Friday, October 28, 2005

Depletion and the Children's Movie

Energy depletion is not normally something one thinks of when watching children’s movies. The subject itself is hardly ever considered in grown-up movies and aside from Oil Storm and the upcoming Syriana, the topic of energy has usually only played a peripheral role in most plot lines, if at all. Yet it is some children’s movies that tackle the issue of depletion head-on, often without even knowing it. The subject is just out of view, behind the dastardly villain and the deserving hero(ine)s, a convenient plot device that moves the story forward. Three children’s movies in the past few years tackle this challenging subject, albeit with metaphorical references and cartoon characters. Unfortunately for the kids watching these movies (and others like it), the message being taught is not the correct one.

The Care Bears:
Big Wish Movie (2005), a direct to video production from Lions Gate, allegorically discusses the subjects of energy usage, depletion and pollution from the perspective of those good-natured, but not too bright creatures of Care-a-Lot. Superficially the movie tells the story of Wish Bear and her pal Twinkers, a magical star that grants a seemingly unlimited number of wishes. Wish Bear proceeds to make her life more comfortable and curry favor from her Care Bear pals by asking Twinkers to do this or that. Well, as it turns out, not all of those wishes were as they seemed and it soon became apparent to the other denizens of Care-a-Lot that Wish Bear’s wishes were having some unwanted side effects. Wish Bear becomes distressed that her actions are not being welcomed as favorably as she thought that they were and wishes for some new friends that would appreciate her wish powers. These new Care Bears were not at all Care-a-Lot material and through typical cartoonish shenanigans, they acquire Wish Bear’s source of power, Twinkers and go on a wish binge of their own. Eventually two things happen: poor Twinkers finally gets tired and can no longer keep up with the wish requests and all of the bear’s wishing starts to take the “caring” out of Care-a-Lot. The new bears’ McMansions, cars and factories (no I am not making this up, they were really in the movie) start to blot out the sun, stink up the kingdom and turn the colors to gray. When the Care Bears belatedly discover their actions have caused this mess they ask Twinkers to undo it. Unfortunately Twinkers is all wished out and cannot help. So the bears roll up their sleeves and do it themselves, cleaning up Care-a-Lot and learning how to “care” for them selves and not relying on little Twinkers. At the end of the movie, all is well in the Care Bear world, Twinkers is healthy again (and sparingly used), the new Bears apparently getting along and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.

The Big Wish Movie pretty much encapsulates much of the story behind oil and repackages it into a cute and cuddly form. What basically happens in this storyline is the lead character discovers a new and potentially limitless form of energy (much like petroleum or natural gas) that can do pretty much anything desired of it. The downside to its usage is that it also creates some unwelcome impacts. At first these are mostly annoying in their level of significance (replacing manually performed tasks with artificial means without any consideration to those performing it) but as usage increases, eventually these build up to cause serious impacts to the characters’ environment (air and noise pollution). Pollution and ill will grow to the point where all involved realize there is a problem. At first, there is some disagreement to the severity or ultimate solution, much like the debate between our scientists and our economists. Regrettably for the characters in the movie at this point of recognition, the source of energy can no longer keep up with the demands placed upon it, forcing the characters to solve their problems by themselves. Just like the bears in the movie, it is only at the point of Peak Oil production that we have figured this out for ourselves as well.

This movie covers the first half of petro-industrialization well. However as it is only a movie, and children’s one at that, the allegory fails to accurately depict what will happen next. The Care Bears are not bound by the laws of physics so their solution of do-it-yourself will not cut it for us. Nor will giving our oil fields a rest result in their regeneration. The reality is that oil will not regenerate in our life times and no level of human effort can come closed to the energetic expenditures offered up to us by oil and other fossil fuels. We will not solve all of our own problems with our own human powered efforts. In fact we probably will not even be able to sustain our total numbers, let alone repair our damages. The Care Bears, as dim as they are, were smart enough not to depend on Twinkers for their own sustenance and survival.

