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Energy Literacy, Part II: Why Less Energy Is More

If we Americans still relied on human muscles to generate all the energy we happily consume, we'd each have 150 dedicated "energy slaves" working for us, all day, every day. Instead, we've been exploiting other forms of energy—mostly non-renewable and emissions-generating fossil fuels—for the past 150 years. But it takes increasingly more energy to make fossil-based energy, since the "easy" fossil fuels have largely been depleted and attention is now turning to sources such as oil sands. Compounding this problem is the growing sea of humanity that demands power.

Actually, there are many compounding factors, as author and Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg lays out in the introduction, below, to Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, a new book from PCI and the Foundation for Deep Ecology. We can't just keep feeding the machine, he argues. When it comes to energy, less is more—but becoming more efficient with our energy is not enough to turn this boat all the way around.

The book also includes essays from a long list of leading thinkers and writers on energy, emissions, consumption, efficiency, and the energy economy, including Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, James Hansen, and Amory Lovins. In Part I of this series we spoke with the book's editor, Tom Butler, about green power's dark side, the power (and possible pitfalls) of energy ruin porn, and the population problem.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

Derelict_coal_plantA derelict coal-burning power plant in Romania. Photo: Douglas Tompkins

INTRODUCTION: Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth

Energy is at the core of the human predicament in the 21st century. Extracting fossil fuels poisons landscapes, fragments habitat, and destroys beauty. Burning those fuels is changing the chemical composition of the global atmosphere and accelerating climate change. At the same time, spiraling fossil fuel prices—resulting from depletion of the highest-grade and most easily accessed hydrocarbon resources—have contributed to a worldwide financial crisis that threatens global stability. Not only are transport costs rising, threatening globalized supply chains, but soaring energy prices also drive up food prices, leading to increasing social unrest around the world.

As conventional oil and gas deplete, energy companies are forced to spend more and more to search for and produce resources that are farther afield, that are more technically challenging to access, and that pose serious risks to ecosystems. In their increasingly desperate search for “extreme energy,” oil and gas companies must operate at the margin of their technical capabilities. Under these circumstances, accidents are not only more likely to happen, but are often far more disastrous when they do: Recall the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and imagine a similar or larger accident happening hundreds of miles off the coast of Alaska in rough arctic seas. Indeed, the entire project of globalized industrial civilization—which took root and dramatically expanded during the 20th century as cheap energy drove production, trade, and population growth—now seems imperiled as energy and ecological limits come into view.

It’s tempting to take the micro-view and look for ways to target each of our energy problems with a technical fix. Can’t we improve the energy efficiency of vehicles, insulate our buildings, and develop renewable energy sources? Yes, of course. Can’t we regulate the fossil fuel industry better, and allow the vast, recently unlocked North American reserves of shale gas and shale oil to be produced responsibly? Possibly. We could do all of those things, and many more besides, to lessen the current energy economy’s impacts on natural and human communities—and still there would remain serious obstacles ahead.

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Black Marble: Stunning New Satellite Photos and Video of the Earth at Night

A cloud-free view from space as acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership Satellite (Suomi NPP). Over nine days in April and thirteen days in October 2012, it took 312 satellite orbits and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of land surface.

For roughly a year, NASA has been using a satellite with a technology sensitive enough to detect and capture a picture of the light coming from a single ship at sea or a lone light on the highway. The Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership Satellite employs a day-night band sensor that can analyze and adjust the amount of light in individual pixels and then put them together to create one sharp, stunning image of the earth at night. "Unlike a camera that captures a picture in one exposure, the day-night band produces an image by repeatedly scanning a scene and resolving it as millions of individual pixels," NASA said in a press release. "Then, the day-night band reviews the amount of light in each pixel. If it is very bright, a low-gain mode prevents the pixel from oversaturating. If the pixel is very dark, the signal is amplified."

711010main_dnb_united_states_673The United States at Night. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

It's not just that the NPP sensor is sensitive enough to detect artificial lights. It can also capture the light created by auroras or moonlight reflected in the earth's atmosphere, gas flares, and forest fires. Experts have already employed the satellite's images for a number of practical reasons. They used them to study Hurricane Sandy's moonlit-illuminated landfall in New Jersey on October 29, the power outages that resulted along the coasts of New York and New Jersey after the storm, the movement of forest fires at night in Siberia, and NOAA's Weather Service used the images to detect fog rolling into San Francisco Bay on November 26—which led to flight delays and cancellations.

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Energy Literacy, Part I: Green Power's Dark Side and Eco Ruin Porn

GW_windfarmDown on the wind farm. Photo: George Wuerthner

Every therm and watt of energy we consume comes from somewhere, and those sources are finite, even if they're generally well removed from our daily lives. Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth is a new coffee table book by the Post Carbon Institute and the Foundation for Deep Ecology that shows and tells us, in graphic detail, the backstories that make up our current energy economy.

