The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Best is Yet to Come

I've been reading a book lately written in 2001 by Howard T. and Elisabeth C. Odum, called "A Prosperous Way Down". The title refers to a concept of managing global resources through the inevitable economic decline we're all about to endure. I'm studying Dr. Odom's formulation of an environmental metric called Emergy as an alternative to Life-Cycle Analysis...I'll talk a little more about Emergy in a future post or two.

For now, though, on the day after our election, it seems appropriate to describe the world into which we seem to be descending. Dr. Odum explains...
"Like a  giant train, the world economy is slowly cresting its trip up the mountain of growth. It may be ready soon for its long trip down to a more sustainable level. The developed nations that were leading on the way up are poised for leading again, but this time down... 
Precedents from ecological systems suggest that global society can turn down and descend prosperously, reducing assets, population, and unessential baggage while staying in balance with its environmental life-support system...The reason for descent is that the available resources on Earth are decreasing. Each year more effort is needed to provide the fuels, water, wood, fish, soil, food, electric power, and minerals on which everything else is based.  More and more of the economy goes into concentrating what remains with less left for the private lives of people. More and more of the resources supporting the developed nations are diverted from people in other countries by the global economy. The present levels of our urban civilization cannot be sustained indefinitely on the worldwide declining concentrations of resources."
That pretty well summarizes the progressive view of society, and suggests its plan of action. Less consumption, fewer people. If you think about the policies being pushed by President Obama and his supporters, this belief system pervades just about every policy they put forward. And as we've seen in the last two national elections, a small but significant majority of the country believes it, too. Decades of environmental activism, progressive education, and liberal media have made their mark on our national psyche.

Even though there seems to be a lot of evidence to the alternate view that our natural resources are not as threatening as we take them to be, we'll accept the progressive premise here today. After all, we'll be following that course as a nation for another four years at least. That is, we'll all be shrinking our expectations and adjusting to new normals in the way we think and consume as we struggle with a mountain of debt brought on in the last couple of decades by a too-generous dispensation of the American Dream. That too will change, according to Dr. Odum. On housing, he writes:
"Once society corrects the excessive salaries and unearned flow of money and emergy to the rich...the housing industry can build smaller, more efficient units available to those with ordinary incomes. The United States now has extensive little-used housing in second homes, excessive tourist facilities, and unused rooms in luxury residences. With lower incomes and less money available for housing, much of this excess can come into general use. Many larger homes can be converted into duplex arrangements or small families can live together. More durable living structures will develop.
Personal living space will decrease. More people will live together in the older houses. Second vacation homes will be hard to keep. Older, energy-saving architectural designs (such as passive solar technology) can be used that take advantage of nature, like planting deciduous trees for summer shade and winter sun...If forest management provides wood on a renewable cycle, houses with fireplaces and wood-burning stoves for auxiliary heating can become more useful, desirable, and stylish." 
Hey, I didn't know I was espousing progressive views by talking up wood heat. Maybe I should ask for a raise here at the university. Darn, there I go thinking like a capitalist again.

Whatever you think about Dr. Odum's views, you have to admit, so far his vision is coming true. More from man-caused reasons than true natural resource constraints, but there you have it. Perception is reality.

Well, the good thing about the brave new shrinking world we're choosing to believe in is that our young folks are well-trained for it. The following video is an inspirational look at the ingenuity they'll tap in their quest to enjoy their "prosperous way down." I do believe in President Obama's words of last night that "the best is yet to come", although I may not see it in the same way he does.

That's a bright young man. He'll do just fine in the world, whatever it brings him.


Elizabeth Sorba said...

I'm impressed. Good job!

Martin said...

It's good to look at and evaluate others' proposals. We have too little of that in our society.

A friend of mine has framed the resource issue this way: Too many people. Yet I don't see anyone volunteering to get off this rock.