April 22, 2014

On whale oil and lifestyle choices

Today is Earth Day, a day that, weirdly enough, I feel somewhat ambivalent about. This isn’t because I have problems with the planet Earth – that’s where I keep all my stuff – but I have some problems with the cultural sustainability movement itself.

I can distill my problems down to one moment: walking through Dillard’s and coming upon a line of bamboo products. They had bamboo cutting boards, bamboo cups, even bamboo bedsheets, actual sheets made of intensely processed bamboo. This was being sold as a highly green, sustainable product, because it’s made out of bamboo, which grows super-fast, and it also benefits from what I suspect to be an Asian Exoticism – to folks in the US, anything slightly Asian is mysteriously better. Because of these collective influences, bamboo is a hot product in the green market.

But here’s the thing – just earlier in the year I’d attended an architectural materials seminar discussing the specifications of building materials in depth, and I was aware that bamboo was actually not a very sustainable product at all.

First of all, most of it’s grown and shipped out of China. So almost all of the agriculture and collection was coal- or oil-powered, and then they had to put it on a bigass ship and send it across the ocean over here, which uses God knows how much oil. Secondly, bamboo is not like pine or other conventional woods: it’s tough to work with and it frequently takes a not-insignificant amount of chemical treatment to make it pliable. And thirdly, holy shit, you want to make bedsheets out of wood? (I know bamboo is technically a grass, but still.) Do you know how much energy that takes to do?

But bamboo remains a hot commodity for people interested in sustainability. And that’s my problem with the sustainability movement: to a certain extent, it’s a culture. For its purchasing demographic, sustainability is not a series of technological developments, but it’s a lifestyle choice, almost verging on being a religion.

And that means that it’s not for everyone, it’s for my people, and the real problem is that there are people who aren’t your people whose only choice is to become your people. “If you were smart,” you’d say to those Others, “you’d convert.”

And that’s really easy to turn down.

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The upshot is, there are a lot of exciting things happening right now. All of them are good for the majority of people. Some of them, if not most of them, also align with the sustainability movement.

The big winner, as innumerable financial and economic forecasters have noted, is solar power, which has had an unprecedented drop-off in price, coupled with a marked increase in efficiency. If experts are to be believed, by 2020, and without tax credits, solar power will be as cheap as coal, if not cheaper. Here in Austin it’s already cheaper, albeit with tax credits.

(To those who decry governments propping up ridiculous energy sources, please consider this.)

And not only is the cost of solar plummeting, but the efficiency is still improving every monthwith some pending advances that could make solar panels generate well over twice as much energy.

The remaining issue is storage – what do you do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? – but the tech industry is anticipating this. Between Elon Musk’s Tesla battery factory, the new, cheap, flow battery, and significant advances in graphene (which Samsung and researchers in Ireland are figuring out to produce in industrial quantities), the storage market is looking to mimic the solar photovoltaic (PV) market in increased scale, decreased cost, competitiveness, and consistent technological advances. And with the plummeting cost of solar PV, there’s plenty of reason to try to stake out territory.

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So things are changing. These changes are technological, and they’re chiefly self-interested. I mean, these people aren’t making these investments out of the goodness of their hearts: they’re making these investments because if someone can figure out how to harness, capture, and utilize all the energy falling out of the sky, then they could make a metric shitload of money.

In other words, these advances in sustainability are, in some part, occurring independent of the bamboo-enthusiast wing of the green movement, the hyper-critical Greenzos of the world. And I think it’d cause active harm to lump these huge advances in with the cultural sustainability movement.

Making sustainability and technological advances of this kind a lifestyle choice, an explicitly cultural domain, would be akin to saying that only white people use bank accounts, that that’s a white people thing to do. Essentially, it’s restricting what potentially could be an enormously helpful mechanism into rigid cultural boundaries. And that sucks.

But though energy has become a partisan and cultural issue over the past 50-75 years, it can’t stay that way. Mainly because the market won’t tolerate it, even if you try and use the government to stamp it out. (A curious tactic from players who are frequently anti-taxes and anti-government meddling in the market.) If something’s reliable, useful, and dirt cheap, then people will want it.

Try and imagine a counter-smartphone movement in the early aughts of this century, a political organization focusing all of its strength on ending the proliferation of smartphones. Try and imagine a counter-computer movement in the 80’s and 90’s, lobbying groups focusing to prevent increased electronic data storage. Unimaginable, right?

It’s tech, just tech. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a device, a tool. And tech will always keep getting better and cheaper, and people will want to buy it more and more.

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If you didn’t know already, I think about science fiction a lot. And a big part of science fiction is changing a rule in the world and trying to predict how the world would react to that change. What if people could, say, teleport? Or clone themselves? Or upload memories into one another’s brains? What would the short-term exploitations of this new rule change be? How would it change everyday life? What would the unintended consequences be?

So the idea of solar intensely intrigues me, because, well, it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. Energy has always been a hugely centralized industry: it takes money to find fossil fuels, money to buy the land, money to dig them out of the earth, money to transport them, money to refine them, and finally money to distribute them. It’s an enormous chain of supply that can only be shouldered by someone with a lot of money. So to a certain extent, energy has always been about depending on a few very wealthy players.

(And in case you’re wondering, I’m not one of the self-flagellating types who condemns all of humanity for using a resource to the greatest extent it possibly could. I don’t believe that humanity or nature ever existed in a perfect Garden of Eden state: I think nature’s always been in flux and that we, as a species, are kind of an anomaly, a breed of creature that became exponentially adept at finding exceptions to every natural rule. Other species existed before us that were in the right time and the right place to reproduce to the extent that they had consequences on their environment. We’ve just hugely, hugely, hugely scaled that up.)

But the recent technological advances suggest a state of human civilization that’s never been around before: a distributed energy system, where someone could theoretically be able to afford cheap solar PV and storage, and live on their own without having to depend on someone to provide fuel and energy for them and manage the energy market. It might not happen for decades, but it could, theoretically, eventually come about.

In some ways, it’s a Libertarian dream come true. In others, it’s potentially a way to lessen inequality all around the globe. If just anybody can get their own electricity – if there are no gatekeepers, no one with their hand on the tap – who knows what we could do? Maybe irrigate developing countries for pennies on the dollar?

This has happened before to other industries, of course. Publishing, for example. The telephone system for another, as I mentioned above. This isn’t the first potential industry disruption.

And it’s not the first disruption the energy market’s ever had, either.

A couple of hundred years ago we depended on a very specific animal for energy. The world created a tremendous industry solely for hunting this animal, extracting the energy resource from the carcass, refining it, and shipping the energy all over the world. The capital of this industry was New Bedford, Massachusetts, and when the captains of this industry heard that a group of entrepreneurs believed it’d be possible to extract a new source of energy out of the ground, rather than extracting it from the corpse of this very specific animal, they laughed it off.

But no one uses whale oil to light their lamps these days.

We look back on that era and we find it odd and barbaric. The idea of human beings chasing whales across the sea, slaughtering them, and cracking open their skulls to access their oil – all so that humans could light their lamps ­– is unthinkable to us now. “How could they have done that,” we ask, “when we were sitting on vast oceans of oil, just a few hundred feet below the surface of the Earth?”

Sometimes I think we might one day find our current energy industry as strange and ridiculous as we do whale oil. “Why did they ever have to drill down into the earth and suck up goop made out of long-dead plants,” or children might ask, “when all around them energy was falling on their shoulders, every day? Why would anyone ever go to all that work?”