Adventure Ethics spoke with the book's co-editor, Tom Butler, about the value of beauty, the potential of energy ruin porn, the population problem, and the importance of energy literacy. In Part II of this series, we'll offer an excerpt from the book.


How did this large format art book come about?
The germination was in an earlier project that the Foundation for Deep Ecology's publishing group had produced and that was about mountaintop removal coal mining, called Plundering Appalachia, which George [Wuerthner] and I co-edited. We had immersed ourselves in that particular and specific part of energy economy, this horrific act of blowing up mountaintops to get at coal in the most ancient mountains and biologically rich forest type in North America. So that book we produced with a coalition of environmental groups that are fighting that practice. After that, we started talking about a similar project about tar sands.

George was up there in the tar sands, taking aerial photos and researching that problem, and when we started talking about it we realized it's just another very small part of an energy economy that is fundamentally toxic to nature and to people. It diminishes biological diversity, it diminishes beauty. Pulling out a single narrow slice of the bigger subject, by just talking about tar sands, didn't make sense to us. So we decided to open it up and try to do a project that makes the invisible visible to people—and that is, the systemic impacts of the current energy economy. Let's explore what is behind the light switch when you flip it on, what's behind the gas pump when you fuel up, and make it visible to people in an art book—a large photo format book.

If people are going to be engaged in reorienting our currently toxic energy economy and transferring to an energy economy that is more friendly to nature, to people, to beauty, to human health, biodiversity and all these things we care about ... [that] is only going to be possible if people are thinking about it and understand these key principals of energy. So energy literacy is really the focus of the project. The introductory section on energy literacy we spent quite a bit of time on. We want it to be very accessible and very easily understood because we think it's so important for people to understand net energy, and embodied energy, and how energy props up the entire scaffolding of civilization and in the converse how the entire scaffolding of civilization is required to produce the energy that supports it, so it's sort of a feedback loop.

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In Battle Over Bivavles, Salazar Sides With Environmental Groups

Oysters_bagsBags of oysters. Photo: Orin Zebest

It's been a year of important milestones in Marin County, California. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes the Marin Headlands, turned 40. The Golden Gate Bridge hit 75 years. Further north, the Point Reyes National Seashore is 50. Now, an oyster farm's lease to operate on National Park Service land inside the National Seashore has expired. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar rejected pleas to extend and renew the lease, ending a highly charged battle between Drakes Oyster Company, the National Park Service, and environmental groups.

During the 1960s, both the headlands and the beaches along the Point Reyes Peninsula were under threat by developers who wanted to build up and subdivide those landscapes, so locals pushed for protection, fought hard, and won. It's difficult to imagine what Point Reyes would look like today if it had been developed and a planned major freeway cut through West Marine—let alone a proposed nuclear power plant.

But recently, the Drakes Oyster Company has been at the center of a storm over the Drakes Estero, a 2,000-acre, ecologically important estuary in which it operates. In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was added to the National Park System and sections of it were later deemed to become wilderness areas. In 1972, the National Park Service bought out the Johnson Oyster Company and granted it a lease to continue operating for 40 years. When Kevin Lunny purchased the company in 2004, his lawyers told him they could likely get the lease extended, according to the Mercury News.

The accusations on both sides have been fierce. In a polished, 20-minute video on its website, Drakes Bay Oyster Company accuses the government of looking for environmental harm where it does not exist and says the National Park Service has hid information that would have exonerated the company from claims that its operations hurt the estero and its federally protected harbor seals. In the video, Corey Goodman, a neuroscientist and biotech entrepreneur who Drakes Bay called in to fact-check the Park Service's findings, accuses the NPS of scientific misconduct.

But the Sierra Club, the Marin Audubon Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are among the groups who applaud Salazar's decision, saying that moving forward with a marine wilderness designation for the estero—making it the first such area on the West Coast—is the right thing to do.

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The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season, by the Numbers

The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season in 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Video: NOAA Visualization Lab

Today marks the end of the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season, one of the busiest and costliest storm seasons in U.S. history. This season tied 2010 and 2011 for third place all time with 19 named storms, making the three-year span a rare, extended period of high activity.

In 2012, there were 19 named storms, 10 of which became hurricanes and one of which became a major hurricane. NOAA classified the year as "above normal" based on the number, intensity, and duration of all tropical storms and hurricanes, saying that 10 seasons exceeded 2012 in the last three decades in terms of the combined effect of the three previously mentioned factors. The only major hurricane of the year was Michael, a Category III storm that died out over the Atlantic Ocean, but the storm that people will talk about when they mention 2012 is, of course, Sandy.

“This year proved that it’s wrong to think that only major hurricanes can ruin lives and impact local economies,” said Laura Furgione, acting director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. “We are hopeful that after the 2012 hurricane season, more families and businesses all along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts become more ‘weather ready’ by understanding the risks associated with living near the coastline.”

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