The next movie, Barbie:
The Princess and the Pauper (2004) by Mattel looks at depletion from a more economic and geo-political point of view. Briefly, this movie is presumably set in medieval times where everything is human or animal powered. The story opens with a worrisome problem for the queen of this modest sized kingdom: her gold mines are depleted and there is no longer any source of revenue to sustain her country and her lavish lifestyle. This sets off a frantic scramble whereby she offers up her daughter, Princess Annaliese to her neighboring (and still wealthy) kingdom, soon to be ruled by Prince Dominic. With the two married, the kingdoms could be merged so that Princess Annaliese’s country could continue to be sustained while at the same time maintaining the wealthy lifestyle the royal family is accustomed to. This plan is thwarted by the royal advisor Premenger’s scheme to take over the kingdom for himself in a sanitized-for-children kind of coup d’tat. By gaining control, Premenger could rule in absolute with the financial support from the stolen gold from the mines he was originally put in charge of. His plans were ruined by the Princess, her servant, an indentured seamstress and Prince Dominic when they exposed his treachery and at the same time discovered a completely new source of income, purple gems. The princess was not forced to marry Dominic and there was no unification. Both kingdoms prospered and the princess and her pauper friend the seamstress both found love with their respective love interests and lived happily ever after.
A new natural resource is discovered
prolonging the party

This movie is the only one not directly related to energy. At no point was any of the character’s existence or well being threatened by declining energy availability. This movie does however deal with the implications of sole dependence on one source of income based on a non-renewable natural resource and the potential damage that it may wreak on a particular region, state or country. Aside from Norway, most oil producing countries have not been particularly blessed by their apparent energetic “richness”. Most are despotic and once their source of revenue dries up, so does their standing in the world. Beyond the world of energy, mining and extraction activities in general have had a long and storied history of turning outposts into boom towns before collapsing once their resource was depleted. Time and time again there were gold, silver, guano, platinum and other mineral rushes that lead to fabulous wealth for all involved. When those sources were gone it forced a scramble for alternative sources of income. Some managed and diversified their economies. Some were absorbed by wealthier neighbors. Others simply collapsed. This movie takes the easy way out. It finds a way for all involved to continue the party and postponing the inevitable day of reckoning. In other words, it presupposes that something else will come along and *poof* that will solve our problems without us having to make any hard decisions. Unfortunately for us at this point, it is highly unlikely another form of higher value energy will be developed to offset our dependence on fossil fuels, no matter how much the market may demand it. Barbie tells us a good story. Don’t expect ours to have such a happy ending though.

Finally, no children’s movie discusses energy more than that of Pixar’s

Monster’s Inc. (2001). This movie literally encapsulates today’s energy debate from a suppy-demand standpoint. The story starts out with the following premise: monster civilization has advanced to the point where its energy demands were no longer being met by supply (in this case the screams of children). Demand for energy to fuel their cars, houses, and the other trappings of an industrialized lifestyle continued to increase while at the same time the supply was leveling off or even slightly falling. In other words, they were reaching the point of Peak Scream. To deal with it, the energy company where the protagonist, Sully worked for was trying both legal and illegal technical research to boost energy supply. While most of the movie covered the inevitable results arising out of technical research gone wrong, the quest to solve Monstropolous’s energy crisis continued. Eventually Sully and his sidekick Mike Wysoski stumbled upon the fact that children’s laughs were ten times more potent than screams and just in the knick of time averted a collapse. Monstropolous was saved from rolling blackouts and the riddle of Peak Scream was solved by laughter. No discussion of what would happen when monster civilization reached the point of Peak Laugh however.

This movie’s plot line was definitely novel, something that you would expect out of Pixar. To actually discuss energy issues directly and in an upfront manner stands out from your usual damsel in distress, animal love story, or prince/princess tale. The fact that it is a children’s movie is all that more remarkable. What is not remarkable is the solution arrived upon. Peak Scream—while potentially debilitating for Monster Civilization—was ultimately not a problem as monster ingenuity, technical advances and market necessity led to the discovery and implementation of a new, higher valued (energy dense) source of energy. Like the Princess and the Pauper, this movie falls back on the very commonplace thought that somehow, somewhere we will figure something out to solve all of our problems. The only difference between the two movies is the role of technology. Monsters Inc. writers simply figure that any energy related problem will have a technical solution.

Children’s movies can play an important role in teaching kids about important elements and topic matters that adults face each and every day. Most lessons naturally focus the human relationship aspects, such as manners, good versus evil and the like. Many however will stray into broader subject matter including war, the environment and in this case depletion. As lamentable as each movie’s resolution to the issue of depletion was it is understandable. The writers of each movie are no doubt working off the commonly assumed aspects of human progress and are guided by the principles of child story telling: every one lives happily ever after.

If only it were that easy.

Energy production made easy...

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Monday, October 24, 2005

From My Eyes: How I View Things

For as long as I remember I have been fascinated with the built environment, its layout, function, and aesthetic qualities. As a child, I would always look out the car windows on trips at the scenery, the buildings and roads. But as I grew, simple observations yielded to contemplations of how it was built to what could become. As I became more versed in planning, geography, architectural, engineering and historical matters, I began to start contemplating the bigger picture on what I was observing.

