The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Conservation Imperative


No fantastical technology, green or otherwise, can keep the world on its increasingly energy-intensive development path. We need to get serious about conservation.


On Thursday 31, May 2007, Jim Bacon posted on energy conservation at the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog: “Conservation Could Save 10 Percent.” Jim’s summary and the WaPo story he cites spell out the basics of a study by Summit Blue, Inc. that outlines straightforward strategies to conserve a modest amount of energy.


There are a number of useful comments responding to Jim’s post and one that is so unfounded and dangerous that it demands a rebuttal: At 12:18 PM on 1 June “Anonymous” said:

Who cares! Energy is everywhere, abundant, and freely streaming down on us from the Sun. Soon it will be virtually free for everyone. Conservation will be irrelevant. More energy, more prosperity. Cheaper energy, cheaper concrete, cheaper high rise housing. Whining about conservation is a waste of time.

One marvels that anyone skilled enough to access the Internet and use a keyboard would bother to post such a statement. (NB: He/she was smart enough not to post a name because that could be used to trace the real agenda of the poster – most likely to obscure reality in the hopes of reaping an unearned profit.) The greater problem is that many citizens hunger to believe there is a basis for this sort of preposterous pronouncement.


Following the “Who cares!” post another blogger made the elegant observation that while “abundant,” solar energy also is “thin.” Due to the capital cost of converting it to human use, solar energy will never be “virtually free.” The response also pointed out that a few billion years later, when the sun has gone super-nova and solar energy is intensively “streaming down,” the Earth will be a pathetic black cinder.


For some, that response to “Anon 12:18 / Who cares!” is sufficient. There are, however, several points that need to be added.


Thin and Thick


As noted in the response to “Who cares!”, solar energy is indeed “thin.” The same is true for all the contemporary (aka, “renewable”) carbon-based energy sources that directly result from solar energy via photosynthesis. (See End Note One.)


The same thin / thick relationship exists for all the direct and indirect strategies for converting solar-system derived energy including wind and tide based sources. (See End Note Two.)

To put a sharp point on the “thin / thick” reality: Energy sources derived from contemporary (aka, “renewable”) solar system energy are all “thin.”

Now, consider where energy is needed to support contemporary human activity.


Over 95 percent of the citizens in First World nation-states such as the US of A, are engaged in urban activities. The most functional, and by far the most energy efficient, settlement patterns to support these urban activities from economic, social and physical perspectives result in a “thick” / focused demand pattern. Even at very low densities the entire urban population of the US of A functions well on a maximum of 5 percent of the land area.


Collecting energy from “thin” sources and delivering it to efficient but “thick” human demand patterns is a fundamental, overarching problem for all renewable energy resources.


Thick and Thin


On the thick / thin spectrum it is “natural capital” – the stored energy sources accumulated over billions of years – that are “thick” / focused or rich. Most of those resources – coal fields, oil fields, tar sands, etc. are in locations remote from the foci of demand and thus require transport. Using the focused (“thick”) resources is not a walk in the park even with efficient pipeline, barge or rail transport.


By definition, the focused (aka, thick, stored, nonrenewable) resources are finite. Relative to a demand curve that is growing geometrically, they are in limited supply.


In addition, the large-scale use of hydrocarbons / petrochemicals and other thick resources to produce energy have inconvenient byproducts. These include direct and indirect pollution and natural system imbalance – unless expensive and energy consumptive scrubbers and filters are employed.


Nuclear (fission) energy sources may be in greater supply theoretically, but the conversion to useful energy is costly and the byproducts are even more problematic. Fusion sources have their own set of limitations, geothermal sources are expensive to access in most locations, marine sources are remote and so are the best hydro sources. (See End Note Three.)


The hydro-to-electric energy paradigm spelled out in End Note Three demonstrates the illogic and economic bankruptcy of an energy strategy that strings high voltage transmission lines around eastern United States. It is not a matter of aesthetics, culture or history. It is a matter of a self-defeating energy strategy.

Focusing on any “thin” (renewable) energy strategy to create a resource to replace the profligate waste of “thick” sources such as stored hydrocarbons will always be costly and will, sooner rather than later, fail to satisfy a growing demand profile.

Thin energy sources and almost all of the “alternative” energy sources have beneficial (but not “virtually free”) applications. There are a range of new energy sources being researched (e.g. controlled fusion) but none are low tech and none will be cheap compared to burning natural capital.


The Winning Strategies


To support functional and sustainable human settlement patterns of urban activity, the real energy “solutions” are strategies such as co-generation, recycling waste heat and modular integrated utility systems using emerging technology.


Bringing these sources on line will require intelligent policy, innovative design and a fair allocation of costs. Most important they will require enlightened self interest to drastically reduce demand. We call these changes in the trajectory of “Business As Usual” and “Politics As Usual” energy consumption “Fundamental Change.”


