Facing a Painful Future Reality of Sustainability

“People cannot stand too much reality” – Carl Jung

I’ve been musing lately about exactly what it means to be sustainable in the context of residential building. Since words are the symbols blogger’s use to communicate, I checked my American Heritage dictionary and found that “sustainable” in today’s lexicon means “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment” as in “sustainable agriculture”. That didn’t quite do it for me. It’s the kind of feel good definition that allows people to build 10,000 SF homes with bamboo floors, dual flush toilets, and a HERS index of 85 and call themselves “green”. So I continued looking and found that one of the definitions for “sustain” is “to support from below; keep from falling or sinking; or to prop.” Since our built environment has been “propped” up and shaped by cheap oil for about a 100 years, I found that definition more on the mark.

Getting back to our friend Dr. Jung, our not so sustainable residential lives are about to be turned upside down by three major reality checks. At the risk of being labeled as a “crazed and raving doomsdayer”, let’s just say, it is going to be painful.

Reality Check #1 – Global Warming

“When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.” – A.A. Bartlett

Thanks in part to an “Inconvenient Truth” global warming has already penetrated our collective consciousness, and for the 20% of the population that’s in denial it is already “too much reality”. American is responsible for about 25% of the green house gases [GHG] that contribute to global warming. Buildings in America account for about 42% of that total and our homes contribute about half of that total or 21% of this country’s GHG emissions. But that’s just part of the story, because of the sprawling suburban pattern of WHERE we build our homes, our automobile lifestyle compounds the problem. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2001 107.4 million households logged 2.3 trillion miles commuting, shopping, and schlepping the kids to school, consuming 113.1 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel in the process.

Fortunately for our Jungian psyche’s, global warming is a slow moving water torture kind of crisis that we can safely ignore until Disney World Orlando is an underwater attraction.

Reality Check #2 – Peak Oil

“The time when we could count on cheap oil… is clearly ending.” – David O’Reilly, Chairman, Chevron, 2005

Peak Oil has yet to enter our collective consciousness, in fact most people don’t even know what it means. Peak Oil is the date when the peak of the world’s (crude oil) production rate is reached. After this date the rate of production will enter a long, painful and terminal decline. Peak oil in the U.S. was reached in 1970 and in N. America sometime in the early 1980’s. There is a growing consensus that global Peak Oil either already occurred (as early as 2005) or will happen sometime between now and 2010. Does that mean that production will fall off a cliff and there won’t be any oil? No, but it does mean that demand will very shortly exceed supply and that there will be shortages, rationing, and major economic upheaval and other changes to our “cheap and plentiful oil” lifestyles.

Oil Discovery Gap

Source: peakoil.ie

“It’s no secret anymore that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one.” – British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy

“…we don’t have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.” – Howard Kunster The Long Emergency (2005)

“Such a peak would require sharp reductions in oil consumption, and the competition for increasingly scarce energy would drive up prices, possibly to unprecedented levels, causing severe economic damage. While these consequences would be felt globally, the United States, as the largest consumer of oil and one of the nations most heavily dependent on oil for transportation, may be especially vulnerable .” – 2007 GAO (U.S. Government Accountability Office) Peak Oil Report

“The U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy. This disparity is made possible by nonrenewable fossil fuel stocks.” – Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, 2003

ASPO Peak Oil Projection

Source: Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas

Since only 9% of our housing stock is heated directly by oil, the most painful impact of Peak Oil on our residential lifestyles will be on our one car, one person commutes.

  • Expect a major increase in walking, bicycling, carpooling, telecommuting, the use of public transportation and an end to suburban sprawl and strip malls.
  • Expect globalization to take a backseat to localization.
  • Expect some people and governments to behave badly.
  • Expect “victory gardens” in the front and back yards of suburbia.
  • Expect 10 to 20 years of unrest while we make the painful transition to a new world order

Unlike Global Warming, Peak Oil will be an “in your face” crisis, impossible to ignore or deny.

Reality Check #3 – Peak Natural Gas

“It seems obvious to most viewers the [U.S.] future production will decline in a cliff in the near future…” – Jean Laherrere, ASPO Berlin, 2004

As if Peak Oil were not enough “reality”, we also have to get our Jungian heads around Peak Natural Gas. According to Energyfiles Ltd., natural gas will peak in N. America about 2010 and globally between 2030 and 2035.

Unfortunately, natural gas is different animal from oil. Oil is a nice viscous, not very volatile liquid that can be easily shipped around the world and processed locally into to gas, diesel, fertilizer and other products. Natural gas however, must be refrigerated to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to convert it to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and shipped in very expensive container ships that amount to small nuclear bombs. Because the global LNG infrastructure (ships and docking facilities) is relatively undeveloped, the impact of Peak Natural Gas is basically confined and defined locally by a geographical network of pipelines. For us that network includes Mexico and Canada, and our “reality” is that we may be facing shortages by the end of this decade or sooner.

So how bad is this new energy reality? How does energy flow into our homes, and how will shortages affect our lives? Let’s first take a look at electrical generation in the U.S. Unfortunately, just about every power plant built after 1980 was designed to run on natural gas, so we’ve spent the past 25 years adding to the problem.

Electrical Generation by Energy Source

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency 2005

The good news is that thanks to venerable coal, Peak Oil & Natural Gas only impact about 22% of our current electrical generating capacity. The bad news is that is more than enough to cause brownouts, blackouts, and rationing, especially during the summer when air conditioning loads peak.

As we painfully replace a 20% plus shortfall over the coming two decades, expect phenomenal growth in nuclear, coal, solar, wind, and geothermal power plants.

The next chart shows the relative residential energy consumption by energy source. Since over 55% of our homes and some 70% of new homes are heated by natural gas, shortages caused by Peak Natural Gas are going to be a major problem!

Residential Energy Consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency 2005

Given this new energy reality, homes built to our current energy code or even to an Energy Star or LEED standard amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The energy train wreck we face demands that we only build and retrofit homes to a Net Zero Energy Standard. Homes that can be completely served on-site by wind, solar, hydro or geothermal power sources. This will require a new energy standard based on a HERS index of better than 25%, well below the current Energy Star/LEED minimum standard of 85%.

“We’ve invented the system that has given us this rise in life; now we begin the descent. We’ll either have to invent our way out of it, or go back to the way it was before.” – Byron King, Agora Financial Symposium, 2007

”We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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3 responses to “Facing a Painful Future Reality of Sustainability

  1. wow! well researched and informative article (+ very sad this is the state of the world) Wake up calls are everywhere. I feel there is still hope in respect to collective consciousness though. Post’s like this contribute.

  2. The good news is that the knowledge of passive solar or design for climate is already here, and also the knowledge of how to build a compact city for maximizing density and energy conservation. Also, technologies for super-efficient dwellings in rural areas is already here as well. In addition, folks in the US midwest are doing amazing things with biofuels for vehicles. The good thing for design is that there is impetus for new urbanistic designs for cities that maximize ideas of public spaces for sociability and culture without the need for parking lots, toll roads, massive infrastructure, or overly complex administrative overhead.

  3. Very nice summary. I love the Jung quote up top, and I like how you blended the hard facts with the psychological perspective. The denial of the impact of issues like this is part of why I left the mental health field. I think one more point that’s important, and that I make at The Challenges of Accepting Civilization as Unsustainable and Unhealthy, is that it isn’t only the crash itself that hurts, it’s living with the awareness, or even unconscious intuition, that we’re working on something without a solid foundation. It’s also dealing with the psychological and emotional repression that such a system necessitates. Thanks for the article.

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