Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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11 Apr 2006

Termite Gut Enzyme Powered Cars? – don’t hold your breath…

BugCarIt is a point often made by ‘peakniks’ that the energy choices that we will have beyond the peak are all already here, that we don’t have the time to wait for what Richard Heinberg calls ‘The Magic Elixir’. There is no point in waiting around for free energy machines, a hydrogen economy, nuclear powered cars, whatever, life will be simpler and power will come from things we already know work. Yet every day there is a new story about some ‘miracle’ development, or some amazing new ‘breakthrough’, which naturally you never hear anything about again. Rather than actually researching anything useful, scientists are looking with increasing desparation into increasingly unfeasible and ludicrous things to try and convince us that the solution to the energy crisis will come from science and that they are on the case.

termitesA great example of Waiting for the Magic Elixir thinking can be found in a piece called Pests may soon be seen as allies in energy crisis – scientists close to isolating genes in termite that allow it to convert plants into fuel by Ian Hoffman. How much more of this pointless stuff do we have to read? There are so many of these daft stories around. So far, scientists only have sequenced a small fraction of the vast DNA soup founding sloshing about inside the termites’ stomachs. They rely on some complicated sequencing approach so they’re gathering snippets of DNA from many bacteria at the same time, then trying to piece them back together to identify which ones supply the genes that are most useful for converting lignocellulose to sugar. Don’t hold your breath here now folks.

termites“These termites have lots and lots of different bugs in their intestines, so we’ll be doing this for a while,” the leading scientist involved told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. “He isn’t sure”, the article continues, “how successful the decoding effort will be but says the rewards could be substantial”. Well yes, of course it would be if it were actually ever going to happen. Brings to mind how everytime you open a newspaper there are articles about scientists ‘on the verge’ of a breakthrough treatment for cancer, which you never hear about again. Usually the ‘breakthrough’ happens to co-incide with a new round of research funding applications. For “but says the rewards could be substantial” read, “please fund our pointless research, you never know, there may be something in it…”.

mad1Why is it that funding is made available to these delusional projects, when no research at all is going on into efficient affordable woodstoves, local building materials, community scale rapid composting systems or intensive backyard food growing? Science is awash with heavily funded pointless research projects, that basically create work for scientists, but bring us nowhere closer to a post-peak world. There’s another stupid one here, which involves millions of pounds of research developing a laser to zap peoples’ flabby bits and cellulite, rather than do something about the fact that we all eat too much. James Kunstler commented recently in an interview that the US had “morphed into a nation of overweight clowns”. It’s not just the US, obesity is on the rise in most developed and developing nations. So what do we do about it? Tax fatty foods? Try and create a culture where people are happier and less stressed so they don’t have to comfort eat? Provide more food education for children and adults? No. Spend millions developing a fat-zapping laser. The professor behind it says “we can envision a fat-seeking laser, and we’re heading down that path now.” Whoopee. The world is on the verge of possible economic melt down and an energy crisis of unprecedented magnitude, but up there in Massachusetts General Hospital they have nearly completed the development of a “fat-seeking laser”. That’ll come in really handy.

At the end of the termite cars nonsense article, our friendly scientist says, “’s a very nice assumption that we can at least consider a solution to the energy crisis, to replace the fossil fuels with biomass-derived fuels”. A nice assumption it might be, but perhaps it would be more realistic and honest to admit that a biomass-fuelled car economy is a complete fantasy, and the idea that they will replace fossil fuels, termite-gut enzyme or no termite-gut enzyme, is la-la land stuff. You only have to read George Monbiot’s excellent piece on the subject, which I must draw your attention to on a weekly basis, to dispel that illusion. To quote the great poet of our age, Chuck D, don’t believe the hype…

Categories: General

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Joanne Poyourow
11 Apr 7:00pm

“Yet every day there is a new story about some ‘miracle’ development, or some amazing new ‘breakthrough’, which naturally you never hear anything about again.”

The kind of miracle breakthough stories I have been focusing on are those which indicate that more and more mainstreamers are getting a glimpse of the power-down. Not merely power-down with regards to energy consumption, but with regards to a panorama of issues, from toxic chemicals, to lower-tech living.

Consider this, from Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Speaking of Brazilian sugar farmer Leontino Balbo: “He threw away things his family had learned. He embraced things his family had forgotten. He turned the farm organic, abandoning pesticides, chemical fertilizers and methods of planting and harvesting that had served the family’s bottom line for years.” (LAT 4/9/06 “Opportunity, Cubed” by McMahon & Martin) The article goes on to describe his use of parasitic wasps for pest control, his protection of beneficial critters, and returning some of his acreage to woodland, bringing back wildlife and reducing soil erosion.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Here it is, in widely published media (not some obscure tiny paper) that a return to simpler ways is wiser, is the wave of the future, and can be -ohmigosh- profitable …

Yes, I agree that the “hi-tech will find our salvation” folks are desperate, and the miracle they seek just will not appear. I think they sense that; hence their desperation. But I also assert that there is a subtle, substantial, and therefore powerful undercurrent who are taking matters into their own hands, slowly and steadily moving forward, to wiser ways, despite what the tech headlines read.

I’ve started tracking it, making a list of links to these positive environmental news stories as I find them ( These stories depict progress in all aspects of society – transportation, housing, food & agriculture, economics & politics, health & spirit. They are both top-down (Big Business and politics), and grassroots (you and me, and our local communities), both international and right around your streetcorner. Welcome to hard evidence that the Transition Culture is underway all around us.

12 Apr 11:46pm

It’s true that no combination of known alternative energies would replace fossil fuel, but that doesn’t rule out scientific exploration of alternative fuels. In the ideal postpeak world, not everyone would drive cars, but maybe we would still have ambulances?

I also take exception to this comment: “when no research at all is going on into efficient affordable woodstoves” — wood-burning stoves are absolutely not the direction we need to look. The resource is somewhat renewable, but if you think having hundreds of millions of wood burning stoves is a good idea, think again. With a much smaller population, London saw incredible smog when its heating systems depended on wood-burning stoves. In fact, wood-burning stoves are illegal in Denver for much of the winter, for the same reason — they contribute considerably to air pollution. Each wood-burning stove is the pollution equivalent to several SUVs.

I think we all need to step back and think about what would be practical in a postpeak world. Just like biodiesel would not be practical, wood burning stoves wouldn’t either — for all the same reasons, but with even more detrimental environmental consequences.

14 Apr 12:50pm

“Why is it that funding is made available to these delusional projects, when no research at all is going on into efficient affordable woodstoves, local building materials, community scale rapid composting systems or intensive backyard food growing?”

Exactly. Grr! If a small proportion of government spending was put into useful solutions like this, it would be a great boost. But it won’t. Although maybe right on the edge, governments will be forced to acknowledge that these are the most important practices for our future.