Anything approaching the existing per capita consumption – much less demand generated by increased population and compounded by expansion of per capita consumption in “developing” economies –  will create high energy costs. Scenarios for extracting energy from new sources, including fuel cells, controlled fusion and improved fission technology will be costly. For example, isolating hydrogen to use in fuel cells requires energy from other sources.


Every strategy for energy generation, conversion, storage and transport is expensive and / or has detrimental and unsustainable outcomes. Mythical “cold fusion” and hallucinogenic drugs are the alternative to intelligent strategies of Fundamental Change.


Rich and Poor


The primary need for energy conservation (and other aspects of “true conservatism”) is not the prospect of an immediate resource collapse. Unless there is a cataclysmic solar-system-scale or intra-galactic-scale event, humans will not suddenly “run out of” sunlight, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, minerals and other basic resources – at least not “soon.” Of course, consumption patterns will have to change. One the current trajectory, resources will, at some point, be exhausted.


The overarching problem is that consumption of energy resources – at accelerating rates, using current processes and in scattered locations – combine to thwart the evolution of sustainable economic, social and physical patterns and systems – in particular functional and sustainable human settlement patterns. Only these functional and sustainable patterns and densities of land use have the potential to make humans happy and safe in the foreseeable future.


It is a given that energy will grow more expensive as the rich reserves of natural capital are burned up and cheap energy must be replaced by other resources and strategies. The trajectory of consumption must be adjusted so that the Wealth Gap does not make energy a luxury for those at the top of the economic food chain.

If democratic governance and market economics are to be maintained, the majority of humans must be happy and safe, not just the ones at the top of the heap. There is no faster way to home-grow terrorist than blatant economic discrimination and resource depravation.

The First Order of Business


The pressing, immediate need is for places to clearly demonstrate the feasibility of conservation and alternative energy source applications. Citizens must come to understand the parameters of a sustainable future. The best place to do this is in small urban enclaves with high Institutional Capacity. (See End Note Four.)


The "solutions" that may work to conserve energy and capitalize on alternative energy sources are small-scale solutions that must be developed, tested and demonstrated at the scale of application. This means they must be Alpha Neighborhood scale, Alpha Village scale and Alpha Community scale programs. In larger urban agglomerations there are three problems with intelligently addressing energy conservation and demonstrating intelligent strategies:

  • No one yet understands that these smaller scales of human activity are organic components of the settlement pattern inside the Clear Edge around the Core of every New Urban Region. Good ideas get lost in the morass of uber-places like "Fairfax" that are not organic components of human settlement.

  • No big fish make a profit from small scale applications. Gross subsidies like the billions spent on ethanol substitution are much more attractive to Business As Usual and Politics As Usual.

  • Most important of all, no one makes a profit from conservation. Fat, immediate cash flows are derived from expanding consumption, not from conservation.

The solution to the Energy Conservation Crisis will require addressing each of these conditions in a context where viable alternatives to Business As Usual can be demonstrated. There is not a single program in the current U.S. Senate package, the current U.S. House package or in the widely promoted “solutions” of the current federal administration that address any of these issues. It is all about alternative fuels (not alternative systems), more drilling (not less demand) and a lot of pandering rhetoric.


Dana Milbank does a superb job of capturing the idiocy of the current conditions at the federal level in his column “A Wind-Powered Town, an Energy Bill and a Lot of Hot Air” (Washington Post, 15 June, 2007, page A-2.) No single three or four line quote will do it justice. Read it all.


Real solutions do not appear in the image ads paid for by energy companies nor can they be found in the programs of any of the 37 “leaders” who have expressed interest in becoming the next President of the United States.


“Global warming,” “greenhouse gas” and “climate change are important issues but they have become political footballs. It is important to understand that excess energy consumption will be a economic, social and physical disaster if not addressed soon. This is not a threat of four vs. eight inches of sea level rise in a decade, it is a matter of household, enterprise and agency bankruptcy.


Intelligently addressing energy conservation will solve the climate change / global warming problem to the extent that human activity can impact overarching natural processes that are, at this point, poorly understood.


The Road Ahead


The path to bring energy consumption into balance with sustainable energy sources will involve:

  • Reversing population growth at the regional, nation-state and global scales

  • Reducing per capita energy consumption, especially in the energy-hog First World nation-states

  • Evolving alternative sources of energy that match the scale and distribution of contemporary human needs

  • Evolving human settlement patterns that minimize energy consumption

Each of these goals requires effort at the multi-national, nation-state, state, regional and Alpha (Balanced) Community scales. That includes effort at each of the scales of the organic components that make up Balanced Communities.


What has happened with the modest Kyoto accords provides a glimpse at how hard this will be and why demonstration of the feasibility and functionality of solutions at the Neighborhood, Village and Community scales are so important.


