These thoughts come from somewhere out in left field WRT home performance--from the perspective of a humanist intellectual who happens to have a fascination with applied building science. The subject is not solving a problem it is a philosophical consideration of The Problem. Some readers may find accordingly that the remarks below are interesting--others not so much.
Humanist intellectuals in general are people who are interested in a wide spectrum of subjects and who often study them out of curiosity rather than to seek financial gain. There's not much here that will help anyone make more money or run a more prosperous business. People like me have two choices: marry for money or live quite modestly. I fall into the latter category.
It's my nature to take a less-than-optimistic perspective on energy, the climate, the ecosphere, American policy domestic and foreign, most other countries' policies ditto, the chances for women's rights in Afghanistan, human nature, pit bulls trained for blood lust, the likelihood that the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt sooner rather than later, and so on.
That being the case, I think that the admirable, hopeful vision of thinkers in our industry like Ed Mazria (The 2030 Challenge) and Linda Wigington (http://tinyurl.com/24ecy5t)
might be tempered--just for the sake of discussion--by the same kind of thinking that we bring to the task of conducting worst-case combustion safety testing: figuring out how bad it can really
get, and figuring out how not to get there.
Just as an alcoholic doesn't leave the last two inches in the bottom of a whiskey bottle before falling into bed, the world is not going to make substantial changes in the ways fossil fuel is used until there is none left or until truly viable and affordable alternatives are available on a massive, global scale.
I came across the following:
To the Editor [of the New York Times]:
“There Will Be Fuel”
(Energy special section, Nov. 17) doesn’t mention an important point.
Today’s technologies enable us to extract fossil fuels once considered
too risky and too expensive. Just look to the examples you highlight —
deepwater drilling in our oceans, strip mining oil from Canada’s boreal
forest, and natural gas fracking.
These fuels come with significant environmental costs, whether in
contaminated seafood we eat from the Gulf, air we breathe around tar
sands refineries, or chemicals we drink from aquifers too close to the
The question should not be whether there will be fuel, but whether we
can afford the tradeoffs in gaining access to these fuels. Instead, we
can put American ingenuity to work to develop solutions like
next-generation biofuels and renewable sources right here at home. Then
we can leave the “bottom of the barrel” fossil fuels just where they
belong — in the ground.Liz Barratt-BrownSenior AttorneyNatural Resources Defense CouncilWashington, Nov. 18, 2010
Ms Barratt-Brown is unrealistically optimistic about biofuels and renewable sources to be named later. She appears not to consider that "here at home" is not just a country or a continent; it's the global system. If you're reading this, you already know that the house is a system consisting of the enclosure, the mechanicals, and the occupants. It should come as no surprise, then, that the earth is a system as well, and that the wild card in the triangular interaction is the occupants . . . just as it is in the house.
Improving existing buildings with deep energy retrofits, doing building performance improvements in one million homes or in five
million, learning to use common sense and to make sacrifices in comfort
and lifestyle unknown to all but the poorest Americans since World War
II . . . although these strategies are potentially attainable, and are certainly admirable and necessary, they are simply not sufficient. One hears much talk about the Seventh Generation, but I have
serious doubts that the ecosphere for our descendants at that time will
be substantially more habitable because of green building or even
because of any of the programs or behaviors presently on the table. I think it's going to be a mess. Something like a house with sixty-four cats and no litter box.
Saving energy in American homes isn't going to beat the ticking clock. Nor will it be enough if we throw in all the Canadian, German, British, Swiss, Scandinavian, and other rich homes in countries where the occupants enjoy a pampered, western-style standard of living. There are simply too many people in the world using energy--some for cooking fires, some for flat-screen TVs--and changing the ecosphere as a consequences of doing so. Solar, geothermal, hydro, wind . . . all are necessary and helpful, but even all together they are nowhere near sufficient either.
If the future for everybody on Earth depended upon the outcome of a football game, and if I were the coach, I'd call for the Hail Mary pass. Our best (maybe only) hope is a paradigm shift, a radical and heretofore unknown or even unimagined way to produce and use energy. Consider this research at MIT into a thermal-chemical approach (http://tinyurl.com/3xg4rtm
), a news story called to our attention in Dan Holohan's excellent newsletter (www.HeatingHelp.com
). The particular avenue of inquiry reported from MIT may not necessarily lead to the
energy answer, but the fact that innovative thinking is out there is our best hope. Maybe science can tap the heat energy from radioactivity at great depth in the earth, or maybe--who knows--do something with antimatter or with an interface with a dimension separate from spacetime as we understand it. And no, I am not
This isn't mysticism or a second coming or the Mayan calendar; it's just accepting that there's stuff we don't know (yet). Like negotiators in a hostage crisis, humans need to buy time for technology and science to make a leap that delivers the energy that we must have without side effects that make the planet uninhabitable. Our work is, if anything, even more important as a delaying tactic than as an actual solution for the simple reason that nobody really knows what the solution is yet but we do know that scientists and engineers are looking for it.
In our world of home energy and applied building science, that means working hard to conserve in every way we can. Stretching out the available resources and fouling the environment less is not a satisfactory end in itself because it postpones but does not forestall an eventual tipping point toward irreparable damage or worse. On the other hand, every BTU and every watt saved buys a fraction of a nanosecond for science and technology to have a Eureka
Vitruvius, a Roman architect and author of the first century BC, is a favorite of Dr. Joe Lstiburek, who often points out in his presentations that
principles of good building were known and written down long, long ago
by Vitruvius, but are not always applied even now. Vitruvius also wrote that the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, and engineer, Archimedes (287-212 BC), discovered a fundamental principle of buoyancy in his bath and that he leapt up exclaiming "Eureka!" (meaning "I found it!"). Like most stories that are so much fun, it's unlikely to be true, but Archimedes did in fact grasp a very valuable scientific concept. In the end, understanding nature despite her tricks and subtleties is very, very important. The scene described (invented?) by Vitruvius was a Eureka moment.
Einstein had two Eureka moments. First was his "wonderful year" (annus mirabilis)
of 1905, when he wrote four revolutionary papers on physics, including one on special relativity. Even that spurt of brilliance was only a ramp-up to his most revolutionary theory of general relativity published in 1916. You've heard of E=mc², of course, but that's just part of his incredible concept. Einstein's two Eureka moments were the chart-toppers. He spent the rest of his life struggling toward another. They don't come often. We need one soon.
If a comprehensive technological strategy emerges, it still won't solve all of the life-and-death problems for our species and a lot of others, but it will be a start. Everyone on the planet will still face shortages of fresh water and of resources for producing food both on land and in the sea, just to mention two.
But nobody said it was going to be easy.