-impact lifestyle possible?

So the Luddites in the crowd are probably nodding along at this point, as all this seems to reinforce the argument for moving away from energy intensive living altogether. And I think this really is a large part of the answer—going low-tech as much as possible.

But again, I'd argue that even this line of thinking operates under a certain kind of disillusionment that there is such a thing as moving away from energy intensive living. As I claimed in my earlier post, low tech is really just another form of alternative energy: exchanging human energy for electrical energy. Energy has to come from somewhere: it's the basic law of conservation of energy—you can't get more energy out than you put in. (Though we're awfully fond of inventing stories about such magic. And why not? That would really be independent living with impunity.)

Even the tools required for manual labor need to be mined, manufactured, and moved, so they have embedded energy costs as well. There's a treadmill effect of certain kinds of manual labor, too, that often gets ignored. Things like plowing or hauling that require the work of large draft animals necessitate the feeding of those animals, generating more plowing and planting and harvesting that need to be done just to support those animals. Unless of course one relies on off-farm feed inputs, in which case we're right back where we started: dependence on others to support our chosen lifestyle.

So what am I getting at? What am I advocating here? Am I really suggesting that we should just throw up our hands and use electricity no matter what the source?

No. What I'm really trying to do is to problematize the idea of self-reliance altogether because I think it's a notion that serves a kind of holier-than-thou perspective when really we are all complicit, all making trading offs and setting priorities no matter what our chosen path. And I believe that most often, these trade offs are what enable us to support our continued belief in the illusion of self-reliance in the first place.

Which brings me back around to the ideas of guilt and why the self-reliance story is such an important one to tell ourselves, which I'll try to explore more fully in my next post in this series.

*Just for the record, Jim really wanted me to title this post "Complex Living the Hard Way." Silly man.


Alex Polikowsky said...

great post! thanks for making all those points.

Wendy said...

Good points. I keep hounding my husband to put the purchase of a solar system into the budget, and he keeps ignoring me, because he knows just what you've said in this post.

And when I stop panicking enough to think clearly, I know that a solar-power system isn't going to save us from the darkness when the "World As We Know It" comes to an end :).

I think it's worthwhile to learn some low-impact skills, but it doesn't make sense to turn our backs on those tools that make our lifestyle possible. Transitioning from full dependence on machines to life without them is going to take time, and even the most "low-impact" people in the US use some machines.

We would be wise to take their example, as you've suggested, also, and fight to preserve the tools that are most beneficial ... like my washing machine and electric stove ;). Life without those two machines would really be difficult.

Danielle said...

Yes, Wendy, I have to keep reminding myself that solar isn't the panacea it's often made out to be. Still, though, a 2 or 3 for 1 deal isn't bad. I'd take it if I could talk dh into it, even with all its pitfalls.

I think the key with any of the energy sources is mindful consumption. Really we need to make lifestyle shifts first and foremost, redefining need and necessary. That's what I'm trying to look at within the context of my family's life.

I think the Shakers are an important model, as they had no moral objections to technology and were really quite innovative. I think their ability to embrace technology and simplicity together was admirable; some of their inventions were quite impressive.

Lewru said...

My last comment on your blog started with "Wow." This one would have, too, barring this commentary.

I really like how you break down the reified "truth" of the self-reliance issue. It is complex, but you've got me thinking more deeply about it than I had in some time. I know exactly what you mean about the "holier than thou" element, which can be so off-putting to others.

I once did some research on activist identity development. It seemed to shake out that in the beginning and middle stages of massive identity shifts (sudden switch to involvement in some sort of movement) people got loud and vocal and sometimes angry and, you guessed it, holier than thou. But after enough time it shifted to a more balance, nuanced, and informed perspective, which is what you seem to be describing - with enough exposure and knowledge, we learn more about the realities of solar, for instance, or other tools and their energy inputs.

My main focus is psychology so I love to think about why, how, etc. Gets me no nearer to "revealed truth," however. I just bumble along and try to do the best I can.

Love your blog.

Hausfrau said...

