Saturday, August 11, 2012

Clean Air & Water, Healthy Food, Snug Shelter...

On May 24, 2012, the California Air Resources Board held a panel discussion seeking public comments and suggestions on how best to invest the proceeds from upcoming annual auctions of cap & trade GHG allocations. My response follows the questions which each panel (and all public input) were asked to address.

First panel: How California can effectively invest the auction funds to meet the goals of Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) including support of long-term, transformative efforts to improve public health and develop a clean energy economy?

Second panel: What criteria should be prioritized in the development of an investment plan for auction funds and why?

The best investments will be in longterm sustainable appropriate technology and infrastructure such as permaculture and eco-villages rather than in transitional projects such as electric cars or ‘smart’ computerized buildings. Investments in truly sustainable projects only need to be made once, whereas investing first in transitional projects just means more resources will be required for two or more investment stages rather than just one.

The best way to prioritize investments is with a goal-oriented global criteria for efficiency:

                        clean air and water, healthy food, snug shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise
Efficiency = ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                    energy & resources

Investing so as to transform our overdeveloped economy into one which produces optimal health and happiness can best be leveraged by focusing on real variables such as our true physical needs: clean air and water, healthy food, snug shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise. It’s these physical needs which are most relevant to the issue of physical energy sources. All of these needs are (and have always been) available without any fossil fuels, including nuclear. It’s only recently that we have gotten addicted to these jackpot fuels.

The path to renewable sustainability has few benchmarks or milestones. One of them is the idea of the 2000 watt society, described at The rate of 2000 watts is the approximate global per-capita average energy use, and the Swiss use about 5000. Their estimates indicate that a substantial proportion of energy use is societal rather than strictly individual, so a market-dominant policy approach will be incomplete.

Adaptation to climate change can be most effective and efficient by giving the highest investment priority to reviving traditional means of meeting the needs listed above. Their direct and local production offers simple ways to radically improve efficiency, and will only require one stage of investment.

Another useful parameter is for an investment to clearly lead to projects that meet the constraint of the energy price of human muscles, or biofuels grown with no fossil fuel input. As a rule of thumb the price of humanpower is about $800/gallon, at least in the U.S. In other words, it takes a healthy and energetic person 100 hours straight to put out the work we can get for $4/gallon now. While this is a stringent criteria, it will require only the one stage of investment.

For example, rearranging habitation patterns so that people’s needs for producing food and water could be met within walking or bicycling distance (as was traditional until 100 or 200 years ago) would be a very effective way to adapt to climate change so as to reduce GHG emissions substantially and cost-effectively. Concerns about mobility should be reframed as the goal of access. Judicious removal of suburban asphalt would be very effective when replaced by local and intensive urban neighborhood farms. Similarly, supporting education in traditional methods of producing and using food, as well as fiber, wood, cloth, and other basic artifacts would be a very reliable long-term investment for reducing GHG emissions without deprivation.

Fortuitously, many manufacturing and consumption processes which are now powered by fossil fuels can be revised to use muscle power instead. The classic example is the electric can opener, but there are many more processes now performed by devices powered by engines or motors that could be accomplished with manually operated mechanisms. Good candidates for such substitution include leafblowers, lawnmowers, washing machines for clothes and dishes, blenders, and many carpentry tools.

Since sustained 1/10 hp power output is possible for many people, investing in manual mechanical devices to replace the many existing devices that (can) use less power than that offers very attractive real returns on investment in terms of reducing GHG emissions. The elegance and potential of low-power mechanical designs is widely underappreciated, in my engineering opinion.

In most cases there is likely to be a traditional tool or design already available that accomplishes the same purposes without using any fossil fuels except perhaps in the initial construction. And adroit designs could expand the number of processes that can be re-manualized, developing new mechanisms which leverage our strength ergonomically.

Moreover, many traditional trades and craft processes have multiple benefits, such as providing healthy exercise while simultaneously producing/preparing healthy food or constructing buildings which can serve as both residences and workplaces.

Even more fortuitously, reducing many unhealthy aspects of excessive fossil use can dramatically reduce both costs and externalities. We know fossil fuels are themselves toxic, and their extraction is becoming increasingly so, not to mention all the costly ‘side effects’ of fossil fuel technology (in addition to climate change), from addiction to drugs such as sugar, and fracking contamination of ground water, to ocean dead zones and collapsing bee colonies. Investing for a healthy planet would put fossil fuel investments dead last. For example, it would be better to invest in a bicycle than in a bus, better to buy a solar cooker than a microwave oven, and better to have composting privies than low-flush toilets.

Maslow’s hierarchy lists 5 basic levels of a well-rounded human: Self-actualization, Esteem, Love/belonging , Safety, and Physiological. The most basic, physiological level corresponds to ‘clean air and water, healthy food, snug shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise.’ There is evidence that people usually experience life on all these levels even during scarcity. Thus, a modest sufficiency of physical needs suffices for the pursuit of happiness. And fossil fuels really only pertain to the first, physiological level; beyond that, we just need each other.

But fossil fuels have warped our lives and culture so that all levels are now more or less larded with unnecessary energy consumption that tends to distract or even block us from living as we were evolved (or created) to live. Thus, another possible criteria could be reviewing an investment candidate from this wholistic point of view, and, again, prioritizing investments in the basics: clean air and water, healthy food, snug shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise.

Historically, environmental agencies have gotten beat up for alleged attempts at ‘social engineering’ instead of more command-and-control regulations that chambers of commerce dislike. Curiously, many of the complainers are in both cases the same financial engineers wearing tailored three-piece suits. Still, such complaints are a good opportunity to remind everyone of the priorities that pertain to physical energy and fossil fuels. And businesses that often express anxiety about unpredictability in the market can take comfort from the likelihood that a stable, equilibrium, no-growth economy would be reassuringly predictable, once we get it set up.

Priorities can never be about the money, because money can never be the independent variable. The real independent variables that are relevant here are: clean air and water, healthy food, snug shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise. Money is simply one of the interdependent means to these particular ends, ends which are the most relevant ones when the issue is physical energy sources.

Information about this workshop and other meetings can be found here, and the comments of various stakeholders and members of the public can be found elsewhere at

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