Friday, 27 February 2009

Future perfect

The article I wrote for the American Conservative last August, "Future Perfect," has been reprinted on Energy Bulletin, for those who are interested. I highly recommend Energy Bulletin in general -- it is one of the few sites I ritually check every morning, a clearinghouse of the genuinely important news.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A few notes on solar power

Say "solar power" and everyone thinks of photovoltaics, and investing in these would be a boon to the world -- we would live in a different planet now if most people did that back in the 1970s, when we had used up a sixth of the world's oil rather than half.

No matter how much we think we know the advantages of solar, it's useful to run through them again -- unlike oil, coal or peat, solar energy is not diminished by its harvesting; no matter how much we take today, there is still the same amount left tomorrow. Every day, enough energy falls on the Earth’s surface to supply all our energy needs for four to five years.

Unlike most sources of electricity, they use no fossil fuels and create no greenhouse gas emissions, beyond the panels’ initial manufacture, and an average home-sized solar panel will save 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year from adding to climate chaos.This does not even count the additional solar power we receive from wind, waves or rain into rivers, any of which can also generate electricity.

One potential problem with photovoltaics is that they require exotic metals that must be mined and shipped around the world, and whose supply might be limited. Even if we encounter supply problems with these, however, there are still Stirling engines, which really deserve their own article. Stirling engines focus the sun's rays with mirrors on a target, usually to boil water to power a turbine the way a nuclear plant does.

One of the simplest ways of using solar power requires no technology at all -- you merely face your doors and windows south (or north in the Southern Hemisphere), or build a conservatory, and let the sun warm your home. Some European villages were sometimes built this way, all facing the same direction, and while it looks strange at first to our eyes, the sense of it sinks in soon enough.

Creating hot water with the sun is almost as simple; glass or plastic boxes on your roof house darkly-coloured water pipes, and the water warms naturally.

A report last year from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety found that Europe could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent if everyone switched over to solar power -- and that includes countries like Ireland or Finland, where it is often said that solar power is not feasible. They also noted that the cost of collecting solar thermal energy equivalent to one barrel of oil is often less than the price of oil these days -- although that jumps around from week to week -- and is likely to go down further as demand increases and technology improves.

I don't want us to talk about "clean energy" as a blanket solution for everything; for example, they do not generate liquid fuels. But much of the world's electricity comes from fossil fuels, and clean energy could free up the remaining oil and gas for other things we might need -- driving for a little while longer, until we can make other arrangements. Buses and trains after the peak. Tractors for a while longer, until we can forge or breed alternatives. Manufacturing, including manufacturing solar panels, until someone finally creates a solar-powered solar-panel factory.

Photo: A Stirling Engine, via WikiCommons.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Ran out of good

I have a long ride home from Dublin on the bus every night, and the Girl is always happy to see me. Tonight she was feeling restless and contrary, however, even though she had been well-behaved all day.

“Sweetie, I need you to be good just a little bit longer,” I said.

“But I ran out of good,” she said seriously. “All the good ran out of me, and all the badness ran in.”

Photo: Another water picture: the Girl standing next to the canal locks near our home.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Neil Postman

I was just thinking of writing something about Neil Postman, and here Rod Dreher posts about him this morning.

I've admired Postman since I was a teenager, and think every young person should read his books before plunging too deeply into a virtual world. He was one of the world’s great noticers – to use David Foster Wallace’s metaphor, he wanted us to be aware of the water we swim in.

Postman's central idea, after Marshall McLuhan, was that the media shapes the message. Stories -- including the stories that tell us where we came from and where we are in the world -- are different when they are told around a campfire vs. when they are symbols in a book, vs. when they are digitally morphed on a screen.

In his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that, for its first 150 years, the United States was a print society -- the first presidents would probably not have been recognized had they walked down the street. Their images were not important, but their words and ideas were. Lincoln and Douglas spoke to farmers for hours in summer fields, using oratory that, when transcribed, creates far more complex prose than what we silently read today.

