Category Archives: Energy Issues / Policy

Save The Planet ‐ 12 Cents

Guest blog by Marc Elpel, September 27, 2014

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

      The Climate Change argument has shifted from theory to reality, and we are now facing the initial impacts of increasingly erratic storms, floods, droughts, and forest fires. We are responding to the crisis with united apathy, as if saving ourselves isn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes the problem seems too big to tackle. We are so dependent on fossil fuel vehicles, for example, that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it in any meaningful timeframe. Most of us cannot afford a $75,000 Tesla to commute to work, nor can we cover the upfront financial commitment to “go solar” at home. We wait for the promise of high-efficiency cars and cheap solar power, but we otherwise do nothing while news reports grow more dire every day. And yet, we can offset all carbon emissions from automobiles at a ridiculously affordable price. It is really a question of priorities:  would you pay 12¢ to change the course of global warming?

      As a country we are set in our ways.  We have our cars, and our lifestyles are based on commuting and travel. Climate change reports inform us of the problem, but we still need to commute to work, so we continue pumping gas, and the climate issues continue to compound.  Since we have not stopped driving, I set out to answer the question ‘What is the “carbon cost” of a gallon of gasoline?’ In other words, if we have to use gas until we have a better option, what is the environmental impact of the carbon in the gas, and can I do something about it?

One gallon of gasoline.

A gallon of gasoline weighs about 6.3 pounds, consisting mostly of carbon, plus a small amount of hydrogen and a few impurities. Through combustion each carbon atom combines with two atoms of heavier oxygen atoms, resulting about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

      Through miracles in chemistry, each gallon of gas (weighing about 6.3 pounds) creates approximately 20 pounds of carbon, and 7 pounds of water[1][2]. The carbon numbers change depending on various factors, including type of fuel, octane rating, and calculation approximations.  For calculations we will use 20 pounds of carbon per gallon.

      Carbon cost as represented by web sites selling carbon offsets run approximately $5 to 6 per thousand pounds of carbon [4][5]. Using $6.00 per thousand pounds, we find the cost per gallon is 20 pounds carbon times $6.00 per 1000 pounds, or $0.12 per gallon. At 12 cents per gallon of gas we offset the carbon burned driving “carbon neutral.” With a national average gas price of $3.65 per gallon, 12 cents represents 3% of the cost per gallon.

      In 2012, USA annual gas usage was 133 billion (133,000,000,000!) gallons. At 12 cents surcharge per gallon, we would have $16 billion in carbon offset money available for reforestation and purchasing renewable energy. While this money could be applied to all forms of carbon reduction, we can look at applying all of that amount to solar installations to see how far it goes. Note that this analysis can be performed for wind or hydroelectric… the numbers shift slightly but conclusions remain the same.

Solar panels.

Applied to solar power, a 12¢ gallon carbon offset surcharge would cover the cost to install clean solar power on 1.2 million homes every year.

      Utility scale installed solar power cost has dropped to $2.10 per watt [8]. Using $16 billion annually from a 12 cent surcharge on fuel, we could purchase 7,600,000 KW of installed solar, for an annual production of 13,832,000,000 KWH of power! (See reference [9] for calculations between installed watts and kilowatts per year.) The average household power usage in the US is 10,837 KWH, so in one year we can switch over 1.2 million homes to clean solar energy.  Each year, we could switch another 1.2 million homes to solar if the $16 billion in revenue stayed constant. If we leverage the money by paying half of the install cost for utility companies we can expand that number to 2.4 million households per year or approximately 2% of the homes in the USA converted to solar each year. Within 10 years, with no other actions taken, we will have converted ~20% of the entire country’s residential power needs to solar (or wind, or hydroelectric…)! 

Car tire.

“Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.”

      As we try to deal with climate change, politicians debate whether we “can afford” the costs of the environmental impact. They argue we will lose our competitive edge in world markets if we go green. And while they debate the important issues of more efficient vehicle  standards and new power regulations, we continue down the road to our demise. So what about the 12 cent cost? Can we afford the 12 cents? For individuals who fear the extra gas cost, this 3% can be made up (and more!) by slowing down 5 MPH.  The fueleconomy.gov web site states: “You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas”[10]. If you can’t slow down, then carpool once per month and you offset the usage as well. Combine trips to the store, or commute off hours when traffic is less. Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.

      The economic impacts of offsetting our gas usage will lower our dependence on foreign oil and will generate jobs in building and maintaining renewable energy utilities. Funds can also support private solar installations and help individuals bring their power bills to zero. Funds used in planting trees will enhance open space and parks used by all, while lowering summer temperatures in our towns and cities, further reducing climate change caused by coal fired electric generation. One might even argue that lowering our oil needs by installation of more renewable energy will ultimately lower the price per gallon, making fuel less expensive in the future. And ultimately, back to where we started, immediately responding to global warming will reduce the enormous financial cost otherwise required to respond to climate change impacts.

Dying forest.

“Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.”

      Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.

      Place a carbon surcharge of 12 cents on each gallon and use the proceeds to invest in renewable energy.  As a country, tying the environmental cost of gas to its use allows us to react today and reinvest in a greener future. Cities (such as Los Angeles) can implement this ahead of the federal government, immediately using their transportation challenges to solve their local power and environmental needs.

      We may not all be able to trade in our vehicles for clean transportation today, but as a society we can take this simple action and dramatically change our future.

      America has some of the cleanest cities in the world as we as individuals, and as a society, clean‐up after ourselves. We have recycling policies and incentives, and core charges to ensure old batteries stay out of landfills. Yet while we would not consider dropping garbage as we go, when faced with the largest manmade ecological disaster of human history, we spew our carbon without regard to the pollution we leave behind. Initially we did not know – or did not understand – the impact and consequences of our emissions. Now that we do, is it not worth twelve cents to save the planet?

[1] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/contentIncludes/co2_inc.htm
[2] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=307&t=11
[3] http://jg2090.newsvine.com/_news/2009/09/02/3216613‐burning‐1‐gallon‐of‐gasoline‐produces‐20‐pounds‐of‐co2
[4] http://www.carbonfund.org/
[5] http://www.terrapass.com/
[6] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=23&t=10
[7] http://www.pv‐tech.org/editors_blog/we_need_to_talk_about_utility_scale_solar
[8] http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Is‐Utility‐Scale‐Solar‐Really‐Cheaper‐Than‐Rooftop‐Solar
[9] http://www.solar‐estimate.org/?page=solar‐calculations
[10] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.jsp

See also these related posts:

Frack this Planet
Too Many Jobs?

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Frack this Planet

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil and the End of Civilization?

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them, as was the case with “peak oil” as recently as 2011.

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them.

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them, as was the case with “peak oil” as recently as 2011. The best information available indicated that world oil production would climax by about 2015 and start declining every year thereafter. Meanwhile, demand would keep climbing, leading to spiking oil prices that would drastically impact our economy and our way of life. On the positive side, it was believed that high oil prices would necessitate a rapid transition to a more sustainable way of living. We would be forced to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, thus halting climate change and saving the planet from global warming.

A new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter.

A new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter.

