Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Thursday, September 29, 2011

For the record.

Blog note: First, I need to apologize. Sort of. This post does not really fit in with the usual topics here at Seldon's Gate. It has precious little to do with peak oil, sustainable living, or the politics of collapse. It is, however, part of my story, and one thing I've picked up from social justice blogging is that our stories, as individuals, matter as much in the long run as the sweeping strokes of history. And as I'm coming out today, I'm using every forum, every website, where I have a voice. What I'm about to tell you is part of why I got into this project; you see, protecting and maintaining social progress in the coming storm is deeply, personally relevant to me, and that's why I am here.

For the record:

I am polyamorous.

I seek and maintain close romantic and sexual relationships with multiple people simultaneously.

I am married. I am happy.

I debated for some time about writing this. Not because I feel any shame whatsoever, or even because it involved revealing some great secret in my life; most people who know me me more than casually for more than a couple of weeks figure it out, because I am not circumspect.

Rather, I worried about being ostentatious. I worried that coming out, even adopting that term for it, would be throwing my privilege in the faces of people who have faced and fought far more vicious and focused backlash than I ever have, or really expect to. I worried that this post is unneccessarily flaunting personal information in the view of those whose business it really isn't and whose interest has not been expressed. I didn't want to confront people with something that would make them uncomfortable, or would come across as TMI. I worried that I would be perceived, perhaps even rightly, as being desirous of attention, or worse, being seen as advocating my "lifestyle," of trying to win "converts."

So I sat on it, for a long time, long after I had decided to stop hiding this thing about myself. Because I WAS hiding it, for a while, more out of habit than anything. While polyamorists face much less in the way of direct persecution than LGBTQ folk, or any number of other marginalized groups, "less" does not mean "none." If nothing else, I was worried about my family's reaction to it, although that's all water under the bridge now (you sometimes find support and condemnation where you least expect it). I was also planning on having kids, once upon a time, and raising one's children free of harrassment is very difficult for the openly polyamorous. In many precincts, an encounter with social services is as dangerous for poly folk as queer folk, and given how easy it is to hide being poly (particularly when you live with a single partner, rather than several), I was reticent to lay that landmine in our path. I will admit that when my partner and I decided not to have children, it made the decision to publicly declare my polyamory quite a bit easier.

So why am I finally doing this?

Visibility. Because I am hopeful that social and legal recognition of polyamorous relationships is more likely now than it has ever been. Despite the squealing and gnashing of teeth from the dinosaurs on the American Right, we live in a society where more and more municipalities recognize gay marriage; where increasing numbers of people are eschewing the traditional family model of "marry young, have many children" in favor of lifestyles and relationship modes that actually meet their needs, and those of their partners. More and more people are "backing into" polyamory, as the much dreaded "hook-up culture" of casual and friendly sex leads many to openly question why emotional intimacy cannot be shared as easily as physical. In this environment of questioning and exploration, I think it's of crtical importance that people know that the traditional model of relationships, serial monogamy, is not the only model, nor necessarily the best. It works just fine for many people I know, and that's gravy! Again, I'm not here to win converts. But living in a free society means having choices, and having choices means knowing your alternatives.

So now that the cat is out of the bag, as it were, some of you reading this may have some questions. There are lots and lots of good resources about polyamory on teh intarwebz, but I thought I would address some of the specific questions I've personally received over the years.

1.) What do you mean by "polyamory?" Aren't you basically cheating on your wife?

"Polyamory" means many things to many people, but to me it is essentially a brand of ethical non-monogamy. Practicing it means that people I have relationships with know, explicitly, that they don't have a monopoly on my emotional energies, that I am free to engage in relationships with others, and THEY ARE COOL WITH THIS. The ethical part means that everyone I am involved with knows everything about my romantic life; all of my partners know of each other, and I am explicit and careful in my communications about expectations, whether that's making sure everyone knows that my relationship with Jillian (my "primary" partner) is central to my life and has to take priority sometimes, or that using safer sex practices is not optional with me. Because everyone is fully informed and enthusiastically consenting, no vows or agreements are being broken and thus no cheating is going on.

