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

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.

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