But in 2012 a completely different picture emerged. Oil production surged, oil prices started falling again, and a new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter. The American economy is expected to boom, our way of life will continue as usual, and nobody seems to care that climate change is happening faster than even worst case scenarios predicted.  That is a staggering discrepancy between forecasts from one year to the next. How could the experts be so wrong?

The Peak Oil saga is the latest round in a two hundred-year-old debate between Malthusians and Cornucopian beliefs. The overly pessimistic Malthusian perspective perceives natural resources as being like a pie. There is only so much to go around. The overly optimistic Cornucopian belief, on the other hand, is that humans are creative, and we shouldn’t worry about things like over population and resource consumption, because new technologies will produce more pies, and increase prosperity for all.  Neither viewpoint accurately models reality.

The Malthusian perspective originated with Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), a British economist and philosopher. Being a citizen of an island nation, Malthus naturally predicted that the burgeoning population would continue to expand exponentially, while resource production, especially food, would eventually plateau, leading to inevitable mass die-offs to balance the population with the available resources. The Brits have successfully dodged fate thus far, along with the rest of the industrial world, largely by expanding the resource pie beyond national boundaries, to efficiently exploit natural resources from pole to pole around the globe.

The Cornucopian perspective takes its name from the "horn of plenty" in Greek mythology, which magically provided an endless supply of food and drink.

The Cornucopian perspective takes its name from the “horn of plenty” in Greek mythology, which magically provided an endless supply of food and drink.

On the surface, the Cornucopian perspective seems blindly dependent on faith that technology will save us from ourselves. To Cornucopians, however, it isn’t blind faith, but rather proven faith in the dynamic interplay of supply and demand. Rising demand initially raises prices, which triggers more investment in production and alternative substitutes, which ultimately expands supply, lowers prices, and leads to increased prosperity.

For example, the price for a gallon of gasoline rose from $1.60 per gallon when George Bush took office as President in 2001, to more than $4.00 per gallon in the summer of 2008, just before the economy faltered.  The shocking rise in fuel costs seemed to presage the vastly higher prices that were anticipated when worldwide production peaked and started declining, as was forecast to happen in the near future. But the relationship between supply and demand is vastly more complicated than that.

In the short term, high fuel prices were a contributing factor to the financial crises of 2008 and the resulting recession, which slowed the economy and reduced global oil consumption.  That alone helped stabilize oil prices. In addition, rising fuel prices impact everyone. Job or no job, just about everyone reacted to higher prices one way or another. Many people re-evaluated every potential trip and simply drove less than before. Gasoline consumption dropped by 3.2 percent in 2008, stayed about the same in 2009 and 2010, then dropped another 2.9 percent as fuel prices rose again in 2011. Driving less helped to reduce demand and stabilize prices. But it didn’t end there. Consumers also bought more fuel-efficient vehicles, driving more miles on less fuel.

This PCV condenser is an after-market add-on that can slightly increase fuel efficiency.

People embraced new technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles, or unconventional alternatives. This PCV condenser is an after-market add-on that can slightly increase fuel efficiency.

People also embraced new technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles, or unconventional alternatives. For example, my brother Alan built a biodiesel processing unit and started making his own fuel from used vegetable oil (basically French fry grease) obtained free from restaurants. My brother Nick experimented with wood gas, driving his truck around on firewood for a while, before switching to a diesel truck with a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system. Across America, people experimented with all kinds of crazy new innovations, looking for ways to squeeze out a few more miles per gallon. Millions of people adapted to higher prices, each in their own way. The result is that fuel consumption has dropped to 2000 levels, even though there are 31 million more people in our country now, and just as many more new cars and light trucks on the road.

Higher oil prices make the oil business more lucrative, stimulating yet more extraction.

Higher oil prices make the oil business more lucrative, stimulating yet more extraction.

The other impact of higher oil prices is that it makes the oil business more lucrative, rewarding anyone who can increase the supply by conventional or innovative new means. Setting aside the issue of fracking for the moment, there are tremendous reserves of oil shale and coal buried underneath this country, enough to fuel the economy for several hundred years, as noted in my book Direct Pointing to Real Wealth (Fifth Edition, 2000). Converting oil shale or coal to gasoline is more expensive than just pumping oil out of the ground, but higher prices make these alternatives more lucrative, thereby increasing production and further stabilizing oil prices. Oil prices may or may not go down, but each rise in price results in lower consumption and greater production, which helps stabilize prices over the long haul.

These checks and balances in the price of oil cost Texas banking executive Matthew R. Simmons a $10,000 bet. Malthusian in his perspective, Simmons wagered ten grand against New York Times columnist John Tierney in 2005 that the average daily price of crude oil would exceed $200 per barrel in 2010. Oil rose from $65/barrel in 2005 to $145/barrel in 2008, then dropped to $50/barrel in the aftermath of the global financial crises, and back up to $80/barrel in 2010 (or $71/barrel when adjusted for inflation). Simmons died before the wager ended on January 1, 2011, but his estate paid up on the debt. Even then, lay persons and analysts alike were forecasting peak oil and the decline of civilization in just a few short years.

The biggest factor in stabilizing oil prices for the foreseeable future is fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing. Oil companies pump a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals into the ground under intense pressure to fracture the rock and force residual oil or natural gas back to the wellhead for extraction. Fracking is a comically appropriate term, given that “frack” and “fracking” has been used as a television-friendly expletive in the show Battlestar Galactica since 1978. We are indeed fracking the planet.

Some of the chemicals utilized include hydrochloric acid, polyacrylamide, ethylene glycol, sodium chloride, borate salts, sodium and potassium carbonates, glutaraldehyde, isopropanol, and methanol. There is a little hope and a lot of denial that these toxins won’t somehow contaminate the groundwater now or in the distant future.

Burning off natural gas as a waste product from oil wells in North Dakota.

Burning off natural gas as a waste product from oil wells in North Dakota.

The incentive to live in denial is huge. Fracking allows us to increase oil production, stabilize or lower prices, expand the American economy, and avoid dealing with realty for another day. And the reality is that our economy places zero value on the future.

In terms of resources, anything that can be extracted and profited from today has value. Anything left behind for future generations has no value.  For example, oil wells often produce a great deal of natural gas, but often too far away from any pipelines that can get it to market. The problem is easily remedied by venting the natural gas into the atmosphere and setting it on fire, called flaring.  OPEC countries previously burned off enough natural gas to supply world needs for several hundred years, because it had zero value to them at the time. The same thing is happening now on a smaller scale in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. As an alternative fuel, natural gas is relatively clean and low in carbon content, but as a waste product, we are presently adding as much carbon to the atmosphere as 70 million cars, but with nothing to show for it.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990.

In another famous bet, Malthusian Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990. On paper, they invested an imaginary $1,000 ($200 in each metal) and waited ten years to see happened. If prices went up (adjusted for inflation), Simon would pay Ehrlich the value in excess of the original $1,000, and vice versa. Ehrlich lost the bet and paid Simon $576.07 for the difference between the original imaginary investment and the final price. This story has become part of the Cornucopian mythology, in spite of the fact that four out of the five metals have since increased in their inflation-adjusted prices.

