Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Give us this day our daily bread, and deliver us hot water from sunshine, amen.

Last night I watched a prize winning film entitled "Unser täglich Brot", a.k.a. "Our Daily Bread". It is a brilliant and moving documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that shows industrial food production in all its mechanised glory.

It made me think of The Meatrix, the disturbing spoof of the Matrix films that uses animation to show the horrors of the way we get our food, and of Erwin Wagenhofer's We Feed the World, another depressing look at agro-industry that I watched a few weeks ago.

Indeed, like the other films, it made me depressed. The scale of the problems we have created with our capital intensive systems of farming dwarf even the giant scale of the industries themselves. Agroindustry is a juggernaut, consuming behemoth proportions of water and energy and poisonous chemicals. It operates with an appetite so voracious that when you actually confront the mess we are in, you feel paralyzed into inaction. How can we even begin to talk about reducing resource consumption as citizens when the food industries that sustain us use quantities of the same materials we are trying to conserve that make our efforts look like those of valiant ants? I get the same feeling watching documentaries on the scale of our energy operations, but in that sector I feel much more confident in my ability to fight back and make a difference-- in our home we have solar hot water and photovoltaics and even a small wind generator. I've lived off the grid for several years and know I don't depend on the energy companies for my light, heat or electricity. I've ridden a bicycle as my main means of transportation (and otherwise taken public transit) so I don't feel helpless in the face of so called "oil shocks" -- go ahead and raise the price of a gallon of gasoline another 4 dollars -- won't bother me a bit! And I can do without a lot of cheap consumer goods -- my wife and I buy our clothes and books and CDs used when we want to own things, and meet friends in the public library where they have more "food for thought" than we could possibly consume in a lifetime. But when it comes to the price and availability of food for eating, when it comes down to giving us "our daily bread"... well, this one bothers me alot.

I've tried to grow my own food as an urban resident. Very, very difficult.

My fondest bittersweet memory is when the garden snails ate all the soybeans I planted. I turned around and made escargot. Such sweet revenge! But then I found out that the snail populations couldn't keep up with my predation! It takes more than a suburban stamp sized lawn to support a top predator! Yeah, we had tomatoes and hydroponic lettuce and strawberries and whatnot. But getting protein is tough for a city slicker.

Thus, when I think global crisis, I don't think about energy prices -- I think we've got that one solved when it comes to domestic consumption. My computer, my electric guitar and even my Sony Playstation all run off of photovoltaics just fine. No, domestic energy isn't the problem. You can raise the prices or cut off the supply, and we will hardly notice here at home. Make a sunk investment in household level renewable energy and you can weather a lot of storms, environmental and financial. So it seems to me that the biggest threat of the current recession is what it is doing to food production and food prices, and until we find a way beyond "business as usual" in the wasteful and resource intensive food sector, we had better consider finding ways to ration as much of the rest of the "cheap" fossil fuel supplies we have as is possible and devote them to investments in better food production techniques.

We simply can't be consuming oil and gas (and oil and gas fired electricity) to do simple things, like keeping our lights on and heating our food and water, for which we already have simple non-fossil fuel substitutes. We, as citizens, have got to help redirect energy supplies to the food industry, instead of asking them to provide us with even more fuel (we are wasting resources during this debate about "food for fuel", with corn being wasted on ethanol production when we should be using switchgrass and other cellulosic waste feedstock, while making biodiesel and biogas from animal wastes, crop residues, and city garbage). Meanwhile, we need to be sending strong market signals to our food producers that we prefer healthy local, organic, pesticide free products, and encourage a redesign of the way food is made and distributed.

