Thursday, January 10, 2008

Consumers, Hippie Communes and Nuclear Power

Reposted from bartoncii
(This post was part of a debate I had with Mama Jesse, another Xanga blogger and advocate of a Lovinsesque future, that is a future of low energy misery.)

Yesterday, I bought a couple of folding steel chairs at Target. They had padded bottoms and backs, and the padding was covered with fabric. I am sitting in one now. It is comfortable. Much more comfortable than the 25 year old straw bottom chair that I had been using for the last few years. I paid $20.00 each for my new chairs, and no doubt they were made in some far off, distant land, where people ride to work in bicycle propelled rickshaws. My chairs were amazingly cheap, and should still be around when I am not.

Yesterday, I went to Sam's to refill a perscription. Sams is not far, but I am in the habit of driving because a walk of that distance can stress my heart. I have this bad habit of taking medicine. Sam's charges $4.00 for a months supply. That is less than the co-pay on my insurance.

I am a consumer. I don't mind admitting it. I am 65. I have health problems, which are kept in check by the medicine I take. I want to be warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. I want to be able to drive places.

There is, of course, an environmental penalty for my lifestyle. I do have a carbon footprint. athough I have made some effort to minimize it. I live in a tiny apartment. I started installing florescent lights in my old house a dozen years ago. I did that, not so much because it was green, but because florescent lights save money spent on electricity. Florescent bulbs use a quarter of the electric power, incandescent lights do. Now most of the power that you feed into incandesent lights produces heat and not light. And in the Texas summer more heat is something you do not need. Heat means more air conditioning. Air conditioning requires more electricity which has to be paid for.

Now purchasing high priced florescent bulbs was a consumer choice. While I once paid $10 for a single foresent bulb, I can now go to Sam's and buy 5 for $12. Consumer demand. Consumers started buying a lot of the bulbs, they went into mass production. Costs were relentlessly driven down. The bulbs are now made in China, where everything is produced cheaper. This is not what Mama Jess, a fellow Xanga bogger wanted:
Mama Jess is a self confessed Utopian, who appears to be a part of a primativist movement:

In many respects Mama Jess' vision resembles that which inspited hippie communes a generation ago. I once visited such a place, "The Farm," a hippie commune outside Summertown, Tennessee. This was about 1973, when The Farm was still about love, peace and pot, but Nixon was headed out. The Farm at that time was home to upwards of a thousand people, but in the early 1980's economic reality settled in. The hippie communist had been living for a decade on borrowed money, but the debt was due, and there was nothing in the till to pay it. Hippie guru, Stephen Gaskin (see the above picture) decided that there was no longer to be a free lunch. Each member of the commune had to pay for his or her upkeep. This lead to a drastic downsizing of the commune as hippies confronted by economic reality, decided that they could do better economically elsewhere than they could in poverty striken Summertown. It would appear that at least 90% of the commune members left. The Farm was located near Summertown because land was so cheap there. Land was cheap because of a weak economy that could not supply anything like 1000 jobs for commune members.

Stephen was an ex-Marine, who had served in Korea during the Korean War. Marines understand hard decisions, and Stephen knew to take them. He was also a manager who knew not to let his heart dictate to him, what his head told him, he should not do. Stephen, for all his hippie BS, was a practical man, and The Farm is still there today, but some of the old hippies grumble, that the spirit is gone. Institutions often survive the failure of the charismatic vision of their founders, but it is unusual for the founder to kill the vision.

Every dream must be measured against a reality in which bad things can and do happen to people. Mama's Jess' dream is founded on a very negative evaluation of the lifestyle most of us choose to live by. There are people who think that driving cars, shopping in WalMart, and turning on the air conditioner are the most terrible evil things imaginable. For some of them nuclear power is at the heart of the evil, for others it is only a symptom. They say that our way of life is unsustainable. It has to be fixed, they say. The fix is drastic.

Yet 600 nuclear plants would provide all the electricity we want and need. An extra hundred would cover the energy required to electrify our transportation system. The War In Iraq has cost the American people a half trillion dollars. The same amount of money, invested in nuclear power plants, would be a down payment for all 700 plants. Our CO2 production could be reduced by 60% by these two steps, without a significant change in our lifestyle. We would have electricity for air conditioning on summer days, and on summer nights.

Michael Robinson of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, believes that we will have 325 GW of installed wind turbines in the United States by 2030. Ric O'Connell, who works for the engineering and consulting firm of Black & Veatch, says this will cost $500 billion (half a trillion) and that money will pay for supplying 20% of our current electrical energy demands. This can be accomplised in the next 25 years. At the end of that time we will still have unreliable wind generators, that have to have 100% backup, most of which will be provided by fossil fuel power plants.

A French anti-nuclear group, Sorties du Nucléaire, is trying to get France to give up nuclear power. This is a drastic step because 78% of French electricity comes from nuclear plants. They claim that 11.8 GW of terrestrial wind power generators and 10 GW of maritime wind power generators can be built within five years, and that this can be increased to 24.3 GWe and 15 GW within ten years. Since wind generators seldom produce even half of their rated energy how much power are we talking about? Wind energy would be able supply as much electricity to the French grid as eight of Franc's 59 nuks in five years, and 14 of the 58 nuks in 10 years. How is the electrical shortfall to be covered?

Well Sorties du Nucléaire, thinks that some of it can be covered by replace incandescent light bulbs, refrigerators and freezers with energy-efficient models, reduce the amount of energy wasted by electrical appliances left on standby. This might save some on electrical damand, but it is only a drop in the bucket. Other proposals include, end to the use of electricity for space and water heating, the prohibition of air conditioning in private homes and the imposition of a 19 degree C limit for room heating. Where is hot water to come from then? The solar hot water heaters require electrical backups for cloudy days, and there are planty of those in France. So no hot water on cloudy days. If space heating is to come from fossil fuels, then an end to the use of electricity for space and water heating, means a step back in the fight against global warming. 19 degrees C is about 66 F. That is cold to me. But the no AC rule is the killer. Quite literally a killer. On hot summer days like those of 2004, hundreds of elderly French people will die of heat related causes without air conditioning.

