Clotheslines, skylights, and root cellars
Honoring the gift of energy
We live in a world of cheap and abundant energy. Gasoline seems expensive at five dollars per gallon, until we remember that a gallon of gasoline contains the energy equivalent of 150 hours of human labor.
It is inevitable that, as fossil fuel resources dwindle in the decades ahead, the monetary cost of energy will increase. It is also true that it would be preferable, from a climate perspective, if we did not extract and combust every last barrel of oil, cubic foot of methane, and ton of coal in the tumultuous transition from an age of limitless progress to an age of limits. There is much that can be and has been written about what exactly needs to happen, what changes are most important, and what might motivate people and governments to make those changes. In my graduate school days I was an alternative energy researcher, and I have thought a lot about what our energy future might look like.
That said, what I want to focus on here is not the science or politics of energy but our relationship to it. What goes through our heads when we turn on a light, or take a hot shower, or refuel our vehicles? How might we change that relationship to better reflect an ecological spirituality, a worldview that places humans as an integral part of Earth and the biosphere rather than apart from it?
Prior to widespread awareness of the link between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and climate change, energy was - for the vast majority of people - simply an abundant and essential nutrient of modern civilization. We paid at the pump, sent a check to the power company each month, and went on our merry way without as much as a second thought.
The effect of the modern climate movement has been to stigmatize certain types of energy - those that release the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So continuing the nutrient analogy, we now have coal as saturated fat, oil as refined sugar, natural gas as simple carbohydrates (better than the others but still bad in large amounts), and then various “renewable” energy sources as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, etc.
This stigmatization has not in any meaningful way changed our relationship with energy; it has just added an element of sinfulness and self-flagellation. The gasoline is still there at the pump and the electricity flows at the flip of a switch, but now it comes with a frosting of “we’re killing the planet” guilt which can be remedied by purchasing indulgences (we call those “carbon offsets”) or by conspicuously joining the latest fad energy diets, whether those involve CFLs, LEDs, all-electric homes, or electric cars.
What if we were to view energy not as an entitlement or a guilty pleasure but instead as a gift? My father, Ed Stone, wrote in his Buffalo Song:
The gifts are free, the giver is love
Giving oil in the ground and the sun from above
What if we were to say Grace whenever we filled our car with gas or turned on a switch. Bless us O (deity of your choice) and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty. Certainly ten gallons of energy-dense liquid from deep within the Earth is at least as worthy of blessing as a plate of meat and potatoes, and at least as wondrous both in its creation and in what it can do for us.
We can group the vast majority of the ways we use energy into three broad categories:
To replace human or animal labor (transportation, farm implements, flour mills, lawnmowers, etc.)
To process, store, and transmit information (server farms, cell towers, computers, TV, radio)
To modify the environment of compartments of various sizes for our benefit (heating, water heating, air conditioning, ovens, fridges, freezers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, dryers, fans, lights, etc.)
The third category is of particular relevance here, because it turns out that modifying the environment is rather energy-intensive and that often enough it is only a minor inconvenience to utilize natural processes instead, or to take advantage of natural processes to minimize our energy inputs.
Let’s start with the washer and dryer: largely unknown as recently as a century ago but now ubiquitous across the modern world. A washing machine is a first-category device. It uses modest amounts of electricity to replace a fair quantity of human labor in washing, rinsing, and wringing out clothing. The alternative to a washing machine is a great deal of not-especially-fun elbow grease. A clothes dryer is a third-category device. It uses large amounts of electricity or gas (at least ten times more energy than a washing machine for the same load of laundry) to maintain a hot and windy environment in a small compartment within which clothes dry in less than an hour. The alternative to a dryer is to simply hang the clothes to dry outside (or, if necessary, inside), which leaves them smelling naturally fresh, extends their lifespans, and results in the same endpoint (dry clothes) with very little added labor.
If we viewed energy as a precious gift, would we burn five pounds of coal (a sack of potatoes’ worth) or several bathtub-sized volumes of natural gas to dry a load of laundry, when a clothesline would have accomplished the same result at no inconvenience to us? This same amount of energy would carry an efficient car 15 miles, or an electric bicycle 200 miles, or light a room for 200 hours. If we were the giver of these gifts, what would we think of the humans who chose to use them in this way?