Hi Danielle - I would love to go to the grocery store or online and see little Carbon points on everything. Otherwise I can get mired down in so much thinking about every tiny purchase. Are the cloth diapers better or the disposable? The organic meat or the bananas from Chile? I've read CFL bulbs called "environmental nightmares" because of the mercury, but they still seem better than conventional to me. I don't suppose you know of any place that has attempted to do a comprehensive weighing of carbon & environmental impact like this?

Ren said...


I can't tell you for sure how factual this is, but I read that the mercury in those bulbs is about the same as in a ballpoint pen. They're working on eliminating the mercury all together.

All I have to say about this post is...brilliant. Great stuff to think about and not get too hung up on in our search for "less is more".

marcyincny said...

Your comment (7:18 AM) went to my ultimate goal: mindfulness. (And not just in regard to energy use.) I wish more people would ask themselves the kinds of questions you've articulated so well, no matter what they may finally decide in regard to a particular issue. Even the simple act of asking oneself, "Do I really need this?" can make a difference.

Meanwhile I knead my bread (primarily because it's proven to be an excellent exercise for my arthritic hands) but I'll be saving my last gallon of gasoline for my little Mantis.

green with a gun said...

Most solar has an energy payback of considerably less than 4 years. However, that said - you're better off in greenhouse gas emissions terms in buying solar-sourced electricity from an energy retailer than having your own system. They can give you a kWh of electricity at lower emissions than you can get it yourself - economies of scale and all that.

The reason to have your own system is not for less emissions, but for self-reliance and resilience. If the grid goes down for a night or months, it's good to still be able to keep going.

"But how does one calculate an entire lifestyle?"

For greenhouse gas emissions, you can calculate it by using my spreadsheet for the Carbon Account Challenge. Yes, it's possible that your beef burger will have less emissions than mine, but then the mp3 player or t-shirt you buy may have more than mine. All the small variations average out, so that whole lifestyles can be compared.

This addresses hausfrau's wish for labelling with "carbon points" on products; it doesn't give her labels, but it gives her an idea of the relative impact, the cost in Carbons.

This does not address overall impact on the Earth, just the greenhouse gas emissions. For example, you could wash your driveway and house down with a thousand gallons of water a day and it would have a very small greenhouse impact, but a very large impact on water stress, a big problem for some regions of the world.

Which is why I've said that every drop counts. But really in putting some number to our impact on the Earth, it's best to focus on one thing at a time.

"Do I get carbon credits for farming organically and sustainably, for having carbon-sequestering pastures, for having self-sustaining garden inputs? Do I get carbon credits for feeding more families than just mine?"

In my accounting system, you don't get carbon credits. What it does is to calculate your actual emissions and absorption. You don't get credit for emitting less, you just emit less.

Thus an organic farmer is going to have a small Carbon income, because you harvest a lot of food. And the people who buy it from you get to have lower emissions - each of "organic" and "local" subtracts 25% from the Carbons cost (the greenhouse impact) of the food production.

Arguing for "credits" because you're emitting less is like telling the bank I should be given more money because I'm not spending as much as I used to. Arguing for "credits" because I help others reduce their emissions is like saying, "but I helped my buddy budget and lower his credit card bill, shouldn't I have more money now?"

So instead we have emissions and absorption, which I describe as "spending Carbons" and "earning Carbons". You earn Carbons by planting trees and harvesting food. That's it.

Carbons are earned from tree-planting because they sequester carbon. That some die or are chopped down is accounted for in the earning already. Carbons are earned from harvesting food because the process of growing things, as Danielle notes, puts carbon into the soil. So even if all you do is grow things and then dig them back into the soil, you will gradually add carbon to it.

It's true that as Danielle is implying, whatever we do we'll have some emissions associated with it. This is why I present "Carbons" as like dollars - they can be well or badly spent. Some people spend a lot and have good lives, some spend a lot and have bad lives, and some people spend very little and likewise have good or bad lives.

With emissions as with money, the prudent person says, "is it worth it? Can I get the same for less spending?" For example, beef has emissions of around 20 times its own weight, compared to basic grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables at around 60% their weight (even in conventional farming - in organic and local farming it'd be 30%).

