Sunday, August 21, 2005

backwards facing people

Engineer Poet poses the question:
Yemen is a very sunny country, and the same things (solar technology) should work there too. They aren't using them. Is it cultural factors, the Yemenis just don't grasp what's going on, or has nobody tried?

The question encapsulates a description of human limitations.

Technically adept, science fiction readin' blackberry typin' Westerners have almost as much trouble understanding Yemenis as they have understanding us.

Human thinking is bounded in practical terms by experience.

A liberal arts education (not necessarily formal) gives one a sense of alternatives. One step past thoughtful imagination is the ability to follow through on something new and different, something which may fall outside the expectations of a given culture. Technical or scientific training can certainly bootstrap “out of the box” thinking in a free society.

In Yemen, building a solar powered oven to bake bread is within the realm of possibility, but of course, there are in fact cultural, educational, and technical reasons why it doesn't happen. That wood is close at hand certainly doesn’t help. It is also culturally appropriate technology, even if self destructive.

Relating this back to the West, you often see discussions of alternative energy framed as if oil will be followed by SOMETHING, (some energy source) because that is how Westerners are enculturated. Westerners have a built in limitation in their thinking – there is a kind of faith that usable, potable energy will follow expectations and desire. See economists.

Technology that uses energy is often confused with technology that is energy positive. (In the relative sense of course, no one is holding their breath for a perpetual motion machine.) Ethanol is a good example of this, and it is destructive practice to boot. It would be better to let fields lie fallow than to soak all the minerals out of the ground in worship of liquid fuel.

The evidence on the ground for an impending energy glut is thin. Significant alternative infrastructure must be built and the world is quite close to Peak Energy. This isn’t bad news of itself. Conservation and equitable sharing of global energy resources could take the globe through the next thirty years in relative comfort.

Thirty years – gives us plenty of time to get the tokomaks fired up.


At 8:00 PM, August 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled -- why is it foolish for the Yemenis to turn to wood for fuel?

There are definite advantages to wood:

1. You can raise and harvest the wood by yourself (assuming you have access to land), without relying on expensive parts and machinery from outside the area.

2. You can use the fuel at night.

3. Wood can be used sustainably. Actually this is the REAL issue.

4. Wood fires are part of the cultural heritage. I'm not sure how solar cookers are viewed.

- Bart

At 10:06 PM, August 21, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Bart, thanks for your question.

Here is how I see it.

Pollution aside, it comes down to this: Wood, and perhaps, our whole world, could be used sustainably.

There is zero evidence in history for sustainable human usage of anything over time.

Fish, Timber, Carbon Fuels, Soil, etc.

Yemen was once thickly forested, along with much of the Middle East.

It is not just "random chance" that those forests are now dwindled down to almost nothing.

So; take that fact, and now consider a world with a massive population and a lower trees to people ratio than at any time in world history.

Now remove a few million barrels of oil from the mix, or as in the case of Yemen, raise prices to a point where it makes more sense to forage for wood than pay for oil.

Immediately, a failed pattern emerges.

That is the issue.

At 2:05 PM, August 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Retorical question alert: Can you plant wheat on the same field year after year?
No you can't, not without draining the land and rendering it unfarmable (yes...with oil infusions in the form of fetilizers you can mitigate the problems...but that's a seperate issue).
Trees are crops, they just take longer to grow. Plant that same tree crop over and over and you will deplete the land (smaller, slower growing, less healthy trees).

How are forest lands fertilized now (talking tree farm lands here)? By burning the slash after logging...and that isn't enough to be sustainable.

Ignoring the whole carbon issue of all the burning...wood can be (will be?) a viable short term solution but for large populations I just don't see it working at all for the long term.


At 5:47 PM, August 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it cultural factors, the Yemenis just don't grasp what's going on, or has nobody tried?

Why does EP care? The solution normally offered by EP has been 'burn wood' in past posts. Why stop others burning wood?

3. Wood can be used sustainably. Actually this is the REAL issue.

Yup. If there were less people overall, it would not be a problem.

The price of oil is about a large number of people competing for a small amount of resources. If there were less people, there would be less demand.
I'm not sure how solar cookers are viewed.

Solar cookers are viewed as "I don't have to go and collect firewood or pay for natural gas".

At 7:42 PM, August 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts.

I guess I'm not convinced about the virtues of solar cookers. I think we in the first world have a cultural preference for shiny machinery as opposed to low-tech agriculture.

There is technology for growing timber sustainabily, just as there is technology for solar cookers.

If the Yemenis are harvesting wood locally, either they will figure out a way to do it sustainably or they will suffer from it.

Trees don't really need fertilizer the way that annual crops do, and they can grow on land that otherwise is marginal. (Tree farms are an aberration.)

The solution will probably be a combination of oil products for the rich, solar cookers where appropriate, and wood fuels.

As oil becomes more expensive, architecture will return to energy-efficient designs. Customs will return to sustainable patterns.

The big problem will be in the short-term future, as monkeygrinder says, with a high population, few trees and ways of life that have been distorted by cheap oil.


At 4:39 AM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'm not convinced about the virtues of solar cookers.

Solar cookers work. Try to look at them not thru the lens of someone who has electrical/gas based cooking anytime they want, but from people who have to hunt/gather firewood - sometimes having to travel 20 miles to gather firewood.

Solar cookers can make bread, and a cooked bread can exist for a few days - enough time to cover a cloudy day or 2. has links to solar cookers. , in addition to other links about havesting the energy from the sun.

At 10:58 AM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said: "Solar cookers work."

I don't dispute that. The most impressive models I've read about are the big ones for village use.

What I'm dubious about is presenting them as a "magic answer". Solar cookers require an infrastructure, dependence on outside suppliers and acceptance by the culture. In addition, they have technical shortcomings. For example, they can't be used for heating at night.

Solar cookers have a place, agreed. What grates on me is the arrogance that **we** have the answers, that local people are foolish to rely on resources that they control themselves.



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