Before I realized the upward trajectory of human civilization was about to crash into the cold hard reality resource depletion, I had taken a generally optimistic view of most development matters. While I was never appreciative of traditional suburban sprawl, most other forms of development were generally okay, especially those transit-oriented in nature and urban in form. Urban renewal, adaptive reuse and gentrification projects were neat to watch. Growth (economic, developmental and population) was a positive thing and most, if not all problems had a technical solution. As a nascent planner, I sought to focus my career efforts in promoting and encouraging projects and efforts that were urban, which is where I thought things were heading for the next few decades.

Suburbia was bad idea, in my eyes, before I found out about peak oil. However most of those reasons were aesthetic in origin.

Now I see much of the built environment as having no real future. Suburban areas of course appear poised to take much of the brunt from a collapse. The reasons are understandable enough. As a result, when I pass by subdivisions under construction or read about grand new “communities” (even those laughable “green” ones) my heart sinks. All of those new units, each set to consume ever greater quantities of resources that are due to decline in availability in the coming decades. That alone is a bad sign but in most cases, these developments have no possible alternative way of being maintained. How do you heat your 20 foot foyer when gas is no longer available? How do you go anywhere when nothing is located nearby? How do you feed yourself when your lot is a postage stamp sized mockery and your subdivision occupies what used to be arable land—or is located in the desert? I see these areas as places of desperation, anger and misery, places to avoid at all costs.

Just as sickening is the gross distortion of modern retail and commercial structures. In the past half century we have gone on a construction binge of epic proportions, tossing up throw-away buildings that have but limited usage possibilities to anyone other than the original occupant. We have also created a mentality that bigger is better and building anew is better and more cost effective than renovation. Witness cases of certain national retailers abandoning their large stores for even larger digs, further down the road. Commercial developers are no less culpable in this free-for-all, tossing up ever larger—and remote—office campuses for jobs that produce nothing and have no future.

This criticism does not exempt large or even mid-sized urban areas either. Though these areas will probably fare better from a transportation standpoint (you can still walk places) these areas also concern me. Large structures take a significant amount of electricity to be livable and a loss of that service will render most structures taller than five or six floors as uninhabitable. Would you like to have to carry every basic necessity (think water and food) up 20 flights of stairs each day, even if it had a killer view? But what really concerns me is the vast concentration of people that will be rendered unemployed, impoverished and cut off from basic food and water supplies. Unless some system is set up to ensure the delivery of those key resources, life in the city, even those New Urbanist paradises will become hellish.

When I tried to point out the fallacy of the conventional view of urban development and future progress, it was apparently too much for my planning department to handle and comprehend. The level of resistance to my message has not left me optimistic about the future.

In short (as many of you may have gathered) I possess a rather gloomy outlook for the human race’s latest experiment in civilization. But yet it is not all gloom and doom from my view eyes. If it were, I’d probably need and intravenous drip of Prozac to keep moving. What keeps me going are the thoughts of what could become. Yes, for the most part I think things will end poorly for many in this country (and elsewhere). But from the ashes and wreckage of this unsustainable, consumption driven, growth dependent, dog-eat-dog civilization, a much better—and simpler—civilization could develop. As the fallacy of eternal growth is revealed and the premises that most people based their existence on crumble, alternative living arrangements could be developed. Arrangements that do not require bigger and better things to feel good about oneself for instance. Or do not involve an economy that dependant on eternal growth to remain solvent. Settlements that stress community welfare over personal gain. In short, I try to envision a human civilization that respects and lives by the limits set upon it by the natural environment, but yet preserves what is good about human development. We do not have to shuck off everything gained in the last two centuries and go back to living like we did in 1805. Or 1005. Or 20005 BC. We just have to find that delicate balance between our needs and what could be sustained by the planet, without becoming dependent on resources unsustainable in nature. We also need to learn how to place a higher value on long term decision making

This means getting more efficient about what we do and letting go of those things we do not need. It may mean looking back to the past for solutions to many common dilemmas while retaining some elements of modern technology. Imagine for example, a household that heats water with a solar water heater, cooks on a modified rocket stove or solar oven, uses modern computer powered by solar panels on a hand crafted wood desk located within a straw bale house. Or may be the house is an earthship. And so on. My point here is largely that an optimistic future, at least in my eyes, is one that successfully crafts some new with the old. A little bit techno, a little bit retro and probably all jerry-rigged in one way or another. At some point all of us will become handymen (and handywomen) in one or more areas.

