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 (http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/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 http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Adaptation) –
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.

April 9, 2010

The Myth of Clean Coal

Filed under: Alternative Energy — Lonnie @ 1:51 pm

Let’s not beat around the bush, clean coal is a myth. It is a myth in a couple of different senses. It is a myth in the manner of most media buzz-phrases. Its meaning is heavily nuanced. It doesn’t refer to what a cursory glance would lead you to think. It’s not that it’s a total lie or fabrication; it does refer to something, in this case an initiative in the US Department of Energy to make coal more palatable to a public with a growing awareness that personal health and environmental health cannot be separated in any way. And it refers to a bundle of methods for removing some percentage of the CO2, NOx, sulphur, arsenic, mercury, and particulates from the exhaust coming out of the smokestacks of coal burning power plants and diverting them to other waste streams. Clean Coal is also mythic in the larger sense; it plays a functional role in a system of formative ideas about the world which we accept, mostly without examination, and which provide us as members of a particular culture with a set of presuppositions which allow us to get on with our day without going through Cartesian radical doubt exercises. It supports the prevailing paradigm: the myth of progress.

The myth of clean coal supports the progressive myth in the following way. Integral to this myth is the idea that with a sufficient supply of clean energy we can continue to “grow our economy” indefinitely and that by doing so through the mechanism of a largely unregulated, “free” global market we can create a world of universal peace and abundance. Of course nowadays few would come out and put it in these terms. It’s another one of those nuanced notions, taken for granted but seldom articulated. Maybe because when you say it out loud (or put it on paper or screen) a voice seems to come out of the TV, saying “how’s that workin’ for you?”

Of course a policy of perpetual economic growth in a materially finite world is bound to run into limitations sooner or later. And there is no such thing as “clean” energy because there is no way of isolating ourselves from the systems we inhabit, and everything we do, every single act, produces waste. The second law of thermodynamics gurantees that. How’s the old ticker? Your joints feeling alright this morning? The best we can do is to find beneficial technologies, businesses, or organisms for which the wastes we generate provide nutritious feedstocks. Or, we can restrategize and redesign our communities in such a way that they are less gluttonous in their need for energy and material goods that have to be imported from elsewhere.

Coal companies are not in the business of recycling waste products in an economically and environmentally productive manner. So for them, managing the waste streams creates additional costs that contribute nothing to the bottom line. The burning of coal produces heat that can be used to generate electricity, but it also produces a number of by products that must either be developed as inputs for other industrial processes, sequestered, or else dumped into the commons. Historically, the overwhelming choice has been to release these products into the common environment, thereby exporting much of the cost of the operation to the general community while keeping the profits in-house. The campaign for clean coal looks more like a sleight of hand operation the more closely you examine it. “Look, look over here.” There is no away where we can throw this stuff, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out. If the skies are clearer, better start looking to the landfills.

April 4, 2010

antinomial rhetoric or doublethink beyond 1984

Filed under: Alternative Energy — Lonnie @ 12:23 pm
Jumbo shrimp. Military intelligence. The son of a barren woman. Clean coal. You get the picture. These are all antinomies, self-contradictory terms that graft two mutually incompatible ideas onto a single stem. The first two are jokes. The third is a classic illustration of language’s ability to name a thing that cannot, by definition, exist. The last one has burrowed into the nucleus of public discussions about alternative energies and nested there like a virus.
This raises questions on two levels:¬†First, is or can there be such a thing as clean coal? And if so, will the energy returned per energy invested, on the one hand, and the cost of the operation, on the other, justify it? And second, if not, then how is it that such facile formulations are so easily swallowed and allowed to sit in our stomachs and, like Scrooge’s famously undigested piece of potato, produce fantastic visions of things that cannot be?
There is reason both for skepticism and admiration. On the face of it coal is not clean. As an idea coal represents, at its very core, the nasty, dirty, sooty, lung-destroying, sky-blackening essence of early industrial blight. So the turn of phrase, clean coal, is kind of neat, and the technology, if it lives up to its moniker, clever enough to make our earliest monkey ancestor proud. But in order to evaluate these claims of cleanliness and ecological virtue (as well as technological virtuosity), we have to go beyond language games and make some quantitative and some ecological, which is to say system dynamical, evaluations. We have, at the very least, to ask the following questions:
  1. What are the energetic, environmental, and economic costs to mine and process coal so that it “burns clean?”
  2. What do we mean by clean? What standards are to be applied in making such a designation?
  3. If the goal of “clean coal” can be realized, then what? How will the successful implementation of this technology affect the system as a whole, if by system as a whole we include global politics and economics and the biosphere? How many of the unforseen and unintended consequences will coil back to bite us on our tender behinds?¬†

These are questions I will attempt to engage in subsequent posts regarding clean coal and other supposedly alternative forms of energy.

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