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Thinking Outside the Grid

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

by Guest Author Steven Gorelick

Gorelick comments: "About 10 years ago I wrote something for our local food coop’s newsletter, and it touches on our home energy use. Even though IBM is no longer running “smarter planet” ads and LED lights have superceded CFLs, everything else in it still feels current." Yes, this subject is very current, especially to Californians, who are now facing a future of frequent electrical blackouts.

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine published a book called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save The Earth. It described the huge environmental benefits that would result if everyone made some simple adjustments to their way of life. Six hundred thousand gallons of gas could be saved every day, for example, if every commuter car carried just one more passenger; over 500,000 trees could be saved weekly if we all recycled our Sunday newspaper; and so forth. The book was immensely popular at the time, at least partly because it was comforting to know we could “save the Earth” so easily.

Just recycle!

Unfortunately, the projected benefits of these simple steps were actually insignificant compared to the scale of the problems they addressed. Saving 600,000 gallons of gasoline sounds impressive, but it’s only about 1/1,000 of daily fuel consumption in this country. Half a million trees every week sounds like a lot too, but the sad fact is that about 1.5 acres of forest are being lost every second, despite all the Sunday papers that are now routinely recycled.

50 Simple Things is no longer in vogue (you can buy a copy online for 1 cent), but its core assumption – that our most urgent crises can be solved by tinkering around the edges of modern life – is as popular as ever. An insert in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth DVD, for example, suggested fighting climate change by recycling more, inflating tires to the proper pressure, using less hot water, and several other equally “simple things”. (If you’ve seen The Economics of Happiness, you’ve seen this insert: it’s the list of “individual steps” we panned down.)

If there’s been much of a change in mainstream attitudes to our environmental crises, it’s that today’s “solutions” rely much more heavily on technology – hybrid cars and compact fluorescent light bulbs, clean coal and genetically-engineered biofuels. What this means is that while individuals are still directed towards those same small, simple steps, it’s Big Business that will take the big leaps. As the advert for the German corporation Siemens puts it in the film, “industry is ready for the green revolution.”

Ready for the green revolution.

Listeners to public radio in the US have probably heard a similar sentiment from underwriter IBM, which claims to be “building a smarter planet” (a slogan that suggests a naturally dimwitted Earth prone to embarrassing gaffes like environmental breakdown). To this end the company plans to “infuse intelligence into the systems and processes that make the world work: cars, appliances, roadways, power grids, clothes, even natural systems such as agriculture and waterways”. Like 50 Simple Things, IBM’s premise is that systemic change is unnecessary: modern industrial life can continue its upward and outward expansion – cars, roadways, appliances and all – so long as everything is done more efficiently through new technology.

With industry leading the way, the future will probably look a lot like the present (barring ecological or economic collapse, of course.) Endless growth will remain the holy grail for government leaders; resource depletion will continue unabated; the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, and the wealth and power of transnational corporations will keep on expanding.

If what mainstream environmentalists like Al Gore and “socially responsible” corporations like IBM and Siemens propose is essentially more of the same, what would fundamental change look like? For starters, we might want to take a page from the local food movement. Most of us recognize the social, economic and environmental benefits of local food, but we don’t often extend that logic to other basic needs.

Think for a moment about the implications of “local energy”. With our continent-wide electric grid, we can’t really know the environmental costs of flipping on a light switch, using a hair dryer, or making toast in the morning, just as we can’t know what went into that industrially-grown tomato from Florida or apple from Chile. Did the power come from a nuclear power plant, a huge hydro project in Canada, or a coal-fired plant in the mid-West? Even if we consider the costs of these sources of power, few of those costs hit home directly or immediately.

Where is this plant?

If our electric needs were sourced locally or regionally, on the other hand, we’d have to balance our desire for power with costs that we bear ourselves. One can imagine lively debates in communities everywhere about what mix of power sources – small-scale hydro, wind, biomass, solar – should be employed. Each of these has trade-offs that might be difficult to balance, but at least the costs and benefits would accrue to the same community.

If the economic, ecological and aesthetic costs were too high, many communities would find ways to limit their use of energy – for example by rejecting building permit applications for “McMansions” that use a disproportionate share of the common, limited energy supply.

Ultimately, a greater reliance on local power would eliminate one of the most destructive side-effects of the grid: the implicit notion that energy is limitless. The expectation is that our homes and workplaces should have as much power as we’re willing to pay for, 24/7, year in and year out. My family no longer has that expectation, because for the last 12 years we’ve lived off the grid. (I don’t suggest that this makes us environmental heroes: I’m well aware that the PV system we rely on also has environmental costs, some quite heavy.) The point is only that our attitude towards energy now includes a healthy sense of limits. If the sun hasn’t been out for a few days we probably can’t run the vacuum cleaner, and we’ll have to use a broom instead. If the sun hasn’t been out for a week, we’ll have to turn off the pump on our deep well, and use the gravity-fed spring instead – which means there won’t be enough pressure for showers. In the best of times we don’t use electricity to toast bread (anything that turns electricity into heat uses a lot of power); instead we only make toast in the winter, when it can be made on the top of our cookstove.

Local power.

These and many other adjustments don’t feel like sacrifices: they’re simple and logical responses to the fact that our source of power is limited and variable. The fuels that power the grid are limited too, as resource depletion and global warming should make clear, but there’s no direct link between that fact and the day-to-day experience of grid-connected life.

Building up decentralized renewable energy systems for local and regional self-reliance might seem too difficult or expensive, but consider the huge subsidies presently given to nuclear power and fossil fuels. Eliminating those subsidies and providing even a fraction of the same amount for smaller-scale, decentralized renewable energy sources would go a long way towards getting us there. The alternative is to assume that the best we can do is inflate our tires properly and screw in a new light bulb, while allowing companies like IBM and Siemens to continue promoting their fantasies of limitless power and endless growth.

Steven Gorelick is the Managing Programs Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), and co-author, with Helena Norberg-Hodge and Todd Merrifield, of Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness as well as co-director of the film The Economic of Happiness.

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