Sometimes, when I am feeling more optimistic, I gaze out upon my town in Coastal Oregon and think of what could become. We may be facing an energy crisis now, but in the future we will power ourselves with a mix of little wind turbines installed across each and every household combined with community level micro-hydro possibilities, pumped hydro solutions, tidal power, biomass and waste incineration facilities. At the same time we will have ramped down our overall energy consumption level. Storm water would be collected in our higher reaches and released downhill to power electrical turbines while more households will rely on rainwater harvesting for their household water needs, alleviating the need for large scale, centralized water distribution networks. Sewage treatment could be accomplished by a mix of composting toilets for smaller residential units and those located further out, while apartments and other commercial structures feed into a smaller treatment facility. Household kitchen and yard waste would be composted as well and utilized either on their own property or sold or traded for use in community gardening efforts.

This area, now mostly devoid of most forms of agriculture would begin to see more cultivation at the garden level, the community level and surrounding the town in small farming operations. Through the use of greenhouses and other modifications, a greater range of crops might be cultivated than what the climate would otherwise dictate be grown. Farming techniques would try to maximize natural processes that ensure soil fertility and create it where it was previously absent. Most, if not all farms would be entirely human (or animal) powered. It might not seem glamorous, but it would be energy efficient. Most crops would be picked, sold or processed locally while compost from resident efforts would be returned to the farming operations, ensuring a more circular flow of nutrients. With close in food production, most produce and livestock could be transported to market by foot or by pedal.

My community would become more pedestrian and bike friendly to be sure. As vehicular traffic decreases, more would travel to and from their destinations on foot, on bike or via some form of transit. Some areas would see new commercial activities as new industries (cottage industries) set up shop and others would wither away due to their distance from everything. Longer distance travel could be still had by vehicle or water travel. Perhaps if there is a great enough reduction in the number of vehicles out there, communal vehicles (busses, vans, ferries and the like) could continue to be powered by internal combustion engines, running on regionally grown biomass crops. Remember, while powering all of suburbia on ethanol or biodiesel may be losing proposition, running a small percentage of vehicles on “green fuels” might actually work over the long haul. So would a proliferation of small neighborhood electric vehicles for sharing and electric assisted bicycles and tricycles.

The global economy may well be dead at that point, but even in my future, regionalism will very much be alive and well. My town will not function solely by itself. It will be part of a larger region, the size and organization of which, I do not plan to speculate on. This town could still operate much like the other vacation towns of the 1800’s, ones which were created or accustomed to a small but steady flow of nearby residents that traveled less than a day to reach their destination. It certainly will not be the constant flow of RVs, SUVs and other private vehicle based tourism we are accustomed to. Future travelers may more than likely take the bus. Undoubtedly some trade between the town and other locations on the coast and points inland will also occur as well. This trade would however be small and insignificant when compared to today’s global flows.

Does this whole vision sound idealistic or even utopian? Maybe. Will some of these visions of mine materialize? Possibly. They are certainly not impossible to achieve. In the end of course it is futile to really try and predict the future. You can look at the hard evidence and you can guess at the trends, but in the end you could still be surprised at what ultimately materializes. Sometimes though, trying to remain upbeat and willing to try new ideas may prove to be the best course after all.

It probably will not solve the world’s problems or even be an option for every location. But something is better than nothing.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Renter's Guide to Saving Energy

Saving energy at home is a great way to cut your expenditures and take into your own hands some direct control over energy consumption. This task is made harder if you are a renter as some very important decisions that you could make, are not your responsibility. For example, a homeowner would replace that 25 year old dog of a fridge to reduce his or her electric bill. The property owner on the other hand, would be less inclined to replace that fridge if it still works. In most cases, the only financial concern that property owners have is the replacement price of the appliance and as long as it works he or she seldom is concerned about it or their renter’s electrical bill. Your average renter isn’t likely to offer to replace it either. I know this predicament; I have experienced it first hand.

So what do you do, if you are renting? Try some of these…


Perhaps the aspect most under your control is the lighting situation. You may have inherited an apartment or rental house with the 50-cent WalMart bulbs, but there is no reason why you have to stick with them. Unscrew and replace every fixture with compact florescent light (CFL) bulbs. Save the regular bulbs so you can put them back in when you move out. CFL bulbs come in much smaller sizes and light faster now, so there is no excuse for not using them. Plus in many locations you can find them heavily discounted by the local utility (check your local discount, overstock or dollar store for such sales).