Resource extraction used to be as easy as it was for Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hill Billies: “Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed. A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed, then one day he was shootin’ at some food, and up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.”  Our descendants will never have it so easy. Speculators are only interested in the easiest, most accessible resources to extract. Past investments made it possible to go all over the globe skimming the cream off the top. There is still plenty of everything to be extracted, but the deposits are of lesser and lesser quality.

How would the world be different today if we had long ago taxed fossil fuels and given people an incentive to invest in energy efficiency?

How would the world be different today if we had long ago taxed fossil fuels and given people an incentive to invest in energy efficiency?

In the case of fracking, investors are drilling more than 15,000 wells a year in the U.S., but unlike oil fields in the Middle East, these are small volume, short-lived wells. In the Bakken shales, production can decline by 80 percent within the first two years. Some experts believe that the new oil boom will be shockingly short-lived.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if we had long ago raised the price of fossil fuels with “green taxes.”  Instead of paying income taxes, what if the cost of oil, gas, and coal were several times higher and that funded our government? What if we had a tax system where citizens could reduce their tax burden by investing in energy efficiency, rather than merely looking for loopholes on paper? How would the world be different today? It is likely we would be driving 100-mpg cars, live in much more efficient houses, and have a stable climate. But we didn’t do that. Instead, we used up all the easy oil in an orgy of inefficiency. Rather than making conservation profitable, we facilitated yet more resource exploitation.

The problem is that the next generation cannot bid against us for the resources we use. Investors and speculators comb the planet for every marketable resource, trying to make a quick buck. As a society, we leave nothing behind for future generations, except for toxic mining sites, toxic fracking sites, and a destabilized global climate.

The more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.

The more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.

Ironically, the more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.  Is the climate too hot? Turn on the air conditioner and burn up more fossil fuels. Are the crops dying from lack of rain? Build pipelines, pumps, and perhaps desalination facilities to get water to the fields. Are superstorms destroying our cities and infrastructure? Consume more energy and resources to repair the damage or build levees for protection. Our children and our grandchildren face not only the challenge of depleted resources, but also the challenge of living on a fracked planet with a fracked climate and a fracked government with trillions of dollars in federal deficits to pay off.

The Malthusians were wrong about Peak Oil because they failed to grasp the complex system of checks and balances that work to stabilize supply and demand. But the Cornucopians were also wrong, because we have not expanded the resource pie. We have merely increased our efficiency at exploiting whatever worthwhile resources remain. We are fracking the planet to save ourselves.

The tragedy is that we could have invested in energy efficiency decades ago. We could have built more fuel-efficient vehicles and better insulated houses to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels at a profit, increasing our prosperity and keeping prices lower in the short-term, while ensuring a supply of resources for the future. Instead, history may remember us as the most irresponsible people in all of human history.

 My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption.

My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption.

My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption, the sixth highest in the country measured on a per capita basis, while being thirty-eighth in the nation for median household income. Between those two factors, Montanans spend a bigger chunk of their income on oil than most other Americans. As a matter of necessity, people here drive big, heavy-duty trucks for pulling horse trailers, hauling supplies, or driving up into the mountains to cut firewood. Being a mostly rural state, a trip to the grocery store often exceeds 100 miles of driving. Just getting a 40-pound kindergartener to school can entail a thirty-mile drive twice a day, often achieved with a full-size pickup truck, capable of carrying a one-ton payload!

Personally, I really appreciate fossil fuels. I appreciate being able to drive to town and back (120 miles) twice a week with my son for fencing lessons. I appreciate that my neighbor plows my very long driveway for me. I appreciate the fact that a small amount of gasoline in my truck and chainsaw enables me to bring home a much larger supply of firewood to stay warm through the winter. I would hate to do all that work with handsaws and a team of horses.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations. It is for this reason that I built an energy-efficient passive solar home and installed solar panels to generate electricity. Likewise, I drive the most fuel-efficient truck I could find on the market, which happened to be a 38-mpg, 1982 diesel Toyota truck. My “green vehicle” belches black smoke and doesn’t go more than 35 miles per hour up a hill, but it gets noticed at the gas stations. I get compliments from every guy with a monster truck as they watch their dial roll past $100 to fill up the gas tank. If a company built a better truck today, I would be the first to buy it. I value fossil fuels, our climate, and all our natural resources enough to do whatever I reasonably can to make a positive difference for the next generation.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations.

In the short term, we have enough oil to keep the economy rolling. In the long term, we might wean ourselves off of fossil fuels before we run out. Solar power and other alternative energy technologies are increasing in efficiency and dropping in price, just as computers did. We can look forward to the day when virtually every human-made object becomes a source of energy, from solar panels blanketing every roof to windows that generate electricity. Even the paint on our houses and cars will one day generate electricity.  The Cornucopians will prevail, and we will inevitably build a sustainable economy… but not before we destabilize the climate, toxify the planet, and wipe out half of all life on earth! We will ultimately succeed in building a green economy on a dead planet.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality, Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Living Homes, Participating in Nature, and Botany in a Day.

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Too Many Jobs?

What if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?

If "Recovery and Reinvestment" signs are beneficial for the economy, why don't we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

If “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs are beneficial for the economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

Nearly every politician campaigns on the promise of strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and putting people back to work. Jobs are a big issue in the best of times and in the worst of times. In fact, jobs are often the only issue we hear about in the news. But what if job creation actually makes us poorer instead of richer? And what if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?
Consider those green “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs that sprouted up in every community as part of the federal government’s effort to create jobs and get the economy rolling in 2009. How many people were employed mining and refining the metal for all the steel posts and aluminum signs? How many people were employed printing and distributing those signs, or mixing the concrete and mounting the signs in place? If these signs were so beneficial to our economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?
The answer should be obvious. Building signs contributes absolutely nothing towards our standard of living, our quality of life, or the health of our environment. On the contrary, essential natural resources were mined, processed, and used for no net benefit. At the end of the day we are left with fewer natural resources and ultimately higher prices for those resources.
Similarly, consider something as ubiquitous as junk mail. How many tens of thousands of people are employed to cut down trees, mill them into paper, produce ink, do graphic artwork for catalogs and political campaign brochures, address them, mail them, ship them across the country, and sort them into boxes, only to have most of them discarded and recycled or landfilled without even being looked at? Everyone along the way, from the graphic artist to the accountants and the janitors, are glad to have the work, a chance to earn money and keep food on the table, without anyone seeming to notice that they are functionally employed to do nothing more than consume and dispose of our natural resources.
But burning up billions of barrels of oil permanently depletes the resource, devastates the landscape and pollutes the water, contributes to global warming, and results in higher prices at the pump. If we have nothing tangible to show for the investment, then we literally make ourselves poorer by working too much, leaving less wealth to pass along to the next generation.

What if you were offered a job whose sole purpose was to use up our natural resources to ensure that there will be none left for the next generation? Would you take such a job to feed your family? And how would that be different from the work you are doing now?

"Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back."  --Henry David Thoreau, 1863

“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back.” –Henry David Thoreau, 1863

As Henry David Thoreau pointed out in Life Without Principle in 1863, “Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” In fact, our situation is far worse, because throwing stones over a wall is utterly harmless. But we have millions of people employed directly or indirectly in extracting and processing our remaining natural resources for no other purpose than to dispose of them.
Junk mail is only one example among thousands. Worldwide, millions of people are employed to convert raw wealth into garbage destined for landfills. Consider the ubiquitous plastic products at the ‘big box’ store. How many hundreds of thousands of people are employed to extract and refine the raw materials, design and make molds, build factories, manufacture, ship overseas, and distribute utterly useless products that we then hire more people to transport to a landfill and bury underground for eternity? That is the fate of any product that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable. If you walk into any big box store like a Wal-Mart or a Target, you will find that virtually every shelf in every isle is filled with cheap plastic crap that was made in China, designed to break or wear out quickly, and is destined to be permanently buried in the ground after a few weeks, months, or at best years. Almost nothing on the shelves will last more than a decade.

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing, natural resources for products destined for landfills?

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing natural resources for products destined for landfills?

It’s not just plastic crap, either. It is also the appliances that break down within a few months or a few years. From freezers to blenders to food processors, the consumer is better off looking for well-used, forty-year-old American-made appliances, rather than buying brand new appliances that are likely to fail in short order. It is also our disposable tools, the drills, saws, wrenches, and shovels that often break the first or second time you use them, including my all-time favorite, the hammer that bends backwards when you try to drive in a nail!
The Chinese must think that Americans are the stupidest people on the planet. In an unprecedented transfer of resources, we converted one of the poorest nations on earth into a budding superpower. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and our country is practically bankrupt. The Chinese are literally selling us garbage to bury in our landfills, while diverting profits towards constructing bullet trains, installing solar power, launching a space program more ambitious than our own, buying American companies, and loaning operating funds to our federal government while we dig yet a deeper hole for ourselves.
At the heart of this problem is not junk mail, big box stores, or the Chinese, but the perceived economic benefits of “planned obsolescence.” In essence, a company that builds a product that is too good is ultimately destined to saturate the market with that product and run itself out of business. If all products were made to last, then people wouldn’t need to buy anything, factories would shut down, employees would be laid off, and nobody would have any money to buy anything, even if they wanted to. Making products that are designed to fail is believed to be good for business, and a sure means to keep the economy rolling.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

We all know the story of Thomas Edison, and how he tried thousands of different filaments to make a long-lasting incandescent light bulb. Less commonly known is that early light bulbs lasted too long, so long that one bulb has been in continuous use for more than a 100 years in a fire department in Livermore, California. But long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected, as detailed in the documentary Pyramids of Waste (also known as The Light Bulb Conspiracy).
The documentary details economic theory about the need to make short-lived products to maintain consumer demand and keep the economy rolling. For instance, Dupont chemists were pretty proud of nylons, first created back in the 1950s. But they were sent back to the lab to rework the formula, because the original stockings were too durable to wear out efficiently. The documentary takes the viewer into the university classroom to see how engineers are formally trained to satisfy employers by dumbing-down products to ensure failure. This is the American way to achieve prosperity. Millions of people are gainfully employed mindlessly cranking out and distributing useless or inferior products. Money flows around and around the loop, and we work our entire lives to keep ahead of engineered entropy. Advertisers encourage disposability by seducing consumers to want newer, glitzy products, even if they haven’t worn out older models.

"every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere."

“every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere.”

This inverted logic might have made sense when markets were finite and our natural resources seemed infinite, but now the reverse is largely true. Resources are limited, and anything tossed in the trash raises the price of our remaining natural resources. For example, copper is becoming increasingly expensive, and every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the global marketplace is hard to fathom. It might be possible to saturate one market, but there are always new markets to reach out to. For example, the Skil Corporation manufactures a quality worm-drive Skilsaw, used primarily in wood construction work. Unlike other tools, a Skilsaw doesn’t break and get tossed in the trash. It is built to last and almost infinitely repairable. It is a successful product because of its durability, and that is a successful strategy for the company, rather than making an inferior product. Unfortunately, durable products are an exception to the rule.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

We have built not only a disposable economy, but also a disposable country. Even the houses that shelter us from the elements are little more than temporary shanties, dressed up on the surface. Most houses are designed so poorly that they require a constant influx of fossil fuel energy to keep them cool in summer and to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter. Most houses are so flimsy that you could punch a hole in the wall with a fist. From leaky water heaters to failing asphalt shingles, from carpets that must be replaced and bathrooms that rot out, houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage. Look around you at the millions upon millions of houses, and consider that almost none of them were engineered to last more than a few decades without major repairs. But all that work is supposedly good for the economy. It keeps people gainfully employed converting raw wealth into more garbage for the landfills.
By the same reasoning, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are often considered good for the economy, because people find work cleaning up the mess, rebuilding infrastructure, and replacing merchandise. Every major oil spill is recorded as a positive economic entry in our national accounts due to the jobs and income “created,” while completely ignoring resource loss or damage. According to this kind of logic, America would be richer than ever if we just burned down every house, office, and factory and demolished all our possessions!
Never mind that carbon emissions are spiking upward when they should be tapering off. Never mind that global warming is happening faster than predicted, or that cumulative factors could potentially lead to a runaway greenhouse effect. With the economy in the doldrums and unemployment levels high, all other concerns are secondary. It is imperative that we keep everyone gainfully employed doing important work, like making plastic toys to go with our Happy Meals.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

We are arguably victims of our own success, and our cultural customs are not unlike the historic potlatch ceremonies of Northwestern Native American tribes, where chiefs demonstrated their great wealth and prestige by giving away their possessions, or better yet, destroying them. In a highly productive tribal economy, where material wealth is functionally meaningless, what better way to flaunt your status than by tearing up blankets, punching holes in canoes, burning down your house, or killing your own slaves in front of honored guests? At the very least, it kept the economy rolling.
Our industrial economy is so incredibly productive that it only takes a few percent of the population to supply all of our needs, and everyone else therefore must be employed doing alternative, often meaningless work to pretend they are contributing to society.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt… Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt. Advancing to the technology of a livestock-driven agricultural society, a specialist might tan hides or spin fibers to make a shirt every day or two. In an industrial society, a worker may crank out a new shirt in an hour or two, and with today’s automation, it becomes possible to press a button and spit out a whole pile of shirts. Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money so they can afford to buy those shirts. As a society, we unconsciously create meaningless work to keep people busy doing work that doesn’t actually produce anything; it effectively redistributes wealth from those who produce it to those who don’t.
For example, H&R Block, Inc. has approximately 11,000 company-owned and franchised retail locations in the United States, employing a great many people to help American citizens pay – or avoid paying – their taxes. This is just one company out of hundreds involved in the tax industry. We might be glad to pay a little money for an accountant or a do-it-yourself software package, but that expense is effectively a tax. We could easily invest that money towards something useful, such as paying off the federal deficit, investing in education or the environment, or in a better space program. But instead we redistribute the money to pay for office buildings, desks, computers, lava lamps, cleaning supplies, and employee wages for an army of people who don’t actually contribute to the economy. Most of that work would be unnecessary if we scaled back the IRS, greatly simplified the tax code, and collected “green” taxes against products that are harmful to the planet.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