2.) And Jillian is cool with this?

Yes, she is. She's also enthusiastic about me writing this post, which was really important for me to be sure of because I'm necessarily outing her as a polyamorist, as well. In fact, we met in a polyamorous framework; we were introduced by my girlfriend in 2005, and started dating with her blessing. The idea that I could explore a new and exciting connection with someone, without being forced to abandon an extant relationship that had nothing wrong with it, was revolutionary and game-changing for me. So Jillian and I have been poly from the very beginning.

3.) Is this a sign that your relationship is on the rocks?

Sometimes I'm asked if we opened our relationship to "save" it; read any dating and sex advice column and you'll read letters from people in monogamous relationships who, faced with some fundemental sexual incompatability, consider opening their relationship sexually as a solution. I actually think that can be a pretty bad idea, as changing the fundemental structure of a committed relationship when everyone is under stress rarely ends well. As I said above, Jillian and I have ALWAYS been poly, so far from being a desparate attempt to save a weakening relationship, the fact that we've been together for six years, and married for three, in that context says something about our committment to one another.

4.) Why can't you REALLY commit to each other?

This one is from the family. I'm frequently confronted with the idea that I'm not really committed to my partner at all, since I date and sleep with other people. If I REALLY loved her, the narrative goes, I would save my emotional (and, perhaps most importantly, sexual) energies exclusively for her.


Honestly, I'm a little peeved that main stream culture thinks of "commitment" purely as "not banging other people." I would think more important signs of committment are unwavering emotional support in times of crisis, financial partnership as we seek to attain our goals, and an explicit unity of life plans that will see us living together and striving for the same things for the rest of our lives. I see myself growing old and dying next to this person, and should fortune favor me that is exactly what I intend to do. The constant insinuation that this is negated by my going out dancing and having a bit of a snog with someone else now and again is as ridiculous as it is infuriating. The fact that Jillian and I aren't "faithful" isn't a sign of our lack of regard for each other, but rather our lack of regard for a values system that is meaningless to both of us. I consistently consider my partner's needs before my own, and that is as committed as you get.

5.) So, you're just slutty, then?

Well, I wouldn't say JUST slutty. ahem But no, I'm not. While some of my sexual relationships are less romantically intense than others, the emphasis of polyamory is more emotional than sexual. I take all of my relationships seriously, and even most of my "casual" relationships had a strong emotional component before there was a sexual one, and if it wasn't there before, it developed soon after. I'm no "sluttier" than any single person in our society who dates regularly and has an active social life. Indeed, since I am not limited to a single partner, and am emotionally and sexually fulfilled, I'm probably a bit more cautious and selective in my dating than someone who is looking desparately for a new relationship so they can GET LAID OMG.

Those are the most common questions I hear, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. I want to emphasize that I'm writing this post to answer questions. I'm explicitly trying to raise the profile of polyamory as a valid and legitimate relationship model, so I'm more than happy to talk about it and answer questions about it, anytime it's appropriate to do so. If you're reading this, you know someone who is poly, and look, I only have one head!

It's a start.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dare we hope for an "American Autumn?"

So. That's what democracy looks like these days.

For the last eleven days, lower Manhattan has been alive with mass protest; catalyzed by a movement called Occupy Wall Street, this protest is very broad, not so much making specific demands as displaying systemic dissatisfaction with the immense social inequalities plaguing our country at this time. As David Graeber at the Guardian puts it:

We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.

The protestors in New York have inspired sister-actions in Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Chicago, with more being organized in Detroit, Denver, Cleveland, Boston, Phoenix, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.

Naturally, these protests have not been getting much mainstream coverage. Ok, essentially none at all, which should come as a shock to no one. I only became aware of the protests myself two days ago, when police started doing what they do best when the cameras aren't rolling: violently surpressing the protestors. Feminist and social justice blogs are alive with this, and Anonymous, bless their little anarchist hearts, have started going straight for the cops who perpetrate the violence.