In the age of television, Postman notes, (he died as the Internet was just coming into its own) everything -- politics, religion, life -- is presented as entertainment, and we are often passive spectators. We cannot remember the words of most leaders, except as sound bites, but our presidents have been handsome, even movie stars. William Howard Taft and Abraham Lincoln could not be presidents today.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman noted that childhood itself is a concept that was little-used in oral cultures; the young were trained how to live, but they were not educated in the sense we think of today. Childhood was an invention of the printing press, that time after infancy and before full adulthood when people learned to read, and to be familiar with the things everyone thought ought to be read. In the 1600s through the 1900s, people believed children to be innocent, set up separate games and places for them, dressed them in clothes very different than those worn by adults. Today, he said, all these things are changing -- children are assumed to be more adult, and adults more childlike.

He did not hate or shun technology, even though one of his last books was entitled Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. He allowed that television takes and gives -- overt hatred, he believed, looks silly on television, and has declined.

Rather, he understood that, when we use a single window on the world, we forget what lies outside the boundaries. We tend to ignore the parts of the world that are not Googlable, bored by the forms of democracy and piety that have not become vaudeville.

I think about that when I see each new kind of writing – e-mail, Facebook, texting – become less like epistles and more like semaphore. They are not inherently bad – I’m writing this blog post on the Internet – but I want people to find a balance, keep technology in the appropriate place, and retain the capacity for prose.

Sunday, 15 February 2009


Almost everyone in the Western world today grew up with electricity, taking for granted the enormous power – and danger – right behind the wall socket. Almost all electricity comes from massive, centralized power plants, and most of that from fossil fuels.

There are several reasons that can’t last. The supply of fossil fuels themselves may decline soon. Burning fossil fuels is causing increasingly freakish weather around the world. Any breakdown or attack could eliminate power to millions of people, as happened in blackouts in America. And, of course, sending electricity through power lines is inherently wasteful – much electricity is lost in transmission.

But electricity will be a particularly important thing for future generations to maintain, even if casual air travel and personal high-speed fuel vehicles were to become impractical. For one thing, many modern medicines require refrigeration, as does the biological research that will be needed to produce vaccines for future diseases.

For another, most of the knowledge of human history is now preserved on computer servers, and much of the best new writing is on computers only – blogs, online publications and so on. If the electricity were ever to go out, future archaeologists would be left with a strange gap in our civilization when few writings or family photos appeared, for everything existed as ones and zeroes.

The alternative is to transmit small amounts of power near where it’s used, in each home and town. Clean forms of energy – wind turbines and solar panels – naturally lend themselves to this, and such distributed sources would reduce waste and protect us against major breakdowns. Of course, we could each have our own solar panels and wind turbines, but the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing, so our grids can help us distribute power from where it is being generated to where it is needed.

One important change, already in practice in some parts of the world, is reverse-metering: making sure that homeowners are paid when their windmills or panels generate excess electricity. That power, fed back into the grid, can be a source of income for many people, and would provide an extra motivation to get clean energy.

Water wheels are a source of power that could be much more widely used. There are waterwheels in this area that were once used as grain mills, and then went to being tourist attractions – but they could be put back into service, keeping our homes lit.

The world’s first commercial tidal power generator opened last year in Northern Ireland, the prototype of what builders hope will be a chain all along the seacoast, and was expected to power up to 1,000 homes in the area.

Then there are sources of additional power – not major methods of generating electricity, but ways of getting more out of every nook and cranny. We can generate electricity with bicycles, as researchers at Dublin City University demonstrated on RTE radio recently. According to that programme, a gymnasium in Taiwan is now cutting its electricity bills this way – as the members ride the exercise bicycles, they help run the lights and air conditioning.

Designers refurbishing Natuurcafe La Port train stations in the Netherlands recently came up with another creative idea: they are now generating some of their station’s power from the turning of the revolving doors.

Texas professor Tahir Cagin investigates piezoelectrical energy, electricity generated from motion, which some researchers hope will power mobile phones from sound waves. The East Japan Railway Company is putting such technology to use in a different way – putting it in the floor of the rail station, and generating electricity from the feet of pedestrians.

Finally, there are hundreds of millions of used cars in the world, many of whose parts will rust as junk. Their alternators were made to turn rotational wheel motion into energy, and with the addition of a few blades, they could be made into a hundred million small windmills.

Most links obtained courtesy of Chris Leyerle's admirable Hydrovolts blog, which you really should read.

Saturday, 14 February 2009


All of us live in homes that are dependent on larger systems to operate: electrical grids, heating and plumbing. Most of our homes require large amounts of energy to run, which we burn fossil fuels to acquire. We also have all kinds of waste products – tires, soda cans – that fill up landfills, never to be used again.

