Hardtack colony

One of the most common objections I see to the idea that the world needs to move to renewable forms of energy is that renewables just aren’t up to the task. Critics point out how renewables only produce about 2% of our electricity (and less of our total energy use, once you consider things like transport) and how wind, sun, tides, and so on are all variable.

This morning, I dreamed up a metaphor that might serve as a quick partial response:

Imagine a colony founded in a previously uninhabited area, far from the mother country, and with no prospect of future resupply. It is founded with a large stock of non-perishable food: hardtack, flour, lard, biscuits, etc. Good stuff. They also have seeds and the land around them. Imagine now that they are at a juncture in time where 98% of their food comes from the rations they brought along with them. They would not be saying: “Look what wonderful, everlasting sources of sustenance this hardtack is! It is all we will ever need!” Rather, they would be intensely concerned that they were only producing 2% of the food they need for any given year, while drawing down their one-off stock, which would be better saved for emergencies.

Obviously, the colonists need to learn to farm and garden. They also need to learn to cope with seasonal variability. Since the most ancient civilizations, we have had to deal with the fact that food is more abundant at some times than at others. Unlike some mammals that balance it out by storing and drawing down fat (think of whales and penguins that go without eating for months at a time), we use external food storage systems and techniques, from granaries to salting and canning.

Unfortunately, electricity is not so easily stored as food. Nevertheless, we have many options for energy storage. We can balance renewable production between energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc) and between regions. We can store energy in pumped hydroelectric storage and multi-reservoir tidal systems. We can use electric vehicles as a storage and load balancing system, and work to improve batteries, flywheels, and capacitors.

Of course, the metaphor emits much that is relevant to our situation. Fossil fuels are different from stored rations in important ways. For one, we don’t know just how much we have. More importantly, using them causes severe harm – both in terms of toxic pollution and in terms of climate change. Finally, the metaphor takes our energy needs as essentially fixed. When it comes to our society, we could do many of the same things we do now, while using a lot less raw energy.

Those issues aside, I think the metaphor has promise as a quick response to the ‘renewables will never be up to it’ argument. In the long run, we really don’t have a choice.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Hardtack colony”

  1. Another metaphor making the same point would be the difference between living off a lump sum gained through inheritance and living within one’s current income. This has the advantage of being able to include not only an increase in income (building renewable infrastructure) but also a decrease in expenditure (lowering energy demand).

  2. The metaphor is also very apt for our current food situation. We have no stores of food and we have a very few conglomerates controlling the production and distribution of our food. It would only take one or two poorly timed weather or other disasters to significantly reduce the amount of food or even seeds available to us.

  3. What I think it conveys effectively is the stupidity of saying: “We’re mostly eating hardtack/using fossil fuels now, so that is the most plausible thing to keep doing forever.”

    When you are reliant on something that is running out (or which you must stop using for other reasons), you have the strongest impetus to find an alternative.

  4. America’s Magical Thinking on Energy

    Energy—never has a political topic had so many bold words expended on it with so little to show. As Jon Stewart pointed out in his usual skewering fashion last week, the last eight American presidents promised to move America off oil and onto renewable energy, and all we have to show for it is increasing dependence on foreign petroleum, rising carbon emissions and an out of control gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Energy is one of those bipartisan issues that any politician can dust off—usually whenever gasoline prices have gotten a little high—promise to change and then promptly drop until the next crisis. Most of our politicians seem to lack what you’d need to really change how America uses energy: the will to take on the strong fossil fuel lobby and the persistence to see changes through over the long-term.

    But we all bear responsibility for that failure, because we fail to see—and take—the hard choices that would be necessary. We’d rather live in energy fairyland, as a new New York Times/CBS News poll demonstrates. The poll surveyed the attitudes of Americans—with specific attention on Gulf coast residents—toward the oil spill, energy policy, the economy, President Barack Obama and BP. The news is not good for Obama—the economy and employment remain the top concerns of Americans, bigger than the oil spill, but 54% of the public says he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs, and 48% of the public disapproves of his handling of the economy. 60% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

    The frustrating numbers, though, come on energy policy. 59% of Americans polled believe it is very or somewhat likely that within the next 25 years the U.S. will develop an alternative to oil as our major source of energy. That might hearten greens but it also shows how unrealistic Americans are on energy. Right now fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—are responsible for 85% of America’s energy supply, and it would take a Herculean effort to displace oil in just a quarter century.

  5. “Because Britain currently gets 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes – a total change in the transport fleet; a complete change of most building heating systems; and a 10- or 20-fold increase in green power.

    Given the general tendency of the public to say “no” to wind farms, “no” to nuclear power, “no” to tidal barrages – “no” to anything other than fossil fuel power systems – I am worried that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: slightly-more-efficient fossil-fuel power stations, cars, and home heating systems; a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations.

    We need to choose a plan that adds up. It is possible to make a plan that adds up, but it’s not going to be easy.

    We need to stop saying no and start saying yes. We need to stop the Punch and Judy show and get building.

    If you would like an honest, realistic energy policy that adds up, please tell all your political representatives and prospective political candidates.”

  6. Pingback: How good is gas?
  7. Stanford, UCD Researchers Say 100% Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

    thecarchik writes with news of an analysis published in Energy Policy by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California-Davis. “There are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources, said author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor, saying it is only a question of ‘whether we have the societal and political will.’ During this decade, the two ‘fuels of the future’ will be electricity and gasoline. Beyond that, we can’t project.”

  8. Inconvenient Truths About ‘Renewable’ Energy

    The wind may never stop blowing, but the wind industry depends on steel, concrete and rare-earth metals (for the turbine magnets), none of which are renewable. Wind generates 0.2% of the world’s energy at present. Assuming that energy needs double in coming decades, we would have to build 100 times as many wind farms as we have today just to get to a paltry 10% from wind. We’d run out of non-renewable places to put them.

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