So if we're talking money, if I want to eat dinner I can look at steak for $20 or some mixture of grains, nuts, fruit and vegetables (say, a pumpkin and mushroom risotto) for $0.60. Will the steak give me thirty times the pleasure as the pumpkin and mushroom risotto? If so, it's worth it. If not... it's risotto time.

Now it turns out that's the relative carbon cost, so I have to consider it in the same way, is it really worth thirty times the impact?

Set against that are other considerations, like health and so on.

It's the same, then, with technology. Having your own solar system will have less impact than buying coal energy from someone, but buying solar from someone else will have less impact still.

But then with that is a sense of self-reliance, and the security of supply in difficult times. So you have to weigh it up.

It's the same with all technology, all decisions. None are inherently good or bad, you just have to set your priorities - is self-reliance more important than overall impact? does price in dollars matter? - and then weigh things up.

For my part, if we owned the home we live in, I'd put in grid-connected solar in excess of our needs with battery backup.

I value self-reliance, so that's a tick for the PV and batteries. I value being able to contribute to the community, so that means putting in more PV than we need. I value having enough in times of trouble, so that's in favour of the batteries. And the state and corporations are moving very slowly in building up renewable energy capacity, we citizens have to step on up and make up for their stupidity, so that's another point in favour of having PV more than our needs.

Decide what's important to you, and make the decisions from there. And in fact, that's what the Luddites were about - they didn't oppose technology as such, they just thought that there were more important things than "labour efficiency", that technology was not inherently good and whether to put it in should be weighed up with other things.

CG said...

I appreciate this further development of embedded energy and other things. Too bad it isn't well known that human energy input is the most efficient we have to support ourselves.

To me, carbon is a cute measurement but it isn't the thing, as it were. I look toward a sustainable lifestyle in total -- I value my family by spending a LOT of time with them, for instance. I think it is easy for critics to take whatever point they are on to absurdity -- sufficiency and independence doesn't mean I have to do absolutely everything myself.

Just most things.

Danielle said...

Kyle, I think your accounting system is very interesting, but I think there are inaccuracies built into it. I hear you saying that those things will come out in the wash on the grand scheme of things, but I think in terms of personal carbon accounting, they matter.

If planting trees and growing food are the only two things that count, then again, my point is going to be that there are vastly different ways of going about those activities, ways that make a difference that's not accounted for in your system.

And I'm not even talking about comparing small farms to big, industrial ag. I can tell you that there are many small farmers using gasoline powered machinery to prepare, plant, lay mulch, spray manure tea: you name it, there's a fancy machine for it. Some innovative folks are using biodiesel to power their machinery, which arguably makes yet another difference in calculating.

All food is not created equally, yet there's no distinction built into the carbon currency you're advocating.


I think you hit the nail on the head with what I'm getting at: we each prioritize differently. I think it's useful and interesting to see how other people have given up machines or made changes because it can help us to see that what we thought was so indispensable might actually be dispensable after all.

But in the end, we'll each find our own way of navigating labor, the world, energy use, our own aches and pains, and I think often, to use Kyle's monetary analogy, while we spend in some areas, we can find other areas of savings to offset those expenses.

CG: I agree and what I'm really getting at here is that self-sufficiency isn't at all about doing everything one's self, as if that were even possible. I'm much more interested in looking at the ways we can be autonomous, independent, free, while still being interdependent and part of a larger community, which is where I'm heading in my next post.

Thanks to all for taking the time to think through these issues with me and to leave your thoughts. What an interesting and meaningful dialog!

CG said...

oooh oooh (maybe I should raise my hand here?) This is something I've thought a lot about, and I've read a lot of people who talk a good talk about "community". And perhaps I should just write a post about this (and maybe I have, I don't know) but I think simply that we ARE interdependent. That is a fact. We have to work at being independent, at actually having something to contribute to the community as it were. And of course, the stronger each link is, the stronger the community is too.

I think we'd have a good time with this conversation in person.

Hayden said...

excellent post, thanks for detailing the issues so clearly.

Maggie said...

I really enjoyed this post. I have nothing original to add to the other comments. But I love that you said all this.