A few decades ago, however, one American began to think through, meticulously, how many of these problems could solve each other. Michael Reynolds called his solution the Earthship, a home built to be as efficient and self-sufficient as possible, using mostly free materials that are either natural or recycled.

To maintain a constant temperature, Reynolds planned for his Earthship homes to be surrounded by earth on three sides, usually built into hillsides. As the weight of a hill would make straight cement walls unstable, Reynolds created walls made of earth-filled tires, curved to allow the hill’s pressure to dissipate around the structure.

Tires turned out to be an inspired choice for building material – there are more than two billion old tires in the world, they do not biodegrade naturally, but they do hold earth well, and a wall of connected tires covered with a plaster can be very sturdy, earthquake-resistant and fire-resistant.

Reynolds also designed the top of the structure to catch rainwater to use for the household, and the buried sides to insulate the house. Other spaces around the front can be made with cement – but Reynolds likes to use old soda cans as filler, to make the structures lighter and to save money buying cement.

On the south face of the Earthship, Reynolds placed large windows under an overhanging roof, letting the low sun into the house in the winter when it’s most needed, and keeping the high sun out during the summer when it’s needed least. All day, the sun warms the interior walls and floor of the Earthship, which release the heat slowly over the cold night. Inside the front windows Reynolds recommends growing useful plants indoors, which can supply food and herbs and soak up wastewater from the sink and bath.

The effect of all this is a home that anyone can build themselves, using readily available materials, and that will stand up to time and the elements.
The Earthship concept grew by word-of-mouth, and now there are Earthships – using very little energy and largely off-the-grid – in almost every state of the U.S. England just saw its first Earthships a few years ago, and the first Irish Earthship is set to begin construction soon.

If you are considering building a home yourself, look into the Earthship design – check out Michael Reynold’s books, Earthship I, II and III, or Google “Earthship,” and consider learning more about this ingenious method.

Photo used with permission of Gaia Engineering.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

John Seymour

One thing I forgot to mention about the Feile (post below): when the great Davie Philip spoke before the audience of 200 or so, he mentioned knowing John Seymour. I know Davie, but I had no idea he knew John Seymour, and later I found they had been arrested together in an environmental protest, when Davie was in his 30s and Seymour in his 80s.

Seymour, who died a few years ago, was a remarkable man -- we own many of his books on self-sufficiency, and would recommend them to almost anyone. He had been a sea captain, lived with Bushmen in the Kalahari, fought in World War II and finally settled in County Wexford, just south of us. He wrote the definitive works on self-reliant living, and was a "back-to-the-land" advocate when it was least fashionable, only later acquiring admirers in the then-tiny environmental movement. He reminded me of an Irish Wendell Berry, but instead of Berry's beautiful essays and poetry, he wrote step-by-step manuals that had their own utilitarian beauty.

He fits almost perfectly the "crunchy conservative" label -- traditional, populist and courteously radical. He died just before we arrived here. I wish I had met him.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Greens in the halls of power

I finished my article for Green Horizons magazine, and have permission to publish an excerpt here. The article traces the first 18 months of Ireland's Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, which became part of the ruling coalition here in mid-2007 after forging an alliance with the largest and most conservative party.

... Many Greens had hoped that the mid-2007 election would be their breakthrough year. It was the first election since issues like peak oil and climate change, long derided as fringe issues, percolated into the mainstream. It was only the second election of the Celtic Tiger, which transformed the previously agrarian backwater into a prosperous nation. It also came after widespread dissatisfaction with the dominant Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall) party – the party’s leader, Bertie Ahern, was under investigation for corruption, and had to step down shortly after the election.

At first, though, the election changed little. Fianna Fail held control with 45 percent of the Dail (Irish Congress, rhymes with boil), while the Greens held only four percent. One thing that did change, however, was that Fianna Fail’s old coalition partner lost most of their seats, and FF needed a new ally to have a majority. Armchair politicos put minor parties together like jigsaw pieces to create new alliances, but FF reached out to the Greens, and after days of tough negotiations, the Greens approved the deal.

... The Greens also got several reforms out of the deal. Shortly after attaining power, they received a quick commitment on climate change from the Irish government. Agriculture Minister Trevor Sargent, formerly the head of the GP, said that “smart metering” is being implemented in a pilot programme to 21,000 homes – an infrastructure change that will both save energy and pave the way for replacing centralized power plants with a network of solar, tidal and wind power generators.