Ed called it back in February. There are global stresses and forces at work here, and a groundswell of popular outcry in the United States was inevitable. The question now, it how it will proceed. Will this be another flash-in-the-pan protest campaign that dies because no one hears about it? Or will it escalate, as the corporate technocrats in their panic deploy the dogs and firehoses? It's too early to tell, I think. But the most important thing we can do right now is to spread the word, and join in the protests where we can. Also, if some broad unrest does manage to occur in this most apathetic of nations, the Feds may well respond with the sort of DNS shutdown that Egypt and Iran deployed against their own protestors in the last couple of years. Those protestors were able to circumvent the DNS shutdown by KNOWING THE IP ADDRESSES of key websites, thus:


These addresses were pinged from our apartment in Eugene, OR this morning. They may change, and there may be better servers closer to you if you don't live in the Emerald Empire. To ping your own IPs: enter your command prompt (start->run->type "cmd" for WinXP; start->accessories->command prompt for Win7), and type (for example) "ping" to retrieve the IP address for that server. This command sends a few packets of data to the target server and times how long it takes them to return; usually used to determine the quality of a connection, this command also returns the IP address of the target server. Obviously, since this depends on domain names, the ping command as I have described it won't work if DNS is down, so be proactive! I recommend that you keep a regularly updated list of IP addresses handy!

The revolution will not be televised. Spread the word.

photo: Sam Glewis, h/t to Melissa McEwan

Friday, September 16, 2011

On "The Limits to Growth," by the Club of Rome: were they wrong?

Cover of the 2004 updated edition of The Limits to Growth

Here's a piece of conventional wisdom: chicken little is always wrong. The sky is never falling, and anyone who says otherwise can safely be dismissed as a crackpot. Cassandra's fellow Trojans called her a chicken little, when she said letting in that big wooden horse was a bad idea, because of what would happen after the equine monument was admitted inside the city walls.

Illustration of the conventional wisdom about chicken little: a book called The Limits to Growth, originally published in 1972. The book described the results of a social science research study sponsored by an international think tank called the Club of Rome. The book used systems dynamics models to examine long-term ecological consequences of a continuously expanding global economy. The authors concluded that economic growth would eventually cause a major economic and ecological collapse, for the simple reason that a finite stock of physical resources can't be drawn upon indefinitely.

The Limits to Growth drew immediate, furious denunciation by mainstream economists. Neoclassical economics -- in 1972 and today -- fails to incorporate the physical fact of finite resource quantities into its quantitative models. In essence, neoclassical economic models treat resource supplies as if the supplies were infinite. Economists, and therefore the overwhelming majority of policymakers,  conclude that resources are, in fact, literally infinite. For all practical purposes. The Limits to Growth tried to argue otherwise, and so mainstream attempts to discredit it were ferocious and sustained.

Italian academic Ugo Bardi, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, has written a book (published by Springer) examining the campaign to debunk The Limits to Growth. In the 1970s and beyond, according to Bardi, attacks against the book often boiled down to a simple, clear, compelling argument. The attacks said the book had predicted that quantities of various raw materials would be completely exhausted by the 1980s or 90s -- including gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas. Bardi's account of the attacks contends that The Limits to Growth actually made no such prediction. It simply used certain numbers in a very small segment of the book to illustrate certain technical aspects of number-crunching (having to do with exponential curves). Critics dishonestly took that one segment and deceitfully insisted that the Club of Rome study made predictions that in fact it never made.

Nevertheless, the belief that those predictions were in the book persists to this day, thanks to a sustained campaign of disinformation that created what amounts to an urban legend. According to the legend, The Limits to Growth made ludicrous predictions of imminent raw material depletion, and those predictions never happened. So we can safely consign the Club of Rome's research to the ash heap of history. Everything will be just fine.

Bardi insists that, in reality, The Limits to Growth offered a careful, nuanced study, predicting resource depletion and catastrophic over-pollution to set in sometime during the twenty first century, resulting in a drastic contraction of the world economy and the human population.