If we viewed energy as a precious gift, would we construct buildings with dark interiors and lights on all day, or would we install skylights wherever they were needed?
Would we use electricity from burning coal or falling water - or natural gas from deep within the earth - to warm the water we use for washing and showering, or would we set up simple black-painted panels and tubes that capture sunlight and replace more than 90% of that energy?
Might we choose to leverage the constant temperature of the Earth beneath us for respite against summer heat and warmth in winter cold, as our ancestors did for centuries with root cellars?
Would we ship food halfway around the world when we can grow the same food in our own backyards, in our own communities?
Would we choose to commute 50 miles or more each day, when we could live closer to work and also have more time?
Would we choose to heat big houses with rooms we seldom use, or to live in smaller spaces that we fully inhabit?
Though I won’t go too deep into the science here, it needs to be acknowledged that our age of energy abundance is coming to an end. The easy fossil fuels are gone, and we are delving ever deeper into Earth’s crust for oil, coal, and natural gas. Fusion is still vaporware and seems likely to remain so indefinitely, and nuclear energy has its own problems that would make large-scale expansion unwise and cost-prohibitive. Renewable energy - wind, water, solar, geothermal - is, by its very nature, limited. There is a great deal of energy (at this point, mostly fossil energy) embodied in those wind turbines, dams, and solar panels, and expansion will always involve trade-offs with other land uses, with natural ecosystems, with wildlife impacts. Furthermore renewable sources are intermittent, and a grid powered primarily by wind and solar will not infrequently go dark for hours at a time.
The preciousness of energy will become apparent soon enough, in the form of ever-higher prices and increasingly-frequent power grid blackouts. We can save ourselves a great deal of grief - and also begin to build a healthier reciprocal relationship with the planet we inhabit - if we acknowledge this preciousness before we are forced to do so by the uncaring invisible hand of economics.
A Tesla might be better than a gas-guzzling SUV, and solar panels on rooftops might be worthwhile for those who can afford them, but all of this focus on changing our energy diet becomes nearly useless if we don’t place at least as much effort on reducing it. Driving and flying fewer miles. Stringing more clotheslines in backyards. Living in smaller spaces. Using passive solar design to minimize heating and cooling needs. Buying less stuff, reusing and repairing for longer, and seeking to meet our needs locally rather than globally.
If the goal is a healthy body, it is more effective to consume fewer calories than to switch from bingeing on beer and bacon to bingeing on whole-grain bread and orange juice. If the goal is a healthier planet and a sustainable relationship with the ecology around us, we cannot simply switch from bingeing on gasoline to bingeing on wind electricity. We must reduce our energy consumption, and not just by 10% or 25% but by 50%, 75%, or more. I don’t think we will accomplish that by invoking guilt for our actions and fear for our future. That way lies a particular hypocritical nihilistic hedonism and a desire to coerce others into an increasingly authoritarian austerity.
Perhaps it would be better to lead with love. To begin to love the gifts of energy that sustain us. To give thanks when we start the washing machine, that a little bit of power from the great Columbia River, or a few ounces of a tree that grew 300 million years ago, has saved us the effort of washing these clothes by hand. To ask ourselves whether it really is worth the energy in five pounds of fossilized tree or 15,000 gallons of falling water to dry them, or whether we might prefer to save that gift for a better use and to instead utilize the effectively unlimited gift of sunshine and spring breeze over a few hours on a clothesline.
To exist as a part of this planet, not apart from it, we must establish reciprocity, give thanks for that which sustains us and use only as much as we truly need. On this Spring Equinox, take a moment to contemplate and appreciate all of the energy flows that weave around and through us. Consider which ones are truly of deep value, and which ones could be jettisoned or diminished if we truly understood energy as the precious gift that it is.
This month’s post ended up a bit on the philosophical side, without as much of the heart-song, the sense of wonder in being present on Earth, that I strive to include in The Dendroica Project writings. I promise that will return in April, and in honor of the season I will end with this verse.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
—Mary Oliver, 1986