I’m often annoyed by projections that start out “given current rates of …” I’ve noticed there are a lot of stupid things we do as a society, which when changed on a large enough scale will start to bring us into alignment with reality once more. I rarely see anyone analyze what the effect of eliminating stupidity would have.
Here’s a quick list I came up with in five minutes.
1. Flushing toilets with drinking water
This clearly makes no sense in a world starving for fresh water. A simple fix is to use gray water for flushing. Run a drainpipe from a hand sink to the toilet reservoir. Here we run up against government bureaucracy and zoning regulations. Even a place as advanced as Berkeley, CA is attacking “gray water guerrillas” for re-plumbing their houses for gray water reuse.
2. Feeding food-grade grain to livestock
Energy calories are lost at every link along the chain from crude oil production to grain production, especially corn, and on to feed for cattle. Every calorie of beef requires many multiples of grain calories, which in turn use many multiples more of high-quality petroleum-based energy. The ROI on this energy is so far negative that no one in their right mind would even consider it. In fact, it is criminal insanity.
3. Feeding food-grade grain to machinery (ethanol)
At best, ethanol produces about 64% of the BTUs produced by gasoline. So does it make sense to grow corn, which is highly petroleum-intensive (as grown today) to lose at least 36%? Again the ROI is ridiculous here. In real estate, this is called an alligator. This doesn’t even start to get into the ethics of growing corn for energy or cattle feed when people are starving everywhere.
BTW, Sugar Beets yields double per acre what corn yields as an ethanol stock.
4. Deforestation, especially for ethanol crops or beef
Forests provide so many services, and are so productive, that there is not one good reason to cut them down. They create oxygen and soil, sequester carbon, filter and store water, maintain genetic diversity, prevent flooding, grow food, timber and medicine. Forests are a resource without a measurable opportunity cost, because the next best use is so far below and less than their use just as they are as to be wholly inaccurate. Therefore, all of our economic activity ought to be geared toward growing and harvesting forests. A friend of mine has just started an investment fund based on purchased forestland throughout the country. He suggested that the Southern Tier, rather than targeting switch grass for ethanol production, should be replanted to black cherry, which is in high demand for woodworking and grows in only a very small area in the world.
5. Depleting energy capital rather than energy income first
This is where I get annoyed with the current analyses, even at the Oil Drum, that show that solar, wind and biofuels will never replace the demand for petroleum-based energy. The point is we are outrageously and extravagantly liquidating the assets in our trust fund, when we could be living very comfortably off the interest.
The American lawn represents one of the single largest agricultures in the world, the gross product of which is very nearly nothing. It uses more artificial fertilizer than the agriculture of India and requires endless hours of mowing, gasoline-powered equipment and chemical sprays. We could easily grow the bulk of our food by simply replacing our lawns and planting to vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. When we do this we see grass as it is: a weed.
Suburbs are clearly a result of car culture. I am not one to believe they need to go away, but need to be re-designed. There is a subdivision in Davis, CA called Village Homes that is built along sustainable lines. It includes a community garden, fruit trees everywhere, extensive swaling for water retention, and sidewalks in the back yards. All new subdivisions and housing developments can be designed and planned to avoid the suburban scourges, too much driving, water runoff from streets and parking lots, over-extended infrastructure and so on. Existing suburbs can be retrofitted to reduce need for driving and replanted to useful small-scale gardens and agriculture. Some reforestation can be started.
8. Seed Patents
I have nothing against intellectual property, but the idea of cornering parts of the food market is just plain wrong. The seed companies ought to be able to patent maybe the specific changes they’ve made to existing stock, but the original DNA belongs to no one.
9. Air Travel
George Monbiot has a lot to say about how destructive air travel is, so I won’t repeat that. High Speed Rail would be a much more efficient and cleaner way to travel long distances. This is practical today but would probably require infrastructure and subsidy on a national level. I’ve always found travel by train to be much more comfortable and enjoyable than air travel anyway. If you’ve flown recently, you might agree.
10. Market Fundamentalism
The Thatcher revolution, under whose cloud we’ve been forced to live for the last 30 years represented an extremist swing away from moderate liberal capitalism, where the excesses of capitalist redistribution of wealth from laborers to owners is moderated by democratic government. We have two hundred and fifty years of history to look at here. The laissez faire extremism of the last generation needs to move back toward the middle.