Building codes have also changed radically in Ireland. “It has long frustrated people who understood that we weren’t going to heat our homes well under old codes in a world with less energy,” Sargent said. “We have instituted much stricter energy-saving standards, and we have cancelled developments that didn’t meet these standards, that ordinarily would have gone through.”

Sargent, perhaps the only world leader to ride his bicycle to work every morning, said he is particularly proud of the new government’s commitment to organic food and Farmers’ Markets – the government’s new policies, he said, will increase organic food production 500 percent by 2012.

The magazine, with the rest of the article, should be out by spring.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Feile Bridhe

It is said that the future is already here, just not widely distributed yet. It might be the one person on your block who is growing a Victory Garden, the business down the street that switched to solar, the farm that is stockpiling the world’s last seeds of some useful strain of plant, the schoolchildren who are raising money for pen-pals their age in Rwanda. There are millions of people around the world, each with their own jigsaw piece, and on days like today in Kildare town, dozens of them come together at once.

Today was the culmination of Feile Bridhe (FEY-la BREED), the Festival of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s most beloved icons. Known for helping the poor and standing up to authority, Brigid became a leader in the Irish Catholic Church back when it was largely independent of the Pauline Romans – when they took over, one stops seeing records of female leaders. She founded Kil-dara (Church of the Oak Tree) Abbey some 1,600 years ago, and for more than a thousand years it was a major centres of learning for Ireland and, during the Dark Ages, the world. Its ancient tower, which was being erected as Rome was falling, still stands outside of town – now behind the Starbucks.

The whole town has been celebrating Feile Bridhe with dozens of little festivities – solemn pilgrimages to Bridhe’s Well outside of town, Irish musicians and dancing, school plays and pageants. Today’s event, though, was the annual conference put on by the Irish charity group Afri.

Afri was founded in 1975 to help poverty in the Third World, said director Joe Murray, but in the 1980s turned its attention to the local causes of global poverty. For years they have organized a march to remember the Irish Famine and to call attention to global famine in Africa. In 1993 Afri hosted the first Feile Bridhe, which Murray said was supposed to be one-off event, but was so successful that it has continued to the present.

This year’s Afri conference brought together local organisations with global organizers, about 200 people all told, into the Derby Hotel in Kildare town. Frida Berrigan -- daughter and niece of Catholic priests and activists Daniel and Phillip Berrigan - started off the speakers, and her dense, fascinating speech brought to life the world of the global arms trade, a world we rarely see covered in the media. Expanding on the same theme was native Irishman and former UN official Dennis Halliday, who oversaw the “Oil for Food” programme in Iraq in the Clinton years and left in protest, becoming a sharp critic of the U.S. federal government’s policy in Iraq under Democrats and Republicans alike.

The event brought these well-known figures together with local leaders. I was able to meet Anita and Tommy Hayes, the founders of Irish Seed Savers, whose organization in County Clare is like a global Noah’s Ark of plants. I've visited their land a number of times -- I took a course there two years ago, learning how to build in cob -- but had never met them in person.

Also speaking was Davie Philip of the Dublin-based group Cultivate, which is creating a six-million-euro eco-village in County Tipperary. Jackie Bourke, founder of the Irish organisation Playtime, had a booth about schools growing edible gardens, which teach children horticulture and supply healthy food as well. On a less serious note, Ireland’s resident celebrity chef Richard Corrigan demonstrated how to make a healthy meal fast using only local products.

Various people spoke about the Transition Town movement, a global network of towns planning for a world after peak oil and climate change. The movement began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005, and there are now Transition Towns in 14 countries, including New Zealand, Chile, Italy and Japan. Kildare Town became one of the latest Transition Towns last year.

Finally, it was time for my group, FADA, to take the stage, and we did something a little different. My colleagues broadcast a news programme from the year 2020, a mockumentary tour of the area from twelve years on if FADA and similar groups accomplish our goals. One member, for example, described St. Stephen's Green in Dublin much as it is now, but with the old electric streetcars restored, Farmers' Markets returned to the area, the Green turned into vegetable farms that fed much of the city, and more bicycles on the roads than cars.

