12-3 ideas

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.3 (Summer 2012)


bright ideas



Redefining Energy: From “Juice” to Functional Collaboration  

There are certain repeated themes in this journal, and I think one of the most important is this.  Most contemporary Americans think of energy as a discrete resource necessary to power discrete technologies.  The juice and the hardware, you might well say.  The hardware conveys people or mows lawns or keeps food chilled, and the juice makes the various motors purr.  Some of the juice can actually be placed in a receptacle and transported.  It has mass and volume.  Other kinds are more ethereal—which seems to be why so many naïve people believe that electric cars run for nothing.  Their juice comes out of a wall socket that magically sucks force out of sheetrock.  As the rest of us know, even electricity ultimately reduces to so many tons of coal or so many million gallons of falling water.  You can put the coal, at least, in a hopper car, so that would bring us back to viewing our energy requirements as X containers needed to make Y gadgets run for Z minutes.  Quantities versus quantities.

What the discussions in this journal have emphasized that stands out to me is how energy supply is also convertible to type of use.  Solar energy is by far the most obvious example of what I mean.  If we begin in the tired old assumption that we have Y gadgets to move and need X units of juice to run them through the day, then the sun’s energy requires an elaborate—and, as yet, uninvented—conversion system to put it economically and reliably “in the tank”.  But the sun has been used to power another kind of operation for a much longer time, and no conversion was needed: growing fruits and vegetables (and, indirectly, feeding livestock).  If we were to concentrate on using solar energy as it has always been “used” by Mother Nature, then we could save a tremendous amount of power.  As several of Praesidium’s authors have suggested, food products could be grown abundantly all around the typical suburban dwelling with just a few simple adaptations.  I discovered this over the past three months on my patio.  A piece of plywood, a few sacks of soil from Home Depot split open on top of this, then a thin wire frame with a clear plastic very like sandwich wrap stretched across it: this creates the perfect hothouse.  I have been able to grow vegetables this Spring almost effortlessly that I haven’t been able to nurse out of the ground for years, thanks to our recent droughts in the South.  By this fall, I expect to have saved probably $100 at the grocery store, even including the cost of the bagged soil… and I’m just beginning, with a space of about 21 square feet.

Imagine what a more developed backyard operation could do—from a few hundred dollars to perhaps several thousand dollars.  How does this impact our energy problem?  It reduces our trips to the grocery store; it reduces the distance and frequency of hauling foodstuffs to distributors; it reduces the fuel consumed by farm equipment in raising wide acres of the things we eat; and it should also save water as well as gas and oil, because the more advanced gardener (as I hope to become) will gather and save rainwater instead of running the hose all during the summer.  I have seen how mega-farms water their produce during the critical hot months, and it’s the perfect illustration of a wasteful scattergun approach.  Water will become an increasingly rare resource as this century proceeds—far rarer and more precious than gas by mid-century in some places.  Yet, as the Gospels say, the rain falls on good and bad alike.  It’s there for the taking, if we will only take it.

If it sounds like the above scheme would drive some farmers and haulers out of business—and maybe even some grocers—well, it probably will.  Cars drove horse-breeders out of business.  The interstate highway system destroyed passenger trains.  Multifunctional communities where people can walk everywhere are bad for car salesmen and gas stations.  But a proliferation of gardeners would also be good for stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot; and, as Praesidium’s contributors have written, a society in which citizens returned to growing a lot of their food would be one where fewer jobs and less pay would be required for the general welfare.

I know that commentators like Rush Limbaugh (whom I often listen to, I don’t mind confessing) tend to define conservatism in terms of an ever more artificial, technologically dependent existence that produces new jobs (or at least new kinds of job: high-tech severely depletes the overall number of jobs at its pyramid’s higher reaches) at an ever greater rate.  I have never understood this brand of conservatism.  I cannot understand it, at any rate, as conservatism.  It has us growing more and more dependent on situations beyond our control, living less and less healthily, feeling more and more frustrated because we must become more like our machines to succeed, and having less and less wealth in purely natural resources until we finally face the dreaded empty tank.  The better way to look at the total energy picture would be to identify what we need and what we want, then gently mold our existing habits around the most natural and inexpensive (in every sense) way to obtain those desired products.

One more example: everyone in suburbia has to mow grass during the summer.  Lawnmowers are all gas-guzzlers, and their pollution rate per gallon of gas is truly frightful.  I myself get headaches from walking behind the exhaust fumes for an hour.  Few enough of us even do the walking, though everybody seems to be a little more exercise-conscious now than thirty years ago.  Many people will ride their costly gas-guzzler around for an hour, then hit the exercise machine indoors for a few minutes before a shower.  My brother-in-law has suggested a kind of bike-mower.  The user would be reclined almost supine so as to get maximal force out of his legs and stomach muscles, and his hands would guide the steering bar.  The blade, attached to the bike’s sprockets along with the wheels, would of course work like a big fan.  A conventional mower or edger would probably be needed to trim around the tight curves and corners, but most of the yard could be done in this way.  Gas would be saved, pollution reduced, the noise level of Saturday afternoons mercifully diminished, and the homeowner’s health robustly improved.  Two discrete routines married into one, with the result being more energy-independence, health, and happiness (for the routine malfunction of lawnmowers is a seasonal source of unhappiness around my house): what could be better than that?

