Monday, December 3, 2012

Denton and the Road Not Taken

Frustration is mounting with the Denton gas drilling ordinance re-write process. I think a major cause of frustration is a sense of futility. Even if we get some improvements, we will just be rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. This ordinance can do nothing more than put lipstick on a pig. We may get some new screening requirements and maybe even vapor recovery units – but this is all cosmetic. It does not address a deeper-rooted, systemic problem.

How do we label that problem? We may find some guidance from Amory Lovins’ 1976 essay Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken. Lovins contrasts our status-quo “hard” energy technology system (large-scale, centrally-managed, corporate-controlled) with a “soft” path that we could choose – one that is small-scale, tuned to context, and democratically/locally controlled. 

Most prophetic are Lovins’ remarks about the politics of a hard technology system. No ordinance revisions will address these political problems. For those feeling frustrated, it may be precisely this realization: We are trying to democratize a system that is, in its essence, anti-democratic. It only gives us a few crumbs of power – perhaps to post ‘no smoking’ signs on pad sites, maybe to require some tree planting.

But the larger reality is that we are fundamentally disenfranchised. The frustration is that sickening feeling that it is more rational to simply acquiesce – to let the experts figure it out and to play the role of passive consumer enjoying, as Marcuse said, our “smooth, comfortable unfreedom.” Why spend so much time and energy trying to reform a system that does not compute your existence? The problem with natural gas is not this-or-that design flaw -- it is its hardness -- a massive system run by powerful, entrenched interests and managed by bureucrats and technocrats. No ordinance revision will change that reality.

Here is an excerpt from Lovins that I find particularly meaningful in light of Denton’s current situation, especially the ongoing questions about who has been crafting the ordinance (in never-ending closed sessions) and which priorities they represent:  

The hard path, sometimes portrayed as the bastion of free enterprise and free markets, would instead be a world of subsidies, $100-billion bailouts, oligopolies, regulations, nationalization, eminent domain, corporate statism.

While soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism, centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to surburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians. Siting big energy systems pits central authority against local autonomy in an increasingly divisive and wasteful form of centrifugal politics...

In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you. Decisions about who shall have how much energy at what price also become centralized—a politically dangerous trend because it divides those who use energy from those who supply and regulate it.

The scale and complexity of centralized grids not only make them politically inaccessible to the poor and weak, but also increase the likelihood and size of malfunctions, mistakes and deliberate disruptions. A small fault or a few discontented people become able to turn off a country…Societies may therefore be tempted to discourage disruption through stringent controls akin to a garrison state. In times of social stress, when grids become a likely target for dissidents, the sector may be paramilitarized and further isolated from grass-roots politics.

Any demanding high technology tends to develop influential and dedicated constituencies of those who link its commercial success with both the public welfare and their own. Such sincerely held beliefs, peer pressures, and the harsh demands that the work itself places on time and energy all tend to discourage such people from acquiring a similarly thorough knowledge of alternative policies and the need to discuss them. Moreover, the money and talent invested in an electrical program tend to give it disproportionate influence in the counsels of government, often directly through staff-swapping between policy- and mission-oriented agencies. This incestuous position, now well developed in most industrial countries, distorts both social and energy priorities in a lasting way that resists political remedy.


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  2. Nice selection there, Adam, from Lovins' article.

    Profoundly visionary description of where things were going (now are). Why don't Libertarians find this kind of idea more to their liking than notions of "Free Markets" which are really just ways to create a subsidized global corporate monopoly?

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  4. The process has been a perfect example of passive/aggressive behavior by the city staff as related to the development of the new drilling ordinances.

    SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS of passive/aggressive behavior (at least five of the following)

    1. Procrastinates

    2. Sulks, becomes irritable or becomes very quickly argumentative

    3. Tends to work slowly or deliberately do a bad job on tasks
    that he or she really does not want to do

    4. Protests (unrealistically) that everyone is making
    unreasonable demands

    5. "Forgets" obligations

    6. Believes that he or she is doing a much better job than others think

    7. Usually resents useful suggestions from others on how to
    become more productive

    8. Fails to do his or her share of the work, thereby obstructing other's efforts

    9. Unreasonably criticizes people in positions of authority

    10. Cannot seem to accept responsibility or blame for problems
    resulting from their poor performance and tend to project this
    blame on others.

    Let's see 1,3,4,5,6,7,8, and 10 sound like the behavior of city staff and 2 and 9 are my behavior because of city staff.

    1. Scubawithdogs appears to be concerned with city staff, but, I think, should be more concerned with his City leaders. Just like any job for any company, corporation, governmental entity, non-profit, institution, etc., the staff members and employees get direction from their leaders. In my opinion, it is unfair to resent city staff if you feel Denton’s leaders don’t express enough confidence in Denton’s citizens. Your trust that this process is not running smoothly stems from anxiety that public concerns are not being considered, which you blame on city staff. As Paulo Freire once stated, however, “The trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.” Based on my observations, the City leaders don’t trust the staff if they require so many outside consultants and the City leaders don’t trust its citizens if they rely more on the outside consultant’s opinions than the public’s opinions. I’m sure your frustrations are shared by city staff, but the City leaders ‘win’ if we continue fighting with staff members—who are powerless to change the will of their leaders—and they are allowed to work without scrutiny. We should hold the City leaders accountable and not fight with staff. As Freire acknowledged, we will trust the leaders once they show confidence in us and their staff.

  5. People walk around in boxer shorts in winter with the thermostat turned to 75. In summer they turn it down to 68 and wear a sweater. How thoughtlessly we waste energy at another's expense.

    I like my EPA low emission wood stove. It's a little work but I think working for warmth is a good thing. I tend not to waste it...shall I build a fire or put on another sweater? We have not needed it at all this year.

    I would like to see every home generate their own energy. Take the energy giants out of the picture. People would be more thoughtful about energy use. If you want a 5000 square foot home for 3 people knock yourself out and good luck keeping the lights on.