The irony is that job creation is intended to sustain the economy, but there is nothing remotely sustainable about employing people to decimate life on earth. There have been five past mass extinctions in the history of life on earth. From asteroid impacts to massive volcanic eruptions that smothered the planet, each event permanently wiped out half or more of all species on the planet. In each case it took tens of millions of years for the surviving species to diversify and fill the ecological voids. Now we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood. We have destabilized the climate, with the forecast calling for more ‘job-building’ natural disasters ranging from floods to droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and now even “superstorms.” Meanwhile, grasslands are turning to deserts, tropical forests are being logged to oblivion, the Arctic ice sheet is rapidly melting away, coral reefs are dying, and the oceans are predicted to be fished out by the middle of the century. We are expected to wipe out half of all life on earth this century, and politicians everywhere are worried about the unemployment rate.
But the reality is that committing labor and natural resources towards work that doesn’t produce anything ultimately results in a net drag on the economy. It raises costs and makes us poorer. And that is the sad reality of our present economic situation: the faster the economy grows, the more impoverished we ultimately become!
Conversely, the path to building a sustainable and prosperous economy is to eliminate extraneous work and dedicate our resources towards investments that make a tangible, positive difference in our world. Call it “green prosperity.” The more we invest in conservation and eliminating waste, the wealthier we become.
Prosperity in the twenty-first century will be created by those who seek profit by making the world a better place. Ecopreneurs will out-compete inefficient, abusive industries by starting green businesses that close the loop on wasted materials, energy, time, money and labor. They will heal wasted ecosystems and restore biodiversity at a profit while delivering useful goods and services to the public. Homeowners too, will profit by seeking ways to eliminate everything from high energy bills to mortgage payments–even eliminating the need for a regular job. But there is no need to wait for such a future to come, for the revolution has already started. The door is wide open, and anyone can walk the path to green prosperity, changing the world every step along the way.
Taking one small step, an individual can install a solar water heater or hire a contractor to install it for them. The solar water heater reduces a household’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowers the utility bill, and brings a timely return for the investment. By making similar investments and upgrades in a house, a person can trim the utility bill down to almost nothing, and even install photovoltaic panels to run the meter backwards and wipe out the utility bill entirely. In fact, it is a whole lot easier to avoid expenses and debt in the first place than it is to earn a fat paycheck and spend one’s way out of debt.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

As a young adult, I hated the idea of getting a job and paying bills. I abhorred the idea of spending my entire life working to pay a mortgage, rent, utilities, car payments, school loans, or any other kind of bills. I didn’t mind working, but I wanted it to count for something. I have succeeded in life by avoiding extraneous work, rather than creating it. I successfully avoided paying rent or a home mortgage, college loans, car payments, big utility bills, or any other substantial recurring expenses. Indeed, there is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all, and it was that freedom that allowed me to indulge in my writing until I turned it into a successful career.
While there are many pathways to eliminating expenses, debt, and the need for jobs, as described in my article Escaping the Job Trap, the reality is that most people will never walk that path on their own. As it is, shockingly few people install solar water heaters or properly insulate their homes, even though the economics are already good, and tax incentives often make it even better. But it takes a certain amount of know-how to install one’s own solar water heater, and a certain amount of knowledge just to competently hire a contractor to do it for you. As a result, there are disappointingly few solar water heaters in operation in our country.
It would be far better to provide incentives for utilities to install and maintain solar water heaters themselves. For example, if a utility pays for and installs a solar water heater on a home, then the utility should profit from most of the energy savings. The customer could get a small reduction on their gas or electric bill, while the utility would continue to charge the customer as if they were using almost as much power as before. But the energy saved would be sold elsewhere, so that the utility would get paid twice for the same energy. It would be in the utility’s best interest to install identical, durable solar water heaters on every house, in order to reduce maintenance costs.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

With the right incentives to spur investment in conservation and alternative energies, we could create real jobs and put millions of people to work weaning our civilization off of fossil fuels once and for all. In fact, with appropriate incentives for companies to manufacture long-lasting products and recycle everything, it wouldn’t take long to create a futuristic world where everyone has everything they need, and nobody really has to work any more.
That might be a little hard to imagine, but it wouldn’t be that hard to achieve with a little commonsense. I know from experience that it is possible to break free from the rat race, live in prosperity with minimal bills, and choose whether or not you work. It is the freedom to pursue your own Dreams and make yourself a better person and the world a better place. We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence. Indeed, re-envisioning the meaning of work is the only chance we have of saving the planet and leaving something for the next generation.

Thomas J. Elpel founded Green University®LLC in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Roadmap to Reality, and Living Homes.

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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Energy Issues / Policy, Politics, Sustainability

The New Era of Self-Sufficiency

As a wilderness survival instructor, I have spent a good deal of my life out practicing skills—sleeping in holes in the ground, eating roots and bushes, starting fires by rubbing sticks together, and trying to figure out how to kill stuff with my bare hands, since it seems like cheating to bring a fishing pole or a gun. These survival skills were the skills of our ancestors, who lived by their hands and wits for most of human history, until the rise of agriculture. But one must wonder if this kind of traditional knowledge is still relevant today.

Thomas J. Elpel, Keynote Speech.

Speaking at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska. October 2011.


It is arguably self-indulgent to go camping in the woods to freeze and starve for entertainment while the whole world seems to be careening towards economic and environmental collapse. Indeed, the practice of survival skills flies in the face of the prevailing conservation ethic, which preaches that we should stay on the trails and leave no trace. As the saying goes, we should “take only pictures and leave only footprints,” not go thrashing through the woods, breaking down trees to build shelters, nor throwing sticks and rocks at the wildlife. But having done these things, I would posit that traditional skills are absolutely relevant today, and that by rekindling our connection to the natural world in this way, we can find answers to some of the most vexing problems that face our species.

Connecting with Nature
The way we relate to nature ebbs and flows with the fashions of our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the management of our national parks. Places like Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, were not set aside out of any particular conservation ethic, but at the request of the Northern Pacific Railroad, to create a tourist destination with ritzy accommodations to entice wealthy clientele to ride the railroad West. Later, the rise of the middle class made the national parks a playground for common people, a place to camp with the family and feed the bears for entertainment. And America’s love affair with the car led not just to drive-in movie theaters, restaurants, and churches, but also to paved roads winding through geyser features in Yellowstone, and drive-through trees in California’s Redwood and Sequoia National Parks.

The prevailing philosophy today is supposedly more ecologically enlightened, and environmental educators often remind us that we are part of the interconnected web of life. Yet, in the next breath, they tell us not to step off the boardwalk. We are told to leave nature as it is, and not touch, pick, or eat anything. It is as if nature has been reduced to an exhibit in a museum. We can look at it, but not participate in it. In many cases it isn’t even legal to gather firewood and build a campfire, not even in the dead of winter, camped miles from the nearest road, in the middle of a million acres of firewood.

This hands-off philosophy isn’t limited to the national parks. It is deeply embedded in our culture, touted by ecologists, environmentalists, wilderness advocates, boy scouts, parents, public land managers, and even taught in public schools. The theology is well intentioned. Our species is clearly devastating the planet. But there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us on the one hand that we are part of nature—and on the other hand that we are the bad part!