The point was that such changes would require only incremental, attainable changes with no need for new technology, and would leave Stephen's Green (or whereever) looking similar to the way it looks now -- but would turn it into a much more sustainable urban centre, generating massive amounts of food for the city while using little energy. Such skits can give audiences a wholesome, sanguine image of the future we are working toward, and help them see how tantalizingly close it is.

Photo: The road into Kildare at sunset.

Thursday, 5 February 2009


I really try to post every day, but Ireland had a small emergency this week. It's not the banking crisis, or a Ukrainian-style fuel shortage, or wildfires, or earthquakes. Instead, it's snowing.

Snow is rare in Ireland -- we get it a few times a winter, I take pictures, and then it goes away. We are as far north as Labrador in Canada, where until recently polar bears lived, but the Gulf Stream bathes the island in waters from the Caribbean. It doesn't feel like the Bahamas by the time it gets up here and sprays you over the rocks, but it is warm enough to keep our island always cool and misty, never hot and never cold.

In the last few days, however, it has snowed heavily, traffic slowed to a crawl past roadside accidents, and my bus ride from my job in Dublin, which ordinarily takes 50 minutes one-way, took four hours Tuesday night.

Four hours on the bus. One way. That was the extreme, but I feel like I haven't been doing anything but working, sleeping, and sitting on the bus. And trying to finish an article for an American magazine. Oh, and when I came home, there was no heat-- our boiler had begun to leak carbon monoxide, so we shut it off. The Girl just took it in stride and snuggled up with a hot-water bottle and what she called her "emergency toe blankets," her socks.

These events drove home for me how we deal with change, based purely on what we consider normal. Ireland’s temperate climate is one reason the land is so lush and green, the reason we can still harvest vegetables through the winter. Rural people here are a hardy bunch, and many people still possess a simplicity and self-reliance that we are trying to emulate – but they are no more prepared for Arizona or Labrador than they are for snakes.

Minnesota regularly receives twenty times more snow than Ireland received this week, and everyone goes on as normal, putting neon softballs on their car antennae so cars can see each other over the man-high snowbanks. Commuters, elderly, charities, city managers and shopkeepers expect there will be snow at some point, and they have thought through what they will do when it happens, and when it happens they activate their emergency plans and go on as normal.

Similarly, the Irish summer “heatwave” of 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit) leaves people panting and red-faced, and people don’t believe that we ran track in 40 degrees (100 F) or more. I explain that, before air conditioning, families in my hometown spent summer nights sleeping on the porch or on the grass of a nearby field, had ceiling fans, used water holes, and daubed their heads with cool cloths, and life went on.

People can adapt to many circumstances, from the Kalahari to the Arctic, and this gives me some confidence that we will survive, as a species, the coming climatic changes. My priority is to get most of us there without a die-off, keeping as much of the natural world intact as possible, and keeping alive the knowledge we have today.

Preparing for the future can require some new infrastructure – the government could have had a fleet of snow ploughs ready, or residents could have had snow tires – but how much money do we want to spend buying and maintaining things that might never be used? We can’t be Batman, always having the right thing on his utility belt for whatever the episode required – each of us only has so much time and money.

Much of the preparation people need, though, is internal: the fewer expectations we have and the more contingencies we are prepared for, the less disoriented we are when things change. I expect that most of the accidents on the road could have been avoided if more people had some idea how to drive in snow. In the same way, people I know who foresaw a global storm ahead were least shocked when it began, and were the least affected.

The more settled people are – the more they assume the presence of money and Internet access and the absence of disease and riots, for example – the more unsettled they will be when these things change. I read that during the Great Depression in America or the post-Soviet collapse in Russia, it was middle-aged men, settled into a stable life, who most succumbed to distress and suicide, while others adapted.

Perhaps this is why this economic crisis has affected different acquaintances of mine differently. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of this crisis, or claiming that one can prepare for anything in a few voluntary steps. I am saying that friends of mine who grew their own food, had backup energy, lived close to work, cooked for themselves, picked weeds for dinner or fished hour-old cuisine from restaurant bins found their lives little changed after hundreds of billions evaporated from Wall Street.

None of knows exactly what will come in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that the simpler your life is now, the less likely you are to be affected if fuel shortages, depression and freak weather enforce an involuntary simplicity on your neighbours. My hope is that such people also are mentally preparing to be leaders, to spring into action when their neighbours need them.

Top photo: Snowfall at night in Dublin. Bottom photo: a horse and carriage outside my office during a lull in the snow.