Patchwork Design Lab

June 19, 2010

Might as Well Face it You’re Adapted to Oil

There are two phrases I’d like to deconstruct today. Both of them come from the highest levels of government. The first is America is addicted to oil, uttered first by George W Bush in 2006 and echoed by Barack Obama just recently. The second one, uttered first in 1992 by Bush Sr. and later echoed by Dick Cheney, proclaims, “the American Way of Life is not negotiable.”

First let’s look at the addiction comment. Here is a biological definition of addiction:

Addiction ( in psychiatry, a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for an opiod and the need to use the opiod for effects other than pain relief. Alternately, the state of being given up to some habit, especially strong dependence on a drug. Being abnormally tolerant to and dependent on something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming (especially alcohol or narcotic drugs).

Addiction is a partial adaptation to a foreign substance. I’m somewhat familiar with addiction, though only second hand, because the propensity for substance abuse seems to run in my family. Since I can stake no claim to moral superiority in this matter, I can only conclude that I am biochemically fortunate. The type of substances to which most people tend to become addicted make me feel like hammered dog shit. But I have observed the symptoms at close-hand. And as much as the addict believes that without the craved substance he will surely die or, worse, not die, the need is usually more perceived than real, and after a seemingly endless but actually finite period of time the physical dependence will fade. But there is a point in the process where an addict is likely to say I really need this. My need is not negotiable.

Let’s consider what real need entails. Here is a biological definition of adaptation:

Adaptation (from –
ecology – The adjustment or changes in behavior, physiology, and structure of an organism to become more suited to an environment. According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, organisms adapt to their environment to become better fitted to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.

In adaptation, function is fitted to systemic processes, and form is fitted to function. Ecosystems arise around energy gradients which generate an ongoing flow. The structure of the system arises in adaptation to both the type and the quantity of flow. Natural systems tend to self-organize in a way that maximizes the rate of flow over time. Everything within the system is integral to this process. Everything an organism does, from its behavior in relationship with other organisms to its very metabolism fits into this regime. If the source gradient changes or is degraded, entire species can die out.

I would argue that modern civilization, the modern global economy, the social systems that humans have created over the millenia are either adapted or in the process of adapting to oil and its cousins natural gas and coal as the primary energy source. Americans are not addicted to oil; they are addicted to the American Way of Life. As is the rest of the world. The American Way of Life, though, is adapted to oil as its primary feedstock. Without a sufficient rate of production and refinement, the American Way of Life will vanish like a puff of smoke; it will collapse like a boneless elephant. Globalization is possible only because of the energy provided by oil and its products and the technologies and infrastructure that have appeared as a result.

You can’t build an “alternative energy” society on a petroleum infrastructure. Not all forms of energy are created equal. Earth receives an estimated 174 petawatts (1.74 X 10exp17) of solar energy a day. That’s a huge quantity of energy, but it’s not in a concentrated form. It is highly dispersed, unavailable (to use thermodynamic lingo) to do work, unless you happen to be a molecule of chlorophyll. Converting sunlight into a form that humans would consider useful takes work. We can use sunlight to heat water in a pipe or to cause gas to expand and drive a turbine to create electricity. We can also use photovoltaics to turn solar energy into electricity. But these technologies depend on energy in a more concentrated form to start with. In our case, the more concentrated form is oil or one of its derivatives. The highly centralized, long-distance, energy intensive lifestyles that we currently “enjoy” are entirely dependent on oil and its evolved infrastructure.

We humans have a huge task before us. We are all destined for rehab. We will have to kick our addiction to the American Way of Life and then create one that is adapted to a new, lower-energy regime. The American Way of Life is not negotiable; it is all but over. We may keep it on life support for a few more years, but, like it or not, it’s already circling the drain.

June 3, 2010

Something of Value

What if we were to organize neighborhoods or even entire communities around food forests rather than thoroughfares and shopping malls? If you think about it, this would be more like a traditional village society, where people settle somewhere because the place has something of value. What would this type of neighborhood look like? Forests in the real world (that is, the world not as humans would have it, operating from some abstract set of arbitrary fantasies) tend toward what you might call incompletion. Ecologists have come up with the term climax to describe a sort of goal toward which biological succession “strives”, but there are very few examples in nature of climax ecosystems. Instead what you tend to see are patchwork mosaics of varying “stages” of succession. The designer of this mosaic is a collection of energetic events that you could collectively classify as patch disrupters. These include fires, cyclonic storms, and the influence of invading species from other areas. Humans, it turns out, evolved to be patch disrupters par excellence. What makes us so good at this disruptive behavior? It is our ability to say, “hmmm…..” That’s it. Repeat after me: hmmmm…..

You may have noticed that activity and productivity clusters around borders and edges. There is more going on at the boundary of a wood and a meadow than there is in either the wood or the meadow. Borders and seaports are hotbeds of economic activity, both licit and ill-. We can theorize about the causes, but why not just accept the fact and take it as a pattern that we can use? So one thing we are looking for in our neighborhoods is a sense of dynamic incompletion, a sort of wabi sabi aesthetic where tidiness is not the point. Tidiness at a very small scale is pleasing; tidiness as an organizing principle is antinomic. A monoculture is tidy. It is simple and uninteresting. It has very little of order, since there is very little to order. Contrary to popular agricultural theory (sheepthink), thousands of acres of corn or soy is not the way to get a maximum yield. To get any yield at all from such a system requires heavy (read toxic) petroleum and economic subsidies. The toxicity of these subsidies is not limited to the field itself. Consider the recent out-of-control oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico or the current global financial system, which, if we were honest, we would be calling the wreckage of a global financial system. The point here (just to complete this wild tangent) is that the truly toxic tends not to arise without the aid of human hmmmm….ing, or if it does, it tends to become properly sequestered by geological processes. At least until the next major geological upheaval.

But back to our little neighborhood. We look at the lay of the land. We plant marshy plants in the lowest areas where the water tends to collect – remembering to select plants that provide for our needs in numerous ways. Marshes are great natural water filters as well as a good place to grow many types of berries. We look at natural marshes to get an idea of the type and variety of plants we will need. We organize the land according to water availability in such a way that it includes marsh, meadow, and woodland, all devised to be functioning ecosystems with higher-than-typical concentrations of plants that provide food for humans. We site our houses and public buildings on the least productive patches, patches with the poorest soil, for example, so that our way of life interferes as little as possible with our ability to make a living. We try to design our communities in such a way that the need to indulge in trade for basic necessities is minimized.

There are still houses, shops, paths and roads sprinkled through and winding in and out of this pastoral landscape. They add to its variety and richness, though, increasing the aforementioned edge-effect and making the overall system more diverse, more balanced, and more productive.

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