As a society, we have embarked on perhaps the greatest social experiment ever conducted. What happens when we tell our children to look at nature, but not to touch it? What happens when kids are herded into organized sports, but never really get beyond the lawn grass to explore, play, or build forts in the woods or gullies at the edge of town? What happens when kids spend all their free time exploring virtual worlds, but not the real one?

Consider the Army veteran who was unable to start a fire in my neighbor’s wood stove, because he couldn’t light a big log with a little match. He had no concept of tinder and kindling, and he was unable to warm up the house on a cold winter day. He is not alone, and I am continually shocked to meet adults who don’t know how to chop wood, or cannot start a campfire without gasoline and matches. We have an entire generation of young people who are very smart, yet don’t know how the world works and don’t know how to take care of themselves. Conceptual knowledge is meaningless without context, much like having a brain in a box on a shelf. What good is it unless you can take it out and do something with it?

Author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the dangers of losing our connection with nature in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. His book sparked a new back to nature movement, as people began to recognize the importance of connecting with the natural world and having free time to play and experiment in the environment. Even the Forest Service has jumped on the bandwagon with its Kids in the Woods programs in an attempt to reconnect children and nature.

For those of us involved in traditional skills, Louv’s book labeled a problem to which we had already grasped the solution, as implied in the title of my wilderness survival book, Participating in Nature.

In short, what one can learn while playing in the woods is nearly impossible to quantify on a written test, yet essential to our understanding of real-world physics, essential to the quest for sustainability, and essential for sound resource management. In my case, figuring out how to meet my needs for shelter, fire, water, and food in the wilderness provided the proper grounding to address those same needs in society.

Self-Sufficiency
As a child, I lived in what later became known as the Silicon Valley, but every summer we traveled to Montana to visit my grandmother, Josie Jewett. She lived, “up a creek without a paddle,” as she often liked to say, and we kids spent our summers playing in that creek, building forts, and roaming the hills and meadows. Grandma Josie still cooked on a woodstove, and every day she made a pot of herbal tea, using herbs such as peppermint, yarrow, blue violets, or red clover, which we collected on our walks and dried. When we moved back to Montana for my junior high and high school years, Grandma’s house was the one place that I wanted to go every weekend and every summer.

As a teenager and young adult, I indulged in things that our culture doesn’t necessarily view as productive. I had little interest in going to college or getting a job. Instead, I hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains, studying plants, stalking deer, and experimenting with survival skills. Every day was a new opportunity to starve, trying to live on roots that were too small to justify harvesting them, trying to outwit ground squirrels that were smarter than me, or trying to down a dinner of fried grasshoppers and enjoy it.

Every night was a new opportunity to freeze in shelters that seemed like good ideas in the survival books, but didn’t really work in the northern Rockies. The challenge is that you can’t just take a class and get a diploma that says you now know how to survive in the world. You can get the basic idea, but ultimately, you have to go experiment to figure out how these skills apply to your specific environment.

I lay awake, shivering in many cold, damp, or drafty shelters, before I learned how to build some that were adequately warm and dry, or sometimes downright cozy, even without a blanket. Through trial and error, with little more than my bare hands, I learned the fundamentals of sound construction principles and energy efficiency. Lacking a tent or sleeping bag, a thermostat, or a furnace, I became acutely aware of heat loss due to drafts or conduction. Trying to stay dry taught me a lot about proper shingling and ditching around my dwellings. Hauling firewood to my shelters made energy itself tangible and quantifiable and taught me the importance of conservation. Rubbing sticks together and living with fire gave me an intimate familiarity with my energy source in all kinds of conditions, from hot and dry, to cold and windy, drenching wet, or even while sleeping inches away in a grass-lined bed inside a shelter built of kindling.

My greatest fear in life was getting stuck in a job and losing my freedom. I understood that I could not just hang out at my grandmother’s house and tan hides, eat cookies, and go camping my whole life. But I desperately did not want to go the conventional route of going to college, getting a job, and paying down a mortgage until retirement. That seemed a little more complicated than it had to be anyway.

With my background in survival skills, I recognized that it was fundamentally the same issue. We are all on one great survival trip, trying to figure out how to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food—preferably without destroying the planet in the process. That really is the bottom line. How can we sustainably meet our needs for shelter, water, fire, and food without consuming all the earth’s resources, without altering the climate, and without being enslaved to a meaningless job until we die?

The conventional route of getting a job and paying a mortgage doesn’t really work. Conventional houses are way too expensive, and not even very good. Most houses require a furnace and constant inputs of fossil fuels to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking. The bathrooms are virtually guaranteed to rot out halfway through the mortgage. The walls are so flimsy that you can punch a hole through one with a fist. From the floor to the roof, there is an endless parade of ripping out, landfilling, and replacing carpets and cabinetry, furniture, and shingles.

It is any wonder that we struggle with resource depletion and global warming when every person in America is burning up the pavement running back and forth to a job that is generally bad for the environment, just to make a pile of money to throw at their home mortgage, utility bills, and endless repairs? What happens if we hit a recession and don’t bounce back? How long can we maintain the illusion of being an affluent nation?

It made sense to me to focus on the basics and build my own house, figuring that if I had a place to live and no mortgage then I would be free to do whatever I wanted in life. I had no qualifications to build a house, beyond having read some books on the subject, but I was accustomed to making do.

I did know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and with that on my resume I got a job working with troubled teens in the wilderness, and saved up a small nest egg to get started. I married my girlfriend from high school, and together we bought land, moved into a tent and built a passive solar stone and log home for about the cost of a new car. Later, we added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, producing on average as much power as we consume. Naturally, the house doesn’t have either a furnace or a thermostat.

Ironically, life’s choices later took us away from home for most of eight years, but I never really worried about the house. We could leave it all winter without risk of freezing the plants or breaking the pipes. The house just sat there sustaining itself. The solar water heater kept producing hot water; the photovoltaic panels kept generating electricity, running the meter backwards. I stopped by every couple weeks and watered the greenhouse, which kept growing greens, and thanks to my brother’s care, the chickens kept laying eggs. And that’s the funny thing about sustainable living. It’s really not all that difficult to achieve and it is far easier than the conventional route. If we had built houses properly in the first place, then we wouldn’t be facing such dire economic and environmental issues today.

I read an article recently outlining ways to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Oddly, one of key suggestions was to provide incentives for foreigners to come to America to start businesses and create jobs, as if we Americans are no longer capable of doing it ourselves. Are we really that far gone as a country, that we are dependent on the charity of others for employment opportunities? Have Americans lost all sense of self-sufficiency, reduced to mere couch potatoes, capable of thinking, but not of doing? What happened to the can-do attitude that built this country?

The reality is that graduating from college with a piece of a paper that says you know something no longer guarantees that you can get a good job. Getting a job no longer guarantees that you can keep it for life, and having a fat retirement fund one day is no guarantee that it will still be worth anything when you actually need it.

Welcome to the new era of self-sufficiency. It is about shelter, fire, water, and food. Whether you live in the city or the country, there are always steps you can take to become more self-sufficient. You can prioritize your expenses to pay down your mortgage faster. You can improve the energy efficiency of your home to become more independent from the power company. You can remodel and retrofit rot-prone materials with something made to stand the test of time. You can collect rainwater from the roof for use as household or irrigation water. You can plant fruit trees to grow free food either for yourself or for children walking down the sidewalk. If you have the skills to take care of yourself, then you have the skills to take care of others, and you will never be short of work. Moreover, if you have your shelter, fire, water, and food in order, then you can choose whether you want to work or not.

