Search This Site


Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Secularization Of Reverence

Tree Worship
Image found at kamat's potpourri
The latest essay over at John Michael Greer's very excellent The Archdruid Report (Santa Isn't Bringing Gigawatts) begins with a comment on "a ray of common sense" - a reference to a forthcoming study on the thermodynamics of sun, wind, and wave "alternative energy" technologies. In brief, caveats abound regarding the amount of these energies can be reasonably harvested without adversely affecting the world's climate. And by "reasonably," I mean to exhort the reader to think in terms of scalability - as JMG frequently points out, the notion that we will be able to extract from these alternatives the amount of power that we would require to maintain our current standards of living at our current population levels is questionable, to understate the matter.

The "ray of common sense" is discussed in this article at New Scientist, Wind and wave farms could affect Earth's energy balance, a post that considerable expands on the rather glib The sun is our only truly renewable energy source. The choice quote from the latter article:
...looking further ahead, direct use of light from our local star is our most promising alternative. Nature already captures more than 200 terawatts through photosynthesis. Solar electricity has a bright future alongside it.
The newer article warns:
Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, says that efforts to satisfy a large proportion of our energy needs from the wind and waves will sap a significant proportion of the usable energy available from the sun...
Now I appreciate a "ray of common sense" as much as the next guy, but why is not the entire spectrum contemplated (sorry for the "blindingly" apt metaphor)? Those fervently looking for energy "solutions" remind me of nothing less than the fable of the blind men and an elephant.

And, as Mr. Greer observes:
So far, at least, the peak oil blogosphere hasn’t responded to this study at all. That’s not surprising, since the idea that renewable energy resources might also be subject to environmental limits is about as welcome in most alternative circles these days as a slug in a garden salad.
As I wrote back in 2008 (Jeffrey Sachs Believes In Fairy Dust, Too):
Yes, all of that solar energy is just going to waste, baking sand. And it would have absolutely no effect on the climate whatsoever to begin diverting that energy to the vastly more important work of transportation and artificial climate control.
I don't get many commentors over here, but that post got jumped on quickly by "Canadian Geothermal Engineer":
Just what point are you trying to make? Diverting the solar energy of [a small part of the Mohave Desert] would take less than 1/1000th of 1 percent of the total heat from the sun that affects the earth each day.

You don't seem to know anything about science, do you?
To which I responded:
...Maintaining the same level of activity using current solar energy output would obviously divert it from what it was "doing" before. Unintended consequences will follow.

It's a question of scale.

As for my knowledge of science, I think a decent respect for the conservation of matter and energy is all that is needed to understand this.

Or do you have a way of increasing the per-diem ergs of output from the sun to satisfy our larger appetite?
Wood Heat

One earlier example of solar-abuse-by-proxy occurred in the 17th-18th centuries. The pre-industrial Stuart period of British history suffered resource depletion in the form of deforestation for charcoal production:
...the relatively primitive production of charcoal [had] already reached an impressive level. Stuart England was so widely deforested that it depended on the Baltic trade for ship timbers, and looked to the untapped forests of New England to supply the need.
As I recall, this deforestation was cited in Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology). A key factor in Tainter's collapse thesis is resource depletion.

At one point in the John Michael Greer essay, I was a bit surprised by this (my emphasis):
There’s at least one way around [too much harvesting of wood], though it needs to be implemented soon and on a large scale. A very old technique called coppicing allows for intensive production of firewood off a fairly small acreage. The trick to coppicing is that quite a few tree species, when cut down, produce several new shoots from the stump; these grow much more rapidly than the original tree, since they have their root system already well in place. When the shoots get to convenient firewood size, the coppicer cuts them again, and yet another set of shoots come up to repeat the process... As other fuels run short, the owner of a few acres who uses it for coppicing and sells dry wood nicely sized for wood stoves may have a steady income, or at least a perennial source of barter, on his or her hands.
Surprised, because JMG is normally very meticulous about questions of scale and, furthermore, as he is of the druidic persuasion, I found it a bit dismissive of the role of trees in the world. On the other hand, Mr. Greer writes a lot, and he can be excused if he expects his readers to have internalized issues of scalability, etc. by now (a reasonable expectation, judging from the obvious intelligence of his thread commentors.)


Live trees re-hydrate the atmosphere by re-upping groundwater felled by the sky in the form of rain, and scrub the climactically poisonous carbon from the sky.

Dead trees "sink" carbon. This activity (by trees, and other dead matter) is what created fossil fuel deposits in the first place, that we have so indecorously disinterred this past few hundred years.

Using wood for energy is surely just fine... to a point. Remember, this is about scalability.

As Mr. Greer wisely points out, over and over again in his valuable essays (to paraphrase): "The only viable alternate energy source is to use less."

The Secularization Of Reverence

Scale is the thing. One thing about the human race, as discussed in Tainter's Collapse, and here, and elsewhere, is that it has the most horrible propensity to engorge itself on any available resource and explode its population to catastrophic levels, so that it has to go through a painful pruning, and start it all over again. The only bright light, if there is one, is that we've done it on a global scale this time, there is no way out, and maybe we can take the opportunity to have a good look at ourselves.

We (I include myself on this) are struggling with this issue, I think, because "civilized" Man is pathologically separated from Nature. Individually, the reasons for the separation are myriad and complex, and there is no percentage in judgementalism. Collectively, one can see obvious reasons for it, and I will leave it to the reader to work that out. This post is damned long enough as it is.

The title of this post is the thing. We need to cognate a rationally-based reverence for the life and energy that is given to us, that birthed and nurtured us before we became clever little farmers. A reverence distinct from the provincialities of belief-based systems. For there is no need for belief here, reality stands starkly before us.

To temper our Malthusian impulses, we need to slow down and worship our world with a deep and abiding reverence. That is the only way out. All of the other contortive efforts at solutions to our energy and population problems are simply rearranging the deck chairs on that Mighty Metaphor.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."


  1. Hi Petro, interesting post. A book you might like to read is The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God by Rupert Sheldrake. He discusses these issues from the point of view of a biologist. Very relevant to what you're saying about a need for reverence.

    (I came over from JMG.)

  2. Hi, Petro, I am also coming here from The
    Archdruid Report...I like the title and gist of what you say here.

    Question: are you an advocate or practitioner of paleo type eating patterns? I prefer Archevore as a label, though I don't like labels very much!

    As for reverence, we have been encouraged to see consumerism as our religion...even the "prosperity gospel" folks are now not "guilty" of the "sins" of lust, gluttony, greed...hmm, all of them!

  3. Thanks, Adrian. I'll definitely look that up - I'm a bit of a biophiliac myself :).

    Thank you for coming over and contributing.

  4. And thank you too, peacegarden!

    As for my eating patterns - given the realities of the times, it's prudent for me to remain an omnivore for the most part - although I've been able to depend less on meat now that I've been living in a veggie-friendly town like Portland!

    And, yes, I'm still doing penance for my greedhead days, so I'm loathe to point fingers at individuals :).


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.