Sunday, March 29, 2009

What I Learned from Earth Hour

Did you turn off your lights last night? Without much planning or fanfare, we decided to participate in Earth Hour. We started a little early, around 8 pm. We were both tired from working in the yard, and content after a dinner of homemade pizza. I had some good escapist fiction that beckoned. Fortunately, we happen to have two oil lamps. So we took one apiece and settled in for a good read.

I have to say that as happy as I am that we could get around our house and function with non-electrical light, oil lamps aren't things you really want to read by, unless you've got a lot of them. Normally we use these things as supplemental light on the table when we want to have a celebratory meal. I did find that we could get more light by really cranking up the wicks. But that just meant we were consuming both wicks and oil at a faster rate. My eyes did adjust to the dim light, but I still think the eyestrain from reading wouldn't be a great idea over the long run. And I can't imagine my life without a good deal of reading.

Some of the blogs I read that deal with preparing for life after peak oil, or the next great depression, or political collapse strongly suggest turning off the electricity at the junction box for a weekend or a week, just to see how well you can function without it, and to see in what areas you'd like to be better prepared or equipped. I've never done this. But having just turned off the lights for an hour and a half last night, I can see that some sort of light other than oil lamps would sure be nice, if it came to that. Perhaps solar lanterns, or some hand-cranked battery powered lighting. Reading by oil lamps would probably ruin my eyesight sooner rather than later. It took less than an hour with the lights turned off to learn this.

Solar lanterns on the wish list. What did you learn during Earth Hour?


Jan Morrison said...

Hi - didn't fully participate for reasons I won't go into but did turn off the lights. I've done this before - turning off everything - unplugging fridge etc...what I want is for everyone to do it and when NONE of my neighbours do it I get discouraged. Very childish. However, we have LOTS of power outages here and have had them lasting up to a week. We know what to do without power. DON't open the fridge for one. We are all maniac readers here but if you get out all your beeswax candles - don't burn parafin which is crummy all the way around for your and the planet's health - but if you get out all your beeswax candles you should be able to read quite comfortably. We do. And play cards or board games. I wish we didn't have electricity actually. Unfortunately I read yesterday how much power the data stations that provide us with all our lovely internet activities use and it isn't pretty. Those are hidden and we just go blythely on - la di dahing - I think though that we can get terribly discouraged and really there is a balancing act between going crazy and ignoring the peril the earth is in. And that act needs to be constantly maintained! You are doing a fair bit by examining your heart about it so don't get discouraged.
Being frugal does help the earth.

Sue said...

I can do without the lights, but electricity powers my well pump. No well pump, no water, no toilets flushing. It would be very hard for us indeed. A reality check, for sure!

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Kate,

This is what you and your readers need to prepare for.

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons and other independent analysts, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%.

This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:

In June I took a trip to Albany to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches solar energy at a major university, and who had served in the Peace Corps.

He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.

We talked for hours about survival in the northeast after the last power blackout.

It looks "challenging."

Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass and thus make "new batteries" after they conk out. But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.

Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be a major effort and very time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. No one is making wagons these days locally.

Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep one or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can't get more, because there is no transportation on the highways.

Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.

Food must be grown in with a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that used to be in a 1890 Sears catalog is no longer available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil -- transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles etc. Seed and hardware used to be available at the local hardware store, no more.

Then there is clothing which is manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I have studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, MA for years, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. After the last power blackout, those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around, nor animals to make wool or leather cloth out of. Eventually down coats and comforters wear out, as do blankets. It sounds like just keeping warm will be a major problem.

Potable water is another problem, and sanitation also.

And there will be no modern pharmacies or hospitals.

After auto and air transport end (which could be next week if there is some "untoward activity" in the Middle East), there will be no way of getting here, or from here to there. Bus and train reservations will be backed up for years. You know the old Maine joke, "can you get there from here?" Well this time the answer will be no you can't. I keep reading in the newspapers that some of the folks over there in the Middle East are tired of others getting most of that oil, and that they are trying to shut down the flow of oil to us (:

Wasn't it that guy Murphy who said that if something can go wrong it will.

When the music stops (that is when air and automobile transportation ends) where you are is important, because that is pretty much where you will stay.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for posting my comment. I just posted your blog on my blog:

Keep up the good work!!!



Joanne said...

WE had lots of candles- the kids love anything like that. I had cooking that needed to be done and managed quite well.
We've had power outages over the summer here. Not many homes don't have air conditioners- even the oldies are feeling the heat and having them installed. Not to mention new suburbs with houses that fill the block to the boundary fences. They have multiple air-conditioning units or ducted. So on the scorching days that we will get more of, power outages are scheduled as the power companies are instructed to shed some of the load. When I say scheduled, they know who will get cut but we don't. So we will need to be careful.
Having said that, it makes me a little sick when I look around my house and see every power point taken, some with 5-station power boards. 3 computers, several game consoles, 2 televisions, 2 mobile (cell) phone chargers, battery charger, breadmaker, kettle, stereo, 3 clock radios, fans in summer, heaters in winter, sewing machine, iron, battery chargers for power tools.... they're just the regulars.
I think most of us that did Earth Hour will think more about what we use daily and what we need to do to cut back. It won't be easy to change ingrained habits. Obviously one hour once a year is nowhere near enough.

Anonymous said...

This is what I learned while some people sat around in the dark for an hour (or lit a candle):

Depending on where you live and what wattage bulb you use, lighting a candle instead of a CFL could result in a net increase of CO2 emissions. In California, a CFL will emit about 5 grams per hour. In Kansas, it’s almost 13 grams. -CSMonitor

If the purpose was to bring greater awareness of global warming, it sure did... for all the wrong reasons.

Frank Senior said...

I have participated last year and this year. I used to have lights outside in the garden all powered by electricity. We replaced them all with solar lights. They are not as bright, but then the cost is$0.00 for using them.
In the house we used the old storm lantern and some oil burning lights.

We went to bed early because we wanted to last earth hour the whole night. Too bad that the next day you hear that the city still had some Christmas lights on.