Today there are a great many disenfranchised young adults who don’t feel that college is for them, and don’t want to get a job and become hopelessly stuck in the machine for the rest of their lives. I founded a fledgling Green University® to provide a new and desperately needed model for higher education—one where young people can get grounded with hands-on wilderness skills, combined with a healthy dose of do-it-yourself alternative construction and sustainable living skills. It is my hope to eventually mentor participants in green business development, providing a support network to help students incubate enterprises that will make a positive difference in the world.

In addition to mentoring young adults, the highlight of my year is always taking the local junior high kids out for three days and two nights of wilderness survival skills. They sleep in shelters of sticks and bark, even in torrential rains, and sometimes they sleep in piles of grass without even a blanket. They make fires by rubbing sticks together. They make their own dishes; they wade into the swamps and gather cattail roots for food; they cook their own meals, doing such things as a stir-fry using hot rocks on a slab of bark instead of a metal pan, or cooking bread in a stone oven. They stalk wildlife; they stalk each other. They play in the mud; they have marshmallow blowgun wars.

As one student, John, wrote after a camping trip, “I have pondered the simple construction of the mousehut… sticks, grass, and bark piled on each other, but yet it is one of the warmest shelters I have ever encountered. How interesting that a mouse, a hundred times smaller than myself, can survive performing the same tasks we did to make the shelter. Also, how smart this creature must be to come up with this simple, but yet, complex design. In my opinion, you must experience it to fully understand what it is all about.”

I doubt that any one of these kids will ever be in a situation where they have to build a mouse shelter or start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But I also know that you can ignite something much bigger than a fire with these kinds of skills. Doing hands-on skills connects the brain to the hands and the hands to the world. This kind of hands-on ability not only makes it possible to transform ideas into reality, but also facilitates the flow of information the other direction, from the hands to the brain, opening up a world of infinite possibilities.

Towards a Sustainable Civilization
Perhaps most importantly, the hands-on quest for shelter, fire, water, and food ultimately enables a deeper connection with the natural world. As I wrote in Participating in Nature:

      In primitive living you learn about the wilderness as you create your niche in the ecosystem and gather the resources you need for living. For example, to harvest edible plants you have to learn about them. You learn the names and the habitats of plants. You learn about individual edible plants by eating them and by noticing the changes in the appearance and taste throughout the year. As you harvest plants you learn to recognize them throughout the year, as dead stalks, or seeds, or even by the roots. As you seek out edible plants you begin to notice characteristics of the soil; you begin to notice that your desired herb grows better in one type of soil than another.

      The knowledge that you acquire is not always scientific, but you develop an acute awareness of nature and natural resources. For instance, you learn the basics of geology as you look for different types of rock that are useful as tools in primitive living. You might look for quartz, quartzite, or chert rocks to use as “flint” in flint and steel fire starting. Or you might look for sandstone to use for sanding arrow shafts or bows, or to abrade a stone tool. You might look for a clay deposit for making pottery, or for various minerals for mineral paints. You learn about geology as you spend hours searching the riverbank for the right piece of round, symmetrical, fine-grained rock for a hammerstone. You begin to notice if the rocks around you are igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. Instead of merely hiking from point A to point B, the process of hunting and gathering makes you investigate the land around you.

This intimate connection with nature isn’t just critical to our own well-being, it is essential to the effort to conserve nature. The bottom line is that the more you know about something, the more you care about it. The more you care about it, the more you will work to protect it. One of the greatest threats to wilderness and wild places is a lack of cars at the trailheads. If we reduce nature to mere wallpaper — something to look at, but not to touch — then who is really going to care about it or advocate for it?

As another student, Chas, wrote after the three-day camp-out, “It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.”

Some of the most successful conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited or Trout Unlimited, are driven by consumers of nature — people who work to expand habitat and breed more ducks and more trout because they like to hunt and fish for them. This act of participating in nature effectively increases the demand for more nature. As ecologists and environmentalists, we need to adopt this new paradigm and help the populace reconnect with the natural world before we bulldoze and develop everything that is left.

As Spencer wrote after the camping trip, “The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.”

An experiential connection with nature is in fact imperative if we are to conserve and sustainably manage our natural resources. Consider energy. What happens when people grow up without a quantifiable sense of energy or knowledge of where it comes from when they flip on a light switch? How can we formulate sensible energy policy or steward our resources when energy itself is an abstraction?

If you spend enough time living with fire, you can develop a quantifiable sense of energy. You will know approximately how much heat and light a given pile of firewood produces, and from that you can better extrapolate to make meaning out of energy policy concerning coal, oil, gas, or the various avenues of generating electricity. Likewise, if you have a solar water heater, you can temporarily turn off your electric water heater, to experientially discover just how much hot water a solar water heater produces according to the weather and the seasons.

My local utility would very much like to construct a massive transmission line, with fourteen-story tall towers, down our local section of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It is being touted as a “green” energy project because it would serve partly as a conduit to send wind energy from Montana south to markets in Las Vegas and California. But it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is nothing remotely green or sustainable about building this kind of industrial infrastructure and ramrodding it through virgin land. It would be far more sensible if utilities installed solar water heaters for their customers and took care of any maintenance, just as some utilities still come around to light customers’ gas furnaces each fall. Rather than each customer researching solar water heater brands and installers, the utility could take advantage of volume-pricing to install thousands of identical units, charging customers for some, but not all of the energy they save. In effect, the customer would get a small discount on the monthly utility bill, while the utility would get to sell the same electricity twice. That would constitute green energy policy.

A Deeper Connection
There is one more thing you may begin to see when you spend enough time in nature and begin to connect on a deeper level. You can begin to see the things that are no longer there.

That is perhaps the greatest irony of our cultural disconnect with nature. If you don’t know what lives outside your window, then you will not notice if it disappears, either. In fact, you can take a lush and forested ecosystem and completely denude it, and if it happens slowly enough, than nobody will notice any difference.

I’ve walked thousands of miles across several western states, looking at the ground. Prior to the domestication of livestock, semi-arid rangelands took care of themselves. In North America, massive herds of buffalo migrated across the West, sticking together for protection from predators. These herds nuked everything in their path. Anything not eaten was trampled into the soil, effectively planting fresh seeds while providing a mulch cover of organic matter and manure.

Today our rangelands suffer most from a lack of animal impact, so new seeds don’t get planted. The bare ground between the plants keeps spreading, even when the existing grass grows tall and green. In places like west Texas or South Africa, where the wild animals were too numerous to count only two hundred years ago, the land supports only a handful of cows over hundreds of miles today. The same process is happening all the way north to Montana, but almost nobody has a clue, because most people are too removed from nature to know what they are looking at on the ground, and whatever you see out the window looks completely normal, as long as you have nothing else to compare it to.

