Thursday, April 07, 2011

alternatives to absurdity


Video - Hon.Bro.Preznit talking for 47 minutes on energy, and saying nothing.

Archdruid | The crowning bit of unintentional satire in recent news came from the White House. It’s a subtle joke, and one that seems to have gone over the heads of most of its listeners, but that’s one of the risks run by truly inspired humor. The comic routine in question, of course, was President Obama’s speech on energy policy last Wednesday.

More precisely, Obama’s speech outlined an energy nonpolicy. He seems to have had his speechwriters scrape up every cliché from every speech on energy policy made by every other resident of the White House since Richard Nixon, and the result was very nearly a nonspeech about his nonpolicy: a sort of verbal pantomime, in which Obama pretended to be doing something about energy in much the same way a mime pretends to be trapped inside a phone booth. He proposed, in effect, that the energy policy of the United States should include all the same things it’s included for the last thirty years, under the pretense that this is something new, and in the serene conviction that the same policy choices that backed us into our present corner will somehow succeed in getting us out of it.

What made Obama’s nonpolicy nonspeech such a bravura performance, though, was the easy grace with which it avoided mentioning any of the policy options that might actually do some good. The words “conservation” and “efficiency” appeared in the text only in reference to shiny new products that use up one set of resources to conserve another, and the only comments about solar energy referred to exactly the sort of complex, centralized approach that’s consistently proven uneconomical since the 1870s; mature, off-the-shelf technologies such as solar water heating and passive solar space heating, which could slice good-sized collops off our national energy use in a hurry, were never mentioned. None of the sensible steps that reduced US energy use by 15% between 1975 and 1985 had a place in Obama’s nonplan.

Mind you, Obama was quite right to suggest that America can cut its dependence on foreign oil by 30% by 2025. In fact, America will cut its dependence on foreign oil by at least 30%, and probably quite a bit more, by 2025; it’s just that the cut in question is not going to be made by any choice of ours, much less as a result of any of the fancy technological ventures Obama spent his speech promoting. It will be made because faltering oil production, rising competition for the oil that remains, and the decline of American imperial power compared to its emerging rivals, will slice a shrinking pie in new and, for Americans, distinctly unwelcome ways.

As that happens, the approaches ignored by Obama – and, to be fair, by the rest of today’s US political establishment, on both sides of the increasingly irrelevant divide between the major parties – are going to be among the very few options open to individuals in America and elsewhere who hope to ride the curve of energy decline to something like a soft landing. One example, which I’d like to explore in detail here, is the use of passive solar retrofits for domestic space heating.