Bardi implies that this portrayal is, in fact, being vindicated by events taking place today. Consistent with forecasts of global resource depletion and hyper-polluion, we see climate change (carbon hyper-pollution) accelerating, mass extinction unfolding in the world's ecosystems, and key stocks of raw materials -- including petroleum -- showing early signs of possible strain. Not complete exhaustion, just evidence of an inability to meet market demands in an infinitely growing economy, which is a different  thing altogether.

Bardi has written a brief account of the debunking campaign against the Limits to Growth at

He doesn't offer much guidance, though, on how to convince policy-makers to pay attention. They didn't want to hear about limits to growth in 1972, and nothing has changed in the years since. How to deal with that willful ignorance remains the critical problem. How can we make social institutions based on something other than infinite economic growth a feasible subject for discussion in today's political environment?

For now, we can't. That may change as events continue to bear out the long-ago forecasts in The Limits to Growth.

But for that change to happen, someone will have to transmit a message like Cassandra's, and equally unwelcome. The horse is inside the walls already, and some of the citizens in the city have seen the threat emerging out into the streets, the enemy silently creeping into guard posts and slitting throats. Those who see have shouted warnings, but no one is listening. Or at least no one who matters all that much.

We have to figure out how to change that. How do you be honest about the what's happening, about the scale and horror of it, without causing the listener to shut down and withdraw?

Let us not speak falsely now, for the hour is getting late.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Those Enticing Alternatives...

I tend to avoid discussions of politics, climate change and other hot topics, especially with persons who are passionately tied to their beliefs rather than guided by science and reason. Occasionally, however, I find a rational thinker who is eager to engage in honest discourse, but who has been inundated with corrupted (or at least heavily skewed) data. I was recently sent this Wall Street Journal article by one such person, and I felt compelled to respond. My response will seem quite soft by the standards of this venue -- attenuated, perhaps, by the value I place on my relationship with the sender of the article -- but I thought I'd share it anyway, partly as a means of pushing myself back into some sort of blogging activity, and partly to have an opportunity to explore yesterday's rather off-the-cuff response more thoroughly through readers' comments.

Climate change happens regardless of human activities. In that human activities contribute to the acceleration of such changes to rates that outstrip our abilities to respond appropriately, I continue to believe that it is worth our while to make every effort possible to curb emissions of CO2, CFCs, and other greenhouse gases. Perhaps all such efforts will prove to have been in vain with regard to climate change (either because they were achieved too late or because their targets were insignificant compared to other factors), but in that they will have contributed to making the world a healthier place in which to live, they will not have been truly in vain. Combustion of coal, diesel, ship fuels, heating oils, biomass, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) gasoline, produces airborne pollutants that are probably contributing more to the global burden of cardiovascular disease than all the fatty foods and cigarettes ever consumed (note: global burden -- not individual risk), so if combustion of such pollutant sources is reduced for any reason, whether the reason is bogus or not, I'm all for it.

As for the article... exciting stuff, and probably (I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to particle physics) scientifically plausible (one of the key ingredients to establishing causality in the absence of randomized controlled trials, which are, unfortunately out of the question without access to a decent sized sample of Earth-type planets and a study period of at least several millenia). The response from the scientific community is neither appropriate nor surprising. Science is rarely allowed to proceed as it should -- in an unbiased vacuum -- and scientists rarely behave as they should. Science is typically funded by government entities or corporate powers and they both have their agendas. Even when the scientists are allowed to perform their investigations unhindered and report their findings without censorship, there is always a bias, in that only the scientists who have already declared an interest in a "fundable" field will get funding, while great minds and ideas that seek to explore alternatives are left to wither. As for the implications of this research, well I guess there's not much that can be done about cosmic rays, but there's not really much that can be done to prevent climate change at this point regardless of its cause(s). No matter what humans do, fail to do, or choose not to do, we're likely to see some dramatic climate change over the next several decades (at least), and it would behoove us to start directing efforts and resources towards preparations. The danger that I see in propagation of any theories of climate change that shift the burden of responsibility away from humans is that it is likely to result in widespread environmental irresponsibility. Perhaps it's not entirely honest to state with an air of absolute certainty that humans are solely responsible for global warming-induced climate change, but if enough people can be convinced of it, they may start forcing governments and corporations to take the welfare of the planet seriously and some of the environmental damage that has been wrought since the dawn of the industrial age might be allowed to slowly heal itself.

