How to Heat, and What to Eat

Energy Bulletin has a pair of really good articles today that are of particular interest to those of us in the upper Midwest.

Whether we realize it or not, we live like gods today. American citizens living below the poverty line still enjoy a level of comfort that an ancient Roman emperor would have envied. Thanks to our modern industrial society, all of us can enjoy regulated temperatures in our homes year-round, and we can eat pretty much what we want, when we want, in quantities only limited by our appetites and/or our pocketbooks. Before the advent of modern transportation and refrigeration capabilities, even the most powerful people on earth were unable to enjoy a ripe orange in the middle of winter if they were not fortunate enough to live in the immediate vicinity of the orange grove. These days a person on food stamps could enjoy this luxury, though statistics show that more often they’ll ‘enjoy’ Doritios and Coke instead.

As you may know, we’ve got a gas problem here in the US. We are drilling natural gas wells as fast as we can and are still only keeping production levels more or less flat while demand continues to rise. One prospective fix that is offered up is Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), a very expensive way to turn NG into a liquid, pump it aboard special tankers, and deliver it to special ports in the US where it is re-gasified and introduced into the NG pipelines for consumption. There are a couple of issues with this; namely the cost of such an enterprise may make using NG for electricity generation and/or home heating prohibitively expensive for a number of people, and that the countries with the excess gas may not wish to sell it to us. Both of these concepts and more are discussed in Kurt Cobb’s latest article “If we build it, will they come?” Worth a read, especially if you need to keep your home heated in the winter.

Even a relatively gentle scenario like NG prices only doubling due to increased reliance on LNG would mean that many people would be unable to afford to heat their homes, especially most of the newer homes built in the last 10-15 years. Not many families could afford to pay $700 or more per month to keep their 2500 square foot homes warm, and odds are that it the price wouls quickly climb to higher rates, especially in the face of a harsh winter. Such is the price we pay for relying on non-renewable energy sources.

One scenario I could see out of this is more people inhabiting fewer houses. We had a small party at the domicile last night to celebrate Halloween. Even though it was close to freezing outside, I think we could have turned the thermostat down quite a bit if not turned it off altogether. We had 8 adults and four kids in the house, and it was really warm in there. Retro-fitting houses to either hold extended families or subdividing them into apartments may be a workable scenario for some. It would mean a lot less privacy that we are used to today, but I’d gladly trade that for not freezing to death.

Another article worth reading is “Grain Drain: Get ready for peak grain.” by Wayne Roberts. I’ve written about food issues in the past, and this is yet another wakeup call for all of us. Worldwide grain reserves are plummeting, and demand is rising dramtically due to both increased meat/dairy consumption and the new use of grains as motor fuel (ethanol). The article raises a very vaild point about the upcoming moral issues surrounding food: How can the wealthy eat large amounts of meat and consume tankfuls of ethanol when they know that the grain used to give them these luxuries could have fed poorer people for months, if not longer? Roberts points out that we haven’t seen full-blown food riots since the last oil crunch in the erly 1970s, but with the double-whammy of rising oil prices and dwindling grain production, we may be seeing them in a few years.

I can see this becoming a huge social justice issue in the coming years, especially if the drought conditions that are affecting large parts of the world persist. I’m considering volunteering to be on the landscaping committee at my local church, just to start improving the flower beds and start putting in some more multiple-use plants in to replace the purely ornamental varieties that were planted and are now suffering from lack of attention. Kind of a new “Garden of Eden” if you will. If local churches, community centers, and other public/semi-public places are willing to install permaculture plantings, I could see this having a few positive impacts in the community. Firstly, it will supply small amounts of food to help people in need. Not staples, but some variety if nothing else. Second, having other people volunteer to help take care of the plantings would help spread useful knowledge about both agriculture and permaculture principles. Being able to grow food without massive inputs of water and fertilizer will be critical knowldge for coming generations. Finally, it will put previously idle land into a better use than simply trying to look pretty.

To sum up, the two articles I’ve listed should be a wake-up call to all of us. We are still enjoying a very comfortable standard of living without having to struggle much for it. That will be changing at some point in the future. Hopefully it will be far enough out that we will have some warning and time to learn new skills and adapt to changing paradigms about what it means to ‘live well.’

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