Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Power of Limits

This post came to mind because a commenter over on Crhuncky Chincken was asking "how much water use is 'normal' ? Where should my target be?" - and my own answer was far far from the answers they were finding.

Humans have spent the last couple centuries striving to make life easier and easier. It's been a major goal of the species; the reduction of "drudgery", also called "soul killing drudgery". Lots of philosophical discussion about it; art works, poetry, and everything.
Millet's "Man with a hoe." Soul killing was generally agreed to be bad.

Why chop wood, and carry it inside every hour to keep your children from freezing? Ben Franklin came up with a stove that cut down on the volume- then there was coal- then oil furnaces that didn't have to be stoked- etc. All most 1st worlders ever do now for heat is check the thermostat, and pay a bill. Back when somebody had to GATHER and CARRY the firewood; they were probably a lot more careful about waste.

Same is true with water. In the Little House, we have to CARRY it. So - do the teenagers just let the faucet run while they brush their teeth? Not on your tintype; they scream bloody murder if somebody is wasting water- and they have to carry extra. So- instead of the "normal" 60 gallons a day for 2 people- we use about 15 gallons a day in the summer, for 3. Showers and all. Actually, it just becomes second nature for everyone in the house to not waste water. No arguments. Why would you do that??

Electricity? Plug the new whatever into the wall; pay the bill; it's infinite, right?

If you take a look at my "green principle #2" - it's "Limited power- house electricity has 4 golf cart batteries."

It's NOT AN ACCIDENT that the power system is so limited. We use electricity for :#1 Light; #2 Computers (work) #3 Entertainment (radio; DVDs- sanity maintenance). Those are the priorities; pretty obviously sensible to anyone. There's just not enough power to run a fridge, or a dishwasher, or a washing machine. Acquiring enough solar panels or other sensible generation capacity; and the STORAGE for that energy; would be many thousands of dollars. So; I've got $4K here- what shall we do with it? There's always something more urgent; or more desirable.

My first crop of kids remember kerosene lights; and candles made from deer tallow (yuck! stinky!) When we got solar panels, and A battery, and A fluorescent light bulb for the kitchen/dining room/living room - it was a BIG BIG deal. Wow. No stinky kerosene in the house; no fire hazard; VASTLY more, and better light. What a wonderful thing!

Which of course everyone takes totally for granted these days. You have to LIVE without it to appreciate it (rustic vacations don't really count).

A couple years later- we really needed to have a computer in the house, for my work. So. Money for a) computer, b) more solar panels, c) more batteries. Took a while to get there.

Zowie! Computer. Besides my work, there was sometimes enough power for computer GAMES- a little bit. They were slightly beyond "Pong" at this point; 1984; not much addiction potential.

The reality of solar power; and wind; is that the availability is VARIABLE. It's the nature of nature. 8 sunny days in a row? The batteries are FULL - actually you may be in danger of damaging them unless you use some of it up, or cut the input- you have to DO something. Boiling batteries are not funny - I've done it, and I don't do it any more.

So; we added a TV. Part of that was a conscious parenting decision NOT to keep our kids isolated from the rest of the world. Look, they're already weird enough to their peers- living like this; why should they also be missing all the normal cultural references? Big Bird? What's that? So we plugged them in to Sesame Street. And a few other things.

Inevitably, they discovered - SATURDAY MORNING - CARTOONS. Now there IS addiction potential; those programs are designed to grab and hold kids, from the bottom up. Not healthy. We DID allow a little - Bugs Bunny, for example. But then, when the next show came up; Asinine Mutant Vegetables On Crack At War, or its twin-

The REALITY was there. And easy to present. "You guys NEED to watch AMVOCAW? All your friends do? I understand. Go ahead." "what, really??" "Sure. You just have to remember- if you watch that now- it's using up electricity, right? From the batteries. There won't be enough energy tonight for the lights. Your choice."

It worked. There was nothing distant or incomprehensible about it. The electricity comes from the sunlight. It's stored in the batteries. There are only 4 batteries. That's all there is. They KNEW it. Has it been cloudy for a week? The batteries are low. No TV at all today; we'll read instead. (No problem there.)

You can extrapolate this experience to your own house- and also to the world. The vast majority of 1st worlders have been raised to KNOW that "leisure" and comfort are their absolute right; as it is their right to go out and buy the biggest outboard motor they can, for fun on weekends.

There are no limits in sight. The supply is endless- and the system has been set up to encourage that belief. At the moment, China and India, and everyone else in the developing world is busy buying into this same illusion.

You and I and Al Gore KNOW it's an illusion- but the huge majority of humans DO NOT; and they cannot SEE - the limits. All they can see is that YOU have two SUVs, and they want theirs.

We have to find ways to make the limits tangible; and ways to encourage people to see them; live with them. I think my proposal on energy pricing; where The more you use, the more you pay is a step in that direction. The reason for moving to that kind of pricing is comprehensible; the visible "limit" would be the "annual allowance" of very inexpensive energy. Beyond that; society says you must pay steeper and steeper prices- because- it's a limited resource, and we all know it. It's visible; palpable- accepted.

The problem we must tackle: All our supply systems are designed to work "on demand". Turn it on- the whole world supply of elecricity/water/gas/waste handling/whatever is plugged in and at your command, your majesty.

It's a design guaranteed to CAUSE waste. It cannot fail.

We need to fix this in our own homes, first of all. I've found ways- mostly by just being unplugged from the big delivery systems. There have to be more ways- easier to put in place, more adaptable to cities- etc. We- you and I- need to find them. Put your thinking caps on.