Moreover, the thing that makes the soil brown or black in the first place is carbon that has been extracted from the atmosphere and, in the case of rangelands, trampled into the ground to build soil. Grasses grow rapidly, and grasslands can sequester significantly more carbon per acre than forests. We’ve not only shut down the sequestration cycle on every continent, we’ve also oxidized half or more of the organic carbon from most crop and rangelands back into the atmosphere. And we wonder why we have a global warming problem.

It is hard to imagine now, but people once hunted pigs in the forests of Israel. Greece was also covered by rich Mediterranean forests. The fertile fields of Libya once grew grain for the Roman Empire. Is it any wonder that people fight all the time in places like Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, where the land has lost its fertility?

We may see on the news that the capital of China is in danger of being buried under sand dunes, but what we don’t see is that we are also turning the American West into a new Saharan desert. You can watch it happen year by year if you are accustomed to looking at the ground.

The problem can be easily remedied once it is understood, and with proper soil management, we could potentially put the brakes on global warming. Yet, the ground beneath our feet is functionally invisible to most people. Perhaps we could see it better if we took off our shoes and got back in touch with the earth.

I like to think of primitive living as a metaphor for living in the modern world. The metaphor reminds us that we are part of the ecosystem and we have no choice but to take from it. But in the quest to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the ecosystem, and we become empowered to make a difference in the world. Playing in the woods won’t solve all the world’s problems, or necessarily any of them. But it can point us in the right direction, and direction is perhaps what we need more than anything else.

Thomas J. Elpel delivered this as the keynote speech at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska in October 2011.

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Déjà vu: NorthWestern Energy’s Risky Investment

NorthWestern Energy's actions resemble those that destroyed the Montana Power Company

“For nearly 90 years, the Montana Power Company exemplified the very best of American capitalism. It provided cheap, reliable electricity for the people of Montana, excellent benefits for thousands of employees and generous, reliable dividends for its stockholders.”

So begins the narrative from the 2003 CBS News/60 Minutes expose, Who Killed Montana Power? Reading the narrative online, it is difficult to shake the sense of déjà vu, that we are witnessing the same tragic story all over again, through NorthWestern Energy’s risky investment in the proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI).

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes report, “Everyone was happy, except for the corporate officers and their Wall Street investment banking firm who decided there was more money to be made in the more glamorous and profitable world of telecommunications. The result exemplified the worst of American capitalism… [The demise of Montana Power] may not be the biggest scandal of our time, but to its stockholders, it shows how greed and outright stupidity destroyed one of the oldest and proudest companies in America.”

In parallel with Montana Power, NorthWestern Energy is betting the company on a risky investment that offers nothing for its customer base here in Montana. MSTI’s sole purpose is to satisfy corporate greed by exporting electricity from Montana to potential customers in Las Vegas and southern California. MSTI will not provide electricity to Montanans. It will not provide jobs for Montanans. And there is nothing green about industrializing the Montana landscape with fourteen-story tall transmission towers. What MSTI will do is give out-of-state customers the opportunity to bid against Montanans for our hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired electricity, driving up rates instate.

In the pursuit of profit, NorthWestern Energy is openly waging war against Montanans, trying to ramrod this monstrosity across farms and ranches and right through some of our most scenic valleys. NorthWestern lobbyists pressured state legislators into passing HB 198, giving corporations the power of eminent domain. It enables companies like NorthWestern to take private property for profit-making ventures. But what kind of a company wages war on its own customers?

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes expose, Montana Power “was going to join the dot.com revolution by transforming itself into a high-tech telecommunications company called Touch America. The decision was made on the advice of its New York investment banker, Goldman Sachs, without consulting the stockholders.”

Montana Power lobbied the legislature to push through a bill that deregulated the price of electricity, and opened the markets up to competition – even though Montana had some of the lowest utility rates in the country. Deregulation inflated the value of Montana Power, at which point the company began selling off its assets to invest in Touch America, following the advice of Goldman Sachs. The result was that, “Electricity prices in Montana doubled, then redoubled, and doubled again – refineries, lumber mills, and the last working copper mine in Butte was forced to suspend operations because they couldn’t afford their electricity bills.”

Any corporation that wages war on its own customers in the pursuit of profit is at risk of implosion. Good investing begins here at home, not on market speculation. We lost a great power company when the executives at Montana Power got greedy. It is unfortunate to see NorthWestern Energy following the same path, gambling on risky investments at the expense of its customer base. It is going to take a long time for NorthWestern to heal these wounds. The company could start by canceling MSTI and offering a big apology for its actions.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (www.JeffersonRiver.org), PO Box 697, Pony, MT 59747. This guest editorial was published in The Madisonian September 22, 2011.

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Guest Editorial: Viewshed the same one Lewis & Clark enjoyed

Northwestern Energy's proposed MSTI transmission line would include fourteen-story tall transmission towers along the Jefferson River segment of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

“It is easy to follow the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail through southwest Montana: Just follow the fourteen-story tall high-voltage transmission towers.”

That is how we can promote local tourism if the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approves NorthWestern Energy’s proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) through the Jefferson Valley. The transmission line is proposed for the purpose of exporting electricity to out-of-state buyers at the expense of Montanans who have to live with the monstrosity.

The Jefferson River is part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, established by Congress in 1978. “It is the mission of the National Park Service to preserve the remnants of the historic route of 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition located along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail,” according to the www.nps.gov/lecl website.

In essence, the LCNHT can be thought of as a long, skinny national park–but without any federal protection. The Jefferson River segment of the LCNHT is significant, in that Lewis and Clark named the river in honor of the president who initiated their expedition to explore the Missouri headwaters and search for a navigable route to the Pacific.

Most of the Jefferson River runs through private land, and the entire length of the river is already threatened by encroaching development. Yet amazingly, when you get into a canoe and experience the river from the viewpoint of Lewis and Clark, you discover how much the viewshed remains intact from the river. Most of the existing development is far enough back from the river that you only experience the cottonwood ecology along the river, against a backdrop of undeveloped mountains in the distance.

Although MSTI’s fourteen-story tall steel towers would be largely built away from the river, the towers will be glaringly visible from the river and throughout the Jefferson Valley.

This transmission line is not being proposed to serve the people of Montana, nor is there anything remotely “green” about this kind of industrial development. MSTI will create only about 50 temporary jobs in the state of Montana, but it will be a permanent scar on our landscape and our tourism industry. There is only one purpose behind MSTI, and that is corporate greed. Do we really want to turn our homeland into an industrial wasteland to make NorthWestern Energy look good on Wall Street?

Unfortunately, the National Park Service lacks any jurisdiction to say “No” to this absurd proposal. It is up to the people of Montana to protect ourselves and the Jefferson River segment of the LCNHT from desecration by NorthWestern Energy. NWE is a relative newcomer to this state, and the company has made it clear that they are not here to serve Montanans but to exploit us for profit. Montanans will pay for this transmission line, if not in higher utility bills, then definitely in lost tourism dollars and a devalued landscape.

We are blessed with an incredible quality of life here in the Jefferson Valley. If we are to preserve our quality of life for future generations, then we must begin by preserving our past. The bottom line is that MSTI is a threat to our past and our future. NorthWestern Energy doesn’t belong here if the company is going to trample over the people of Montana.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (www.JeffersonRiver.org). This guest editorial was published in the Montana Standard on June 25th, 2010.

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