What was most disturbing about watching "Our Daily Bread" for me was the conflicting memories it conjured up of my years in Cairo, Egypt, working with the "Valley Foods Corporation". Living with the family that runs the company on their plantation, adjacent to their factories, I saw first-hand how they, like all big food companies, feel trapped into a protocol for how they must treat their workers, their animals and plants, and their plantation environments in order to remain competitive and profitable. Don't get me wrong -- "Valley Foods" is a model of a good company with good practices, especially relative to other big agroindustrial corporations; they follow international ISO and HACCP standards, have great leadership, are run by a caring family. They put a lot of money and time into environmental improvements and into health and safety and dignity improvements for their workers. They even run an Educational Environmental Science Center, on whose board of directors I once sat. Among companies I've seen they are the best. It isn't the family or staff that runs the corporation I fault for what will ultimately prove to be socially and environmentally unsustainable practices -- I have great affection and respect for them and know they are trying harder than most other corporations to do the right thing. No, it is the nature of the beast - the logic of capital accumulation when it meets industrial scale operations and the constraints of the market. To be competitive they have to engage in practices that, when viewed even dispassionately can turn your stomach (and you can't get much more dispassionate than Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Unser täglich Brot", which shows the same practices all over Europe, and does so with a complete absence of music or narration or any other biasing production techniques.) The mass production and commodification of life forms (including laborers) and the monocultural landscape required to keep prices low and increase profit margins, feels as wrong at the gut level as it is ecologically and socially unsustainable. James C. Scott labeled such practices in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed as part of "the dummification" of people and landscape.

But though well-intentioned corporations try to make marginal improvements in the way they do business (because their leaders have families and care about the future too) they are trapped in an endless merry-go-round of bad practices that feed on one another. Here is just one example I witnessed of the catch-22 corporations get themselves into: in the industrial chicken industry baby chicks need to have their anal pores closed to prevent salmonella. The cheapest way to disinfect and close the anal pore of thousands of chicks hatching every day is to bathe the chicks in mists of carcinogenic formaldehyde. The formaldehyde makes the chicks turn bright yellow as a side effect and farmers who go on to produce "broilers" who must buy the chicks from a wholesale supplier have come to use the artificial bright yellow feather color of the chicks as an indicator of health. Thus they will only buy yellow chicks. Now, if an Egyptian company decides to invest in changing their operations to be more worker and environment friendly, and switch to non-carcinogenic iodine based treatments (which is mandatory in California and the EU to protect workers health) their now not-so-yellow chicks will no longer be competitive on the market. Since the costs of switching away from formaldehyde are not offset by a reduced need for protective gear for the workers (because low wage Egyptian workers are provided with little or no protective gear to begin with, which helps keeps labor costs down) there is no cost advantage to changing this terrible practice. In fact the company could lose market share in the competitive chicken market. So people running companies feel forced to hang on to such terrible practices to stay in the game. The logic applies not only to deadly chemicals (biocides) used by agro- industry, but to the fuel-use practices fueling their competitive success. While it is easy for us to preach that agrobusiness should return to being completely solar powered (remember that agriculture is, essentially, a photosynthetic solar powered enterprise!) there is not a modern farming enterprise in the world that is going to abandon industrial scale practices and the fossil fuel dependency that it entails. That much is evident in all the documentaries on how we get our daily bread. Fossil fuels will probably be needed by most large scale agriculture firms for a long time to come.

So who will be the game changers? And if we find a few companies led by visionaries who decide to take the risk, will they be able to change things quickly enough to create a band-wagon for everybody else to jump on? What about the energy industry? Can we look to the energy sector itself to be able to provide agro-industry with safe, clean, inflation resistant fuels? We know that in the case of U.S. Coal burning utility plants for example , according to a recent Herald Tribune article entitled "Carbon-capturing technology is stalled by a Catch-22", nobody in that industry is apparently ready to take the lead and be the first to invest in carbon sequestration technology that could reduce the ecological footprint and CO2 burden of coal fired electricity or coal liquification. Meanwhile, Shell Energy, actually one of the largest of the oil companies investing in renewable energy, is investing billions more in exploiting the "trillions" of barrels of oil found in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Their contribution to renewable energy, while substantial by the standards of their own industry, is negligible compared to what Shell is doing to exploit even more dirty fossil fuels. BP, calling itself "Beyond Petroleum", is also a player in the RE field but is now shedding most of its investment in favor of tar sands; Exxon, despite the exhortations of the Rockefellers themselves, has yet to even turn their corporate heads in a sustainable direction, and is banking on more fossil extractions to please their shareholders. The real money is going into "business as usual", and worse, into building nuclear power plants to provide the energy needed to get energy from the tar sands that is supposed to provide us with energy!.

