Monday, May 31, 2010

The Future Re-imagined

In a recent post, Alternative Futures, I alluded to the fact that I want to take this blog into different directions. This is the beginning of that.

When I was about 12 years old, in 1973, the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on many Western Countries in retaliation for their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The roots of OPEC, however, went back way before the war. OPEC in fact had non-Arab members, including Angola, Ecuador and Venezuela. The organization was formed in 1960 after the member states realized that they controlled a large supply of the lifeblood of the industrial nations, and sought to gain better prices for their product.

Those of us old enough to remember can recall cars lined up for blocks at gas stations, the rising prices and the signs at gas stations stating that they had no gasoline to sell.

The response was huge and varied. Within the United States, the Alaskan Pipeline was built to help exploit the large amounts of petroleum being extracted in Alaska. Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars became more popular. There came a greater awareness of this fact: that there was a finite amount of fossil fuel on the planet, and that it would one day run out, particularly if the rest of the planet began industrializing like Eastern and Western countries had industrialized.

In the late seventies, with Jimmy Carter as President, tax incentives were passed to weatherize homes and to add solar features, such as heating and hot water heaters.

Then, suddenly, Ronald Reagan was elected President, and much of this disappeared. Or so it would seem.

Over the years, however, a small fire has stayed burning. Small groups have explored and studied sustainable living, regarding architecture, agriculture and transportation. I've long been interested in this and feel I have much to share.

My own fire was lit in the late seventies when I came across this book, "Design For a Limited Planet," by Norma Skurka and Jon Naar. The book was a response to an article Skurka had written in the New York Times magazine about about alternative sources of energy and energy-efficient housing. Skurka and Naar featured dozens of projects, large and small, simple and complex. Some of the projects were abandoned-- and some weren't. And time has changed the tone of some of them; for instance, the book covered some wind-energy projects. What seemed like a quixotic quest in 1976 has become a large movement to provide significant sources of electricity to the grid and is serious business.

I gave my copy away to a student at some point, but a while back tracked a copy down online; it's easily available online.

The picture at the top of the post is from one of the annual reports from the New Alchemy Institute. The New Alchemy Institute was formed by husband and wife John and Nancy Todd along with others at Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early seventies. The picture on the cover shows a mythical serpent eating its own tail. The idea that the New Alchemy Institute had was not the knee-jerk rejection of technology that much of the counterculture had, but the enlightened use of technology to better serve human needs.

Through the seventies and into the early nineties, they experimented with sustainable agriculture, low-environmental-impact shelter and energy use. Better yet, they documented their successes and failures; all of their material is still available online.

More on the New Alchemy Institute and other sustainability experiments to follow.


mi said...

very interesting!

SkylersDad said...

I imagine that if we would have continued on the path of renewable energy from the Carter days to now, we just might be self-sufficient.

Churlita said...

Even if we weren't completely sustainable, we could have done a lot less damage than we have and of course, everyone's case in point is the BP disaster. So sad and frustrating. Great post.

Erik Donald France said...

Awesome, man! I do remember being a kid in the gas lines with my Dad. And Jimmy Carter trying to tell it like it is . . . my parents got solar panels (and tax credits), Reagan removed them. Obama is bringin' 'em back.

Good stuff. Will get copies -- looks really good and really pragmatic.