I'm all for discovery, development, technological progress, etc, but not in the irresponsible manner in which it's been conducted for the past couple of centuries. Of course much of what is now known about the adverse effects of industrialization and high energy consumption was not understood at the time that processes were set in motion, but now that we do have a good idea of what we've done, it's time to clean up our act... and to freely share technology and knowledge across the globe, allowing the developing world to leap-frog over the most destructive phases of development and join us in (what the most optimistic part of me hopes will soon be) a responsible and sustainable existence. So... if a little fear and guilt might possibly help spur progress towards a greener, cleaner, healthier world, with freer sharing of technology, information and resources, I guess I'm generally OK with the possibility that one of the many contributors to climate change might be receiving a little too much emphasis relative to the others. I don't like the idea of filtering or weighting information, but I'm not sure what other options there are. The information is far too complex, and all of it is surrounded by too much uncertainty to expect people to be able to digest it and rationally make decisions based on it. We're dealing with a population of scientifically and mathematically bereft individuals who aren't equipped to employ reason and logic, nor to deal with uncertainty, quantification of uncertainty and relative levels of uncertainty, so decisions end up coming down to who can make the biggest emotional impact on the greatest number of decision makers (voters, congresspersons, shareholders, etc). Climate change is but one of a host of disastrous problems affecting the globe (and perhaps the one about which we can do the least), but it's an easy one around which to rally... and if it can be used to get people to start thinking globally -- to start recognizing themselves as members of a global population rather than citizens of nations, adherents of religions, or employees of corporations -- then let it be the one that gets used.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thinking outside the pump: in praise of a colleague's post

If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend reading Steve's recent post on wood gas generation. It illustrates some core themes that he and I have been trying to develop on this blog, and in our own work in the non-cyber venue known as real life.

Plus, Steve's post is just really strong on the "neat-o" factor. Before reading it, I had no idea what a "wood gas generator" was, or that you could use one to power an internal combustion engine.

To follow-up on his post, I just wanted to offer some visual images of the device Steve is talking about -- I'll get to that in a bit. First, though, some thoughts on visualization and the importance thereof.

After several years of part-time involvement in low-budget local film-making, I have a much stronger appreciation for the usefulness of visual images in making a point. Especially in matters of technology or science. Sometimes, when reading about an unfamiliar technical topic -- like, say, a wood gas generator -- it can be hard for me to wrap my brain around the tangible-ness and real-ness of the thing being described.

I mean, I know intellectually what's being talked about, but I grasp that knowledge in a kind of detached, abstract-ified way. In this case, though, it's very important to understand, viscerally and tangibly, that the device Steve is talking about isn't some sort of airy-fairy, hippie-dippie, impractical thing. It's a totally practical, working invention that's been around for over a hundred years -- and will be needed again very soon in the post-carbon era, along with many other forgotten practices and technologies. Understanding the  physical and technical practicality of these technologies is vital in preparing for our post-carbon future.

Of course, if you read Steve's piece on wood gas generation closely, you should understand what he's talking about just fine. But if it's hard for me, a true believer in the post-carbon cause, to wrap my head around post-carbon technologies, imagine what it's like for the befuddled mainstreamers who have yet to make the conceptual leap to post-carbon thinking. Based on my experience, I would guess that mainstream readers -- hopelessly trapped in the paradigm of corporate-controlled, centrally-run fuel delivery that Steve talks about -- might have at least a vague tendency toward dismissiveness.

It's amazing how often I talk to well-meaning, intelligent people who reflexively assume that anything outside the reality of their daily material life -- such as peak oil and the technological changes connected to it -- is somehow not "real." Hence the tendency to fall back on cliches and catch phrases to dismiss the subject instead of thinking seriously about it. Example: "We all know Malthus was wrong." Example: "Even if you're right that it really is that bad... (translation: you're an alarmist and thus I don't need to take you seriously)."

One of the best ways to counter this sort of dismissiveness is with concrete images. Seeing is believing.