When it comes to wholesale investment in renewable energy and eco-friendly practices, we are still at the "prototype stage". When it comes to large-scale substitution of climate and civilization friendly fuels, everybody is waiting for the other guy to prove long term sustainability investments have enough of a short term advantage that those who use them will be able to remain profitable. But by then it will be too late for many many people suffering the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, and certainly for much of the biodiversity that keeps our unique planet magical and healthy for humans -- go to Mars if you want to picnic in a world without an ecosystem -- no ants to bother you -- and make sure you bring a six-pack for a cool one, I hear they have ice... But if you want to keep up the picnic here on earth...

Chillingly, there is today an even closer link between agro-industry and the fossil fuel industry than ever before. Not only is the former completely dependent on the latter (for everything from the fuel for its tractors, its machinery, and its transport, and for the raw materials for its fertilizers and pesticides) but both are now the major part of stock market speculators' profiles (driving up prices in both sectors in a dangerous self-reinforcing spiral). And given that our industrially produced food is so intimately dependent on fossil fuels, and that food price hikes and energy price hikes will continue to cause immiseration and social unrest (witness the recent food riots in Cairo) we have to do everything we can immediately to decrease fuel consumption elsewhere in the commodity chain; if we reduce fuel demand in one sector, we increase supply for the other.

For this reason, Solar CITIES has been vitally concerned with finding ways to reduce domestic demand for fossil fuels (and fossil fuel derived electricity) in Cairo. We would like to see our friends and the families we know there have the same advantages we have in our solar powered apartment here in Germany. Fuel and food prices will continue to rise, and with them immiseration and social unrest. We can mitigate a lot of these problems by ensuring that urban Egyptians can utilize the abundant sunshine and city garbage to provide for all their lighting, electricity, cooking and air and water heating needs.

Egypt needs to be able to export its oil and gas for hard currency at market rate so it can invest in its infrastructure and its peoples' education. It needs to supply its agro-industries with fairly priced fuel so that food prices can stay low. Thus it needs desparately to remove its fuel subsidies for domestic consumers.

But once the price of a tank of cooking gas and heating gas and electricity go up to market rates (about 5 times what people are paying today) the data from our surveys indicate that most of the urban poor (who make up the majority of Cairo's 20 million) will be forced to do two very unpalatable and unfair things -- 1) our surveys indicate that they will be forced to radically reduce consumption (which is something we wish bourgeois consumers would do, but do not wish on the Urban Poor who are at subsistence to begin with, for example using as little as 10 liters of water per capita per day) 2) our surveys show that they will go back to using the cheapest fuels available for their heating and cooking -- using kerosene in dangerous and smoky pump stoves (baburs) and burning garbage in Kanouns -- practices that drastically reduce indoor air quality and cause many health and safety hazards. They will do this so that they can devote what little money they have to buying ever dwindling quantities of ever-more-unhealthy cheap food.

The nature and scale of agro-industry and the energy industry and the current fever of speculation that is driving prices in both industries up and up is having devastating effects on the poor. Helping provide safe, clean, affordable and inflation resistent heating and cooking alternatives for the poor (such as "city solar rooftops" and "city garbage-fed biogas" ) are two of the simplest things we can do to help households weather this storm of price surges with security and dignity, so they can devote their scarce household resources to the actual and ever more expensive food and water that feeds and cleans their families, instead of paying through the nose for the means to heat these ever more precious basic commodities.

We may not be able to quickly change the nature of the game of how we get our daily bread and our daily bath. But we can immediately change the way we heat them.

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