If you can’t bear to see yourself in front of the vanity mirror under the glow of a string of CFLs, keep your incandescent bulbs but partially unscrew half of them. Chances are that you will still have sufficient light to see with. I worked this arrangement out with my wife. We kept the CFLs out of the vanity but unscrewed multiple bulbs instead.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of natural window light. Opening the curtains can do wonders for the lighting situation inside your living space.

Personal Appliances

Again, you have total control over these. Replace older appliances with new, more efficient models, if available. Otherwise try to get by with using fewer items or reducing the number of times you do use them. Heat generating beauty appliances come to mind at once. Make do without that hairdryer, curling iron or straightener. Of course, I am male so these were never big usage items to begin with.

Strategic use of certain appliances over others can also help. Use a microwave to heat beverages and reheat meals instead of the stove (especially electric ones). Microwaves are more efficient at heating things than convective or conductive appliances are. Get a toaster-oven and learn to bake small things in it instead of using a large oven. If you cook with an electric cooktop, turn the heat off one to two minutes before you finish cooking. Most electric surfaces (and by extension, the pan) will remain sufficiently hot to cook with for a little bit after the heating element was shut off. (If you have gas, ignore the last suggestion as the gas burner response time is much quicker.) Also, serial use of a single burner by two or three pots in succession can save a little energy by only trying to get a second or third heat element hot. If you have a gas range and an electric toaster oven, watch both the gas and electric bills to figure out which appliance is cheaper to bake with. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but little things do add up.

I wouldn’t worry too much over those electronic appliances that are always on, even when they are switched off. Those tend not to consume a lot of electricity and in most cases not a significant portion of your utility bills. Common sense should dictate you turn them off when they are not being used, but other than that, use them whenever you need them. Finally, if you have wood floors and throw rugs, sweep/mop the floor and haul the rugs outside and beat the dirt and dust off of them. Cleaning this way uses no electricity whatsoever and was the way most people cleaned their floors before electricity. If you live in a place with wall-to-wall carpeting, you are pretty much resigned to having to vacuum at some point.

Climate Control

Okay, now we are getting into the area where you have fewer options (if any). First of all, if you live in an apartment that heat or all utilities are provided, don’t bother reading this section, because anything you do will not have an appreciable impact. On the other hand, if you pay (via your gas or electric bill) to heat or cool your place, you still do have some control over the bill.

First and foremost: control that thermostat. Set it as low as you can tolerate in the winter and if you have AC, as warm as you can sweat it out in the summer. You may not have any control over what heating unit the landlord has provided you with, but you can control how much you use it. I will not make specific recommendations on temperature as it ultimately should be up to you to come up with some sort of comfort/affordability meeting point (basically how warm or cold you are willing to tolerate in exchange for a certain heating bill figure). Learning to wear warmer clothes indoors in the winter and acclimation to the summer heat can allow you to maintain a greater range of indoor temperatures. It is still possible to live in the Deep South with only fans in the summer…

You can also help the efficiency of whatever climate control system by making some of the following improvements on the cheap. If you live in a house or apartment with old leaky windows, purchase some of that shrink-wrapped cellophane window wrapping and cover as many windows as possible (especially northern and western windows) for the duration of the winter. Be sure to leave one or two windows uncovered so you can occasionally open them to allow in shots of fresh air. Cover the windows with big, heavy curtains to help with both heating and cooling. In the winter, open them in the day to let light and heat in and close them at night to prevent heat loss. Reverse this practice in the summer, especially if you have south or west facing windows. Check your outside facing doors for drafts and purchase new weatherstripping if it is required. If you have a central air unit, keep the filter clean. If you have individual room heaters or window AC units, heat or cool only those rooms you are going to be in.

Air circulation is important. If you have wall furnaces (common in many older California residences) or radiators, place fans in front of them to push or force the heated air away from the heater and out into the room. Not only will it distribute the heat more evenly, it will warm the room faster. In many cases you will probably have one or two rooms that stay warmer or remain cooler than the others in your home. Use fans to circulate the air to even out the temperatures. Make sure you use a fan that has a real slow setting to avoid creating a draft. If you have a ceiling fan, make sure they are set to force down the heated air that rises. During the warmer times of the year, use box or window fans to bring in outside air whenever possible to avoid turning on the AC. Each hour you don’t use it will reduce your electrical bill. Using fans to move air will allow you to tolerate higher temperatures than sitting in stale air.

A final suggestion to the renter seeking to reduce his or her heating or cooling expenses would be to look into space heating devices. These may be of some use if you live in a large, old or particularly drafty structure with a large or old heating unit. At night or other times, it may be worth your while use a small electric space heater in your bedroom and turn the heat way down in the rest of the place. Given the likelihood of serious natural gas price spikes or shortages this winter, investing in one or two electric space heaters may be worthwhile, particularly if your electricity is cheap and reliable.

