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There is NO OUTSIDE anymore

I am reading a book about kangaroos by Tim Flannery, who is also the author of the “Future Eaters” (published in 1994 and  made into a TV documentary in 1998).  I also spend far more time than I would like commuting, and so listening to public radio.  The near continuous coverage of mid-term US politics is a soothing background to thinking about energy.  A newspaper article out of Germany this week hits the topics that are floating around, and relates to the job I am trying to do.  My good friend Charles (the Prince of Wales) is out with a book as well; “Harmony” (He even reads an excerpt here).  Charlie gets a lot of bad press about his do-gooding attitudes, and one has to admit that being an organic farmer and looking to protect the architectural heritage of the world is a lot easier when you have a lots of inherited and tax-payer provided money to start with.  But if one gets past all that, his basic message is very relevant and necessary.

The central point of all this input is:  “THERE IS NO OUTSIDE!”

We are so used to thinking of the inside vs. the outside.  We bring water and food and clean air from the outside of house, and dump wastes and polluted air (from cooking and burning oil, gas, coal and whatever) back to the outside.  If we use an air conditioner (an air source heat pump) we bring cold air inside and dump hot air outside.

On a farm we bring water (via irrigation), fertilizer, fuel and all sorts of other material in, then we send concentrated food (good) and a heap of waste water, fertilizer run-off and green-house gases back out (not so good).

On a community level we again bring water, food and all sorts of materials inside, and then we dump sewerage and trash to the outside.

The ocean is one of those great “outsides”; we pull resources from it, like fish and oil, and then dump huge amounts of pollutants and trash back into it.  Hidden by a pretty, ruffled surface what goes on beneath is invisible to most of us.

On a national level we in the US, and the Europeans, are almost hard wired in this perception of the world.  We are “inside”, they are “outside”.  We pull in resources from outside, including energy, food, cheap labor, every possible consumer product and so forth.  Then we dump our trash, including old ships, electronics parts with heavy metals, carbon dioxide, and all sorts of other stuff back to the outside.

It can’t keep going that way.  We should have woken up when we saw the first pictures of Earth from space, during the Apollo missions.  But somehow, driven by profit and greed and “growth”, we ignored all the signs.  The “greatest generation” didn’t buy into a whole world view – the inside/outside view was just too ingrained.  The boomers, to our shame, overwhelmingly went along with the growth mantra.  Even now, when the preachers of growth and profit at any cost have been proven so conclusively wrong, we still look up to them and continue on the same path.  Growth will get us out of the recession.  Maybe – but growth in what?  And how long can we grow?  Mathematically infinite growth in a closed system is impossible.  Maybe the political party that wants to “take back America” has the answers.  “Back to where?” is my question.  Back to when the world population was 2 billion?  Back to teaching phlogiston and Ptolemaic theories?  Back to no votes for women, slavery, burning people who doubted the current doctrine at the stake?

Sorry – we can’t go back.  We can only go forward, and we can’t go forward in the “business as usual” style.  There is no way that we can have a global economy where each country tries to bring the things they desire from the outside, and dump what they don’t want back to the outside.  There is no outside anymore.  If we imagine a world of 10 billion people, all consuming and polluting at an American or European rate, then we really do have a nightmare scenario of empty oceans, eroding fields and filthy air.

Of course we don’t have to do anything right now.  We can probably wait until the last of the boomer generation is old and grey, and probably a bit beyond that.  But as we wait the range of choices becomes narrower and narrower.  In the same way as our choices become less as we fall into debt, we will be restricted in what we can do as we misuse resources, and neglect promising technologies.  We can look to a crash program – oh, say fifty years from now – to rectify “everything”.  Maybe….

If I had an answer I’d be rich and famous by now.  So, no answer, just more questions.

How does all this relate to the job at hand?

There is no clear energy policy in the US.  Even the fierce debate evident in Europe and Australia is absent from the front pages of the US media.  The energy programs keep ticking along at a low key.  Our energy audits show home owners how to save energy, save money and live in more comfort, through tried and proven methods.  We air-seal, insulate, replace inefficient boilers, furnaces and hot water systems, use CFLs.  We get to 25%, sometimes a lot more in savings.  Not bad at all.  The investment makes sense.  Government subsidies, rebates and 0% loans help – a lot.

But I cannot get rid of  that nagging feeling that we are going nowhere near far enough, fast enough.  Where is the impetus for really tight houses (with the needed heat recovery ventilation)?  Super-insulation? Solar?  Wind?  Ground-source heat pumps? Grey water reuse? Not here yet – in the future sometime…

In the meantime we are consuming the future of our children and grandchildren – future eaters indeed.

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