Randall Gerard writes back...

Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Black Gold, Texas Tea..

Moving back to the country house, I have decided, is a double-edge sword, but we're doing it anyway. On the one hand, we'll have more room to garden and raise critters. On the other hand, we'll be as dependent on petroleum as we have ever been, only more so. For one more summer, we'll have three adults in need of transportation to work, all of us working schedules that make car-pooling impossible. That means three separate vehicles. And three separate insurance policies, and tax and license fees. Three separate gas tanks. Three separate maintenance schedules, nickel and dime repairs (hopefully just nickel and dimes!) tires, belts, hoses, batteries... in the best of times with the best of cars, and even if you do manage to pay cash for the cars, they are a constant money pit.

I fantasize a great deal about selling eggs, meat, milk, produce and small furniture off my front porch to neighbors who must still drive to town every day for work. I can buy a years supply of the finest hay to feed a horse for a mere fraction of our annual gasoline bill. And so I dream of a sound horse pulling a stout amish-made buggy on our weekly trip to town, too. But first I have to quit driving to town every day for work myself. The pittance that can be made off my mini-farm won't go very far if I have to buy gas for three cars, or even two cars and a motorcycle. And I don't even want to think about the cost of propane and electricity needed to heat the house and run the lights and tools.

Why is this so-called simple, agrarian life so expensive? Well, I'm convinced that most of us, me included, are determined to pour new wine into old wine-skins, so to speak. We are determined to hang onto city ways way out in the country. We want the convenience of petroleum based energy sources, which are only affordable when every adult in the house is making a wage in town. And with everyone in town, who's going to milk the cow and weed the garden? Who's going to slaughter the chickens, chop the wood and do the dishes? Who's going to cook from scratch, fix fence, and teach the dog to leave the stock alone? There are only so many hours in the day; you can make a wage and buy gas to make a wage in order to buy more gas... or you can build a life and a life-style on your acreage. I think we're going to have to re-learn how to do without gas and electricity. Maybe not cold turkey right this minute, but we need to start by being more selective and conscious about how, when and where we use the grid and the petroleum that makes the grid possible.

I don't know about you, but I'm addicted. I love being able to plug things in and turn them on. I love typing on a keyboard, and if you saw my hand-writing, you'd understand why. Like any red-blooded male, I love power tools. But even I am beginning to see the hand-writing on the wall. The cheap fuel that makes constant growth and large-scale industry possible is running out. Oh, there's still plenty of fuel.. it's just getting too expensive to recover and refine. Back in the 30's when the American oil boom was in full swing in Texas and Oklahoma, oil-men were able to extract 100 barrels of oil for every single barrel expended. That is the key. Energy return on energy invested determines the cost and economic viability of exploiting any potential source of energy. Energy return on energy invested has been falling steadily all over the world. Ratios of 18 to 1, even 12 to 1 are now common. When that ratio falls to 1 to 1, oil won't be pumped, coal won't be dug, uranium won't be mined. Why expend energy to recover the same amount of energy that was just expended? I predict that will be one of the main dillemmas of our time. The implications for the endless growth economic paradigm are staggering.

For a no-nonsense explanation of energy returned on energy invested, see: http://www.eroei.com/articles/the-chain/what-is-eroei/

Also see:http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/republican/energy-return-on-investment-55031601