Water Heating

If you live in a unit where hot water is provided, again this section will not be of much use. Generally, there is not much that you can do if you have an old, inefficient water heater other than make a few quick fixes and behavior modifications. If your fridge is old or located in an unheated space, spend a few bucks and by a water heater thermal wrap from your hardware store. Don’t forget to wrap at least the first three feet of pipes coming out of the unit as well. Be sure to turn down the water temp to no more than 120-125F. If you are going to be gone for a week or more, turn the unit off altogether. Finally, make sure you use hot water wisely, take short showers, don’t let the water run when doing the dishes, wash your clothes on cold whenever possible (if you have a washer/dryer set of your own) and make sure any leaks are reported to management immediately. Hot water leaks will cost you over the long term. Apartment owners may not be keen on making large investments on energy efficient technology, but they should promptly attend to simple maintenance matters.

Final Words

Should the landlord initiate or discuss the need for new appliances or HVAC units with you, steer them in the direction of energy efficient models. In the end, trying to improve energy efficiency and reduce utility bills while renting is not as simple or effective as when owning a home. Just because it is not easy, does not mean it impossible however, if you can make simple investments and change certain behaviors. Hopefully this should help you save energy (and money) even without the need for any modifications by the landlord.
Authors Note: I have tried many of these strategies first hand and have lived in both new and old apartments and rental houses, each with their own quirks and pitfalls. Some strategies will yield a good bang for the buck, while others will be more subtle. If you have any other quick and inexpensive tips that any renter could undertake (with or without landlord approval) feel free to add them below.

Monday, October 17, 2005


The American Way of Life, long characterized by drive-through suburbia, McMansions, super-sized products, big-box shopping and the ever present all-you-can-eat buffet, is now joined by the latest example of excess, the Megachurch. Increasing numbers of Americans, apparently no longer content with their empty suburban lifestyles or unfulfilled by their traditional mainline churches are now finding salvation, purpose, and plenty of creature comforts at their spiffy new out-sized houses of worship. These Megachurches, in addition to being yet another scar on the built landscape, represent everything that is wrong with today’s culture.

Some problems originate from their sheer size.

Large churches of course, have always been around. The Catholic Church for one, has long constructed large, imposing structures capable of seating thousands. Those structures however, were painstakingly constructed (over centuries in some cases) by a mix of human, animal and simple mechanical means. Their focus was primarily ecclesiastical in nature with little to no ancillary uses. None were constructed with comfort in mind and most were pedestrian oriented in nature. Although a number of older large churches have underwent renovations to make them warmer in the winter, colder in the summer and lighter all year long, they pale when compared to today’s suburban campus churches. These new churches feature thousands of square feet of climate controlled buildings surrounded by acres of parking and manicured landscaping. The huge sizes, isolated located locations, and multiple foci (worship, education, and shopping) ensure that their collective energetic impact would be greater than a more traditional church.

Size of course, isn’t everything. How it is used and what it represents is actually far more important. Megachurches are not simply very large houses of worship. They are an extension of supersized suburban culture that afflicts much of our built landscape. What’s more, the religion in many of these establishments is a simplified form of Christianity, distilled down for easy consumption by the complacent masses and served up with a healthy helping of pizzazz in the from the extravagant light and sound system. Your grandfather’s cathedral this most certainly is not.

The New York Times had a great article on the Megachurches this past March. Though the article is now been archived, a few snippets are quite telling. One church, Radiant, in particular stood out as a pretty spectacular example of suburbanized religion on steroids.

[E]verything about Radiant has been designed to lure people away from other potential weekend destinations. The foyer includes five 50-inch plasma-screen televisions, a bookstore and a cafe with a Starbucks-trained staff making espresso drinks. (For those who are in a rush, there's a drive-through latte stand outside the main building.) Krispy Kreme doughnuts are served at every service. (Radiant's annual Krispy Kreme budget is $16,000). For kids there are Xboxes (10 for fifth and sixth graders alone).
''That's what they're into,'' McFarland says. ''You can either fight it or say they're a tool for God.'' The dress code is lax: most worshipers wear jeans, sweats or shorts, depending on the season. (''At my old church, we thought we were casual because we wore mock turtlenecks under our blazers,'' Radiant's youth pastor told me.) Even the baptism pool is seductive: Radiant keeps the water at 101 degrees. ''We've had people say, 'No, leave me under,' '' McFarland says. ''It's like taking a dip in a spa.''

