Advertising Works: That’s Why Companies Spend So Much Money On It

This year 29 entrants will vie to qualify for the grand prize race for the 10 million dollar Automotive XPrize to be held next year in 2010. There will be two categories: mainstream (four passenger and at least a 200 mile range), and alternative (two passenger and at least a 100 mile range). The winners must “exceed 100 miles per gallon, meet strict emission standards, and finish in the fastest time.”

Entrants must meet several specifications intended to encourage designs that are safe, reliable, and desirable — at competitive prices. This is one attempt to address the coming ‘twin peaks’ of peak oil and global warming by encouraging the development of cars that use less gas and produce fewer harmful emissions. While not a long-term solution, a 100mpg car would help a lot while we await the development of a good mass transit infrastructure.

(Parenthetically, I still think the idea of ‘train ferries’ makes good sense: that is, we take the train  long distances with our little ‘runabouts’ loaded onto carrier cars behind us. Then, when we reach our destination we are comfortable and relaxed. We unload our little cars and can explore the area with great freedom and convenience.)

There are five general types of cars that have been accepted to compete for the Auto Xprize. Eleven of them are hybrids, nine use alternative fuels, such as diesel, compressed natural gas, ethanol, etc. Four are electric cars and one is the compressed air car. And four use regular gas.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this list is that several of the entries use no new technology at all. In other words, it has been possible to make a 100mpg car for some time. As the Auto Xprize publicity says, the reason we don’t have these highly efficient cars already is that “increases in energy efficiency have been ‘spent’ on increased vehicle power, acceleration, and weight, rather than in increased fuel economy.”

You will hear American auto industry apologists arguing that they only built SUV’s and pickups because “the public demanded them”. Which conveniently ignores the fact that they bombarded us with advertising for big vehicles. Why?  Because their profit margin was much higher on them. That advertising convinced many of us.

We have a wasteful society because it has been (and is) profitiable.

Impressions from the Fifth Annual U.S. Peak Oil Conference

The conference was in a new place this year, Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. It was a real pleasure when I found it to immediately see old friends from the previous conferences at Antioch.

John Michael Greer defined our way of moving through time as cyclical rather than lineal. “We’ve had summer,” he said “and harvest, and now are heading into winter.”

Pat Murphy caught my attention with “We need to change from competing, hoarding and consuming to conserving, sharing and cooperating.”

Katrin Klingenberg (ecolab) and Linda Wigington (affordable comfort) shared a presentation. WOW! The super-insulated Passive House type of construction is amazingly efficient. Even doing a remodel, if you are diligent you can save up to about 70% of your present heating and cooling energy (and costs). New construction saves up to about 90% !

Klingenberg pointed out that energy “experts” trained to LEED standards are already out-of-date, and will thus give incorrect advice. One brilliant remodeling idea for northern houses with damp or hard-to-heat basements is to remove the furnace and ducts from the basement, isolate the house from the basement with thick insulation, and use the basement for cool storage.

There just wasn’t enough time (or energy on my part) to take in everything going on and I didn’t get to Peter Bane’s presentation, or John Richter’s, or the slide-show on eco-villages brought by Christopher Bedford, all of which I was sad to miss.

I did get a chance to sit in with a few different tables at the “Connections Café”, which was great: Christina Snyder with her Zero Energy House information, John Sarver whose energy newsletter (Energy Tidbits) I’ve been following for a couple of years, and Nancy Lee Wood, Director of the Institute for Sustainability and Post-Carbon Education in Massachusetts, talking about using the community college network in this country as a base to develop the “great re-skilling” needed for the Transition Towns movement.

The Green Fair tables were varied and informative. My favorites were a solar-tube skylight installer from near my home, and the niftiest separating composting toilet I’ve ever seen. It uses a computer fan for ventilation. See it at http://www.sustainablechoice.net/

For me, Dimitry Orlov’s talk was the highlight of the conference — just because he was so funny — which is a real accomplishment when your subject is “Collapse”. You can read a text version of his talk at http://www.energybulletin.net/node/47157 — you’ll be glad you did.

Richard Heinberg appeared via satellite this year (the sound and video were not good). He is a hero and a genius, and a lovely man too. I especially liked what he said about finding ways to work together “by emphasizing values that transcend political differences, such as conserving, self-reliance, community, and local control”.

Megan Quinn Bachman’s talk was excellent (as usual). One point she made that really struck me was “Capitalism is an excellent model for growth. It is not a good model for shrinking — we need a new one.”

Michael Brownlee gave a wonderfully enthusiastic talk about the Transition Towns movement. Even more wonderful was the generous way he and partner Lynnette-Marie Hanthorn stayed for two hours after the conference for questions and discussions with conference attendees plus some other folks from our South East Michigan group who drove over to ask questions about the Transition Towns movement and training.

All this, and the food was great too! I especially liked the soups. One thing though — while local entertainment was provided it seemed kind of loosely integrated — a kind of “poor relation” to the rest of the conference. I guess I would like to see it made more of.

Still, this event was definitely a highlight of the year. Thank you Community Solutions and Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center! Check out their web sites: http://www.communitysolution.org/ and  http://www.uheac.org/

Peak to Pool

Peak Oil – once you are familiar with the term and what it means, you can’t think the words without picturing Hubbert’s Peak, the graphic bell curve showing oil use as a blip on the timeline of human presence on Earth.