So, lest a peak oil skeptic or a technocratic "business as usual" believer somehow not "get" such notions as a wood gas generator, suspecting that any such device is right up there with unicorns in terms of feasibility, images might help.

This is what a tractor powered by a wood-gas fueled internal combustion engine looks like.


See? It's real. Not like a unicorn at all.

The same is true of peak oil. It's a physical fact of nature. The only question is when it will happen. Mainstreamers choose not to do any in-depth reading on the mounting evidence that "when" = "very soon."

So our communities will very soon need ready-at-hand, off-the-shelf alternative ways of doing things. Like, say, wood gas generators. Here's a Saab in Finland converted to run on a wood gas generator:


Yes, it's not the most elegant-looking contraption. But it is the future. Sleek, Jetsons-style, fusion-powered hover cars are not.

Neither is the Prius, for that matter. Building a Prius depends on finite supplies of (a) rare earth materials for the batteries, (b) petroleum for the plastics components, and (c) metals for much of the rest. Building a Prius uses electricity and supply chains based on finite fossil fuels. So does transporting one to the dealership for sale. So does bringing the goddamn thing to the mechanic on a regular basis to keep it running; the mechanic relies on electricity and materials and supply chains all based on finite fossil fuels. The existence of the Prius is possible only because of energy supplies and materials that are depleting rapidly. And because of gigantic, centrally-administered economic systems (euphemistically called "markets") which are based on those very same disappearing materials and energy sources.

To begin creating the post-carbon technologies of our low-energy future, which will unfold in an utterly alien, superheated, extinction-ravaged biosphere, we have to stop visualizing that future the way Bill Gates and Barack Obama do. Our future will not look just like today's society only powered by gleaming solar panels and wind farms, plus some nuclear plants and (bullshit) clean coal stations.

Nope. The material culture of 2100 will look like the vehicles above. Kind of ungainly, patched together, and run locally -- not by giant, central distribution systems and "economies of scale," which were possible only (yes, only) because of super-cheap, easily exploited, energy-dense fossil fuels.

That was the underlying theme and premise of Steve's post. He was using the example of wood gas generation to show what a different paradigm for a society -- low-energy, low-tech, and decentralized -- might entail in hard, tangible terms of everyday life. This is the point of much of the writing he and I do on this blog. And also of the hectoring, cajoling and pleading we do with people we encounter in our meat-space, non-cyber lives.

So come to post-carbon Jesus already, m'kay? We now take you back to the apocalypse, already in progress.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Power your car on hope and termite farts.

I had a very interesting conversation this week with my blacksmithing instructor, who is one of those people who seems to know a little bit about everything, especially when it come to self-sufficiency. The conversation was about biofuels, and I actually came out of it a little less cynical than I went in, which is a remarkable anomaly for my intellectual adventures in peak oil! In my last post, I attacked the EPA mandate for renewable fuels, particularly ethanol production from corn. I noted that we could convert our entire food supply into biofuel and still not meet our demands. And I was right.

But after talking things over with my instructor, I'm beginning to think that bio-fuels isn't a completely bad idea, is bio-gasoline replacement that's a disaster waiting to happen. Note that every renewable fuels mandate that is getting any press and US Federal support is intended to do one thing: keep major oil companies selling us our fuel at fucking gas stations and making tons and tons of coin. That's it. Keep the Big Oil tit producing the sweet, sweet milk of corporate profits. All of it, the ethanol mandates, the subsidies, the hostility to efficiency requirements that would do the work of BILLIONS of gallons of overpriced moonshine, is intended to keep us shelling out a considerable part of our income to BP, Shell, and Exxon.