As if their own baptismal pool wasn’t “good enough,” the church’s website announced this for their next set of baptisms:
The next scheduled baptism is on September 10th at Water World! Join us for our
anniversary celebration – we’ve reserved the whole park for an entire day! Baptisms will take place in the wave pool at the start of the day. You may get baptized without purchasing a ticket if you do not plan on staying the rest of the day.Sign-up to get baptized this weekend at the Water World table in the lobby. You can also purchase discounted park tickets for you and your family!
A whole stinkin’ water park? So What Would Jesus Do first? The Ragin’ Rapids or Wave Pool? Even more telling is this quote from the pastor on how he would like the church to be seen

''We want the church to look like a mall. We want you to come in here and say, 'Dude, where's the cinema?' ''

Have we degenerated that much as a culture that we have transformed the last bastion (religion) to not only accommodate mindless consumption, but encourage and celebrate it as well?

Or has religion always been something co-opted by those seeking a seal of approval of sorts on their particular worldview? Whatever the answer is to that question, several things are made blatantly clear by this new crop of churches: comfort and consumption are good things and unfettered growth is but God’s will and to be celebrated. Witness Joel Osteen’s gargantuan Lakewood Church that has grown to fill the Compaq Center (a former basketball arena). Further growth is not out of the question for him.

Going hand-in-hand with a the implicit message that unlimited growth, creature comforts and amenities are all good, often is a spiritual sermon that emphasizes the good, minimizes the bad, and remains upbeat throughout. This all adds up to a religion that fits well with the conventional belief in limitless growth, easy motoring and a suburban way of life. In this respect, the megachurch fits well into today’s society.

As we march forward into Kunstler’s Long Emergency, one can’t help but wonder how these megachurches will fare. Will their repetitive, dumbed-down sermon style transform to a more downbeat message—or worse—an accusatory one? Will these places whither away, done in by their supersized utility bills and forgotten by their parishioners, most of whom can no longer afford to drive that Excursion or Explorer? Or will these massive churches’ internal bureaucracy form a de facto government of sorts and mitigate the worst effects of our looming energy crisis?

Whatever the outcome is one thing is for sure; that $16,000 donut budget and Water Park Baptism days most likely are things of the past.

Friday, October 14, 2005

That Food Problem

Recent articles and personal observations have once again got me contemplating the issue of agriculture and food production. The simple fact of the matter is that virtually everyone today is dependent on a food system that is built on an unsustainable foundation. This sobering problem has been well documented by a number of forward-thinking researchers over the past few years, with warning signs now beginning to appear.

One of the best articles was Eating Fossil Fuels. Others have been published that confirmed or reiterated the seriousness of the situation.

The question is what the heck are we going to do about it? Our whole agricultural cultivation and allocation system has been severely distorted by cheap energy and big business so much so, that any change before a crisis will run right into economic (and some cases legal) road blocks. Shifting to past or alternative forms of cultivation at this point will at least will raise eyebrows. More likely, the low-cost, high-volume demands of today’s food distributors will force prospective farmers (if they want to have any hope of surviving) into higher-cost distribution networks. These alternative networks—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s), direct selling to restaurants or one of the larger organic food processors—do make non-conventional agricultural practices possible at this time. This arrangement comes at a cost. Unlike the conventional arrangements that result in a flood of caloric bounty, the non-conventional players occupy little more than a niche in the global supermarket.

This leaves the non-conventional (organic or otherwise) agricultural players open to the criticism that they little more than an upper-class source of food and not a viable option for feeding the masses. Tom Philpott, a small-scale, non-conventional farmer (Maverick Farms) describes it succinctly.

Welcome to the era of roast farmer. Micro-farms dot the areas outside metropolises, producing hand-picked, highly nutritious, and pungent microgreens to be plopped on lawyers', accountants', and high-tech professionals' plates for astronomical prices. Meanwhile, the people who staff the vast services economy get the dreck served up by thriving companies like Smithfield Foods.

He explains as follows:

The problem is essentially structural. Small-scale farming is labor-intensive. We charge chefs $20 a pound for salad greens; but our produce is meticulously hand-picked and rinsed, "graded in the field," which means chefs can take our greens from the bag to the plate without culling bad leaves. From a business perspective, it's a bad model. Despite our $40 dinners and $20 bags of greens, no one here gets paid a dime beyond room and board. We'd be much better off selling the farm and buying a McDonald's franchise.
The labor-intensive nature of non-conventional agricultural systems is one aspect that big Ag never fails to belittle in their quest to deem organic, localized or hand-grown cultivation as unfit to feed humanity. How can we hope to feed the masses with an agricultural system that is expensive, labor intensive and not easily scaled up is a question frequently pointed at conventional agriculture’s detractors and opponents.