And you worry over our response – will we manage our energy descent to ensure the softest possible landing? or suffer the sharp shocks of a run-away descent? or worst of all possibilities, suffer collapse and die-off? You want to help to ensure the soft landing, but it is psychologically difficult – it’s hard work and the danger of despair is always a shadow over your shoulder.

Rob Hopkins has come up with a simple change of perspective that gives us a much better way to look at it in The Trasition Handbook.

It’s simple, he says. Just turn the bell curve upside down and change the Peak to a Pool.

So in 1846 (the year we started using kerosene in lamps) we dove in head-first – and a great adventure it was! There is no denying we did some great things. But we made mistakes too – and over the years the consequences of those mistakes have become harder and harder to deal with.

We now know that (beyond a fairly modest level of money and goods needed for a comfortable life with a bit of disposable income available for fripperies) the consumer life does not make us happy. Nor is our life made better with the stresses arising from trying to cope with the gigantic problems created by enormous systems far beyond the human scale. We have let our technologies outstrip our wisdom and our institutions outstrip our capabilities. We live increasingly isolated and out-of-control lives – no wonder we are unhappy.

So now we are deep down in a sticky hellhole and (most of us) no longer enjoying the swim.

Thus our task is to swim for the surface with all our might – back toward sunlight and pollution and toxin-free fresh air. Swim toward a sunlit surface where the future is healthier, happier, less stressful – a future abundant in community, in time for joining our friends, neighbors, and families in learning new skills for living a rich and convivial life on far less energy.

Looked at like this our new direction becomes “an instinctive rush to mass self-preservation, and a collective abandonment of a way of life that no longer makes us happy.”

If the Transition Towns movement interests you, check out the networking site started by Michael Brownlee of Boulder, Colorado for the U.S. Transition Towns movement:  http://transitionus.ning.com

Transition Towns

The ‘Twin Peaks’ of peak oil and climate change are looming. To find a successful way forward, we need to develop policies that deal with both of them.  Adopting solutions to ease one while making the other worse is obviously a bad idea. The Transition Towns movement meets this reality square-on –- and with a great deal of optimism.

Transition Towns (www.transitiontowns.org/) takes a new approach to grassroots activism –- aiming always to be inclusive and wholistic, and to act as a catalyst for changes as directed by local people, rather than advocating particular programs or solutions.

They use an assortment of newish social tools, including ‘Open Space’ (www.co-intelligence.org/P-Openspace.html) and ‘World Cafe’ (www.co-intelligence.org/P-worldcafe.html) public meetings and psychological change enablers developed in work with addictions, along with effective group facilitation techniques. These are put together with more traditional networking skills, education, and publicity skills, — and an emphasis on celebrating at every possible point.

They work from “four key assumptions:

  1. Life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and it is better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  2. Our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe shocks of peak oil.
  3. We have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
  4. By unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected and more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of the earth.”

Given that energy descent is inevitable, and that we must do all we can to stop increasing climate change, the real question, as the author of The Transition Handbook Rob Hopkins says is not “How can we keep everything going as it is?” but rather “How can we learn to live the good life within realistic energy constraints?”

The Handbook’s general answer is “By relocalizing (www.relocalize.net/) the focus of our lives, and by increasing the resilience of our local communities to make them self-reliant (not self-sufficient).” To deal with climate change we must reduce our carbon footprints; to deal with peak oil we must build resilience into our relocalized community economies. A self-reliant community has a diverse and lively economy that produces most of what it needs to survive and prosper, and then trades for extras.

The genius of Transition Towns is that each community brings its own people to the table. Using tools like Open Space meetings, they work together, inspiring each other, and come up with a dynamic consensus of what needs to be done, and a timeline. They produce (and continually update) a plan to move their own community toward the vision they develop (which may be totally different in its practical details from that of other communities, in other places, with other people).

It’s Just Too — well — Renewable

Peak oil, global warming, environmental destruction, dangers from war and terrorism — it would seem we need to invest in energy security. Why don’t we?

We hear from the media that alternative renewables can only provide a small portion of the energy we need, and it’s not reliable. Solar power can only be generated when the sun shines, wind only when the wind blows, and so on. And that’s true, as far as it goes. It is true that renewables would have to be a mix.

But I just read an article on http://www.metaefficient.com (which they got from the Wall Street Journal) about the problems the Danish utility company is having with wind power. Because they have a lot of windy coastline, Denmark built enough windmills along it to generate 20 percent of their electricity.

But often, it gets really windy. When that happens, the percentage of electricity generated by the windmills can climb to 40 percent. If that happens, the price of electricity can drop to zero “leaving utilities scrambling to offload excess power or take a financial hit”.

So far, they have been selling the extra electricity cheap to Sweden and Norway. This is neither a desirable nor a long-term solution. So the Danish utility company is planning to build a country-wide system for charging electric cars with the excess power. (Israel is doing the same.)

So the problem in Denmark is that renewables are just so darn — well — renewable. The wind just keeps blowing. Blowing down the price of electricity. Thus the task of the utility company becomes finding ways to use excess electricity. In other words, to find ways to limit the supply of electricity enough to keep the price up. (Are you wondering why they need to keep the price up?)

And all this bother because they have built enough windmills to provide 20 percent of their electricity on ‘normal’ wind days. Kind of makes me wonder what would happen if they built enough for 50 percent wind power and 50 percent solar power — or 50 percent tidal power. Would electricity be virtually free except for small maintenance and labor costs? So abundant we couldn’t find ways to use it all?

Profit demands scarcity. Faced with abundance, our economy would be in ruins. It seems the name of the “man behind the curtain” in our energy woes is Profit.