Saturday, October 30, 2010

An Election Eve "Amen"

I'm grading papers this weekend, so I may not have time for any kind of lengthy post. (I can't wait to get my life back to myself again!) But in taking a short break from grading (also known as goofing off), I came across a priceless gem from the website of Ran Prieur. Mr. Prieur is among the writers and thinkers whose work I read from time to time, although I must say that I don't agree with everything he says. (Some days, I don't necessarily agree with everything I say.)

I did, however, greatly enjoy the following quote:

"So we have an American election in a few days. A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That's like not watching any commercials because then you won't be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don't think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

"You are in a giant building that's on fire. The Democratic party is saying, 'Yes, there was a small fire, but it's mostly under control now. We spent eleven cents on squirt guns and a trillion dollars building some higher floors. Remain calm and go about your business.'

"The Republican party is saying, 'You are in a giant building that's on FIRE! Those people are to blame, and those people, and those people! KILL them! Kill them ALL!! And to put out the fire, we will use gasoline, and white phosphorus! YEEEEEE-HAAAAAAA!!!!'

"Now, if you are trying to get safely out of the building, who would you rather have in charge?"

Amen.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? A Look at Renewable Energy and First World Demand

There are many basic presuppositions, conclusions and concerns within the circle of well-known figures studying Peak Oil, ecological degradation, resource constraints and the financial ramifications of these things. These conclusions and concerns form a body of commonly accepted “received wisdom” within this circle, and they frame the discussions regarding the seriousness of our energy and environmental predicament and the appropriate response to that predicament.

But those within the circle must beware of the tendency to form a closed society or “ghetto” that is cut off intellectually from the larger society. In view of the seriousness of the energy, economic and environmental challenges facing us, I think it's valuable to engage intelligent decision-makers within the mainstream in order to start and maintain a conversation regarding these challenges. (That is one reason why I like doing interviews – that I may ask, “Are we starting to see the same things?”.)

Thus I recently found myself conducting an interview with Dr. Slobodan Petrovic, a professor who is part of the Electrical Engineering and Renewable Energy programs at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). Dr. Petrovic recently returned from a humanitarian mission to Tanzania, where he and several students from OIT designed and installed several small-scale solar photovoltaic projects for schools and hospitals. (You can read about it here.)

During our interview, we discussed small-scale renewable energy installations, the present peak of global oil production, and renewable energy prospects in the United States. My questions were as follows:

  • Tell us a little about your renewable energy work on the African continent.

  • It sounds like your work concerns renewable energy solutions applied at a local scale (neighborhood, district, or village) rather than a national scale. What constraints exist in African nations that prevent the execution of large-scale renewable projects scaled at a national level?

  • Do you see such constraints at work here in the United States, particularly in economically depressed areas? Why or why not?

  • Given the present contraction of the global economy and the continued decline of its resource base, what do you believe the most likely direction of renewable electric energy generation will be in the U.S. over the next 20 years?

  • Do you believe that renewable energy technologies have a good chance of supplying a major portion of present U.S. energy demand in the near future? Why or why not?

  • Is it possible that the U.S. will have to do some permanent "load shedding" in the near future in order to cope with a drastically lower availability of energy? What form would such permanent cutbacks take, and how can local neighborhoods prepare?

  • What resource constraints affect current renewable technologies, particularly regarding strategic minerals located in poor countries with large indigenous non-European populations?

  • In a time of economic contraction and resource depletion, what advice do you have for people who want to be engineers?

A podcast of the interview can be found at the Internet Archive, here. Feel free to listen and see whether we adequately answered the questions I posed above. Also, for those who live in the Portland metro area, Dr. Petrovic will be giving a talk in the near future on his work in Tanzania. I will post details as they become available.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Small-Scale Ambassadors

To those who have recently joined this blog, my apologies for not posting much lately. I have once again become very busy, working part-time at an engineering firm, teaching an engineering class at a local college, and enrolling in a college class myself.

The college class in which I am enrolled provides the theme for this week's post, which is a continuation of my recent posts on the role that immigrant communities can play in helping Americans form resilient neighborhoods in the face of economic contraction and collapse. There is much to be learned from communities of recent immigrants and of immigrants who have managed to maintain their culture in the face of the prevailing pressure to become “Americanized.” But how shall we thoroughly Americanized, native-born U.S. citizens learn from our immigrant fellow people unless we expand our horizons and learn to go out to immigrant communities right here in the U.S.A.?

One big part of that outreach consists of learning the languages of other nations and cultures. This summer, after the summer teaching session ended and before I realized that I would be teaching this fall, I decided that I was going to do something fun for myself and I signed up for a college-level introductory Russian class. I saw this as a means of facilitating communication between myself and the many Russian families in my neighborhood, along with their children, some of whom come to my house on a regular basis.

The class for which I originally signed up was to be a simple, community education-oriented introduction to Russian language and culture. It was canceled due to lack of enrollment, so I gave up on the idea, somewhat relieved because by then I found out that I myself would be teaching engineering. And then...through a strange set of circumstances, I found myself being invited to audit a for-credit Russian class for people on a degree track in languages. I must have been crazy for doing so, but I accepted the invitation. Now my time is quite fully occupied. The class is very nearly a full-immersion experience in which the teacher speaks mainly in Russian and where anyone caught speaking English is likely to be gently admonished with “По-Руский, Пожалуйста!”

This class has gotten me thinking. Many people are now writing about the need to form resilient neighborhoods composed of self-sufficient people who are disconnecting themselves from our major societal systems which are now in the process of breaking down. Some are now even starting to add their voices to the discussion of the value of learning from immigrant communities. Yet most writers seem to have missed the very obvious community-building step of learning other languages. Many of our attempts to build resilient communities are taking place and will continue to take place within urban areas that have by now become quite ethnically diverse and multicultural. Moreover, the rise of multi-ethnic communities is no longer limited to urban areas.

The need for knowledge of other languages is obvious to those “boots on the ground” in the neighborhoods I frequent, as I observed in a couple of conversations I had this week, one with a Russian high school student who is a friend of mine and who is taking Spanish, and another with a friend of mine from church who understands the realities behind our collapsing economy and who is actively pursuing steps of sustainable living. To those who want to take steps toward building resilient neighborhoods in the places where they live, one bit of advice I'd give is to learn at least one other language (and preferably two if you can manage it).