What Big Ag and most others fail to realize is how much the use of fossil energy distorts the economic playing field to their advantage without assessing any sort of cost to their use to the end user. It really is an unfair comparison on economic terms. The small scale organic farmer has to utilize natural processes (intercropping, composting, etc) along with significant amounts of human labor to produce a relatively small yield. The large scale corporate farmer can substitute out labor and replace it with capital investments that can be financed over a longer period of time (and written off in taxes). That capital equipment for the most part is powered by fossil fuels, a form of energy that historically been sold for far below its true value (when compared to a similar value of human energy) and without any consideration to its external costs (such as the pollution created or military costs required to protect its access). The picture does not improve at the farm gate. Huge processors and distribution firms work together to exact the best deals (read: lowest prices) while the retailing sector is locked in a race to the bottom in the quest to sell the most amount of food for the lowest price. Government action further distorts the market by providing huge subsidies to the largest producers, removing the last vestiges of sanity to the market place.

There is no way a small scale farmer could participate in this system, which is why most have either left the profession or grew to become big agricultural producers in their own right. Only by dropping out of the system altogether and alternatively marketing their products have some small farmers survived.

What is worse though, is conventional agriculture’s seemingly complete ignorance of the true role of energy in the production of their products. Auto makers are at least cognizant of the fact that more efficient cars and trucks will have to be produced in the future. No such contemplation is being undertaken when it comes to reducing the amount of energy required to produce and transport food. There does not even seem to be any concern to major producers that available energy may begin to become increasingly scarce, leading to shortages in key farming inputs (fuel, fertilizer, pesticides). That in-turn, could reduce yields or leave crops rotting in the fields due to an inability to ship products from where they are produced to where they are processed and consumed.

The long history of stable food supplies has bred complacency among most people in the world that famine and scarcity are a thing of the past or relegated to hard luck countries like Niger. Recent evidence argues otherwise. The fact of the matter is that energy shortages have triggered food crises in just the past decade in such places like North Korea and Cuba when their source of fuel was cut off. What’s more, when you look back into history, entire civilizations have fallen for a lack of food brought on by systematic agricultural failure.

This is really frightening to think about.

Most of us are dependant on an unsustainable system in which even the chief players are unwittingly perpetuating. At the same time, the attempts underway that seek to alter this arrangement mostly cater to a limited number of the well-to-do. A far greater effort is needed truly rectify the situation.

To many, a wholesale restructuring of the food production system is what is called for, from initial cultivation to human consumption and all steps in between. Such efforts would see most settlements grow as much of their own food as possible, utilizing low-energy (no mechanization or chemicals), labor-intensive methods. The crops produced would be processed, stored and consumed close to where they were grown. The average diet would shift from being meat and animal product dominant to more vegetarian in nature, though smaller animals (chicken, rabbits) and a limited number of grass-fed cows would continue for some time to come. People would eat whatever was in season in their area and can or dry the rest for later. If out-of-area crops were desired, the use of green houses would be required. From a land use perspective, more areas near to or within settlements would be put into production. Zoning requirements would be loosened to encourage small farm sizes (five acres or smaller) rather than today’s behemoths. Quite conceivably, some land reform would have to be undertaken as well. The whole marketing and distribution system should be shuttered in favor of local farmers, millers, bakers, canners and vendors.

Start revamping the agricultural system ahead of the peak and just maybe, most of us will survive. Not live well, mind you, but survive. Hard questions will have to be asked of the residents of the Desert Southwest and other arid climates, but other than that, most of us could make it. Failure to revamp the system will condemn many to starvation.

I just do not see any other any other possibility to maintain the status quo arrangement, absent a newer, better form of energy.

Unfortunately, I do not believe big Ag willing to take themselves out of business before there is a crisis, nor do I envision government attempting to step in to force a change of any kind. This is one element of civilization that requires proactive-top down intervention to initiate in order to be successful on a regional or national basis. Similar efforts at a smaller scale would probably also be successful, though their long term future would be subject to how their neighboring settlements fared. After a crisis sets in it is too late.

Our whole way of feeding ourselves has to be reformed and soon. We can live without the cheap imported Chinese crap. We can survive without the ability to take winter vacations to the Caribbean. Recreational vehicles are not essential to our existence. Food, on the other hand is vital. Shouldn’t this be our first priority?

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