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.