The Road Blocks


The first two categories -- reversing population growth and per capita energy consumption -- are obvious and simple to understand. They are also treated as whales on the beach and political third rails. That is because of citizen ignorance of the potential consequences and the hope that there is a silver bullet. Silver bullets range from more ethanol, more drilling and more transmission lines promised by pandering politicians to cheap solar energy, Autonomobiles running on fuel cells, cold fusion and fantasies tossed out by anonymous bloggers and sellers of snake oil.


The last two categories -- evolving alternative sources of energy that match the scale and distribution of contemporary human needs, and evolving human settlement patterns that minimize energy consumption -- are the most difficult to grasp. Sustainable energy sources must match the demands of an urban society.


Over the past 200 years the daily activities of humans in the First World have morphed from 95 percent non-urban to 95 percent urban. The rest of the world’s population is in hot pursuit.


Over 50 percent of the Earth’s population is now living in urban environments. It is not enough for energy sources to be “near” urban agglomerations, they must be in those agglomerations and scaled to serve the organic components of human settlement patterns where a direct relationship between conservation and cost can be demonstrated.


Functional and sustainable settlement patterns require the evolution of Balanced components of human activity. In the US of A around 70 percent of the imported energy is consumed by transport and about 70 percent of the greenhouse gases are generated by transport activities.


Unsustainable transport energy demand is the direct result of the dysfunctional distribution of the origins and destinations of travel. This dysfunctional distribution of human activity is due in large part to a failure to evolve Balanced components of human settlement. We have noted in the past and will repeat in an upcoming Backgrounder “The Problem with Cars,” that free, non-polluting energy for Autonomobiles will not solve the Mobility and Access Crisis.


The overarching cause of the Mobility and Access Crisis and the excessive energy consumed by the transport of people and goods and the provision of goods and services is the settlement pattern that results from gross over-reliance on Autonomobiles for Mobility and Access. Reliance on Autonomobiles has had the effect of atomizing of society, which has proven to be expensive, destabilizing and unsustainable – especially from the perspective of energy consumption.

To repeat: Alternative strategies for both conservation and generation must be tested and be functional at small scale in ways that illustrate the futility of trying to serve a random and dysfunctional distribution of origins and destinations of travel.

Back to "Who Cares!"


The comments of the anonymous author of "Who cares!” suggest the need to carefully consider of the proposition that speech that reality-distorting speech, like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, is not protected by any constitutional right.


These words also raise the question: Why do so many otherwise sane citizens make statements like Anoymous 12:18? Even more important, why are there so many citizens who want so badly to believe this silliness?


We have asked many thoughtful citizens this question: One frequent answer: “Perhaps they despair at the scope of the Fundamental Change necessary to avoid the consequences of the end of cheap energy.”


Another answer: “Advocates of Business As Usual apparently have no children or grandchildren and do not care what happens to society when the energy- and resource-constrained future dawns.”




-- June 19, 2007



End Notes


(1). This is one reason why producing ethanol in large quantities in a central plant is such an inefficient source of energy even if the facility uses waste feedstock and does compete for food or useful fiber – e.g. corn.  Any big plant has to collect the feedstock from a large territory and then transport the ethanol to places to use it.  That is why the current method of subsidizing oil companies for using ethanol is such a stupendously, wrong-headed waste.


(2). This limitation does not apply to small-scale, dispersed, direct and indirect solar agglomerating strategies.  More on that below.  About 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is salt-water oceans.  This means that marine systems and marine resources have more potential for renewable energy than terrestrial sources.  Capitalizing on this renewable energy source requires global coordination, cooperation and management of the resources far beyond anything yet implemented.


(3). Hydro sources provide a useful demonstration of the importance of location and scale.  Hydro sources are very useful for mechanical applications at the source, e.g. water wheels.  However, when hydro energy is converted to electricity the end use of the electricity needs to be near the source.  If not, an energy-consumptive result such as the following evolves:  


During the later half of the 20th century Anaconda and later Alcoa made a lot of money shipping bauxite from Africa and Jamaica to Seattle, Washington, and then hauling it in rail cars to Columbia Falls, Montana, to be smelted into aluminum a few miles from the Bonneville Power Authority dam at Hungry Horse. The aluminum ingots were then loaded back on rail cars and shipped back to Seattle to be made into airplanes.


The reason for all this wasted motion and energy? The economic impact of line loss in electricity transport. The rising controversy over the new 500 KW transmission lines in the Countryside is another aspect of the physics of energy transfer.


(4). Jim Bacon has written about the Greater Warrenton-Fauquier, VA initiative by the Town of Warrenton’s mayor George Fitch in “One Man's Trash,” 5 March 2007. A recent CNN story noted a similar an interest in energy self-sufficiency expressed in Greater Woodstock-Ulster, New York.















Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.