In my debate with Mama Jess, I pointed out that "I have a serious heart condition. I would not live very long if I were forced to endure the Texas heat [without air conditioning]."

Mama Jess responded: "We are not talking about your particular hardships or situation. We are talking about saving the world."

In the world of Mama Jess and "Sorties du Nucléaire," the old and infirmed are to be sacrificed as a necissary expense of eliminating nuclear power as an energy option.

French businesses and industries would also suffer from what would amount to drastic rationing of electrical energy in France. In 2006 the 59 French reactors produced 549100 GWh of electricity. The proposed 40 GW of installed wind capasity anticipated in 10 years, would produce no more than 115632 GWh of wind generated or a maximum of 21% of the power generated by Nuks.) I am making a very generous estimate that wind generated electricity would be 33% of rated power. It could well be 20%, but for the sake of simplifting the argument, I will go with the higher but less plausible figure. The shutdown of French reactors, would devastate French industry and businesses and indeed the whole French economy.

This might be acceptable to Mama Jess, who imagines a utopian outcome to the loss of an industrial, consumer oriented, and energy intensive society. There will, of course, be sacrifices, and some of those sacrifices will include people. Stephen Gaskin was willing to sacrifice 90% of the membership of his hippie commune, The Farm, in order to allow it to survive economically. Of course, Stephen Gaskin, was far kinder and more humane than Sorties du Nucléaire, and Mama Jess. Gaskin's dropouts went to communities where jobs, and air conditioned apartments and homes were to be found. Sorties du Nucléaire, and Mama Jess appear to be willing to let people die, if they cannot adjust to the harsh new post nuclear, post fossil fuel, anti-consumerism order they propose. This is unacceptable to me. The choice is obvious.


red said...

I don't think you can credit or blame the farm's economic change over to Stephen Gaskin. The decision was made by a democratically elected council. In fact, I'm pretty sure Stephen Gaskin was against it. He was a community organizer, and he often acted as a spokesman, and some people followed him blindly, (which I don't think he always liked) but he wasn't a dictator or anything like that. It wasn't like the council had to do what he said.

Charles Barton said...

Your views of The Farm and mine are different. My impression is that Gaskin was a highly charismatic leader. "The community" basically followed Gaskin in his tour of the country that lead it to Summertown. Gaskin's views at the very least had considerable influence at The Farm. Rightly or wrongly Gaskin is credited with thew decision that required everyone to find a job or leave. Indeed The Farm was in deep financial trouble and the community would have not survived without drastic changes.

red said...

Your opinions about the farm are not so different from mine but your conclusion is a non sequitor. Yes he was charismatic and yes he had considerable influence and yes they were in drastic financial trouble, but none of that means he was in favor of telling people to find a job or leave.

In fact he was always AGAINST telling people to find a job or leave and when they changed from being fully collective they were collectively deciding not to follow that particular advice of his anymore. That's when they decided NOT to follow his advise. That's when he was dethroned, so to speak. They changed from being a collective not because they were doing what he said but because they were not so enamored of what he was saying any more. Here is a bit of history:

He "grieved for a year" .

If you must pursue this misinformation then please tell me who credits Stephen Gaskin with that decision? I have read many accounts of the farm's changeover, and this is the first time I have ever heard anything like that.

Charles Barton said...

Red, My interprtation of what happened at the Farm was based on this account, which focused on on Stephen's account.

Gaskin's account is, to say the least ambiguous. Gaskin calls the changeove "a coup d'etat followed by a downsizing."

What he did not say that the coup d'etat had been directed at him. In the SF Chronical interview Gaskin seems comfortable with what happened. The story makes no mention of the Elders, of community meetings, or of Gaskin being out of the country at the time. I appear to have attributed more common sense, and more candor to Gaskin, than I should have.

However the post was did not focus on Gaskin, it focused on a movement called relocalization, or at least a return to the land interpretation of relocalization. I used the changeover as an example of the problems in a return to the land.

red said...

OK, I accept your apology!

The article you cited doesn't say the "coup d'etat" was directed at him but it doesn't say he directed it either. The fact that he may be "comfortable" with it is besides the point.

You are right in saying you probably gave him more credit than he deserved for instigating the change. Personally, I would rather that the Farm stayed a collective, so I would say he doesn't get the blame.

I think the Farm's mistake was to have such a hierarchical leadership in the first place. Ironically, if the decision making had been more collective, then they probably wouldn't have been so economically collective.

On one hand Stephen was at least partially at fault for the economic problems because he advocated almost total economic collectivity- to a point that was not practical. On the other hand, it wasn't entirely his fault that people often just accepted what he said without enough critical thinking of their own. And he deserves credit for respecting the new consensus and not tearing the community apart, as often happens with groups with hierarchal leadership. He didn't try to get everything in his name, he didn't go to court, he didn't leave and he didn't try to take half the people somewhere else and start over. That wasn't his style.

The financial difficulties were mostly the inevitable result of bad management, not collectivism. To blame collectivism for such problems would be like blaming capitalism for every bankruptcy. (There's plenty of successful collectives all over the world

Charles Barton said...

Tne basic problem of the Farm was the comminity lacked the economic base for the number of people who became attached to it. There are definately problm setting up a community in a poor rural area if you cannot generate enough jobs to support the community. They set up several businesses, but not nearly enough. There may have been poor management, and the description of stephen suggests that he was not a good manager. But the problems seem to have extended beyond poor management.


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