Part of what generated this entry today is my... fan. It's 94°F outside right now; or "10 degrees above suffocation" as we say. There's no breeze today in the Big Woods. It's stifling here. But- the sun is shining brightly; the batteries are nearly full; I've got a little 12VDC fan designed for a boat- and the decision is quick and easy. I need it today; and I can afford it. So the fan is on. (There's even a little added joy from the fact that under these circumstances, the electrons moving the fan blades will be coming directly from the solar panels; no detour through the batteries, and no 10% storage loss- I'm getting discounted wind! Ahh.)

You can bet your little booties I'll turn it off as soon as I get this posted and leave the desk, though.

I'm wondering if ColinAKANIM has a little fan; or is going to get one soon? It's going to be stifling hot in that NY city apartment, if it isn't already. And a little fan can make a huge difference in livability. I bet that solar panel, and battery, he's got - would support SOME fan use.

How do you teach your kids to SEE and honor the limits? How do we get the rest of the world to see?

I think this is all a pretty big deal.


TB said...


I was pondering some related things on my blog just yesterday and ended up at the idea that human behaviour generally just conforms to the constraints placed on it (I came up with personal and social values, education, policy, law and technology). So if you want to change behaviour you need to change the constraints.

What you've done could possibly be viewed as selecting policy and technology which limits available resources and therefore has an effect on behaviour.

But the crucial point is that you've chosen to impose these limitations because of your personal values. There's no way that others are going to do the same thing unless they share your values, or have interests that are somehow aligned with this approach.

My intent here isn't to be critical or negative (in fact I really appreciate the wisdom you share here online) but I just see it as another example of how developing a sustainable, positive society can only succeed if we can influence personal value systems as well as technology, business and government policy.

No wonder there's a controversy about environmentalism being the religion of the 21st century.


Greenpa said...

tb- "There's no way that others are going to do the same thing unless they share your values, or have interests that are somehow aligned with this approach."

I totally agree- in fact with pretty much your whole comment. Which is why I say we need to put our thinking caps on. :-)

There have to be ways. Inverting the engery price - policy- might be one. But we need more.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you. I find it amusing on good days, depressing on darker ones, how slow we are to adjust -- how difficult it is to turn one's thinking to "new" (read: Old) ways of doing things. The idea of not using toilet paper had not occurred to me until it became an item of interest on several blogs, and then I realized I truly could not figure out automatically how one *does* that. Duh.

I have heard from several friends and relatives that my blog is educating them in some ways, and at least one person said, "OK, you persuaded me to buy some cloth grocery bags and sign up for recycling" -- but these are folks who are at least somewhat eco-aware, and it was a fairly Herculean effort for them to make those changes. How much greater the whole world.

We are growing our own food, but then we have to use more water. And meanwhile we have all this stupid lawn, and limited time to chop it up, and we don't want the neighbors to light a burning lawnmower in our front yard ... sigh.

But pay for consumption would be great. Even though we water a lawn, we are well below "average" water consumption on our bill. Change is slow.

Caroline said...

Beautifully said.

I don't know how we're going to teach our kids to see those limits other than by living in a way that shows sensitivity to the fact that there isn't infinite amounts of anything.

One thing we try to do is to eat locally and organically, even though we don't grow anything ourselves (yet). Sure, our food costs a whole lot more - but the hidden costs of cheap food are far higher. Look at the huge issues with food safety (Salmonella! In Veggie Booty!), waste and water pollution, obesity, etc., all caused by industrial-scale agribusiness. What's the cost of that? Far higher than spending bank on real food, I'll wager, but we just keep putting off paying that bill. So we don't go to McDonald's, we don't use paper plates, we don't buy processed crapola. I'm sure when the kids get old enough to want a Happy Meal, we'll have to find a way to make them proud of our decision to forego such things rather than resentful, but it's worth a try.

Anonymous said...

TB, in a way you're talking about the classic conundrum of the Tragedy of the Commons. The biggest tool we have for counteracting that phenomenon in this society is money. Greenpa's suggestion for increased cost of energy with increased usage leverages that tool. There are so many other ways to leverage it. I was thinking on my bike yesterday (do my best thinking there, despite almost being killed about every 30 seconds) about the conversation on No Impact Man's site about coltran and the problem of E-waste (check it out if you have time - a very interesting discussion.) We have bottle deposits, right? And even if the people drinking the drinks don't turn the bottles in, homeless people dig through the trash to find them (a sub-optimal solution to be sure, but the stuff gets out of the waste stream.) What if we were required to put a bottle deposit on our cell phones? Something significant, like $50? You can be sure people would turn them in for proper disposal, and would probably buy them less often as well. And for the people who can afford to throw out $50, they're buying at least two good nights' sleep for a homeless guy.

This is all by way of saying, that's one of the really important functions of government - to impose limits that counteract the Tragedy of the Commons. I agree with you that we need to influence value systems as well as law, but my perception (wrong?) is that historically, the Tragedy of the Commons is a pervasive problem, and so far hasn't been changed by individuals. Jared Diamond has some interesting things to say about that in Collapse, which I found to be incredibly informative and well-researched.

I'd be really curious to hear if anyone knows about an individually-driven solution to the Tragedy of the Commons that has worked on a large scale.

Anonymous said...

So, I'm an environmental educator right now, but I'm going to get my teacher certification and become a formal educator soon. I have big plans for my classroom. I want kids to get so used to certain things (like say a worm bin) that bring those practices home or into other classes. I'm pretty excited! And if anyone has good ideas that are reasonable for a classroom you should totally send them my way! I'm already starting a list!

Anonymous said...

Okay, so I'm becoming a HUGE fan of your blog, and while I know some things about being green, there's a whole lot more that I don't. Would you please consider writing a post of ideas for inner city dwellers below the poverty line? LOL! Just get the brain-storming started, and I'll try to catch up! There are a lot of ideas I like, but they seem to take $$$ to get started initially.... (((((HUGS))))) sandi