We need a new word for this kind of conservatism, and I’m not sure what it would be; but it would extend into our private lives the fiscal responsibility and desire for personal freedom that I see animating the country from a number of directions.  Living in an ever broader chaos of gas- and electricity-powered boxes, pads, and chariots is neither progress nor conservation, to my way of thinking.  I hope Praesidium continues to champion this cause.   ~   J.D.


Resisting the “Progress” from Animal Farm to Ant Farm

I was heartened by the above submission and want to append a few comments suggested to me by J.D.’s excellent observations.  My son, for a brief while, thought that he might wish to major in something nebulously called Urban Planning when he gets to college in another year.  We did a little research… and to my dismay, I began to see with ever greater clarity that this major suffers from the same two fatal flaws as undermined the “discipline” in which I earned my doctorate—Comparative Literature: 1) an absence of substantive definition, and 2) a distinct tendency (nourished by its murky identity crisis) to veer into Far Left ideology.  Urban Planning programs often house courses in Multicultural Studies, for instance: they appear to share more with avant-garde Sociology departments than with Architecture.  The best of them indeed have respectable Engineering components; but these best are far from a statistical plurality, at least in my superficial survey.

And when one comes to think about it, even in the context of the most rigorous and substantive programs… what are the bedrock assumptions, the unquestioned priorities, within this grand idea of planning our cities?  We Americans most certainly have not planned our population centers, for the most part: that much is painfully obvious.  Surely we could profit from looking before we sprawl.  Yet is there not a distinctively, repugnantly elitist notion in this new “field” of producing an entire environment where future generations will prosper and be happy?  What kind of prosperity, and what kind of happiness?  Before our grandchildren are locked into Disneyworld by tenured professors at Berkeley and Princeton, shouldn’t we have the right to ask them who conferred cartoonist-creator status upon them, and who crushed our descendants up to be their colored ink?  Shouldn’t our descendants themselves have that right before they are sketched into caves for Seven Dwarves or palaces for Sleeping Beauties?  What if they don’t want to live around a big plaza just because they’re latino or to have minarets rising all around them just because they were born into the designated Muslim section?

To me, the “big idea” must be Home Planning, not Urban Planning; and, to the extent that one home may impact a whole neighborhood, then Neighborhood Planning… but lifestyle decisions must never be wrested from the hands of individuals and placed upon the drafting board of social engineers (or even civil engineers).  Technology has been shaping us into human ant farms long enough.  It has reached a level of sophistication where we can now demand to be freed and equipped for unique nest-building projects.  It is no doubt more convenient for the machine that we should all behave as one: the problem then has far fewer variables.  But it is inconvenient for us to be reduced to uniformity any further for technical convenience.  Our innovations are worth less than nothing—are hellacious instruments of torture—if they cannot be brought to heel and made to serve us as human beings, now that the Industrial Revolution is long past and any dope with an iPhone may publish breaking news all around the world in seconds.

A mass of kitchen scraps incubated on the back porch in 21 square feet of sandwich wrap is a step in the right direction.  I would like to see the day when the house itself is constructed to meet basic energy needs rather than to defy nature and then require a daily cataract of energy in its ongoing battle.  Elementary state-of-the-art insulation is hard enough to find in American homes (though more readily found there, no doubt, than in any other homes around the world).  My own home, for instance, is near a university campus; consequently, at certain times of year, I can only sleep by boarding up the bedroom windows, plugging my ears, and turning on a loud fan.  Why does my house not have subterranean bedrooms, where all such problems would be completely solved—and where the occupants, furthermore, could sleep in the secure knowledge that a prowler might gain entry to their lair other than through one well-bolted door?  Families would be safe and sound all through the night, and heating or cooling would be supremely easy for those eight hours in a setting with no outward exposure.  Fires, by the way, burn up rather than down.  They follow air currents.

That’s just one adjustment—and hardly an innovation, since the cellar has been around for a while, I believe.  Our ancestors (and J.D. mentions the South, where this knowledge is especially in evidence among old homes) also knew how to cool above ground without heavy-duty machinery.  They constructed thin and high, with plenty of open windows on the top floor and lots of stairwells to create currents.  In my part of the nation, the most popular floor plan seems to be the so-called ranch house, which could not possibly treat the lessons of antebellum architecture with more contempt.  In some of the hottest zones on the national map, we use designs that require a maximum of expensive air-conditioning.  Do we need cheaper energy to address such situations, or more brain-power?

Being neither architect nor engineer, I cannot venture much farther upon these suggestions without grossly exceeding the tight bounds of my competence.  I do wish, however, that my son might major in something like Domain Planning: a new field which would ponder the householder’s entire piece of property and find various alternatives to enhance his independence—in as many ways as possible—from the intrusive, regimenting agents of the Ant Farm.

And I should be very happy indeed to see this space devoted to such solutions.   ~   J.R.H.