I have been thinking about writing (or doing a podcast) along these lines for a while.
The original plot was to do a podcast that talked about a whole bunch of different reasons that we should start apply the design system of Permaculture to pretty much everything we do…and believe me, it would easily fill a one hour show. The problem is, so many of the reasons I would want to discuss tend to cause violent arguments over whether not they are actually issues (eg. climate change/global warming) that I figured one big podcast or article covering them as a group would chase off a percentage of the audience. So what I am doing instead is, I am going to write a short article about each as I notice news articles or hear things that bring them to my attention. In each of these articles I will also discuss how Permaculture design can help limit these issues.
Todays subject is a shortage of fossil fuels. The reason I made that the primary title instead of peak oil, is because the article that grabbed my attention is not actually about oil. It is about harvesting natural gas by fracturing shale. The truth of the matter is that we are facing what will be a major crisis concerning fossil fuel shortages in the next generation or so, and we need to find new ways of creating power to run our machines, or we need to learn to do things without our machines again. Those are the choices. I personally think that we should walk the middle path and rely on the machines less, and also look to the sun, wind and other resources to provide the power we need for the ones we can’t do without.
Since this article was instigated by a fish kill in Ohio (article), which has been blamed on a chemical spill that was caused by a fire at a fracking site, I will forgo the other fossil fuels for the moment and just focus on natural gas.
As evidence that it is in short supply I offer the following. Besides the fact that we are apparently intentionally pumping chemicals into the ground that will wipe out entire fish populations if they make it into the water supply, there is also more than ample evidence that wells are being contaminated and not only become unusable as potable water, they also become flammable. We are also finding that areas near fracking sites are much more prone to earthquakes. To top that off, the fear of being blamed for other environmental disasters associated with fracking, the industry has made a huge effort to keep what chemicals they are pumping into the ground a secret and they have done so with the full blessing of our government. Now would anyone, even a crazed hyper capitalist, go through all of that to acquire a commodity that is not in short enough supply to create a demand that ensures profitability? I highly doubt it.
While outlining what I consider evidence of shortage, I also identified the major problems any reasonable person would have with fracking. Environmental damage in the form of chemical pollution and tainted waterways and significant risk to human habitation due to seismic activity.
So why do we need natural gas so badly? That answer is simple. We use it to create electricity, to cook and to heat our homes. It is also being used some in vehicles, but I don’t think that would be difficult to mitigate if we ever have the good sense to stop this ridiculous process.
So how can Permaculture design help alleviate the need to harvest this hard to acquire gas? There are several ways.
The first is better home design. Even without changing our basic heating systems, we could dramatically curtail our energy usage just by making some changes to the way we build houses. Things like thicker walls, orienting homes with sun rooms or green houses facing the south (if you are in the northern hemisphere, flip it in the southern), minimizing windows in the direction of prevailing cool winds, and using thermal mass to store heat all would go a long way towards reducing energy usage to heat our homes.
The next would be to convert as many homes as possible to electric heat, cooking and laundry appliances. The one big problem with this option is that now that we have finally started heading towards coal free electricity (not there yet but one city after another moves in that direction), natural gas is the next likely option. While an amalgamation of power is a better use for the natural gas than burning it in a million surrounding homes…it still uses way too much to make a significant impact in the cost effectiveness of fracking.
As a side note, that is what I think we should be doing. Take a business approach. We need to do things so well that fracking is not cost effective for these businesses to make a profit. Nothing else matters to them.
As I get back on point, I want to say that municipalities burning natural gas is not an insurmountable problem. We take the same approach we do with the businesses. We make “alternative” power options more cost effective than burning gas. We do that on two fronts.
The first is we should do everything we can to further the cause of developing those energy sources. If you are scientific minded, do research. If you have capital to invest, put it where it can help develop the industry. If you don’t have either of these, have a big mouth. Tell your elected officials that if we are going to subsidize energy (and we do and are likely going to continue doing so) then it should be clean energy ONLY. Tell your friends about it. Post on social media about every development or breakthrough in the field. In other words be a force multiplier.
The second front is to build the grid ourselves. If you own your home, seriously consider going solar. Its getting cheaper per kilowatt hour and with a couple more breakthroughs it will be cheaper than what Local Power Company is charging you in no time. Even if you don’t want to buy panels there are companies out there that will lease them to you for basically what you are paying Local Power Company for your electricity now.
Now these off the cuff solutions won’t solve the problem all by themselves…but they will push us in the right direction, and hopefully they will get you thinking of other ways that we can use Permaculture to reduce our dependence on natural gas before we turn the whole world into a shit pot trying to get it out of the ground.
Now lets go make something good happen.