The fact that the resource->refinery->central distribution center->local gas station food chain is completely unworkable for anything except crude oil, with its gigantic supply in a handful of locations, doesn't matter, of course. The cardinal rule of mainstream renewable energy initiatives is this: thou shalt not market any technology that eliminates or reduces the amount of money consumers spend on electricity or transportation fuel. Too many fat cats depend on the rivers of money flowing into gas station cash registers and utility companies, fat cats with enough political influence to murder true, household-level energy independence programs in the cradle. So we see the square peg of renewable energy being desperately hammered into the round hole of existing distribution networks; massive wind farms being built and hooked into the Grid where a hundred times as many rooftop windmills that cost 1/10,000th as much could do the same job; massive fields of corn grown to brew ethanol which is then mixed wholesale into petroleum gasoline supplies (making E-5, E-10, and a range of other pseudo-renewable gas hybrid fuels), making it impossible to switch to biofuel entirely, or distribute it locally in a meaningful way. The bureaucrats charged with finding solutions to energy problems are operating in a political space where they must not disrupt or modify the way American consumers acquire the energy they use to power their homes and transportation needs, and under that constraint, truly renewable energy is impossible. You cannot apply systems designed to harvest and distribute the overwhelmingly concentrated energy of petroleum to the much different problem of collecting and conserving relatively diffuse renewable energy source. It's like using a grenade to mow your lawn.

The real renewable energy solution, of course, is a decentralized model of reduce, conserve, and produce. Home-scale technologies that were used for centuries, like wind- and water-mills, will be joined by other innovations, once of which I want to highlight today, not so much because I expect everyone to rush out and build wood-fired cars, but because realizing that such a thing is possible, and requires only that one walk away from the central-distribution model of energy production to become damned obvious, will help us all find solutions to our individual energy problems when the pumps finally, inevitably, run dry.

Wood gas generation: making your own fuel without competing with your own stomach!

Wood gas, or more accurately "producer gas," is a fuel gas produced through the heat-decomposition of organic matter. Basically, one builds a low, smoldering fire, that produces a lot of flammable gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. The smoldering fire does not efficiently burn this gas, the natural combustion of which forms the bright yellow and blue "tongues" of flame that roar above a well-built campfire and produce most of the light (though not most of the heat) of that fire. In a producer gas generator, this flammable gas is pulled off the fire and bubbled through a water column to remove tars and particulates (yes, this is precisely how a bong operates, in fact), and then routes the fuel into a gas turbine or even an internal combustion engine. Conventional gasoline engines can combust producer gas with the same level of modification required for a bio-diesel conversion, which is to say, something that can be done in your own garage for a few hundred dollars if you are fairly handy with tools. This is a solid, 19th-century technology that has been used in fuel shortages before, and is so reliable that FEMA has a design for an emergency producer-gas power station that can be built during a fuel crisis.

Producer gas is sustainable, in that it consumes fresh rather than fossilized organic matter, which also makes it carbon neutral as far as greenhouse gases go; the carbon dioxide produced by the engine was pulled out of the air by the plant whose tissues you're burning in the last ten years or so. Also, unlike the majority of bio-ethanol production schemes, the feed stock for producer gas is not something that can be eaten by humans or domestic animals: wood scraps. These scrap materials are available in great abundance and at low cost, and while there is talk of using them as feedstocks to produce bio-ethanol ("cellulosic bio-ethanol," named after cellulose, the indigestible carbon compound that makes up the majority of wood), such technology is not well-developed and is likely to be less efficient, overall, than gassification of the same scraps. Also unlike the Pay-at-the-pump ethanol scheme, producer-gas rigs are extremely easy to build and fuel at the local level; while building one in their own garages may be beyond a lot folks, it is certainly an industry that any competent small-town auto shop could make into a business model with relatively little fuss. The technology is old enough to be public domain, so Exxon-Mobil isn't going to come along and buy the patent so they can sit on it.

I'm not going to suggest that producer-gas cars are going to solve our transportation problems, far from it; reducing our dependence on motorized transport is a given. In fact, the main point of this post is to point out how truly dubious any solution that includes the concept "business as usual" really is; anybody claiming to be able to "solve" peak oil or climate change at no inconvenience to you is stupid or lying, straight up. Building a town-scale producer gas plant would be a dirty pain in the ass, and would never yield anywhere close to the abundant and easy fuel we have today. But it is an example of the sort of innovative techniques that we as households and communities can apply to dealing with that inevitable down-shift; it doesn't have to be dark ages and wallowing in filth, folks. Just think outside the pump.